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Who Really Wants a War in Libya?

Irina Tsukerman

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Why did Turkey and GNA prevail in Tripoli?

Following the recent possibility of Egypt’s full mobilization of its forces in support of the Libyan National Army (“LNA”) and Field Marshal Khalifa Hafter, US AFRICOM and Norland Commander met with the OS in Zuwara and discussed the process to prevent escalation and to prevent active military engagement, issuing a statement in conjunction with the US Ambassador stressing “the need for a military pause” and a return to poitical negotiations. This follows a blitz of events which raised more questions about the game being played in Libya.

A mysterious series of losses plagued Khalifa Hafter’s forces as well as the Russian mercenaries acting in support of the LNA since Turkey began aggressively import Syrian mercenaries and Turkish advisers to train the Government of National Accord’s (“GNA”)  coalition of US-backed Misurata militias, several tribes, urban elites, Islamists, and even terrorist “graduates” of Guantanamo and other such institutions. As a result, Hafter lost 11 Russian Missile Defense systems Pantsir, 9 of them within 24 hours, worth millions of dollars, while many of weapons promised to him were not delivered at all as a result of a scam.

Turkey, too, suffered some military losses, but GNA received a continuous flow of support, whereas, according to the Egyptian journalist Tharawat Mansour, Hafter’s array of allies did not lend him additional assistance, via airplanes during that battle. This supports Seth , Frantzman’s analysis that Hafter’s forces lost at least partly due to poor training, lack of cohesion, and limited support by the allies. Consequently, the Russian mercenaries brought in additional jet planes, but that did not change the course of the events.  Other reasons for the defeat included successful use of electronic jamming and other fourth generation warfare maneuvers against Russians, who had previously suffered similar losses in their confrontations with the Turks in Syria; however, according to Mansour, what largely affected Hafter’s forces was the success of Turkish airstrikes.

He compares the situation to Yemen, where at least part of the reason UAE was compelled to withdraw was due to the threat of Houthi missiles provided by Iran and pointed in the direction of the UAE itself. There may be more to the story than meets the eye; Mansour’s comments raise question whether perhaps Turkey or its proxies in the region had not in some way threatened UAE which up until that point had provided Hafter with ammunitions and had even been accused of being involved in airstrikes.

However, the evidence appears that UAE actually preferred to avoid being engaged in direct action, which could be considered illegal since GNA enjoys at least symbolic international support, and for that reason did not see it worth the risk getting engaged any further. It was only after Turkey showed signs of greater aggression that Egypt elevated its rhetoric and showed willingness to intervene directly in the country, since Turkey’s advances into the eastern portion of the country could be a threat to Egypt’s borders.

Another reason was an issue of costs; Hafter was losing planes at a greater rate than Turkey, and those planes had to be purchased from China at a great cost. Meanwhile Turkey was able to continue contributing planes because it produces them in its own factories at a far lesser cost. Interestingly enough, Mansour noted and praised Turkey’s relative industrial defense self-sufficiency a year ago in July 2019. His prescient observations came to fruition despite a year-long advance by Hafter, which was wiped out in the course of a few days due to Turkey-backed escalation.

Indeed, despite purchases of advanced US and Russian weaponry, Turkish defense system has been growing by leaps and bounds, since being nationalized in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq, so much so that Turkey was invited as one of the partners in the development and production of the costly F-35 project which many of the contributing countries would not have been able to produce on their own, and even the US would not have been able to supply all the contributors due to the extreme costs of the airplanes. The reasons for Turkey’s investment are complex, including a lack of trust in allies, but the outcome is clear – many to this day, including the Russians, tend to underestimate Turkey’s combat power, which contributes to their losses during confrontations.

Turkey’s prospects for defense self-sufficiency may propel a reckless foreign policy

Mansour further predicted that at the rate Turkey is going, complete self-sufficiency could be achieved in 15 years, which would mean that Turkey would no longer be dependent on either Russia or the US for missile defense systems or advance airplanes, but in fact could become one of the main sources of advanced weaponry in the Middle East and beyond, even coming to compete with its would-be former suppliers. Given Mansour’s observations, this would partially explain Erdogan’s overconfidence, if not recklessness in foreign affairs. If Turkey is developing sophisticated weapons which are at an advance stage, or if he has assurances that he can match some of the great powers in the relatively near future, he may feel he can well afford to drag Turkey into various international conflagrations because in the long run Turkey could unexpectedly come out on top.

