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Questioning Riyadh’s Nuclear Rationale

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In the last few years, a marked shift in Saudi thinking on nuclear issues has become evident. Saudi princes have explicitly and publicly stated that a nuclear military option is something the kingdom is obligated to examine if Tehran is not stopped in its march toward nuclear weapons.

In March 2011, Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to the United States, called for the Gulf states to acquire “nuclear might” as a counterweight to Iran should efforts fail to persuade it to abandon its military nuclear program,[1] a point he repeated several months later.[2] U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross confirmed that Saudi King Abdullah explicitly warned Washington in April 2009: “If they get nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons.”[3] Ross’s quote of the Saudi king appears to be the first public confirmation of Riyadh’s position. An unconfirmed report alleges that Abdullah made a similar statement to Russian president Vladimir Putin in their February 2007 summit.[4]

Despite its wealth and status, the kingdom operates out of a deep sense of inferiority and vulnerability: Some of its neighbors, notably Iraq and Iran, are powerful and historically hostile; its long borders are porous; it has a large Shiite population of questionable loyalty in its sensitive oil-producing regions, and its strategic installations are vulnerable.[5] In Riyadh’s view, nuclear capabilities in Iranian hands would allow Tehran to dictate the Gulf agenda—including its oil markets—as well as incite the Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, undermining the kingdom’s status in the Muslim world as well as the royal family’s grip on power.[6]

The public statements reflecting Saudi intent to acquire nuclear weapons may be intended primarily to convince Tehran that obtaining the bomb will have unintended consequences. They may even be intended to pressure Washington to deal more forcibly with Tehran in order to prevent it from becoming a nuclear state. Nonetheless, these statements are not something to be taken lightly. Given Riyadh’s historical involvement (albeit not all of it proven) with nuclear weapons programs and its military inferiority to Tehran, it is liable to strive for a nuclear deterrent of its own. Saudi Arabia may indeed become the first nuclear state to acquire rather than develop nuclear capabilities.

Immediate Solutions

Riyadh would view nuclear weapons as a counterweight to Tehran. The kingdom, which has traditionally achieved its goals through behind-the-scenes maneuvering backed up by enormous wealth, would probably not change this paradigm if it acquired a nuclear weapon.[7] The lack of transparency typical of Saudi decision-making does not afford knowledge of what, if any, decisions have been made on nuclear matters. Decisions on sensitive issues are made in very secretive settings usually involving the king and the brothers closest to him and are affected by a sluggish process that tends to seek consensus through consultation within the family, requiring the placation of various factions within it and within the broader circles of regime supporters.[8]

Due to its extremely limited research and development capabilities and know-how, Riyadh’s possible nuclear pursuit is likely to be done with external help and acquisition of an off-the-shelf deterrent. It has nowhere near the level of indigenous technical capacity needed to produce, maintain, or deploy nuclear weapons. No long-term strategy for developing its nuclear sector has been publicly issued, nor does Riyadh possess the necessary institutional support (across regulatory, technical, and legal fields) to effectively retain nuclear deployments. Therefore, it might partner with China or Pakistan or both, which have the necessary technological and human infrastructures.

Saudi Arabia’s track record merits some well-placed concern over the issue of nuclear weapons. In the late 1980s, China secretly supplied Riyadh with thirty-six CSS-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). A recently inked civilian nuclear cooperation deal with Beijing, supplier of the CSS-2s and reported supplier of newer and still nuclear-capable DF-5 ICBMs, may also be troubling.[9] Furthermore, the recent inauguration of a new command and control center belonging to the Strategic Missile Force near Riyadh raises a question: Why would Saudi Arabia invest billions in updating its strategic command and control facilities if it still possesses only outdated Chinese missiles?

The visit by the late Saudi defense minister, Crown Prince Sultan, to a uranium enrichment facility and a Pakistani missile production plant near Islamabad in 1999 (hosted by A.Q. Khan, accused of passing on nuclear secrets) raise concerns about Riyadh’s future relations with Islamabad in this matter. On at least one occasion, Khan visited Riyadh,[10] and reports have surfaced about Pakistani scientists coming to Saudi Arabia under the guise of Hajj pilgrims.[11]

These concerns and connections are not merely speculative. Islamabad’s willingness to provide security support for Riyadh, should the Saudis feel that there is a real danger to the kingdom’s stability, was put to the test in the spring of 2011. The Saudi royals’ fear that the Shiite uprising in Bahrain would spread to Shiite centers in northeast Saudi Arabia (where most of the kingdom’s oil reserves are located) prompted Riyadh to ask Islamabad to place an expeditionary force on alert ready to be deployed on Saudi soil should the security situation deteriorate.[12] Pakistan responded positively to the Saudi request.[13]

