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Foreign involvements in Syria: A barrier towards meaningful solution

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Syrians have been passing five consecutive years under fierce conflict and there is yet no sign of peace. However, the failed meetings and the “talk-shop” conferences among local and regional parties led by the global powers have been continuing in usual intervals.

Questions arose as to how long will it take to reach “peace”? How much more blood will be spilled? How many refugees had to risk their lives into Europe? How many more meetings and conferences in lavish vicinities are required to agree to life by disagreeing deaths?

UN RESOLUTION 2015: TOO AMBITIOUS TO REVOLVE INTO REALITY

Meetings, conferences and ceasefire-agreements have been taking place since the beginning of Syrian war, without any success. Last December (2015), the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) endorsed a road map for a peace process in Syria, adopting unanimously the resolution 2254 (2015). The resolution called for an immediate ceasefire, endorsing a non-sectarian government in Syria within “6 months”, and set a schedule and process for the drafting of a new Constitution. The resolution also endorsed for UN-monitored elections within “18 months” pursuant to the new Constitution, reiterating the call for the Syrian people to decide the future of Syria.

However, although 10 months have already gone-by since the UN resolution, the formation of the said non-sectarian government in Syria still seems far away. Furthermore, it appears from the current conflict-rattled Syrian scenario that the expected new Constitution and the UN-monitored elections that were projected in the abovementioned UN resolution are just too ambitious to be taken seriously, atleast not in near future.

PROLONGED SYRIAN WAR

Syrian civilian mass have been suffering a prolonged brutal war. The prolonging of the war was possible because of certain factors: (i) almost all sides have foreign support in order to prolong the war, (ii) the sides are well matched and (iii) each faction has sufficient willpower and resources to continue the war for a longer period.

Indeed, each side is truly well matched. If one side’s willpower is at the peak, the other sides have either the best military resources or financial resources or foreign backup to fill up their lacking in other aspects. While groups like al-Nusra and ISIS (and Hezbolla as well), who are driven by the thought of paving their way to paradise, lack no determination or willpower to continue the war, the ‘Sunni Arab’ rebels have backups from regional powers (mainly Saudis, Qataris and Turks) to carry on their part of the campaign. The ‘socialist kurdi’ rebels (within Syria) are backed by the West (mainly the U.S.). On the otherside, the Assad regime, which is largely manpowered by its army’s Alawite (shia) fighters and Lebanese shia-oriented armed organization Hezbolla, has the blessings of Russians and Iranians to continue its part.

IRAQ: OCCUPATION, DESERTION OF SUNNIS & RISE OF ISIS

Foreign involvements in the Middle Eastern region are nothing new. The U.S. led foreign involvement (occupation) in Iraq – by using the excuse of saving the world from Saddam Hossain’s chemical weapons – is a burning example of what the impact of a foreign intervention could look like for any Middle Eastern country. When the U.S. was largely leaving the occupation, they, instead of leaving a harmonized Iraq, left an Iraq that was unstable, sectarian and chaotic.

During U.S.’s full-fledged Iraq occupation, the U.S. troops, with the help of Iraqi ‘Sunni Arab’ tribes, largely defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq (now ISIS) by 2008. But the desertion of the ‘Sunni Arab’ tribes by the U.S. (on its large departure of troops from Iraq) in the hands of a shia-oriented sectarian government caused the tribes to lose their trust completely on the U.S. and the Iraqi regime. Out of the widespread tortures that they faced from the sectarian Iraqi regime and out of their distrust for the regime, one large part of the ‘Sunni Arab’ population in Iraq started to vision for an independent state or, atleast, for an autonomous region for their own. For this reason, even before the rise of ISIS, they had been aiming to form a separate ‘Sunni Arab’ state, which would be completely independent from Iraq. Right before the emergence of ISIS, the continuous protests in places like Fallujah (a city within Anbar province of Iraq) and the breakout of armed protests every now and then increasingly showed their frustration towards the sectarian regime in Bagdad. The uncompromising nature of those protests portrayed that they won’t settle down unless they earn their independent state or, atleast, an autonomous ‘Sunni Arab’ region for their own within a reformed non-sectarian federal Iraq.

Although this part of the ‘Sunni Arab’ population did not work for any state or non-state actors in primary, their desperation towards independence (or atleast autonomy) had pushed them for searching helping-hands in achieving their purpose. In other words, this portion of ‘Sunni Arab’ population seemed to be ready to help any groups or sides whosoever could help them back with their vision of independence.

