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2020 Forecast: Revealing the Future of the Middle East

Maria Al Makahleh

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Authors: Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova) and Shehab Al Makahleh*

“When I thought I had already reached the bottom, they knocked from below.”-Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

This quote of the polish aphorist and poet of the 20th century, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, serves as a perfect epigraph to this in-depth 2020 forecast and ideally characterises the last 5–6 years of the developments in international relations and the crash of most of the “cautious optimism” that has ever been expressed within this period. Pessimists are the winners of the epoch in terms of prediction. Every time it seems that things can not get any worse, they actually get much worse. Thaws in conflict and progress that might take place on individual tracks are unreliable, uncertain, weak and very temporary. Additionally, they frequently end up with no concrete and significant results.

The system of international relations remains relatively chaotic. Nonetheless, there are stand-alone attempts to systematise it in a way or another at certain regional levels, especially while talking about security issues and the need to tackle the growing security challenges. The establishment of collective security in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the reformation of collective security in Europe were discussed frequently in 2019. Emphasis was made on the clear understanding in global decision-making circles that the ongoing earthquake can only be weathered with minimal losses if there are attempts to keep at least some of its fragments relevant and solid. However, none of the players can put words into real action due to growing contradictions, even between “natural” allies. These contradictions keep growing as old paradigms are collapsing under the pressure of disillusionment and new challenges created by ill-management and populism.

These rising divergences with growing contradictions and decrease of common ground between international players will lead to a rise in confrontation. At the same time, the parties will be running out of diplomatic or non-violent approaches to deal with the contradictions, while pushing for decisive steps could spark violence.

General Global Overview

The year 2020 will be the most challenging and dramatic year since the beginning of the 21st century. It will be crucial in terms of shaping the world for the upcoming 20–25 years, laying the foundation for the emergence of a new system of international relations through the collapse of the elements of the latter one.

The rise of protest activities marked 2019. This tendency will gain momentum in 2020, leading to the collapse of individual governments and coup d’états, as well as plunging countries into the chaos of rising protest activities. This affinity will not be only limited to the rugged regions but will be standard for well-developed countries as well. Global confrontation will be on the rise, making international relations more explosive than ever before. Tension within societies is rising, while the governments are incapable of tackling them timely and properly, as they follow outdated principles poorly adapting to the dynamically changing world. Plus, according to statistics, there are already specific markers alarming that the world economy is moving quite fast to the new financial crisis that will impact all economies.

The heat in the Middle East will rise not only in terms of climatic changes but as well due to explosively increasing challenges in the regions, most of which are unsolvable.

The upcoming year will be more violent, and there is a high probability of triggering new global conflicts.

One of the main areas of global developments will be the Middle East. The Middle East was finalized 2019 with many countries on the brink of economic and political volatility.

Since the youth form more than 70 per cent of the population in the Middle East, increased access to the Internet and social media networks will provide them with direct information from the source. This will put some despotic regimes in the region at stake, as new mechanisms of demonstrations and protests will be orchestrated beyond governments’ capacities. Intelligence bodies in these states will fail to control digital media where the activists will call for rallies to save the jobless youth, fight gender parity and secure the rights of minorities, accelerating social and political transformation.

Middle East 2020: Political and Economic Forecast

Governments and institutions will face significant challenges in the coming few years, mainly in 2020–2021 as the world order and global trends undergo a major restructuring process. It is expected that all Middle Eastern regimes will experience snowballing tensions with mounting types of terrorism and the ability of strong, asymmetric and non-state actors to negatively affect the world order and the global balance of power.

Moreover, the social contract between Middle Eastern communities and governments would collapse and fail as people will call for meeting further their economic and social needs, security and prosperity (at a time when populism is rocketing in the West), thus threatening the whole world order. The tension between the ruling elites and citizens will reshape regional political geography.

With conflicting principles of superpowers, the Middle East will undergo a high risk of conflict in spheres of influence between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and other rising regional powers which seek to play a pivotal role in local and global affairs, attempting to shape the multipolar world.

The persistence of conflicts and the absence of real effective political and economic reforms will not reduce poverty as oil prices are not expected to return to the oil boom levels, forcing governments to limit cash payments and subsidies.

Social media is likely to become the key source of revolutionary activities and off-line coordination again, forcing the governments to shut down the Internet as an instrument of cracking down the protest movements. Though taking into account growing public dissent, these measures will become less effective and in the opposite will become dangerous and counterproductive, leading to broader civil uprising.

