Late Sunday night in Washington, the White House announced it was pulling U.S. troops out of northeast Syria to clear the way for a Turkish invasion. The Kurds there who led the fight on the ground that defeated the so-called Islamic State had seen President Donald Trump’s betrayal coming. But still they hoped it could be avoided.
“Don’t let the Turks disrupt my wedding,” our translator texted in September prior to our arrival in the region. For more than a year, we have been visiting almost monthly to interview captured ISIS cadres held by the Kurdish and Arab troops of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as part of a project for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.
In September, we saw the Turkish threat to invade at any moment was held off by tense U.S. negotiations in which the SDF made considerable concessions, allowing Turkey to patrol jointly a large swath of territory while agreeing to remove checkpoints and military positions farther back from the Turkish border.
“They should put their patrols inside Turkish territory, and not enter Syria,” SDF leaders told us at the time, as they reluctantly acquiesced to U.S. demands.
Many current and former White House advisors counseled against the kind of announcement made Sunday night. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned last year over Trump’s threat to remove the few thousand U.S. troops in Syria, who not only served as advisors in the fight against ISIS, but as deterrence against Turkish operations east of the Euphrates River.
In a particularly bitter post on Twitter, Bret McGurk, who served as the special U.S. presidential envoy for the fight against ISIS from 2015 to 2018, wrote, “Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.”
The U.S. military learned about the withdrawal plan only after Trump decided on it following his Sunday phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It has pulled out of two small observation posts in the security-mechanism zone near the Syria-Turkey border so far. But no further withdrawals are imminent, according to a knowledgeable source. The military, remembering Trump’s December order out of Syria and subsequent reversal, is waiting to learn if Trump will follow through with withdrawal this time.
Trump responded to criticism this time with some extraordinary tweets. He made an explicit threat to Turkey if, as many anticipate, the Kurdish fighters now guarding thousands of ISIS prisoners redeploy to the Turkish front and there are massive escapes. “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate,” Trump wrote, “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”
There was no expression of concern for the Kurds.
A recently departed senior Pentagon official considered the pullout a “blatant betrayal” of the U.S.’ Kurdish partners that gives “carte blanche to Erdogan” for a widely forecast bloodletting. “It’s going to be a massacre, that’s clear,” the ex-official told The Daily Beast. “It’s fundamentally wrong. They destroyed the Caliphate.”
But the Kurds are not entirely defenseless. Military leaders of the dominant group, known as the YPG or People’s Protection Units (and their female YPJ partners), already were in overdrive in September, preparing for what they had long anticipated—a possible betrayal by their closest ally, the United States.
Alongside every major highway and criss-crossing the entire Northern Syria area, in fields, cities and towns, we saw digging for an extensive system of tunnels.
“We’re ready either way,” the Kurdish leaders told us when we asked if they trusted the Americans to keep the Turks at bay.
Kurds don’t have much, but their spirit of freedom and their desire to protect their hard-won territory and what they see as their incipient democracy was evident everywhere in September as the YPG troops prepared for battle with a much better equipped foe—the Turkish armed forces, the second biggest military in NATO.
But nobody who fought ISIS in Syria in one vicious battle after another has forgotten that the huge Turkish army stood by and did nothing against the Islamic State as its killers carried out genocidal campaigns against Yazidis and Shiites, while abducting, torturing, ransoming or beheading Americans, Europeans, and Japanese, among others. Through all that, NATO ally Turkey was not interested in intervention. Far from it.
That was until the White House statement Sunday night, up to which the U.S. military denied Turkey the ability to operate in airspace over SDF controlled territory, effectively making it more difficult to enter Northern Syria to conduct the “terrorist cleansing operation” that Turks insist upon. They already carried out one such operation in Afrin, west of the Euphrates, in January 2018, displacing Kurds and effectively taking over the area, using what Kurds claim are former ISIS cadres to fight for them.
Turks view the Northern Syria area of Rojava, and the YPG dominated SDF, as controlled by Kurdish PKK terrorists operating under another name—wolves in sheep’s clothing. Indeed, in times past—until 1998—PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, lived freely in Syria and the father of the current Assad allowed him to train and equip his highly disciplined terrorist group for attacks into Turkey. It’s also true that over time, the various governing parties of Syria, Iraq and Iran have made use of PKK assaults on Turks as a way to exert pressure on Turkish politics. Turkey has suffered greatly from PKK terrorist attacks both inside Turkey and globally, and the PKK is clearly designated on the U.S. and EU’s list of terrorist organizations.
In recent concessions to Turkey’s alarm over the SDF, a group they view as being in the hands of the PKK, the U.S. recently added additional individuals involved in the PKK to the U.S. State Department’s specially designated terrorist list. Turkey has also developed drones that fly over the Qandil mountains, in northern Iraq, making it easier to spot PKK movements and routinely send fighter jets to bomb them.
In the case of northern Syria however, until President Trump’s announcement late Sunday night Washington time, the U.S. policy was to deny the Turks military incursions into territory where U.S. troops patrol and the U.S. military controls the airspace and claims by Turkey that the SDF is PKK have also been hotly disputed.
While Turkey sees the SDF as dominated and led by a terrorist organization, the U.S. has a completely different perspective, viewing the YPG and SDF as valued allies in the fight against ISIS. Indeed, YPG and YPJ (Women’s People’s Protection Units) fighters lost over 1,000 lives fighting ISIS and it is common to see Kurdish men and women in Rojava on crutches, in wheelchairs and otherwise suffering from serious and lifelong injuries sustained in the battle to retake ISIS dominated areas, including Raqqa.