Following Hafter’s withdrawal from Tripoli and Tarhuna, Egypt’s President Sissi announced a ceasefire initiative and pushed for a path towards a peaceful political reintegration of the country, without ever getting a response from the GNA. Egypt then started moving forces to its borders, as President Sissi has long since articulated that securing Libya against Turkish interventionism is a national security issue for Egypt. Egypt also announced a coalition which would include France to counter Turkey’s aggressive and illegal moves in East Mediterranean, including intercepting shipments of arms to its mercenaries and militias in Libya.  As the situation appeared to deteriorate, Russia and Turkish foreign and defense ministers postponed a planned meeting aimed at an attempt to resolve some of the tensions. Just as in the past in Syria, Turkey did not stop at Tripoli and Tarhuna, but announced the intention of gaining control of Sirte, a red line for Egypt.

France’s involvement interfered with Turkey’s plans. Sirte was taken over by ISIS two times, but with the help of US forces, the local militias “liberated” the area from ISIS presence in 2016. Since Turkey’s aggressive involvement, however, a resurgence of ISIS presence was observed, and Al Qaeda and ISIS members are known to have received support and funding from GNA, including some members affiliated with factions responsible for the murder of US Ambassador Chris Stevens.

President Sissi responded to signs of Turkey’s escalation by announcing that military interventionism in Libya is permissible and sparking off a wave of speculation about the possibility of a direct war between Egypt and Turkey. Adding to the confusion are the reports of the UK, which had previously supported Turkey-backed GNA militias along with the US, switching positions in the conflict, while Germany which had only been politically involved as a mediator up until this point, reportedly joined the fray with the possibility of offering additional backing to Egypt. It is important to understand what Turkey got out of the speech, bypassing the analysis by lobbyists and other interested parties, who tend to present a simplistic analysis of “war or nothing” in just about any situation, including most recently, with respect to US policy on Iran.

The meaning of President Sissi’s “Red Line in Libya” Speech

According to Mansour, up until this point, many in Turkey and in GNA circles believed that Egypt was accepting Turkey’s presence in the West of Libya. President Sissi’s comment that Sirte is a red line was a wake up call. In fact, some of Egypt’s allies in the West were surprised that Egypt is willing to defend all of Libya, and not just the East that is close to its borders adn therefore national security interests. As it is, they are reevaluating Egypt’s position as considering all of Libya’s as Egypt’s national security concern, not just the East. Second, Turkish circles see Egypt as being an official party to the conflict because government rhetoric has shifted to a more militant tone, whereas before Egypt could be considered a mediator or negotiator in the conflict.

Now they believe that any international comments calling one for the cessation of hostilities or particular actions, should require the other to do the same. Mansour advises the Egyptian Foreign Ministry to respond to these insinuations by welcoming anyone in Libya into the coalition as brothers except militias and those who reject political solution. For what it’s worth, the tribal factor remains an issue. Turkey may not be fully cognizant of the extent to which GNA has betrayed or disappointed its own supporters; this is a good time to exploit tribal issues and to bring some of the remaining tribes away from GNA, leaving it to rely on urban elites that are despised by most of the country (whether or not it’s a populist talking point, it has certainly worked to a great degree in 2016 in the United States and may happen again in 2020 elections).

And what of the overall intent of President Sissi’s speech?

According to Mansour, the key takeaways as follows:

First, President Sissi indicated that IF the ground intervention occurs (and there is evidence that the forces are being mobilized for combat readiness, but it is still a question of “if, not when”), the entry into Libya will happen via special forces, not infantry forces. There will be some air backing, artillery, and marine involvement. This sends a reassuring signal to the people that the military action will be targeted, specialized, and limited in scope and duration and that Egypt has confidence that those goals are achievable by these limited means and without mass mobilization.

Second, Egypt intends to arm the Eastern Libyans and to encourage popular resistance against Turkey GNA (some believe that has already been done). To Europe and others this rhetoric may seem dangerous and indicate a civil war and escalation against Turkey. This also signals that Egypt will take a stand against Turkey UNLESS Libyans themselves do. This means that the intervention is not yet a certainty. However, there is indication that Hafter is already looking for other groups to join the fight including even the Janjaweed from Sudan. Why would Egypt need to bring about a direct war in this case, given the strength of the family? Therefore this statement should not necessarily be taken seriously or literally.

