On April 27, General Khalifa Haftar, the military and political leader of Cyrenaica and especially of the Libyan National Army (LNA) announced that he “accepted the popular mandate to deal with the country’s issues, despite the burden of responsibilities and obligations, as well as the vast extent of responsibilities that lie on the shoulders of the Army”. He said so in a television speech on the evening of April 27, besides other statements on military tensions.
The General of Cyrenaica also added that the Army commanders would “be available to the people and work to the best of their abilities to alleviate the suffering of the people”. Gaddafi-style tones were used by a political-military leader who, as early as 2016, had his Cyrenaica’s banknotes printed in Russia with the Sirte Colonel’s profile.
We should not be ironic about these matters. The Libyan national sentiment, forged by the anti-colonialist struggle against the Italians at first and the Brits later, is by no means secondary to the widespread sentiment of loyalty to one’s own tribe.
Since 2016 Russia has already spent at least 10 billion dinars in Libya for aid to the population and, directly, to Khalifa Haftar’s Forces.
Furthermore, all the Libyan coastal areas from which migrants leave belong to the Forces linked in some way to the leader of Tripolitania, al-Sarraj. The same holds true for the detention centres.
Without this money flow the Misrata Forces, led by Zahwia and linked to the Warshafana tribe, would have no certainties in the distribution of salaries and payments for weapons and supplies.
In al-Sarraj’s Tripolitania the cycle of central-periphery funding is often uncertain.
On this Tripoli’s coast there is also Sebha, as well as Surman, used as migrant detention areas and military support to Tripoli, not to mention even Tripoli’s internal security militias, as well as the Nawasi and Tajouri, and the RADA forces that are Salafists linked to Abdel Raouf Kara and are now permanently deployed in the airport of Mitiga. Finally, there is still the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade, led by Tajouri, that controls all the branches of banks in Tripoli.
The Nawasi own all the branches of the Libyana company, which deals with post and telecommunications- and we can imagine with what level of security. Here there is the issue of the clash – not yet ended – for gaining control of the currency black market between the Nawasi and the Ghazewy Brigade that still controls the old city.
In May 2017 the Nawasi Brigade also attacked the Foreign Ministry, whose Minister, Mohammed Taher al Sayala, had even been accused of having “covert” relations with Haftar, probably because of his frequent meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.
In August 2017, the Nawasi brigade – as rich as and often even more than the government of Tripoli – also attacked the Coast Guard’s Head of security. Currently, however, nothing has changed.
The Tripoli polyarchy – while the Benghazi group shows greater unity – is the main enemy of its own stay in power.
This is the Libya that currently Italy has totally abandoned to its own devices, believing that the fate of Tripoli’s and Cyrenaica’s coasts is not interesting for it. Obviously except for paying lip service to the U.N., the E.U., as well as the Kantian Perpetual Peace and some other universalist nonsense carefully devoid of any idea of national interest.
A fatal mistake for which we will pay a terrible price, not only for the future arrival of a huge number of migrants in the midst of a very harsh economic and financial coronavirus crisis.
Shortly before Haftar’s TV message on April 27, some members of the Benghazi Parliament issued press releases in which they stated they entrusted the country’s leadership to Khalifa Haftar.
Internal rebalancing that hides Haftar’s residual ability to control his political team and supporters better than al-Sarraj.
Without external support, however, neither side, i.e. Tripoli’s GNA and Cyrenaica’s LNA, have the possibility of going on the offensive – hence a stable and effective war of movement.
In my opinion everything began in early April 2019, when Haftar announced his plan to take Tripoli and even to free – as he said – al-Sarraj’s government itself from the grip of the Islamists, who held the region and the local politicians on a string.
Haftar’s plan was a real lightning war, with Tripoli quickly encircled and commando groups that would later enter the city, with a view to eliminating the pockets of resistance of al-Sarraj’s GNA and its “brigades”, well-known for their scarce political and military reliability and often autonomous forms of financing.
For Haftar that was a way of forcing also the countries that supported all the various warring parties – which currently prefer to side with al-Sarraj in negotiations – to sit at the table with him who was finally the dealer giving the cards.
But the blackmail of the LNA leader was even simpler: either you pay heed to me or I put the great migration routes back in action and close the oil supplies.
.Most of the weapons related to Haftar’s LNA are still those in the stores of Gaddafi’s old Libyan army that was not bad at all logistically.
The logistical support and the military upgrade are still prerogative of the Emirates and Egypt, while a large part of liquidity is provided by Saudi Arabia and France has supremacy in the field of intelligence. Russia has a friendly wait-and-see attitude, with indirect support of mercenaries and weapons, to avoid frictions with Turkey, al-Sarraj’s primary partner, and to avoid an entanglement in the Maghreb region which, according to the Russian equation, would have been an excessive investment liable to weaken Russia’s operations in other regions it still considers of primary interest.
However, significant support has been lent to Haftar by the above mentioned Russian mercenaries of Wagner, who currently amount to 2,400 units approximately. Wagner is a subsidiary of Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman very close to Vladimir Putin.
Wagner’s Russians have their base at Al-Jufra, in the fully safe area for Haftar, but they also directly command the LNA Brigade No. 106, the best elite unit of Haftar’s army.