While the rest of the world was silent, the YPG and YPJ can also take credit for going to the rescue of the Yazidis on Sinjar mountain in 2014, fighting to stop ISIS from carrying out a massive genocidal campaign in which ISIS cadres captured and enslaved countless Yazidi women, boys, and girls. The men were killed by ISIS, the boys killed or indoctrinated. The women and girls subsequently were raped and treated as chattel. But thousands were able to escape with YPG help.
At present the SDF houses thousands of captured ISIS prisoners, holding the men in repurposed schools and prisons overflowing with former fighters and in camps similarly run at overcapacity for ISIS women and children. According to a March 2019 UN report, a total of 8,000 Islamic State fighters currently are held in SDF custody.
In our recent visits to north and east Syria from May through August, relying on our primary intelligence sources, we were told that approximately 2,000 of these Islamic State prisoners were considered “foreign terrorist fighters” from North Africa, Europe, and the Americas.
The same data was also corroborated in an August 2019 press release by the Office of the Spokesperson, Special Envoy of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Ambassador James Jeffrey. Just under a 1,000 of the prisoners are believed to be Europeans.
ICSVE has interviewed approximately five percent of those detained. Most appear to have become totally disillusioned, are exhausted from battle and prison and say they want to lay down arms. While there is no specific deradicalization or rehabilitation program applied to them at present and we have been requested by the SDF and also agreed to build one, it’s safe to say the majority are spontaneously deradicalizing and simply want to return home to their former lives after facing a judicial process.
The SDF prisons are overcrowded and the SDF leadership repeatedly has expressed a need to ICSVE researchers for technical assistance in dealing with terrorist prisoners and for financial assistance to build at least five prisons. Riots and attempted jail breaks have occurred in SDF prisons holding foreign fighters. Likewise, recent news reporting shows over-capacity has prisoners sleeping next to each other on their sides to be able to fit into small and overcrowded rooms.
Three detention centers holding ISIS women and children also are administered by the SDF: Camps Hol, Ain Issa and Roj. According to a UN Report as of April 2019 an estimated 75,000 women and children were being held. Our data suggests that at least 60,000 are Syrians and Iraqis. At least 8,000 children and 4,000 wives of foreign fighters remain in the camp.
Women and children live in tents in these camps which are hot in the summer, freezing cold during winter, and leak cold rainwater as well. Dust blows around the camps causing breathing difficulties for some. Women and children have died of typhus, tent fires, and other dangers in the camps. Recently vaccinations have been offered, but many mothers don’t trust the program and refrain from having their children vaccinated. The women cook for themselves and complain that the food provided them lacks nutritious fruits and vegetables. Schools are lacking as well.
All of the camps housing women have suffered from ISIS enforcers still dedicated to the group who require the other women to continue to cover themselves and punish those who speak out against them. These women have attacked other women, set their tents on fire, stolen their possessions, attacked, bitten, beaten and stabbed guards and have murdered other women creating a sense of chaos, constant danger and oppression in the camps. Recently a gun fight broke out in Camp Hol, with one woman killed and seven wounded.
Foreign fighters from about 60 countries remain in SDF custody. We have interviewed foreign fighters who are nationals of the United States, Canada, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, the UK, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Dagestan, Turkey, Denmark, Russia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia, Indonesia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Libya, Switzerland, Egypt, and Germany.
While the SDF has struggled to contain the overflow of captured ISIS fighters, they have been frustrated by Turkish politics and threats to their very existence. In recent years with the Syrian uprising and rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the Turks saw it to be to their advantage to fund, train and equip Islamist rebels that they believed could keep the Kurdish independence movements in Syria in a weakened state or altogether destroyed.
The Kurds, meanwhile, fought back in 2015 when ISIS invaded the city of Kobani on the Turkish border and rose up as a valiant on-the-ground force to repel the terrorists. The U.S. led coalition began arming and supplying the YPG and YPJ, and providing air cover, infusing the Kurds with a powerful sense of valor and military might that ultimately led to the complete territorial defeat of an Islamic State “Caliphate” that had taken as its motto “remain and expand.”
ISIS is hardly a defeated foe however, with weekly sleeper cell attacks occurring in both Syria and Iraq and the likes of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi still making video and audio appeals to supporters around the world to reinstate the Caliphate, starting with breaking the ISIS prisoners out of captivity.
The subject of ISIS captives is one of great importance to President Trump who repeatedly has threatened to release the roughly 12,000 ISIS foreign men, women and children prisoners held by the SDF in prisons and camps. Trump’s view is that each country has to take its citizens back, even countries like Sweden that lack a terrorism law under which to prosecute returnees, and countries like France, which already has a serious militant jihadi prison problem and fears any more potential ISIS cadres inside its penitentiaries.
These countries have continued to tell the SDF that an international tribunal can be established in its territory to try ISIS prisoners in place. But the UN Counter Terrorism Directorate and U.S. State Department strongly disagree with this proposal and President Trump continues to tweet that he is simply going to release the prisoners to European countries refusing to repatriate them—even though it is the SDF, not Washington, that has them in custody.
In a series of tweets on Monday, Trump claimed erroneously that most of the ISIS prisoners are foreigner terrorist fighters and seemed to ignore that ISIS, even when based far away in Syria, is a very real threat to U.S. citizens and interests.
It is “time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to … figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their “neighborhood.” They all hate ISIS, have been enemies for years. We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!”
While arguments of who should be responsible to prosecute and hold ISIS prisoners can be made on both sides, in many ways Europe, Jordan and many other countries effectively did “flush the toilet” of their militant jihadi problem by allowing them to freely exit their countries to go fight in Syria, most of them ultimately joining ISIS. The U.S. at present repatriates all of its ISIS fighters bringing them to swift and sound justice at home.
