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The outcome of the Berlin Conference

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Twelve countries and organizations have participated in the Berlin Conference on Libya, which has just ended.

There have been all the countries and organizations that really count in Libya. Egypt, which obviously supports General Haftar for the security of its particularly sensitive eastern borders, as well as to avoid the progressive expansion eastwards – starting from Tunisia and Tripolitania – of the Muslim Brotherhood, that is the axis of al-Sarraj’s regime and the international point of reference, inter alia, of President Erdogan’s Turkey.

Algeria, which also fears the spreading of political instability originating from Libya that would strike it immediately. It does not absolutely want to be excluded from the Libyan pacification “process”, although it strongly opposes Turkey’s role in protecting al-Sarraj’s regime.

 Congo, which wants to avoid the jihadization – resulting from the expansion of the Libyan jihad – of the recent internal conflict originated  from the militias called CODECO, with the further violent Islamization of the Lendu ethnic group.

 Turkey, which wants above all to start to exploit the land and sea areas facing Tripolitania’s coast, through an agreement already signed with al- Sarraj’s government – an agreement which has both the economic and oil component and its corollary for the military “collaboration”, i.e. protection, of Tripolitania, indirectly aimed against Italy and, in some respects, against the EU itself.

 This is the reason why this Turkish choice is also good for Vladimir Putin.

Turkey’s move in Tripolitania is also targeted against Saudi Arabia and it has been harshly commented by Egypt, which does not want to have the Muslim Brotherhood in the way, not even in the distance. The latter is the political-military organization against which Al Sisi organized his coup.

  Moreover, Greece, which is slowly being involved again in the economic and strategic game in the Mediterranean and trades much oil and gas with Misrata, wants to oppose – even military- Turkey’s designs on the Mediterranean, possibly with Israel’s and Cyprus’ support.

 Obviously, the Lebanon and Jordan are fiercely opposed to the aims of Erdogan’s Turkey in Libya and certainly do not favour al-Sarraj’s Tripolitania.

The reason is the close relationship between the Tripoli government, Erdogan’s AKP Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

It should be recalled that the Islamist radicalization of a young, very rich and westernized Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden began when he met, as a young enfant gâté, a university Professor from Ikhwan, the Brotherhood. 

 If the military leader of Tobruk and Benghazi, namely Khalifa Haftar – who is also the military leader of a government that won the elections, but had no international recognition – wins, Turkey will automatically lose access to the oil it is drilling in Tripolitania and on the Libyan coast.

 In Berlin there were also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

It should be noted that on January 6, 2020 Ghassam Salamé, the UN special envoy and French-Lebanese Head of UNSMIL, stated that “the other nations” – meaning the countries outside the Security Council – “must not meddle in Libyan affairs”.

 The not-so-hidden reference was to the bombing of a cadet military academy by “a country friendly to Haftar’s forces”. The attack, however, was carried out with weapons coming from countries which have long been members of the UN Security Council.

 The UN primary countries want to marginalize the current, albeit minor, points of references for the forces in Libya, but the member countries of the UN Security Council have chosen different and opposing military groups to operate with their interests in Libya. However, at least formally, the whole UN organization supports al-Sarraj’s Tripolitania.

A geopolitical Rubik’s Cube.

What does Italy want from the Berlin Conference on Libya? First and foremost, the Italian government is “optimistic”, which is not so usual in  strategic and geopolitical thinking.

 “Everyone is to be involved” to take a “step towards peace and stability”. It seems the appeal of a motivational speech for vendors. We are a very strong team.

 Then, there comes a 1960s pacifist-style speech, i.e. “a military solution is not a solution”. But the military solution is already in place and hence the problem is no longer there.

Not to finally mention the fact that the government has almost completely forgotten ENI in Libya.

 Immediately negotiating with the new leaders of the anti-Gaddafi uprising, at the beginning of the feral 2011, with talks supported by an excellent former Director of Italy’s intelligence services, ENI has endured and tolerated everything.