The Tobruk Brigades that are part of Cyrenaica’s LNA are the following, for a total number of 25.000 soldiers: the 9thBrigade of Tarhouna, the city that was also the birthplace of a recent director of the Italian intelligence service AISE; the Zintan Forces, led by Idris Mathi and Mukhtar Fernana; the militants of the Bani Walid tribe; the al-Wadi Battalion of Sabratah; the Anti-Crime Force of Zawiyah; the 12th Brigade of Brak-al-Shati, 7 Battalions and two Brigades, and finally the 106th Brigade of Benghazi, the Special Forces, four additional line brigades.
At tactical level, despite the Wagner strong support, currently the war against Haftar’s Tripoli has stopped in the Tripoli Southern districts.
In this case, it is said that some European intelligence services, especially from Southern Europe, have provided strong support to al-Sarraj in view of blocking the LNA’s initiative and prepare, in time, the best groups currently supporting Tripoli’s government.
Last June, however, two specific new situations changed the tactical equation in favour of al-Sarraj.
The first was the long chain of logistical links between the front lines and Haftar’s Commands, which was slowly breaking down and making the links between the various LNA forces on the ground and between them and the central Command increasingly difficult.
Moreover, precisely for the above stated reasons, the offensive positions south of Tripoli shifted slowly from Haftar’s forces–which were also subject to slow disintegration, as always happened in those areas – to al-Sarraj’s best units, where the penetration of Haftar’s LNA agents, probably for specifically financial reasons, was not successful. Thatwas an eminently political factor
Haftar, however, had planned to stay around Tripoli only a few days, or two weeks at the most. On the contrary, the situation reached a stalemate that greatly favoured the forces linked to al-Sarraj.
It was precisely Ghayan, the starting point of Haftar’s attack, which was conquered, a few days after the LNA’s attack, by al-Sarraj’s best forces, “well directed” by some European Intelligence Services – as we would say about the first four Caliphs after the Prophet.
After over four months of stalemate, al-Sarraj trapped Haftar’s first lines that, at the time had either escaped or were without food and ammunition.
Another immediate change of scenario: after a network of support to Haftar’s LNA lines, above all by the French Intelligence Services and the Russian Wagner group, the attack potential of Cyrenaica’s LNA changed. It reached Tripoli and was encircled, above all, by the Zintan Forces, immediately south-west of Tripoli.
However, the new supply and command lines – rapidly rebuilt by Russia and France – meant that Haftar could again bomb the headquarters of the Tripoli military academy in Hadhba in early 2020, precisely on January 5, with a toll of 30 dead and about 500 wounded people.
Immediately afterwards, the real partners of the two Libyan warring groups, in Tripoli and Benghazi, namely Russia and Turkey, pushed – with the methods we can imagine – their representatives on the ground into a truce, at least temporary, but capable of making the two countries put forward a new independent and autonomous Libyan project, right at the beginning of the Berlin Conference, planned and then held as from January 19 of that year onwards.
The results are now well known.
Just free words and unfiltered thoughts, but we had already talked about it at the time.Later a clear and inevitable stalemate between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica was reached, and it would not even be difficult to imagine why, given the typically Western idea – that currently everyone must necessarily follow, without even wondering why – of the Perpetual Peace projects that would have made even Kant, a careful reader of Machiavelli, smile.
France and Great Britain broke Gaddafi’s treasure box to avoid the Colonel’s often “salvific”financial support for Italy, precisely in the phase in which the Euro was being designed as a model of “austerity”, i.e. a stable stop to Italy’s development in favour of others.
ENI was obviously the primary object of desire and the Maghreb region’s closure to the presence of a non-homogeneous partner, such as Italy, not in line with the British and French oil interests did the rest.
In 2011, at the time of the great financial spread in Italy, Great Britain punished the Colonel who, upon direct choice of the Italian Intelligence Services, staged the coup against King Idriss, a British-made King as no one ever before, while the Cyrenaica King who boasted of “never having visited Tripoli” was “undergoing hydrotherapy treatments” in Turkey.
Gaddafi’s was punished because he sent the Brits away, also successfully seizing their bank accounts, and immediately opened the way to the Italians of ENI.
The ENI team had played some role in the coup staged by the pro-Nasserian “free officers” supported by the Italian Intelligence Service SID.
Later they warned, twice, of British targeted insurgencies, attacks and attempted assassinations against the “Colonel”.
A third time Gaddafi was put on alert by the Italian Intelligence Services in relation to a U.S. attack against the Colonel’s usual tent inside his base of residence.
There was enough to be severely punished. In the intelligence world nothing is forgotten, and the day of reckoning comes sooner or later.
France, however, still wants ENI or in any case a hegemonic Libyan areafor its reference oil company, Total.
Since early this year, however, Haftar has been controlling almost all the oil wells, such as Sarara and Al Fil, as well as the entire Sirte area and the coastal terminals to transport this oil.
The oil issue by which Haftar sets great store started in 2016, when the U.N. Security Council extended a motion enabling only the Tripoli government to manage exports through NOC, the Libyan State-owned oil company.
As we will see later on, this is the real and strong link between France and Khalifa Haftar’s LNA.
As already said, no result was reached at the Berlin Conference, but a factor materialized that was to clarify the future strategies of the two Libyan partners. Al-Sarraj’s GNA was then strongly and explicitly supported by Turkey, which wanted to play a role of Mediterranean – and later global – protection and expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood networks – hence above all of the Tripoli government – while Russia certified its lateral role, but always well connected with Haftar, for indirect oil interests and, above all, for reaching the strategic goal of a military base on Cyrenaica’s coast, a real game changer in the relations between the Russian Federation and NATO.
