The trouble brewing in Libya is making Italy very nervous. The numbers of refugees currently waiting on the beach to cross the Mediterranean are estimated at between 250,000 to one million. In addition, the local branch of ISIS is spreading and threatening to send terrorists among the boat people to Italy.

   Small wonder that Italy is exploring ways to control the illicit maritime traffic by blocking the main route from the Libyan coast to Lampedusa island. Unfortunately, the entire stretch of coast opposite Lampedusa,  from Abu Kammash/Farwah to Zawyah  and Tripoli is under control of groups loyal to the Islamist counter-government of Tripolis which enjoys the support of Turkey and Qatar.

   Given the chaos prevailing in Libya and the predominance of Islamist groups, Italy is thinking of acting on its own by imposing a naval blockade some 15 miles outside the Libyan coastline in order to prevent criminal or Islamist gangs from sending refugee boats in direction to Lampedusa.

   In fact, the Plan B is already in implementation as a naval maneuver. The Chief of General Staff, Claudio Graziano, announced that a program "Mare Aperto" (Open Seas) had begun in early March deploying vessels of the Italian navy along the Libyan coast. The maneuver started with three vessels, he said, the torpedo destroyer Duilio, the fregate Bergamini, and an amphibian ship of the San Giorgio class which carries helicopters and features a hospital unit.

   The idea, according to General Graziano. is to dissuade refugee boats from departing and, at the same time, to provide routine training for amphibian operations. According to media reports. Italy disposes in the area of a sizeable fleet of about ten units led by the aircraft carrier Cavour. with fregates, submarines and amphibious warfare ships. supported by aircraft from the Trapani and Pantelleria bases. Since the aggressive ISIS affiliate in Libya directly threatens Italy, the fleet would be "active to guarantee the security of our country on a daily basis through air defense, action to ensure maritime safety, to control the movements of migrants and to defend (our) territory," General Graziano said.

   Italy considers Libya a direct neighbor. Ever since the colonial days Italy always maintained close relations with Libya and can rely on a profound knowledge of the coast of Tripolitania. Although Italy's government would prefer to guide a joint European intervention there can be little doubt that Italy will act on its own if need be. A maritime blockade would stop refugee boats, transfer the passengers to the amphibious ships where they could receive medical treatment, and then unload them on the Libyan shore near Zawyah from where most boats leave for Lampedusa. Aircraft and navy infantry would protect the landing operations. The blockade is likely to be supported by the U.N. Security Council,  the Special Representative of the United Nations for Libya, Bernardino Leon, told Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi during a recent visit in Rome. The blockade would also correspond to maritime law which demands that survivors of shipwrecks be saved and reported to the nearest safe shore.

Benedikt Brenner

Update

While participating in the economic summit at Sharm-el Sheikh, Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi dropped his former reluctant attitude and urged an international intervention in Libya "before the ISIS militias systematically occupy not only small and scattered places but a part of the country. It is therefore necessary to arrive before ISIS does, and do it quickly." As a result of his shuttle diplomacy, Renzi can count on the support of Russia's President Putin and Egypt's President al-Sisi. Outside this picture, however, remains Turkey's President Erdoǧan who supports the Islamist counter government in Tripoli.

 

Update

"For the time being", Prime Minister Matteo Renzi excluded putting troops on Libyan soil because of the incalculable risks, he said. 20/04/15)