President Sissi underscored the comment about Egypt’s alliance with friendly countries to show that Egypt will not be going at it alone. President Sissi articulated this situation as an Arab National Security issue, perhaps in an effort to appeal to the pan-Arabist voices against what is seen as neo-Ottoman interventionism, and called on friendly countries to join in this effort.  And indeed, other members of the Arab Leagues soon announced their support, including Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain, all members of the Anti-Terrorist Quartet.

But Tharawat Mansour also warned against misusing the message of this speech as a “foghorn of war“. He explained that there are some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of the conflict, that are being further propagated and proliferated by lobbyists, the media, and those who are simply not deeply involved in the issue.  He underscored that even President Sissi himself does not want a war; his battle is internal and consists of “the development of the Egyptian state.” Mansour posits that the events in Libya are unfolding as a result of a “political error and miscalculation” from an ally country. Under the military Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hijazi, Mansour reminds us, there were periodic meetings between the leaders of the East and West Libya to try to unite the country.  So what went wrong on the Libyan side, according to Mansour?

Why LNA is Complicated and the Conflict in Libya May Be Different from What it Appears

Both allied and hostile countries wanted a quick, decive resolution to the crisis, so by intervention, they frustrated Egypt’s political and diplomatic endeavors.  President Sissi for his part had pressed on many occasions for a political solutions and organized meetings to that effect in Cairo. Furthermore, contrary to the popular perception, particularly disseminated by the supporters of the LNA, the battle in Libya is not between the civil state and Islamists, since a number of tribes supporting Hafter were once aligned with the Salafist Ghaddafi and the rest are former military and other supporters of Ghaddafi, including Haftar himself, who fought the battle of Bani Walid against Ghaddafi. (*Here, it should be added that many of Ghaddafi’s secular supporters have long since disavowed his ideology and any connection to his regime, whereas at least some of his more religious followers have reconciled themselves with mainstream Islam and have joined in condemning the political Islam being propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood members of the GNA – but it is true that the main goal of the LNA is to establish a secular country which it has better chances of doing or taking a lead in that GNA that has become ideologically and physically dependent on the Islamist contingent and largely derives power from that base).

Half of the reconciliation effort, Mansour adds, includes Muslim Brothers from other movements, including Ansar Al-Sharia militants, closely related to or branched out from Al Qaeda, which includes rebels, tribal followers, militias, oil dealers, lay people/civilians, various stakeholders, and former members of the military. In other words, the pro-Haftar coalition is complex, complicated, far from ideal, and represents at least some of the people who had backed GNA at one point, and inevitably reintegration of the country means their return into the system. The real battle in Libya should be characterized as a battle between cities (the urban elites) and tribes.  A number of cities wish to self-govern as city states. Misurata and Al-Zawiya do not wish to be subjected to the orders coming out of Benghazi, for instance.  The ultimate solution to the crisis could be the division of the country into three autonomous regions with proportionate, agreed up, equitable wealth distribution.

Mansour further opines that if Haftar had agreed to hold an election before the Tripoli operation, when he attacked, he would have had a sweeping victory. People were angry at the lack of control over the reconciliation situation. Even almost half of Misurata would have voted for Haftar. Before the attack, the Muslim Brotherhood contingent was broken and at the nadir of influence. Today, the Brothers are back to having the momentum in Libya and the Western Libyans are angry with Haftar and will not vote for him because of the mass graves and the number of their children who died in the war. In other words, Mansour, explains, it was a political mistake not to hold an election in Tripoli and not to consolidate political control but instead to press on with a political campaign that failed due to various above-stated factors and which needlessly killed a lot of people. These human losses, he thinks, could have been avoided, and now the situation is further entrenched and with little chance for regaining the political success Hafter could have enjoyed before.

One could argue, however, that the battle for Tripoli was unavoidable because by that point Turkey had already gotten involved and had been sending mercenaries and others for months to the area to consolidate its own control, which also means support for the ideological spread of the Islamist influence. Without accounting for the political effect of Turkey’s involvement in the past year, it is hard to make claims about Hafter’s political chances in the area at the time of battle and whether or not the military fallout could have been avoided. That is a separate question from military preparedness and whether Hafter should have gone in without taking into account Turkey’s base of military support versus his own resources. Furthermore, the attack on Tripoli, while giving ammo to Turkey to antagonize the population against Hafter, probably exacerbated the ongoing dynamics, but likely the ideological shift was inevitable regardless of Hafter’s own actions.

