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Big power competition in the Eastern Mediterranean: Is Trump missing the point?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Trump administration decision to sanction two key Turkish officials in retaliation for the continued detention of an American cleric coupled with unqualified support for Israel and the adoption of a backseat in Syria threatens to further undermine US influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, a key part of the world in which Russia, Iran, China and an increasingly anti-American, Eurasia-focused Turkey are gaining the upper hand.

Crisis in Europe, spurred in part by the Eastern Mediterranean’s export of millions fleeing civil war in Syria, highlights the risks inherent to US abandonment of the region and single-minded focus on support of Israel.

The risks are magnified by the fact that the region remains a jihadist heartland and a playground in the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional hegemony. Potential instability is enhanced by Israel’s determination to deprive Iran of a permanent military presence in Syria and unresolved Palestinian and Kurdish national aspirations.

“The United States needs a holistic and integrated approach towards the Eastern Mediterranean that will stabilize Europe and shift the regional balance in the Middle East back towards the United States. Resolving the Syrian conflict is essential for Eastern Mediterranean stabilization, and developing an appropriate policy approach toward an increasingly antagonistic and anti-democratic Turkey is the key to solving the Syria puzzle and re-anchoring the region toward the Euro-Atlantic community,” said a report published this week by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

If the sanctioning of the Turkish ministers of justice and interior in response to the two year-long detention of pastor Andrew Brunson on charges of supporting Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, whom Turkey holds responsible for the failed 2016 military coup, is any indication, the Trump administration is in no mood to engage constructively in a bid to reverse its diminished influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The administration, adding insult to injury, announced the sanctions on the same day that the Senate approved a defense bill that prohibits the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey until the Pentagon reports on the state of Turkish-US relations, including the impact of Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system.

Spinning the US actions as part of a conspiracy to undermine Turkey’s economy at a time that the Turkish lira has dropped dramatically against the dollar, pro-government media pronounced Turkey’s alliance with the United States dead and called for an end to US access to the Incerlik air base in the southeast of the country.

Vowing to take retaliatory action, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish foreign ministry adopted both a defiant and hurt tone in their response to the US sanctions imposed at a time that Turkish-Russian relations face an uncertain future.

In the short term, the sanctions and increasingly strained relationship with the United States make Turkey more dependent on Russia.

They also constitute an obstacle to the United States’ ability to exploit potential opportunities to shift the balance of power in the region in its favour.

Russian-Turkish interests are likely to diverge once Syria moves to regain control, of Idlib, the dumping ground for rebels and jihadists, including those that hail from the Caucasus and Central Asia, evacuated from areas elsewhere retaken by Syrian military forces.

Russia has been seeking to stave off a Syrian military offensive that would create yet another humanitarian crisis by attempting to negotiate a solution with Turkey and rebel groups.

Idlib is but one potential flashpoint in Turkish-Russian relations. Both Russia and Syria see the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia viewed by Turkey as a terrorist extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as important to resolving Idlib. YPG representatives have been travelling to Moscow, where the group was allowed to open an office in 2016.

Syrian Kurdish representatives have met in recent weeks with the government of president Bashar al-Assad to negotiate the future of Kurdish areas that Turkey wants to wrest from Kurdish nationalist control. They reportedly reached agreement on sharing oil revenues from two Kurdish-operated oil fields.

Recent remarks by Russia’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, did little to ease Turkish concerns.

“The Kurds will take part in the Syrian Constitutional Committee anyway. Their representatives will be included in every faction: opposition groups, the government’s delegation and civil society. We ask everyone to abstain from dividing the Kurds into pro-Turkish, pro-Russian or PYD and YPG categories, the latter of which is viewed negatively in Ankara,” Mr. Lavrentiev said referring to the political wing of the YPG, the Democratic Union Party, by its initials PYD.

A Russian-backed resolution of a three-decade-old dispute over the rights of Caspian Sea littoral states – Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan — set to be signed on August 12 paves the way for construction of an oil pipeline to Europe that could undermine Turkish hopes of becoming an alternative energy corridor that bypasses Russia.

Moreover, Russia this month began delivering arms to Armenia, whose borders with Turkey and Iran are guarded by Russian troops against the backdrop of reports that Turkey was planning to establish a military base in Nakhichevan, a landlocked autonomous region that is separated from Azerbaijan by a strip of Armenian territory.

