In late December 2017 and in January 2018, massive protests erupted throughout the Islamic Republic of Iran. The largest countrywide uprising since 2009 started in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, and a few towns on December 28, and spread to some 142 cities and towns in all 31 provinces at a shocking pace.
The uprising was prompted by runaway prices of some of the most basic staples, such as eggs, but became political in a matter of just a few hours.
On the morning of December 29, protests emerged in the western city of Kermanshah, the center of the province of Kermanshah,which was struck by an earthquake in November. It quickly became evident that what was happening was more significant than a short-lived protest – limited to a particular region of the country – but rather a reflection of deeper, more profound anti-regime sentiments.
Unsurprisingly, the Tehran responded to the rebellion, as it did in 2009, with brutality. According to official figures, 22 protesters were killed, but according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, some 50 protesters were killed and a member of the mullahs’ parliament cited the head of the Prisons Organization and said that they had registered 4,972 arrests. The opposition put the number of detainees at 8,000 but there are indications that this may be a somewhat conservative estimate. As of the date of this writing, at least 14 protesters have been identified as having been killed in detention.
After two weeks of relative calm, more than a dozen Iranian cities were again scenes of protests on January 31 and February 1, with similar slogans that rejected the regime in its entirety.In the meantime, the world has witnessed a steady stream of protests and strikes by laborers and victims of theft and fraud by state institutions. The extraordinary resilience demonstrated by the Iranian people suggests that protests could reoccur relatively quickly, and perhaps more forcefully.
A careful review of the evidence clearly indicates that the protests were not a short-lived phenomenon with temporary impact. Rather, they marked a turning point and permanent change in the trend of events and political calculations in Iran.
This is significant in various ways.
Iran has historically been an enigma for Western powers and for Washington in particular. In this sense, the protests were significant for the future of Iran.
But from a geo-political perspective, the impact and consequence of major political developments in Iran transcend the country’s borders. In recent history, the region is still reeling from the establishment of a theocratic regime in Iran in 1979, subsequent to deposing the country’s monarchy.
Perceptions among Iran watchers in the West prior to protests
It is safe to say that the protests caught most experts and Iran analysts in the West by surprise. This is reflected in less than accurate analyses of the realities on the ground during the uprising, as well widespread assessments of the situation inside Iran.
The below assumptions comprised a conventional wisdom regarding Iran and its future prior to the protests that was promoted for years by Tehran’slobbyists and apologists in the West:
- The Iranian regime enjoys the support of the population, in particular the urban poor and the lower class that served as the backbone of the Iranian Revolution and comprised the main social base of the clerical rule. It stemmed from the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the regime, had ascended to power with the slogan of supporting the Mostazafin or the deprived.
- The regime in Tehran is stable and strong enough to support interference in the affairs of other countries in the region and, as such, it should be treated as a rising regional player with significant sway.
- Tehran has been able to suppress all dissent, and opposition is limited to exiles with little to no influence on the current state of affairs inside the country and with no appeal to the youth who comprise the majority in Iran.
- The Iranian political landscape is defined by a contest between “moderates” and “hardliners” and the outcome of this contest will determine the future of Iran. The West is well served by propping up the “moderates” and allaying their concerns to neutralize the hardliners.
- The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is in full control. They have restructured on a provincial basis and geared up to prevent popular uprisings.
- The nuclear agreement and the cash windfall that resulted from sanctions relief improved the welfare of the average Iranian and provided a capital gain for the “moderates.”
- JCPOA will gradually lead to a change of behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But another school of thought stressed that:
- The clerics are isolated at home and are loathed by the Iranians, in particular by the youth. People are waiting for the first opportunity to express their wrath.
- The foreign interventions and wars are not signs of strength. Rather they are taking a big toll on the regime and are maintainedto cover up the shortcomings and failures at home.
- When it comes to major issues there is not much difference between the various factions and the regime is neither capable nor willing to get engage in any meaningful moderation.
In the major annual international rally of the opposition in Paris on July 1, 2017, Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran said: “The light of change is shining on Iran. The ruling regime is in disarray and paralyzed as never before. Iranian society is simmering with discontent and the international community is finally getting closer to the reality that appeasing the ruling theocracy is misguided.
These observations speak to three fundamental truths related to obtaining freedom and liberty in Iran, as well as peace and tranquility in the region:
- First, the overthrow of the ruling religious dictatorship is an imperative.
- Second, the regime’s overthrow is within reach.
- And third, a democratic alternative and an organized resistance exists which is capable of toppling the theocracy in Iran.
Protests proved the assumptions pushed by Tehran’s apologists to be totally devoid of any bearing in reality and the second school of thought to be more attuned to realities on the ground.
Root causes of the Iran uprising
A correct assessment of the roots of the uprising is of paramount importance in making a good prediction of their future.
The first protest was prompted by a sudden increase in the price of some of the most basic staples, particularly eggs, and by the announcement of a projected major increase in fuel costs. But, the protests quickly took a political tone and quickly came to target the regime in its entirety.
In reality, the protests were the result of several factors and the culmination of the regime’s failures in several key areas over the years.
In the area of economics, despite the unfreezing of tens of billions of dollars under the nuclear agreement, there is total stagnation and the public has not witnessed any benefits. In recent years the private sector has been very much squeezed out. According to reliable estimates, organizations and institutions under the control of Khamenei, which include the IRGC, now control over 50% of Iran’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Inflation is still in double digits, while unemployment is staggering . This is even worse in towns and smaller cities, where according to some reports unemployment among the youth is as high as 50 percent. Iranian state media is riddled with stories of young people with PhDs or Masters Degrees from some of the country’s best universities who have to drive taxis or work as dishwashers in order to make ends meet.
On priorities, a recent review of the official budget indicated that its allocations for the IRGC and suppressive forces are several times more than allocations for the most basic social needs such as public health and education. According to one study, Iran’s total health care budget for 2018 is $16.3 billion, which is a third of its total war budget. The costs of wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, which is up to tens of billions of dollars, as well as financing a range of extremist groups including Hezbollah in Lebanon, has taken a toll on the Iranian economy and the welfare of Iranians. In other words, Tehran’s strategic policies and priorities have had direct impact on the Iranian economy and have become totally intertwined with it.
Little noticed in the West has been the failure in the past few years of a series of major financial institutions affiliated with the IRGC. Millions of middle class and lower income Iranians were lured toinvest in government–affiliated and sanctioned institutions that promised high returns. The institutions were allowed to gamble or run Ponzi schemes with impunity for years because they were owned by well-connected elites: religious foundations, the IRGC and/or other investment funds in the Iranian state. The funds, life savings for many depositors, were either embezzled or diverted to the regime’s priorities. The bankruptcy of these intuitions, known as “mal-baakhtegan” or “property losers”, impacted millions of Iranians and has been steering public unrest for the past couple of years.
A number of the regime’s main banks face bankruptcy,mainly because of bad loans provided to the regime’s senior officials or their trade partners without any guarantee or collateral. Mohammad Reza Bahonr, a former Vice-speaker of the Majlis (Iranian parliament) said on February 1, “A number of our main banks are on the verge of bankruptcy. Let’s pray the Lord that their bottom will not fall out since in reality these banks are in the red.”
Corruption has become so rampant and systematic that hardly a day goes by without a story of embezzlement of mammoth proportions being exposed in the state-run press. The problem is so acute that Supreme Leader Khamenei described it as a “seven headed dragon” in his speech on February 8.
