France and Italy Should Lead on Libya

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- By withdrawing the small contingent of American forces from Libya, the Trump administration has signaled its reluctance to play the peacemaker in a rapidly deteriorating situation. The U.S. is right to step back. The best way forward is for France and Italy — outsiders with the most to lose if things get any worse — to set aside their differences and press for a peaceful resolution.

The militia of the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar is threatening to take Tripoli by force and undo efforts by the United Nations to stabilize the oil-rich country. Meanwhile, France and Italy are bickering over who is to blame. France has long backed Haftar, seeing him as a bulwark against terrorism; Italy supports the UN-endorsed administration of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, counting on it to stop the waves of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Relations are strained. Matteo Salvini and Luigi di Maio, Italy’s deputy prime ministers, have accused France of contributing to the migration crisis. Salvini says France “has no interest in stabilizing the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy.” France dismissed this as “ludicrous,” and summoned the Italian ambassador for an explanation.

The squabble undermines international efforts to stop Haftar from menacing the Libyan capital, and to have him instead join a UN-sponsored peace conference. The warlord encountered only tepid Western criticism while his militia took the eastern and southern portions of the country — in fact, France provided assistance — and he might see recent expressions of French concern as tacit support. He might also be counting on other backers, including Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, to shield him from stronger pressure.

A push into Tripoli could cause the worst fighting since the 2011 civil war. Rival militias are gathering to give Haftar a fight that could last for months and cost thousands of lives. France and Italy are among Libya’s most important trading partners, with interests in its oil and natural gas — and their efforts to curb terrorism and migration depend on Libyan stability. 

This is why Paris and Rome should take the lead in efforts to make the warlord see sense. A first step would be to show Haftar that there’s no daylight between them. France should drop its separate efforts to broker a peace, and throw its weight along with Italy behind the UN process. If Haftar wants to rule Libya, he should be told to seek power by democratic means. And he should be warned about what to expect if he pursues his military ambitions: sanctions against him and his top commanders, denial of recognition for any government he sets up, and pressure on his other allies to drop their support.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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