Italy And France Are Rivaling For Control Over Libya, And This Is Only A Sign Of A Future Conflict Over Africa

By Theodore Shoebat

There is currently taking place a rivalry between France and Italy over hegemony in North Africa. France is backing the Libyan National Army (LNA), ran by General Khalifa Haftar, which has been dominating the eastern half of Libya.

Officials in Paris have either denied supporting the LNA or have been silent on the issue. But according to Giorgio Cafiero, “there is evidence that the eastern commander’s strength is partly attributable to France.”  An awareness of France’s involvement in Libya really sparked after three French special forces soldiers were killed in Libya in July of 2016. The conflict in Libya intensified after General Khalifa Haftar of the LNA started fighting against the government in Tripoli. But the biggest challenge to Haftar’s cause is the European Union’s support for the Government of National Accord (GNA) which is the interim government for Libya. Within the EU there is a country that especially doesn’t like France’s support for Hafter: Italy. This also has a historical reason, given the fact that Italy invaded Libya in 1912 and fought to maintain control over Libya during the Second World War.

The contention over support for Haftar was seen in April of 2019. The EU wanted to issue a statement calling for Khalifa Haftar to end his violence in Tripoli, stating that it has been “endangering the civilian population, disrupting the political process and risks further escalation with serious consequences for Libya and the wider region, including the terrorist threat.” France objected to the statement and it was blocked from being issued. The contention between France and Italy was transpiring within this situation.

The head of the EU parliament,  Antonio Tajani, who is Italian, said Paris and Rome had “diverging interests” in Libya. “We need more unity, we need to speak with only one voice as Europeans, but unfortunately Europeans are divided on this,” Tajani told reporters. Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, said: “It would be very serious if France for economic or commercial reasons had blocked an EU initiative to bring peace to Libya and would support a party that is fighting … As minister of the interior I will not stand by and watch.”Matteo referenced the astute observation that the real reason why France backed NATO’s invasion of Libya was to advance its own hegemonic interests in the country:

“Some think that the [2011 Nato-led military intervention] in Libya promoted by [then-French President Nicolas] Sarkozy was triggered more by economic and commercial interests than by humanitarian concerns”

Oil also plays a major role in Italy’s and France’s ambitions in North Africa. France, according to Reuters, “has oil assets in eastern Libya,” and “has provided military assistance in past years to Haftar in his eastern stronghold, Libyan and French officials say.” The tensions between France and Italy over Libya was witnessed in January of 2019 when Matteo Salvini, said: “In Libya, France has no interest in stabilizing the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy”. Oil obviously is the center objective in this rivalry between two imperialistic countries. France’s proxy, Khalifa Haftar, controls virtually all of Libya’s onshore oil reserves.

Khalifa Haftar with Emmanuel Macron

In February of 2019, Haftar’s forces took control of Libya’s biggest oil field in the southwestern Sharara field. LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said in a telephone interview: “Sharara is completely secure and ready to resume pumping … The guards at the field handed over the field to our forces peacefully.” Corporate interests have definitely been involved in this, with the LNA agreeing to hand over the giant oil field to the National Oil Corp, which is the dominant oil company in Libya. The National Oil Corp’s subsidiaries are the Arabian Gulf Oil Company (Agoco), Zueitina Oil Company (ZOC), Sirte Oil Company and the Waha Oil Company (WOC). The Waha Oil Company’s ownership was under a joint venture with ConocoPhillips, Hess Corp. and Marathon. But, in March of 2018, the French oil company Elf Aquitaine SAS (a subsidiary of France’s major oil company, Total S.A.) bought Marathon’s Libyan subsidiary, Marathon Oil Libya Limited, for $450 million.    

Italy also has oil interest in Libya, with Italy’s major oil company, Eni, operating in that country. In fact, in October of 2018 Eni agreed to buy half of the British oil company BP’s 85% stake in a Libyan oil and gas license. According to Reuters, part of the agreement was that Eni will get 42.5% stake and “become the operator of the exploration and production sharing agreement (EPSA) in Libya, in which the Libyan Investment Authority holds the remaining 15 percent, the companies said in a statement.”

Ultimately, this rivalry between European countries is about reviving their former glories of empire. In the words of Cafiero, “France is seeking to assert itself as a rising power on the global stage.”

A look into history

In 1911 Italy, which became a unified country in 1871, looked to North Africa for its imperialist aspirations. The government of King Emmanuel III was fixated on Libya in this enterprise of conquest. At the time Libya was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. The Italians seized on an opportunity for war when it used an Ottoman arms shipment to a garrison in Libya as a justification for war. There were Italian citizens living in Libya, and Rome affirmed that the Ottomans were a threat to them. And so on September 29th, 1911, Italy declared war and launched a full-scale invasion of Libyan coastal cities. 34,000 Italian troops stormed Libya where there was only 4,200 Ottoman soldiers who had no support from naval ships. In the first weeks of October, 1911, the coastal towns of the Ottoman provinces of Tripoli (Western Libya) and Benghazi (Eastern Libya), were taken over by the Italian army.