ISIS Ambassador to Turkey
Turkey also has a responsibility in the rise of ISIS, having allowed over 40,000 foreign fighters to cross over its border into Syria, many unabashedly on their way to join the Islamic State. Many prisoners tell us of Turkish complicity with their journey into ISIS-land and being wished well by border guards who winked as they crossed into Syria.
Abu Mansour, a 36-year-old Moroccan ISIS emir interviewed by ICSVE in February 2019 in Iraqi prison, told us that he basically functioned as the ISIS ambassador to Turkey, negotiating border issues, the transfer of ISIS wounded into Turkey for treatment, the flow of foreign fighters across the Turkish border into ISIS territory, and other logistics. “The subject of Turkey is a very big one,” he said, “and the mutual interests include the obvious and the hidden.”
“Their benefit was that it was a border area and we have a border strip with them,” Abu Mansour continued. “Security is one of them, and they wanted to control north of Syria.” The Turks wanted to control the entire border region in Syria and even into Iraq as far as Mosul, according to Abu Mansour, but they wanted to do it through a proxy force. “So, they wanted to find organizations that would do this favor for them, including terminating the presence of the Kurdish Workers Party [the PKK], without a direct interference from Turkey. At the same time, especially since they were part of NATO, they don’t want to anger NATO, because they need NATO.”
By the same token, Turkish President Erdogan’s background as a committed Islamist created a certain sympathy, as did his ambition to revive in modern form the old Ottoman empire, Abu Mansour claimed. “The pretext of [controlling the] Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] is a strong pretext for Turkey, but they have ambitions, as they have entered regions that don’t have PKK in them.”
Abu Mansour explained the Turkish and ISIS relationship through his own experiences. In 2013, he said, he was assigned to receive the ISIS volunteers arriving in Turkey, but later, “I supervised the country entry operations, registration as a whole.” Then in 2015, he said, “I worked on external relations, relations with the Turkish intelligence. It started when I was at the borders.” First there was an agreement about passing the wounded from Syria into Turkey, about the border crossing and security arrangements.
“Ambulances, especially in critical and serious situations, could go straight to the [border] gate,” said Abu Mansour. “Then a Turkish ambulance takes the case to the Turkish hospitals, and it is followed up inside Turkey. There was a hotline with intelligence who are located at the borders. Most places were available, [including] hospitals in Turkey [and] there was a technical staff of doctors who follow up the case in Turkey. The [Turkish] state was paying for certain operations performed in private hospitals, but most cases referred by the public hospitals were for free.”
Abu Mansour said he had “face-to-face meetings with Turkish delegations. Sometimes they represented the intelligence services, sometimes the Turkish army, depending on the issue. “Most meetings were in Turkey on the border strip, but there were also meetings in Ankara and Gaziantep, depending on the issue,” said Abu Mansour. He would travel with a delegation of two or three ISIS people.”
Referencing the easy relationship, as he saw it, between ISIS and the Turkish intelligence and military, Abu Mansour claimed, an ISIS emir could “go to Ankara without a problem. They always sent a car, or a bodyguard. At one point, we met weekly, depending on the issue and its importance to Turkey and to us, according to the demand.”
The situation described by Abu Mansour raises a question: did the ultimate defeat of ISIS in fact deprive the Turks of the proxy buffer zone they wanted—which they are now invading Syria to establish?
Abu Mansour recalled, “Turkey asked on many occasions for a safe zone.” This would be a demilitarized zone where it would provide ISIS with whatever it wanted, but only inside Syrian territories. According to Abu Mansour, , ISIS refused to grant it, and relations started to fall apart.
Eventually, Turkey grew sick of the back and forth, and there was also a split in ISIS leadership, with one faction deciding it would take the terror war into Turkey with a 2016 bombing at Istanbul airport.
At the time, Abu Mansour was in Gaziantep, Turkey, and the Turkish authorities told him they thought this was an orchestrated act to pressure Ankara. But he says that was not the case. The external security services of ISIS had started setting their own agenda, “carrying out operations everywhere,” Abu Mansour told us. “We reached a state in which they couldn’t care less about politics, and they worked like gangs, [and would] strike anywhere.”
While Turkey continues to claim that the SDF, our strongest ally in fighting ISIS, is a terrorist dominated group, many questions remain about Turkey’s own complicity with ISIS. Given that during a bitterly fought war with ISIS, in which many Kurdish lives were lost, that the SDF managed to take control of the area, institute a functioning political system that included granting an impressive array of minority rights and rights to women, the SDF deserves our respect and protection.
But U.S. President Donald Trump has put a price on all this. “The Kurds fought with us,” he tweeted, “but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.” That they saved countless lives in the process, including American lives, does not seem to have been a factor.
Spencer Ackerman also contributed reporting to this article.
Author’s note: first published in The Daily Beast
The outcome of the Berlin Conference
Twelve countries and organizations have participated in the Berlin Conference on Libya, which has just ended.
There have been all the countries and organizations that really count in Libya. Egypt, which obviously supports General Haftar for the security of its particularly sensitive eastern borders, as well as to avoid the progressive expansion eastwards – starting from Tunisia and Tripolitania – of the Muslim Brotherhood, that is the axis of al-Sarraj’s regime and the international point of reference, inter alia, of President Erdogan’s Turkey.
Algeria, which also fears the spreading of political instability originating from Libya that would strike it immediately. It does not absolutely want to be excluded from the Libyan pacification “process”, although it strongly opposes Turkey’s role in protecting al-Sarraj’s regime.
Congo, which wants to avoid the jihadization – resulting from the expansion of the Libyan jihad – of the recent internal conflict originated from the militias called CODECO, with the further violent Islamization of the Lendu ethnic group.
