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Some considerations on the Libyan case

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Too little, too late. Any international effort to “bring peace” to Libya is now a commitment which, in all likelihood, will not lead to new positive results in that area.

Let us analyse the situation: about 6,500 Isis militants are estimated to be present in Libya, twice as many as we thought just a few days ago. Their number, however, is growing rapidly.

The “Caliph” Al Baghdadi is transferring to Libya and Tunisia, by land or even by sea, all the terrorists who, thanks to the Russian victories and the victories of Bashar el Assad’s Syrian Arab Army, do no longer succeed in reaching the Isis territory from the Syrian and Turkish borders.

Currently Bashar’ Syrians are a few tens of kilometres from Raqqa, the Caliph’s “capital city”.

Al Baghdadi’s cells, however, were already present on the Libyan territory before the Syrian comeback and Russian presence, while Gaddafi’s fall immediately paved the way for jihadist groups such as Ansar al Sharia, that killed the American Consul in Benghazi in September 2012, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, that Sirte’s Colonel had repressed in Southern Libya.

At least 36,000 “foreign fighters” from 120 different countries may have arrived in the Isis territory.

Therefore Al Baghdadi’ strategic logic is clear: to turn Libya into the starting base to bring war – and not just terrorism, which is a specific war strategy – into the Eurasian peninsula, by using a sequence of actions which, in all likelihood, will be at first real terrorism, then the manipulation of the large Islamic minorities present in the EU, as well as the massification of the confrontation, and finally the beginning of a guerrilla warfare inside Europe.

The fact whether Libya’s “unity” government is established or not is of little importance for the self-proclaimed Caliph.

What is important is that it shall have no real power in the region and it shall not really unite all the many “kabile”, namely the tribes, that Gaddafi had harshly placed under his sole command.

If there is a European intervention – or, to be more precise, a French, Italian and British one, with US support – the sequence of events will become even more predictable.

There will be a call for help by the Libyan unity government, which will not necessarily dispel discord and silence diverging interests within it, as well as a resolution of the UN Security Council, the organization that former Italian President Cossiga dismissed as “useless”. Later the military will come, possibly under an Italian joint command, with a view to “training” the local police, with some Special Operations Forces’ initiatives.

Once again, too late and too little.

Joining Britain, France and Italy together in a peace-enforcing operation in Libya is politically possible, but scarcely sensible from the operational viewpoint.

It is worth recalling that the UN “peace operations” doctrine was devised when Islamic terrorism or, rather, the jihad, had not yet appeared on the horizon.

For Isis, Libya is the second front of its particular jihad, as well as the basis for controlling oil – which was the source of Libya’s wellbeing during the dictatorship – and to use its wells and sell smuggled hydrocarbons, also thanks to the decrease of the oil barrel prices and the cover of some producing countries which “mix up” their oil with the one bought on the jihad black market.

Isis has a global strategy, while Europe has none.

Furthermore, the United States have clearly shown they do not want to deal with the Middle East any longer, and the European Union is split into at least two internal fronts on immigration, while Great Britain, which should also participate in the operations on the Libyan ground, is slowly but surely walking out of the European Union.

Today an old story, at the origin of Islam itself, is repeating itself: when the Prophet Muhammad died, the Byzantines and the Iranian Empire were exhausted by a long war with each other, and it was easy for Caliph Abu Bakr to conquer the Iranian empire and its capital Ctesiphon, then head to Egypt and from there up to Andalusia.

The divisions among Christians fostered the arrival of the first jihad and many Eastern Christians, treated as heretics by the Byzantine Basileus, preferred the new Arab regime to the Eastern Empire’s repression.

By easy comparison, we can say that today the divisions between Westerners and their internal weaknesses will favour, God forbid, the arrival of this new jihad.

Hence, reverting to current times, Italy does not want the migrant boats along its shores, and this is the reason why it wants to take action to “bring peace” to Libya.

It is too little. We need to manage the destabilization of the whole Sahel region which produces migrants – destroying boats is a naive spite. You can rest assured that they have the money to buy them back.

The oil issue does not seem to be particularly interesting for the current Italian decision-makers, who have “a blind faith in the progress” the newly elected Iranian reformers are supposed to foster but, as Voltaire used to say, “in spite of facts, people are often hard-headed”.

In Iran, Rowani’s reformers won the majority, with 92 seats; the “independent candidates” obtained 44 seats and the candidates who are against the P5+1 agreement on Iran’s nuclear issue won 115 seats which, if we consider the 39 ones which will go to second ballot in April, make the victory of the supporters of the agreement with the West less remarkable than we may think.

Not to mention the fact that, thanks to his political victory, Rowhani will soon dictate his conditions to the West.

Basically France does not want operations in Libya. It is already present in the Sahel region; it is carrying out counterterrorist operations on its territory and now it also operates in Senegal and Mali; probably it has not the strength to well manage the situation on the ground in Libya.

By the way, do we want to support the “national unity” government in Tripoli or combat Isis?

