On July 20, Jerusalem hosted a summit meeting for the national security advisers of Israel, the US, and Russia that was unusual both in terms of composition and thematic content. Intensive negotiations held in bilateral and trilateral formats, including meetings with Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, focused on a wide range of regional security issues, as well as other issues non-related to the Middle East. While the situation is only exacerbating, and there are practically no stable channels for bilateral negotiations on different vectors or they are being used occasionally, the participants of the negotiators touched upon the issues of civil conflicts in Ukraine and Venezuela, combined with an increasing wave of problems that aggravate Russia-the US relations.
However, no matter how varied the range of issues was, the Middle East content prevailed. Namely, Iran’s policy and its role in the region, especially in the Syrian conflict. It was Netanyahu who proposed to hold such consultations, and this fact predetermined the focus on Iran, that has always been considered in Israel as an “existential threat”. Fears of this kind only intensified as Iran, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and during the war in Syria since 2011, consistently increased its military-strategic positions and political influence along Baghdad — Damascus — Beirut vector.
The anti-Iranian Middle East policy of Trump’s Administration has strengthened Israel’s determination to defend its interests by force. A certain division of roles between the two countries has been observed. Israel exerts constant military pressure on Iran with airstrikes at its facilities in Syria, the United States increasing financial and economic sanctions. A new situation emerged and is now perceived as a potential flashpoint for a direct clash between Israel and Iran on the Syrian territory, which would put Russia, having long-standing partnerships with both countries, in an extremely delicate position.
On the eve of the trilateral meetings in Jerusalem, various speculations about the upcoming “backstage deal” were widely spread in Russian and foreign media. The United States and Israel would allegedly propose Russia to put pressure on Iran in order to curtail the Iranian military presence (regular military units, divisions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as well as Iranian-controlled Lebanese Hezbollahs and the so-called “people’s militia”). In response, the United States will be ready to recognize the legitimacy of Assad, lift the sanctions from the Syrian regime, and contribute to the economic recovery of Syria.
Of course, any objectively thinking expert would consider such predictions far-fetched and rather superficial. While there is a need for a meaningful conversation on the whole range of issues for the future of Syria in the context of the strategic interests of Russia, Israel, and the United States; and as the tension has been growing, this need is getting more and more urgent. Before giving any assessment, it is important to trace which new trends in the Middle East policy of the United States and Israel served as the ground for the summit in Jerusalem and how they affect the interests of Russia in the region.
From Obama to Trump: Middle East U-Turns
During the presidency of Obama the US strategic line in the Middle East as a whole did not go beyond the traditional framework of previous administrations being committed to Israel’s security, maintaining allied relations with Saudi Arabia, and deterring Iran. At the same time, the peculiarities of Obama’s administration have revealed in exactly these three key areas.
As Netanyahu’s policy on the Palestinian issue was shifting more and more to the right-radical side, which deprived the Palestinians of practical opportunities to have their own statehood, serious irritants gradually accumulated in relations between the US and Israel. The President and his Secretary of State J. Kerry reaffirmed the internationally recognized solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of coexistence of the two states and publicly criticized the expansion of settlement construction in the West Bank. Since 2011, after the collapse of the seemingly unshakable Arab regimes the US policy in the Gulf region has been shaped on a more pragmatic basis, on the principle of a “moving equilibrium.” This implied some kind of balancing between Iran (the regional aspect of its policy did not come to the fore) and Saudi Arabia (the threats from Iran, as the Americans stated at that point, should not be exaggerated). All this caused strong discontent both in Riyadh and in Tel Aviv. The signing of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program (JCPOA) was perceived in these capitals as a violation of allied obligations and served as an impetus for the rapprochement of Israel and Saudi Arabia on the anti-Iranian basis.
Assessing the zigzags of the US policy with the change of administration, it can be stated that the difficulties with its formation are connected with the clash of two contradictory realities: on the one hand, Trump’s obsessive desire to become “anti-Obama” in the Middle East (and not only), and on the other, the inability to make this without infringing the US national interests and the normal functioning of all departments involved in foreign policy activities — the Department of State, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and special services. This was especially evident in the internal struggle that Trump had to deal with while conducting a steep drift towards Israel and Saudi Arabia with a simultaneous shift in policy towards Iran.