Russian officials fear that Turkish and Azerbaijani military moves in Nakhichevan could fuel Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In its report, CSIS argued that the United States has a strategic interest in reasserting itself in the Eastern Mediterranean as a means of preserving European unity and security; stabilizing the Middle East; countering projection of power by Russia, Iran and China, and confronting challenges by numerous non-state actors.

Describing the Eastern Mediterranean as a theatre of big power competition that threatens US and trans-Atlantic interests, the report, maps out a detailed strategy for US re-engagement.

The United States, “must make hard choices and embrace realistic goals, however unattractive, to reinvigorate US diplomatic, economic and security engagement in the region. This will involve addressing and reconciling seemingly incompatible US policies towards Syria and Turkey that can only be bridged through active created and sustained diplomacy backed by ongoing military engagement,” the report said.

The US sanctioning of the Turkish ministers suggests that the mood in the Trump administration is a far cry from the kind of approach the report envisions.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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The Coronavirus and Conflicts in the Middle East

Aleksandr Aksenenok

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The question of the political and socioeconomic consequences the COVID-19 pandemic will have for global development has prompted heated analytical discussions among leading politicians, economists and political scientists. The range of opinions is staggering, varying from “the world will never be the same” (Henry Kissinger) to “the pandemic will accelerate history rather than reshape it” (Richard Haass). Should we, therefore, expect radical shifts in the global leaders’ thinking or will the dangerous inertia of the last two decades ultimately come out on top?

The only thing most people agree on is that the coronavirus has plunged the world into a global, multidimensional crisis. This crisis is made particularly acute and unpredictable by the developments that predated it: the slowdown of global economic growth, the collapse of oil prices, socioeconomic differentiation, the rapid increase in military spending, protracted “unresolvable” conflicts and the growing threat of losing control amid geopolitical rivalry. There are new nuclear missiles, cyber- and biotechnologies, “hybrid wars,” and the consequences of all these trends are not yet entirely clear, which makes this rivalry far more dangerous than the USSR-US confrontation.

Thus far, it is difficult to say confidently what direction these developments will take and whether they will become a turning point. In any case (and here Russian and Western analysts agree), the statesmanship, competency and acumen of all world leaders will be put to the test, as will their ability for reasonable compromise. This “test” will be particularly relevant for those states in the greater Middle East that are involved in various conflicts and for their leaders, whose ambitions are, at this historical juncture, under powerful pressure from both within and without; this test may be even more relevant there than in other parts of the crumbling, yet interconnected world.

“Old” internal conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, new-type protest movements demanding a change of the ruling elites (the “everyone means everyone” slogan) in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, balancing on the brink of an armed conflict in the Persian Gulf – this chronic instability constantly feeds into mutual enmity, the preference for solutions by force, and overall thinking along the lines of “winner takes all.” Regional wars remain a sore point on the Russia-West global agenda, which is already overburdened with many acute problems. At the same time, it has become apparent that domestic driving forces increasingly trump extra-regional influences such as the geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the US, between Western states (France, Italy, Germany, Greece), including Turkey, as is happening in Libya, between the regional powers themselves (Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Qatar) in Yemen, or between all of them in Syria.

The pandemic has affected Libya, Syria and Yemen to a lesser degree than the US and West European states. At the same time, the number of cases is still growing and is gradually approaching the limits of their capacities as these countries are exhausted by protracted wars and external aggressions. In that sense, they have much in common, which causes concern to the UN’s specialised agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and non-governmental humanitarian organisations. The ICRC has warned in a press release that “it will be nearly impossible to fight COVID-19 in countries already devastated by conflict unless a concerted response by states and humanitarian organisations is launched immediately.”

Despite appeals from the UN Secretary-General, from Russia, the US, several leading European states and other members of the international community, military hostilities are still raging in the region; they periodically abate and then flare up again. It takes a strong state, suppressing political violence, and a legitimate authority to succeed in combating the consequences of military conflicts in the Middle East in the middle of the pandemic. In the meantime, these three regional conflict centre have still not restored their territorial integrity, the principal criterion of national sovereignty, and the prospects for a final settlement appear quite vague.