After the rise of ISIS, this portion of ‘Sunni Arab’ population had started to collaborate with the militant organization for fulfilling their own purpose, without accepting and embracing the ideology of the militant organization. On the otherhand, the other part of the Iraqi ‘Sunni Arab’ population, which was exceptionally frustrated from the tortures by the shia militias, had directly jointed ISIS after accepting and embracing their ideology. Thus, it appears that the U.S. occupation of Iraq, followed by the desertion of the ‘Sunni Arab’ tribes by the U.S. in the hands of a shia-oriented sectarian regime of Iraq, had caused the ‘Sunni Arab’ population (largely) to walk in line with the ISIS strategy.

RUSSIA & U.S. IN SYRIA: SEEKING NOT A SOLUTION, BUT OWN INTERESTS

Such a situation in Iraq, where both the parts of ‘Sunni Arab’ population are either collaborating with ISIS or directly working under ISIS, is impacting occurrences in Syria as well. This is because, ISIS operates in both the countries, with recruits and resources of ISIS in Iraq taken to Syria every now and then for military operations.

Moreover, the recent increased military operations all over Iraq against ISIS are signalling that a more alarming imperial vision is in making. The U.S. has been backing the Iraqi troops and shia militias across Iraq in order to push ISIS out of the Iraqi cities towards the Iraqi borders with Syria. The ongoing operation in Mosul, which seems to have started without taking adequate time for military preparations or sufficient time for removing the civilians out of the area, is another of such imperial vision where the U.S. is hastening to push the ISIS fighters out of Iraq towards Syria, so that it becomes easier to weaken the Assad regime further in line with the imperial vision of the U.S. While it is true that the Assad regime has committed atrocities across Syria, this does not legitimize the U.S.’s attempt of using ISIS against the Assad regime.

On the otherside, out of its adamant ambition of keeping Syria under its geopolitical influence, Russia is utterly backing Assad’s army, which has been massacring villages after villages and bombarding civilian areas indiscriminately by the excuse of fighting rebels and, in some cases, militants.

While both the coalitions, one led by Russia and the other by the U.S., claim to be working to find a solution for the Syrian conflict, the reality appears different from their actions. The U.S.-led Western alliance, the Saudi-led Sunni alliance and the broader coalition between these two alliances could not deliver any set plan for Syria in last five years. On the otherhand, the other coalition – involving Assad regime, Iraqi regime, Iran and Russia – claim that they have a plan. Though, no one else otherthan themselves knows what the plan is!

SCHEMES IN IRAQ & SYRIA

The Middle East is of strategic importance to the world, particularly because of its supply of oil. Many analysts believe that the U.S.’s plan is to engineer a conflict between the two major regional foes, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia, in order to make accessibility of the region risky for adamant Russia and energy-starved China, both of which are trying to reshape the current global order that is led and dominated by the U.S. On the otherhand, many other analysts say that it is Russia, not the U.S., which wants to engineer such a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and then get the U.S. embroiled into the mess and drive up the cost of oil, benefitting Russia that is suffering from lower global oil price.

There is another analysis regarding the regionwide conflict in the Middle East. The Western powers want to redraw the map of the region in such a way that serves their current-day interests. There is a widespread view that a Kurdish state, which would be carved out of Tukey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, is within the western powers’ working desk. Moreover, a comparatively smaller number of analysts believe that two further states, a Sunni Arab state and a Shia Arab state, might as well emerge out of Iraq, making Iraq obliterated as a nation state from the world map. However, all these analyses, and perhaps willingness, might go into vein as two regional countries, namely Turkey and Iran, might put their full efforts into spoiling such abovementioned attempts of carving out new nation states for the sake of their own national territorial integrity and their greater regional geopolitical interests.

WRAPPING UP

One reality-check regarding any international involvements in an independent country is that foreign interventions themselves are the real problems. One burning example of ‘problems brought by the foreign involvements’ in the an independent country could be found in the rise of ISIS in Iraq, which, as mentioned earlier, was caused by the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq and its subsequent desertion of the ‘Sunni Arab’ tribes.

The actions and apparent intensions of the global and regional powers with regard to Syria clearly show that foreign involvements in the country are doing more damage than solving problems. Infact, foreign involvements are solving no problems at all. Rather, the prolonging of the Syrian war seems to be largely caused by the foreign engagements in the country.

Because of such foreign involvements, the ongoing destructive process in Syria reached the point of no return. No efforts can save Syria if foreign involvements are not completely eliminated. Continuation of such involvements will only be followed by the final disintegration of the country.

