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Importance of the Libyan Crisis for Russia After the Arab Spring

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Before the Arab Spring, bilateral relations between Russia and Libya were neither close nor indifferent. Instead, the Russians saw Libya as a place to promote their energy interests, sell weapons and challenge Western dominance over the Mediterranean. During the civil war, Russia supported both opposition groups such as General Haftar and the legitimate government of Mr Seraj, who was considered the legitimate leader by the United Nations. The question is, what is the significance of Russia’s presence in the Libyan crisis? It can be said that such presence has political and economic benefits. This article attempts to explain Russia’s motives in Libya and its political-economic consequences.

From the early 1970s until the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, Russia and Libya enjoyed close relations. During the Cold War, Libya played an essential role as a base for Soviet interests in the Mediterranean. Although Moscow and Tripoli never entered an official alliance, Soviet military trainers in Libya were frequent visitors, and Gaddafi supported Moscow’s propaganda efforts to support colonial and anti-imperialist struggles at the regional and international level. Most importantly, both countries enjoyed significant economic cooperation. However, after the Russian government joined the international sanctions regime against Libya in 1992, relations became more complicated.

Unlike the West — especially the United States — Russia supported Libya for pragmatic reasons — it had oil and was willing to buy Russian weapons. In 2008, Vladimir Putin forgave Libyan debt, which was about $4.4 billion. Russian railways and Gaddafi’s government also signed a $2.6 billion contract to build a 550km railway between “Sirte” and “Benghazi”. Moscow also benefited from $3.5 billion in energy deals and $150 million in construction projects. Since that time, high-level calls between Moscow and Tripoli have been common. As a direct result of the Libyan uprising in 2011, Russia withdrew from this leading North African country and lost contracts about worth approximately $10 billion. Following US interventions around the world, Moscow has referred to the West and NATO as the primary source of unrest in Libya. Senior Russian officials, including Putin and Sergei Lavrov, accused Washington and its allies of toppling the legitimate Libyan government, which led to widespread bloodshed and the emergence of jihadist groups.

While Putin — unlike Italy and France — always supported the dictatorship of Libya, Moscow joined Western-led arms sanctions in 2011. However, a few months later, Moscow, seeking to return to Libya, established close relations with the civil war leader, General Haftar. Since early 2012 Moscow has sent military hardware equipment to the country unilaterally. Since 2018 there have been rumours in the media that Russia is trying to expand its military base in Libya, and Moscow had announced that Special Forces had been sent to support the country.

Unlike Syria, where certain restrictions meet Russia, Moscow is more active in Libya. General Haftar, commonly described as a figure like Vladimir Putin in Libya, is seen by Moscow as just one of the necessary elements for the solution to this crisis. Indeed, Russia’s return to the Middle East and the goals pursued by Moscow in the region have intensified as it has begun to play an active role in resolving the Libyan crisis. Due to the focus that was previously only on Syria, Russia’s foreign policy Program for the region seemed too secretive for observers. Specific focus on security issues has raised concerns that Russia may seek a military stance in the Middle East. In this regard, Russia’s particular view of Libya, which began in 2016 and was accompanied by rumours of a weapons delivery to General Haftar, has been interpreted as a step towards strengthening its military presence in the region. In fact, it was mainly under the influence of the Libyan coup that Russian policy towards the Mena region was defined. Libya’s recent foreign policy strategy clearly states that its instability directly affects Russia.

The Importance of the Libyan Issue for Russia

The emergence of the Islamic State in Libya, following the resumption of civil war in 2014, has again been the focus of attention and has raised concerns both in neighbouring countries and around the world. Libya has gained importance because of its geographical location, oil resources, ports and the presence of radical Islamic groups. Now and even in the future, Libya plays a crucial role in the Transit Route of Africa.

Since mid-2010, senior Russian officials, including defence and foreign ministers, have repeatedly met with Haftar, and they have implicitly recognised his position as a credible foreign leader. Significant arms deals between him and Russian officials were discussed, and for that reason, Haftar urged Moscow to support him politically, militarily and economically in the civil war — with the promise of providing Libyan assets in return.

In 2017, General Haftar clearly confirmed that he and Russian diplomats discussed the issue of military aid, stating, “I am sure Russia is our good friend and will not refuse to help.” For this reason, Moscow has deployed a number of Russian technicians to the Libyan National Army to assist in the modernisation and recovery of weapons that have remained mostly unrecorded since the Soviet era. According to some sources, Russia currently has a military presence in Eastern Libya. It is said to have deployed S-300 air defense missile systems and caliber anti-ship missiles.