Riyadh views Islamabad as its strategic hinterland. The Saudis are behind the financing of many arms deals, and in exchange, receive training of their aerial and naval personnel by the Pakistanis.[14] During a visit by Pakistani president Zardari to Riyadh in July 2011 (a visit that reportedly enhanced the strategic relations between the countries), King Abdullah thanked him for his support in Bahrain, where Pakistani mercenaries helped put down the Shiite uprising, and in maintaining regional stability. A month later, Pakistani prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani also visited the kingdom, asking for Saudi help with oil supplies in light of Islamabad’s economic situation and Washington’s threats to cut off support; it is unclear what Pakistan promised in exchange for the aid.[15] Riyadh maintains a very close relationship with the heads of Islamabad’s military and intelligence services. This is significant in the nuclear context because from the start, the Pakistani nuclear program was under the control of the military establishment without any real involvement on the part of the political leadership.[16]

The two nations, both with Sunni majorities, border Iran on two sides and are interested in curbing Tehran’s power and influence.[17] Pakistan, lacking the monetary resources, has the requisite knowledge and skilled manpower for developing nuclear arms whereas Saudi Arabia is wealthy but lacks the relevant infrastructure and trained personnel. One cannot rule out the possibility that Riyadh may seek to balance Tehran’s power by increasing cooperation in the nuclear field with its long-standing friend, despite the political risks of jeopardizing well-established defense relations with Washington. In October 2010, the head of the strategic planning unit of Pakistan’s armed forces, who is responsible for the production, security, and storage of the nation’s nuclear weapons, said that Islamabad had the right to provide its expertise in the nuclear field to other nations.[18] In the past, both Islamabad and Riyadh denied such a scenario.

Should Saudi Arabia find itself in a sensitive security situation, it may seek to capitalize on its investment in the Pakistani nuclear program and pressure Islamabad for assistance. It is unclear whether there is, in fact, a binding nuclear agreement between the states though the assessment is that both states have at least discussed the option. If such an agreement exists, the two have presumably trained for operational cooperation in this field.[19] Gary Samore, President Obama’s advisor on arms control, has said that the possibility of Pakistani nuclear forces being placed in Saudi Arabia cannot be ruled out.[20]

Although there has never been a precedent of one state selling or transferring actual nuclear warheads to another, there is the precedent of exchange of nuclear technology between Pakistan and North Korea[21] as well as proliferation of forbidden nuclear equipment and know-how to countries including Iran and Libya and possibly Syria or Saudi Arabia.[22] As Tehran progresses, Riyadh is likely to exert more pressure on Islamabad to fulfill its presumed commitments. It is by no means certain that Pakistan will yield to Saudi pressure and inducements, but it is impossible to rule out the deployment of Pakistani fighter jets or surface-to-surface missiles with nuclear warheads, controlled by Pakistan, on Saudi soil.

Long-term Solutions

At the same time, the kingdom is accelerating its independent nuclear development—one of the largest development projects in its history—as another option in response to Iran. Saudi Arabia has in recent years started to prepare openly for the development of a civilian nuclear program and is broadening efforts to construct a knowledge base in the field, possibly as another way of establishing nuclear military capabilities over the long term.[23] It has initiated a string of projects and signed cooperation agreements with France, Russia, the United States, South Korea, and China.[24] In 2006, Riyadh called for the Gulf Cooperation Council (a regional bloc that includes Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman) to develop a shared program to use nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes in accordance with international treaties.[25] The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, sought to assuage concerns about possible intentions to develop nuclear weapons stating, “It is no secret and we’re doing everything out in the open. Our goal is to pursue technology for peaceful uses—no more and no less.”[26] Yet notwithstanding similar declarations over the years, the kingdom has signaled that it would not surrender the capability to enrich uranium on its soil, which continues to raise doubts about its intentions.[27]

In April 2010, King Abdullah called for the establishment of a national body for nuclear research and development. In addition, he stated that Riyadh would invest more than $100 billion over two decades to establish no fewer than sixteen nuclear reactors with the first reactor set to be connected to the power grid by 2020.[28] While the civilian nuclear program seems designed to be a symbolic response to Tehran’s nuclear project in the short term, this does not preclude the possibility of its serving as a cover or preliminary stage for a military nuclear project in the future. In June 2005, Riyadh signed the Small Quantities Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but this protocol exempts it from intrusive inspections and makes it difficult for the IAEA to ensure there is no forbidden development underway. The concern that loopholes in the protocol could allow nations to develop military nuclear capabilities has moved the IAEA to attempt to change it.[29] Riyadh’s response was to hurry to sign the present text, despite Washington’s opposition.

Still Relying on America?