Therefore, would it not be better to end all sorts of international interventions by all international parties in Syria? Would it not be better to leave the Syrians alone to solve their own problems? Innocent people in Syria and Iraq are suffering from the ongoing conflict. The influx of refugees in Europe is a sheer reflection of this reality. These sufferings will only end when the U.S., which is backing one warring side, and Russia, which is backing the other side, will end their interference in the country. The country is better off without foreign involvements. Let Syrians solve their own problems. Let the international powers – Russia, the West and the Middle Eastern powers – not interfere anymore in Syria. Only then a constructive, meaningful and permanent solution could be reached sooner.

Bahauddin Foizee is an international affairs analyst and columnist, and regularly writes on greater Asia-Pacific, Indian Oceanic region and greater Middle East geopolitics. He also - infrequently - writes on environment & climate change and the global refugee crisis. Besides Modern Diplomacy, his articles have appeared at The Diplomat, Global New Light of Myanmar, Asia Times, Eurasia Review, Middle East Monitor, International Policy Digest and a number of other international publications. His columns also appear in the Dhaka-based national newspapers, including Daily Observer, Daily Sun, Daily Star, The Independent, The New Nation, Financial Express, New age and bdnews24com. He previously taught law at Dhaka Centre for Law & Economics and worked at Bangladesh Institute of Legal Development.

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Ukraine crisis could produce an unexpected winner: Iran

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 Iran potentially could emerge as an unintended winner in the escalating crisis over Ukraine. That is, if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border and talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement fail.

An imposition of tough US and European sanctions in response to any Russian incursion in Ukraine could likely make Russia more inclined to ignore the fallout of violating US sanctions n its dealings with Iran.

By the same token, a failure of the talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and Britain to revive the accord that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program would drive Iran closer to Russia and China in its effort to offset crippling US sanctions.

US and European officials have warned that time is running out on the possibility of reviving the agreement from which the United States under then-President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018.

The officials said Iran was weeks away from acquiring the know-how and capability to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb quickly. That, officials suggested, would mean that a new agreement would have to be negotiated, something Iran has rejected.

No doubt, that was in the back of the minds of Russian and Iranian leaders when they met last week during a visit to Moscow by Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Russia and Iran in five years.

To be sure, the road to increased Russian trade, energy cooperation, and military sales would open with harsh newly imposed US sanctions against Russia even if restrictions on Iran would remain in place.

That does not mean that the road would be obstacle-free. Mr. Putin would still have to balance relations with Iran with Russia’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

If anything, Russia’s balancing act, like that of China, has become more complicated without the Ukraine and Vienna variables as Iranian-backed Houthis expand the seven-year-long Yemen war with drone and missile strikes against targets in the UAE.

The Houthis struck as the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies started their third joint exercises since 2019 in the northern Indian Ocean. The two events were not related.

“The purpose of this drill is to strengthen security and its foundations in the region, and to expand multilateral cooperation between the three countries to jointly support world peace, maritime security and create a maritime community with a common future,” Iranian Rear Admiral Mostafa Tajoldini told state tv.

US dithering over its commitments to security in the Gulf has persuaded Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to hedge their bets and diversify the nature of their relations with major external powers.

However, a Russia and potentially a China that no longer are worried about the fallout of violating US sanctions against Iran could put Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on notice that the two US rivals may not be more reliable or committed to ensuring security in the Gulf. So far, neither Russia nor China have indicated an interest in stepping into US shoes.

This leaves Saudi Arabia and the UAE with few good choices if Russia feels that US sanctions are no longer an obstacle in its dealings with Iran.

Russia is believed to want the Vienna talks to succeed but at the same time has supported Iranian demands for guarantees that the United States would not walk away from a revived deal like it did in 2018.

Against the backdrop of talk about a proposed 20-year cooperation agreement between the two countries, Russia appears to want to negotiate a free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, alongside Russia.

Iran has signed a similar 25-year cooperation agreement with China that largely remains a statement of intent at best rather than an action plan that is being implemented.

Like in the case of China, the draft agreement with Russia appears to have been an Iranian rather than a Russian initiative. It would demonstrate that Iran is less isolated than the United States would like it to be and that the impact of US sanctions can be softened.

“We have a document on bilateral strategic cooperation, which may determine our future relations for the next 20 years. At any rate, it can explain our prospects,” Mr. Raisi said as he went into his talks with Mr. Putin.

For now, Mr. Raisi’s discussions in Moscow appear to have produced more lofty prospects than concrete deals.

Media speculation that Russia would be willing to sell Iran up to US10 billion in arms, including Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile defense systems, appear to have remained just that, speculation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would view the sale to Iran of such weapons as particularly troublesome.

