Strategy and geopolitics are like Aristotelian physics: there is no vacuum.
In fact, just as Italy is leaving the fundamental Libyan area to its destiny and hence to the other powers, Turkey is inaugurating its new African and Mediterranean geopolitics.
The Treaty signed on November 27 last between Turkish President Erdogan and the Tripoli government – the only one recognized by the UN – i.e. the “Agreement for the Delimitation of Maritime Borders and for Military Cooperation”, currently enables Turkey to send regular or irregular troops to Libya, only for supporting Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA).
The immediate goal is to defend Tripoli from the offensive led by Khalifa Haftar’s army, a strategic aim to which Turkey has adhered following the GNA invitation to take part in the operations to protect Tripoli from Haftar’s army.
Meanwhile the Russian Tatneft has shown great interest in reopening Block 04, within the Ghadames Basin, with an expected investment of 15 billion in upstream extraction until 2040. This is a very important political fact.
While the politically crazy and senseless Libyan destabilization has expelled from Libya the European and Western powers that previously controlled it or wanted to recover it – as was the case with Great Britain in 2011 – the territory of Italy’s old Maghreb colony has been occupied by all the Islamic and Middle East powers, which have replaced the foolish and ineffective Europeans and Americans who only wanted to remove the “tyrant” Gaddafi without having any plan for Libya’s future.
In other words, the Russian Federation and Turkey will divide Libya between them, by referring to the two opposing camps: firstly, Tripoli’s GNA of Fayez al-Sarraj – which has strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, like Turkey’s present regime. The link with the Ikhwan, the Brotherhood of Erdogan’s Turkey, will become mush closer, considering the strong and very recent slowdown in the strategic link between the Brotherhood and Qatar, which now aims at a stable agreement with Saudi Arabia.
A new doctrinal, geopolitical and religious configuration of the Libyan and Turkish Ikhwan, which will not fail to radically change the Schmitt-style division between inimici and hostes, between friends and foes, within the geostrategy of the whole Koranic Ummah.
Hence a sort of planned instability will emerge in Libya, albeit with a very important variable: the substantial elimination from that country of any real influence of the European Union and of the main countries which have so far pulled the strings of Libyan politics and war: France, Italy and Great Britain, but with an interesting US presence on Libya’s edges.
All these countries, which have idealistically eliminated Gaddafi, will be substantially prevented from exercising real influence on their Libyan regional champions and on future Libya divided into two or, possibly, three parts.
Libya will find itself divided into at least duapezza (two parts), just to use Machiavelli’s words, when the body of Ramirro dell’Orco, an overzealous and greedy servant of the Borgias, was found.
From now on, only Russia and Turkey will have real influence in the area between Tripoli and Benghazi and in the Libyan strategic neighbouring countries, namely Chad, Mali, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt.
Instead of crying over spilt milk, Italy – which has proved to be totally incapable of defending its interests in Libya, apart from ENI, which does it very well on its own and will see its economic role expand in the future Libyan bipartition – should also rethink a new bilateral relationship with Turkey.
It is not a matter of repeating the very severe and naive mistake of assessing the various “democracies” according to idealistic and formal criteria, almost as if Italy itself were not free from very severe flaws in the mechanisms of political representation or the protection of the rule of law or of its citizens’ human rights.
Quite the reverse. Instead of having incompetent people testing the Turkish, Russian or other countries’ rate of democracy, it will be necessary to reopen the great season of business, relations and effective bilateral meetings that characterized the Italian foreign policy in the happy years of the so-called “First Republic”.
I still remember when, in the private and State industry, Italy worked with Turkey in a quasi-monopoly regime in many important sectors: large construction works, motorways (which, at the time, I managed), railways, telecommunications.
In particular, I can recall Italy’s commitment to the Kakanai dam, when Amintore Fanfani’s direct support and Giulio Andreotti’s help were essential to find the best solution for the contract.
I can also remember when a great Turkish leader, Suleiman Demirel, dedicated his invaluable time and friendship to me.