The fight for territories continues. Local administrations of those states’ constituent parts largely depend on non-state actors, various militias, including those of a terrorist persuasion. International humanitarian aid is either inaccessible in many areas or is used for political purposes. Healthcare systems have been completely destroyed or significantly undermined, transport and commercial communication lines have been interrupted, while, according to the UN, about 38.4 million people (25 million in Yemen, 11 million in Syria and 2.4 million in Libya) are in need of humanitarian aid. Until recently, the World Health Organisation had no information about Huthi-controlled areas of Yemen, including the number of COVID-19 cases. Overcrowded city centres, prisons and camps for refugees and displaced persons are seen as the source of the infection.

Syria is a special case in the general picture of Middle Eastern conflicts amid the coronavirus pandemic. The outcome of the internal confrontation will have far-reaching consequences. If compromise solutions are found, a settled Syrian conflict might serve as a precedent for the global community and as a model and a key for resolving other conflicts. Alternatively, if Damascus fails to learn the lessons of 2011, this conflict might become a powder keg under the prospects of Syria’s stable domestic development. Not should we rule out the possibility of the country being split into areas of influence with socioeconomic rehabilitation in each area carried out by external sponsors (mostly with the help of Russia, Iran and China in Damascus-controlled lands, by Turkey in the northwest, and with the support from the US and some Gulf states in the east). The latter variant, though, appears the least probable.

At the extended meeting of the government in early May, President Assad made a powerful statement similar to the one made in the summer of 2015, when the Syrian regime was on the verge of collapse, and the President acknowledged publicly for the first time the dearth of domestic military resources, emphasising the need to “preserve useful Syria.”[1]  This time, now that the regime appears to have bolstered its positions thanks primarily to Russia, Assad has again warned the Syrian public and the global community that, if the coronavirus cases spike, Syria would face a “real catastrophe.” The current relatively low level of infection (there were 47 cases at that time), he said, did not mean Syria had avoided the danger. The World Health Organisation lists Syria among high-risk countries.

The President had more than enough reasons to make this statement. In late 2019, only 64% of the country’s hospitals and 52% of its medical outposts were still operating, while about 70% of healthcare workers found themselves among refugees and displaced persons. The geographical distribution of the medical institutions that are working is highly uneven: two-thirds of them are in Damascus, in the provinces of Latakia and Tartus, while there are none in Deir ez-Zor in the country’s east. According to the Brookings Institution, there are 1.4 medical workers per 10,000 people and a grand total of 100 ventilators in Idlib. Immediately after the first coronavirus cases were recorded, food and medication prices went up 20–40% on top of the existing inflation.

Since the first coronavirus cases were recorded on 22 March, Syria’s government has been mobilising its internal capabilities in three areas:

First: preventing the spread of the infection within the area under its control. In Syria’s northeast (Afrin, Idlib), similar measures are being introduced by local authorities that are under the influence of Turkey and several groups that have been declared terrorists, and by the Kurdish administration in inner Syria east of the Euphrates. The announced administrative and legislative measures envisaged even harsher steps than international standards suggested. A curfew was imposed immediately, external borders were closed, control was stepped up over transport between provinces and between the cities within them. This was a vital step for Syria, with its close commercial ties and cross-border contacts with Lebanon, Jordan and Iran (Syria has particularly intensive contacts with the latter). As of late April, Iran accounted for 79.1% of all coronavirus cases in the Middle East; Arab states of the Persian Gulf accounted for 12.1%, and other states for 8.8%. Territorial fragmentation, however, stands in the way of coordinating the fight against the coronavirus throughout the country. It is creating serious difficulties in handing out the international aid that is coming into Syria.

Second: mitigating the socioeconomic consequences for the regime, especially because surges in protests have been recorded since last spring, including in regions with predominantly Alawite population. The government imposed state price regulation, primarily for food, medications and essential goods. Fuel subsidies were maintained and bread stamps were introduced for people in particular need. At the same time, a set of solutions was introduced to remove administrative and bureaucratic procedures for import contracts on essential goods. Syrian importers working with such goods were offered preferential currency exchange rates. The government’s emergency decisions also included exempting individual types of business from taxes for April and gradually (since the first ten days of May) lifting restrictions on work in industrial and service sectors.