Never in the history of the United States after the presidential election have senior posts at key management levels been filled so slowly and with great scandals. Trump broke all records for the number of layoffs and rearrangements of prominent figures in foreign policy; some of them (Tillerson, McMaster, Matthews, Cohen) expressed disagreement with the spontaneous decisions of the President regarding Iran in many cases. For the same reasons, the CIA has undergone personnel changes in the leadership, that, like in the case with IAEA, did not confirm the information Trump needed about Iran’s violation of the terms of the “nuclear dossier” agreement.
The withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, which was largely the sole decision of the President, caused a barrage of criticism from well-known American diplomats, politicians, and Middle Eastern experts. W. Burns, former US Under Secretary of State, one of the initiators of secret negotiations with Iran, noted: “But we don’t live in an ideal world. Diplomacy requires difficult compromises. And the nuclear deal achieved the best of the available alternatives… By failing to operate in good faith, the administration has weakened — not strengthened — our hand.” According to J. Allen, President of Brookings’s Center on the United States, Trump’s decision “would be a much more serious blow to American interests and to US global leadership than Trump’s previous treaty-related decisions.” T. Pickering, a prominent American diplomat who worked as ambassador to a number of leading world capitals, including Moscow, calls for a change of the political vector with regard to Iran and a reorientation of US foreign policy. His position included the following important points: “Withdrawing from the deal has left the U.S. isolated and weakened the international consensus on Iran, seriously damaging the transatlantic alliance, undercutting the U.S. position in the global financial system, and putting U.S. credibility on the line.”
The above estimates represent the quintessence of the reaction in the United States to a sharp turn in the US policy on Iran and, as a result, to a change in the nature of relations with Saudi Arabia. According to widespread opinion in the US Congress and in expert circles, with the rise of Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh started playing a “dangerous game” in the region, making use of the “strategy of kowtowing” conducted by Trump, as the authoritative American political scientist M. Lynch put it. Such strategy deprives American diplomacy of the ability to restrain regional ambitions countering to the long-term interests of the United States.
The anti-Iranian strategy of Trump’s administration did not bring dividends and only added new dangerous elements to the conflict centers in Syria, Yemen, and the entire Gulf region.
International efforts, including Russia-the US cooperation, to resolve the Syrian conflict, in which Iran should and can play its positive role under certain conditions, are significantly complicated. The US Administration report on Syria submitted to the Congress contains the requirement of “the removal of all Iranian-led forces from Syria” as one of the three strategic goals along with “the defeat of ISIS” and “resolution of the Syrian crisis through a political solution in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254”. This requirement is in no way consistent with the continued illegitimate US military presence in eastern Syria, which allows to support alternative to Damascus local government structures, jeopardizing its territorial integrity.
The war in Yemen and the tensions around Iran spurred the arms race in the Gulf region. Over the past few years, military spending by countries in the GCC has grown by 6% hitting an all-time high of USD 100 billion. The widespread competition between the United States and major European suppliers for multibillion-dollar defense orders has weakened the possibility of external influence on regional players, getting more and more uncontrolled.
The Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) project launched during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia (May 2017) with a clear anti-Iran focus turned out to be an inoperative tool due to suspicions about the intentions of the United States, that did not hide its opportunistic goals, and also because of the conflict interests among its members. A number of Arab states members of the “alliance” do not consider Iran a threat to security in the Middle East. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, none of the states in the region supports the policy towards confrontation with Iran, and even more so military actions. Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman advocate for maintaining dialog with Tehran and resolving the Gulf crisis through political means. Egypt and Jordan are also not enthusiastic in supporting the United States and Saudi Arabia, although they refrain from public criticism given the strong dependence on the financial investments.
One of the reasons for the failure of the US diplomacy is the attitude of the most states in the region towards Saudi Arabia, whose policy in the region is viewed as having “great-power” ambitions, unpredictable, and gravitating towards dominance. Trump’s opponents in the United States are also paying attention to this. Saudi Arabia’s boycott of Qatar and the unexpected support of this decision by the US President, contrary to the recommendations of the Department of State and the military, caused a deep split in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. At the same time, the previous US administrations relied precisely on this military-political association as a regional instrument of pressure on Iran.
