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Unrest in Iraq: Continuation of the Arab Spring or a New Political Reality?

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Mass protests broke out in Baghdad on October 1, 2019, and continued all month long. The demonstrations spanned a large part of the country and have still not fully subsided. During that time, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior reported 100 people dead and over 1000 injured». The latest information puts the number of casualties at over 260 people.

Among the reasons cited for the actions are the general discontent with mass poverty and unemployment (over 20 per cent of the working-age population), the lack of social services, and corruption. However, starting from the second day of unrest, the protesters’ slogans began to turn political, with one of the most popular being “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime,” which is hard to see in any other light than a direct reference to the sentiments of the Arab Spring.

This association with the events of 2011 is far from accidental. The developments in Iraq are taking place in the same temporal continuum as the unrest in Algeria, which has been going on for almost a year. The same goes for mass protests in Sudan that took place on the eve of a military coup that ended up changing the political regime, and the turmoil in Lebanon that bears a striking resemblance to what is going on in Iraq. The nuances in each of these countries may differ somewhat. Still, one thing is clear: the demand for profound changes in political systems continues to span the entire region, and these four countries, which had remained either relatively unscathed or untouched altogether by the 2011 wave of protests, have now, eight years later, been pulled into the general area of socio-political aftershocks.

At the same time, in the case of Iraq, we are talking about the crisis of an entirely new political system — one that is barely 15 years old. And this system came into being with a number of “birth injuries”, under the influence of external forces and with dubious, or at least controversial, borrowings. The framers of Iraq’s constitutional system intended its model of political representation to support the stability of the post-Saddam order in the country. In reality, however, it failed to support stability during the entire period of its existence. The ethnic and denominational nature of the political system, which could not be reduced to a parliamentary-presidential republic, and the electoral system and process were riddled with pitfalls that gave rise to inevitable cataclysms.

The real ethnic and denominational situation resulted in the Shiites dominating the political spectrum, which entailed severe political consequences. For the first time, the Sunnis found themselves in a position of the ethnic-denominational minority. They felt the growing inferiority of their situation, which prompted many of them to join ISIS terrorist camps. The same situation motivated the Kurds to steer a course for independence. The overall terrorist threat during the expansion of ISIS rallied the Shiites and the Kurds to fight the pseudo-caliphate together. Yet, after ISIS was defeated, the Kurds held a referendum on independence. As a result, the country, which had not yet recovered from the terrible damage done by terrorists, once again found itself on the brink of collapse.

Although Kurdistan did not secede from Iraq, the republic, while formally remaining a federation, began, in reality, to drift toward confederation. And this was happening not only along the line dividing Kurds’ autonomy from the rest of Iraq, but also along the lines of the increased geographic dissociation between predominantly Shia and Sunni districts, and the latter development entailed elements of ethnic cleansing. The continuation of the processes threatened the collapse of the country.

We should also note the military-political trends that overlapped with these developments. The military and the police have been in a state of collapse ever since the start of the American occupation in 2003, and the ubiquitous emergence of armed ethnic-denominational units has become a leading trend. Kurdistan already had the Peshmerga units that remain the backbone of its military until today. Immediately upon the entry of U.S. troops, Shia districts formed armed units, such as the Mahdi Army, etc. And the Sunni strip had al-Qaeda units and Ba’ath guerrilla units acting independently of each other, which later merged to form ISIS.

Initially, the military and the police, which Iraq needed both to develop its statehood and to fight terrorism, were being built under the auspices of the United States. The process had essentially been a failure until Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) entered Iraq and took over. The IRGC succeeded in creating the combat-ready and highly motivated Shiite al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF). It was the PMF alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga (not the regular army) that played the leading role in liberating Mosul and in other critical episodes of the fight against ISIS.

However, after the victory over terrorists, the division of armed forces on ethnic-denominational grounds could no longer be tolerated, since it was fraught with the real danger of an armed confrontation between the principal ethnic and denominational communities in the state. It is noteworthy that discontent with this situation was expressed not only by Kurds and Sunnis but also by some Shiites inclined to view the PMF as an instrument of Iran’s military and political dominance in Iraq.