In any case, whether the battle for Tripoli was avoidable or not, will likely remain largely an academic question. What is clear, however, is whoever the next political leader or leaders are, if the civil tensions are to come to an end, the issue of restoring dignity and reconciling different parts of the country alienated by the killings should be one of the top priorities, and integrating autonomous issues in a way that does not create additional polarization. Furthermore, Islamism quite clearly has not done any favors for Libyans in general, and the long term goal of any future leadership should be to excise that ideology from the mainstream, which could perhaps, also contribute to the reconciliation and integration efforts otherwise.

None of these internal issues, however, will be resolved anytime soon unless the foreign actors siding with the various factions in Libya either withdraw their presence completely or unless some significantly increase their involvement to become a more effective counter to the others, and to ultimately, in order to prevail. A continuity of half-hearted efforts can keep this conflict going indefinitely and splintering in many different directions. Why would anyone want that? Actually, there may be specific goals to prolonging this conflict, goals that are incidental to the stated interests such as access to oil, power, control over land and people, or ideological influence. And the US has been largely stumbling through this quagmire of interests blindly, manipulated and maneuvered by same series of usual suspects.

The US Dual Role in Libya and the Prospects for Isolation, But Not By Choice

Since 2011, the US role in Libya has been at best confused, and at worst, not constructive. The Obama administration tacitly supported the rise of Muslim Brotherhood in the political sphere in Egypt, and the various Arab Spring revolutions in various Arab countries, which were in many cases marked by violence and rise of radicalism and Islamism. Although the official US position was that political Islamism was democratic and was a better alternative to violent jihadist elements that took their roots from the Muslim Brotherhood but preferred quick action to the political evolution and take over of institutions, in reality US ended up supporting the very violent elements that more or less came to dominate these uprisings.

As a result, with the loss of central government in Libya, Al Qaeda came to the forefront, and later, ISIS and other terrorist organizations, while the country segmented back into tribal separations and allowed Islamists to make alliance with aspiring city states like Misurata. To prevent a complete deterioration into chaos, US chose to arm, train and support, politically and militarily Misurata militias which ended up aligning with Islamists, and came to comprise a significant base of the GNA. GNA  emerged through a politically complicated process later, after the splintering of the Parliament. Currently one part of that parliament, the House of Representatives, is the political body representing Eastern Syria, just as the LNA is the military body. GNA gained international political legitimacy through bizarre maneuvers, and only through strange manipulation of events, following a split in the parliament.

They were willing to compromise with Hafter’s forces and even to have him lead the military command but only on the condition of being the dominating power and had refused to let go of Islamist & terrorist elements and to share power between urban elites and largely rural dwelling tribes. As a result, some of the tribes that even had supported Ghaddafi in the past switched their positions, but the US continued to support Misurata militias even after the rise of Hafter and after it became obvious that most of the country was not benefiting from GNA’s political position. Rather than utilizing the opportunity to broker a legitimate political agreement that would reintegrate the country in the equitable way, the US made ISIS the center of its foreign policy issue in Libya. After ISIS was kicked out of Sirte in 2016, however, Turkey and Qatar, which had been engaged in Libya since the Arab Spring saw an important opportunity and became more involved in a more organized way.

While they took advantage of the deteriorating relationship inside the country and the civil clashes, the US continued to operate as if ISIS was still the central concern and as if some of the miitias they were arming were not part of the problem. Trump had promised to put an end to US engagement in “endless Middle Eastern Wars”, but instead continued with many of Obama’s confused and undefined dual politcies which ended up empowering aggressors and alienating US allies, including Egypt. Trump initially believed that Turkey could be a legitimate response to the rise of Iran and turned a blind eye on its increasingly aggressive meddling all over the world.

Some say that Trump was manipulated by lobbyists, political advisers, and pro-Turkish and pro Islamist elements of various government agencies who had successful and lucrative relationships with these movements and regimes and used the President’s lack of political and foreign policy experience to feed him simplified and distorted information about Turkey’s role. Ultimately, while on a visceral level Trump did not particular care for Turkey’s aggressive and illegal moves and called them out on it, and even saw Hafter as lining up closer to US long term allies such as Egypt, lack of a clear foreign policy principle and prevarication over what would end the US engagement in the Middle East faster, as well as maneuvering by the lucrative Turkish and Qatari lobbyists which have come to engage many of the advisers closest to Trump prevailed.