A signal from Riyadh that it intends to pursue the nuclear route may indeed be an effective way to pressure Washington to demonstrate its commitment to defend the kingdom more convincingly. Saudi doubts about their U.S. allies preceded the Obama administration’s conduct during the recent Arab upheavals but have been intensified by them. In the last two years, the kingdom has missed few opportunities to express its displeasure with Washington’s policy toward Tehran.[30] Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to extend the U.S. “defense umbrella” to the Gulf states should Tehran acquire military nuclear capabilities,[31] this type of declaration allays few fears as it is liable to be seen as a grudging acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran. While Washington would not have to deploy nuclear forces on Arabian soil to deter aggression, such a move would make the message of deterrence more credible and calm Saudi nerves. However, any U.S.-Saudi security arrangement would likely be covert so as not to embarrass the kingdom vis-à-vis elements opposed to hosting “infidels” on “sacred” lands. Another possibility would be to deploy nuclear forces offshore. A hint that such an option might be in the making came in March 2010 when the U.S. navy fired a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead from a submarine near the Saudi coast.[32]

Continued Iranian progress toward a nuclear weapon, Iraq’s increasing alignment with Tehran, and an expedited U.S. exit from Afghanistan are all changing the Saudi strategic landscape. The Obama administration’s “lead from behind” approach in Libya and its hesitation to get involved in the Syrian civil war all contribute to a reassessment of U.S. commitments. With the U.S. “pivot to Asia”—taking the form of a series of military, economic, commercial, and diplomatic initiatives aimed at contending with the rising power of China—and a changing global energy map due to expansion of oil and natural gas production in the United States, Riyadh and others are beginning to prepare for a post-U.S. Middle East.

According to recent reports, Washington is considering expanding its nuclear cooperation with Riyadh on the basis of a 2008 memorandum of understanding: In exchange for foregoing the operation of nuclear fuel cycles on its soil, Saudi Arabia was to receive nuclear assistance.[33] Such a move, should it come to pass, may be meant to persuade Riyadh to abandon its strategic goals, prevent other players from gaining a foothold in the attractive Saudi market, and challenge Tehran’s nuclear policy. The United States is still Saudi Arabia’s most effective security support, but if Washington distances itself from regional matters, the gradual entrance of new players into the Gulf is inevitable.

The question of Saudi acquisition of a nuclear deterrent is more relevant than ever when both enemies and friends of the United States are looking at a possible regional drawdown on Washington’s part as well as a lack of support for the pro-Western regimes that remain in place. If the U.S. government provides Riyadh with formal security guarantees, it would be natural for it to demand that the kingdom forego its strategic goals. But Riyadh’s inclusion under a U.S. defense umbrella is not a given and depends both on the quality of relations between the two countries and other Saudi considerations. Riyadh remains skeptical over Washington’s willingness to come to its aid and may thus seek to purchase a nuclear deterrent, which would provide it with more freedom vis-à-vis its stronger ally. Under present circumstances, it is not unreasonable for Riyadh to rely on other states for its defense in addition to Washington for the simple reason that it has done so in the past. Likewise, it is more than likely that the Saudis will not act transparently because they have acted in secret previously.

Conclusion

After Iran, Saudi Arabia is the number one candidate for further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Open source evidence remains circumstantial, but perhaps more than any other regional player, Riyadh has the requisite ideological and strategic motives as well as the financial wherewithal to act on the option.

The kingdom may conclude that its security constraints as well as the attendant prestige and influence generated by having a bomb outweigh the political and economic costs it will pay. The difficulty in stopping Tehran’s dogged quest for a nuclear capability coupled with Riyadh’s doubts about the reliability of Washington is liable to encourage Riyadh to shorten timetables for developing an independent nuclear infrastructure, as well as to opt to purchase a turnkey nuclear system, an off-the-shelf product, or to enter into a security compact of one sort with another power. Sunni-majority Pakistan has emerged as the natural candidate for such an arrangement.

Heavy U.S. pressure is likely to be brought to bear on the Saudis not to acquire nuclear capabilities. Indeed, it seems that, at present, the price Riyadh is likely to pay should it acquire military nuclear capabilities might outweigh the advantages of such a move. But strategic interest, motivated by considerations of survival, could have the upper hand. Should it seem that the kingdom’s vital security interests are threatened, it may prefer to take a series of steps, including obtaining a nonconventional arsenal, to reduce risks and ensure the continuity of the House of Saud.