Both al-Serraj and Haftar, however, share only one assessment: the structural inefficiency of the U.N. mandate for the region and the irrelevant role played by Ghassan Salamè as U.N. Envoy.
Nevertheless, one of the current factors underlying the radicalization of the conflict between Tripoli and Cyrenaica lies also in the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Haftar heavily bombed Tripoli, hoping to make military use of the efforts that, however, al-Sarraj is making to curb the contagion.
The civilian population has thus become a primary war target.
As many as 2.4 million people were left without drinking water in Tripoli because, on April 10 last, Haftar’ Sherif Brigade cut off water supplies.
The Turkish support, with drones and advanced weapons, is still very important for the GNA in Tripoli.
The first target of Tripoli’s forces was the air base of Al Watiya, the area enabling to hit the capital of al-Sarraj’s government with the drones supplied by Saudi Arabia.
The Benghazi LNA militias responded with an offensive along the coast, which enabled Haftar’s GNA to secure the city of Zuwara until the conquest of Ras Jedir, a position on the border with Tunisia.
To the east of the coast, the two Libyan governments are still fighting for taking control of Abugrein, from which supplies leave for Misrata, which is the real military cover both for al-Sarraj’s government and for the city of Tripoli.
The third bone of contention in the current clash is the city of Sirte.
Cleared from the Islamic State, above all by the Misrata forces, linked to the GNA, Sirte is currently in Haftar’s hands after a jihadist Salafist unit defected to the Benghazi LNA.
Al-Sarraj arrived also at Sabratha and Sormanto control the line from the Tunisian border to Misrata, i.e. the key to Tripoli.
Hence currently the battle is mainly in the area of Tarhouna, Haftar’s most important base towards Tripolitania. Tarhouna is controlled by the 7th Brigade, an elite brigade of the Benghazi LNA led by the Al Khani brothers.
It is said, however, that Tripoli’s forces – strongly supported by the Turkish militias – are about to enter that city, which is crucial to hit and control coastal Tripolitania.
The Turkish drones are essential to provide cover and information to the GNA forces towards Tarhouna that, if lost by Haftar, would no longer allow the supply chain from Benghazi to West Tripoli, and would therefore permanently block Khalifa Haftar’s LNA at the borders of Tripolitania.
After conquering Tarhouna, Tripoli’s GNA is expected to head for Al Jufra, the key city for the cross-control of Fezzan, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
As everybody knows, the Libyan war is a proxy war, which only the Westerners’ strategic carelessness does not allow to solve in a rational way.
This rational way would finally be to determine the birth of a Libyan Federal State, with areas controlled by local players in stable coordination with their international contacts and counterparts.
By now the possibility of a new unitary State in Libya, like Gaddafi’s, is increasingly remote.
We all know it is a bad thing, but now the “Arab Spring” disaster has taken place also in Libya, and above all against Italy, and it is no use crying over spilt milk.
Milk that we, too, spilt, obtorto collo and probably, without being fully aware of what the loss of Libya meant for Italy.
It should be recalled that al-Sarraj still has the U.N. support, as well as that of Great Britain, responsible for the regime change against Colonel Gaddafi, immediately after France. He also has the less decisive Italian support, as well as the support of Tripoli’s real backers, namely Qatar and Turkey.
But why does Turkey support al-Sarraj?
Firstly, because the government in Tripoli is supported by the United Nations, i.e. an international legal space that is vital to protect Turkey in its operations in Central Asia and the Mediterranean.
Secondly because this loyalty to the United Nations envisages a legalistic role for Turkey, like “we side with the lawful and legitimate State, while others support an illegal warlord”.
Then there is a much more substantial issue, i.e. the agreement between Turkey and Libya on the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) between the two countries, which enables Turkey to balance its weight between the East and the West of the Mediterranean. Finally,Turkey does not want another refugee crisis, even in the Maghreb region, which could spill over onto its shores, considering that Turkey is already the Mediterranean-Asian country with the highest concentration of refugees.
With the future control of its oil and gas exploration EEZ off the coast of Tripoli, Turkey is building its absolute role as the sole mediator between the Middle East oil and gas and its European and Western consumers.
This Turkish strategy is directly against Greek and above all Italian interests, but this is probably not even known to the Italian government, which now believes that foreign policy is always a version of Lenin’s “gala dinner”.
On Haftar’s side, albeit in various degrees, there are still the following countries: France, which is still the axis of LNA’s intelligence; clearly the Russian Federation, as we have already seen; Egypt, which does not want in any way an “infection” and a contagion of the Muslim Brotherhood from al-Sarraj’s Libya through Tunisia, which is now also a Turkish platform, up to its borders, given that it was Al Sisi who staged a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt.
Again on the side of Haftar, there is Saudi Arabia, the rich supplier of capital and weapons, and finally the Emirates.
It is good to note that on one Libyan side there is Qatar, while the Emirates are on the other side.
Qatar is the world’s largest producer of natural gas, while the other Emirates extract oil, and the two markets are different and often opposed.
The core of the issue is that France supports Haftar because it believes that he is the only credible military force to control the passage of soldiers and weapons into the Sahel, where since 2014 France has been maintaining its Operation Barkhane.
Obviously the fact that a man linked to France holds most of the Libyan oil fields enables it to take the lion’s share in Total, especially against ENI interests.
But Russia, too, has significant oil interests, with Tatneft and Gazprom operating in Libya since Gaddafi’s time.