That was the Italy I knew and I contributed to create, not the irrelevant Italietta resulting from the non-existent foreign policy of some former vendor of beverages.
However, the logic that Turkey is currently following in the East-Mediterranean region is the defense of its primary interests at the center of the Mare Nostrum, where Erdogan’s Turkey is moving in the context of the new oil and gas opportunities off the Cypriot coast, in front of the Israeli and Greek coasts, in the Lebanese and Egyptian territorial waters.
The Turkish presence in Libya and the definition of the new SAR and Exclusive Economic Zone of Tripoli, with the new relocation of Turkish maritime interests, means only one thing: Italy’s total and immediate exclusion from its very strong Libyan interests, as well as from a tentative control of migrants arriving on its coasts from Libyan ports.
It is now certain that President Erdogan will apply to sub-Saharan migration the same criteria he has already applied successfully to Syrian and Middle East migration to the Balkans and later to Germany.
He will control it with an iron hand, if and when this is needed to obtain funds from the EU or from individual countries (Germany pays, in fact, with European money), or he will use sub-Saharan migration to threaten the internal and foreign equilibria of Italy, the European earthenware pot amidst cast iron ones.
Italy, however, will not even realize it. Just think of the silence that has welcomed the definition of the new Algerian SAR area, which covers many of Italy’s exclusive zones.
The main problem lies in the fact that, while the Mediterranean was an absolute priority for NATO and the European coastal countries during the Cold War, with the end of bilateral confrontation -in the minds of many dangerous amateur strategists -the Mare Nostrum has become a secondary area, where to operate with long-term destabilization, such as the famous Arab Springs, or leaving the field open to the new operators replacing the old European countries. The Russian Federation, which will get its hands on Libyan oil, together with China and Saudi Arabia, in support of Khalifa Haftar; Algeria, which now plays a direct role in the whole Libyan territory; Qatar, supporting al-Sarraj; the Emirates, on Khalifa Haftar’s side with money and arms; Egypt, which supports the General of Benghazi to protect itself from the subversion of the Brotherhood, its enemy no.1; finally, even Tunisia, which has recently agreed with Istanbul to move pro-Turkish soldiers and jihadists from the Turkish-Syrian border, through Djerba, to al-Sarraj’s most extreme defense line.
Now also Tunisia has fallen into Erdogan’s economic and strategic orbit.
Moreover, Iran’s current attempts to have stable access to the Mediterranean, another pawn in the new Great Maritime Game, enable Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Russia to rethink the Mediterranean as a point of primary interest. This is something new in their geostrategic analysis.
All this happens while Italy, France and Great Britain are losing interest in North Africa, just to look who knows where.
To the Russian Federation? Maybe. Meanwhile, however, Russia is conquering a good part of the Mediterranean, alone or jointly with other States, namely Turkey, Syria, Iran, even Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
What will Europe do when it realizes it has been encircled by Russia, which it still considered inside the old Cold War limes, which was technically wrong even at that time?
This is the long-term effect of the war in Syria, which has redistributed all the regional powers’ cards in the Middle East and hence throughout the Mediterranean.
Libya is currently an area where the United Arab Emirates can play their new role as major economic and geopolitical actors, as well as be able to defend their hegemonic role in the East Mediterranean region.
President Erdogan, however, is currently the real hegemonic leader in the Tripoli system. The Turkish goal is, first of all, to preserve the key role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tripoli, but it is obviously a project that mainly concerns the Turkish national hegemony.
Besides having a strong role in the government of Tripolitania, the Ikhwan is also present in al-Sarraj’s GNA Council of State.
Three of the old Libya Dawn militias are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. There is also the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, always connected to the Ikhwan, as well as the Misrata Brigades, i.e. Libya Shield Force, of which three katibe are currently reported to have sound relations with Haftar’s forces, the old enemy no.1. The Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room, which -as you may recall -kidnapped Prime Minister Ali Zeidan for two hours in October 2013, still operates in Libya.
The Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room was also part of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, a political and military coalition created in 2014 as a response to Haftar’s Operation Dignity.
In its turn, it had been set up to oppose Libya Dawn, the first Islamic-jihadist military organization linked to the Islamic Brotherhood.
In Tripoli, besides Libya Dawn, there were Ansar Al-Sharia, the real Qaedist unit of Tripolitania; the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, always linked to the Muslim Brotherhood; the Libya Shield Force, always tied to the Ikhwan, and finally the Raf-Allah Al-Sabhati Brigade, a fraction of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade.
It should be recalled that the Emir of the Islamic State in Libya was Usama Al-Qarami, cousin of Ismail al-Qarami, who had been the Chief of the anti-drugs Police during Gaddafi’s regime.
According to some confidential documents published on January 25, 2016 by the newspaper Al Şharqal Awsat, the Islamic State in Libya had achieved a stable alliance with both Al Jama’a al Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah bi-Libya(LIFG) – established by the Libyan Mujahideen coming from Afghanistan immediately before the democratic powers’ attack on Gaddafi – and with the Islamic Brotherhood of Libya.
In 2015 their project was to prevent the establishment of Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA), but above all,to hit directly Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt starting from Libya, destroyed by Western stupidity.
The program of the Libyan jihadists, apart from the different situations, is still the same today, i.e. to start from Libya to destabilize the whole Maghreb region.
Hence the project of Libyan Qaedist rooting, developed in December 2015, while Westerners celebrated the Shkirat Agreement – probably by playing Beethoven’s EU anthem Ode to Joy – with the subsequent agreement between the Tripoli Congress and the representatives of the Tobruk-based Parliament which remained dead letter as if it were written in the desert sand.
The matter was, in fact, for the Qaedists to unify the Al Jama’a Al Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah bi-libya(LIFG), with the network of the Muslim Brotherhood, with the result that Tripoli would pass to the LIFG and the Muslim Brotherhood, while Sirte would remain in the Islamic State’s hands.
The agreement between the jihadists was signed in the rooms of Mitiga airport, the same airport where Al-Sarraj – just appointed by the ineffective UN democracies – could not land because he knew they would kill him out in a moment, and hence arrived from the sea like a strange Venus Anadyomene.
At that juncture, according to the jihadist agreement of the time – of which the traces still remain – the LIFG-Muslim Brotherhood would have controlled Tripolitania, while the Islamic State, with the support of the Shura Council of the Benghazi Revolutionaries and the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council would have exercised their control over Cyrenaica.
During that phase, the fundamental military and political support came from the Sinai Qaedist cells and this explains the current Egyptian interest in Libya’s future.
At the time, the Qaedist idea on Libya was to convey to the particularly foolish Westerners the image of an East-West coordination of the Libyan jihad, albeit with an immediate capacity of terrorist projection in all the countries bordering on former Gaddafi’s regime.
The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as those of the Islamic State and those of LIFG have always coordinated their actions and also organized joint operations.
In March 2015 the Islamic State also permanently organized itself in the Tunisian provinces of Madanin and Tatawin, bordering on Libya, among old Roman memories and extraordinary ancient roads.
The Tunisian, Saudi, Algerian and Libyan leaders of the Islamic State have reorganized in the Tunisian South, thanks to the forces of Libya Dawn, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. These are the forces that control the crossings between Libya and Tunisia, but especially those of Ras Agadir and other points of contact with Libya in the South Tunisian desert.
It is precisely “Libya Dawn”, which currently still permits the transit of many jihadists through those areas and, above all, the smuggling of large quantities of weapons.
They are the same weapons that the EU and, above all, the most misinformed and naive of its members, namely Italy, would no longer want to pass through the sea – a supply linewhich has never been essential for the network of over 1,200 Libyan arms traffickers and for the over 22 networks smuggling arms and other items, which operate on the borders with Tunisia, Algeria, Chad and Senegal.
Nowadays, the foreign jihadists covered or not by the Muslim Brotherhood’s networks are over 8,500 in Libya.