[1] Kuwait News Agency, Mar. 21, 2011.
[2] The Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2011; The Guardian (London), June 29, 2011; The Jerusalem Post, June 30, 2011.
[3] Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), May 30, 2012.
[4] Ibid., May 30, 2012.
[5] Thomas Lippman, Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2012), pp. 229-30, 236-7.
[6] Ibid, pp. 231, 237-43.
[7] Joseph Kostiner, “The GCC States and the Security Challenges of the Twenty-First Century,” The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Mideast Security and Policy Studies, no. 86, Sept. 2010.
[8] Shmuel Bar, “Culture of Command and Control of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia,” working paper, Twelfth Herzliya Conference, Jan. 2012.
[9] Mark Jansson, “Conceding the Saudi Nuclear Breakout,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., Feb. 21, 2012.
[10] “Pakistani Journalist Examines Saudi-Pakistani Nuclear Cooperation,” Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Washington, D.C., Special Dispatch, no. 4205, Oct. 14, 2011.
[11] William Potter and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, eds., Forecasting Nuclear Proliferation in the 21st Century: A Comparative Perspective (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 93.
[12] Asia Times (Hong Kong), Apr. 2, 2011.
[13] Bruce Riedel, “Brezhnev in the Hejaz,” National Interest, Sept.-Oct. 2011.
[14] Francisco Aguilar, Randy Bell, Natalie Black, Sayce Falk, Sasha Rogers and Aki Peritz, “An Introduction to Pakistan’s Military,” Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center, Cambridge, July 2011.
[15] Islamic Republic News Agency, Aug. 10, 2011.
[16] Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, “Nuclear Security in Pakistan: Reducing the Risks of Nuclear Terrorism,” Arms Control Today (Washington, D.C.), July/Aug. 2009.
[17] Pervez Hoodbhoy, “Iran’s bomb and Pakistan,” The Express Tribune (Karachi), Jan. 15, 2012.
[18] “Head of Pakistan’s Nuclear Program: Pakistan Has the Right to Use Nuclear Weapons Should the Need Arise,” MEMRI, Special Dispatch, no. 3330, Oct. 31, 2010.
[19] Bruce Riedel, “Enduring Allies: Pakistan’s Partnership with Saudi Arabia Runs Deeper,” Force, Dec. 2011.
[20] Thomas Lippman, “Nuclear Weapons and Saudi Strategy,” Policy Brief, no. 5, Middle East Institute, Jan. 2008.
[21]Country Profiles: North Korea, Nuclear,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, Washington, D.C., Aug. 2012.
[22] William Langewiesche, “The Wrath of Khan,” The Atlantic, Nov. 2005.
[23] Asharq al-Awsat (London), Oct. 15, 2012.
[24] The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16, 2012.
[25] The Gulf News (Dubai), Dec. 11, 2006.
[26] Ha’aretz, Dec. 10, 2006.
[27] Arab News (Riyadh), June 17, 2010; Asharq al-Awsat, Oct. 15, 2012.
[28] Arab News, June 1, 2011.
[29] Global Security Newswire, Nuclear Threat Initiative, Washington, D.C., June 16, 2005.
[30] The Washington Post, May 16, 2011; Asharq al-Awsat, Nov. 8, 2012.
[31] Fox News, July 22, 2009.
[32] The Washington Post, Mar. 31, 2010.
[33] The Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2011.

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Conflict in Yemen is a Global Threat and Iran’s Trump Card

Irina Tsukerman

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Few people outside analyst and scholarly circles think of Yemen and Libya conflicts as anything central to contemporary confrontation with some of the sprawling global state and non-state threats, and yet both are gateways to much greater crises, and even a fundamental shift in international alliances. In the view of the United States, Yemen is practically a forgotten conflict. While sectarianism continues to splinter the society, and radical ideologies take deep root following the withdrawal most of the UAE forces in 2019, the US is tittering closer to the edge of contemplating withdrawal.

President Trump’s administration is torn between the seemingly mutually exclusive election promises to his base (and beyond) of withdrawing US participation from “endless” Middle Eastern wars but at the same time confronting and pressuring Iran and other threats such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, as well as keeping to the recently articulated commitments of strengthening US defense relationship with Saudi Arabia, which leads the Arab Coalition effort against the Iran-backed Houthis in that theater of war. So far, most of the US pressure campaign to minimize Iran’s dangerous aggression in the region and expansionist ambitions consisted of sanctions and financial limitations, as well as from the engagement in a limited (and mostly reactionary) cyberwarfare. US engagement in Yemen consists mostly of logistical and intelligence assistance to the Arab Coalition, and a fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda, which flourish in the chaotic environment, and on tensions among the members of the +Coalition with sometimes divergent long-terms goals and visions of Yemen’s future.

If US bases in Yemen are attacked by Houthis, that would not make the news coverage or the public briefings. Part of the reason US had worked to minimize the appearance of Houthis’ potential threat to US security interest is the preservation of the delicate balance between being involved just enough to keep a modicum of stability in the war-torn country, keeping stable the relationship with US allies, and at the same time avoiding accusations of being drawn in into another long term conflict that may end with a physical escalation and confrontation with Iranian forces. There is increasing evidence that the purpose of the Houthis is global, rather than local or regional nuisance aimed at the Saudis. Houthis are modeled after Hezbullah, which itself started as a local Lebanese militia aimed at ousting Israel, but grew into a quasi-formal military structure that now controls the Lebanese Parliament, as well as has taken advantage of the country’s tribal structure to ensure local support.