The policy of maximum US pressure on Iran through increasing the military presence of extra-regional powers in the Persian Gulf, the development of a “tanker war”, and the imposition of ever new sanctions created a potential threat of open conflict, given that both sides declare their unwillingness to bring the matter to a military clash and signal their readiness to negotiate. In general, it can be stated that steep turns and unpredictable decisions in Trump’s Middle East policy have increased the degree of tension in the region, created new obstacles to resolving multi-year conflicts and stabilizing the situation through multilateral cooperation mechanisms.
Israel’s Strategy in Syria and Russia’s Interests
After the change of Administration in the US, the “shadow war” of Israel in Syria underwent significant changes. While the US was increasing the sanctions, Israel began to escalate its pressure on Iran. With the outbreak of the civil war, Israel was only striking at convoys and arms depots of the Lebanese Hezbollah, later with the strengthening of Iran’s military infrastructure and the Shiite “people’s militia”, the number and the geography of objects significantly increased. Military bases, concentration of military force controlled by Iran, factories for production and assembly of missiles, and bases of unmanned offensive arms were subjected to air attacks. Thus, Israel made it clear that Iran’s military activities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are under constant surveillance. In the changed situation around Iran, Israel’s military-political leadership considers it possible to eliminate the military threat on its part by combining constant force pressure and the use of diplomatic means. Russia is given a special place in the foreign policy in the hope of providing assistance on its part, taking into account the influence on Damascus and special relations with Iran. Supposedly, in the medium term, as the situation stabilizes, Russia will not need military cooperation with Iran in Syria that much. Issues of restoring the ruined economy and political influence on the Syrian leadership will come to the fore, which will strengthen elements of rivalry in Russia-Iran relations.
At the same time, adjustments were made to the military tactics. On Israel’s initiative, agreements were reached on improving the channel of military communication with Russia and on the fullest exchange of information in order to avoid unintentional clashes. Russia outlined its “red lines” and, judging by Netanyahu’s statements, during the trilateral summit in Jerusalem in June Russia’s warnings about the consequences of Israel’s military activity, including for the security of Russian personnel and military facilities, were perceived with serious understanding. Israel’s strikes in Syria are aimed primarily at the military infrastructure of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and their personnel. Contrary to previous years of “maximum secrecy” it is now officially announced every time with an indication of the objects struck. Thus, Israel ensures relatively “free hands”, seeks understanding of its motives on the part of the international community, and makes Damascus understand that close contact with Iranian strongholds should be avoided.
After the Syrian forces were moved to the southern Syria to the Israeli-Syrian demarcation line in the Golan Heights area (in July 2018), a local point of tension occurred that can be compared to the one in the northwest in Idlib or in the east – in the areas where the US military contingent is located. Russia, the USA, and Israel, with the participation of Jordan, agreed on creating a “security zone” 70–80 km inland from the border with Israel within the Syrian territory. These agreements provided for the withdrawal of all Iranian forces from these areas and their patrolling by the Russian military. Russia held consultations with Iran and Syria, whose consent on the administrative status of the territories bordering Israel was to be part of multilateral agreements on the south of Syria.
However, according to Israel’s and Western estimates, over the past year, pro-Iranian formations under various coverings have once again entrenched themselves in the immediate vicinity of the border with Israel. Hezbollah and Shiite militias patrol areas dressed as uniformed Syrian regime forces deploy former rebel fighters in the provinces of Sweida and Quneitra to patrol areas and provide intelligence directly to the Iran-backed paramilitary group. During the trilateral summit in Jerusalem, Netanyahu strongly urged that “Israel would not allow Iran, calling for our destruction, to establish a bridgehead on our borders.” Israel’s military leaders are seriously considering a scenario in which Iran, in the event of an extreme aggravation with the United States, could open a “second front” on the northern border of Israel taking advantage of the increased military potential of Hezbollah on its southern border.