Third: concentrating the fragmented financial resources within the inner circle of the President’s power. This could mean transitioning to a policy of centralised distribution of the reduced state revenues, which means the authorities intend to be more decisive in fighting corruption and the “shadow economy” (between 2010 and 2017, GDP fell from USD 60.2 bn. to USD 17 bn.). The experience of many states, including European ones, shows that enhanced financial discipline is a must at a time of crisis, especially in collecting taxes and combating illegal economic activities.

Yet, as regards Syria, Arab and Western media focused rather on looking for sensations than on providing a balanced analysis of the situation with a view to helping find ways out of the crisis that had been compounded by the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Regrettably, the media show the latest economic steps undertaken by the Syrian government through the lens of the conflict between the President and his cousin, Syria’s wealthiest businessman, multibillionaire Rami Makhlouf.

His business empire does, indeed, span a range of key economic sectors: telecommunications, oil and gas, banking, construction, real estate, commerce, etc. The rise of Rami Makhlouf began soon after Assad came to power, during the short period of liberal economic reforms. During the war, his standing in Syria’s economy was consolidated significantly by the preferences given in exchange for charitable activities and financing militias loyal to the government. Now is the time to pay the bills and some of his assets have been frozen. The conflict peaked when the Syrian oligarch decided to publicise the economic dispute about paying Syriatel’s taxes totaling USD 180 m. He did this at a juncture that was critical for the country. Consequently, the conflict was broadly politicised and resulted in rumourmongering about a split in the presidential elites similar to the late 2017 events in Saudi Arabia (Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had several members of the royal family temporarily detained on allegations of large financial claims against them).

Incidentally or otherwise, precisely in April and May, the western and Arab media were inundated with various speculations concerning Russia-Syria relations. Distorted interpretations were given to those articles in the Russian media and on Russian social networks that contained benign criticism of Damascus’ inflexible policies in political settlement and of the widespread corruption getting in the way of reconstruction and handling the most pressing socio-economic problems. These articles were presented as allegedly reflecting the Russian political elites’ discontent with President Assad personally.

Deliberately fake news affected even the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), whose expert materials always contain objective analysis and verified facts, whether people like it or not. At the instigation of Syrian opposition sources, citing some RIAC paper, fake news was disseminated about Russia, the US and Turkey (with possible participation by Iran) having some plan about removing Assad from power and establishing a “transitional government” consisting of representatives of the “Syrian regime,” the opposition and “Kurdish militias.” Even more regrettable is the excessively emotional response by some “members of the public” in Damascus itself, expressed in the spirit of the ideological rhetoric of the past, of the outdated black-and-white foreign policy notions. They classify members of the Russian expert community (journalists serving purely corporate interests do not count) as “those in favour” and “those against,” into “pro-Western” and “patriotic.” The former naturally strive to “undermine the allied relations” between Russia and Syria.

Meanwhile, despite the many barriers dividing the world, cooperation in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, this “common enemy” as Antonio Guterres called it, is being gradually established, but things are far more complicated in the Syrian conflict.

Besides the WHO, the International Red Cross and some other international organisations, real external aid to Syria’s government is provided only by Russia, China and, to a lesser degree, Iran, with limited aid coming from some European and Arab states. With the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Russia launched humanitarian deliveries to Syria, bringing in face masks, coronavirus testing systems, and other medications and medical equipment. Food aid has been no less important for Syrians. In April, Russian grain, which had previously been in short supply on the market, was delivered to the port of Tartus.

Although the European Union expressed its support for the UN Secretary General’s appeal to lift the sanctions off several states, including Syria, so that the needed medical and humanitarian aid could be provided, in practice, Europe’s contribution is doubtful. First, EU member states have no consensus on Syria and, second, European companies are, as in the case of Iran, extremely wary of secondary US sanctions.

The stance of the Trump Administration is, like that on several other foreign political issues, rather ambiguous, not to say hypocritical. On the one hand, they introduce all kinds of “exceptions,” “authorisations” and “special licences” for providing humanitarian aid to Syria and some other states during the fight against COVID-19. This procedure is detailed in a relevant paper by the US Department of the Treasury dated 16 April 2020 (Department of the Treasury, Washington DC, Office of foreign control, Fact Sheet: Provision of Humanitarian Assistance and Trade to Combat COVID-19). On the other hand, the US is putting “maximum pressure” on Syria, stepping up its verbal threat campaign against President Assad personally and warning those countries, including Arab states, that are willing to provide Syria with the necessary financial and material support, about the consequences. European experts believe that, even if Syria agreed to use the offer of exemptions from the sanctions, this would hardly produce any results because of the large number of duplicate sanctions imposed over the last 20 years and also the “bewildering” bureaucratic procedures.