By the same token, Iranian officials, including Finance Minister Ehsan Khanduzi and Oil Minister Javad Owji, spoke of agreements signed during the Moscow visit that would revive a US$5 billion Russian credit line that has been in the pipeline for years and produce unspecified energy projects.

It’s unclear if these are new projects or ones that have been previously discussed and even agreed to, such as the one Lukoil stopped working on in 2018 after the US pulled out… Lukoil was concerned about being targeted by US sanctions,” said international affairs scholar Mark N. Katz.

Theoretically, the dynamics of the Ukraine crisis and the prospects of failed Vienna talks could mean that a long-term Russian Iranian cooperation agreement could get legs quicker than its Chinese Iranian counterpart.

Negotiating with a Russia heavily sanctioned by the United States and Europe in an escalated crisis in Ukraine could level the playing field as both parties, rather than just Iran, would be hampered by Western punitive measures.

Tehran-based Iranian scholar and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that it was time for the regime to retire the 43-year-old Iranian revolution’s slogan of “neither East nor West.” The slogan is commemorated in a plaque at the Foreign Ministry.

Asserting that Iran has long not adhered to the motto, Mr. Zibakalam suggested that the plaque be removed and stored in the basement of a hardline Tehran newspaper. “It has not been used for a long time and should be taken down,” he tweeted.

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Unified Libya will come only via ballot box, ‘not the gun’-UNSC

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A boy runs in the ruins of the Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, Libya. © UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti

Libya is at a “delicate and fragile juncture in its path to unity and stability”, the UN Political Affairs chief told the Security Council on Monday, urging the international community to remain united in supporting national elections postponed last month. 

In welcoming positive developments across three different tracks of intra-Libyan dialogue, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, also recognized the challenges that must be overcome.  

“So many Libyans have told us, the way towards a stable and united Libya is through the ballot box, not the gun”, she said. “We must stand with them”. 

Postponed elections 

Growing polarization among political actors, and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process, led to the postponement of long anticipated elections on 24 December.  

The High National Commission for Elections (HNEC) cited shortcomings in the legal framework along with political and security concerns. To address this, the House of Representatives has established a Roadmap Committee to chart a new political path that defines an elections timetable and process. 

New Special Adviser 

Last month, Stephanie Williams was appointed Special Adviser on Libya, having served as acting Special Representative and head of the UN Support Mission, UNSMIL, last year.  

To date, she has undertaken wide-ranging consultations, including with members of the Government of National Unity (GNU), the High National Election Commission, the House of Representatives, and candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections.  

Oil-rich Libya has descended into multiple crises since the overthrow of former rule Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, which in recent years saw the country divided between rival administrations – a UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli, and that of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.  

Ms. Williams has reiterated that the focus of the political process now, should remain on holding “free, fair, inclusive and credible national elections” in the shortest possible timeframe. 

“In all her meetings, the Special Adviser highlighted the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote”, said Ms. DiCarlo, adding that she also called on everyone to respect the will of the Libyan people and to adhere to the timeline agreed to in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap, which was endorsed by the Security Council

Welcomed developments 

The UN political affairs chief said ongoing dialogue among political, security and economic actors from across the country was key. 

“We have seen reports of consultations between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the High State Council, as well as among presidential candidates from western and eastern Libya”, she said.  

On the security track, there have been meetings among various armed groups, as well as the Chief of General Staff of the Western Military Forces under the GNU and the acting General Commander of the rival LNA, with the participation of military chiefs and heads of military departments from both sides.  

Turning to the economy, further steps have been taken to reunify the Central Bank of Libya.  

Moreover, renewed efforts continue to advance national reconciliation based on the principles of transitional justice.  

Security situation 

While the ceasefire has continued to hold, “political uncertainty in the run up to the elections has negatively impacted the overall security situation”, the political chief informed the Council, including in Tripoli. 

It has resulted in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates, she added. 

Similarly, unfulfilled demands made to the GNU by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in western Libya resulted in the shutdown of oil production, causing the National Oil Corporation to declare in December, force majeure – a clause that removes liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes. 

Following negotiations between the PFG and the GNU, Oil production was restored on 9 January. 

To implement the ceasefire agreement, last month military representatives from opposing sides, called the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), discussed with Turkish and Russian authorities, an Action Plan to gradually withdrawal mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.     

At the same time, despite serious logistical and security challenges, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continued its work to establish a ceasefire monitoring hub in Sirte, pending the GNU’s approval on accommodation and office facilities. 

Human rights concerns 

“The human rights situation in Libya remains very worrying”, said Ms. DiCarlo, noting “documented incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation”, which she described as obstacles toward a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections. 