Insulated, with very little staff and a dozen managers flying to and fro other areas, it has suffered – more than any other Italian national organization in Libya – the strange option of the current Italian government to find a sort of balance between the two great opposing military camps in Libya.

 It is easy to imagine how useful this is for the protection of Italian  interests, which are – or would be – fundamental.

Hateful to God and to His enemies – as in Inferno, Canto III of Dante’s Divine Comedy reference is made to those about whom we are currently talking, namely  the ignavi,i.e. the inefficient or indifferent people, as well as the opportunists.

 In 2018 ENI started again oil explorations in Libya, while it was clear that none of the Libyan factions had a real interest in achieving peace.

What are the prospects? The decrease -despite  everything – of ENI’s  Libyan extraction quota, which is currently worth about 15% of Italy’s national requirements, without even imagining where we will get what we  need later, if we lose it in Libya.

 The “free” market would certainly see Italy losing out.

In the framework of the Berlin Conference, however, the Italian government has confined itself to prescribing to put some flowers in our guns, with very pleasant additions  on the fact that since our soldiers are  “peace soldiers”, they will not go to protect themselves from possible attacks, operations or breaks of the possible ceasefire, but will possibly act as “municipal messengers” or as law enforcement officers to notify of military clashes to whom it may concern.

 This is stuff for a small-town Prosecutor’s Office, the mentality of young lawyers with little experience.

 They will bring the “Clean Hands Operation”- from which Italy’s tunted Second Republic originated – to Libya.

 The problem also lies in the fact that the real negotiation between al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar was already carried out by others, namely Turkey and Russia, on January 12 last.

It does not matter that much that the Chief of the Tobruk and Benghazi Forces, namely Haftar, withdrew from the final bilateral document on the permanent ceasefire, just a moment before its signing.

Those who will settle the matter anyway – and well before we may think – will only be Erdogan and Putin.

 The Turkish leader wants to maintain – in any case and in any way – his spot in Tripolitania, in a future of ever-increasing oil and migration conditioning vis-à-vis the unaware (and indolent) European Union. That is enough for him.

 A blackmail conditioning from the “Balkan corridor”, which President Erdogan has already experienced for a long time, and a current and future “maritime corridor” from Tripolitania, which will soon make its voice be heard strongly.

 It is also incredible that in Italy the migration issue, which is essential also from a strategic and security viewpoint, has been tackled so superficially by all political parties.

Al-Sarraj also asked to include Tunisia and Qatar in the list of participants in the Berlin Conference. His request went unheeded.

The reason why the request was not met is obvious. These two countries are Tripoli’s quasi-friends: Tunisia is interested in the security of its very important borders and oil pipelines from Libya to the Tunisian sea and to Italy, while Qatar is a distant but generous supporter of Muslim Brotherhood’s Tripolitania.

 The conclusions that can be drawn are in line with the tradition of previous peace conferences on Libya – that is, irrelevant.

 All the major demands were, in fact, accepted in the final document, thus making it unusable for some operations on the ground in Libya.

 Or for an effective political solution. A strategic falling between two stools.

Probably that was its ultimate goal.

 However, it begins to emerge the establishment – which we imagine to be very complex and cumbersome – of a 5+5 Committee between al-Sarraj’s government (and who knows why it is still recognized by the United Nations) and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). A body which will be bound to fail if it remains a joint body fully based on members on an equal footing. The “Berlin Process” on Libya was initiated on January 19. As you have certainly noticed, nowadays all the endless negotiations on Libya (Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi and other backroom ones) are pompously defined as “processes”.

Again on the basis of the final statement of the Berlin Conference, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) will organize an International Follow-Up Committee, made up of representatives from all the countries and organizations that participated in the Berlin Conference on January 19.

 A repetition? Probably not.

This sequence of similar documents, piling up one upon the other will be a way to play all possible sides and make the Libyan conflict last ad infinitum. This may definitely and permanently harm some countries (such as Italy) but will certainly favour others, such as Turkey, the Russian Federation and France.

In Libya, as also in the European Union, currently every game is a “zero-sum game”.