The grand vizier believed that the Ottoman government should let Libya go with the belief that it was not worth jeopardizing Ottoman troops for a fight that they could not be victorious in. The nationalist Young Turks were not having any of this compromise. In early October of 1911, Major Enver travelled to Salonica to speak to the Central Committee of the CUP (Committee of Union and Progress) to explain his plan for Libya. In a meeting that lasted for five hours, Enver convinced his colleagues that what was needed was guerrilla warfare against the Italians in Libya. He explained his plan to his childhood friend and foster brother, the German naval attache Hans Humann: “We will gather our forces in the [Libyan] interior. Mounted bands of Arabs, citizens of the country, commanded by young [Ottoman] officers, will stay close to the Italians and harass them night and day. Each [Italian] soldier or small detachment will be surprised and annihilated.” The plan was approved.

Dozens of young Ottoman officers entered Libya through Egypt and Tunisia. One of them was Mustafa Kamal, the future Ataturk. These officers were supposedly looked down as rogue fighters, being actually labeled as “adventurers acting against the wishes of the Ottoman government”, while they were actually still receiving payments from this very Ottoman government. These officers proudly called themselves fedai, or warriors who did not fear death for the cause. Enver, clothed with traditional Arabian attire and riding upon a camel, stormed Libya. He focused his efforts in the Benghazi region and made his camp on the plateau overlooking the port of Derna.

Enver reinvigorated the fighting spirits of demoralized Ottoman troops and also recruited local tribesmen. He also recruited members of the powerful Sufi order, the Sanussi brotherhood, whose network of lodges spanned across the cities and countrysides of Libya. The Libyan fighters were enamored by the Young Turks’ enthusiastic willingness to join their cause against Italy and gladly fought for the Ottomans. Enver would describe the tribal warriors as “fanatical Muslims who see death before the enemy as a gift from God”. While Enver was a Secular Turk, he saw Islam as a powerful means by which to rally the masses for Ottoman policy.

Between October of 1911 and November of 1912, the Ottomans and Libyan warriors executed a successful combat against the Italians. Even though the Italians were superior in numbers and technology, they could not surpass the Libyans who actually had a full knowledge about the territory they were fighting in. The Libyan guerrilla fighters killed 3,400 Italian soldiers and wounded over 4,000 others, in the duration of just a year. The humiliating defeat of the Italians also caused damage on Italy’s economy which was drained of an exorbitant amount of money while it only cost the Ottomans 25,000 Turkish pounds ($4.40) a month.

The Italians knew that they were not going to win this war through military means, and so they decided to move the battle to another front. The Italian navy began to bombard Ottoman territory across the eastern Mediterranean, bombing the Lebanese port of Beirut in March of 1912. Italian troops also invaded the Dodecanese (an Aegean archipelago part of Greece today) in May of that same year. In July of 1912, the Italian navy sent torpedo troops into the Dardanelles, one of the most important maritime territories of the Ottoman Empire. Since the Ottomans removed troops from their Balkan territories to fight in Libya, they left room for the Italians to capitalize on the anti-Ottoman tensions in the Balkans.

The Italians  also began to make alliances with the Ottomans’ former Balkan territories, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria, in order to stir them up against the Ottoman Empire. Each of these Balkan countries wanted to take territory in the last remaining lands that the Ottoman Empire had in the Balkans, in Albania, Thrace and Macedonia. The Italians also had an advantage through royal lines. The Italian king was related by marriage to King Nicholas I of Montenegro, and thus the Italians used this to exhort the Montenegrins to declare war on the Ottomans.

The Ottoman Empire did not want to risk a war in the Balkans, and so just ten days after Montenegro declared war, the Ottomans resolved for a peace treaty with Italy. The Libyan provinces that the Italians invaded were given over to Rome. During the First World War, the Ottomans and their German allies promoted Islamic radicalism in Libya in order to undermine Italian control over the region. (see Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans, ch. 1, pp. 14-18; ch. 9, p. 238)          

Italy’s objectives to take Libya was not dissimilar from France’s aspirations for conquest in North Africa. This was the Morocco crises of 1905-1906 and of 1911. France’s influence was getting deeper into Morocco, and this gained the attention of another European power: Germany. Germany was, like today, the leading industrial nation of Europe, having more industrial laborers than farm workers. But it could not be satisfied with merely remaining in Europe. Germany wanted to expand. France, Italy and Germany wanted to each make a name for themselves as global powers, and taking African territories was one main way to do this.

Germany began to exploit the Moroccan desire for independence in order to ruin French control over the region. Kaiser Wilhelm II took a trip to Morocco in order to champion Moroccan independence. But this plan was to no avail. Britain sided with the French, and an international conference concluded that France should be in charge of Moroccan affairs. But the Germans insisted that the Europeans uphold the rule of the Sultan in order to maintain Moroccan independence. This was all agreed upon in a treaty signed at Algeciras in 1906.

In March of 1911, an uprising sparked in Morocco, especially in the city of Fez. The Sultan of Morocco requested from France troops to bring stability and end the chaos. The Germans accused the French of starting the disorder in order to create a pretext for the French to invade Morocco. French troops occupied Fez on May 21, 1911. This was to the ire of the Germans who exhorted in favor for the rulership of the Sultan. Germany’s foreign Secretary, Alfred von Kiderlen-Wachter, went to Morocco to pressure the French to agree to give African territory to Germany. But this, too, was a failed plan. Britain sided with France and Germany backed down (see Fromkin, Europe’s Last Summer). The European desires to Africa exploded in violence in the Two World Wars in which Africa was a central point of conflict. 

The territorial aspirations of European powers are still alive and can be seen going through a gradual manifestation in France’s and Italy’s vying over Libya. Whatever the details are of what will take place, the future has a dark happening for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. And all of the bloodshed will be done under the inebriation of human vanity and vainglory.