Many statements made by official US representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey in recent months are just as contradictory and confused. One day, he says the US does not want to overthrow the Syrian regime and supports the launch of the Constitutional Committee; another day, he says that Assad is utterly unacceptable, which can be understood to mean that he is unacceptable even as a presidential candidate at the elections to be held under Resolution 2254. Statements about his contacts with Russian partners and unwillingness to intervene in Russia-Syria relations do not jibe with his words that the purpose of the US is to let Russia get bogged down in Syria. As for jointly fighting international terrorism, there is a certain slyness there, as well, concerning Hay’At Tahrir al-Sham, which apparently cannot really be considered quite terrorist since it has never carried out terror attacks outside Syria and only fights the Assad regime.

The reality is that the coronavirus pandemic caught Syria in the midst of an unsettled conflict and social tensions, a destroyed infrastructure, limited internal reserves and financial resources. We need to understand that in this emergency the way out of the crisis or the simple act of meeting the urgent needs of the people, regardless of their political preferences, is closely linked to the integral progress in several areas: mobilising internal economic resources and creating conditions equally favourable for the work of public-private partnerships and foreign investors; providing a safe environment for refugees to return; creating an atmosphere conducive to national reconciliation; what is required politically is for these efforts to be enshrined through specific steps taken in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, largely spearheaded by Russia.

 [1] See: A. Aksenenok. “The Syrian Crisis: A Thorny Journey from War to Peace” [in Russian] // Valdaiskie zapiski [Valdai Memoranda] No. 104, Valdai Discussion Club. P. 11.

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Palestine Ends All Agreements with Israel and the United States

Nikolay Plotnikov

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On May 19, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), declared an end to all agreements, including security agreements, with Israel and the United States. On May 22, Palestinian security forces withdrew from the East Jerusalem area.

The reason for this decision was Israel’s claims to annex about 30 per cent of the territories in the West Bank, also known as Judea and Samaria. This was announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 10 during the presentation of his government to the Knesset. According to him, the time has come to apply Israeli law to these territories and “write another glorified chapter in the history of Zionism.”

It should be noted that the territories mentioned are the Palestinian territories in West Bank captured by Israel during the six-day war of 1967. The United Nations defines these territories as occupied. According to UN General Assembly Resolution No. 181, they are “the area of the proposed Arab State.”

Israel considers these territories disputed. In violation of the Geneva Conventions, banning to move the civilian population into the occupied territory, to date, Israel has created about 140 settlements in West Bank with approximately 500,000 people living there. From the point of view of international law, they are not part of Israel. Another 200,000 Israelis moved to the occupied East Jerusalem.

The vote on extending Israeli sovereignty to the occupied Palestinian territories may take place on July 1. In this effort, Israel is actively supported by the United States, as the annexation of territories in West Bank is part of the so-called “deal of the century” formally unveiled by Donald Trump on January 28, 2020. He is convinced that the establishment of Israeli sovereignty over territories in West Bank is fully consistent with his personal peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that annexing territories in West Bank is “ultimately Israel’s decision to make,” and the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, the main supporter of Israeli settlements, is confident that Washington will recognize this move.

Netanyahu’s plan is not widely supported by the Israeli society. If the majority of Israeli Knesset members are ready to support it, a rather significant group of former senior military and special services officers are against it. For instance, 220 retired Israeli generals and admirals (including Gadi Shamni, a retired general in the Israel Defense Forces; Tamir Pardo, former Director of the Mossad; and Ami Ayalon, former director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service) made a collective statement, warning that the annexation would threaten Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, anger allies in the Gulf and undermine the Palestinian authorities collaborating with Israel on important security issues. The generals were supported by 149 prominent American-Jewish leaders and 11 members of the U.S. Congress.

Judging by opinion polls, a significant part of Israeli society is of the same opinion. Many Israeli human rights organizations, including such respectable ones as B’Tselem and Yesh Din, have spoken out against the proposed annexation.