 The conclusions of this Follow-Up Committee will be submitted directly to the UN Security Council, which sees strongly conflicting interests on Libya represented within it.

 Moreover, the Committee’s conclusions shall be in line with all the “processes” prior to the one which has just begun in Berlin. As said in the final statement of the Berlin Conference, said “processes” also refer to the “three-point plan” drawn up by Ghassan Salamé on July 30, 2019.

 The UN special envoy’s plan regarded – first and foremost – a truce, which began on August 10, 2019, for Eid-Al Adha, the Islamic Festival of the Sacrifice.

So much ado for a few-days truce, which could be negotiated by a local Imam without problems? Who knows!

Why referring so explicitly to a short truce that has already occurred? It is a mystery.

Probably the aim is to give more power to Salamé – hence just say so.

Again last August, the second point of Salamé’s plan consisted in organizing an International Conference, which was in fact already organized and closed in Berlin, but with the participation of all the countries concerned and interested in the Libyan conflict. Indeed, not all of them were present in Berlin.

 Well, we have already done it – so what? Another Conference, like those of Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi and Berlin? To say what? We cannot see anything new under the sun.

 A Conference is a Conference is a Conference, like Gertrude Stein’s rose.

 Finally, the third point of Salamé’s plan regarded a Conference – and this is exactly what we need! -between the political and military “parties” present in Libya and anyway of Libyan origin.

 It will be the most crowded and – we imagine – the least effective Conference. And probably the roughest and most vociferous one.

In Libya as elsewhere, however, the truce regards the ability of the mediating third party alone to make it credible for those who wish to sign it.

 Without this ability of effective and immediate recourse to the “third-party in Law” (if we can here use a concept of Roman law) no one signs a truce whatsoever.

Furthermore, which is the only way to enforce a ceasefire? Possibly creating  an “interposition force”, which makes both parties’ probable war and criminal intentions more technically difficult?

 No, I do not think so because, in this case, the Interposition Force – organized to make a truce hold – cannot control the non-military movements of both sides’ positions, which will become warlike at a later stage.

 Anyway, while Libya has become the area of a new great proxy war between enemies, allies and quasi-friends, when reaching truces, all of them which are outside Libya will certainly start to deploy their military potentials in new areas.

 In this case, truces are a way to wage and make war, not to stop it, even temporarily.

 In essence, as the final statement candidly admits, the Berlin Conference wanted to unite and muster international support for a political solution in Libya.

 Here, there are two possible alternative options.

 Either we go on with the potentially endless sequence of irresolute Conferences, attended by countries which do not even dream of sending troops to Libya, if not to be used as traffic policemen.

 Or a real international force is created, possibly under the UN aegis, which of course does not pacify Libya, but establishes those who win or lose power in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

Yet the question remains: do we really want a new Libya split up in the various Ottoman vilayets, as it was before the Italian pre-Fascist colonization, or do we still really want a united Libya?

In the latter case, which will be the small group of European or non-European powers that will manage their inevitable hegemony over the still united Libya?

 Because it should be recalled that, in many areas of the old “sandbox”, there is a national Libyan feeling that often overlaps with loyalty to one’s own katiba or the traditional alliance of the various tribes with one’s own.

Some years ago, even a young agent of the “new” Libyan intelligence Services told me that the Libyan national feeling is stronger than we may believe, even if it mixes – surprisingly and hence unpredictably – with tribe hierarchies.

We should also recall the positive effect that the authoritarian welfare State established by Gaddafi had for many years. In a paper of the Bertelsmann Foundation published a few days before the start of the Benghazi insurgency, it is stated that Libya was on average much better than Southern Italy in terms of income and social services and benefits.

Finally, also in the Berlin Conference it was reiterated that “there could be no possible military solution” for Libya.

 Of course, because the military solution is already in place it and it has been so for many years. It is made up of potentially equivalent forces, with equivalent protectors, who will therefore never be able to really find an agreement.

However, as Machiavelli said, cum parole non si mantengono li Stati.

Westerners’ sloth is no wonder, even though the gains for every Western country would be scarce and limited.