Russia, however, also intervened directly in favour of the Chad troops operating in the Sahel that are clearly opposing those of Haftar’s GNA that Russia supports in Libya.
Hence, considering that the possible lines of connection between Benghazi and the area of clashes with Tripoli’s GNA are now in the hands of the Turkish militiamen and of some other GNA’s “militias”, in this phase the only rational choice for Haftar and his points of reference could be that of creating a large political-media operation in view of achieving – with the maximum political and military clout – an international negotiation ensuring a decisive role to the LNA in the future partition of Libya and, above all, a further strong and credible role in the sharing out of oil revenues.
But what does Haftar really want? First and foremost, the General of Cyrenaica wants to maintain the unity of Libya which, despite many “federalist” and non-historical speeches by Western analysts, is a widespread feeling among the population.
Furthermore, the Algerian and Egyptian support to the LNA is still decisive, but it is also essential for the two States.
Without Haftar’s backing, the feeble balance between the “sword jihad”, Islamic radicalism – not yet violent – traditional secularism, border and internal security, in Algeria and Egypt, would be completely undermined.
A role that neither al-Sarraj nor the protectors of Tripolitania can take up on their own or credibly guarantee in Algeria and Egypt.
Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, apart from Qatar, do not even want to hear about the Muslim Brotherhood, that is decisive in al-Sarraj’s government, but strongly present also in Benghazi, for old reasons of internal stability, but they do not want, above all, the oil and political crisis of the second largest oil producer in Africa.
The mediation between Russia and Haftar is still in the hands of the Algerian Intelligence Services. The Russian arms pass through Algiers and are then assigned to Haftar.
Moreover, Russia has no interest in letting Haftar alone definitively win since it does not entirely trust him. It supports Benghazi’s LNA to have a preferential accessto the Libyan oil resources, as well as for the already mentioned future possibility of building a large base in the Mediterranean.
Russia also wants a real and definitive negotiation between Benghazi and Tripoli, but largely managed by Russia alone, above all pending the great post-war contracts (such as the Benghazi-Sirte railway, which is worth 2 billion US dollars). Russia’s interests in Libya, however, are mainly focused on a rapid de-escalation of the conflict – an operation directly connected to the strategic agreement between Turkey and Russia, which is of primary importance for Syria and Turkish Stream compared to the other peripheral scenarios. These scenarios also include the Libyan ones in which Russia has entered only because the Western naivety has enabled it to do so. Certainly, Bashar el Assad backs Haftar also materially, while strange rumours are rife of non-occasional relations between Iran and Cyrenaica’s LNA.
The best idea would be, therefore, that of “sanitizing” the Libyan issue, putting the new players outside the European area out of play, as well as allowing an agreement between the EU, the United States and Russia to end the war operations in Libya and creating Zones of Regional Interest inside the old Gaddafi’s area, thus turning the war economy of the countless gangs -that is self-sustaining and allows the arrival of all the external players who want to do so – into the economy of reconstruction, possibly managed by the same gangs that are currently fighting one another.
As said above, it is federal plan but within a national Libyan framework, establishing the traditional identity of the Libyan people and allowing the country’s transition from a war economy to the great reconstruction.
Moreover, on January 20 last, Italy and Great Britain submitted a joint declaration condemning the closure of the oil wells in south-east Libya, ordered by Khalifa Haftar himself.
France obviously blocked it within the EU. There was also a basic U.S. consensus on this declaration, which came after an explicit and direct request from the Tripoli government.
The underlying idea was to condemn the fact that “NOC (the Libyan State-owned company) was forced to suspend operations in critical installations throughout Libya” and hence urge the immediate reopening of all facilities.
France, however, asked that the two countries present with their diplomacy in Libya, namely Cyprus and Greece, joined the operation. This means that while Turkey takes Tripoli and a minimal part of the Eastern Mediterranean area, France acquires two reference countries in the region, namely Greece and Cyprus.
And probably also the old Lebanon, now undergoing a financial crisis and sufficiently far away from Saudi Arabia.
On the other side, the Turkish jihadist and pro-Turkish militiamen gathered in Idlib, Syria, by the Turkish MIT, are already fighting for Tripoli, with 2,000 dollars a month on average, as well as 50,000U.S. dollars going to families in case of death and 35,000dollars in case of severe disability.
Turkey has also announced the sending of a ship for oil prospections off the Somali coast. The Libyan circle widens and this creates ongoing and uncontrollable instability.
Troubles for the Emirates or nuisance operations for the United States and China off Aden.
World Powers Must Address the Nexus of Iran’s Terrorism and Diplomacy
On coming Friday, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat will stand trial in Belgium along with three co-conspirators in a terrorist plot. The prosecution is an opportunity to hold these four individuals accountable for activities that could have harmed hundreds of advocates for democracy in the Middle East. More than that, it is also an opportunity for Western powers to reconsider their overall approach to the regime that enables and actively promotes such terrorist plots.
The trial concerns the attempted bombing of an international gathering, organized annually near Paris by the coalition of Iranian opposition groups and personalities, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Collateral damage of the June 2018 plot could have easily included any number of the high-profile dignitaries who had traveled to the event from throughout Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Among these were many members of parliament from across Europe, former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, former PM and Foreign Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper and John Baird, former Foreign Ministers of France and Italy, Bernard Kouchner and Giulio Terzi, and President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
This list of potential victims stands alongside the French venue as a reason why it is especially important for Western governments to offer an assertive reaction to the terror plot. Ideally, that reaction could have happened very soon after the plot’s details were revealed, particularly after it was announced that the third counsellor at Iran’s embassy in Vienna had been arrested in connection with it. But the trial of that terrorist-diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, represents another opportunity for a unified Western coalition to send a strong message to his handlers in Tehran.