Turkey, which wants above all to start to exploit the land and sea areas facing Tripolitania’s coast, through an agreement already signed with al- Sarraj’s government – an agreement which has both the economic and oil component and its corollary for the military “collaboration”, i.e. protection, of Tripolitania, indirectly aimed against Italy and, in some respects, against the EU itself.
This is the reason why this Turkish choice is also good for Vladimir Putin.
Turkey’s move in Tripolitania is also targeted against Saudi Arabia and it has been harshly commented by Egypt, which does not want to have the Muslim Brotherhood in the way, not even in the distance. The latter is the political-military organization against which Al Sisi organized his coup.
Moreover, Greece, which is slowly being involved again in the economic and strategic game in the Mediterranean and trades much oil and gas with Misrata, wants to oppose – even military- Turkey’s designs on the Mediterranean, possibly with Israel’s and Cyprus’ support.
Obviously, the Lebanon and Jordan are fiercely opposed to the aims of Erdogan’s Turkey in Libya and certainly do not favour al-Sarraj’s Tripolitania.
The reason is the close relationship between the Tripoli government, Erdogan’s AKP Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.
It should be recalled that the Islamist radicalization of a young, very rich and westernized Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden began when he met, as a young enfant gâté, a university Professor from Ikhwan, the Brotherhood.
If the military leader of Tobruk and Benghazi, namely Khalifa Haftar – who is also the military leader of a government that won the elections, but had no international recognition – wins, Turkey will automatically lose access to the oil it is drilling in Tripolitania and on the Libyan coast.
In Berlin there were also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
It should be noted that on January 6, 2020 Ghassam Salamé, the UN special envoy and French-Lebanese Head of UNSMIL, stated that “the other nations” – meaning the countries outside the Security Council – “must not meddle in Libyan affairs”.
The not-so-hidden reference was to the bombing of a cadet military academy by “a country friendly to Haftar’s forces”. The attack, however, was carried out with weapons coming from countries which have long been members of the UN Security Council.
The UN primary countries want to marginalize the current, albeit minor, points of references for the forces in Libya, but the member countries of the UN Security Council have chosen different and opposing military groups to operate with their interests in Libya. However, at least formally, the whole UN organization supports al-Sarraj’s Tripolitania.
A geopolitical Rubik’s Cube.
What does Italy want from the Berlin Conference on Libya? First and foremost, the Italian government is “optimistic”, which is not so usual in strategic and geopolitical thinking.
“Everyone is to be involved” to take a “step towards peace and stability”. It seems the appeal of a motivational speech for vendors. We are a very strong team.
Then, there comes a 1960s pacifist-style speech, i.e. “a military solution is not a solution”. But the military solution is already in place and hence the problem is no longer there.
Not to finally mention the fact that the government has almost completely forgotten ENI in Libya.
Immediately negotiating with the new leaders of the anti-Gaddafi uprising, at the beginning of the feral 2011, with talks supported by an excellent former Director of Italy’s intelligence services, ENI has endured and tolerated everything.
Insulated, with very little staff and a dozen managers flying to and fro other areas, it has suffered – more than any other Italian national organization in Libya – the strange option of the current Italian government to find a sort of balance between the two great opposing military camps in Libya.
It is easy to imagine how useful this is for the protection of Italian interests, which are – or would be – fundamental.
Hateful to God and to His enemies – as in Inferno, Canto III of Dante’s Divine Comedy reference is made to those about whom we are currently talking, namely the ignavi,i.e. the inefficient or indifferent people, as well as the opportunists.
In 2018 ENI started again oil explorations in Libya, while it was clear that none of the Libyan factions had a real interest in achieving peace.
What are the prospects? The decrease -despite everything – of ENI’s Libyan extraction quota, which is currently worth about 15% of Italy’s national requirements, without even imagining where we will get what we need later, if we lose it in Libya.
The “free” market would certainly see Italy losing out.
In the framework of the Berlin Conference, however, the Italian government has confined itself to prescribing to put some flowers in our guns, with very pleasant additions on the fact that since our soldiers are “peace soldiers”, they will not go to protect themselves from possible attacks, operations or breaks of the possible ceasefire, but will possibly act as “municipal messengers” or as law enforcement officers to notify of military clashes to whom it may concern.
This is stuff for a small-town Prosecutor’s Office, the mentality of young lawyers with little experience.
They will bring the “Clean Hands Operation”- from which Italy’s tunted Second Republic originated – to Libya.
The problem also lies in the fact that the real negotiation between al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar was already carried out by others, namely Turkey and Russia, on January 12 last.
It does not matter that much that the Chief of the Tobruk and Benghazi Forces, namely Haftar, withdrew from the final bilateral document on the permanent ceasefire, just a moment before its signing.
Those who will settle the matter anyway – and well before we may think – will only be Erdogan and Putin.
The Turkish leader wants to maintain – in any case and in any way – his spot in Tripolitania, in a future of ever-increasing oil and migration conditioning vis-à-vis the unaware (and indolent) European Union. That is enough for him.
A blackmail conditioning from the “Balkan corridor”, which President Erdogan has already experienced for a long time, and a current and future “maritime corridor” from Tripolitania, which will soon make its voice be heard strongly.
It is also incredible that in Italy the migration issue, which is essential also from a strategic and security viewpoint, has been tackled so superficially by all political parties.
Al-Sarraj also asked to include Tunisia and Qatar in the list of participants in the Berlin Conference. His request went unheeded.
The reason why the request was not met is obvious. These two countries are Tripoli’s quasi-friends: Tunisia is interested in the security of its very important borders and oil pipelines from Libya to the Tunisian sea and to Italy, while Qatar is a distant but generous supporter of Muslim Brotherhood’s Tripolitania.
