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Italian soldiers training in northern Italy
Italian soldiers training in northern Italy
Stefano Stefanini

-OpEd-

TURIN — Geography is inexorable: Italy can never be isolated from Libya, which is just 300 miles from the coast of Sicily. Still, the Italian public tends to be isolated from the rest of the world. The government knows both these truths.

Unlike any other European or Western country, Italy kept its Libyan embassy open and running until last Sunday, thanks to the incredible dedication and courage of Ambassador Giuseppe Buccini and his colleagues. The flag was lowered only when the risks became truly unacceptable, and without waiting for orders or help from the European Union, the United Nations, NATO, the Arab League or the African Union.

While a solution to the Libyan crisis and Italy's security are connected, they are not the same. When it comes to Libya, we can only support United Nations Speical Envoy Bernardino Léon, who is looking to gather the country's armed factions around a table to talk. It seems an almost impossible mission, but at the moment there's no other choice. An authoritative figure in international circles who is also respected in Africa — one name mentioned is former Italian prime minister and former European Commission president Romano Prodi — could help strengthen such efforts.

Meanwhile, Libya today is a "failed state." Unfortunately, there are many others in the region, and the rest of the world, but Libya directly threatens Italy. Security is ultimately a national responsibility. Italy can count on a strong international network for support, but it should also know how to defend itself.

Last weekend, ISIS militants in Libya posted a video online, warning that the group was "just south of Rome." Thanks to the presence of the Vatican, the capital has long been a target of the men led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In response to the message, the Interior Ministry announced Tuesday that almost 5,000 soldiers would be deployed to protect sensitive sites, including monuments, synagogues and embassies.

Mare Nostrum

The existence of this threat must be accepted, and Italy must clearly claim its right to legitimate defense, explicitly recognized in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. Exercising this right doesn't require any additional international validity, nor does it hinder Article 11 on peace and security.

If attacked, the Italian military units engaged in rescuing migrants off the coast of Libya must be able to defend themselves from any incoming fire from the smugglers. The EU's Operation Triton is inadequate in tackling the human trafficking trade and the humanitarian disaster that accompanies it.

Italy can only be proud of the lives it has saved with the now-defunct Mare Nostrum. The EU Commission's decision to abandon it was a mistake. We need another operation like it, with full EU support and cooperation.

Immigrants and refugees come to Italy because they're looking for a future here or seeking refuge elsewhere in Europe. The newly acknowledged problem — that is, the risk of terrorist infiltration — is a challenge for all of Europe, just like the efforts to face the wave of immigrants who arrive with good intentions.

A "robust" military mission, which hopefully will support any tenuous agreement reached thanks to the UN's dialogue — or, in the worst-case scenario, a failed state — is probably inevitable.

Italy can look back on a previous experience, albeit during more favorable circumstances: Operation Alba in Albania in 1996, which saw Italy at the head of an 11-country UN-mandated coalition.

The Libyan situation will require much more effort, both militarily and politically. Ideally there will be a multilateral intervention with a UN mandate, entrusted to NATO or the EU, as it could prove difficult to obtain Russian consent from the UN Security Council.

Reminder from Trotsky

The political priority for Italy is not to be left alone on the military front. The controversy over the country's participation in NATO's 2011 intervention in Libya conveniently forgets that not only did the Silvio Berlusconi-led government join on the basis that the UN Security Council authorized it, but also it was Italy who ensured that the operation — which began extemporaneously, thanks to France and the United Kingdom — fell entirely within the framework of political management of the Atlantic Alliance.

The multilateral format doesn't exonerate Italy from taking on a very considerable burden of resources and men, with high costs and dangers. We can count on Transatlantic solidarity (and perhaps even invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty) and the European Union. We will be able to build on good relations with Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, since we are all threatened by the Libyan contagion. But we will do our part — politically, diplomatically and militarily — until the end. Perhaps it's time to reflect on the short-sightedness of a defense budget cut by 40%, which ignores our country's extreme vulnerability.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has rightly warned against "hysteria," telling a TV station this week that the UN must lead the way. But it's not enough to wait for the UN, or the EU or NATO. Italy must take the initiative and mobilize these organizations.

Military intervention in Libya is the last thing that Italy wants, but the government would do well to remember Leon Trotsky's famous warning: "We might not be interested in war, but war is interested in us."

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