Russia’s involvement in the Libyan civil war seems quite practical and relatively balanced. Since the beginning of the war, Moscow has tried to maintain balance in its relations with representatives of both camps. In fact, during the Civil War, Moscow maintained contacts with representatives of the Tripoli government. At several stages, Russia expressed its readiness to recognise the government of Fayez al-Sarraj as Libya’s legal authority. As such, we can point out some of Russia’s interests Because of the presence in Libya:

Economic Interests

Economic interests appear to be dominating Russia’s agenda in Libya. In fact, according to several sources, Haftar has pledged to renew Qadhafi’s key contracts with Russia, should Moscow back him. Renewal of important deals worth nine to ten billion dollars — or even more, given Libya’s destruction after years of civil war — is strong motivation for Moscow’s support. Moscow has likely discussed the same possibility with the Sarraj government. While Moscow’s goal of expanding its military sales has become imperative to its Middle East agenda, indirect control over Libya’s energy resources through a friendly and indebted government may increase Russia’s role in Mediterranean politics and security.

The Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC), which is aligned to the GNA in Tripoli, signed a significant cooperation and investment deal with Rosneft, the Russian oil giant, which will grant Rosneft access to investment in the Libyan oil sector and allow for the sale of Libyan crude oil for the first time. Geopolitically, Russia is aware of Libya’s importance to the global energy market. Libya has the highest reserves of oil in Africa, and most of it has not yet been explored. Libya is also already supplying gas to Europe through a pipeline under the Mediterranean Sea which runs into Italy. Russia is a major supplier of gas to Europe, and by investing in the Libyan market, Russia will still maintain its dominant market share and leverage in supplying energy to Europe.

Given Russia’s ambitions for more influence in the Middle East, it could potentially benefit from gaining a permanent naval facility on the Libyan coast in the strategic Mediterranean area, similar to the one it already has in Syria. Such a permanent facility could become a geopolitical bargaining card for Moscow against Europe and NATO. Russia will most likely continue to follow the long-term patient game of attempting to realise its pragmatic economic and geopolitical interests in Libya. It will probably maintain its anti-western and NATO rhetoric as well while doing so.

However, future trends in the Libyan energy industry will inevitably be shaped by political developments. Given closer ties with Egypt and widespread arms sales to Algeria, Russia may consider Libya’s arms sales a way to strengthen its strong ties with three strategically important North African countries. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Moscow is only discussing the potential construction of military bases by Russia on arms sales.

Political Interests

President Barack Obama once famously considered Libya the “worst mistake” of his presidency. The power vacuum that established itself following the Western withdrawal from Libya, months after the NATO bombing of the Qadhafi regime critically facilitated its toppling, has since been filled by Moscow in an effort to project its influence as an essential global player. In fact, given Russian elites’ great‐power aspirations, a history of collaboration with Libya, and the ongoing conflict with the West, it would have been odd for Moscow not to utilise this unique opportunity. Establishing a presence in this key part of the Mediterranean is seen as a matter of prestige by Russian analysts. Apart from tangible economic interests, it may turn Russia into an important actor with a say in the issues of international immigration, conventional security, and energy policy, all in close proximity to the European continent. Nikolay Kozhanov observes in this regard that “having entered the Libyan conflict, Moscow shows to Europe and the USA that it will not limit itself to Syria and Ukraine and that its ‘success’ in Syria is not accidental.” While Moscow is not interested in a direct confrontation with the West, it may use its relatively successful Libya endeavour to accrue status benefits in its negotiations with Western nations, trading certain aspects of its Libya presence off for other unrelated assets, as it has possibly done in the case of Syria. An important player in Libya, Russia is to be reckoned with by Western powers, in the North Africa region and globally. Following Russia’s isolation from the international community after its annexation of Crimea and its “hybrid war” in eastern Ukraine, this has been a salient objective of Russian diplomacy.

From our partner RIAC

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Reigniting Chaos in Syria

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Syria has been the nexus of brutality and terror for almost a decade now; with more than 6 million natives who have already fled and numerous displaced over the territory itself, the region casts a ghastly shade that has only turned grimmer with time. Although the conflict seemingly raved its catastrophic footprint in early 2000, the root cause arguably always ends up to be the infamous ‘Arab Spring’ that actually tuned the Syrians against their very own regime. Something to compare and contrast that communal unity acted in Iraq’s benefit back when USA invaded the territory to avenge the 9/11 Attacks in 2003 while casted a fiasco in Syria when invaded in 2014. Large scale protests and rampaging violence gradually morphed into a series of relentless efforts to first deter Bashar Al-Asad’s efforts to first peacefully and then collaboratively resolving the raging unrest. Some would say it was inspired by the historical besiege of Libya and the subsequent execution of the Libyan prime minister Muammar al-Gaddafi as an ensue of that revolution yet Bashar Al-Asad proved a far more tensile force to overthrow. Such tumultuous turn of events, lead Syria to first economic sanctions followed by severe isolation in the global community opposing and downright rejecting Assad’s actions to curb the political tremors. Yet intermittent interventions, both implicit and explicit, by the western powers and their counter-parts have defined the region more as a battle ground of mercenary motives instead of mere efforts to safeguard human rights and ensuring regional peace.