Egypt, a major regional player and mediator between Israel and Hamas, is coordinating with Israel in its fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Sinai. The annexation of the West Bank can spark negative reactions from the Egyptian population, which will force President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to reconsider relations with Israel.

The situation with Jordan is more complicated, with a significant number of Palestinians living there. They will get involved if Israel begins to implement its plans. This will lead to even greater radicalization and will inevitably provoke mass protests. The Kingdom of Jordan, facing difficult economic problems exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, will be confronted with enormous challenges. Amman is well aware of this.

For many years, the Jordan-Israel border was the safest border for Tel Aviv. The situation may change after July 1, as warned of by Jordan’s King Abdullah II. On May 15, in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Abdullah II warned that if Israel really does move to change the borders, it would set off a massive conflict with Jordan.

It is unlikely that this time the Gulf monarchies, collaborating with Israel against Iran in recent years, won’t get involved (for example, Saudi Arabia, exchanging intelligence with Israeli intelligence services). They have known about Netanyahu’s plans for West Bank for a long time, now the public in these countries will probably have a negative reaction to the annexation and require actions from the authorities.

The United Nations and the European Union cautioned against the West Bank annexation. Their representatives, in particular, Nickolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, warned that this would be a devastating blow to the two-State solution for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, would slam the door on fresh negotiations and threaten efforts to advance regional and international peace.

According to Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union, Brussels does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank. However, this is his personal opinion and not the official position of the EU. The Union does not have a single position on what needs to be done now. Some EU member states, such as Hungary and Austria, believe that this is not the right time for such statements. Ireland, Norway, and Luxembourg, on the contrary, believe that it is necessary to make a statement and take measures against Israel if it does not abandon its plans.

France and Germany expressed their disagreement with Netanyahu’s intentions to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements in West Bank. They called on the Israeli authorities to refrain from any unilateral measures that would lead to the annexation of all or part of the Palestinian territories. Given that Borrell’s statement is personal, and the demarches by Paris and Berlin are more like wasting breath, it is unlikely that the EU will move from words to some decisive action against Israel, like imposing sanctions. Moreover, the United States will not allow this.

Turkey, as expected, harshly criticized Netanyahu’s intentions. Ankara warned that the country would always stand by the brotherly Palestinian people.

The Church expressed its utmost concern. On May 7, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Holy Land Churches published a statement on Israeli unilateral annexation plans, “which would bring about the loss of any remaining hope for the success of the peace process.” Church leaders urged the Palestine Liberation Organization, which they called “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” to resolve all internal and factional conflicts so it could present a united front “dedicated to achieving peace and the building of a viable state that is founded upon pluralism and democratic values.” They also called on the UN, the United States, Russia, and the European Union to respond to annexation plans.

The League of Arab States is also making attempts to increase the efforts to oppose Netanyahu’s plans. The Arab League condemned Israel, saying that the implementation of plans to annex any part of the Palestinian territories would “represent a new war crime” against the Palestinians. In late April, in the Arab League Council online extraordinary meeting at the ministerial level, under the chairmanship of Egypt, a joint statement was made to support the Palestinians and Jordan, rejecting the Israeli unilateral moves.

An ambiguous position was taken by Canada. When the people of Crimea decided to join the Russian Federation following to the results of the referendum, official Ottawa was restless about the alleged Russian annexation and not only joined the economic and political sanctions of the West against Moscow and certain Russian politicians and entrepreneurs, but also sent its military instructors and started to provide material and technical support to the Ukrainian army. The country, thus, became directly involved in the civil war in Donbass. Now the Canadian government is abstaining from making public statements condemning Netanyahu’s intentions, let alone imposing practical sanctions.

There is little time left until the moment of truth on July 1. Much depends on how the international community and the Arab world behave. The complicit silence in the face of the situation, as was the case with Israel’s recent annexation of the Golan Heights, might bring about unexpected consequences for the entire Middle East. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki cautioned against the annexation, saying it would “end the two-state solution” and will “turn the battle from a political one to an endless religious war.”

Judging by the statement of Mahmoud Abbas, there is still hope. According to him, Palestinians are ready to return to the negotiating table with Israel, but with the mediation of a third party.