The 2018 parliamentary elections were a watershed moment in Iraq’s political developments. One of the most remarkable results of the electoral campaign was the victory of the Saairun bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a popular public figure. The son of an influential Shia theologian killed by the Ba’ath regime in 1999, al-Sadr led an uprising against the American occupation in 2004. From the outset, he positioned himself not only as a Shia leader but primarily as an Iraqi patriot striving to unite all of the country’s national forces regardless of their denomination or ethnic origin. Further down the road, this trend in Muqtada al-Sadr’s political conduct played a crucial role in his public activities.

Following his theological studies in Iran, Muqtada al-Sadr was accorded the rank of Grand Ayatollah and, upon his return to Iraq, he transitioned from extreme radicalism to legal, political struggle. As a result, his Sadrist Movement formed Saairun alliance, a broad electoral bloc of diverse political forces, including the Iraqi Communist Party.

The Saairun’s victory marked a new trend in the development of Iraq’s political processes, one that was aimed at uniting patriotic forces regardless of their denomination and ethnic origins. It is noteworthy that this was the only bloc to receive votes in all the country’s 19 governorates, including Sunni and Kurdish regions.

Another equally significant result of the 2018 elections was the fact that less than half of eligible voters (44 per cent) turned out. This was a red flag that was disregarded at the time, signifying the population’s disappointment in the political elite.

Another remarkable fact is that the election was held on May 12, while Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, whose resignation protesters are demanding today, was only appointed by the President on October 2, 2018. What does this mean? First, several political forces, primarily the above-mentioned Saairun bloc, claimed that the voting had been fixed and demanded a recount. A recount was held in July 2018, but only in a few governorates. The Federal Supreme Court of Iraq only approved the results of the election in August. This meant that the Parliament, which is responsible for electing a new president, was not able to assemble for a session until September. Consequently, the government continued to be led by the previous Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi until October, although his political bloc al-Nasr only came third in the election.

In accordance with the constitution, Barham Salih, who was elected President by Parliament on October 2, is responsible for appointing the new prime minister. Submitting Adil Abdul-Mahdi as a non-aligned “technical” Prime Minister meant that MPs had failed to form a government coalition. What is more, this move was preceded by unrest in Basra in September that was aimed against Iran and involved protesters breaking into the premises of a nearby oil field. Even though this was a local development, it was nevertheless a harbinger of what was to come a year later. This entire chain of events bears the hallmarks of a brewing political crisis.

This notwithstanding, the events of October 2019 were a surprise for all the political forces represented in the establishment. The explosive nature of the unrest, its initial and subsequent composition, the lack of clear political leaders, etc., bear an uncanny resemblance to the events of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. The similarities also extend to the fact that the ringleaders were Baghdad students, who organized the protests via social networks, which (just like in Tunis and Cairo) made it all the more surprising for the powers-that-be, which experienced problems responding to the protest movement.

Initially, it was a social protest. Unemployment in Iraq is over 20 per cent, and youth unemployment is higher still. Accordingly, the population lives in abject poverty. This is nothing new for Iraq. The situation was the same in the years of Saddam Hussein’s military adventurism, during the country’s collapse at the start of the occupation, and during the advance of ISIS.

Today, however, Iraq has become OPEC’s second-largest producer and exporter of oil. It is starting to close the gap on the oil top three (the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia). Hence the slogan of the protesters: “If our country is so rich, why are the people so poor?” They also name the cause: “Corruption.” Indeed, Iraq is 12th in the corruption rating among developing countries.

It is here that the protest moves from the social to the political: as a rule, political status is the starting point for accumulating private wealth through corruption. Evidence relating to the corrupt activities of political figures, including MPs, has been widely publicized.

This is essentially the answer to the question of whether an outside force has provoked the Iraqi protests. The United States, Iran and several neighbouring Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, definitely have leverage over Iraq. Still, this leverage is limited to various sectors of the political elite and does not extend to average citizens mounting the protests.