Italy is an unstructured country that, with controlled or uncontrolled immigration, will import and has probably already imported many jihadists in Europe, the next area of deep deconstruction. For Italy, Libya is a country that – being no longer fundamental for oil, except for Italy only – remains fundamental for the international oil and gas markets.

Hence, what are we doing? We are wasting time with talks and diplomatic “processes”, waiting for someone to win on his own in Libya and dictate his conditions.

 Obviously the final statement of the Berlin Conference could not fail to make reference to the fight against terrorism and “illegal” migration.

First and foremost, we must never speak generically of “terrorism”, which is a universal practice, but rather of a specific and refined jihadist warfare strategy, which is very different from what we call terrorism, even if it certainly does not exclude it.

This also applies to the Koranic doctrine of  “truce”, which would be a very interesting topic to discuss here.

 I imagine, however, that the intellectual arrogance of Westerners makes the unrepentant conference-goers believe that the only war and peace doctrine is the one which is developed and practiced in the framework of the enlightened, secularist and rationalist universalism.

They are wrong. Currently most of the people living in the world conceive and make war in a very different way from what Grotius, Kant or Althusius theorized.

With specific reference to “illegal” migration which is, in fact, an asymmetrical war system, as also the “sword jihad”, a less moralistic and legal analysis should be made.

The winners send illegal migrants to the countries of their enemies or economic or military competitors, the losers take them all and must also keep silent.

 Has the Italian government ever imagined the reason underlying the very powerful information and defamation war on Italy, with so many NGOs built ad hoc, during the previous “yellow-green” government?

 Do you believe that our EU friends are not involved in these issues? Certainly not.

Ultimately, the final statement of the “Berlin process” refers not only to the embargo on all arms – which is completely useless, considering that Libya is full of weapons, and everyone can anyway get them from the south – but also to the “equal sharing and distribution of wealth”, albeit it is not clear between whom, but we can here understand the very complex issue of the relationship between the NOC, the Libyan Central Bank and Khalifa Haftar’s LNA.

 Finally, we speak of “legitimate and lawful use of force” to be granted only to States (or to the State).

 Which State, in Libya? Tripolitania – which is now reduced to a few districts of Tripoli, with some katibe of Misrata, the military axis of al-Sarraj’s regime, already shifted to Haftar’s control – or the Tobruk-Bengasi one, for which Haftar is fighting, which has won the elections but has not been recognized by the external powers and the United Nations?

 Who is really legitimate and lawful? It is hard to answer this question, even if we only thought – as it is now usual among Western powers – of a political and State legitimacy that is simply granted by Western countries or by the United Nations.

Hence how many legitimate and lawful States are there in Africa? Once again it is hard to answer this question.

 It would be good to go back to the classics, from Hobbes to Spinoza. Even under the fierce sun of Libya, as when Lawrence of Arabia read Suetonius (obviously in Latin) riding his camel in Wadi Rumm.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Saudi Arabia and Iran want to be friends again

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Eventually the ice-cold relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia began to melt. The two countries sat at the negotiating table shortly after Biden came to power. The results of that discussion are finally being seen. Trade relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have already begun to move. Although there has been no diplomatic relationship between the two countries since 2016, trade relations have been tense. But trade between Iran and the two countries was zero from last fiscal year until March 20 this year. Iran recently released a report on trade with neighboring countries over the past six months. The report also mentions the name of Saudi Arabia. This means that the rivalry between the two countries is slowly normalizing.

Historically, Shia-dominated Iran was opposed to the Ottoman Empire. The Safavids of Persia have been at war with the Ottomans for a long time, However, after the fall of the Ottomans, when the Middle East was divided like monkey bread, the newly created Saudi Arabia did not have much of a problem with Iran. Business trade between the two countries was normal. This is because the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran at the time were Western-backed. That is why there was not much of a problem between them. But when a revolution was organized in Iran in 1979 and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established by overthrowing the Shah, Iran’s relations with the West as well as with Saudi Arabia deteriorated. During the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the ouster of Western-backed rulers from the Middle East. After this announcement, naturally the Arab rulers went against Iran.