Nepotism is as its peak. The term “Aghazadeh” (son of Agha or noble born) has been a colloquialism in Iran since 1990s,describing the children of elites who emerge as men of means and influence by way of nepotism and corruption. In 2017, the term “good genes” was introduced in the Iranian parlance and became synonymous with the privilege that the children of the elite, notably the sons and grandsons of senior ayatollahs and senior government officials, or Aghazadehs, enjoy.
The protests, of course, expressed the public’s rage over the mullahs’ plundering of their wealth. Poverty, unemployment, and class differences have inspired it. But the protests were not limited to demands for necessities of life and were not a spontaneous and sudden upheaval by the hungry. Rather, they had clear and distinct social and political elements.
Iran is suffocating from social and political repression, lack of the most basic freedoms, and systematic institutional discrimination and nepotism have pervaded the regime. As such, the protests were also for freedom and popular sovereignty to establish social justice and prosperity.
In other words, the protests were the culmination and convergence of years of the ill-fated policies and priorities of the regime with deep-rooted causes. Several factors had simply postponed the eruption of these crises. The reality caught up with the ayatollahs.
Characteristics and features of the protests
The span and rapid expansion of the protests was quite remarkable. In a few days, they spread to 142 cities inall 31 provinces of Iran, and no major city in Iran was spared. By comparison, the protests in 2009 were mainly limited to Tehran and a number of major cities. Tellingly, in 2018, confrontation between the protesters and the security forces were most fierce in some of the smaller cities and towns including and not limited to Izeh (Khuzestan Province), Touyserkan (Hamadan Province) and Shahinshar (Isfahan Province).
Not only did the protests begin in the holy city of Mashhad, but also some of the strongest slogans on the first days of the protests were chanted in Qom, the other Iranian holy city. These two cities traditionally were perceived to be bastions of clerical rule. The vast geography of the protests not only indicated the general sentiment throughout Iran, but from a security standpoint, it forced the regime to spread its forces and made it impossible to concentrate on major cities by amassing its forcesin a handful of locations to prevent the protests taking place.
The overwhelming majority of those engaged in the uprising were from poor and underprivileged backgrounds, i.e. people who were tired of their circumstances and angry at the regime for ignoring their wellbeing and denying their humanity. In other words, unlike the 2009 protests that were primarily comprised of middle class people, in 2018 the protesters were from “armies of the hungry and the unemployed.” They clearly repudiated Tehran’s claims of enjoying a broad base of social support in general andthe claims by the mullahs’ spin doctors about their popularity among the impoverished in particular.
The mullahs’ claim that they are “defenders of the abased” was totally discredited. The abased cried out in the streets: “People must beg while the supreme leader lives like a God.” Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran University Professor who is an advocate of the “reformers” in Iran, said in an interview on February 17, “The 2009 protests showed that the system has difficulties with the people who reside north of Enghelab (Revolution) Avenue. The problem was with office workers, writers, university students, medical doctors…. But the protests in January 2018 were much more dangerous for the system. I believe those who came out were from south of Enghelab Avenue.”
People from all walks of life and social strata took part in the protests,and young men and women, particularly those who are called “Dahe haftadi” (those have been born in 1990s) played a key role. “Those who chanted those slogans, chanted against the regime, most of them were Dahe Haftadi.”Zibakalam acknowledged. (Dahe Hafadi is the term used in Iran to refer to those who have been born in 1990s).By the regime’s own estimates, 50 percent of those who were detained were between the ages of 19 and 25, and 27 percent were between 25 and 32.
The 2009 protests began and were initiated due to a rift in the leadership of the regime, specifically over the fate of the disputed elections, expressed with slogans like “where is my vote?”. The disenchanted population used the fissure to express its frustrations. Yet, what seemed to be a blessing at the onset turned out to be a majorweakness of the protest movement. As the public slogans became more radical and targeted the leadership of the regime and challenged the regime in its entirety, the individuals who appeared to be the leaders ofthe uprisingbecame more inclined to cut a deal with the status quo and at one point simply abated the movement and the public demands. In 2018, the uprising was not a byproduct of an internal power struggle. To the contrary, it wasa nail in the coffin of the myth of moderation.
From the outset, protesters’ slogans – which included chants of ‘down with Rouhani’ and ‘down with Khamenei’ – demonstrated an outright rejection of the status quo and the regime in its entirety. The slogan ‘no to reformer, no to hardliner, this game is over’ expressed a new awareness that differences between political factions in Iran are distinctions without a difference. The protests showed that the people of Iran detest both regime factions and want it to be overthrown in its entirety.
The protests propelled a new player into the Iranian political landscape: the people’s power. Very quickly it became evident that the demarcation was between the people on one side and the regime on the other.
Slogans like ‘no to Lebanon, no to Gaza, my life for Iran’ demonstrated that the people are rejecting the regime’s regional interference in addition to its domestic policy. (A full analysis of the slogans is provided below.)
Subsequent to 2009, in order to prevent a popular uprising, the IRGC had restructured and one division was designated to control each province (with the exception of Tehran,where two divisions were devoted for its control). Yet, the speed in the movement’s expansion overwhelmed the IRGC and it could not prevent or contain the unrelenting, pervasive, and geographically widespread protests for more than 10 days. This is despite the fact that after the second day, there was no element of surprise and virtually all the details of the protests including locations and times were announced in advance on social media.
It seems the myth of the invincibility of the IRGC has been proven false.
Though the protests began over increased prices for staple items such as eggs, not a single shop or private commercial entity was attacked. Rather, suppressive centers, government buildings, and offices of the Friday prayer leaders – the very institutions that push the regime’s extremist, fundamentalist agenda – were targeted.
By some assessments, the “moderate” faction was the bigger loser in a sense that it became quite evident that they enjoy neither popular base and appeal nor political sway. When the former President Mohammad Khatami, who has been touted by some observers as a champion of “moderation” in the past decades, said “the youth who chanted harsh slogans were not ‘barandaz’ (the person who seeks the regime’s overthrow), rather they were simply protesting for their grievances,” the Iranian youth repudiated him fiercely in social media to a point that #براندازم (I am a barandaz) was rewetted more than 30,000 times in less than 24 hours.
Social media played a key role in organizing and also in making the activists aware of developments and status in other locations, towns and cities. As of July 2017, there were 48 million smart phones in Iran, a country of 80 million people.
Telegram is the king of messaging apps/social media in Iran with more than 40 million users. (Telegram has about 100 million users worldwide.) According to government statistics, there are more than 586,000 Persian Telegram channels and in an average day more than 3 million messages are exchanged in these channels. The young people – undeterred by the regime’s brutality – used technology to mobilize the masses, open new fronts, and fight back, and the IRGC was stretched to contain the protests.
The role of women was quite dramatic and remarkable. Indeed, women have borne the brunt of repression for the 39 years of the mullahs’ rule. The compulsory veil, as well as subjugation and humiliation of women for failing to observe the veil, are among the most important means for the regime to impose repression on society.
The video clips coming from Iran showed that women wereat the forefront in many scenes and took the lead in charging at the security forces. A scene of a young woman standing at arm’s length from the guards and security forces in Hamedan and shouting in their faces “Death to Khamenei,” went viral on social media.
There were signs of alarm and concern even inside the IRGC and Bassij militia, on which the regime relies for its survival.A number of members of the Bassij burned their membership cards during the days of the uprising and joined the protesters.Some of the people killed by the regime’s forces during the protests were from Bassiji families.
