Ufficio di Roma - Rome Office

“Triton is a total failure; it just resulted in increasing deaths”

The dead goat is not afraid of the butcher’s knife

The Italian version of this interview, by Davide Vannucci,  was first published on Linkiesta (Translation by ECFR Rome)

Mattia Toaldo, Middle East and North Africa expert: “We need a new and enhanced Mare Nostrum. Libya is plunged into chaos, migrants’ arrivals will increase”

“The dead goat is not afraid of the butcher’s knife”. Mattia Toaldo, analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations and expert of Middle East and North Africa, notably Libya, quotes an Ivorian saying to explain the never-ending flow of migrants in the Mediterranean, in light of the April 19th tragedy. Eighteen months after the disaster off the coasts of Lampedusa, another mass Golgotha. Seven hundred people are believed to have died one hundred of kilometers away from the Libyan coasts and two hundreds from Sicilian shores. Furthermore, the context, compared to October 2013, has even worsened. Libya became a failed State where, for one year now, two factions have been waging war and a third troublesome actor joined the conflict: the Islamic State.

People are running away from Libya due to its internal turmoil, its civil war and the threat of the Islamic State. Besides, for those migrants coming from Sub Saharan Africa, the insecurity level is even worse. Starting from 2011, they have been targeted and discriminated, as they are accused of having fought alongside Qaddafi. Therefore, they prefer jumping on boats and risking their lives in the sea. Nevertheless, it is not just them: the potential immigrants are many more.

Who do you refer to?

Now there are also displaced people coming from the Middle East, especially Syria. Since the beginning of the war against Assad, ten millions of Syrians have become refugees or have been displaced. What we see in Lampedusa is just a small fraction, a tiny spillover, of this huge figure.

After October 2013 shipwreck, Letta’s government launched Mare Nostrum operation, which was then replaced, in November 2014, by a European mission, Triton. Italy has often intervened with several operations that our Defense Ministry summarized under the label of “Mare sicuro” (Safe Sea). Nothing really definitive.

We should not mix up a frontier control operation, such as Triton, with a rescue operation. Triton is a total failure, not only because of its means of intervention. What is fundamental is to agree on what should be done: saving human lives. Now Italy tried to address Triton’s shortcomings with several trainings, which then became rescue operations, as established by the Sea Law. We need a lot more. Mare Nostrum was insufficient, too. We need an enhanced program, a Mare Nostrum plus.

This idea does not seem to be endorsed in Bruxelles by EU 28 member States.

For Italy the problem is that the majority of European partners claimed that Mare Nostrum was encouraging migrants flows. That is why Triton was launched. Fewer rescue operations, fewer landings, they thought. This was a miscalculation and the number of immigrants did not decrease. On the other hand, the deaths instead increased.  Before yesterday tragedy, already 900 people had died since the beginning of the year. If the number is confirmed, we would exceed the 1500 deaths, so half of 2014 victims. Unfortunately the business did not stop, benefiting local and international mafias.

Do you refer to Libyan militias?

It is well known that human trafficking is managed by Libyan militiamen and mafias, connected to international criminal groups. Many migrants told that soldiers pushed them on the boats. Actually, it was militias members in military uniforms. More chaos in Libya means more profits for these criminal networks.

Federica Mogherini presented to EU Foreign Ministers a document about the possibility of a EU intervention in Libya, suggesting five options. They will discuss them today in Brussels.

It will probably be the same theater of the absurd. They are discussing about something that, at the moment, simply can not be done. The EU is essentially talking about a peacekeeping operation that will take various forms, to be launched after reaching an agreement among the different factions at war in Libya. Well, right now there is no such a peace agreement. The delegations met again in Morocco, but there is still great contrast. Leon, the UN envoy, will present a new proposal, but the two fronts are still far away from reaching an agreement that, even if achieved, it will not be implemented for still some time. Thus, the premises for a EU intervention do not exist.

In the meanwhile, a new element of destabilization was added to Libya’s war: the Islamic State. After the Copts’ beheadings in Sirte, we were already imagining a caliphate at the other side of the Mediterranean.

I think it is necessary to make a distinction. We should not confuse the potential with the effective control over the territory. In Libya the Islamic State benefits from different factors: the chaos within the country, the presence of an important internal group of jihadists and many more coming from neighbour countries, especially Tunisia and Sudan. Nevertheless, even where IS managed to settle, such as in Derna, its presence is not much more different from the one of the Camorra’s clan in Italy: IS does not have a full control over the territory, on the contrary it must coexist with other criminal groups. I want to be clear. If ISIS was to expand and consolidate its power in that area, it would become much more dangerous than in Syria and Iraq. But right now in Libya there is no caliphate.

What can be done to prevent its expansion?

Undoubtedly, it is not possible to stabilize Libya backing General Khalifa Haftar (the military leader of one of the two factions, the Tobruk government- editor’s note) and Egypt, which supports him.

Compared to other analysts, you consider Italy more sensitive on Egypt’s position

The official position of the Italian government is that an agreement between the two Libyan governments can not be reached without Egypt. The point is that Egypt does not want a peace settlement, therefore Italy eventually will have to decide: either Egypt or the agreement.

Lacking a unity government, and while waiting for one, how is it possible to neutralize the Islamic State’s danger?

Convincing the two factions to fight against IS, rather than fighting each other, would be a significant progress. In other words, they would have to act as the Kurds did in Iraq. Then the West could help them, as it was done with the Kurds. Instead, at the moment, Libyans are acting as Maliki in Iraq (the Shia Prime minister that discriminated and fought the Sunnis, editor’s note) and the international community has been caught in this trap.