Now, despite dissatisfaction with government corruption and foreign control which has affected even the Shia Lebanese residents, due to Hezbullah’s willingness to make allies with corrupt Christian parties and weak Sunni representation, it is nearly impossible to excise from power. Additionally, Hezbullah forces retain presence in strategically important areas, close to natural resources and organized crime schemes which help pay for Iran’s military expenditures and keep the economy afloat through a shadow market system. Hezbullah’s operations in Latin America, Africa, parts of Asia, and Europe are intelligence, political, military and covert operations, and also business related. Hezbullah has been involved in everything from abductions for ransom, drug trade, and control of diamond markets to ideological influence campaigns and social jihad “hearts and minds” psych ops.

The Houthis are being molded into the same type of faction, with global presence and a level of resourcefulness which far exceeds their initial purpose in toppling the Yemen government, destabilizing the country, and miring Saudi Arabia in a seemingly unwinnable asymmetrical contact. Having expressed threats in the general direction of UAE, Israel, and having spread anti-American propaganda, Houthis are becoming effective counterparts to Iraqi militias and other Iranian foreign legions, and with time, may become part of a more integrated network of well disciplined ideologically loyal forces that are alotted a portion of control over local territories in exchange for their availability to strike at Iran’s favored target anytime anyplace and give Iranian propagandists and lobbyists in the West a cover of plausible deniability to keep pushing deals with Tehran and to help the Islamic Republic avoid accountability in the form of sanctions snapbacks and arms embargoes. Like Hezbullah, they are increasing armed with sophisticated missiles, drones, and mining capabilities which so far they have used primarily against Saudi Arabia, but which, as with Hezbullah can be used against Israeli targets or to supplement Iraqi militia targeting of US sites.

The ruse is working with the European Union, which has criticized the possibility of snapback sanctions over the violations of the JCPOA, and shown reluctance to back the renewal of the arms embargo due to expire in the fall. Furthermore, several leading European countries are working to circumvent US economic sanctions on Iran through various financial instruments. All of this points to Iran’s position that there is international goodwill to exploit, but that Iran needs “safe spaces” to distract the world from its general malfeasance.

Yemen is a perfect convergence of a multitude of crises, illnesses, debilitating conditions, threats, and conflicting interest that becomes increasingly more complicated to untangle with time. Iran has in part succeeded in discrediting Saudi Arabia’s efforts in that regard through a combination of intense and largely successful one-sided media and political campaigns, which the Saudis and their allies have struggled to refute, coupled with the limited attention span for the conflict accorded by the US government. Saudis themselves appear to be demoralized as rumors of their eventual withdrawal persist, without any of the accompanying defense and security concerns being addressed or resolved. Separatists have taken control of a portion of Aden; the territories once cleared of Al Qaeda presence by UAE backed forces are now increasingly falling prey to the sprawling Muslim Brotherhood ideologies.

Despite a few key victories in terms of eliminating Al Qaeda and ISIS leaders in Yemen by joint operations with the Coalition, the groups are finding fodder for radicalization. The Houthis are increasingly legitimized by the Western media, the United Nations and other international organizations, and by human rights NGOs. While key donors have cut humanitarian aid, the Houthis are using the chaos to their advantage to amass power, impose self-serving new taxes, such as the “khums” tax to benefit “Hashemites” – tribal affiliates of prophet Mohammed, to which some Khomeinist followers also lay claim,  and to mobilize support from youngsters recruited and indoctrinated through special training camps since they are children.

With the situation spiraling out of control and little international support for the Arab Coalition’s operations, Yemen is quickly becoming Iran’s backdoor to the Middle East. Once strengthened, Houthis can infiltrate the Saudi borders and through subversion, spread radical ideology and recruit supporters in the East, and mobilize the Yemeni diaspora in the South. They can exploit factionalism and alliances of conservative clergy, remnants of Islamists, pan-Arabists obsessed with the Hashemite return to power and opposed to the idea of even limited defense rapprochement between Israel and the Kingdom, as well as various opportunists who may not particularly care for Shi’a but will jump on any bandwagon that can bring them to power.

The Houthis are already using routes through Lebanon and Oman to reach Iran and to engage in effective trade, training, and the spread of Khomeinist revolutionary thinking and corona virus all over the region. Finally, Turkey is looking to make limited alliances with both Muslim Brotherhood (Al Islah) followers on the ground, the Hadi government, and even the pro-Iran Houthis to exploit the vacuum of power left by UAE withdrawal, US unwillingness to engage beyond defensive measures, and the beat down against the Saudis by the international community. They are offering to send humanitarian aid and ideological material through Somalia, using same routes that could in the future also deliver weapons.