Reaction in 2018 was very different than 2009, particularly where the U.S. is concerned.In 2009,President Obama remained very much indifferent to the protests while reaching out to the ayatollahs and hoping for a nuclear agreement. This was despite explicit calls by protesters who chanted, “Obama, Obama, either with them (i.e. ayatollahs) or with us.” But the Trump administration was emphatic in its support for the protesters and their demands from the moment it appeared that the protests represented a serious force and a challenge to the ayatollahs. President Trump in his State of Union address stated, “When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent. America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.”
It appears the wall of fear in Iranian cities suffered cracks. This can be seen in the audacity and bravery of the young protesters and the continuation of protests by different sectors of society demanding their rights and welfare. Le Monde, the prominent French daily wrote in an article on March 3, 2018, “In Iran the fear has changed camp and the people are no longer fearful of the regime.”
The protesters’ slogans and the new choice
It is impossible to hold an opinion poll in a country like Iran,especially where it pertains to sensitive issues such as anti-government protests and the sentiment of the protesters. But one measure for assessingthe prevailing mood and sentiments of the protests is analysis of the slogans that are chanted. The most striking slogans which put an end to a long misguided perception in the West was, “reformists, hardliners, the game is over.” According to Zibakalam people have passed both the reformists and hardliners. This slogan symbolizes a new era in Iran’s political landscape. The choice in Iran is no longer “moderate” or “hardliners” but the ruling regime or regime change.
A review showed that some 130 slogans were used in the recent protests. While a number of them were used sporadically and in a few towns or cities, some including ‘Down with Khamenei,’ ‘Down with Rouhani,’ or ‘Down with the dictator’, were chanted in almost all the cities and towns that were the scenes of protests
There were 12 slogans such as ‘Down with the clerical regime,’ ‘We are determined to overthrow the regime,’ and ‘This is the last message, the goal is to bring down the regime,’ that called for the overthrow of the regime in its entirety.
Fourteen slogans such as ‘Khamenei is a killer, his rule is illegitimate’, ‘Khamenei be ashamed, abdicate power,’‘Seyed-Ali, it is time to go’ (referring to the first name of Khamenei), and “Down with Rouhani,’ targeted the leaders of the regime and both factions.
Eleven slogans emphasized patriotism and rejected the regime’s strategic policies, in particular meddling in affairs of other countries. Among them were ‘Leave Syria alone, think about us,’ ‘Down with Hezbollah,’ ‘No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, my life for Iran,’ and ‘Dignified Iranian, support, support.’
Eight of the slogans,including ‘We will fight to wrest back our country Iran’ and ‘Either death or freedom,’ referred to continuity of the protests.
One telling aspect of the slogans was that despite the protests taking place in several ethnic areas of Iran, including Kurdistan (northwest) and Balouchistan (southeast), there were no ethnic slogans and all were in tandem with the rest of the country, targeting the regime in its entirety. Many slogans emphasized the notion of Iran and the protesters’ affection for a unified Iranian identity.
Role of the opposition: Were the protests organized?
There are a number of significant issues surrounding the question of the protests’ leadership.
The prospects for repressing and containing a leaderless movement are much better, particularly for a regime like the one ruling in Iran that has shown no hesitancy in using brute force against its demanding citizenry. On the other hand, the chances of success are much higher for a movement that has established leadership and a clear plan. This factor is also significant so far as it pertains to the future course of events and providing an alternative to the status quo.
A key question was about the role of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as the Mujahedeen-e- Khalq (MeK).It has been a leading Iranian opposition group and its existence in the Iranian political landscape predates the clerical regime. The MeK espouses a democratic-anti fundamentalist perception of Islam and played a significant role in the opposition against the Shah that culminated in the overthrow of the monarchy on February 11, 1979.
Soon after the establishment of theocracy in Iran, the MeK stood up to the new regime and rejected its constitution as undemocratic. In the summer of 1980, the MeK staged several rallies in Tehran drawing up to 150,000 people to hear Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the MeK promise to carry on the opposition to Islamist domination. It has been the primary target of the ruling fundamentalists since 1981. In the course of the past three decades, some 120,000 MeK activists from all walks of life and from all over Iran have been executed and a larger number have been incarcerated and persecuted.
In the course of the anti-regime demonstrations in 2009, many MeK supporters were arrested, and some were later executed.
Over the years, the MeK made key revelations on some of the most secret aspects of the Iranian regime’s nefarious conduct including exposing scores of the most important secret nuclear weapons sites and research facilities. The intelligence gathered by MeK operatives inside Tehran was ultimately corroborated by the UN watchdog, the IAEA.That intelligence pointed to the MEK’s network of activists including persons inside some of the most sensitive government intuitions. For anyone with the least knowledge of the Iranian regime’s modus operandi, it was evident that those operatives’ work involvedhuge risks.
While the fact that the MeK enjoyed a constant and formidable presence in Iran was irrefutable, the regime’s focus one liminating the MeK as its arch enemy has made itrather difficult to gauge the scope and extent of the MeK network.
It is somewhat easier to gauge the opposition’s appeal among the Iranian diaspora, a vibrant society of several million people. Historically, Iranians are not a migrating nation. The overwhelming majority of the Iranian diaspora is comprised of Iranians who fled Iran after the establishment of the clerical regime or were born elsewhere. Expatriates throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and even Asia are in constant contact with their homeland. Particularly in the age of communications, the mood among the Iranian diaspora is in a way reflective of the mood at home. The MEK has held massive rallies in Paris in recent years that have drawn more than 100,000 of their supporters from the world over.
In September 2016, after years of intense campaigning, the opposition was able to safely transfer its members, several thousand strong, from camps in Iraq to European countries, most notably Albania. The opposition leaders and spokespersons pointed out that the transfer, in addition to being a major humanitarian success to guarantee the safety and security of opposition members, was a major strategic achievement. They reasoned this would free up the time and resources of the organized resistance to focus on affairs inside of Iran and on expanding its social base. But outsiders did not initially pay much heed to the opposition’s assessment.
Recent MeK efforts have focused on mobilizing public opinion in Iran on the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988. The overwhelming majority of the victims, including juveniles and pregnant women, were MeK activists who rejected the regime’s demand to denounce their sympathy to the MeK and were executed subsequent to one or two minutes trials.
In April and May 2017, in the run-up to the Iranian presidential elections, the activities entered a new phase and the MeKactivists started to systematically place big pictures of Maryam Rajavi, on major highway overpasses and onwalls beside major streets. The MeK network had engaged in similar activities in previous years but the uptick in their frequency and scope was clear. Video clips showed banners and pictures of Rajavi placed in major cities including Tehran, Mashhad, Kermanshah, Shiraz, and Hamedan, as well as in some of the smaller provincial cities. In parallel, the network became active in exposing mullah Ibrahim Raissi, one of the two leading candidates who was one of the key officials involved in the 1988 massacre in Tehran.
Given the state of repression in Iran, it has been rather impossible for the MeKor any other genuine opposition groups to have any public presence in Iran. A key question has been the MeK’s appeal among the young generation, Nasl sevomi (literally meaning the third generation), or the millennials.