The US officially returned to supporting the GNA, although truth be told, it never stopped supporting elements of GNA in Misurata and elsewhere. That support has been ongoing and politically engaged on the defense level, in spite of  whatever Trump said out loud or in phone calls to Haftar. US thus ended up playing a misleading and dual role, backing the Misurata elements consistently but making confusing public statements. \

Ultimately the benefactors of this unclear or dual position were Russia and Turkey, which is exactly what the US would have wanted to avoid. However, actively opposing either or both countries presence in Libya would have required a greater and more clear commitment on political, security, and all other aspects of governance. US ended up siding with Turkey, GNA, and various terrorists and mercenaries, even though the administration does not actually like, trust, or support any of these people. Nevertheless the general course of US policy in the MENA region has empowered Turkey and Qatar.  In fact, one could say that US largely outsourced the foreign policy in the region to Turkey. Part of the reason is Qatar’s investments in the US, and into the US Al-Udeid base in Qatar, and Turkey dangling the Incerlik base as if there are no other options for US military engagement. In part, Erdogan held himself out as indispensable to countering other hostile forces, such as Iran, even though over time it became obvious that Turkey is working with Iran on every level, even in Libya.

In fact, the irony is that the US is arming the same militias that also are getting support from IRGC vessels and Iraqi Shi’a fighters. The exact opposite of what was supposed to happen happened which should have been easily predicted but due to the role of lobbyists and manipulations somehow escaped the attention of the administration. Although Trump was angry with Erdogan for purchasing Russia’s S400s, ultimately US siding with Turkey in Libya empowered Russia more than anything else. Iran played this both ways, as Russia employed pro-Assad militias, with Iran, of course, being another backer of Assad.  Iran is subtly backing both sides and is winning because it is not directly involved.

The Islamic Republic can make an arrangement with whomever prevails, even with Hafter because US is not involved and therefore Hafter would not be dependent on or owe US anything for its support. Russia has been known to cut deals with Erdogan in Syria and elsewhere. It possibly betrayed Hafter and led him to defeat as a result of a backroom deal with Turkey, which could certainly account for his swift defeat. That could also account for the strange phenomenon of the failed weapons delivery, given that Hafter was scammed at about $55 million worth of sophisticated weaponry. Russia and Turkey could very well have taken advantage of the chaos to divide up influence and potential territory. Iran now has investments on both “sides” even if these sides are not altogether opposed to each other.  Tehran benefits politically no matter what unless the US becomes politically involved and forces out both Russia and Turkey. To get that accomplished, however, and despite the outcries from the lobbyists, there is no need for US to get involved militarily.

It appears that the situation has always been presented to President Trump as “endless wars or no action at all/maintain status quo and just fight ISIS”, even though political pressure, diplomacy, targeted sanctions, and other actions could have help avoid many of these complications. Turkey would not openly confront US forces and only got as far as it did because at no point did US put any real pressure on it to stop. Russia only took advantage of the vacuum of power; it would not have gotten any leverage if US was fully committed to playing a central role in the reunification of the country and deradicalization of the GNA. A more active role would have that role would have benefited US economically, because then Washington would have had more of a clear role in creating a stable environment to which its oil companies and other potential beneficiaries could have returned.

Instead Turkish and Qatari lobbyists took the lead and made it seem that any involvement beyond letting Turkey play a central role would drag US into a war and that Turkey could and would play a stabilizing role and take care of everything. This is the pattern these lobbyist have used everywhere in the Middle East; now Turkey is showing open and direct interest in getting involved in Yemen, initially as a “humanitarian” and “stabilizing” force, using twitter campaigns by local Islamists to fuel the legitimization of its peaceful entry into the war-torn country with the ultimate goal of delegitimizing the Arab Coalition and forcing the US out of the unpopular involvement in this forgotten war.

It is not that the administration necessarily wants to have bad relations with Egypt, KSA, UAE, and others involved on LNA’s behalf; in fact, all evidence points to the contrary.  However, given the president’s mercantile approach to foreign relations, it is not hard to see that he would regard the conflict in Libya as not directly relevant to US interests, and perhaps even come to believe that US would benefit if its ally Turkey restored some semblance of centralized authority and shared profits with the US companies. If that is President Trump’s thinking, he miscalculated, or more accurately, was deceived into believing this would ever come to pass.  The reality is that for Erdogan, getting the US to semi-inadvertently sign on with Turkey and the Islamists is a perfect opportunity to isolate the US from the anti-Terrorist Quartet, to strengthen the Turkey-Qatar influence in the US at the expense of Egypt/KSA/UAE, and to further weaken the fading US role and influence in the Middle East, cementing Turkey as the dominant force directing the action in opposition to the Saudis, who have been largely focused on Yemen and on domestic issues and thus are appearing to lose control and influence abroad. Libya is a trial run for the successful implementation of Turkey’s “defense line” and the emerging Islamist Quartet.  There will be many more.