The conclusions that can be drawn are in line with the tradition of previous peace conferences on Libya – that is, irrelevant.
All the major demands were, in fact, accepted in the final document, thus making it unusable for some operations on the ground in Libya.
Or for an effective political solution. A strategic falling between two stools.
Probably that was its ultimate goal.
However, it begins to emerge the establishment – which we imagine to be very complex and cumbersome – of a 5+5 Committee between al-Sarraj’s government (and who knows why it is still recognized by the United Nations) and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). A body which will be bound to fail if it remains a joint body fully based on members on an equal footing. The “Berlin Process” on Libya was initiated on January 19. As you have certainly noticed, nowadays all the endless negotiations on Libya (Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi and other backroom ones) are pompously defined as “processes”.
Again on the basis of the final statement of the Berlin Conference, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) will organize an International Follow-Up Committee, made up of representatives from all the countries and organizations that participated in the Berlin Conference on January 19.
A repetition? Probably not.
This sequence of similar documents, piling up one upon the other will be a way to play all possible sides and make the Libyan conflict last ad infinitum. This may definitely and permanently harm some countries (such as Italy) but will certainly favour others, such as Turkey, the Russian Federation and France.
In Libya, as also in the European Union, currently every game is a “zero-sum game”.
The conclusions of this Follow-Up Committee will be submitted directly to the UN Security Council, which sees strongly conflicting interests on Libya represented within it.
Moreover, the Committee’s conclusions shall be in line with all the “processes” prior to the one which has just begun in Berlin. As said in the final statement of the Berlin Conference, said “processes” also refer to the “three-point plan” drawn up by Ghassan Salamé on July 30, 2019.
The UN special envoy’s plan regarded – first and foremost – a truce, which began on August 10, 2019, for Eid-Al Adha, the Islamic Festival of the Sacrifice.
So much ado for a few-days truce, which could be negotiated by a local Imam without problems? Who knows!
Why referring so explicitly to a short truce that has already occurred? It is a mystery.
Probably the aim is to give more power to Salamé – hence just say so.
Again last August, the second point of Salamé’s plan consisted in organizing an International Conference, which was in fact already organized and closed in Berlin, but with the participation of all the countries concerned and interested in the Libyan conflict. Indeed, not all of them were present in Berlin.
Well, we have already done it – so what? Another Conference, like those of Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi and Berlin? To say what? We cannot see anything new under the sun.
A Conference is a Conference is a Conference, like Gertrude Stein’s rose.
Finally, the third point of Salamé’s plan regarded a Conference – and this is exactly what we need! -between the political and military “parties” present in Libya and anyway of Libyan origin.
It will be the most crowded and – we imagine – the least effective Conference. And probably the roughest and most vociferous one.
In Libya as elsewhere, however, the truce regards the ability of the mediating third party alone to make it credible for those who wish to sign it.
Without this ability of effective and immediate recourse to the “third-party in Law” (if we can here use a concept of Roman law) no one signs a truce whatsoever.
Furthermore, which is the only way to enforce a ceasefire? Possibly creating an “interposition force”, which makes both parties’ probable war and criminal intentions more technically difficult?
No, I do not think so because, in this case, the Interposition Force – organized to make a truce hold – cannot control the non-military movements of both sides’ positions, which will become warlike at a later stage.
Anyway, while Libya has become the area of a new great proxy war between enemies, allies and quasi-friends, when reaching truces, all of them which are outside Libya will certainly start to deploy their military potentials in new areas.
In this case, truces are a way to wage and make war, not to stop it, even temporarily.
In essence, as the final statement candidly admits, the Berlin Conference wanted to unite and muster international support for a political solution in Libya.
Here, there are two possible alternative options.
Either we go on with the potentially endless sequence of irresolute Conferences, attended by countries which do not even dream of sending troops to Libya, if not to be used as traffic policemen.
Or a real international force is created, possibly under the UN aegis, which of course does not pacify Libya, but establishes those who win or lose power in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
Yet the question remains: do we really want a new Libya split up in the various Ottoman vilayets, as it was before the Italian pre-Fascist colonization, or do we still really want a united Libya?
In the latter case, which will be the small group of European or non-European powers that will manage their inevitable hegemony over the still united Libya?
Because it should be recalled that, in many areas of the old “sandbox”, there is a national Libyan feeling that often overlaps with loyalty to one’s own katiba or the traditional alliance of the various tribes with one’s own.
Some years ago, even a young agent of the “new” Libyan intelligence Services told me that the Libyan national feeling is stronger than we may believe, even if it mixes – surprisingly and hence unpredictably – with tribe hierarchies.
We should also recall the positive effect that the authoritarian welfare State established by Gaddafi had for many years. In a paper of the Bertelsmann Foundation published a few days before the start of the Benghazi insurgency, it is stated that Libya was on average much better than Southern Italy in terms of income and social services and benefits.
Finally, also in the Berlin Conference it was reiterated that “there could be no possible military solution” for Libya.
Of course, because the military solution is already in place it and it has been so for many years. It is made up of potentially equivalent forces, with equivalent protectors, who will therefore never be able to really find an agreement.
However, as Machiavelli said, cum parole non si mantengono li Stati.
Westerners’ sloth is no wonder, even though the gains for every Western country would be scarce and limited.
Italy is an unstructured country that, with controlled or uncontrolled immigration, will import and has probably already imported many jihadists in Europe, the next area of deep deconstruction. For Italy, Libya is a country that – being no longer fundamental for oil, except for Italy only – remains fundamental for the international oil and gas markets.
Hence, what are we doing? We are wasting time with talks and diplomatic “processes”, waiting for someone to win on his own in Libya and dictate his conditions.