They are not necessarily connected to Tripoli’s political system only, but also to the Sirte or Cyrenaica’s illegal networks, which are still very active.
Reverting to the history of Ikhwan, according to all the most reliable reports, it was established in Benghazi in 1949, with the decisive support of some Egyptian Muslim Brothers who had fled from a particularly harsh repression carried out by the Egyptian government.
It was Gamal Abdel El-Nasser who ridiculed the Ikhwan, telling the Egyptian TV that he had called the Head of the Brotherhood, asking him what the Islamists wanted to do immediately in Egypt.
Al Qutb, the Head of the Brotherhood, who had initially helped Nasser’s “Free Officers”, replied he wanted to force women to wear the veil.
Nasser laughed in his face and told him that even his daughter, a medical student, never wore it.
Without delay, however, as soon as he came in power in 1969, Muammar Gaddafi, staged a coup designed by the Italian intelligence Services in a hotel in Abano Terme and immediately outlawed the Brotherhood.
The Libyan Ikhwan, and especially some of its most prestigious executives, fled to the United States from 1971 onwards.
It should be recalled that the Brotherhood “boys” operated in defense of the rebellion in Tahrir Square, Cairo, also at military level and that the Ikhwan secret and confidential sites spread – in Egypt and in the rest of the world – Gene Sharp’s and the US intelligence services’ “non-violent war”.
In 2012 shortly after the end of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, who was Italy’s real strategic asset in the Maghreb region, in Libya the Muslim Brotherhood organized the Justice and Construction Party, led by Mohammad Sowan. It was an organization modeled on the criteria of the Freedom and Justice Party organized by the Ikhwan in Egypt, but in Libya the Ikhwan Party immediately became the second most elected party in the July 2012 elections, with 34 of the 200 seats available in the post-Gaddafi Parliament.
The Brotherhood Party made alliances preferably with nationalist and secularist forces, such as the National Alliance Bloc, often blackmailing, however, the Bloc’s MPs, who were very often old leaders of Gaddafi’s regime and, hence – according to the now well-known Western stupidity – could not participate in elections or run for posts for at least ten years after the end of the Colonel’s regime.
At the beginning of the crisis in the Gulf Security Council, dominated by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, precisely the Libyan leaders indicated some members of Parliament and of the various Libyan political forces connected to Qatar, especially among the MPs of the Brotherhood Party who turned out to be “terrorists” according to international terminology.
It should be recalled that “Libya Dawn” took control of Tripoli in September 2014.
That was the moment in which the Government of National Accord (GNA) organized its real power.
It was also the moment when the old Tripoli Parliament, deprived of its authority, moved to Tobruk and in May 2014 rebuilt a government that was not internationally recognized.
Having the possibility of recognizing a Libyan government supported by jihadists, Westerners did not miss that opportunity.
Nevertheless, the Brotherhood Party in Libya lost as many as nine seats in the 2014 elections and, again in 2014, it was even more closely connected with Libya Dawn, a group made up of various Islamist militias, whose primary aim was to guarantee – in Parliament, but above all in Libyan civil society – a strong presence of groups and parties linked to the Ikhwan.
Hence why does Turkey turn to Libya? Firstly, because Bashar el Assad has recently taken Maarrat an-Numan, North-East Syria, the most important city in the Idlib district on the M5 motorway, linking Damascus and Aleppo.
Furthermore, Assad has also managed to regain Saraqib, another important site, which controls both the M5 motorway and the Aleppo-Hasakah roadway.
Hence the Turkish troops no longer have the possibility of controlling or influencing the Baathist regime in Syria, which has always protected the PKK Kurds against Turkey.
Therefore, in essence, Turkey is recovering in the East what it can no longer stabilize in the West.
It is also likely that the predictable Turkish reaction against Assad, after the Syrian forces have completed the conquest of Saraqib, will have a clear support from the United States, which has every interest in strengthening Turkey against Iran and Russia.
The possible buffer for migrants from Syria and Iraq, which is a Turkish short-term project, will most likely be guaranteed by an agreement with Russia.