Since 2011, three core actors have remained active in skirmishes that have more oftener than not transformed into battles of gore and toil and sometimes even full-fledged wars that have not only dismembered the expanse of over an 185,000 kmof land into mounds of dust and rubble with terror now crawling over the lanes but have even shuddered the immediate vicinity. With the downfall and perpetual dissipation of ISIS, losing much of its occupied land to active contenders, Assad’s militia and Kurdish forces remain the helming competitors along with a smattering of other oppositions like Jaish al Fateh and Nusrta Front. The conflict between the Kurdish forces backed by the US regime against ISIS and then eventual betrayal on the Turkish front had been a matter of contentions in the latter part of 2019; Kurds making it abundantly clear to harness the borders they surmise to be rightly theirs while Turkish policies, especially under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have been outright fearless and needless of any other inference regarding their austere stance over the issue; claiming their bordering territories and inferring stern response in case of any dissension caused by the Kurds.

However, the outlining threat in the recent time can be perceived at a novel yet a totally realistic stage, where proxy wars no longer remain the ground reality of armed unrest in Syria. This notion has arisen since harsh words were exchanged between Moscow and Ankara; the metropolis’ of the neighbouring giants: Russia and Turkey respectively. A glimpse in the historical scaffolding of the entire Syrian conflict, Russia has always backed Assad’s regime despite its initial block over Syrian policies revolving over strategies to deal with the blooming protests in the early tremors of the Arab Spring who’s effects had started to resonate in the entire Middle East following up on Ground 0, Tunisia. The vantage point of Russia, however, shifted when the political paradigm was drastically nudged by the terror-driven escalation of ISIS after severe US blunders and baffling retreat from Syria that even threatened the sovereignty and security of the region following their besiege of the state of Raqqa, establishing ISIS as a looming concern, thereby aligning the aims of both Russian reign and Assad’s regime, ultimately inciting a continued alliance. Turkey, on the other hand, being the northern neighbour to Syria also contended as a root protagonist in economic isolation of Assad’s government, imposing stringent financial sanctions that tightened the bottlenecks and eventually led to the deterioration of their financial virility that already staggered after sanctions and embargos placed by both EU and USA.

This conflict that permeates in the north-western terrain of Syria lilts an innuendo that a spark may be brewing between the two nations. The besieged province of Idlib exudes the source of the strife; an area that has witnessed countless Turkish troops slain by Assad’s forces in cross-border disputes; close to seven Turkish soldiers were recently killed in a thorough retaliation of Syrian forces in the de-escalation zone, much to Turkey’s dismay. However, the Russian involvement in backing the Syrian government in their dissent in Idlib and heavily bombing of the territory with artillery servers as a link to presumably leading a head-on conflict between Russia and Turkey; hinted by Erdoğan that any effort made in the region will not go answered, clearly warning the Russian forces to avoid any transgression that could cause fatality to their personnel. The people of Syria, blended with the rebels, look in the eye of a dead end; bombardments to deter the tyrants have shredded their innocent bodies similar to the incursions in Eastern Ghouta and with no one on their side but with ulterior incentives, they are left with no choice but to see Turkey as a savior. To any sane mind, however, its not really a complex interface of modes and interests involved. With clash of alliances, historical narrative of both the world wars fought, coherently brings about the model of war despite a never-ending argument at whim. Without contesting any theory by any analyst, its imperative to gauge at the systematic progression of the tensions flowing yet not mitigating. Turkey being stranded from its western allies and Arab assistance in wake of the murder conspiracy and being locked in a bound-to-doom NATO relation with Russia, the outcome of this steady conflict can bring about equal amount of damage yet in lesser of a decade and more pandemic effects.

Recent Israeli airstrikes targeted the Iran-linked elements in Syria. One of the biggest attacks even in at least half a decade period of relative dormancy in the region hint at the start of something gruesome. The attacks pointed Iran-backed sites like Al-Bukamal in intensity, riddling the city that acts as a focal point to Iran’s influence over and beyond the borders of Baghdad and Damascus, as well as paving way to militants from the fore stretch of Lebanon. The attacks reportedly served as an active Israeli position against the Irani militants and revolutionary guards, casting a heavy presence in the core hit areas of the province of Dair al Zor, claiming 57 casualties. The attack assumes a step-up stance of Israel picking up from a cold targeted strike within Iran, months back, eliminating the crucial scientific figure of Iran, that earned promises of retaliation both from the military leads and the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

