By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) – Italy scrambled to salvage diplomatic credibility on Thursday after its bid to play a central role in resolving Libya’s long-running conflict came off the rails, revealing failures at the heart of the government.
Libya has been in a state of violent flux since a NATO air campaign in 2011 led to the downfall of its strongarm leader Muammar Gaddafi. Italy was most directly impacted by the resulting chaos, which triggered a wave of migration to its shores, and has sought to lead subsequent stabilization efforts.
But in an embarrassing snub for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Libya’s internationally recognized leader Fayez al-Serraj refused to see him on Wednesday after discovering that his great rival General Khalifa Haftar had also been invited to Rome.
At the same time, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio found himself isolated at a meeting of counterparts from France, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, refusing to sign a final communique on Libya because he felt it was biased in favor of Haftar.
The twin developments left the Italian coalition government looking both forsaken on the international stage and divided internally, dealing a potentially fatal blow to diplomatic efforts by Rome to impose peace on a largely lawless Libya.
“What happened yesterday was frankly embarrassing,” said Arturo Varvelli, director of the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
“Our politicians don’t pay enough attention to foreign policy and they are paying the price for it.”
Conte and Di Maio, neither of whom had any diplomatic experience when they first entered government in 2018, met on Thursday to try to plot a way forward.
But foreign policy experts said Rome had lost the initiative to more pro-active countries, such as France, Turkey and Russia, while opposition parties accused the government of ineptitude.
“Conte really is dangerous and incompetent,” said far-right League leader Matteo Salvini, accusing the prime minister of making a simple error of protocol by receiving Haftar before first meeting Serraj. “We have amateurs on the loose,” he said.
In July 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump gave Conte the nod to oversee efforts to stabilize Libya, saying he recognized “Italy’s leadership role”.
But even with this clear backing, Rome failed to secure universal support for its favorite Serraj, as France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates instead backed Haftar in a proxy conflict driven by divergent economic and strategic interests.
Italy subsequently sought to build its own ties with Haftar, hoping to safeguard its energy concerns in Libya should he win out in the end. But Conte was blindsided when Turkey unexpectedly announced last month it would send military advisers and possibly troops to bolster Serraj in Tripoli.
“The process by which Turkey and Russia are taking the diplomatic space is ruthless and largely irreversible. Italy is improvising alone and it is failing miserably,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, an independent, Dutch think tank.
Conte denied on Thursday any government inconsistency over Libya, while Di Maio acknowledged in a letter to la Repubblica daily that politicians had not always known how to harness the expertise of their diplomats and intelligence agency.
Speaking off the record because of the sensitivity of the issue, officials expressed frustration over the political line they had been asked to follow in recent months.
“The order was to maintain contact with everyone, but in an open conflict you need to position yourself clearly,” said one intelligence source, complaining that Rome had tried to be friends with everyone, and had lost influence as a result.
Diplomats fear Rome is losing influence beyond just Libya.
That was noticeable last week when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called officials worldwide after the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, but did not get in touch with Rome, despite the fact that Italy has the largest Western troop presence in Iraq after the U.S..
Varvelli said Italy was suffering the consequences of inconsistent policy-making and poor political preparation.
“Our political leaders are making blunders on the international stage,” he said, adding that Rome would have to stop trying to lead the way on Libya and instead seek European consensus. “We don’t have any more cards to play.”
(Additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli in Rome, John Irish in Paris, Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Robin Emmot in Brussels.; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)