Make no mistake, those handlers were guiding Assadi through the entire process. An initial, months-long investigation into the terror plot led to an announcement from the French Government which stated unequivocally that the plot had been approved at the highest levels of the Iranian regime. This finding has been corroborated every step of the way by the two-year Belgian investigation. Throughout that time, Tehran has explicitly stood behind its agent, as by trying to obstruct his extradition after he was arrested in Germany, just outside the bounds of his Austrian diplomatic immunity.
Despite those efforts to help him escape accountability, an alternative account of the terror plot has gradually emerged which suggests that Assadi was acting as a rogue agent, without the knowledge or consent of his own government. This is nonsense, and it has been appropriately and repeatedly debunked by persons with knowledge of the case, as well as by persons with a solid understanding of how the Iranian regime operates in general.
“The plan for the attack was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership,” wrote Jaak Raes, the head of Belgian state security services in recent communications with the media. “It was not a matter of Assadi’s personal initiative.”
It is not even clear why anyone would think otherwise, unless it is because the direct involvement of such a high-ranking diplomat doesn’t seem to be part of Iran’s usual modus operandi. This is a valid point, but the change in tactics should raise more questions about the perceived value of the target in 2018 than it does about who is ultimately responsible for setting that target. In fact, the Iranian regime’s attempted attack on the opposition gathering was predictable because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had personally acknowledged, that January, that the NCRI coalition was responsible for an ongoing, nationwide upsurge in unrest.
The January uprising inspired countless protests that carried the same anti-government message through the rest of the year, during which time Tehran became fixated on stamping out dissent both at home and abroad. That fixation called for more carefully managed terrorist activity than is usually channeled through the regime’s various terrorist proxies, such as Hezbollah. In essence, the 2018 terror plot only brought the role of Assadi and other Iranian diplomats into the foreground, putting him in a leadership position whereas once he might have simply channeled the regime’s instructions, financial and logistical assistance into the hands of third-party militants.
Now that the curtain has been drawn back on the regime’s existing terrorist infrastructure, the international community must carefully consider how to assure that it is never activated in this or any other way again. It will not be sufficient to just secure conviction for the 2018 conspirators, although this is certainly a step in the right direction. Major world powers should amplify the message of that conviction so the Iranian regime will have no doubts about the consequence of other such terror plots being thwarted in the future.
Many of those who attended the 2018 gathering have recently outlined some of the ways in which this message might be conveyed. In a number of online conferences they used the opportunity to advocate for enhanced economic sanctions on regime authorities, further diplomatic isolation for the regime as a whole and the application of formal terrorist designation of entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
Diplomatic isolation seems to be an especially contentious topic, especially when advocates raise the prospect of shuttering Iranian embassies and consulates altogether. But details of the Assadi case should receive a broader public airing next Friday and then it should become much easier for policymakers throughout the world to sign onto a foreign policy strategy that acknowledges the Islamic Republic is the furthest thing from an ordinary diplomatic partner.
Far from closing off a pathway for promoting moderation within the Iranian regime, embassy closures would actually limit the regime’s ability to convey terrorist extremism beyond its borders, sometimes even into the heart of Europe. In partnership with other assertive Western policies, this sort of diplomatic isolation can be expected to force the regime into a position where it must either fundamentally transform its behavior in order to survive or else focus exclusively on domestic affairs and risk overthrow by an increasingly restive population.
Iraq Has the ‘Highest Negative Experiences Worldwide’ (Gallup)
Both Iraq and Iran have been and are being either sanctioned by or else constantly being threatened by the U.S. Government, though neither Iraq nor Iran ever invaded nor even threatened to invade the United States. This is pure aggression against both Iraq and Iran, and the millions of people who are suffering these constant aggressions are the peoples of Iraq and of Iran. Never does the U.S. Government apologize, and never do any of its allied governments (America’s vassal nations) so much as just suggest that the U.S. Government ought to apologize, for its constant wars of aggression against the peoples of those and of other countries that never threatened America. The U.S. is a constant international outlaw, launching wars of aggression routinely, and the rest of the world remains silent about this, decade after decade.
17 years after America’s conquest of Iraq, the “Gallup Global Emotions Report 2020”, which was just issued on November 19th, finds:
Iraq: The Most Negative Country in the World
After years of posting some of the highest scores in the world on the Negative Experience Index, Iraq topped the list in 2019 with a score of 51. This figure represents a slight increase from its score of 49 in 2018.
The country’s 2019 score reflects the turmoil in Iraq amid some of the largest and bloodiest protests in years. In late 2019, Iraqis’ approval of their country’s leadership plummeted from an already low 22% to just 13%. Nine in 10 Iraqis said corruption was widespread throughout their government.
Negative experiences remained fairly common for most of the population in 2019, with at least roughly half of Iraqis experiencing each of the five experiences in the survey. Notably, Iraqis led the world in experiencing anger — which was on full display in the streets in 2019 and 2020 — with 46% saying they felt a lot of anger the previous day.
No other country posted a Negative Experience Index score higher than Iraq’s, but, as in past years, people in several countries with high negative scores in 2019 were typically contending with some type of turmoil. Many have been at the top of the list for several years, including Chad, which was the most negative country in the world in 2018. However, there were several new appearances in 2019: Rwanda, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Tunisia.
