The International Conference on Libya, which recently ended in Palermo, was the first political initiative of the new rightwing populist government of Giuseppe Conti. The alliance of the Five Star Movement and the League (formerly known as the Northern League) did its utmost to put into action a new approach to the Libyan crisis based on an inclusive dialogue. For the first time since 2016, when the implementation of the Skhirat agreements began in Libya, Italy has agreed to accept commander of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar as a legitimate participant in the talks in order to relaunch the stalling settlement process under its leadership. The new Italian government has done this to get the issue of the Libyan migration corridor, which is a major concern for the Five Star Movement and the League electorates, off the ground and also to snatch the initiative from Paris, which has been moderating the Libyan crisis since Emmanuel Macron’s election in 2017.
Italy did manage to bring together the two main antagonists, Marshal Khalifa Haftar and Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sirraj, but this has not led to a breakthrough. The sides have reaffirmed their commitment to the agreements they made in Abu Dhabi in May 2017, spoke about the old and new grievances, and, most importantly, again placed the emphasis on their principles, which rule out any concessions.
The situation at the conference and the accompanying actions taken by some delegations have highlighted the main drawbacks of the summit’s format: the lack of the sides’ trust for each other, and the reluctance of both the Libyan delegations and the intermediaries and concerned observers to hold long talks. Italy has brought together many influential Libyan figures, yet many influential stakeholders were missing. Worse still, Rome has weakened its position by placing its bets on Haftar while failing to maintain trust, ensure the presence at the conference and protect the interests of the Tripolitania and Misurata groups, which were previously sympathetic to Italy.
Marshal Haftar became the main newsmaker long before the conference, when he provoked speculations about his trip to Palermo and then made a surprise visit to Russia shortly before the conference. The media speculated that Russia and Egypt played the key role in convincing Haftar to go to Italy. Now that the conference is over, it can be said that Haftar has come out as its main beneficiary. Like the talks in Paris in July 2017 and May 2018, the Palermo conference has confirmed Haftar’s importance and role, thereby reinforcing his international standing. At the same time, his political opponents failed to take a consolidated or organized stand and hence have taken a poor view of this international mediation format.
Back at the early stages of preparations for the Palermo conference, the Russian Foreign Ministry supported the idea of the conference in light of the long-standing need for a constructive dialogue, which all sides felt. Russian diplomats issued official press statements in support of Italy’s initiatives in the fall of 2018. Moreover, for the first time in the long history of the Libyan confrontation, Russian experts and academics have been invited to provide analytical support at the consultations held ahead of the Palermo conference. The Italian initiative was also discussed during the talks and consultations held by the concerned Russian ministries with members of Libya’s military authorities and political establishment who visited Moscow during the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies.
By sending a strong delegation to Palermo, the Russian authorities have confirmed their stand on the Libyan settlement and their resolve to support any initiatives aimed at looking for and improving non-military solutions to the seven-year-long Libyan crisis. The fact that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev led the Russian delegation speaks volumes. First, it has shown that Russia has no military expansion plans in Libya, contrary to numerous allegations including those made by the British tabloid The Sun, which tried to question Russia’s right to attend the conference. Second, Medvedev’s attendance has shown that the Russian Defense Ministry has no monopoly over decisions regarding Libya, and that the Russian government is willing to do its utmost to help Libyans overcome hostility and start rebuilding the country. And lastly, it has shown Russia’s appreciation for the personal invitation Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte brought to Moscow during his official visit in October 2018.
One of the most productive events at the conference was a meeting on security attended by Marshal Khalifa Haftar and Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sirraj, plus delegates from Italy, Russia, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. It was the first time a Russian delegation attended a conference on Libya at this high level. Importantly, it did not sit back but took an active part in discussions on the most important topics. The countries that would benefit the most from the settlement of the Libyan crisis, primarily those that have a land or water border with it, have confirmed their interest in Russia playing a bigger role in the search for a political consensus. This can be regarded as one of the most important, constructive and promising results of the Palermo conference.