From this point on, there are significant differences between the events in Iraq and the events of the Arab Spring. First, while many of the youth activists in Tunisia and Egypt had undergone preliminary training (in Serbia, for example), there is no evidence that any training took place before the events in Iraq. Second, as early as day two, people of various ages began joining the young protesters, and that included the elderly. The Communist Party reports that over 30 per cent of the protesters were women. Third, unlike the unrest of the Arab Spring of 2011, the protests in Iraq do not have an Islamic component. Moreover, the demonstrations spanned mostly the Shia part of the country, where factions of political Islam represent the largest parties, and the unrest is directed against these parties, too.

The political demands of the protesters include changing the political system, and the country’s constitution in particular. It is not yet entirely clear what specific steps for changing the constitution they propose, although the thrust against division by denomination and ethnicity is evident. Additionally, apparent demands include changing electoral legislation; these demands are supported by several political forces represented in parliament. In particular, Muqtada al-Sadr has called for holding new elections under international supervision. The President of Iraq’s statement that new elections are possible, but only after the electoral legislation has been changed, can be viewed as indirect support.

The military has acknowledged its excessive use of force, and criminal proceedings have been launched against the officers responsible. As for the resignation of the government (al-Sadr supported this demand), the Prime Minister said he would resign only if there is an alternative candidate.

Clearly, the Saairun bloc and its leaders strive to position themselves as the force closest to the protesters. There are also nuances. For instance, the Communist Party withdrew its deputies from parliament and is apparently striving for closer solidarity with the protesters as an individual political force. Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, also expressed his support for some of the demands of the protesters and called for an investigation into the actions that had resulted in people’s deaths. This can be taken to mean that the emerging rapprochement between al-Sistani and al-Sadr will play a role in the future.

It should be noted that there is an anti-Iran element to the protests. The Iranian leadership, in particular, the country’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, was restrained in its response. Noting that “enemies cannot sow discord” between Iran and Iraq, he did not express any attitude towards the protesters. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran issued a statement indicating that foreign forces may abuse the situation. This suggests that the Iranian leadership is taking a cautious stance towards a situation that is particularly inconvenient for Iran, given the increasing pressure it is under from the United States and regional powers. Iran is clearly exploring various options for changing its policies towards Iraq by making them more flexible and seeking support and compromise with those Iraqi forces that the local population does not consider to be direct protégés of Iran. We are talking specifically about the Kurds and the Saairun bloc here, especially since Muqtada al-Sadr cannot be regarded as an anti-Iranian figure, even though he has criticized that country’s actions in the past.

It is also apparent that the events in Iraq objectively weaken the positions of Iran and its claim to the role of dominant regional power. It does not, however, mean that the United States can, following these events, regain the political dominance it had in the country since 2003. Some American analysts acknowledge that the United States no longer has any serious centres for influencing the domestic situation in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional forces also have minimal means of exerting any kind of internal influence on the country.

Some analysts express concern over the fact that the military and the police mostly focus on counteracting the protests, which could help revive or even restore the positions of ISIS. This danger does exist, since the activities of both sleeper cells and some individual terrorist squads have not been suppressed, and acts of terror are committed almost daily. However, since ISIS has been crushed as a systemic entity, these activities have been mainly localized geographically and have their limits.

The only way the terrorist threat may expand is if the general protest situation cripples the authorities for good. A continuing stalemate among the Iraqi authorities is indeed fraught with such danger. We can only hope that it will not materialize.

From our partner RIAC

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC expert

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Turkey’s Role in the Libyan Conflict

Ivan Bocharov

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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.

Source: https://libya.liveuamap.com/en

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.

Source: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/map-delineates-turkeys-maritime-frontiers-in-med-sea-149379

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

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Libyan reconciliation: Via Moscow on to Berlin

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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.

From our partner International Affairs

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The battle for Libya: The UAE calls the shots

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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This week’s inauguration of a new Red Sea Egyptian military base was pregnant with the symbolism of the rivalries shaping the future of the Middle East as well as north and east Africa.