This is nothing new. Gallup’s “Global Emotions Report 2015” said:
Iraq, Iran Top Negative Experience List for Second Consecutive Year
Iraq and Iran have the highest Negative Experience Index scores in the world for the second year in a row. Iraq has been No. 1 on this index three times — in 2011, 2013 and 2014 — and has been among the top five in all other years since 2008. Iran was No. 1 in 2012 and has made at least the top 15 countries in the years when Gallup has conducted surveys there. The presence of Iraq and Iran at the top of the list may not be that surprising given the political and economic turmoil that people in these countries have been experiencing lately, and how strongly related negative scores are to people’s perceptions about their living standards and health problems. In fact, people in most of the countries with the highest negative scores in 2014 were contending with some type of disruption — economic or otherwise — including Liberia, which was dealing with the onset of the Ebola outbreak at the time of the survey.
In that year’s surveys (2014), all ten of the countries that had the “Lowest Negative Experience Index Scores,” except Rwanda, Myanmar, and Taiwan, were countries that prior to 1991 were communist countries, and included both Russia and China.
On 29 September 2015, I headlined about that report, “GALLUP: ‘Iraqis Are the Saddest & One of the Angriest Populations in the World’,” and closed with “Is Uzbekistan really the best place to live? Anyway, it’s one of the few countries that the U.S. didn’t grab control of, either by outright invasion, or by means of a coup.” All of the ten-best-scoring, and ten worst-scoring, nations, in that report, were listed there.
In that 2015 report, Iraq scored as #1 on “negative experiences,” and Iran scored as #2. In the 2020 report, Iraq is again #1 on it, but Iran is now #9 on it. The 2015 report said: “Iraq’s high Negative Experience Index score is largely attributable to the relatively high percentages of Iraqis who report experiencing each of these negative emotions. Majorities of Iraqis experienced worry (62%), physical pain (57%), sadness (57%) and stress (55%) the previous day, and half of Iraqis (50%) said they experienced anger. Iraqis lead the world in experiencing sadness and tie with Iran on anger (49%).” Great going, team America! America’s liar-in-chief, who deceived Americans into invading Iraq, George W. Bush, had a favorable/unfavorable rating of 59%/37%, or a 1.6 net-favorability score, in Gallup’s latest (2017) survey; and the last time when Gallup had surveyed and found at least as high a ratio for him was in January 2004, 65%/35%, or 1.86: his approval by the American people at that time was 1.86 times favorable, as compared to unfavorable. So, Americans simply don’t hold such monstrous lying leaders accountable, at all — not only don’t execute them, but don’t even especially despise them, for the gratuitous vast harms, which such a leader had produced.
Now, five years later, in Gallup’s 2020 report, the ten “Lowest Negative Experiences Worldwide” nations are still dominated by countries that, prior to 1991, were communist. Here is that list, of these ten countries, and their respective “Negative Experience” scores, in the 2019 surveys:
- Taiwan 13
- Kazakhstan 15
- Mongolia 16
- Azerbaijan 16
- Turkmenistan 17
- Poland 17
- Estonia 17
- Vietnam 18
- Malaysia 19
- Kyrgyzstan 19
- China 19
Again, only two of them had not been communist, but this time a different two: Malaysia and Taiwan.
Here are the 2020 report’s “Highest Negative Experiences Worldwide”:
- Iraq 51
- Rwanda 49
- Afghanistan 48
- Chad 48
- Lebanon 48
- Sierra Leone 48
- Guinea 47
- Tunisia 46
- Iran 45
- Togo 45
So: Rwanda went from being the 7th-lowest in the “Negative Experience Index Scores” in 2015, to being the 2nd-highest in the “Negative Experience Index Scores” in 2020. That suggests some type of terrible change in Rwanda during those five years.
Here are the changes in “Lowest Negative Experiences Worldwide” between the 2015 report and the 2020 report:
- Uzbekistan 12
- China 15
- Mongolia 15
- Myanmar 15
- Russia 15
- Taiwan 15
- Rwanda 16
- Kazakhstan 17
- Kyrgyzstan 17
- Turkmenistan 18
- Taiwan 13
- Kazakhstan 15
- Mongolia 16
- Azerbaijan 16
- Turkmenistan 17
- Poland 17
- Estonia 17
- Vietnam 18
- Malaysia 19
- Kyrgyzstan 19
- China 19
Not even the American people benefit from the U.S. Government’s constant invasions, and coups, and economic sanctions, against so many countries that never posed any threat to the U.S. Only America’s billionaires benefit, and too few of those exist for them to show up in any of these “happiness” and “misery” figures from Gallup. They control the U.S. Government and thereby spread misery in so many places, to benefit only themselves.
Syrian Idlib: What’s Next?
In October 2020, as the media reported Russia’s Aerospace forces resuming their strikes against the local armed opposition, Turkey relocating its observation posts, and Syrian militants fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, the global community once again turned its attention to the events in Idlib. It is important to consider possible development scenarios in the light of both Idlib’s distinctive features and of those characteristics it has in common with other territories not controlled by the Syrian authorities, in the light of the balance of power within the Idlib “pocket”, in the light of the interests Turkey and other external forces have there, and in the light of modalities of military or peaceful settlement and Moscow’s actions.
Is Idlib a “Unique Rebellious Province”?