Some experts believe that under the prevailing conditions, the Middle East Quartet – the United Nations, the United States, Russia, and the European Union, could serve as a mediator. However, there are some factors that can obstruct such work.

The European Union is divided at this point. Its members should first decide what they want to achieve and develop an action strategy.

Prior to the U.S. presidential election, the current administration will not refuse the well-publicized “deal of the century.” It is part of the election campaign of Donald Trump, who is extremely interested in the lack of international consensus on measures to influence Israel. In addition, the American President probably takes into account the fact that the Arab world is now focused on internal problems and paralyzed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Russia emphasized its willingness, together with other participants of the Middle East Quartet, to encourage talks between Israel and Palestine and “to continue to facilitate the resumption of the peace process via direct dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians within a generally recognized international legal framework.” On May 22, by the initiative of the Palestinian side, Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, had a telephone conversation with Hussein al-Sheikh, Fatah Central Committee member, who informed Mr Bogdanov about the latest decisions by the Palestinian leadership regarding relations with Israel. Russia reaffirmed its unwavering commitment to supporting the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the establishment of an independent state within the 1967 lines with its capital in East Jerusalem, living peacefully and maintaining neighborly relations with Israel. The Special Presidential Representative of the Russian Federation pointed out that the proposal by Russia’s leadership to hold a face-to-face meeting between President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow without any preconditions remained on the table.

At the same time, If Palestine is ready for negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu might not be. In Israel, many of his political opponents believe that discussions around the annexation of part of the West Bank and COVID-19 are the only way for him to stay in politics and evade prosecution for corruption and breach of trust, at least for the next few months. And the Prime Minister is unlikely to refuse it.

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Prospects of normalization grim in Libya

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Analysts say that Libya is one of the most important crisis to watch for in 2020 because of the involvement of Russia and Turkey. More importantly, the plight of the Libyans after almost 10 years of civil war cannot be ignored.

Jens Stoltenberg, head of NATO military alliance recently said in an interview that Turkey remains an important ally and NATO is ready to support GNA increasing the possibility of Russia and NATO locking horns.

Eight years after Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi eliminated his country’s weapons of mass destruction the colonel found himself on the wrong side of the gun, when he was overthrown and killed in 2011 submerging the country in a civil war.

NATO members led by Britain and France supported the so-called revolution by airstrikes – then watched as the country sank into chaos. Barrack Obama said leaving Libya without a plan after Gaddafi was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency.

There are fears that the global Covid-19 pandemic could devastate the war-torn Libya, where a decade long conflict has ravaged key infrastructure and created dire medical shortages.

Today the country is divided into two factions backed by foreign powers struggling to put the country together.

On the one side, there is the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) under Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj in Tripoli supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Italy. Turkey has deployed Syrian mercenaries.

Tripoli has been under siege by Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by Khalifa Haftar, who started his offensive on Tripoli in April 2019. The offensive was launched while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Tripoli to prepare for a peace conference.

Unsuccessful in taking Tripoli, Haftar has laid a siege on the capital city for the last four months.

The 76-year-old Libyan-born commander Haftar is supported by Russia, Egypt, France, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser extent Israel. Russia has sent mercenaries.

The Wall Street reported that prior to his April offensive on Tripoli, Haftar was in Riyadh where Saudis gave him tens of millions of dollars. 

In his dominion, Haftar is known as “the marshal”, and is the military ruler of eastern Libya, with Benghazi as his stronghold. He has promised to build a stable, democratic, and secular Libya but the regions in his control are without any law and order and corruption abounds.

There were several summits by international community to put an end to the Libyan strife before Covid-19 pandemic sidelined the Libyan crisis.

The last summit was called the Berlin Conference was held on January 19. Haftar and al-Sarraj didn’t even meet face to face and the summit failed to yield results.

China has remained neutral in this conflict. Under the Gaddafi regime, China engaged in various infrastructure activities with 35,000 Chinese laborers working across 50 projects, ranging from residential and railway construction to telecommunications and hydropower ventures. The year leading to Gaddafi’s overthrow, Libya was providing three percent of China’s crude oil supply, constituting roughly 150,000 barrels a day. All of China’s top state oil firms – CNPC, Sinopec Group, and CNOOC – had had standing infrastructure projects in Libya.