Obviously the final statement of the Berlin Conference could not fail to make reference to the fight against terrorism and “illegal” migration.
First and foremost, we must never speak generically of “terrorism”, which is a universal practice, but rather of a specific and refined jihadist warfare strategy, which is very different from what we call terrorism, even if it certainly does not exclude it.
This also applies to the Koranic doctrine of “truce”, which would be a very interesting topic to discuss here.
I imagine, however, that the intellectual arrogance of Westerners makes the unrepentant conference-goers believe that the only war and peace doctrine is the one which is developed and practiced in the framework of the enlightened, secularist and rationalist universalism.
They are wrong. Currently most of the people living in the world conceive and make war in a very different way from what Grotius, Kant or Althusius theorized.
With specific reference to “illegal” migration which is, in fact, an asymmetrical war system, as also the “sword jihad”, a less moralistic and legal analysis should be made.
The winners send illegal migrants to the countries of their enemies or economic or military competitors, the losers take them all and must also keep silent.
Has the Italian government ever imagined the reason underlying the very powerful information and defamation war on Italy, with so many NGOs built ad hoc, during the previous “yellow-green” government?
Do you believe that our EU friends are not involved in these issues? Certainly not.
Ultimately, the final statement of the “Berlin process” refers not only to the embargo on all arms – which is completely useless, considering that Libya is full of weapons, and everyone can anyway get them from the south – but also to the “equal sharing and distribution of wealth”, albeit it is not clear between whom, but we can here understand the very complex issue of the relationship between the NOC, the Libyan Central Bank and Khalifa Haftar’s LNA.
Finally, we speak of “legitimate and lawful use of force” to be granted only to States (or to the State).
Which State, in Libya? Tripolitania – which is now reduced to a few districts of Tripoli, with some katibe of Misrata, the military axis of al-Sarraj’s regime, already shifted to Haftar’s control – or the Tobruk-Bengasi one, for which Haftar is fighting, which has won the elections but has not been recognized by the external powers and the United Nations?
Who is really legitimate and lawful? It is hard to answer this question, even if we only thought – as it is now usual among Western powers – of a political and State legitimacy that is simply granted by Western countries or by the United Nations.
Hence how many legitimate and lawful States are there in Africa? Once again it is hard to answer this question.
It would be good to go back to the classics, from Hobbes to Spinoza. Even under the fierce sun of Libya, as when Lawrence of Arabia read Suetonius (obviously in Latin) riding his camel in Wadi Rumm.
Turkey’s Role in the Libyan Conflict
On January 8, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan met in Istanbul. Discussions focused on the launch of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, as well as topical issues on the international agenda. After the meeting, both presidents called on all parties involved in the Libyan conflict to cease hostilities from January 12 and take a seat at the negotiating table. Putin and Erdogan confirmed the high level of contractibility demonstrated earlier by other politicians on other painful issues.
Of course, the ceasefire in Libya suits Ankara’s foreign policy interests, since in a one-on-one battle, the Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by Turkey and recognised by the UN as the legitimate government of Libya, would have difficulty repelling new attacks by the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the General Khalifa Haftar and protecting controlled territory. Due to the intensification of hostilities in December 2019 and the new LNA campaign in Tripoli, the head of the GNA Faiz Saraj turned to the head of the Turkish state with a request to provide military support to Tripoli. Turkish President Recep Erdogan forwarded the relevant bill to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, and, on January 2, the parliament approved the sending of Turkish troops to Libya by a majority vote. Soon after Erdogan announced that Turkish units are already in Libya.
In response to the decision of the Turkish parliament to support the sending of the Turkish military contingent to Libya, the LNA commander Khalifa Haftar announced a general mobilisation. His troops are currently conducting active hostilities and are gradually moving towards the centre of Tripoli. Recent major territorial acquisitions include the non-functioning capital airport, as well as the city of Sirte and its environs. However, the fact that Turkish troops are already in Libya can significantly complicate the further attack of the LNA.
The Establishment of a Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean
The conclusion of two agreements with the government of Faiz Saraj preceded Turkish interference in the Libyan conflict. On November 27, 2019, Turkey signed a memorandum with the GNA on the delimitation of maritime zones in the Mediterranean Sea, which establishes new maritime borders of Libya and Turkey. The signed document confirms the rights of Ankara to a significant part of the east of the Mediterranean Sea, where there are significant natural gas reserves. Previously, Turkey carried out illegal geological exploration in the economic zone of Cyprus in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea.
The agreement reached between Recep Erdogan and Faiz Saraj raised concerns among other Eastern Mediterranean states also interested in gaining access to hydrocarbon production in these areas. Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus have made statements that the memorandum violates international law. The European Union also declared a similar position, which even did not recognise the maritime agreement between the Republic of Turkey and the GNA in connection with the violation of the sovereign rights of third states.
The agreements reached between Ankara and Tripoli strengthened the Turkish position in the region. Certainly, the designation of an exclusive economic zone led to even greater isolation of Turkey and the notable deterioration in relations with other states of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is also important to mention that the Republic of Turkey has become somewhat dependent on the stability of the Faiz Saraj regime. The agreement with him gives Ankara at least the fragile validity of Turkish claims for a hydrocarbon-rich part of the East of the Mediterranean Sea. This means that the Turkish leadership in Libya protects not only the pro-Turkish GNA, but also its interests in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea.
So Why Does Egypt Support Khalifa Haftar?