At first glance, like the territory of the Kurds’ Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), Idlib seems to have formed a military conflict economy existing in parallel with the official Syrian economy controlled by the Syrian government. Unlike the oil-rich Kurdish regions, which are also Syria’s “breadbasket”, however, Idlib has no natural resources at all. Before the war, Idlib was a poorly developed province working in traditional agriculture, mostly olive-growing. Consequently, compared to the AANES, Idlib was far more vulnerable to the actions of external actors and Damascus’s ambitious plans to use force to restore Syria’s territorial integrity. Not only did Idlib fail to become a successful project of the Syrian opposition (which could not but fail for objective reasons), it became hostage to foreign aid.
Like Syria in general, Idlib shows signs of a humanitarian crisis. While the 2004 census put Idlib’s population at a little over 1,258,000, as of August 7, 2020, the local population swelled to 4.1 million, 2.7 million of them internally displaced persons from other governorates and 2.8 million of them in need of food and medications (reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). Another mass exodus of non-combatants into Idlib took place following the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) successful offensive in December 2019 – March 2020. Since foreign aid is politicised (see, for instance, the highly publicised story of American and British NGOs halting deliveries of humanitarian aid from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in September 2018 in an attempt to strip Idlib radicals of their benefits), it is easy to predict that an “overnight” change of the status quo in favour of Damascus will result in restricting donor aid and, as a consequence, in a humanitarian disaster.
Idlib became a “pocket” for the opposition “squeezed” between areas liberated by the SAA and Turkey. At the same time, unlike the security zone in the North, which is de jure governed by the “Syrian provisional government” but is de facto controlled by Ankara, in Idlib, much to the Turks’ displeasure, the key role is still played not by the militants from the National Front for the Liberation of Syria (NFL) loyal to Turkey, but by the recalcitrant jihadists from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) (banned in Russia as a terrorist organisation), which previously had ties with Al-Qaeda (also banned in Russia as a terrorist organisation).
Local reconciliations (or pacifications) in Idlib appeared impossible in principle: this region had absorbed intransigent opposition members from the South of Syria and from the Damascus region, and they had nowhere to go since Turkey had always been set against letting unpredictable radicals on to its own territory. Idlib jihadists flatly rejected reconciliation with the Syrian authorities, admitting only that civilians had been forced to take part, but they never agreed to such participation on the part of their comrades-in-arms, whom they spitefully dubbed “frogs” for their willingness to defect to the government camp. The situation began to change a relatively short time ago when radical groups left Idlib for conflict-riven Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. This situation prompted intensified internationalisation of the “Idlib dossier”, while it also meant that further developments were volatile and had an element of chance to them. Heightened internationalisation is also due to the maximum number of external actors turning their attention to the Idlib “pocket”. Idlib alone remains a matter of concern for China in Syria since there are Uighur radicals from the Turkistan Islamic Party in the West of the governorate.
The “Layer Cake” of the Armed Opposition: Radicals and “Businessmen”
Taking as our axiom that any way out of the Idlib impasse is going to be difficult, we should say a few words about local armed groups and management of the Idlib economy, since both factors can shed some light on certain promising settlement modalities.
Initially, Idlib’s administrative system was based on the decentralisation principle, which is reminiscent of the autonomous architecture of the local authorities in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). 144 municipal councils were formed, offering a wide range of services from managing bakeries to maintaining roads and collecting rubbish. They had the signal status of direct recipients of foreign aid. As one humanitarian worker quipped, “If [in Idlib – I.M.] you’re not a guy with a gun … then your connection to power is through [humanitarian – I.M.] assistance”. So Idlib’s decentralisation is really different from the governance system established in the Kurdish region in that the former is excessively dependent on foreign support while having no economic programme of its own and no transparency.
The situation in Idlib is characterised by the dominance of local economic heavies combined with the people’s wariness when it comes to introducing an Islamic way of life (Sharia), which prompted the ideologues of the An-Nusra Front (banned in Russia as a terrorist organisation) after seizing the provincial centre in March 2015 to refrain from following the example of ISIS (banned in Russia as a terrorist organisation), so, instead of proclaiming an Islamic “Emirate”, they opted for more flexible tactics. They proclaimed their desire to take various interests into account without permitting violations. At the same time, the principle of “invitation” or “Islamic messianism” entailed ideological indoctrination of the population through face-to-face, in-person communication and public condemnation campaigns against smoking and wearing secular clothes.
The ideologues of the HTS that took over from an-Nusra consolidated their military control over Idlib in January 2019 and remained pragmatic. HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani said that their priority was to preserve a single secular administration in Idlib, referring to the umbrella Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) founded on November 2, 2017; it consisted of both HTS supporters and independent technocrats. Despite the hardliners from Egypt and Jordan, HTS warlords from among the Syrians began to position themselves as businessmen viewing control over Idlib as an economic project (while, in reality, it is a means for personal enrichment).
The negative aspect of the HTS “commercialisation” consisted in attempts to take over transit trade crossing the border at Bab al-Hawa and deliveries of Turkish oil by the monopolist company Watad Petroleum. On May 11, 2017, the HTS announced it was establishing the Public Institution for Monetary Regulation and Consumer Rights Protection charged with monitoring financial transactions. Most such transactions were based on hawal principles (a trust-based system of informal payments between brokers and traders) and were carried out through the local monetary financial “hub”, the town of Sarmadam which is in the immediate vicinity of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.