Polarisation vs Pluralisation in the Mena

Tenacious social and economic disparities over the coming years will inexorably be cemented by empowering sectarian, ethnic, ideological, regional and tribal identities. This might lead to a new wave of the Arab Spring, similar to what was witnessed in the cases of Syria and Libya, as well as Yemen. In the cases mentioned above, regional powers supported by global forces acted to instigate differences to reap more benefits. This was done by dividing these countries in order for the industries and economies of some of these regional and global powers to flourish. By 2021, it is also expected that the Islamic camp, which groups Muslim nations, will be fragmented, bringing about other Islamic camps in the Far East and Central Asia, as well as Africa, to compete with the Islamic camp led by Saudi Arabia. Thus, the competition will not be limited to a confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis, but we will also see the growing power struggles within the Sunni political-religious camps (Turkey — Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Nigeria and Indonesia). Another split will be between countries backing moderate Islam and those claiming to support moderate Islam, but in reality funding extremist cells.

In 2020, the assiduous fading of state bodies in many Middle Eastern countries will craft favourable environments for strengthening domestic and international collective identities. By the same token, despotic political regimes still ruminate miscellany as key to power and feebleness. Such undemocratic Middle Eastern governments will proceed further with the unstated or uncluttered split of minorities, disregarding the opposition blocs and activists.

Proxy Wars and Protest to Escalate in the MENA

The conflict between Saudi and Iranian agents will continue in some countries in the Middle East. Although the Iranians proved to be more skilled in this competition, the Saudis count on American support. Washington will continue to escalate pressure on Iran using Europe as a springboard for further sanctions on Tehran and Iran would probably consider future moves using its proxy agents similar to Abqaiq refinery attack in Aramco.

Political instability will continue to hit the Middle East region. While the protests in Iraq and Lebanon will continue to achieve their goals with international support. Many demonstrations will be fuelled in other Middle Eastern states starting from Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, and some Gulf nations. As pro-Iran forces control Iraq and Lebanon, Tehran is likely to persuade its allies to make some concessions. This will require the efforts of the Iranian Republican Guard Corps to intervene when ordered.

Thus, three main focal points will prevail in 2020:

First: the impact of global economic trends on domestic politics; the influence of regional power struggles on unresolved conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya. In many ways, these dynamics are interconnected and feed into one another. However, evidence of increased contact with Russia by countries like Egypt and Jordan should be taken in the context of the US disengagement from the region, which began during the Obama administration, and concern about the Trump administration’s disorganised, chaotic foreign policy. Furthermore, if the US administration announced the “long-awaited for the deal of the century”, this would push many Middle Eastern countries which have no peace deal with Israel to reconcile and naturalise ties even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved based on the Arab Peace Initiative (adopted in Beirut Arab League Summit).

Therefore, the Middle East will witness demonstrations in a number of countries, but without a regulatory framework to bring about regime change. Besides, economic conditions will aggravate, leading to more tensions.

The Three Core Sub-Regions of the Middle East

The Fertile Crescent (The Levant and Iraq)

Some experts believe that different paths will prevail in the sub-region of the Middle East: North Africa, the Gulf and the Fertile Crescent (the Levant and Iraq). The focus will be on resolving the Syrian crisis with the victory of the Assad regime and allies. Yet, Russian-Turkish ties will be affected by Russian-Syrian-Iranian intervention near the Turkish border. The threat that this would impose on the Turkish armed forces could spark a proxy war in Syria or at least in the North-West of the country.

Lebanon and Iraq would undergo a state of great internal turmoil that could either consolidate Iran’s power in both countries or lead to civil war by forming a techno-political government that consists of both former politicians and technocrats.

Having become the battlefield of the US and Iran, Iraq is risking to plunge in into severe instability and insecurity due to regional and international intervention in its internal affairs. It has been evident that when the Iraqi parliament asked the Americans and the international coalition to withdraw from Iraq, the Americans delinked the request, in a sign that whenever American military bases are present in countries, such states will have no independence or sovereignty to say no to the American who have the upper hand in these countries politically, economically and militarily. As Iraqi example shows, with the Americans threatening Iraqi government with sever sanctions Baghdad does not withdraw its request to the international troops to pull out of Iraq, it is clear that the first penalty on Iraq would be imposition of economic and financial sanctions that would badly affect economic activities and cause many financial and political issues in a bid to twist the arms of politicians and decision-makers in Iraq to reconsider their relationship with Iran and to ask Iranian troops to pull out of Iraq rather than asking the Americans.