Russia has also already launched TurkStream, the pipeline that will transport the Russian gas to Southern Europe and will pass through Turkey, thus avoiding Ukrainian networks.
Hence this is the key factor underlying the positive relationship between the Russian Federation and Turkey – a relationship which, in all likelihood, will also be replicated in Libya.
France has already used its aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle in joint exercises with the Greek Navy, evidently to hinder the projection of Turkish power onto Libya but, in particular, also onto Cyprus, an essential area for new oil and gas extraction.
In this case, the correlation between Libya and Cyprus is immediate and essential.
During their operations, France and Greece have also identified and controlled the Turkish motorboat Bana, which docked in Tripoli and unloaded Turkish transport track laying vehicles, heavy mortars, anti-aircraft guns and troop transport trucks.
Hakan Fidan, the Head of MIT, the Turkish intelligence Services, has recently been in Tripolitania to oversee arms transfers and the organization of training camps for al-Sarraj’s forces, as well as the establishment of a liaison unit between the Tripoli forces and the Turkish army, with as many as 400 Turkish military engineers who developed a network of watchtowers and Tripoli’s new complete fortification.
This will be the new Turkish strategic equation, the link between the Cypriot Sea and the Tunisian and Libyan coasts in the Mediterranean, while Europe organizes useless commissions and conferences on peace in Libya and fails to stop the flow of weapons to the Libyan factions.
Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War
War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.
Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?
War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.
While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.
Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.
The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.
Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.
Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.
Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate
A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.
Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.
The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.
The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.
The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.
The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.
To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.
China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.
To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.
A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.
It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.
On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.
They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.
Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.
“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.
The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.
They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.
“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.
Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.
“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.
“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.
Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.
Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.
The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.
“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.
The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.
By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.
There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.
That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.
Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.
The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.
The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.
Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.
Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.
“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.
An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.
Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.
The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.
Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.
China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.
China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”
The Russian bear in Lebanon
It turned out that the Biden-Putin summit on May 16 has established a wider effect than anyone would expect.
It exceeded by far political analysis, especially in Lebanon. The summit almost coincided with the Russian economic delegation’s visit to Beirut on the 18th of the same month and the announcement of its study results to initiate investments projects in Lebanon.
The results revealed the Russian delegation’s future plans in rebuilding the oil refineries in Zahrani and Tripoli and rehabilitating the latter’s port. Regardless of the projects, the Russian companies intend to deal with, if they are approved and encouraged by good signs changes can be relied upon. It means that Lebanon has taken an important leap in its economic policies by gradually moving towards the East.
Naturally, Lebanon’s orientation towards the East “if it happens” will not be absolute and definitive, but rather principled and partial. This is an important matter by itself. It is marked as a qualitative leap that may minimize the private companies’ monopolization of energy imports, which will be directly reflected, firstly, in electricity production in Lebanon, and secondly in facilitating the provision of petroleum products in Lebanon. Such projects became a necessity, in particular, after the collapse of the Lebanese lira against the American dollar.
Logically, changing the reality of the production of electricity will reveal immediate results. It will be reflected in the change in the rehabilitation of the economic infrastructure fields in Lebanon. It will also positively reflect in other vital areas, such as determining the prices of food commodities, which became outrageously high.
Accordingly, one of the most important reasons for the obscene rise in food prices is related to the high costs of transportation in the last month alone. It is almost above the purchasing power of the Lebanese. For example, the prices of vegetables and fruits, a non-imported commodity, which is not supervised by government support, remained within reasonable prices; however, once the diesel prices started rising, it directly affected the prices of the seasonal vegetables and fruits.
In addition, there are unseen accomplishments that will go with the entry of Russian companies, which is creating new job opportunities in Lebanon. Lately, it was reported that unemployment in Lebanon will reach 41.4% this year. It is a huge rate, which the Lebanese media, in general, use to provoke people against the current resigned government. However, it neglects to shed the light on the importance of the Russian investment in creating new job opportunities, which will affect all social groups, whether they were transporters, building workers, porters, cleaners, or university graduates.