Thus, the initiative of Israel to organize a new format for Syria in Jerusalem was put forward at the time when the erroneous estimations could lead to an exchange of blows with the escalation into an armed confrontation of a regional scale. Moreover, on the eve of the parliamentary elections Israel does not want to be drawn into a war that has no winners, but they cannot afford inaction.
Jerusalem Format: Are there any Further Prospects?
Multilateral efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis create a system of peculiar concentric negotiating circles, that are so far loosely connected with each other. This is a negotiation track of various levels between Russia, Turkey and Iran (“Astana Format”), the mission of the UN Secretary-General Special Representative, the summit of Russia, France, Germany, Turkey (the possibility to continue meetings in this format was discussed at the meeting between Putin and Macron on August 19), the so-called “Small Group” of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Russia occupies a central place in this negotiation system, having working contacts with all the players on the “Syrian field”, unlike other participants.
Will the trilateral meetings in Jerusalem at the level of the Heads of the National Security Councils of Russia, the USA, and Israel become an effective channel to achieve proper understanding that would allow us to timely suppress the outbreaks of military tension and bring together a vision of the future? It is still difficult to fully estimate such an opportunity, although certain nuances provide the basis for reflection on further possible scenarios.
The statements of the participants following the results of the negotiations sounded optimistic, which gives reason to assume mutual interest and keep to this negotiation track not only as a “fire-fighting” tool. Nikolai Patrushev noted the “spirit of goodwill” and the coherence of opinions on most issues, however, “we have to conduct a dialog on how to implement this,» he said. Bolton, a well-known hardliner for Russia and Iran, also noted “We didn’t come with the expectation we were going to solve all the problems, or even most of them” during the negotiations, which he described as “historic.” The initiator of the summit, the Prime Minister of Israel commended the trilateral meeting designed for an internal audience on the eve of the parliamentary elections.
As for the content of negotiations, all participants reaffirmed their previous positions in public speeches, emphasizing the desire to move on the oncoming tracks. Russia’s approach to the problem of Iran’s military presence in Syria was stated earlier by President Putin: “The start of a more active phrase of the political process, foreign armed forces will be withdrawing from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.” Explaining the words of the President of the Russian Federation, A. Lavrentiev, the Special Envoy to Syria, emphasized that Moscow addressed its appeal to “everyone, including the Americans, the Turks, Hezbollah and, of course, the Iranians.”
Taking into account the recurring aggravations between Israel and Iran, the Head of the Russian Security Council gave further explanations of Russia’s position in the sense that the withdrawal of Iran’s military units and allied forces should be considered in conjunction with the complete elimination of the foreign military presence in Syria. This is the ultimate goal in the settlement process, and it cannot be achieved in one step. The Russian side emphasized the need to reduce tensions through a conversation with Iran, rather than confrontation, and it was suggested that they take oncoming steps in order not to turn Syria into an arena of geopolitical confrontation. Russia shares Israel’s concerns about ensuring security, but proceeds from the assumption that other states of the region have their own national interests in this area. In response to a well-known set of accusations against Iran, Patrushev pointed out that it is unacceptable for Moscow to view Iran as the main threat to regional security, let alone equal it with ISIS.
The trilateral meeting in Jerusalem showed significant differences in the approaches of Russia and the US-Israel tandem towards the tactics regarding the role of Iran in Syria and the region as a whole. At the same time, judging by the final statements, the parties agreed that this new format could become a useful political asset for removing any misunderstanding in regards with each other’s intentions and plans. In this context, forthcoming trustful consultations at this level, as confirmed by the Israel’s Prime Minister, cannot be ruled out. There are also opportunities for Russian diplomacy to moderate the situation between Israel and Iran, while Israel could help mitigate irritants in relations between Russia and the United States on the whole range of issues of the Syrian settlement.
According to European estimates, Russia is still trying to maintain its balancing role between Israel and Iran while preserving effective working relations with its Iranian military ally on the ground. Apparently, this role of Russia has been tacitly accepted by partners, including Iran. And only de-escalation of tension can make it possible to find a formula that would satisfy Israel’s real security needs and allow Iran to outline acceptable limits for its influence in the region, including political and economic positions in Syria.
