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Italy Seeks Russia's Help to Stabilize Libya, End Migrant Crisis

  • Henry Ridgwell

FILE - Migrants crowd a rubber boat as they are rescued by members of Proactive Open Arms NGO, in the Mediterranean Sea, about 22 miles north of Zumarah, Libya, Jan. 27, 2017.

From a flimsy rubber dinghy drifting 16 kilometers off Tripoli, the Libyan coast guard rescued more than 100 migrants this week, including a baby just a few weeks old. Close to 9,500 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean already this year — putting 2017 on course to be a record year.

The European Union agreed this month to give the Tripoli government $213 million to bolster its security forces and coast guard; however, Italy wants a renewed push for a permanent political solution to the chaos in Libya — and it's looking to Moscow for help.

The might be a wise move, according to Eurasia Group analyst Riccardo Fabiani.

"It's better to invite Russia to the table and have a strategic dialogue with them and establish some sort of connection and communication channel, rather than keep them out of the room so that you might end up one day waking up and suddenly discovering that Russia is now the main leader or power in the region," Fabiani said.

FILE - Smoke billows from a factory after an airstrike by forces loyal to former general Khalifa Haftar, in Benghazi, Libya, Oct. 22, 2014.
FILE - Smoke billows from a factory after an airstrike by forces loyal to former general Khalifa Haftar, in Benghazi, Libya, Oct. 22, 2014.

Libya is ruled by splintered factions, with the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, and a rival power base in the eastern city of Tobruk — which backs strongman General Khalifa Haftar, also supported by Russia.

The U.N.'s special envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, voiced optimism this week that the two sides can be reconciled.

"With bold decisions and actions, we will witness a political breakthrough that can place Libya on the path of peace, prosperity and stability," Kobler said.

Italy wants Russia to help drive the rival factions together. Britain's foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, this week offered his support for a power-sharing deal.

"We need to build on it and to create a genuine partnership between the east and the west of the country," Johnson said. "That's the crucial question, how to make sure that Haftar is in some way integrated into the government of Libya."

However, some EU states fear Moscow is seeking a military base in Libya. Malta — which holds the rotating EU Council Presidency — has warned that Russia's backing for Haftar could trigger a civil war.

"Nobody really knows what Russia wants from Libya," analyst Fabiani said. "They've so far had a very opportunistic approach to foreign policy, and specifically in the Middle East they've basically been trying to fill every vacuum that the U.S. has left in the region."

Fabiani says Europe and Russia are waiting to see if President Donald Trump will change U.S. policy on Libya.

Watch: Italy Seeks Russia's Help in Stabilizing Libya

"Right now, it's most likely that the U.S. will just disengage from Libya and will give a sort of implicit green light to Russia, as long as they can still intervene in Libya on an ad hoc basis to fight jihadism," he said.

Even as Italy seeks Russia's cooperation, the EU this month restated its determination to uphold sanctions on Moscow over its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Italy's foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, is due to meet his Russian counterpart next week in Germany — and Libya is set to top the agenda.

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