A new feature of MeK events in recent years, in particular in the past two years, has been the presence and activism of the youth. Some of them are Iranians who have been born or grown up in Western countries. But more remarkable has been the presence and appearance of MeK activists who have fled Iran recently.A number of them have been incarcerated for several years and have fled Iran subsequent to their release from prison. This was a new phenomenon and a solid indicator that the MeK had made tangible strides in gaining the attention and recruiting the Iranian youth despite Tehran’s systematic and extensive demonization campaign against the MeK.
Some of the young activists had become familiar with the opposition through their relatives or immediate family. But according to their own accounts, and interviews with international media, a number of them had become acquainted to the MeK in recent years for the first time and had decided to join them. The new activists came mostly from urban middle class families but also from all over Iran. The high percentage of women among them was conspicuous.
As the protests broke out in Mashhad and a number of smaller towns on December 28, the MeK network was the first that broke the news and started sending updates and video clips from the protest scenes. Over the course of the following two weeks that the protests were at their peak, the MeKnetwork distributed around-the-clock news and clips that it received from its activists. The MeK network’s role in breaking the mullahs’ censorship was indisputable, and it persisted despite all the restrictions that Tehran imposed on the Internet and popular social media apps.
A number of MeK activists involved in organizing the protests took the risk of speaking to major international media from Tehran and from smaller towns. In one instance, Nik, a female MeK activist was interviewed by Fox News on January 10 while protesting with hundreds of relatives of detainees in front of the notorious Evin Prison in northern Tehran.
“Calls were given on our Telegram channels a few days before the demonstrations,” Mohammed, a 29-year-old engineering student from Tehran and a MeK activist told the UK’s Daily Telegraph on January 6.“We cover every protest, no matter how small. Some of the slogans that were shouted on the first day and were repeated were started by our friends on our networks,” he added.
The regime’s most senior officials repeatedly underscored the role of the MeK.
Hassan Rouhani called French President Emmanuel Macron on January 2and said the MeK was behind the protests in Iran and asked him to restrict the activities of the Iranian opposition. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, the coalition that the MeK is its biggest constituent, is headquartered outside of Paris.
In a speech on January 9, Khamenei said, “These incidents had been organized.” The MeK implemented the plans. He added, “The MeK had prepared for this months ago” and “the MeK’s media outlets had called for it.” He said the MeK was at the apex of the triangle that incited the uprising. He attributed the other two angles to foreign powers.
Brig. Gen. Rasoul Sanai Rad, Political Affairs Deputy for the IRGC, provided the most detailed account of the role of the MeK. In his remarks “Role of the ‘hypocrites’ (the derogatory term used by the regime to describe MeK or PMOI) in recent uprisings” he said:
“Eighty percent of those arrested were under 30 years of age. There were several women among them, who are middle aged. In the 1980s, those who were leading MeK protests were mostly women. And now, the main chain of provocation and starting the protests were women. For example, four of these women caused the protests in the city of Ilam (western Iran). After they were detained, we realized they were not from Ilam…,”
“Similarly, those arrested in Kermanshah had come from the city of Karaj (near Tehran). Those who were from Bandar Abbas were arrested in Shiraz. These were the MeK who would go to the cities in an organized fashion and were guiding the slogans. The most radical and sacrilegious slogans, such as ‘they have used Islam as a ladder to harass the people, neither Islam, neither the Quran, let’s sacrifice both for Iran….
“This shows how much they hate Islam and political religion. Directing attacks on military centers, like assaults on the State Security Force and Bassij bases were part of the planning by the MeK. They even attacked the prisons, which means they have their hands in prisons as well.”
It is very difficult to imagine that the protests spread to 142 cities and that people chanted almost identical slogans without some sort of coordination and organization. It was telling that the protesters’ main slogans were the same as those advocated by the MeK for years.
The progress the MeK has made in recent years and remarks by the regime’s most senior officials all lead to the conclusion that the protests were not leaderless or unorganized. Rather, some sort of organization and coordination was involved and the MeK played a much more extensive and prominent role than might have been recognized from the outside.
Regarding future steps, the opposition has been advocating establishing secret centers of resistance in an attempt to unleash the potential of a disenchanted population that is willing to stand up to clerical rule, and to use the simmering situation in Iran in preparation for an uprising. It has said that practical steps includejoining together large number of individuals who are currently scattered and disconnected, and encouraging people to invite the real hope that the mullahs can be brought down.
Is Iran destined for a crisis like the one in Syria?
Tehran’s advocates have tried to scare the international community from the eruption of an internal conflict and a repeat of the Syrian scenario in Iran. But the situation in Iran is very different than Syria or other countries in the region that experiencedthe Arab Spring. In those countries, the opposition was not organized and was nascent at its best. In Iran, the opposition has a well-definedstructure, a well-known leader and a declared platform and plan for transition. It has weatheredseveralstormsin the span of more thanthree decades and has shown remarkable resilience and perseverance.
As it pertains to Syria, if it were not for the Iranian regime’s full- fledged military and financial support and the direct intervention of the IRGC and its mercenaries, the Assaddictatorship would have been ousted several years ago and the situation would have been totally different.
The road ahead: Intensified conflict between the regime and the people
Tehran is facing serious financial, political and social challenges. The policy of denying people’s demands and outcries has failed. The policy of intervention in the region has run into a deadlock and exhausted its resources. Its adverse consequences are already felt inside the country. The factors that led to the protests are still in force, even aggravated and the regime does not have the power to address and solve them.
Abbas Abdi, one of the leading thinkers of the “reformists” acknowledged on February 3 that “there is no technical solution for the Iranian society. These solutions existed in the past, but currently such solutions do not exist.” That means that tackling the web of crises facing the clerical regime requires quick, substantial, and profound reforms.
The clerical regime seems incapable of major political reform and all signs indicate that Khamenei, who has the final say, is neither willing nor capable of serious reform,least of all after major social unrest, since this might lead to quicker unraveling of the system.
Yet, there is little doubt in Tehran that the protests will reoccur. Saeed Hajarian, one of the strategists of the “reformists” acknowledged on January 24, protests are like sea waves. They recede to return stronger.”
As well as being unable to prevent the resurgence of the uprisings,the mullahs have lost their duplicitous safeguards and can only depend on the repressive apparatus.
Even Khamenei recently acknowledged the continuation of the protests. He said, “This is a battle of the nation against anti-nation, the battle of Iran against anti-Iran, and the battle of Islam against anti-Islam and it will henceforth continue.”
It can be stated unequivocally that Iranian society will not return to the conditions preceding the 2018 protests, and the clerical regime seems incapable of returning to the status quo ante regarding its balance of power vis-a vis the population.It is in a weaker position than any other time.
This means that the confrontation between the people of Iran and the ruling regime will intensify and the power struggle among the regime’s internal factions will be aggravated.
Sadegh Zibakalam described the prospect in this way: “I am fearful that in the next round… there is no way to contain these people. If this happens, this fire will burn all of us together.”
 Tehran has acknowledged that a number of prisoners have died during detention but claims they have committed suicide during detention, a claim that has strongly been rejected by the relatives of the protesters and have been questioned even by some of the regime’s own officials.
 Primary Causes of Poverty and Popular Uprisings in Iran: The Enormous Cost of the Regime’s Warmongering, Terrorism and Domestic Suppression”, Report by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, January 2018
 According to Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a former Vice Speaker of the Majlis, average annual inflation rate after 1979 has been 20 percent and the unemployment has always been on double digits. (State0run Fars news agency, August 8, 2017)
 Caspian Finance and Credit Institution, www.caspianci.ir was one of the major financial institutions that was involved in this scheme.