These attacks nurture an underlying message of Israel following on the shadow war footsteps dictated under the premiership of Mr. Donald Trump. Now, with his nefarious exit from the presidential office following the riots at US Capitol and Mr. Biden’s ascension to power just days away, Israel insinuates its true deterrence of Iran’s growing influence and hostility in the expansive areas of Southern, North-western and Eastern regions of Syria. With US intelligence cultivating the Israeli position in Syria while Iran enriching its plans of Nuclear power along with backing militias under the lead of Lebanese force of Hezbollah, a possibility of another proxy clash is re-emerging in the peripheries of Syria. Now as Israel continues to welcome Arab nations to set camp around Syria to end Tehran’s influence, US faces a tough choice in over a decade to either exit the war before it even flames or repeat their interference regretted since the Arab Spring to jump headfirst into another round of decade long destruction.

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Post Trump Palestine

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.

Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.

As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.

While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.

Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem.  But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries.  Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.

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An Enemy Among Us

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The upcoming talks regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, that are due to take place on January 25, should not disillusion us from the dangers of Turkey’s unilateral aggression on all fronts. Erdogan has made no real efforts to improve ties with the EU, except for the occasional vain promise of turning over a new leaf. Since October, he has urged the Muslim world to boycott French products, continued gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, blatantly ignored the arms embargo in Libya and has aided Azerbaijan in committing war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite the numerous warnings issued by the EU and the many failed attempts at resolving the crisis in the East Med diplomatically, the latest EU summit concluded with an anti-climactic promise to sanction certain Turkish officials regarding the East Med. This minimally symbolic promise could only be described as a mere slap on the wrist that will prove unsuccessful in deterring Turkey’s belligerent tendencies. Turkey’s increasingly hostile attitude, its callous use of the refugee crisis and its clear violation of international law in the East Med, Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh represent a danger to European values, identity and security.

We are witnessing before our eyes a dictator in the making who dreams of a return of the Ottoman empire and seeks to destroy the democratic and secular legacy of Atatürk. He is a fervent supporter of political islam – particularly the muslim brotherhood – and he relentlessly accuses the West of wanting to ‘relaunch the crusades’ against Islam. In fact, since 2014, Erdogan and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have continuously facilitated cross-border movement into Syria and shipped illegal arms to a number of radical jihadist groups. The Turkish government also uses SADAT Defense, an islamist paramilitary group loyal to Erdogan, to aid groups that can be considered as terrorist organizations such as Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham in Northern Syria and use their jihadi fighters to send to Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and, most recently, Kashmir in order to bolster Turkey’s foreign policy.

Erdogan uses a mixture of islamism and nationalism to expand Turkey’s influence around the world and to consolidate power within. The two most influential factions in Turkey are the radical islamists and secular neo-nationalists, who despise each other but share a deep disdain for the west. Courtesy of neo-nationalist and former Maoist terrorist leader Dogu Perinçek, the NATO member has also enjoyed warmer ties with Russia and China over the past 5 years. As a result of these shifts in alliances and growing anti-western sentiments, Turkey is becoming increasingly at odds with the West. 

Furthermore, the growing discontent at home pushes him to adopt more aggressive tactics, divisive policies and his behavior mirrors that of a panicked authoritarian leader. Erdogan is desperately looking for a conflict to distract the Turkish population from the fall of the lira, the spread and mishandling of COVID-19, and the overall declining economy that predates the pandemic. Turkey’s future will most likely be determined by the upcoming general election that is set to take place within the next three years. If Erdogan wins the next election, it will solidify his power and bring him one step closer in turning Turkey into a dictatorship. During his stay in power, he has already conducted a series of purges to weaken and silence dissidents. Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists in the world. 

Yet, the loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the last municipal election of 2019 demonstrate his declining popularity, and offer a glimmer of hope for the opposition. Political figures like the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, or the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, represent a brighter future for Turkey. Erdogan currently finds himself in a position of weakness, which represents a rare window of opportunity for the EU to strike. Unfortunately, the EU remains deeply divided on how to handle a situation that continues to deteriorate. It seems that some member states, particularly Germany, are holding on to the naive belief that Erdogan can still be reasoned with. 

Our reluctance to impose the slightest sanctions against Turkey demonstrates our division and weakness, which emboldens the neo-sultan. A strong and united response from the European Union is the only way to curb Erdogan’s expansionist agenda. This should include renegotiating the migrant pact, imposing targeted sanctions against SADAT Defense and its leader Adnan Tanrıverdi, imposing an arms embargo, suspending the EU-Turkey customs union and finally suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO. 

Ultimately, Erdogan’s bellicose foreign policy and his contentious nationalist-islamist rhetoric makes it impossible to consider Erdogan’s Turkey as our ally. As the EU reaches out yet another olive branch, Erdogan has his eye on the wars to come. 

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