In the outbreak of protests in 2011, China sought to preserve economic ties with Libya and rejected the NATO-led military intervention. China abstained at the UN Security Council vote to authorize military intervention.

In late 2015, the GNA emerged as the new political authority, the product of negotiations brokered by the United Nations and backed by China.

Although many Chinese projects were suspended in Libya and bilateral trade decreased by 57 percent, China’s neutrality paved the way for Beijing to stand in good stead with GNA for years to come.

Immigrants crisis

Home to an estimated 654,000 migrants – more than 48,000 of them registered asylum seekers or refugees – many of them cramped conditions with little access to healthcare amidst the pandemic. An outbreak can be catastrophic.

Many live on transfers from friends and family and UNHCR handouts. With work hard to find many hope to proceed with their journey to Europe. Smugglers have put hundreds and thousands of them in boats and sent them across the Mediterranean to Italy.

UNHCR has been evacuating some of the most vulnerable refugees until airspace was shut in early April.

On May 13, WHO issued a joint statement on Libya emphasizing that the entire population of the country, especially some 400,000 Libyans that have been displaced – about half of them within the past year, since the attack on Tripoli — are at risk of Covid-19 pandemic.

The statement reported everyday challenges that humanitarian missions and workers face to carry on with their mission. The UN verified 113 cases of grave violations, including killing and maiming of children, attacks on schools, and health facilities.

The report points out that as of May 13, there were 64 confirmed cases of Covid-19, including three deaths, in different parts of the country. This shows transmission of the disease is taking place and the risk of further escalation of outbreak is very high.

The report talks about food security and latest assessments show that most cities are facing shortages of basic food items coupled with an increase in prices, urging all parties to protect the water supply facilities that have been deliberately targeted.

“We look forward with anticipation to the pledged financial support to the Humanitarian Response Plan for Libya, as announced by the GNA,” WHO statement said.

Oil production

Oil reserves in Libya are the largest in Africa with 46.4 billion barrels as of 2010. Much of Libya’s oil wealth is located in the east but the revenues are channeled through Tripoli-based state oil firm National Oil Corporation (NOC), which says it serves the whole country and stays out of its factional conflicts.

Prior to the 2011 Libyan civil war, Libya produced over 1.5 million barrels a day. As a result of a blockade of export terminals by LNA by February of this year oil production dropped to 200,000 barrels a day reports Bloomberg. NOC said the North African state’s current level of production is at 91,221 barrels per day as of March 17.

In order to choke GNA from the crucial crude export revenue, the LNA seized Libya’s export terminals and ports in the east in mid-January. The blockade has cost Libya some $560 million, Petroleum Economist reported in January. 

According to NOC, the blockade has plunged production from around 1.2 million barrels a day, and added losses had surpassed four billion dollars by April 15.

Conflict wages

In the last couple of weeks, significant developments have been happening in the Libyan civil war.

In an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica, Jens Stoltenberg, head of NATO military alliance said that Turkey remains an important ally and NATO is ready to support GNA. He stressed NATO is supporting UN’s efforts for a peaceful solutions to conflicts both in Libya and Syria.

Meanwhile, the independent English language Tripoli-based Libyan Express reported that Haftar launched a rocket attack Thursday on Tripoli, hitting the Central Hospital on other downtown areas. 

Tripoli Central Hospital and some civilian areas were targeted. GNA’s Health Ministry said 14 civilians were injured, adding that the hospital will not be able to serve people due to the attack pointing out what a massive setback was amid the outbreak of Coronavirus.

Libyan military forces said Monday that the Libyan army struck forces loyal to Haftar in Al-Watiya airbase in the southwest of Tripoli during the government-led Operation Volcano of Rage.

LNA has intensified attacks on civilians since the beginning of May as GNA made substantial military progress in the offensive in the western part of Tripoli. Armed drones provided by Turkey conducted effective attacks against the LNA.

Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashaghe has accused Haftar’s forces had used chemical weapons on the Salah Al-Deen front, south of Tripoli. The accusations were confirmed by Canadian journalist Amru Saleheddine, who found several government soldiers with symptoms to those of epilepsy, usually caused by nerve gas.

The conflict in Libya is backed by foreign actors with different objectives and priorities. Any emerging power configuration will be fragile unless the external actors come to a shared understanding.

From our partner Tehran Times

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