 Enghelab Avenue is one of the main Avenues in central Tehran and in a way separates lower class people in southern part of Tehran from the more affluent residents of northern Tehran.
 According to regime officials, people attacked the offices of 60 Friday prayer leaders throughout the country.
 Breaking the Stalemate, The Case for Engaging the Iranian Opposition, study by Mettis Analytics, a Washington, DC-based research company, March 2015.
 Farzad Madadzadeh, Shabnam Madadzadeh, Arash Mohammadi, and Paria Kohandel, were among the young MeK activists who had fled Iran in the past couple of years and appeared in public.
The outcome of the Berlin Conference
Twelve countries and organizations have participated in the Berlin Conference on Libya, which has just ended.
There have been all the countries and organizations that really count in Libya. Egypt, which obviously supports General Haftar for the security of its particularly sensitive eastern borders, as well as to avoid the progressive expansion eastwards – starting from Tunisia and Tripolitania – of the Muslim Brotherhood, that is the axis of al-Sarraj’s regime and the international point of reference, inter alia, of President Erdogan’s Turkey.
Algeria, which also fears the spreading of political instability originating from Libya that would strike it immediately. It does not absolutely want to be excluded from the Libyan pacification “process”, although it strongly opposes Turkey’s role in protecting al-Sarraj’s regime.
Congo, which wants to avoid the jihadization – resulting from the expansion of the Libyan jihad – of the recent internal conflict originated from the militias called CODECO, with the further violent Islamization of the Lendu ethnic group.
Turkey, which wants above all to start to exploit the land and sea areas facing Tripolitania’s coast, through an agreement already signed with al- Sarraj’s government – an agreement which has both the economic and oil component and its corollary for the military “collaboration”, i.e. protection, of Tripolitania, indirectly aimed against Italy and, in some respects, against the EU itself.
This is the reason why this Turkish choice is also good for Vladimir Putin.
Turkey’s move in Tripolitania is also targeted against Saudi Arabia and it has been harshly commented by Egypt, which does not want to have the Muslim Brotherhood in the way, not even in the distance. The latter is the political-military organization against which Al Sisi organized his coup.
Moreover, Greece, which is slowly being involved again in the economic and strategic game in the Mediterranean and trades much oil and gas with Misrata, wants to oppose – even military- Turkey’s designs on the Mediterranean, possibly with Israel’s and Cyprus’ support.
Obviously, the Lebanon and Jordan are fiercely opposed to the aims of Erdogan’s Turkey in Libya and certainly do not favour al-Sarraj’s Tripolitania.
The reason is the close relationship between the Tripoli government, Erdogan’s AKP Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.
It should be recalled that the Islamist radicalization of a young, very rich and westernized Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden began when he met, as a young enfant gâté, a university Professor from Ikhwan, the Brotherhood.
If the military leader of Tobruk and Benghazi, namely Khalifa Haftar – who is also the military leader of a government that won the elections, but had no international recognition – wins, Turkey will automatically lose access to the oil it is drilling in Tripolitania and on the Libyan coast.
In Berlin there were also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
It should be noted that on January 6, 2020 Ghassam Salamé, the UN special envoy and French-Lebanese Head of UNSMIL, stated that “the other nations” – meaning the countries outside the Security Council – “must not meddle in Libyan affairs”.
The not-so-hidden reference was to the bombing of a cadet military academy by “a country friendly to Haftar’s forces”. The attack, however, was carried out with weapons coming from countries which have long been members of the UN Security Council.
The UN primary countries want to marginalize the current, albeit minor, points of references for the forces in Libya, but the member countries of the UN Security Council have chosen different and opposing military groups to operate with their interests in Libya. However, at least formally, the whole UN organization supports al-Sarraj’s Tripolitania.
A geopolitical Rubik’s Cube.
What does Italy want from the Berlin Conference on Libya? First and foremost, the Italian government is “optimistic”, which is not so usual in strategic and geopolitical thinking.
“Everyone is to be involved” to take a “step towards peace and stability”. It seems the appeal of a motivational speech for vendors. We are a very strong team.
Then, there comes a 1960s pacifist-style speech, i.e. “a military solution is not a solution”. But the military solution is already in place and hence the problem is no longer there.
Not to finally mention the fact that the government has almost completely forgotten ENI in Libya.
Immediately negotiating with the new leaders of the anti-Gaddafi uprising, at the beginning of the feral 2011, with talks supported by an excellent former Director of Italy’s intelligence services, ENI has endured and tolerated everything.
Insulated, with very little staff and a dozen managers flying to and fro other areas, it has suffered – more than any other Italian national organization in Libya – the strange option of the current Italian government to find a sort of balance between the two great opposing military camps in Libya.
It is easy to imagine how useful this is for the protection of Italian interests, which are – or would be – fundamental.
Hateful to God and to His enemies – as in Inferno, Canto III of Dante’s Divine Comedy reference is made to those about whom we are currently talking, namely the ignavi,i.e. the inefficient or indifferent people, as well as the opportunists.
In 2018 ENI started again oil explorations in Libya, while it was clear that none of the Libyan factions had a real interest in achieving peace.
What are the prospects? The decrease -despite everything – of ENI’s Libyan extraction quota, which is currently worth about 15% of Italy’s national requirements, without even imagining where we will get what we need later, if we lose it in Libya.
The “free” market would certainly see Italy losing out.
In the framework of the Berlin Conference, however, the Italian government has confined itself to prescribing to put some flowers in our guns, with very pleasant additions on the fact that since our soldiers are “peace soldiers”, they will not go to protect themselves from possible attacks, operations or breaks of the possible ceasefire, but will possibly act as “municipal messengers” or as law enforcement officers to notify of military clashes to whom it may concern.
This is stuff for a small-town Prosecutor’s Office, the mentality of young lawyers with little experience.
They will bring the “Clean Hands Operation”- from which Italy’s tunted Second Republic originated – to Libya.
The problem also lies in the fact that the real negotiation between al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar was already carried out by others, namely Turkey and Russia, on January 12 last.
It does not matter that much that the Chief of the Tobruk and Benghazi Forces, namely Haftar, withdrew from the final bilateral document on the permanent ceasefire, just a moment before its signing.
Those who will settle the matter anyway – and well before we may think – will only be Erdogan and Putin.
The Turkish leader wants to maintain – in any case and in any way – his spot in Tripolitania, in a future of ever-increasing oil and migration conditioning vis-à-vis the unaware (and indolent) European Union. That is enough for him.
A blackmail conditioning from the “Balkan corridor”, which President Erdogan has already experienced for a long time, and a current and future “maritime corridor” from Tripolitania, which will soon make its voice be heard strongly.
It is also incredible that in Italy the migration issue, which is essential also from a strategic and security viewpoint, has been tackled so superficially by all political parties.
Al-Sarraj also asked to include Tunisia and Qatar in the list of participants in the Berlin Conference. His request went unheeded.
The reason why the request was not met is obvious. These two countries are Tripoli’s quasi-friends: Tunisia is interested in the security of its very important borders and oil pipelines from Libya to the Tunisian sea and to Italy, while Qatar is a distant but generous supporter of Muslim Brotherhood’s Tripolitania.
The conclusions that can be drawn are in line with the tradition of previous peace conferences on Libya – that is, irrelevant.
All the major demands were, in fact, accepted in the final document, thus making it unusable for some operations on the ground in Libya.
Or for an effective political solution. A strategic falling between two stools.