In Iraq, there is little prospect of establishing a stable and popular government that can address the population’s genuine social and economic concerns, put an end to corruption and limit any foreign presence and interference in the country. Instability will generate violence; government hardship will fuel discontent and could herald the return of terrorist activities in Iraq as many countries prefer the country to be under the continued threat of jihadism, guaranteeing Iraqi’s allegiance to the West and the the US in fearing the repetition of the scenario of a strong Iraq of 1980s when the Iraqi army was one of the top ten world armies and used to have a say in political roadmap of the Middle East region, mainly in the GCC states.

Experts forecast that Jordan’s 2020 outlook will be promising as it is not involved in regional tensions. Although Jordanian diplomacy keeps walking the Middle East tightrope policy, the country closely monitors extremist factions and terrorist group leadership which seek to restore their power and evolve into a stronger caliphate relying on social media networks to recruit members and launch attacks. Jordanian Israeli bilateral relations will be tense because of Israel’s intransigence concerning the Palestinian issue, East Jerusalem and the expectation that the Israeli government would annex the Jordan Valley, exerting more pressure on the Palestinians in this region to move to Jordan, causing huge burdens on the Jordanian regime.

Syria will see national reconciliation due to internal and external dynamics paving the way for this end. Yet, Syria will not return to its pre-2011 state, as the Syrian regime will think twice before planning and acting to serve the people, businesses, and new generations which have lived the war and offered sacrifices. In the meantime, Moscow and Tehran will try to make sure that their interests in Syria are not shaky after all the sacrifices both countries have made to protect the regime and keep Syria united. The draft constitution proposed will be approved based on the partial decentralisation of power, which could lead to the return of many refugees from European and Arab countries.

North Africa

North Africa will have significant turbulence, and many North African states will be on the verge of violence starting from Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Western Sahara due to the flow of terrorist fighters from other African states. The only two countries that would be safe from terrorism and violence in north Africa are Morocco and Tunisia. In contrast, others will face waves of terrorist activities emanating from Mali, Nigeria and Somalia and Chad. The second version of the Arab Spring will spark in Lebanon and Iraq, then move to Algeria and Egypt for political and economic reasons. The outcome of regional and international interference and intervention in the Libyan affairs would backfire on its neighbours and further terrorist groups will arise, benefitting from international and regional rifts and disputes to settle down key conflicts in Africa where Iran, Turkey and some GCC states will have a proxy war that would split some of these countries based on conflicts of interests.

The GCC

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states will continue to focus on tensions between some of their countries, Iran and Turkey. All of this depends on who will win in the coming American presidential elections in 2020. The next round of Israeli elections in March 2020 will help the GCC states take their final say about their political interests once Benjamin Netanyahu become the prime minister of Israel.

Yemen

The primary conflict in the Gulf now is Yemen, and the way to end it is problematic for the parties involved since the war in Yemen is not de-escalating as the gap between the warring parties remains wide and, in some respect, unbridgeable. Yemen will continue to be a war zone, and the Houthis will act to have the upper hand in north Yemen, rejecting any dictated agendas to resolve the conflict as their war with other parties and countries is a “to be or not to be”. KSA and the UAE will try through some agents to target the leader of the Houthis Abdul Malek Al Houthi to abort the dreams of the Houthis to have their political and military power in Yemen and in the region. Simultaneously, the Houthis will increase their targets in both KSA and UAE and this time by targeting entities of civic services to convey stronger messages to their leaderships.

Kuwait

In Kuwait, there is a new government, and new parliamentary elections will be held in 2020, paving the way for the country to have further democracy. Yet, the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran would reflect on Kuwait as the Kuwaiti community is divided between both regional powers. Regarding the Sultanate of Oman, the country will continue to act as a bridge between Tehran and the GCC countries, the European countries and the US, working actively with Riyadh to put an end to the war in Yemen. However, success depends on how much effort the new Sultan Haitham bin Tarek can put into resolving these regional tensions: the Yemen war and Iranian-Saudi tension and whether he is going to follow the path of the previous Sultan. The new Sultan of Oman is to a great extent a replica of Sultan Qaboos’ policies.

Qatar

The Qatar crisis will be not solved as the recent meeting in Riyadh for the GCC was attended by the foreign minister, and there are no indicators that the dispute will be settled any time soon due to Doha’s steadfast stance. Moreover as the recent regional developments indicate that Qatar is trying to approach Iran at the expense of its GCC neighbours in order to be an alternative business hub if war erupts between Iran and the US with its other GCC allies. Furthermore, Qatar intensifies its contacts with Iran and broadens its cooperation in a bid to advocate itself later on as a mediator between Iran and other parties. And this will likely strengthen Qatari position in the region in 2020.