From our partner RIAC
Potential Sino-Lebanese Cooperation under the New Lebanese Government
Since ancient times, Lebanon has been a center of civilized communication between East and West; ships that carry Chinese silk have launched from Lebanese shores heading towards the most prominent capitals of the West. Beirut was the link between the peoples of the world, especially since transportation was primitive and the American continent did not yet exist.
Ancient China benefited from Lebanon’s strategic location during the actual period of the Silk Road, as Lebanon was an important region on the ancient Silk Road and an essential part of it.The richness of Lebanon in natural resources and its distinguished geographical location were behind the inclusion of Lebanon in the Ottoman Sultanate, and France has made Lebanon a foothold and a strategic point overlooking the Middle East. Despite its small geographical area, strong countries were interested in Lebanon because of its geographical location and its view of the shores of the Mediterranean, which makes it a gateway to enter the Middle East or to go west.
The Lebanese political situation and diplomatic policy based on bringing together the countries of the West and the East at the same table without enmity or differences have made Lebanon a political dilemma, as it has become a main country in achieving the major strategic policy goals of the strongest countries.
The United States will not be able to control the Middle East securely without entering through the gate of this region and retaining the key to the gate, just as China cannot implement the Belt and Road Initiative in an effective manner without crossing from the Lebanese Gate towards the West. Lebanon is a member state of the Belt and Road Initiative, and it has played an important role in the success of the ancient Silk Road.
Today, Lebanon is going through a sensitive phase in the political system of government, so that the people are unanimous in restoring the political decision from the great powers to the national scene. It has been the norm that when any president is elected or any decision is made, the majority of politicians should communicate with regional and international powers without appealing to the popular will. Perhaps this process, which is outside the legal and constitutional frameworks that violate the sovereignty of the state, is the most important reason behind the failure of Chinese investment to enter Lebanon strongly, these investments, which will be the biggest driver for boosting the Lebanese economy and ensuring national sovereignty at the same time.
The Lebanese rejoiced over the formation of the new government headed by Dr. Hassan Diab, and this government has made its important promise to move away from the political traditional way of governance and work seriously to save the Lebanese economy and support the exchange rate of the Lebanese lira. In order to accomplish this task, Dr. Ghazi Wazni was chosen as Minister of Finance. Dr. Wazni as an economist is fully certain that the process of saving the national economy will not take place from the inside. Lebanon needs either donations of support from foreign countries or borrowing like what happened in CEDRE, which will cost the state a lot and increase the proportion of public debt, and the last way out is the government’s adoption of a new policy based on facilitating foreign investment in Lebanon, which increases imports to the national treasury and accelerates the movement of economic growth by securing jobs, foreign exchange entry and restoring confidence in Lebanon as a potential economic partner.
Experiences with previous governments have proven that Lebanon is still in the cycle of external dependence and that there is no actual Lebanese internal political decision. This issue appeared clearly after the Chinese investment file was neglected, as was the practice with many other economically and socially important issues.In an interview with Chinese Ambassador to Lebanon Wang Kejian, he stressed that China is ready to invest in Lebanon and provide facilities for the most important Chinese companies to come and invest, provided that the official request from the Lebanese government is appropriate.
Lebanon is an official partner of China through the Belt and Road Initiative, and this is the appropriate opportunity for Lebanon to support its national economy and improve infrastructure, knowing that China has become one of the most important industrial countries and is able to make Lebanon an oasis of stability and prosperity unparalleled in the Middle East region. In addition to the strategic location on the Mediterranean, marine gas fields have been discovered containing huge quantities, and these are also important opportunities for the strategic partnership between China and Lebanon by contributing to oil exploration.
The new Lebanese government, which adopts the slogans of independence, fighting corruption and restoring looted funds, is required today to open doors to Chinese investment and encourages the development of the relationship between China and Lebanon in all fields. A large part of the problem that Lebanon is currently going through is the economic deficit and the state’s inability to meet the needs of the financial market. Therefore, for the sake of the Lebanese economy’s good and the public good, the new government must take immediate initiative to give guarantees to the Chinese for coming and investment, and that this position should be national without external influences.
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.
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