It is time for Israel and the United States to start taking Yemen as more than just a backwater battle for Saudi self-assertion and to treated as part of Iran’s and its allies’ strategically important entry to the takeover of the Middle East and later, important, African and Middle Eastern routes – by political, military, and ideological means.

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Has Turkey Colonized Libya?

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During his visit to Tripoli July 4th Turkey’s defense minister Hulusi Akar signed an agreement on military cooperation with the representatives of the Government of National Accord (GNA). The signature was held behind the closed doors, but the few details that were leaked to the media are enough to conclude that the GNA has effectively traded its ostensible sovereignty for the Turkish support in the stand-off against the Libyan National Army and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.

The agreement between Turkey and Tripoli authorities stipulates that the GNA is a guarantor of Turkish interests in Libya. The real meaning behind that is that the government led by Fayez al-Sarraj officially put the Turkish interests before the national concerns of Libya. The GNA also gave Turkey an official permission to establish military bases on the Libyan territory.

These concessions are no doubt important, but perhaps the most brazing innovation introduced in the agreement is that all Turkish servicemen are given diplomatic immunity. This effectively means that the representatives of the Turkish metropole walking the Libyan soil are automatically granted a number of important privileges, granting them a legal advantage over the indigenous population.

Furthermore, the diplomatic immunity unlocks new possibilities for the transfer of foreign militants and supplies of arms, including internationally banned munitions, in violation of the arms embargo. Since the beginning of the year Turkey flew in to Libya over 15,000 of Syrian mercenaries, including child soldiers, who were recruited in the Syrian province of Idlib and received military training under the supervision of the Turkish advisers. In addition to that, it has been recently discovered that Turkish campaign to recruit fighters is not limited to Syria, but also includes Yemen.

The new agreement further facilitates transfer of foreign fighters into Libya. The GNA has officially given up its right to at least formally check Turkish ships and planes and allowed Ankara to create military bases that are out of Libyan jurisdiction. In these conditions the Turks will be able to send in as many mercenaries, including former members of terror groups, as they see fit without any restrictions or knowledge of the outside world.

In truth, Turkey’s behavior in Libya is already that of a colonial power in the new incarnation of the Tripolitanian Wilayet, a former colony of the Ottoman Empire. Human rights watchdogs report that the next day after the agreement was signed a number of Turkish planes with members of radical groups on board landed in Tripoli.

By signing the new agreement Fayez al-Sarraj and his government pledged allegiance to Turkey and cast away any pretence of being a leader of Libya. Turkey, in turn, is reluctant to declare Tripoli its colony, but this thin varnish will not hide the ugly reality behind.

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Palestinians between COVID-19 pandemic and unilateral Israeli plan of annexation

Paola Canale

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

On March 2020 took place the third general elections in the parliamentary Republic of Israel, for the 120 seats of the Knesset. The results viewed the victory of the right-wing Likud party, leaded by Netanyahu, obtaining 58 seats, although his charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in November 2019, and the left-wing “Blue and white” party, headed by Gantz. After several compromises, the 20 April formed an emergency government of national unity for a limited period of 36 months, presided by Netanyahu for the first 18 months and by Gantz during last 18 months, under the approval of the president Rivlin. In the first phase Gantz will be vice-premier and Minister of Defence. The alternation on the guide of executive will be enshrined by a law of the Knesset.

This even slight predominance of Likud party will entail the implementation of the so-called US President Trump “deal of the century”, which encompasses the Israel political process of incorporation of the occupied West Bank, that include Israeli settlements, the region of Jordan Valley and nature reserves. In other words, government has been authorized to bring a de-facto ‘annexation” plan to debate in the Knesset since 1 July 2020. This Israeli proposal would include up to 30% of the total areas of West Bank.

Amnesty International underlines that this agreement would worsen the violations of human rights, the impunity of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other gross violations, perpetrating a flagrant violation of international law. Being annexation an acquisition of territories by the use of force, it’s breaching at the same time art. 2 (4) UN Charter, generally set out jus cogens norms and humanitarian laws. This plan would extend Israeli law to the OPT, not changing their legal status. In fact, under domestic Israeli law, it’s nothing else but an Israeli settlement expansion, thus denying civil and political rights to Palestinians, their freedom of movement, of speech, of association, equality and non-discrimination rules.

As well known, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the world longest-running struggle between two self-determination movements: the Jewish Zionist and the Palestinian nationalism that claim the same territories and throughout this atavic conflict Israel has been accused of treating non-Israelis people as in the Soth African’s apartheid.

On both sides, have been recorded unlawful killings, that are crime of war, arbitrary detentions, many forms of discrimination, human trafficking, denial of humanitarian access, abuses and maiming of women and children, used as human shields and forced to be involved in military actions in an overall framework of rides, incitation campaigns and retaliations.