UAE and KSA

Any military intervention in the Gulf, if any, will not probably start before 2020 due to the many international events and meetings in the GCC countries. The UAE will host the World Expo in 2020, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will host the G20 in Al Khobar at Aramco’s compound which it considers as an important playground to promote for itself and its modernisation in the framework of its 2030 Vision it is implementing with much effort. The year 2020 also marks the start of the countdown to the implementation of reform programs in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for 2030 (Kuwait is 2035 and Oman 2040) based on the achievement of the sustainable development goals of the United Nations Development Program. All of these programs hinge on the stability of the Gulf region, as any regional war would destroy all these plans and projects.

Kuwait

The health of Kuwaiti emir Sabah al-Jaber al-Sabah is in critical condition and this would increase the rift over the coming ruler of Kuwait in 2020–2021, leaving all options open for the Islamists to have a big say at the political scene of the country. Though the country is deemed one of the most advanced in the Gulf region politically as the emirate has an elected parliament with true democracy and free press, many neighbouring countries turn Kuwait into a satellite state. This will mark the coming era which will witness many Kuwaiti liberals, calling for safeguarding the country from any foreign interference.

Bahrain

As for Bahrain which is almost connected in its domestic and foreign policies with Saudi Arabia, it is slated that Manama will proceed further with the current trend of policies which would affect its relations with other GCC states at a later stage including those with Oman and at a later stage with Iraq due to the strong connections between Iraqi military groups with those in Bahrain whom Bahrain would accuse of tampering with its security and stability.

Other Key Players

Israel

Some important geopolitical trends in the region will be marked by March 2, 2020, with a new round of Israeli elections which would decide the future government of Israel. Indicators from Israel reveal that once Benjamin Netanyahu wins in the coming elections, he will announce the annexation of the Jordan Valley to Israel and this will adversely affect Israeli-Palestinian relations and Israeli-Jordanian relations, as this move violates the terms and articles of both Oslo (Palestinians and Israelis) and the Wadi Araba Agreements (Jordanians and Israelis). This would be at a critical time the threats of a regional war with Iran that would break out any moment as of summer 2020 after the American and western sanctions on Iran weaken the political regime and turn the Iranians against their rulers. thus, some GCC states will find it suitable to announce open normalisation of ties with Israel regardless of any Israel announcement with regard to the annexation process of the Jordan Valley as part of the so-called «Deal of the Century». The result will have an impact on the speed of development of relations between Israel and the GCC nations; Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority will feel marginalised or betrayed by other Arab states. Furthermore, Iranian comportment in the Gulf region (the increasing activities of Iranian naval forces) and Hezbollah in Lebanon will be taken seriously by Israel due to reluctance of the US administration to take military action against Iranian forces as Hezbollah will act even if by carrying out limited skirmishes that would lead to kidnapping some Israeli soldiers for further political and military concessions from both the Americans and the Israelis.

Iran

After the downing of the Ukrainian jet by Iranian forces, Iran has lost its fora and relatively privileged positions which Tehran has gained after killing of Qassim Soleimani which was a violation of international law. With the downing of the jet, Iran has lost the pretexts to act against any military provocations from other countries, fearing international outrage.

The general elections will be a sideshow for the vast majority of the population. But a more conservative and hard-line group will likely return to parliament to form a majority unless external interference is resorted to in order to affect people’s will, leading to further demonstrations and protests not only against the regime but also against its political elites and the Republican Guards who mostly control the country’s economy. On the other hand, there would be pro-government demonstrations and this would lead to direct clashes between both camps.

Furthermore, the so-called reformist/centrist/pragmatic camp would have a chance if regionally and internationally supported to change the pendulum of politics, especially after Iran has announced its pullout of the nuclear deal. Thus, the Western countries would find it easier to negotiate with a reformist camp rathe than to a rightist. Tehran and Washington are unlikely to make rapid progress, such as removing all sanctions in time. Therefore, the pressure of sanctions will continue to shape the Islamic Republic’s policies at home and abroad, and Tehran’s failure to protect its vulnerable population from harsh sanctions will lead to more unrest, violence and the erosion of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy. The sanctions have primarily secured the regime’s policies, and this is unlikely to change in 2020 if there are no improvements in Iran’s economic conditions and a radical change in the mindset of the American administration.

Turkey

Turkey’s sway in regional affairs will increase. Turkey will continue to play the double Dutch foreign policy cunningly between both Western and Eastern camps to secure their national interests domestically and externally. Turkish President Recep Erdogan will continue his repressive policy against any Kurdish state by the borders with Turkey as this will have problematic political developments. Yet, the political landscape in Turkey will be very critical with the Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s Ekrem Imamoglu, Ali Babacan (who was former prime minister) and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu will nominate themselves for presidential elections against Erdogan in the coming elections.