In Libya, Turkey is confronted with the interests of its foreign policy opponents; in particular, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Arab Republic of Egypt (ARE). The latter is the main ally of General Khalifa Haftar. Cairo supports the LNA, because members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation banned in Egypt, are operating in Libya. The commander-in-chief of the LNA successfully fights with them, as well as with jihadists that pose a threat to the security of ARE. Besides, the instability of the situation in Libya negatively affects business activity in the region, which is detrimental to the Egyptian economy. The troops of Khalifa Haftar are the only force capable of restoring relative order in Libya. While Haftar’s troops have established control over most of the country’s territory, including major oil fields, it is difficult for GNA to control Tripoli. The geographical factor makes Egyptian support for LNA more effective.
Through the border with Libya, militants of the “Islamic state” enter Egypt and arms smuggling flourishes. The Egyptian leadership is trying to secure its borders with the help of additional troops and armoured vehicles, for example, the Egyptian space satellite used to control the border effectively. ARE authorities say that most of the weapons used by the ISIS cell in the Sinai Peninsula come from neighbouring Libya. The statistics demonstrate the scale of the problem. For example, from 2015 to 2017 Egyptian soldiers destroyed more than 1,200 trucks with weapons and explosives sent from Libya to Egypt.
The House of Representatives promises to build a border wall on the border with Egypt, although the effectiveness of the project raises great doubts – the length of the wall will be merely 1 km, while the length of the border between the two states is more than 1,100 km.
Nevertheless, the government controlled by Khalifa Haftar is demonstrating a willingness to tackle the problem of arms smuggling across the Libyan-Egyptian border. Additionally, Khalifa Haftar proved that he would rather fight terrorist groups than negotiate with them. The terrorist threat posed by militants in Libya is a serious security challenge in Egypt, so Cairo supports Haftar in the Libyan conflict. Besides, the GNA is a government focused on Ankara, Cairo’s foreign policy opponent. Any strengthening of the government of Faiz Saraj in Egypt is perceived as strengthening the position of Turkey in North Africa.
Cairo actively reacted to the signing of agreements between Turkey and the GNA, as well as to the introduction of the Turkish military in Libya. In particular, President al-Sisi called the President of Cyprus Nikos Anastasiadis and the President of France Emmanuel Macron to discuss measures to impede the implementation of the agreements reached between Ankara and Tripoli.
Egypt told the UN Security Council that it does not recognise the agreements. According to the representative of Egypt to the UN, Mohammed Edris, Egypt does not consider the signed memorandums as legitimate, because they were not ratified by the Libyan House of Representatives.
The Role of Extra-Regional Players in the Libyan Peace Building Process
The position of the Republic of Turkey on the Libyan issue is not shared with its NATO allies – France and the United States. Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron contributed to the formation of the diplomatic status of Khalifa Haftar and supported his political independence. When Haftar tried to take Tripoli in the spring of 2019, France blocked an EU statement urging Khalifa Haftar to stop the LNA attack on Tripoli. Besides, according to the media, France supplied anti-tank weapons to the LNA, bypassing the arms embargo. In particular, Javelin missiles were handed over to Khalifa Haftar’s troops.
In April 2019, the unique role of Field Marshal Haftar in the fight against terrorism in Libya was recognised by U.S. President Donald Trump. Then Washington threatened to block the UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and stop the advance of troops in Tripoli. Responding to the new offensive of Khalifa Haftar in the Libyan capital, the White House invited the parties to the Libyan conflict to refrain from receiving outside assistance, and thus again supported the actions of the LNA unofficially. This initiative was directed primarily against Turkey and the transfer of the Turkish military to Libya.
In addition to France and Egypt, Khalifa Haftar is supported by Jordan and the UAE. In addition to providing financial assistance, some countries supply weapons to the LNA, despite the UN arms embargo. UAE delivered LNA unmanned aerial vehicles. Turkey, of course, provided GNA drones.
To sum up, Libya is becoming one of the key strategic directions of Turkey’s foreign policy, which is probably considering the country as an arena for confrontation with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, the UAE, and other unfriendly states. At the same time, the mutual dependence of Ankara and Tripoli on each other is growing. Turkey is the main ally for the GNA, for the sake of which it is ready to send its troops to the combat zone. The formal legitimacy of the Turkish geological exploration and Ankara’s rights to the exclusive economic zone depends on the durability of the Faiz Saraj regime.
Dissatisfaction with Ankara’s actions continues to grow: the decision to introduce Turkish army units was condemned by the United States, the EU, Russia and some regional actors. Turkish troops will not leave Libya as long as Haftar’s forces besiege Tripoli. A major problem remains the agreements reached between Turkey and the Saraj government on military cooperation between Ankara and Tripoli, as well as the delineation of exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean Sea. Washington promised to support Cyprus and Greece in resolving the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, and Erdogan promised not to recede from concluded deals even though, as we know, it is a clear violation of the arms embargo and inconsistency with the principles of international law.
The USA, France and some other states continue to regard the LNA as the main bulwark of the fight against terrorism in Libya. Haftar’s troops remain the most combat-ready armed forces, which have a much higher chance of stabilising the situation in Libya than their opponents. It was demonstrated by the victorious struggle of the LNA with the terrorist groups Islamic State, Ansar al-Sharia, Wrath of Fesan, etc.
Al-Sisi supports Haftar for the same reason, besides the issue of ensuring stability in Libya is directly related to the security of his state. Also, both politicians declare their tough stance towards Islamism, which makes them ideological allies.
Unfortunately, the establishment of a ceasefire can only lead to a temporary de-escalation of the conflict. In this situation, Russia may call on its partners not to violate the arms embargo on Libya. Besides, Moscow could initiate the adoption by the UN Security Council of a troop withdrawal resolution of any units of foreign states from the territory of the Libyan State. This measure would significantly reduce the degree of tension that has arisen in Libya in the past few weeks. Also, Russia can be an intermediary in the negotiations between the Libyan House of Representatives and the GNA. This is especially evident after Russia’s victories over ISIS in the Syrian Arab Republic, the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, it’s possible that the role of Moscow as a broker of dialogue will bring positive results.