In his annual report on children and armed conflict, the UN Secretary General Guterres reported in June 2020 the omission from the “list of shame” of  States perpetrating these crimes, such as Saudi-led coalition, Yemen, Myanmar and also Israel, despite abuses in the occupied territories have been well-documented by UN. Human rights associations and organizations from all over the world are asking  this list be evidence-based, avoiding to coddle powerful countries.

The uprising of the turmoil in these strips of land are likely to escalate at a planetary level.   In front of what has been described by A.I. as an incoming “law of the jungle” after latest elections, this ngo is currently urging international community to strengthen the implementation of international law stressing, that any annexation of the occupied West Bank is nul and void. It’s also claiming an halt of the construction of Israeli illegal settlements and infrastructures in the OPT and all trades with them, decrying the Israeli attempts to undermine Palestinian human rights, including the right of return of Palestinian refugees and supporting ICC investigations and calls on governments to offer political and practical support to the Court over the Palestinian situation.

In fact, according to art.47 of the 4th Geneva Convention, protected people who are in occupied territories shall not be deprived of their rights as the result of the occupation neither by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the occupying powers, not by any annexation of whole or part of the occupied territories.

Moreover, it’s not clear what will be ruled out about citizenships and residency under this incorporation of lands. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu affirmed that Palestinian residents in the areas that will be annexed wouldn’t get Israeli citizenship.

Profiting from illegal blockade on Gaza and fragmentation of the population in the OPT, annexation would result in a mass-expropriation of private and agricultural Palestinian lands and home demolition, thus violating the right to adequate housing (in 2019 Israel demolished 617 Palestinian structures and evicted 899 people in the West Bank). The law of occupation prohibits demolitions if not necessary for military operations. Punishing demolitions are collective punishments, thus forbidden by international law as well as the transfer of prisoners in the occupying country, being in Israel occurring administrative detentions, with neither fair process nor accusations, of about 4600 people.

The PA (governing body of autonomous Palestinians regions) and the paramilitary  PLO called international community to impose sanctions against Israel and started boycotts and disinvestment, announcing that this Israeli expansion would face with the resistance of Palestinians in any forms, considering it as a “declaration of war” .

On the wave of the USA proposed “Deal of the Century”, an “International Conference on the Question of Palestine” was held last February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, gathering practitioners, academics and civil society, in order to thwart the phenomenon of unilateral actions and to implement the substantive exercise of inalienable rights in Palestine. In this occasion Member States of ASEAN were urged to continue their operations in the pursuit of justice and peace and was highlighted the uselessness of a new plan and the necessity of an effective execution of existing agreements and UN resolutions, based on the two-State formula.

More precisely, the 28 January Trump administration held a press conference in the White House, announcing a “peace to prosperity: a vision to improve the lives of the Palestinian and Israeli people” plan, that pleased to the new coalition government in Israeli. It proposed the incorporation of the existing Israeli settlements in West Bank, including Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem; Jerusalem as undivided capital of Israel; a territory for the future Palestine, including parts of West Bank, Gaza strip and some Jerusalem surrounding; linking of the Palestinian territories through new roads, bridges and tunnels; freezing for 4 years Israeli settlement construction; US embassy in Palestine; investment of $ 50 billion to build a new Palestine state.

The PA and the League of Arab States, among others, rejected the plan and under the mounting pressure of Tunisia and Indonesia, thereafter USA proposed many amendments.

Thus it’s crystal clear that lately  protests against the recently announced plan for annexation, proclaimed by Israel and sponsored by USA, and lockdown security measures against Covid-19 have dragged Palestinians in a hell of oppression and restrictions that considerably limit the freedom of civilians that are currently exacerbating further clashes and opposing resistance, regardless the ban of gathering for the pandemic and the quarantine imposition, being their lives at risk in any case.

The outbreak of coronavirus in 2019 propelled a common effort and a new opportunity of collaboration between Palestinians and Israelis in the attempt to enforce the Middle East peaceful process, being the watchword a strong cooperation on the ground and one at an international level. Nicholay Mlandenov, the Bulgarian Special Coordinator for the Middle East Process in the UN Security Council, stressed the “inspiring example” of cooperation in these lands, before the elections, in order to contain the spread of the virus and seized the moment to impact communities in order to make further steps toward peace and to reject unilateral decisions. In this perspective, UN has delivered over 1 million of aid items, such as protective equipment and test kits, for Palestinians hospitals and clinics, due to insufficient funding. Special Coordinator added that UN will do its utmost for the well-being and safety of Palestinians and Israelis, ensuring that no less than $137 million would be transferred to the region in the coming four months.

UN will move in this direction especially through the Middle East Quartet (composed of Russian Federation, USA, EU, UN), that see cooperating the world’s existent superpower countries and institutions involved in the pacification of these areas, its agencies (i.e. UNRWA and coordination office for Humanitarian Affairs -OCHA) and other international organizations, such as WHO.

