The emergence of ISIL in Libya appears to have tipped the balance in the war-torn country.
In the first visit of a foreign official to the United Nations-backed unity government that took office last week, the Italian Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, said his country was ready to play its part in Libya and cooperate with Tripoli on security and immigration.
“The international community should match the braveness of the Libyan government and come forward to support it,” said Gentiloni, referring to the sensational arrival of Libyan Prime Minister, Fayed al-Sarraj, who sailed into Tripoli defying threats by the opposing factions.
Gentiloni arrived on a C130 cargo plane loaded with tonnes of much-needed food supplies and medical supplies that the Libyan Presidential Council will be in charge of distributing to hospitals in Tripoli and Benghazi.
As the unity government seeks to consolidate its authority in Tripoli, Rome watches with a mix of hope and apprehension the political developments in its troubled Arab neighbour.
Sarraj has been rallying support at a faster pace than anyone would have expected, outpacing the predictions of some sceptics who had bet on his immediate failure and a military intervention as the inevitable way to fix the Libyan chaos.
In Italy, political analysts and strategists are hoping that Rome’s cautious approach, a strategy that prioritises diplomacy over direct intervention, would soon bear fruit. Diplomats have been working silently while the government shunned all political and public debate in an attempt to dribble the most controversial issue of all: What would Italy do about Libya if diplomacy failed?
The few statements on the issue are the result of a blunder by the US ambassador in Rome, John Phillips, who last month suggested that Italy may send 5,000 troops to Libya in aid to its NATO allies against the Islamic State.
A united Libya is in Italy's interest. However, if a national unity project is difficult to envisage at this stage, much more so is the fragmentation in multiple regions, whose leaders are motivated only by opportunistic reasons.
On the same day, Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, had to come out publicly on the issue: “As long as I am prime minister, Italy will not go to Libya for an invasion with 5,000 men,” was Renzi’s irritated response.
“If there is a need to intervene, Italy will not back down,” he added, but clarified that his administration would not take the initiative “uninvited” by the legitimate Libyan unity government.
In the middle of the parliamentary storm following the statements of the US ambassador, Gentiloni reassured that another condition for Italy to intervene would be the go-ahead from the Italian parliament.
If talks about a possible deployment of troops had taken place behind the scenes, the government was obviously not ready to address them publicly.
So far Italy’s position on Libya has been very prudent. While offering to take the lead of a possible NATO mission, Rome has pushed for a diplomatic solution under the umbrella of the United Nations.
Italian diplomacy has repeatedly called on allies to limit intervention until the unity government requests international help and has offered Sarraj much needed medical aid and food.
However, with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) consolidating its stronghold in Sirte, a stone’s throw from Italy’s shores, and migrants arriving in the thousands on almost a daily basis, it is not clear how Rome will be able to wait for the Sarraj government to stabilise Libya, before being forced to take a more proactive role.
When asked to comment on a possible deployment of troops and the ensuing scenario, Minister of Defence Roberta Pinotti told Al Jazeera she was “not interested” in talking about the issue.
In the meantime, Paolo Scaroni, a former chief executive of Italy’s national oil company ENI, that has huge interests in Libya, made headlines last week with a controversial statement.
“A stable Libya is a dream that will never come true,” he said. “For months, maybe years we have been hearing the same refrain, that we can intervene only if asked by a legitimate government. This solid government is nowhere to be seen,” he told an Italian daily, adding that Libya should become “Italy’s national priority”.
According to Scaroni, instead of focusing on recomposing the Libyan puzzle, the international community should build a strong government in Tripoli to begin with, or support the creation of regional governments that might later federate. But insisting on imposing an artificial unity against the will of the people is senseless, he said.
Roberto Aliboni, a senior analyst at the Institute of International Affairs, says political analysts and politicians in Italy don’t share Scaroni’s views.
“A united Libya is in Italy’s interest. However, if a national unity project is difficult to envisage at this stage, much more so is the fragmentation in multiple regions, whose leaders are motivated only by opportunistic reasons,” he said.
While Rome hopes that Sarraj would bring about the national unity that the international community is counting on, the US, French and British allies have been intervening with or without Italy’s cue.
Leaked news reports say that the three countries have special forces on the ground, are conducting surveillance flights, gathering intelligence and hitting ISIL targets.
Italy has only recently authorised the use of its Sigonella airbase to conduct air strikes against ISIL outposts in Libya and Italian dailies have been reporting the possible deployment of Italian Special Forces prompting a denial by official sources.
What is clear is that despite its offer to lead militarily a NATO coalition in Libya, Italy hopes that there will be no need for it. According to Leonardo Tricarico, a former air force chief of staff, a military intervention in the current circumstances doesn’t make sense.
“The military option simply doesn’t exist. Neither I believe is someone seriously working at it,” said Tricarico, who chairs the Intelligence Culture and Strategic Analysis Foundation. “What is most likely is that the coalition may think about a sort of peace enforcement operation, but this should take place only if sanctioned by the legitimate Libyan government.”
The difficulty of intervening in Libya lies in the lack of what Tricarico describes as “recognisable targets”, due to a web of transversal affiliations and alliances of local political actors, foreign players and the factions involved in the conflict.
“The situation is too fluid and mutable on the ground. If the coalition intervenes indiscriminately, the situation might get worse,” he said.
The use of force cannot bring about a permanent solution if there is no concerted effort to cut the supply routes, whether financial or political, from outside Libya, Tricarico explained.
Meanwhile, with ISIL taking control of more and more territory along the Libyan shores and a political settlement still uncertain, the clock is clicking against Italy’s cautious approach.
Italy’s historic ties with Libya, its economic interests and the huge influx of refugees beg for a serious political discussion that the government is unwilling to undertake, at least in the public sphere.
Amid scandals which have led to the resignation of the Minister for Economic Development last week and repeated calls for the Minister of Reforms to leave office, Prime Minister Renzi struggles to keep his government afloat.
A public and parliamentary debate about Italy’s intervention in Libya would be very controversial and may diminish consensus, a challenge Renzi won’t face until it becomes an inevitable and absolute necessity.