Great Britain will participate because it wants to try and recover a part of the Mediterranean. It will not succeed, but it certainly does not want France and Italy to regain the “fatal shore” in Libya.

Three diverging interests for the three countries which should fight together.

The United States will launch drones, which have no family and above all do not vote, and will do very little else.

Once again, too little, too late.

Just to put it in my usually brutal terms, a more widely strategic logic – and not a propaganda-demagogic logic, need to be used again in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

If the United States walk out of the region, and I do not think that the new President will be more interventionist than Barack Obama, the small and no longer medium-sized European powers shall find a new global player.

Alone they will never succeed, with the results we do not even want to imagine.

China could be the new global player, in connection with Israel, with whom it has excellent relations. It has also a strategic relationship with the Russian Federation, which is already operating in Syria against Isis.

China is the ideal global player: it has stable and excellent relations with all these countries; it has the technology, including the military one, to change the situation on the ground, and it can also put pressures, without being affected and constrained beyond an acceptable limit, on Iran and Saudi Arabia. China is also in connection with the Jewish state, its stable reference point for the most advanced technologies.

In his recent visit to the Middle East, Xi Jinping has built a broad political project and, after carrying out a cleansing exercise within the CCP and the Chinese companies – just think of the recent elimination of the top managers of China Telecom and high fashion – the Chinese CCP Secretary will be very powerful, as and probably even more than Mao.

Hence, the Libyan framework shall be seen in its Mediterranean context, which is now a unified strategic theatre.

As all similar armies, Isis, which is a terrorist-jihadist group, operates in the name and on behalf of one or more States.

They want some things, but they say so in a more polite way: they want Libyan oil; they want a government – in Tripoli or Tobruk, it does not matter – entirely subordinate to their interests; finally they want to use this “liquid” phase of jihadist terrorism to wipe out the autonomous Maghreb States which are friendly to the West (and Russia).

Namely Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and, with a different module, Egypt, which is also a world choke-point thanks to the Suez Canal.

The European Union shows structural weaknesses which suggest a rapid geopolitical and economic decay. The United States are undergoing their cyclical isolationist phase – hence the Sunni world wants to conquer the Maghreb region so as to threaten and intimidate Europe, flood it with immigrants and control it with the North African oil which will shortly compete with the Russian (and Iranian) oil.

Therefore, if we do not start again to think big, we will not even solve the peace-enforcing operations which we have been dragging on since the cold war.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Middle East

Syria: 10 years of war has left at least 350,000 dead

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A decade of war in Syria has left more 350,200 people dead, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on Friday, noting that this total was an “under-count of the actual number of killings”.

These are a result of a war that spiralled out of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Based on the “rigorous work” of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she said that the tally, which includes civilians and combatants, is based on “strict methodology” requiring the deceased’s full name, the date of death, and location of the body.

People behind the numbers

In the first official update on the death toll since 2014, Ms. Bachelet informed the Council that more than one in 13 of those who died due to conflict, was a woman – 26,727 in all – and almost one in 13 was a child – a grim total of 27,126 young lives lost.

The Governorate of Aleppo saw the greatest number of documented killings, with 51,731 named individuals.

Other heavy death tolls were recorded in Rural Damascus, 47,483; Homs, 40,986; Idlib, 33,271; Hama, 31,993; and Tartus, 31,369.

Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights”, reminded the High Commissioner.

“We must always make victims’ stories visible, both individually and collectively, because the injustice and horror of each of these deaths should compel us to action.”

More accountability needed

Her office, OHCHR, is processing information on alleged perpetrators, recording victims civilian or combatant status and the type of weapons used, Ms. Bachelet said.

To provide a more complete picture of the scale and impact of the conflict, the UN agency has also established statistical estimation techniques to account for missing data.  

The High Commissioner explained that documenting deaths complements efforts to account for missing people and that her office has been helping the families of the missing, to engage with international human rights mechanisms.

Given the vast number of those missing in Syria, Ms. Bachelet echoed her call for an independent mechanism, with a strong international mandate, to “clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people; identify human remains; and provide support to relatives”.

No end to the violence

Today, the daily lives of the Syrian people remain “scarred by unimaginable suffering”, the UN human rights chief said, adding that they have endured a decade of conflict, face deepening economic crisis and struggle with the impacts of COVID-19.

Extensive destruction of infrastructure has significantly affected the realization of essential economic and social rights, and there is still no end to the violence.

It is incumbent upon us all to listen to the voices of Syria’s survivors and victims, and to the stories of those who have now fallen silent for ever”, the High Commissioner concluded.

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Middle East

Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds

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The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.

It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.

The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.

Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.

Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.

Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.

There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.

The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.

This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.

The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.

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Middle East

Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga

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Image credit: Hurriyet daily news

The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.

Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.

Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.

By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.

The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.

Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.

This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.

The Central Asia factor

These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.

Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.

Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).

The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.

“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.

All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.

As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.

Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.

Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.

This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.

Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.

In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.

Restoring balance with the West

Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.

Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.

This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.

However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.

From our partner RIAC

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