An Italian Navy mission in support of the internationally recognized Libyan government to combat smugglers and stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterannean has begun, but not without controversy and concerns raised.
The Italian mission began with a single patrol boat sent into Libyan territorial waters June 2. The agreement between the Italian and Libyan governments includes providing training, equipment and other logistical support.
But the decision by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to invite the Italians into Libyan waters was criticized fiercely by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who controls large areas in the eastern part of the country. Hifter raised Italy's colonial past in Libya, and the sometimes brutal suppression of the local population including atrocities committed before and during Mussolini's facist regime.
Ben Fishman, a North African expert with the Washington Institute, is deeply skeptical about Hifter's motivations.
"Yes, he is opposed to the Italian mission but he does anything to build his base to counter Sarraj. He even made a threat to fire on Libyan warships," Fishman, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council, said.
But concerns have been raised over what this deployment will mean if it is successful in curbing the flow, and what will happen to those migrants returned to Libya.
"The Italian navy deployment in Libyan waters could effectively lead to arbitrary detention of people in abusive conditions," Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia's associate director, told Al-Monitor.
Fishman is relatively upbeat about the mission, saying it was approved to assist and provide equipment to the Libyan Coast Guard.
"They will not just be dealing with migrants, but helping to control their waters," Fishman said. "There is some Italian naval presence and any presence, not just Italian, is controversial."
He cited the example of a move at the U.N. Security Council to approve a British mission. That was blocked by the Libyans, with the help of the Russians, according to Fishman.
He added of the Italian mission: "I would say it is a significant move but not overstate it. It was a necessary move to help both the Libyans and the Italians."
And it is working, Fishman believes, because the numbers have dropped off in the last number of weeks.
"(It's) pretty early to attribute to one thing but the smugglers are not being as effective as when Libyans were not as active," he said.