Probably that was its ultimate goal.
However, it begins to emerge the establishment – which we imagine to be very complex and cumbersome – of a 5+5 Committee between al-Sarraj’s government (and who knows why it is still recognized by the United Nations) and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). A body which will be bound to fail if it remains a joint body fully based on members on an equal footing. The “Berlin Process” on Libya was initiated on January 19. As you have certainly noticed, nowadays all the endless negotiations on Libya (Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi and other backroom ones) are pompously defined as “processes”.
Again on the basis of the final statement of the Berlin Conference, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) will organize an International Follow-Up Committee, made up of representatives from all the countries and organizations that participated in the Berlin Conference on January 19.
A repetition? Probably not.
This sequence of similar documents, piling up one upon the other will be a way to play all possible sides and make the Libyan conflict last ad infinitum. This may definitely and permanently harm some countries (such as Italy) but will certainly favour others, such as Turkey, the Russian Federation and France.
In Libya, as also in the European Union, currently every game is a “zero-sum game”.
The conclusions of this Follow-Up Committee will be submitted directly to the UN Security Council, which sees strongly conflicting interests on Libya represented within it.
Moreover, the Committee’s conclusions shall be in line with all the “processes” prior to the one which has just begun in Berlin. As said in the final statement of the Berlin Conference, said “processes” also refer to the “three-point plan” drawn up by Ghassan Salamé on July 30, 2019.
The UN special envoy’s plan regarded – first and foremost – a truce, which began on August 10, 2019, for Eid-Al Adha, the Islamic Festival of the Sacrifice.
So much ado for a few-days truce, which could be negotiated by a local Imam without problems? Who knows!
Why referring so explicitly to a short truce that has already occurred? It is a mystery.
Probably the aim is to give more power to Salamé – hence just say so.
Again last August, the second point of Salamé’s plan consisted in organizing an International Conference, which was in fact already organized and closed in Berlin, but with the participation of all the countries concerned and interested in the Libyan conflict. Indeed, not all of them were present in Berlin.
Well, we have already done it – so what? Another Conference, like those of Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi and Berlin? To say what? We cannot see anything new under the sun.
A Conference is a Conference is a Conference, like Gertrude Stein’s rose.
Finally, the third point of Salamé’s plan regarded a Conference – and this is exactly what we need! -between the political and military “parties” present in Libya and anyway of Libyan origin.
It will be the most crowded and – we imagine – the least effective Conference. And probably the roughest and most vociferous one.
In Libya as elsewhere, however, the truce regards the ability of the mediating third party alone to make it credible for those who wish to sign it.
Without this ability of effective and immediate recourse to the “third-party in Law” (if we can here use a concept of Roman law) no one signs a truce whatsoever.
Furthermore, which is the only way to enforce a ceasefire? Possibly creating an “interposition force”, which makes both parties’ probable war and criminal intentions more technically difficult?
No, I do not think so because, in this case, the Interposition Force – organized to make a truce hold – cannot control the non-military movements of both sides’ positions, which will become warlike at a later stage.
Anyway, while Libya has become the area of a new great proxy war between enemies, allies and quasi-friends, when reaching truces, all of them which are outside Libya will certainly start to deploy their military potentials in new areas.
In this case, truces are a way to wage and make war, not to stop it, even temporarily.
In essence, as the final statement candidly admits, the Berlin Conference wanted to unite and muster international support for a political solution in Libya.
Here, there are two possible alternative options.
Either we go on with the potentially endless sequence of irresolute Conferences, attended by countries which do not even dream of sending troops to Libya, if not to be used as traffic policemen.
Or a real international force is created, possibly under the UN aegis, which of course does not pacify Libya, but establishes those who win or lose power in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
Yet the question remains: do we really want a new Libya split up in the various Ottoman vilayets, as it was before the Italian pre-Fascist colonization, or do we still really want a united Libya?
In the latter case, which will be the small group of European or non-European powers that will manage their inevitable hegemony over the still united Libya?
Because it should be recalled that, in many areas of the old “sandbox”, there is a national Libyan feeling that often overlaps with loyalty to one’s own katiba or the traditional alliance of the various tribes with one’s own.
Some years ago, even a young agent of the “new” Libyan intelligence Services told me that the Libyan national feeling is stronger than we may believe, even if it mixes – surprisingly and hence unpredictably – with tribe hierarchies.
We should also recall the positive effect that the authoritarian welfare State established by Gaddafi had for many years. In a paper of the Bertelsmann Foundation published a few days before the start of the Benghazi insurgency, it is stated that Libya was on average much better than Southern Italy in terms of income and social services and benefits.
Finally, also in the Berlin Conference it was reiterated that “there could be no possible military solution” for Libya.
Of course, because the military solution is already in place it and it has been so for many years. It is made up of potentially equivalent forces, with equivalent protectors, who will therefore never be able to really find an agreement.
However, as Machiavelli said, cum parole non si mantengono li Stati.
Westerners’ sloth is no wonder, even though the gains for every Western country would be scarce and limited.
Italy is an unstructured country that, with controlled or uncontrolled immigration, will import and has probably already imported many jihadists in Europe, the next area of deep deconstruction. For Italy, Libya is a country that – being no longer fundamental for oil, except for Italy only – remains fundamental for the international oil and gas markets.
Hence, what are we doing? We are wasting time with talks and diplomatic “processes”, waiting for someone to win on his own in Libya and dictate his conditions.
Obviously the final statement of the Berlin Conference could not fail to make reference to the fight against terrorism and “illegal” migration.
First and foremost, we must never speak generically of “terrorism”, which is a universal practice, but rather of a specific and refined jihadist warfare strategy, which is very different from what we call terrorism, even if it certainly does not exclude it.
This also applies to the Koranic doctrine of “truce”, which would be a very interesting topic to discuss here.
I imagine, however, that the intellectual arrogance of Westerners makes the unrepentant conference-goers believe that the only war and peace doctrine is the one which is developed and practiced in the framework of the enlightened, secularist and rationalist universalism.
They are wrong. Currently most of the people living in the world conceive and make war in a very different way from what Grotius, Kant or Althusius theorized.
With specific reference to “illegal” migration which is, in fact, an asymmetrical war system, as also the “sword jihad”, a less moralistic and legal analysis should be made.
The winners send illegal migrants to the countries of their enemies or economic or military competitors, the losers take them all and must also keep silent.
Has the Italian government ever imagined the reason underlying the very powerful information and defamation war on Italy, with so many NGOs built ad hoc, during the previous “yellow-green” government?
Do you believe that our EU friends are not involved in these issues? Certainly not.
Ultimately, the final statement of the “Berlin process” refers not only to the embargo on all arms – which is completely useless, considering that Libya is full of weapons, and everyone can anyway get them from the south – but also to the “equal sharing and distribution of wealth”, albeit it is not clear between whom, but we can here understand the very complex issue of the relationship between the NOC, the Libyan Central Bank and Khalifa Haftar’s LNA.
Finally, we speak of “legitimate and lawful use of force” to be granted only to States (or to the State).
Which State, in Libya? Tripolitania – which is now reduced to a few districts of Tripoli, with some katibe of Misrata, the military axis of al-Sarraj’s regime, already shifted to Haftar’s control – or the Tobruk-Bengasi one, for which Haftar is fighting, which has won the elections but has not been recognized by the external powers and the United Nations?