“We are particularly concerned that women and men working to protect and promote women’s rights continued to be targeted by hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence”, she stated. “Some of the disturbing social media posts that posed a threat to the safety and security of these persons were removed after UNSMIL brought them to the attention of social media platforms”.  

Meanwhile, arbitrary detention by State and non-State actors continued across the country, with many detainees subjected to serious rights abuses. 

Migration management  

The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.  

“Large numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya continue to be detained in inhumane and degrading conditions with restricted humanitarian assistance. Thousands are unaccounted for”, the UN official said.  

Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that hundreds of foreign nationals were expelled from Libya’s eastern and southern borders without due process, with some “placed in extremely vulnerable situations across remote stretches of the Sahara Desert without sufficient food, water, safety and medical care”. 

“The United Nations remains ready to work with Libyan authorities on a long-term national response to migration and refugee management in line with international law to include addressing human rights concerns”, she assured. 

Accountability  

To ensure political progress, Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said that all who commit abuses must be held accountable, including mercenaries. 

She noted that without law, revenge would be the only winner.  

Ms. Saudi also maintained the importance of an enabling environment for all rights advocates, especially women, and expressed hopes for a human-rights based approach in how Libya is governed, going forward. 

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Embarking on Libya’s Noble Foray Into the Future

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On Saturday the 22nd of January, activists from across the civil society spectrum in Libya gathered over Zoom with one purpose in mind; publicly declaring their support for the 1951 Libyan Independence Constitution. Despite the political turmoil which has engulfed the country since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, a strong civil society movement which supports a return to our historical constitution, has always existed in Libya. These supporters, who represent a significant number of Libyans from across the country, see the restoration of the 1951 constitution as the only way to shape their future.

Libya has been through an immeasurable amount of internationally led initiatives, all aimed at providing Libya with long term “solutions”. Only over the course of the past decade, one can count the UN-brokered Skhirat agreement in December of 2015, the 2017 Paris meeting, the 2018 Palermo conference alongside Mohammed bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi gathering in February 2019. Followed by Putin and Erdogan’s joint call for a ceasefire in 2020, alongside the first (2020) and second (2021) Berlin conferences alongside UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, each and every one of these efforts amounted to nothing.

The main reason behind these, perhaps well-intentioned but failed attempts, was the simple fact that none of these efforts had any grounding in Libyan history or the support of the Libyan people. Reaching consensus in a society as heavily divided as that of Libya, is a significant challenge. However, placing our faith in our history will undoubtedly provide us with a solution that is closer to the hearts of citizens of our nation and which has the potential to assist in competing factions finally putting their differences aside.

This was the catalyst of Saturday’s meeting which sought to once and for all provide an authentically Libyan solution to the issues which have been plaguing the country for over a decade. The first of these is the preservation of our territorial integrity which has for too long been challenged by foreign actors. It is high time that a long term resolution for our country’s ills is found that ensures the exclusion of foreign elements from shaping the future of our great land.

The second issue the gathering sought to underscore was the need to build an inclusive future for all members of Libyan society. For far too long, our country has excluded citizens of certain political persuasions, cultural backgrounds or those who hold different opinions. Every Libyan deserves equal opportunities, protection of basic rights alongside access to justice. This has been impossible in a country which for so long has lacked a cohesive national identity.

These two issues are indeed intertwined with the third issue which the conference sought to highlight, namely, our demand to return to constitutional legitimacy under the leadership of our Crown Prince Mohammed El Hasan el Rida el Senussi. As the sole heir to the throne of King Idris, passed down through the late Crown Prince Hassan, Prince Mohammad is the leader our country has yearned for.

With leadership claims grounded in historical fact that cannot be upended by foreign or domestic elements, from an ideological standpoint, Prince Mohammad serves as an anchor, offsetting challenges to stability posed by foreign elements. This is strengthened by his position as  the scion of a family which has been in Libya for centuries and founded the Senoussia movement, briniging with it Islam, to the country. Furthermore, historical memories of the reign of King Idris, which saw religious tolerance, gender equality and security for its citizens, reflects the future which Libyan’s would like to see for themselves today.

Bringing together journalists, academics, human rights defenders and political activists, Saturday’s gathering was indeed revolutionary. It would have been unimaginable that such a gathering would even have taken place a mere decade ago. Representing not only themselves, but a wide range of segments of Libyan society, those attending over Zoom broadcasted a powerful message; a rejection of foreign attempts top shape the future of the country alongside a return to historical, constitutional, legitimacy under the leadership of the only man who can help Libya exit the current quagmire and begin its noble foray into the future.

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