From our partner RIAC
Libyan reconciliation: Via Moscow on to Berlin
During the January 8 talks in Istanbul, Turkey and Russia, acting as “mediators,” called on all parties in Libya to “cease hostilities from midnight on Sunday, January 12, 2020, declare a sustainable ceasefire, supported by necessary measures to be taken for stabilizing the situation on the ground and normalizing daily life in Tripoli and other cities, to immediately sit down at the negotiating table in order to put an end to the suffering of the Libyans and return peace and prosperity to the country.” The leaders of the warring parties – the Prime Minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Sarraj and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) – were invited to Moscow for talks.
While the GNA, hard-pressed by the situation at the front, was quick to accept the Russian-Turkish proposal, Haftar, whose forces are advancing on the capital, took his time.
“We welcome [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s call for a ceasefire. However, our fight against terrorist organizations that seized Tripoli and received support of some countries will continue until the end,” Haftar’s spokesman said.
However, Haftar was eventually persuaded by Russia to attend the Moscow parley.
The negotiations between the rival Libyan leaders, preceded by consultations by Russian and Turkish foreign and defense ministers, were conducted through intermediaries. Sarraj refused to meet in person with Haftar, saying that the LNA continued its advance, but still agreed to a ceasefire deal proposed by Moscow and Ankara. Khalifa Haftar first said he needed time to think it over, and then left Moscow altogether, explaining to the Russian military representatives that he was taking a time out to consult with his allies. According to media reports, he was not content with the absence in the text of the agreement primarily of clauses concerning the dissolution of GNA units, the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Libya and the annulment of memorandums signed by Tripoli and Ankara. Buoyed by their gains on the battlefield, the LNA leaders apparently prefer to talk with their opponents from a position of strength.
It was apparently with this understanding in mind that, immediately after their commander’s departure from Moscow, the LNA representatives said they were all set to achieve “the complete liberation of the capital from terrorists.” According to media reports, shortly after that, hostilities resumed south of Tripoli.
Meanwhile, the GNA’s ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened to “teach” Haftar “a lesson” if he did not stop his military advance on Tripoli. As to his ally, Sarraj, on his way back from Moscow, he made a stopover in Turkey, where he met with the US ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, at a hotel in Istanbul to discuss “issues of mutual interest.”
Well, the foreign policy context of the Libyan crisis is by no means less complicated than Syria’s. Sarraj is backed by Turkey and Qatar, and has Muslim Brotherhood units fighting on its side, while Haftar’s Libyan National Army faction is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Europe is trying to reconcile the warring parties, and Italy, France, and more recently Germany, have equally been active in this effort. The United States is “waking up” too.
While Syria is of little interest to most Western nations, Libya happens to be a sort of Europe’s underbelly the main flow of African refugees goes through. Besides, Libya’s hydrocarbon reserves are incomparable with Syria’s. Notably, just as Russian and Turkish officials were meeting in Istanbul, Sarraj was in Brussels meeting with EU representatives, and Haftar was on a visit to Rome.
Moscow has always kept an equal distance from both Tripoli and Tobruk (the seat of the House of Representatives and the interim government of Libya, supporting LNA), emphasizing its contacts with both sides of the conflict.
Now, Turkey and Russia have apparently decided to implement the successful Astana format, as some experts believe that the role once played by Iran could be assigned to Algeria both Moscow and Ankara are on good terms with now. During his inauguration ceremony last year, Algeria’s new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, prioritized the development of closer ties with Libya.
This won’t be easy though, just as the rival Libyan leaders demonstrated to a full extent in Moscow. Still, after many hours of negotiations, the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers spoke about having achieved “certain progress.” As a result of the two countries’ diplomatic effort, the irreconcilable (at least for now) Libyan enemies eventually arrived in Moscow – the last time Sarraj and Haftar met was a year ago, even before the LNA launched its “decisive attack” on Tripoli (April 2019). Moreover, “the main result of the meeting was the achievement of agreement in principle between the conflicting sides to maintain and indefinitely continue the cessation of hostilities, which creates a more favorable atmosphere for the Berlin Conference on Libya,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Russia wants much more than just to replicate Syrian developments, even the most successful ones. Moscow wants to get Europeans and regional actors working together to end the bloodshed in Libya.
“We want to combine the efforts being made by Europeans, including Germans, French and Italians, and by Libyan neighbors – Algeria, Egypt, and also the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, and the Russian Federation, to make sure that everyone works together to encourage all the Libyan parties to come to an agreement,” Russia’s acting Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said ahead of the Berlin Conference on Libya, scheduled for January 19.
Germany hopes to bring Fayez Sarraj, Khalifa Haftar, representatives of Russia, the US, China, Britain, Italy, France, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, the African Union, the EU, the United Nations and the League of Arab States to the negotiating table to discuss and, quoting German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, “possibly adopt” a document that will lead to a sustainable cessation of hostilities and start the political process under the auspices of the United Nations.
Skeptical as many experts are about the outcome of the Berlin meeting, it still seems that chances of success look very real. On the one hand, the position of Fayez Sarraj, who earlier said he was ready to agree, remains precarious. On the other hand, the highly representative lineup of participants in the Berlin forum may well convince Haftar (or his representatives, if the Field Marshal does not show up) to more realistically assess his capabilities. Therefore, the LNA’s activities following the Moscow talks could just be an attempt to strengthen its negotiating position ahead of the Berlin Conference.
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