Who is really legitimate and lawful? It is hard to answer this question, even if we only thought – as it is now usual among Western powers – of a political and State legitimacy that is simply granted by Western countries or by the United Nations.
Hence how many legitimate and lawful States are there in Africa? Once again it is hard to answer this question.
It would be good to go back to the classics, from Hobbes to Spinoza. Even under the fierce sun of Libya, as when Lawrence of Arabia read Suetonius (obviously in Latin) riding his camel in Wadi Rumm.
Turkey’s Role in the Libyan Conflict
On January 8, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan met in Istanbul. Discussions focused on the launch of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, as well as topical issues on the international agenda. After the meeting, both presidents called on all parties involved in the Libyan conflict to cease hostilities from January 12 and take a seat at the negotiating table. Putin and Erdogan confirmed the high level of contractibility demonstrated earlier by other politicians on other painful issues.
Of course, the ceasefire in Libya suits Ankara’s foreign policy interests, since in a one-on-one battle, the Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by Turkey and recognised by the UN as the legitimate government of Libya, would have difficulty repelling new attacks by the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the General Khalifa Haftar and protecting controlled territory. Due to the intensification of hostilities in December 2019 and the new LNA campaign in Tripoli, the head of the GNA Faiz Saraj turned to the head of the Turkish state with a request to provide military support to Tripoli. Turkish President Recep Erdogan forwarded the relevant bill to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, and, on January 2, the parliament approved the sending of Turkish troops to Libya by a majority vote. Soon after Erdogan announced that Turkish units are already in Libya.
In response to the decision of the Turkish parliament to support the sending of the Turkish military contingent to Libya, the LNA commander Khalifa Haftar announced a general mobilisation. His troops are currently conducting active hostilities and are gradually moving towards the centre of Tripoli. Recent major territorial acquisitions include the non-functioning capital airport, as well as the city of Sirte and its environs. However, the fact that Turkish troops are already in Libya can significantly complicate the further attack of the LNA.
The Establishment of a Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean
The conclusion of two agreements with the government of Faiz Saraj preceded Turkish interference in the Libyan conflict. On November 27, 2019, Turkey signed a memorandum with the GNA on the delimitation of maritime zones in the Mediterranean Sea, which establishes new maritime borders of Libya and Turkey. The signed document confirms the rights of Ankara to a significant part of the east of the Mediterranean Sea, where there are significant natural gas reserves. Previously, Turkey carried out illegal geological exploration in the economic zone of Cyprus in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea.
The agreement reached between Recep Erdogan and Faiz Saraj raised concerns among other Eastern Mediterranean states also interested in gaining access to hydrocarbon production in these areas. Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus have made statements that the memorandum violates international law. The European Union also declared a similar position, which even did not recognise the maritime agreement between the Republic of Turkey and the GNA in connection with the violation of the sovereign rights of third states.
The agreements reached between Ankara and Tripoli strengthened the Turkish position in the region. Certainly, the designation of an exclusive economic zone led to even greater isolation of Turkey and the notable deterioration in relations with other states of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is also important to mention that the Republic of Turkey has become somewhat dependent on the stability of the Faiz Saraj regime. The agreement with him gives Ankara at least the fragile validity of Turkish claims for a hydrocarbon-rich part of the East of the Mediterranean Sea. This means that the Turkish leadership in Libya protects not only the pro-Turkish GNA, but also its interests in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea.
So Why Does Egypt Support Khalifa Haftar?
In Libya, Turkey is confronted with the interests of its foreign policy opponents; in particular, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Arab Republic of Egypt (ARE). The latter is the main ally of General Khalifa Haftar. Cairo supports the LNA, because members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation banned in Egypt, are operating in Libya. The commander-in-chief of the LNA successfully fights with them, as well as with jihadists that pose a threat to the security of ARE. Besides, the instability of the situation in Libya negatively affects business activity in the region, which is detrimental to the Egyptian economy. The troops of Khalifa Haftar are the only force capable of restoring relative order in Libya. While Haftar’s troops have established control over most of the country’s territory, including major oil fields, it is difficult for GNA to control Tripoli. The geographical factor makes Egyptian support for LNA more effective.
Through the border with Libya, militants of the “Islamic state” enter Egypt and arms smuggling flourishes. The Egyptian leadership is trying to secure its borders with the help of additional troops and armoured vehicles, for example, the Egyptian space satellite used to control the border effectively. ARE authorities say that most of the weapons used by the ISIS cell in the Sinai Peninsula come from neighbouring Libya. The statistics demonstrate the scale of the problem. For example, from 2015 to 2017 Egyptian soldiers destroyed more than 1,200 trucks with weapons and explosives sent from Libya to Egypt.
The House of Representatives promises to build a border wall on the border with Egypt, although the effectiveness of the project raises great doubts – the length of the wall will be merely 1 km, while the length of the border between the two states is more than 1,100 km.
Nevertheless, the government controlled by Khalifa Haftar is demonstrating a willingness to tackle the problem of arms smuggling across the Libyan-Egyptian border. Additionally, Khalifa Haftar proved that he would rather fight terrorist groups than negotiate with them. The terrorist threat posed by militants in Libya is a serious security challenge in Egypt, so Cairo supports Haftar in the Libyan conflict. Besides, the GNA is a government focused on Ankara, Cairo’s foreign policy opponent. Any strengthening of the government of Faiz Saraj in Egypt is perceived as strengthening the position of Turkey in North Africa.
Cairo actively reacted to the signing of agreements between Turkey and the GNA, as well as to the introduction of the Turkish military in Libya. In particular, President al-Sisi called the President of Cyprus Nikos Anastasiadis and the President of France Emmanuel Macron to discuss measures to impede the implementation of the agreements reached between Ankara and Tripoli.
Egypt told the UN Security Council that it does not recognise the agreements. According to the representative of Egypt to the UN, Mohammed Edris, Egypt does not consider the signed memorandums as legitimate, because they were not ratified by the Libyan House of Representatives.
The Role of Extra-Regional Players in the Libyan Peace Building Process
The position of the Republic of Turkey on the Libyan issue is not shared with its NATO allies – France and the United States. Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron contributed to the formation of the diplomatic status of Khalifa Haftar and supported his political independence. When Haftar tried to take Tripoli in the spring of 2019, France blocked an EU statement urging Khalifa Haftar to stop the LNA attack on Tripoli. Besides, according to the media, France supplied anti-tank weapons to the LNA, bypassing the arms embargo. In particular, Javelin missiles were handed over to Khalifa Haftar’s troops.
In April 2019, the unique role of Field Marshal Haftar in the fight against terrorism in Libya was recognised by U.S. President Donald Trump. Then Washington threatened to block the UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and stop the advance of troops in Tripoli. Responding to the new offensive of Khalifa Haftar in the Libyan capital, the White House invited the parties to the Libyan conflict to refrain from receiving outside assistance, and thus again supported the actions of the LNA unofficially. This initiative was directed primarily against Turkey and the transfer of the Turkish military to Libya.
In addition to France and Egypt, Khalifa Haftar is supported by Jordan and the UAE. In addition to providing financial assistance, some countries supply weapons to the LNA, despite the UN arms embargo. UAE delivered LNA unmanned aerial vehicles. Turkey, of course, provided GNA drones.