To answer the question posed at the beginning of this work, Turkey has an interest in pushing Egypt into the theater of war as it is reasonable before its own forces are decimated and it is forced either to sacrifice an unacceptable number of Turkish troops and financial investment or to withdraw. The reason for that is that the more active measures Egypt has to take to stop the advance of the Islamists in its general direction while the United States idly by, the more this additional effort will fracture an already tattered relationship between Cairo and Washington, which has not been the same since 2011. It’s not that Turkey wants to fight Egypt, it’s that Turkey wants Egypt to fight – with the United States being on the other end of the hostilities. So far, Turkey’s plan is working. Ankara has already contributed to a significant split within NATO, with the US now effectively facing off France, Germany, and UK, all of whom are finding themselves on the same side as Russia against Turkey and the US. This division will not be quickly healed and adds to the tension US is experiencing with its European allies over Iran-related policies. This gives room to Russia to expand its influence with Egypt, to strengthen its roots all over North Africa, and to build tentative bridges with UAE and KSA. Saudi Arabia is particularly important for Russia given its interest in OPEC related matters; general distrust and recent oil trade-related tensions continue dominate teh relations between the two countries; with US being regarded as an untrustworthy ally, if not a traitor, Russia will find more space for maneuvering that relationship. And that gives room for Turkey to call in all sorts of favors with its political “frienemy”. Russia, Iran, and Turkey, though all cannot stand each other, are forced to work together, at least against common enemies if not for any long term vision they can agree upon.  Isolating the US from its allies, breaking up dangerous alliances that threaten their geopolical agendas, and cornering the US into an unwelcome alliance with radicals and terrorists is the kind of schadenfreude that makes all these painful compromises worth every moment

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney and analyst based in New York. She has written extensively about geopolitics, foreign policy, and security issues for a variety of domestic and international issues and her writing has been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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Conflict in Yemen is a Global Threat and Iran’s Trump Card

Irina Tsukerman

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Few people outside analyst and scholarly circles think of Yemen and Libya conflicts as anything central to contemporary confrontation with some of the sprawling global state and non-state threats, and yet both are gateways to much greater crises, and even a fundamental shift in international alliances. In the view of the United States, Yemen is practically a forgotten conflict. While sectarianism continues to splinter the society, and radical ideologies take deep root following the withdrawal most of the UAE forces in 2019, the US is tittering closer to the edge of contemplating withdrawal.

President Trump’s administration is torn between the seemingly mutually exclusive election promises to his base (and beyond) of withdrawing US participation from “endless” Middle Eastern wars but at the same time confronting and pressuring Iran and other threats such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, as well as keeping to the recently articulated commitments of strengthening US defense relationship with Saudi Arabia, which leads the Arab Coalition effort against the Iran-backed Houthis in that theater of war. So far, most of the US pressure campaign to minimize Iran’s dangerous aggression in the region and expansionist ambitions consisted of sanctions and financial limitations, as well as from the engagement in a limited (and mostly reactionary) cyberwarfare. US engagement in Yemen consists mostly of logistical and intelligence assistance to the Arab Coalition, and a fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda, which flourish in the chaotic environment, and on tensions among the members of the +Coalition with sometimes divergent long-terms goals and visions of Yemen’s future.

If US bases in Yemen are attacked by Houthis, that would not make the news coverage or the public briefings. Part of the reason US had worked to minimize the appearance of Houthis’ potential threat to US security interest is the preservation of the delicate balance between being involved just enough to keep a modicum of stability in the war-torn country, keeping stable the relationship with US allies, and at the same time avoiding accusations of being drawn in into another long term conflict that may end with a physical escalation and confrontation with Iranian forces. There is increasing evidence that the purpose of the Houthis is global, rather than local or regional nuisance aimed at the Saudis. Houthis are modeled after Hezbullah, which itself started as a local Lebanese militia aimed at ousting Israel, but grew into a quasi-formal military structure that now controls the Lebanese Parliament, as well as has taken advantage of the country’s tribal structure to ensure local support.