Erdogan is playing all political games with regional and international powers that serve him and his party. He is cautious when dealing with Russia, but in 2020 Russia will become Turkey’s key ally, though Ankara had been keeping Moscow before as Plan B for next scenarios against any American threat against political regime. Cooperation of Moscow and Ankara will intensify shaping a kind of alliance that limits Western opportunities to have an upper hand in regional affairs.

With Iran, Erdogan is also benefitting from the energy market, using the sanctions imposed on Tehran. With Syria and Iraq, he seeks to keep pushing for buffer zones to keep his borders clear and to distance Kurds from the Turkish borders. With the approval of the Turkish parliament to send troops to Libya to support Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj, the Turkish seek not to lose their final base in North Africa to other regional powers, considering that the loss of a presence means the loss of influence. Furthermore Turkey states clear that it is ready to step against the US and play its own geopolitical games freely and independently. Besides, Ankara made it clear that it is ready to play a «bigger» and more significant role in regional affairs than ever.

Conclusions

The expected re-election of US President Donald Trump will continue to have profound implications on the Middle East, and the inability to predict Western actions in the region and the profound absence of a coherent policy will affect regional actors such as Turkey, Iran and Israel. Thus, the Gulf is slated to explode even without war on Iran because the whole region is divided based on each country’s national interests which contradict other states. Regarding the civil war in Libya, security will aggravate in the country, mainly in Tripoli, unless an agreement is reached among militant groups in addition to Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, Egypt, the USA and Russia. The impeachment process of US President Donald Trump and the US role in the MENA region would determine the future of conflicts in many countries starting from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and the future government in Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria, Turkey and Iran. It is also expected that many MENA capitals will witness protests that would change the balance of power in the region. The outlook of the MENA in 2020 reveals that there will be a Sunni-Sunni split similar to the divide between Sunnis and Shiites.

*Shehab Al Makahleh President of the Jordan-based Political Studies of the Middle East Center, Founder of the US-based Geostrategic and Media Center

From our partner RIAC

Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova) Political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. President of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club

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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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Berlin Conference on Libya

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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What are the strategic, military and political differences between the war in Libya of  2011-2012 and the current conflict in post-Gaddafi Libya?

There are many differences. The first one is that the powers that started the clash between an ambiguous Cyrenaic “entity”, with strong jihadist connotations (it should be recalled that, also with Gaddafi, Cyrenaica was the greatest geographical area from which the jihadists of the Afghan and Central Asian wars originated) and the Tripolitan entity were, at the time, separate and almost all Western entities. Currently, those who command and rule on the ground in Libya are only formally subject to a droit de regard of other powers outside the Middle East or Asia.

Due to its sloth, the whole of Europe is about to disappear from the Maghreb region and, in the future, from Africa. Moreover, the latter would be the “complementary continent” of the Eurasian peninsula.

 The proxy war between Colonel Gaddafi who, in any case, acted proudly alone, except for a limited Chinese and East Slavic support, and the Jihadist friends of the West in Cyrenaica – where the tradition of specific Islamic radicalism (the Senussite brotherhood) was still strong – was the last operation of the unfortunate and foolish U.S. project of the “Arab Springs”, based on the techniques of “unorthodox, but non-violent and mass warfare” developed at the time by the Albert Einstein Foundation, an association promoted by Gene Sharp in 1983.

As a CIA Vice-Director said, the idea of the “Arab springs” was “to avoid any contact between the Arab crowds and Al Qaeda” and hence to make the Arab crowds turn against the jihad.

Needless to add anything else, History has already taught us its lesson.

Currently the great proxy war has turned into a great operation in which the major points of reference for the forces on the ground in Libya are not ahead, but are strategically following their forces of reference on the ground in Libya.

Because power relations count on the ground while, as Giacomo Leopardi taught us, the “belle fole” are ineffective and illusory.

In the Berlin Conference, General Haftar – the strong man of Cyrenaica’s Government – presents himself with a never fully completed and unsuccessful advance towards Tripoli, in spite of the fact that the UN-sponsored government of al-Sarraj had important defections from the qatibe group of Misrata and that the forces of former Colonel Gaddafi have now reached Tripoli suburbs, as well as in spite of the fact that the financial and operational support from  Egypt – especially now-from the Russian Federation, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia has never ceased.

Due to his poor health and to “keep” its troops under control, which could disperse exactly as those of al-Sarraj, General Haftar needs a symbolic, but also politically effective and quick victory against the people of Cyrenaica, once hated by the people of Tripolitania.

