The Italian parliament approved measures to increase the number of troops in North Africa earlier this month in an effort to combat migration and terrorism in the region.
After the approval Jan. 17, Italian officials said troops would focus on countering terrorism and ensuring security. Doubts, however, remain over the true motive, considering recent frantic efforts to prevent refugees and migrants from setting sail for Italian shores.
“It is clear that Italy’s foreign policy priorities have shifted and managing migration flows from Africa through the Maghreb is now the most pressing issue,” Riccardo Fabbiano, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst with the Eurasia Group, told Al-Monitor. “While remaining loyal to its NATO commitments, Italy is trying to prioritize the issue of migration, which is already a central theme in the current electoral campaign.”
Italy said it would remove 200 troops from Iraq and half its Afghanistan operation from 1,500 troops to 750 in order to increase its North Africa operation. An additional 30 troops will go to Libya, taking the total troop count to 400, while 60 new troops will go to Tunisia and 470 will go to Niger where they hope to combat human traffickers.
The deployment of Italian troops in Tunisia has been requested by the government there to help with training and advising the Tunisian military. Tunisia is still weary of militant attacks after three incidents in 2015-16: the Bardo Museum attack, the Sousse beach attack and the cross-border Ben Gardane attack.
Next door, in Libya, the current 370 Italian troops have been training the Libyan coast guard. Migration is a major electoral issue, and Italy is prepping for parliamentary elections on March 4. While the troop deployment has been advertised to help fight terrorism, the Italian motives seem to be intertwined with migration as well.
“Is there any clear distinction to be made between counterterrorism and migration? I don’t think there truly is one,” Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 University and a frequent commentator on Libyan affairs, told Al-Monitor. “Both phenomena tend to come hand in hand with anarchy. Right now, minds are particularly focused on migration. But in 2015 and 2016, the focus was on Daesh [the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State] and jihadist groups in general. One thing is certain: If the overall security situation worsens in Libya, both banes will experience an uptick. That is the fear.”
Over 100,000 refugees or migrants arrived in Italy in each of the last two years. Last year, the total was 119,130 while in 2016 the number was significantly higher at 181,436, according to The Guardian. The majority set sail from the Libyan coast after traveling through the Sahel. The Italian government has worked with and built relationships in recent years with both competing governments in Libya over trying to halt the large number of people from taking to the sea. Rome tends to favor the United Nations-backed government of Fayez al-Sarraj, based in Tripoli.
“Specifically on Libya, the marginal increase in the size of the mission is nothing new — this mission’s aim is twofold: guarding a military hospital in Misrata and training the Libyan coast guard,” Fabbiano said. “Nothing changes with this increase. What changes, though, is how this military presence should play a more effective role in stemming migration, thanks to the parallel missions in Niger and Tunisia.”
In Libya, however, the increase of troops hasn’t been received particularly well. The collective memory in Libya still recalls the Italian colonization that lasted from 1910 to 1947. When Italy deployed naval vessels off the Libyan shores in August last year, Libyans hit the streets, calling on the Government of National Accord (GNA) to step down. Posters circulated of the Libyan resistance hero Omar al-Mukhtar, who battled Italian colonization in the 1920s.
Conspiracy theories are circulating, according to a field worker with an international nongovernmental organization working on the ground in Libya who wasn’t cleared by the organization to speak to the media. There is a widely spread theory: Italy wants to reoccupy Libya, the source said, with local media presenting the topic from a negative prospective.
Internal politics in Libya may allow such rumors to spread, too. The GNA seems to be the favorite of Italy at the moment, but the Libyan National Army, which rules the eastern part of the country and is led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, is increasingly in vogue with international rulers. The competing governments are locked in a chess match for power and legitimacy over Libya. Meanwhile, Libyan leaders have often had to walk a fine line between seeking international help and legitimacy and maintaining popular support on the domestic front.
“Italy has displayed a tendency to strike deals with the GNA in Tripoli and also local groups across the western half of Libya,” Harchaoui said. “Hifter has a political incentive to criticize Rome’s action in Libya.”
But with the elections approaching, these policies could change based on the winner. Currently, Silvio Berlusconi’s center right coalition — who supported the increase in troop deployment to the region — is thought to have the best chance at winning an outright majority or forming a successful parliamentary ruling bloc. The country’s most popular single party, however, is the Five Star Movement. While the movement voted against the deployment — arguing it wouldn’t allow the new government to set a foreign policy agenda of its own — they have also repeatedly voted against forming coalitions with other parties and are unlikely to receive enough votes to rule on their own.
“Nobody knows what Rome’s new Libya policy will [be] after the elections,” Harchaoui said. “And nobody knows what the migrant flow will look like when the winter season is over.”