Saddam Hussein later invaded Iran with US support and Saudi financial support. After that, as long as Khomeini was alive, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran were bad. After Khomeini’s death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatemi tried to mend fences again. But they didn’t get much of an advantage.

When the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s influence in Shiite-majority Iraq continued to grow. Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran’s influence in the region has grown. Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a series of shadow wars to reduce its influence. It can be said that Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in the Cold War just like the United States and the Soviet Union. Behind that war was a conflict of religious ideology and political interests. Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a complete standstill in 2016. Iranians attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran after executing Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimar al-Nimar.  Since then, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations.

Finally, in April this year, representatives of the two countries met behind closed doors in Baghdad. And through this, the two countries started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations again. The last direct meeting between the two countries was held on September 21.

Now why are these two countries interested in normalizing relations? At one point, Mohammed bin Salman said they had no chance of negotiating with Iran. And Khomeini, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, called Mohammed bin Salman the new Hitler. But there is no such thing as a permanent enemy ally in politics or foreign policy. That is why it has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran back to the negotiating table. Prince Salman once refused to negotiate with Iran, but now he says Iran is our neighbor, we all want good and special relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has realized that its Western allies are short-lived. But Iran is their permanent neighbor. They have to live with Iran. The United States will not return to fight against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia. That is why it is logical for Iran and Saudi Arabia to have their ideological differences and different interests at the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia has been at the negotiating table with Iran for a number of reasons. The first reason is that Saudi Arabia wants to reduce its oil dependence. Prince Salman has announced Vision 2030. In order to implement Vision 2030 and get out of the oil dependent economy, we need to have good relations with our neighbors. It is not possible to achieve such goals without regional stability, He said.

Saudi Arabia also wants to emerge from the ongoing shadow war with Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon to achieve regional stability. The war in Yemen in particular is now a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are unable to get out of this war, nor are they able to achieve the desired goal. Saudi Arabia must normalize relations with Iran if it is to emerge from the war in Yemen. Without a mutual understanding with Iran, Yemen will not be able to end the war. That is why Saudi Arabia wants to end the war through a peace deal with the Houthis by improving relations with Iran.

Drone strikes could also have an impact on the Saudi Aramco oil field to bring Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. Because after the drone attack, the oil supply was cut in half. The Saudis do not want Aramco to be attacked again. Also, since the Biden administration has no eye on the Middle East, it would be wise to improve relations with Iran in its own interests.

Iran will benefit the most if relations with Saudi Arabia improve. Their economy has been shaken by long-standing US sanctions on Iran. As Saudi Arabia is the largest and most powerful country in the Middle East, Iran has the potential to benefit politically as well as economically if relations with them are normal.

While Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Iran, its allies will also improve relations with Iran. As a result, Iran’s political and trade relations with all the countries of the Saudi alliance will be better. This will give them a chance to turn their economy around again. The development of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia will also send a positive message to the Biden administration. It could lead to a renewed nuclear deal and lift sanctions on Iran.

Another reason is that when Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Iran, it will receive formal recognition of Iran’s power in the Middle East. The message will be conveyed that it is not possible to turn the stick in the Middle East by bypassing Iran. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran need to be normalized for peace and stability in the Middle East.

But in this case, the United Arab Emirates and Israel may be an obstacle. The closeness that Saudi Arabia had with the UAE will no longer exist. The UAE now relies much more on Israel. There will also be some conflict of interest between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Prince Salman wants to turn Saudi into a full-fledged tourism and business hub that could pose a major threat to the UAE’s economy and make the two countries compete.

Furthermore, in order to sell arms to the Middle East, Iran must show something special. Why would Middle Eastern countries buy weapons if the Iranian offensive was stopped? During the Cold War, arms dealers forced NATO allies to buy large quantities of weapons out of fear of the Soviet Union. So it is in the Middle East. But if the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is normal, it will be positive for the Muslim world, but it will lead to a recession in the arms market.

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Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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