 King Idriss II, the last Libyan monarch before Gaddafi’s coup, organized by the Italian intelligence Services, boasted of “having never been to Tripoli”.

Hence Khalifa Haftar, the man who was harshly punished by Colonel Gaddafi himself for his clumsy operation in Chad – the long and decades-long Libyan operation in the South to repel the pro-French forces of Tombalbaye and Hissene Habrè – has not yet won and cannot fail to win in a short lapse of time. Otherwise he becomes irrelevant to its supporters and will lose his social and economic credibility, which is essential in this type of war.

However the Russian Federation, which has openly supported him and which still holds him in high esteem, does not want rash decisions and presses for an agreement with Turkey enabling Russia to act as a real mediator, since Westerners still talk about irrelevant issues with the representatives of al-Serraj, the man still surrounded in his palace on Tripoli’s port, at which h arrived – just appointed by the United Nations without any particular rational reason – by sea, because he knew that he would immediately be taken out or killed in Tripolitania’s airport of Mitiga.

Russia wants to exploit – in a short lapse of time – the strategic void that is on the ground and in Western decision-makers’ minds.

Therefore, it needs a quick agreement between the Libyan parties to exploit the central role played by Russia and hence dictate its own conditions to Italy, Germany, France and Turkey, with which there are other Russian outstanding issues, as well as with the other players in the Gulf, who still do not know how to make the most of the new tension on the ground between the United States and Iran, which could start operating again in Libya through Qatar and, possibly, with its own expeditionary force, organized by the new leadership of the Al Quds Force, full of Syrian Shiites and former collaborators of the Pasdaran Iranian forces in Syria.

Exactly the same as Turkey is doing, by sending – from the Northern Syrian areas currently acquired by Turkey –  the Syrian “Turkish” jihadists, who were created and trained by MIT, i.e. Erdogan’s intelligence Services, to support the “Muslim brother” al-Sarraj.

 In other words, it is the division and/or availability of the proxy players, the fighters on the Libyan ground, which determines the behaviour of their “great” points of reference, not vice versa.

 Furthermore, in the Russian Federation, the new political configuration of the country’s leadership is not irrelevant to Russia’s engagement in Libya.

With his new reform of the representative system and the Russian government, announced on January 16, President Putin wants to reassure himself of the possibility of appointing his future successor, without particular contracts and agreements with other Russian power groups and lobbies.

 The Russian power, which has long been firmly in Vladimir Putin’s hands, now finds itself more divided and less malleable in the hands of the current Kremlin’s nomenklatura.

The latter is changing its skin and is probably also using the street riots against President Putin to push for a new power struggle between Putin’s “heirs apparent”, thus forcing him to make unavoidable choices even in foreign policy.

In the future President Putin probably wants to concentrate on Europe and on the economic transformation of his country and he will be ever less interested in embarking on peripheral adventures than in his primary goal, which will be the internal economic and social reconstruction and the stability of his Near East.

Nevertheless the former Head of the Russian intelligence Services no longer has in his hands – smoothly and without discussion – his old “power elite”, whom he wants to radically reform, also with the pretext – or perhaps the real intention – of eradicating “corruption”.

Therefore even President Putin cannot play all his cards in the Berlin Conference.

France almost explicitly says it wants to extend the truce in Libya, waiting for better times, which will never come. It also wants small hegemony over the possible agreement between al-Sarraj and General Haftar.

 Even if there were an agreement, it would not be determined by France or Italy, but by the real forces on the ground, that is to say by the actual power of the local military organisations, all of which are almost in non-European hands.

 Even if there were an agreement, the fact of stating at first want you want shows the existence of suicidal ideation.

 What does France really want, whose intelligence services are at the origin of the first scenes of the insurgency, supported by a phantom section of the Parisian “association for human rights”, Libyan section – and which today, for the most part, is still behind General Haftar? Certainly, for obvious anti-ENI reasons.

 First of all, France wants – from General Haftar- the management of the oil reserves between the East, Sirte and the first part of Tripolitania in favour of France, as well as strategic control of the Libyan South for further exploration by Total, which should achieve the objective No.1 of the French presence in Libya since 2011, i.e. the taking of ENI and Italy’s total expulsion from the Maghreb region.

 Russia instead wants-at the very least – to reach the goal of a military base in Cyrenaica, which should change Russia’s whole strategic equation vis-à-vis the EU, although Europe is not yet aware of this.

  This is not fully incompatible with certain Italian interests, which could play Russia against France.