To sum up, Libya is becoming one of the key strategic directions of Turkey’s foreign policy, which is probably considering the country as an arena for confrontation with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, the UAE, and other unfriendly states. At the same time, the mutual dependence of Ankara and Tripoli on each other is growing. Turkey is the main ally for the GNA, for the sake of which it is ready to send its troops to the combat zone. The formal legitimacy of the Turkish geological exploration and Ankara’s rights to the exclusive economic zone depends on the durability of the Faiz Saraj regime.
Dissatisfaction with Ankara’s actions continues to grow: the decision to introduce Turkish army units was condemned by the United States, the EU, Russia and some regional actors. Turkish troops will not leave Libya as long as Haftar’s forces besiege Tripoli. A major problem remains the agreements reached between Turkey and the Saraj government on military cooperation between Ankara and Tripoli, as well as the delineation of exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean Sea. Washington promised to support Cyprus and Greece in resolving the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, and Erdogan promised not to recede from concluded deals even though, as we know, it is a clear violation of the arms embargo and inconsistency with the principles of international law.
The USA, France and some other states continue to regard the LNA as the main bulwark of the fight against terrorism in Libya. Haftar’s troops remain the most combat-ready armed forces, which have a much higher chance of stabilising the situation in Libya than their opponents. It was demonstrated by the victorious struggle of the LNA with the terrorist groups Islamic State, Ansar al-Sharia, Wrath of Fesan, etc.
Al-Sisi supports Haftar for the same reason, besides the issue of ensuring stability in Libya is directly related to the security of his state. Also, both politicians declare their tough stance towards Islamism, which makes them ideological allies.
Unfortunately, the establishment of a ceasefire can only lead to a temporary de-escalation of the conflict. In this situation, Russia may call on its partners not to violate the arms embargo on Libya. Besides, Moscow could initiate the adoption by the UN Security Council of a troop withdrawal resolution of any units of foreign states from the territory of the Libyan State. This measure would significantly reduce the degree of tension that has arisen in Libya in the past few weeks. Also, Russia can be an intermediary in the negotiations between the Libyan House of Representatives and the GNA. This is especially evident after Russia’s victories over ISIS in the Syrian Arab Republic, the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, it’s possible that the role of Moscow as a broker of dialogue will bring positive results.
From our partner RIAC
Libyan reconciliation: Via Moscow on to Berlin
During the January 8 talks in Istanbul, Turkey and Russia, acting as “mediators,” called on all parties in Libya to “cease hostilities from midnight on Sunday, January 12, 2020, declare a sustainable ceasefire, supported by necessary measures to be taken for stabilizing the situation on the ground and normalizing daily life in Tripoli and other cities, to immediately sit down at the negotiating table in order to put an end to the suffering of the Libyans and return peace and prosperity to the country.” The leaders of the warring parties – the Prime Minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Sarraj and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) – were invited to Moscow for talks.
While the GNA, hard-pressed by the situation at the front, was quick to accept the Russian-Turkish proposal, Haftar, whose forces are advancing on the capital, took his time.
“We welcome [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s call for a ceasefire. However, our fight against terrorist organizations that seized Tripoli and received support of some countries will continue until the end,” Haftar’s spokesman said.
However, Haftar was eventually persuaded by Russia to attend the Moscow parley.
The negotiations between the rival Libyan leaders, preceded by consultations by Russian and Turkish foreign and defense ministers, were conducted through intermediaries. Sarraj refused to meet in person with Haftar, saying that the LNA continued its advance, but still agreed to a ceasefire deal proposed by Moscow and Ankara. Khalifa Haftar first said he needed time to think it over, and then left Moscow altogether, explaining to the Russian military representatives that he was taking a time out to consult with his allies. According to media reports, he was not content with the absence in the text of the agreement primarily of clauses concerning the dissolution of GNA units, the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Libya and the annulment of memorandums signed by Tripoli and Ankara. Buoyed by their gains on the battlefield, the LNA leaders apparently prefer to talk with their opponents from a position of strength.
It was apparently with this understanding in mind that, immediately after their commander’s departure from Moscow, the LNA representatives said they were all set to achieve “the complete liberation of the capital from terrorists.” According to media reports, shortly after that, hostilities resumed south of Tripoli.
Meanwhile, the GNA’s ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened to “teach” Haftar “a lesson” if he did not stop his military advance on Tripoli. As to his ally, Sarraj, on his way back from Moscow, he made a stopover in Turkey, where he met with the US ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, at a hotel in Istanbul to discuss “issues of mutual interest.”
Well, the foreign policy context of the Libyan crisis is by no means less complicated than Syria’s. Sarraj is backed by Turkey and Qatar, and has Muslim Brotherhood units fighting on its side, while Haftar’s Libyan National Army faction is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Europe is trying to reconcile the warring parties, and Italy, France, and more recently Germany, have equally been active in this effort. The United States is “waking up” too.
While Syria is of little interest to most Western nations, Libya happens to be a sort of Europe’s underbelly the main flow of African refugees goes through. Besides, Libya’s hydrocarbon reserves are incomparable with Syria’s. Notably, just as Russian and Turkish officials were meeting in Istanbul, Sarraj was in Brussels meeting with EU representatives, and Haftar was on a visit to Rome.
Moscow has always kept an equal distance from both Tripoli and Tobruk (the seat of the House of Representatives and the interim government of Libya, supporting LNA), emphasizing its contacts with both sides of the conflict.
Now, Turkey and Russia have apparently decided to implement the successful Astana format, as some experts believe that the role once played by Iran could be assigned to Algeria both Moscow and Ankara are on good terms with now. During his inauguration ceremony last year, Algeria’s new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, prioritized the development of closer ties with Libya.
This won’t be easy though, just as the rival Libyan leaders demonstrated to a full extent in Moscow. Still, after many hours of negotiations, the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers spoke about having achieved “certain progress.” As a result of the two countries’ diplomatic effort, the irreconcilable (at least for now) Libyan enemies eventually arrived in Moscow – the last time Sarraj and Haftar met was a year ago, even before the LNA launched its “decisive attack” on Tripoli (April 2019). Moreover, “the main result of the meeting was the achievement of agreement in principle between the conflicting sides to maintain and indefinitely continue the cessation of hostilities, which creates a more favorable atmosphere for the Berlin Conference on Libya,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Russia wants much more than just to replicate Syrian developments, even the most successful ones. Moscow wants to get Europeans and regional actors working together to end the bloodshed in Libya.
“We want to combine the efforts being made by Europeans, including Germans, French and Italians, and by Libyan neighbors – Algeria, Egypt, and also the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, and the Russian Federation, to make sure that everyone works together to encourage all the Libyan parties to come to an agreement,” Russia’s acting Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said ahead of the Berlin Conference on Libya, scheduled for January 19.
Germany hopes to bring Fayez Sarraj, Khalifa Haftar, representatives of Russia, the US, China, Britain, Italy, France, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, the African Union, the EU, the United Nations and the League of Arab States to the negotiating table to discuss and, quoting German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, “possibly adopt” a document that will lead to a sustainable cessation of hostilities and start the political process under the auspices of the United Nations.
Skeptical as many experts are about the outcome of the Berlin meeting, it still seems that chances of success look very real. On the one hand, the position of Fayez Sarraj, who earlier said he was ready to agree, remains precarious. On the other hand, the highly representative lineup of participants in the Berlin forum may well convince Haftar (or his representatives, if the Field Marshal does not show up) to more realistically assess his capabilities. Therefore, the LNA’s activities following the Moscow talks could just be an attempt to strengthen its negotiating position ahead of the Berlin Conference.
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