The companies coming to Lebanon are directly supported by the Russian state. However, they are private companies, a fact that has its advantages. They are familiarized with dealing with other Western international companies. Russian companies have previously coordinated with French and Italian companies in Lebanon, through contracts concluded for the extraction of gas in Lebanese fields and in other fields outside Lebanon. Russian- European coordination process is also recognized in rebuilding Beirut’s harbor. A German company will rebuild the docks, while the French will rebuild the containers or depots, and the Russian companies will rebuild the wheat silos.
It seems that the process is closely related to the future of Lebanon and the future of the Chinese project, the New Silk Road, [One Road, and One Belt]. However, it is not clear yet whether the Russian companies will be investing in Tripoli’s refinery and in regenerating and expanding its port or it will be invested by the Chinese companies. If this achievement is accomplished, then Tripoli will restore its navigating glorious history. Tripoli was one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. Additionally, there is a need for the Russian and the Chinese to expand on the warm shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
Secondly, the project will boost Tripoli and its surroundings from the current low economic situation to a prosperous economic one, if the real intentions are there. The results in Tripoli will be read as soon as the projects set foot in the city. Of course, this will establish another Sino-Russian victory in the world of economy and trade, if not in politics as well.
The entry of the Russians and the Chinese into the Lebanese field of commerce has international implications. It will come within international and global agreements or understanding. Nevertheless, it is a sign that the Americans are actually losing their grip on Lebanon. This entry will stop the imposition of a limited number of European-oriented Lebanese monopolizing companies, which have dominated the major Lebanese trade of oil and its products. Dominance is protected with the “illusion” of meaningless international resolution. It is true that the Americans are still maneuvering in several places; however, this is evident to the arbitrariness of decisions making in the U.S. today. It is the confusion resulting from ramifications of the “Sword of Jerusalem” operation in Palestine; it seems that they do not have a clear plan towards policies in the region, other than supporting “Israel”.
If the above is put into action, and the Russian companies start working within a guarantee agreement with the Lebanese state. This means a set of important issues on the international and regional levels. And it also means that the Americans would certainly prefer the Russians to any Chinese or Iranian economic direct cooperation in Lebanon.
Firstly, it is clear that in their meeting Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin reached a kind of consent to activate stability in the region. Two years ago, the Americans had a different plan. According to an established source, the Americans actually intended to strike internal stability in Lebanon and ignite another civil war round, before finalizing stability in Syria. This assertion tunes with David Hale’s, an American envoy to Lebanon, a declaration about the American anger over the $10 billion spent in Lebanon to change the political reality and overthrow Hezbollah from the government. Consequently, the American project is behind us now. Russia and China need to invest in the stability of Lebanon, in order to secure their investments in the process of rebuilding Syria.
Secondly, the Lebanese state guarantee, which the Russians require, is directly related to the lack of confidence in the Lebanese banking policies, which have lost their powers as a guarantor for investments after the role they played since November 17, 2019 till today. It proved the inefficiency of the financial policies of the Lebanese banks, which was based on the principle of usury since the nineties of the last century. In addition, a state guarantee will enable the Russian companies to surpass the American sanctions.
The state guarantee increases the value and importance of the Lebanese state as an entity in the region, and this can be understood from Macron’s statements after the explosion of Beirut port last August when he said that Lebanon’s role in the region as we know it must change.
Thirdly, if we consider the history of international unions in the world, including the European Union, the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council and others, they started as economic alliances before they end as political alliances. Therefore, at this historical stage and in order to work on the economic recovery of Lebanon, which needs more investments instead of falling under the burden of more debts. Lebanon needs to head East towards economic unity with Syria. In cooperating with two superpowers, Lebanon and Syria can form an economic bloc on the Mediterranean shores, a bloc that can get Lebanon out of the vortex of Western absurdity and expand its alliances and horizons to be a real economic and cultural forum where the East and the West can meet.
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