 Russia is not interested in those who control Libyan oil from the Eastern and central areas of the country, but in those who supply it to it better and at a lower price.

 Moreover, France wants to hegemonize the new “interposition force” that should be established by the United Nations.

 Here the Italian government’s ambiguities have been dangerous and sometimes funny.

 Firstly, there was the idea of entrusting everything to Europe, an organization that certainly has a “deep void” as Foreign Affairs Commissioner – albeit I am not referring to the current Commissioner Borrell – but neither does it have any credible political and military organization for out-of-area operations.

 Which EU structure should deal with the pacification of Libya?

 The political and military Group? The European Union Military Committee (EUMC), which “provides military advice to the CFSP” (the EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner) and is currently chaired by the Italian General Graziano?

 It is not suitable to command and control, but only to ask the EU Member States what they want to do with their individual Armed Forces.

Furthermore – just to use a metaphor – when there are always many of us at lunch, we must always know who pays.

The Italian idea of replicating Unifil II, the 20-year-old adverse possession of a large part of South Lebanon, which was not even able to stop Hezbollah’s “little war” of August 2006 against Israel is not a model, but just naivety.

Unifil is something different from an area ban or an Interposition Force. It is a political-military platform for the whole Middle East, where everyone talks to everyone, but sheltered from everyone, which could not be the case for a Force between al-Sarraj and Haftar.

 I also have the strong impression that, after the statements made by Italian Prime Minister Conte and Foreign Minister Di Maio regarding the fact that the Italian soldiers (Who? Those recalled from other African or Middle East positions, connected to Libya and no less important than it?) “will never be engaged, for any reason, in armed actions”, all the other EU Member States got a good laugh out of it.

 So what does Italy want to do with the Interposition Forces, whose Rules of Engagement are also inevitably drawn up by the United Nations, not by Italy?

  Probably, the idea is for it to be a sort of unarmed security guard for some international judges, who will verify without being able to notify the truce breaks. Hence it would be like the global export of the “Clean Hand Operation”, the judicial probe which is at the origin of Italy’s poor “Second Republic”, rather than the development of a smart Italian policy for the Maghreb region.

From the very beginning, Italy- intoxicated from its supposed Kantian ethicality, but still proud of its “Article 11” of the Constitution – has declared, as a country defeated in World War II, that it still wants to be so and to remain so sine die.

 The Armed Forces of any country are like the bank deposit of any foreign policy.

 If decisions are taken without the Forces’ cash that serves to put them into practice and, above all, to force the others to accept the geopolitical stare decisis, hence decisions or blank checks are issued.

Hence what does Italy want from Libya and from the next Berlin Conference?

 To be expelled from North Africa, which is essential for its energy and material-military security, as well as for civilian and military communications.

 Italy now plays the role of the geopolitical waiter, a role not far from some of the professions actually carried out by some of the current decision-makers until a few years ago.

Just to use again a metaphor, currently Italy prefers to pick up crumbs and concessions – which will not be there – from the African meal of others.

Moreover, in a context where – as is right -the following countries have been invited to the Berlin Conference: Algeria, which we have also lost; China, which is very interested in the Libyan reconstruction business; the African Union, which will represent above all the interests of the sub-Saharan countries; the Arab League, which will set great store by a stable pacification of the jihad with the rest of the African Muslim community, so as to take the jihad out of Westerners’ hands; the Republic of Congo, ready to play an important role for its internal energy and economic reconstruction needs; Egypt, which wants to take General Haftar out of the other Middle East players’ hands to use him as a force for redesigning Egypt’s Western security and against the expansion – through Turkey – of the Islamic Brotherhood, i.e. enemy No.1 of Al Sisi’s power; the United Arab Emirates, which want to obtain the maximum economic and political leverage from their new and unusual position in the Maghreb region, designed to exclude much of “Old Europe”.

 Saudi Arabia – also central to General Haftar – does not want to go against the United States and Israel, thus increasing its commitment to the Tobruk government that organizes Haftar’s policy, but it also wants to maintain a sound hegemony over the Maghreb region against Turkey (but without harming its good relations with Russia and the United States, still essential for its regional Wahhabi wars). Hence support to General Haftar, but wisely and with discretion.

What does Turkey want? Currently it strongly supports al-Sarraj, backed  also by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose primary point of reference is Qatar, an ambiguous correlator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with whom it has decisive economic relations. Erdogan wants a Tripolitania that has fallen into Turkey’s hands because Italy has not been able – or rather has not wanted – to support it militarily, possibly also with a real interposition force – not a newly-armed escort for the Maghreb “Clean Hand Operation”.