In order to tackle the spread of the virus, Israeli government has approved a legislation for a partial lockdown and has increased restriction of movement of people and trade, exception done for health workers in Gaza strip, for special medical and humanitarian cases. Furthermore, it has imposed a curfew in the West Bank. It has also tactically allowed counter-terrorism surveillance technology to be used to track infections. On the other hand, an internal cooperation within Palestine, between Hamas and Fatah (in the PA) has been tightened.

Israel was one of the first countries to close its borders and imposed restrictions when the global pandemic first outburst and soon after PA followed its example, by adopting measures such as the suspension of. public prayers, although the mosques are still opened.

All over the world, many western countries, such as France and UK, but also countries in the Arab world, such as Gulf Arab states, are declaring and recognizing that, although their Israeli backing, this plan is occurring in open violation of international law, thus execrable, severely damaging and affecting human rights of Palestinians, not even ensuring the international minimum standard and the right of repatriation, compelling those who left their country to stay abroad.

The 1 July hundreds of Palestinians gathered in Gaza and West Bank against the annexation. The following day, Pope Francis summoned the US and Israel ambassadors for preventing an escalation of violence in these lands, reckoning that the state of Palestine and that of Israel have the same right “to exist and live in security, within international recognized borders”, discouraging unilateral actions.

The Pope and UN are, in fact, in search of an establishment that seems will never happen, trying to demonize the upcoming of a new world conflict, triggering an international alarm to stop this crusade and massacre of civilians. The Holy See recognized the State of Palestine in 2013, soon after followed the recognition by the UN with the status of non-Member observer State. Last March also the Muslim World League urged the moral duty of an interfaith partnership to overcome the crisis.

Israeli defence minister and alternate prime minister Gantz has announced that it would be desirable that the propaganded annexation would take place after the proclaimed state of emergency due to the coronavirus. In fact, the Palestinian ministry of health last week said that 2636 people have tested positive for Covid-19 compared with 1256 recorded a week ago, expressing the fear of a “second wave”of infections after the easing of the full lockdown since last May.

What furthermore is inflaming the crisis is the Palestinian economic dependence on Israel, especially for the 150.000 Palestinians working in Israel (5000 in Gaza) with official permit and about 60.000 work illegally in Gaza strip and West Bank. Their average daily income is 250 Israeli shekels (about $70 per day), so the adopted restrictions mean depriving hundreds of millions of dollars flowing for Palestinian market and a decline of Palestinian purchasing power due to the lack of liquidity, causing a reduction of 50% of the Palestinians civil servants wages. Moreover, the health measures imposed at Israeli airports, crossings and ports have impeded the arrival of imported products from Palestine, whose exportations have been banned, putting at risk the furniture of goods and foods. To get things worse OPEC continues to cut oil exports, holding up the prices. The World Bank reported in April that, if coronavirus crisis and its economic effects wouldn’t ease, the Palestinian economy will shrink by 7%, causing an unprecedented collapse.  Palestinian financial minister has already asked for a loan from Israel of 500 million Israeli shekels ($141 millions) per month until the end of the pandemic but it’s unlikely it could fulfill its obligations.

So, in conclusion, the economic downturn, the spread of Covid-19 and the paralysis of the both nationalisms, that claim the same lands under their religious auspices and believes, have highlighted the weakness of the international system in the Middle East, and in particular in Israel and Palestine, putting them in the hands of Trump’s American hegemonic policy of “America first”, consisting in the affirmation of its economic global power and its presence on the field in an anti-terrorist key of interpretation.

 As a matter of fact, although resonant speeches, has been revealed a consistent lack of democracy and effective protection of liberal values, especially from USA and UN on one hand, and through continuous terrorist attacks from Palestinian organizations recognized as terrorists by UN and EU such as i.e. Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, al.Aqsa Martyr Brigade and LFP, on the other

Bearing in mind that “terrorism” has been defined in 1994 by the UN as “criminal acts intended or calculating to provoke a state of terror in general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them”,  it’s clear that on both sides the destiny of innocent civilians, that are daily struggling simply for their livelihood are nowadays still put at risk.

In an economic strangulation and political entanglement, many Palestinian people are actually living in danger and facing violence; they are often forced, having no choice, to be enrolled in military corps, both terroristic or legally recognized, in order to avoid indigence, in a quest for revenge and social redemption.

 Once again, in the slowness and inadequacy of political summits in the control rooms of power, through the diplomatic meetings and clumsy changing strategies in the international arena, long distant from the dramatic reality ground, this is one of the saddest quarrels in which are always the helpless battered people that continues on suffering and paying for economic giants damages and interferences and that are far to be resolved in a lack of a clear direction and  solutions for a long-lasting peace and security at the four corners of the world.

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