The HTS’s claims to economic dominance repeatedly prompted countermeasures by Idlib’s heavies, who used the discontent of the local populace with their low quality of life. In October-November 2019, they managed to bring protesters to the streets demanding that both the SSG and Abu Mohammad al-Julani resign. Although the protesters’ demand for a “government” reshuffle were met, HTS militants took by assault the town of Kafr Takharim, whose residents refused to pay the tax on manufacturing olive oil. The Covid-19 pandemic became yet another challenge: although the HTS supported the lockdown measures imposed by the SSG, many rank-and-file militants refused to obey and continued their Friday prayers, which make it impossible to maintain social distancing.
What is Idlib for Turkey: A Red Line or a Pawn in a Big Game?
Ensuring the security of Turkey’s southern borders and countering Kurdish separatism have been and remain Turkey’s unconditional priorities. In that sense, retaining control over the security zone in the North and preventing Syrian Kurds from a military retaliation are clearly more important than Turkey’s presence in Idlib: should need be, Turkey is ready to make concessions over the governorate in exchange for boosting Ankara’s positions in the North and pushing Kurdish self-defence units away from the border.
Does this mean that Turkey is already prepared to sacrifice Idlib? Certainly not, and Operation Spring Shield proves it: on February 27 – March 6, 2020, the Turkish military put a stop to a local SAA offensive and subsequently increased its forces in Syria. Foreign experts believe that, between February 2 and October 21, 2020, Turkey moved 10,615 units of military equipment and military vehicles to Idlib. Given its domestic economic difficulties related to the Covid-19 pandemic, Turkey is not prepared to take in new waves of Idlib refugees if Damascus gains a rapid military victory. This is especially true since those refugees could include intractable jihadists capable of causing a wave of terror attacks in Turkey itself; the best-case scenario for Ankara is to transfer those people to various hotbeds of unrest (such as Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh).
Turkey’s apparent determination in Idlib is motivated to some degree by its desire to maintain what Russian columnists have dubbed “opposition conservation areas” in Syria. Tying those opposition forces to Turkey by economic means (against the backdrop of the US Caesar Act, the Turkish lira has replaced the Syrian pound in the security zone in the Syrian North and in Idlib), in its bargaining with Damascus, Moscow and Tehran on Syria’s future political makeup, Turkey’s leadership is banking on the “trump card of rebellious territories”. Information about Turkey’s efforts to form an alliance in Idlib that would include the “Syrian Corps” and other NFL elements, as well as “constructive” ones from the HTS has been leaked on a website with ties to the Syrian opposition, and this information should be considered in the same context.
Finally, Turkey’s leadership and Erdogan himself increasingly view the “Idlib question” through the lens of a difficult dialogue with Russia on the Libyan and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts (on October 25, Russia’s Aerospace Force delivered a strike against the Syrian Corps militants in Idlib, which Russian media dubbed “Bakh for Karabakh”). Turkey has started relocating eight military observation posts in Idlib, as those posts had been blocked in an SAA-liberated area (the post in Murek was evacuated on October 19-20, 2020), which is not only for security reasons, but also due to Turkey’s desire to avoid a severe confrontation with Moscow in Syria. This would be against Ankara’s interest, given its support for Azerbaijan’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh.
To sum up, we can conclude that Idlib remains valuable for Turkey, yet, unlike the security zone in Northern Syria, it cannot be called a “red line” in the architecture of Turkey’s national interests that Ankara intends to protect to the bitter end.
A Military Scenario or a Political Compromise?
We do not discard the hypothetical possibility of the Syrian authorities regaining control of Idlib by military force with the aid from its allies, Russia and Iran, yet this scenario today appears unlikely. It would have highly negative consequences for Syrians themselves, prompting a local humanitarian disaster, chaos and a sharp increase in crime (as happened when the government forces defeated the opposition units in Syria’s South in the summer of 2018), and even forcing disjointed terrorist groups to flee to other districts in Syria.
The preferable scenario for settling the Idlib problem appears to be a compromise, in essence, pacification adapted to the local specifics. The scenario is to be based on the four “Ds”:
deradicalisation of the opposition, (primarily HTS): this is possible once intransigent and “professional” militants, mostly foreign ones, withdraw from Idlib; this is the common point in the interests of foreign actors;
deideologisation of the regional elite: this entails moving away from the ideas of Jihadism in favour of implementing a consensus programme for socioeconomic development, with both local interest groups and technocrats involved;
demilitarisation of the Idlib zone: post-conflict integration of former militants into territorial law enforcement and municipal bodies;
decentralisation: granting Idlib a special transitional status within a unified Syria.
In practice, this could imply adopting a separate socioeconomic programme for rebuilding Idlib, involving international financing and creating the conditions for vertically integrating the regional into the pan-national elite following disbandment of the Syrian Salvation Government.
Russia’s Role in Resolving the Idlib Problem
As a leading external actor in the Syrian conflict, Russia has the ability to now contribute to bringing a peaceful settlement closer in Idlib by 1) pointing the Syrian authorities toward pacification instead of a blitzkrieg; 2) advancing, jointly with Turkey among other actors, the involvement of the regional elite in the inclusive Syrian peaceful process; 3) continuing its military support for Syria’s government forces to prevent provocations by Idlib radicals intended to undermine the prospects for a peaceful settlement.
1. This is a pun that resists translation: the last syllable in the word Karabakh, “bakh”, is an onomatopoeic Russian word meaning “kaboom” – translator’s note.
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