The inauguration took on added significance as rebel Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, backed by United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Egyptian general-turned-president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, snubbed Russian president Vladimir Putin by refusing to agree to a ceasefire in the Libyan war.

Mr. Haftar’s refusal thwarted, at least temporarily, an effort by Mr. Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to structure the ceasefire so that it would align opposing Russian and Turkish interests, allow the two parties to cooperate in the exploitation of Libya’s energy resources, and protect a Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement creating an Exclusive Economic Zone that strengthens Russian-backed Turkish manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean.

The manoeuvres are designed to thwart a Greek-Cypriot-Israeli agreement to build a pipeline that would supply gas to Europe, reducing European dependence on Russian gas in the process.

Critics charge that the maritime agreement that would limit Greek-Cypriot Israeli access to hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, violates the Law of the Sea.

Warning that it would block European Union backing for any Libyan peace deal as long as the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement was in place, Greece was one of the countries Mr. Haftar visited in the days between his rejection of a ceasefire and a conference on Libya hosted by Germany that is scheduled to be held in Berlin on January 19.

Mr. Haftar’s rejection came as Turkish troops arrived in Libya to bolster forces of the internationally recognized government of prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj defending the capital Tripoli against an eight-month old assault by the field marshal’s rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) that is backed by Russian mercenaries with close ties to the Kremlin, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Prince Mohammed’s presence at the inauguration of the Egyptian naval base underlined the UAE’s influence in Egypt since it backed Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup that toppled the country’s first and only democratic elected president and the Emirates’ determination to counter Islamist forces as well as Turkish influence in Libya and the Horn of Africa.

UAE and Egyptian backing of Mr. Haftar is not just about countering jihadist and non-jihadist Islamists as well as Turkey, but also Qatar, Turkey’s ally, which also supports the Libyan rebels.

The UAE-Turkish-Qatari proxy war in Libya is increasingly also coloured by Prince Mohammed and Mr. Al-Sisi’s opposition to efforts to resolve divisions among the Gulf states that spilled into the open with the declaration of a Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar in 2017.

Saudi Arabia has hinted in recent months that it may be amenable to an easing of the boycott, a move that is believed to be opposed by the UAE as long as Qatar does not make significant concessions on issues like freewheeling broadcaster Al Jazeera and support for political Islam.

The new naval base’s location symbolizes Egypt’s conundrum that also poses a problem for the UAE at a time that Egypt is at odds with Ethiopia over the operation of a giant dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile.

Stepping up involvement in Libya risks Egypt becoming embroiled in two conflicts at the same time.

Egypt claims the dam puts a million Egyptian jobs, US$1.8 billion in economic output annually and electricity valued at US$300 million at risk.

The base is aimed at “securing the country’s southern coasts, protecting economic investments and natural resources and facing security threats in the Red Sea,” according to a spokesman for Mr. Al-Sisi.

The president has warned that Egypt would take all the necessary measures to protect its rights to the Nile waters.

So far, Egypt is banking on mediation helping it avoiding being trapped between a rock and a hard place by achieving a ceasefire in Libya that would keep Egypt’s hands free to deal with Ethiopia were a conflict to erupt.

The question is whether Mr. Haftar, who without signing the ceasefire agreement reportedly told German officials that he would adhere to its terms, and the UAE are willing to play ball.

The proof will be in the pudding. German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the stakes by insisting in advance of the Berlin talks that they ensure “that the weapons embargo is adhered to again.”

The United Nations has accused the UAE together with several other countries, including Turkey, of violating the UN embargo.

As a result, it may be the UAE rather than Mr. Haftar who has a decisive voice in Berlin.

Said North Africa expert Ben Fishman: “Until Abu Dhabi pulls back its drones, operators, and other crucial military support, the prospects for Libya’s stability will remain dim. Besides the fact that they provide the greatest advantage to Haftar’s forces, focusing on the Emiratis also makes sense because the other foreign players currently have reasons to de-escalate on their own.”

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