Now, despite dissatisfaction with government corruption and foreign control which has affected even the Shia Lebanese residents, due to Hezbullah’s willingness to make allies with corrupt Christian parties and weak Sunni representation, it is nearly impossible to excise from power. Additionally, Hezbullah forces retain presence in strategically important areas, close to natural resources and organized crime schemes which help pay for Iran’s military expenditures and keep the economy afloat through a shadow market system. Hezbullah’s operations in Latin America, Africa, parts of Asia, and Europe are intelligence, political, military and covert operations, and also business related. Hezbullah has been involved in everything from abductions for ransom, drug trade, and control of diamond markets to ideological influence campaigns and social jihad “hearts and minds” psych ops.

The Houthis are being molded into the same type of faction, with global presence and a level of resourcefulness which far exceeds their initial purpose in toppling the Yemen government, destabilizing the country, and miring Saudi Arabia in a seemingly unwinnable asymmetrical contact. Having expressed threats in the general direction of UAE, Israel, and having spread anti-American propaganda, Houthis are becoming effective counterparts to Iraqi militias and other Iranian foreign legions, and with time, may become part of a more integrated network of well disciplined ideologically loyal forces that are alotted a portion of control over local territories in exchange for their availability to strike at Iran’s favored target anytime anyplace and give Iranian propagandists and lobbyists in the West a cover of plausible deniability to keep pushing deals with Tehran and to help the Islamic Republic avoid accountability in the form of sanctions snapbacks and arms embargoes. Like Hezbullah, they are increasing armed with sophisticated missiles, drones, and mining capabilities which so far they have used primarily against Saudi Arabia, but which, as with Hezbullah can be used against Israeli targets or to supplement Iraqi militia targeting of US sites.

The ruse is working with the European Union, which has criticized the possibility of snapback sanctions over the violations of the JCPOA, and shown reluctance to back the renewal of the arms embargo due to expire in the fall. Furthermore, several leading European countries are working to circumvent US economic sanctions on Iran through various financial instruments. All of this points to Iran’s position that there is international goodwill to exploit, but that Iran needs “safe spaces” to distract the world from its general malfeasance.

Yemen is a perfect convergence of a multitude of crises, illnesses, debilitating conditions, threats, and conflicting interest that becomes increasingly more complicated to untangle with time. Iran has in part succeeded in discrediting Saudi Arabia’s efforts in that regard through a combination of intense and largely successful one-sided media and political campaigns, which the Saudis and their allies have struggled to refute, coupled with the limited attention span for the conflict accorded by the US government. Saudis themselves appear to be demoralized as rumors of their eventual withdrawal persist, without any of the accompanying defense and security concerns being addressed or resolved. Separatists have taken control of a portion of Aden; the territories once cleared of Al Qaeda presence by UAE backed forces are now increasingly falling prey to the sprawling Muslim Brotherhood ideologies.

Despite a few key victories in terms of eliminating Al Qaeda and ISIS leaders in Yemen by joint operations with the Coalition, the groups are finding fodder for radicalization. The Houthis are increasingly legitimized by the Western media, the United Nations and other international organizations, and by human rights NGOs. While key donors have cut humanitarian aid, the Houthis are using the chaos to their advantage to amass power, impose self-serving new taxes, such as the “khums” tax to benefit “Hashemites” – tribal affiliates of prophet Mohammed, to which some Khomeinist followers also lay claim,  and to mobilize support from youngsters recruited and indoctrinated through special training camps since they are children.

With the situation spiraling out of control and little international support for the Arab Coalition’s operations, Yemen is quickly becoming Iran’s backdoor to the Middle East. Once strengthened, Houthis can infiltrate the Saudi borders and through subversion, spread radical ideology and recruit supporters in the East, and mobilize the Yemeni diaspora in the South. They can exploit factionalism and alliances of conservative clergy, remnants of Islamists, pan-Arabists obsessed with the Hashemite return to power and opposed to the idea of even limited defense rapprochement between Israel and the Kingdom, as well as various opportunists who may not particularly care for Shi’a but will jump on any bandwagon that can bring them to power.

The Houthis are already using routes through Lebanon and Oman to reach Iran and to engage in effective trade, training, and the spread of Khomeinist revolutionary thinking and corona virus all over the region. Finally, Turkey is looking to make limited alliances with both Muslim Brotherhood (Al Islah) followers on the ground, the Hadi government, and even the pro-Iran Houthis to exploit the vacuum of power left by UAE withdrawal, US unwillingness to engage beyond defensive measures, and the beat down against the Saudis by the international community. They are offering to send humanitarian aid and ideological material through Somalia, using same routes that could in the future also deliver weapons.