Turkey also wants strategic continuity between its very recent oil and gas agreements with Tripolitania – primarily maritime continuity, but which needs a very efficient land coverage.

 Even this redesign of the SAR and the Maritime Control Areas, which are by nature bilateral agreements, will see Italy excluded from the direct control of its ENI oil networks from central Libya to the Libyan coast. And this is no coincidence, considering that Tunisia – a possible Italian alternative to the restriction of ENI’s Libyan area – has not yet been invited to the Berlin Conference of January 19, 2020.

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Middle East

Iran crisis: A high-stakes bet on who blinks first

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

Two sets of US government cables suggest that Iran hawks in and outside the Trump administration appear to have the upper hand as European countries give hardliners a helping hand by attempting to force Iran to seek a diplomatic solution to a crisis that threatens to engulf the Middle East in yet another military conflict.

Disclosure of the cables advocating a military strike such as this month’s killing of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani coupled with the withdrawal of a US State Department olive branch that was intended to reassure Iran about the Trump administration’s intentions appear designed to persuade the Islamic republic to back away from its strategy of gradual escalation.

The strategy aims to engineer a situation in which a return to negotiations on the basis of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program is the only way to avoid an all-out war. The Trump administration withdrew from the accord in 2018 and has since imposed ever harsher economic sanctions on Iran.

Hardliners in Washington believe Iran’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that sparked anti-government protests days after millions of Iranians came out to mourn Mr. Soleimani’s death in what Iranian leaders project as a rallying around the regime is a proof of concept of their approach.

The hard-liners’ strategy was spelled out in a series of unclassified memos sent by David Wurmser, a close associate of John Bolton, while Mr. Bolton was serving as national security advise to President Donald J. Trump. The memos projected a US military operation on the scale of the killing of a Mr. Soleimani as a way of destabilizing the government in Tehran.

Mr. Wurmser’s advice was in line with proposals for destabilizing Iran presented to the White House by Mr. Bolton in the months before his appointment. Mr. Bolton was fired by Mr. Trump in September of last year.

“Iran has always been careful to execute its ambitions and aggressive aims incrementally to avoid Western reactions which depart from the expected. In contrast, were unexpected, rule-changing actions taken against Iran, it would confuse the regime. It would need to scramble,” Mr. Wurmser wrote.

 Such a U.S. attack would “rattle the delicate internal balance of forces and the control over them upon which the regime depends for stability and survival… Iranians would both be impressed and potentially encouraged by a targeted attack on symbols of repression,” Mr. Wurmser added.

The leaking of Mr. Wurmser’s memos coincided with a cable from the State Department to US diplomatic missions worldwide that walked back an instruction earlier this month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to limit contacts with Iranian opposition and exile groups in a bid to reassure Iran that the Trump administration was not seeking regime change in Tehran.

The Pompeo cable seemed to be a first step at bridging the gulf of distrust between Washington and Tehran that makes a resolution of the two countries’ differences all but impossible. Iran has long been convinced that regime change is the main driver of US policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mr. Pompeo’s instruction came on the heels of Mr. Trump’s decision not to respond to Iranian missile attacks on US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Mr. Soleimani.

With the government in Tehran on the backfoot as a result of the downing of the Ukrainian airliner and renewed anti-government protests, leaders of Britain, France and Germany, cosignatories of the 2015 nuclear accord, appear to be buying into the strategy of the Washington hardliners.

The Europeans, responding to Iran’s gradual withdrawal from its commitments under the accord as part of its strategy of gradual escalation, this week triggered its dispute resolution mechanism, that could put Iran’s actions on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council and lead to a re-imposition of international sanctions.

British prime minister Boris Johnson further raised the stakes by telling the BBC that he would be willing to back an as yet non-existent proposal by Mr. Trump for a new agreement with Iran. “If we are going to get rid of it (the nuclear accord), then we need a replacement,” Mr. Johnson said.

The proof will be in the pudding whether the two-pronged stepping up of US and European pressure on Iran will be sufficient to engineer a breakthrough in efforts to avert escalating tension and a return to the negotiating table.

So far, Iran’s response suggests tensions may have to further escalate before parties, all of whom do not want an all-out war, pull back from the brink.

In a first, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, insisting that all foreign forces should leave the Middle East, warned, in response to the European move and statements, that British, French and German troops may be in danger.

“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Mr. Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting.

Said a Western diplomat, spelling out European thinking: “This allows us to buy time while making clear to Iran that they cannot continue on this path of non-compliance with no consequences.”

For now, it’s a high stakes poker bet on who blinks first.

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