It is time for Israel and the United States to start taking Yemen as more than just a backwater battle for Saudi self-assertion and to treated as part of Iran’s and its allies’ strategically important entry to the takeover of the Middle East and later, important, African and Middle Eastern routes – by political, military, and ideological means.

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Has Turkey Colonized Libya?

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During his visit to Tripoli July 4th Turkey’s defense minister Hulusi Akar signed an agreement on military cooperation with the representatives of the Government of National Accord (GNA). The signature was held behind the closed doors, but the few details that were leaked to the media are enough to conclude that the GNA has effectively traded its ostensible sovereignty for the Turkish support in the stand-off against the Libyan National Army and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.

The agreement between Turkey and Tripoli authorities stipulates that the GNA is a guarantor of Turkish interests in Libya. The real meaning behind that is that the government led by Fayez al-Sarraj officially put the Turkish interests before the national concerns of Libya. The GNA also gave Turkey an official permission to establish military bases on the Libyan territory.

These concessions are no doubt important, but perhaps the most brazing innovation introduced in the agreement is that all Turkish servicemen are given diplomatic immunity. This effectively means that the representatives of the Turkish metropole walking the Libyan soil are automatically granted a number of important privileges, granting them a legal advantage over the indigenous population.

Furthermore, the diplomatic immunity unlocks new possibilities for the transfer of foreign militants and supplies of arms, including internationally banned munitions, in violation of the arms embargo. Since the beginning of the year Turkey flew in to Libya over 15,000 of Syrian mercenaries, including child soldiers, who were recruited in the Syrian province of Idlib and received military training under the supervision of the Turkish advisers. In addition to that, it has been recently discovered that Turkish campaign to recruit fighters is not limited to Syria, but also includes Yemen.

The new agreement further facilitates transfer of foreign fighters into Libya. The GNA has officially given up its right to at least formally check Turkish ships and planes and allowed Ankara to create military bases that are out of Libyan jurisdiction. In these conditions the Turks will be able to send in as many mercenaries, including former members of terror groups, as they see fit without any restrictions or knowledge of the outside world.

In truth, Turkey’s behavior in Libya is already that of a colonial power in the new incarnation of the Tripolitanian Wilayet, a former colony of the Ottoman Empire. Human rights watchdogs report that the next day after the agreement was signed a number of Turkish planes with members of radical groups on board landed in Tripoli.

By signing the new agreement Fayez al-Sarraj and his government pledged allegiance to Turkey and cast away any pretence of being a leader of Libya. Turkey, in turn, is reluctant to declare Tripoli its colony, but this thin varnish will not hide the ugly reality behind.

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Middle East

Palestinians between COVID-19 pandemic and unilateral Israeli plan of annexation

Paola Canale

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

On March 2020 took place the third general elections in the parliamentary Republic of Israel, for the 120 seats of the Knesset. The results viewed the victory of the right-wing Likud party, leaded by Netanyahu, obtaining 58 seats, although his charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in November 2019, and the left-wing “Blue and white” party, headed by Gantz. After several compromises, the 20 April formed an emergency government of national unity for a limited period of 36 months, presided by Netanyahu for the first 18 months and by Gantz during last 18 months, under the approval of the president Rivlin. In the first phase Gantz will be vice-premier and Minister of Defence. The alternation on the guide of executive will be enshrined by a law of the Knesset.

This even slight predominance of Likud party will entail the implementation of the so-called US President Trump “deal of the century”, which encompasses the Israel political process of incorporation of the occupied West Bank, that include Israeli settlements, the region of Jordan Valley and nature reserves. In other words, government has been authorized to bring a de-facto ‘annexation” plan to debate in the Knesset since 1 July 2020. This Israeli proposal would include up to 30% of the total areas of West Bank.

Amnesty International underlines that this agreement would worsen the violations of human rights, the impunity of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other gross violations, perpetrating a flagrant violation of international law. Being annexation an acquisition of territories by the use of force, it’s breaching at the same time art. 2 (4) UN Charter, generally set out jus cogens norms and humanitarian laws. This plan would extend Israeli law to the OPT, not changing their legal status. In fact, under domestic Israeli law, it’s nothing else but an Israeli settlement expansion, thus denying civil and political rights to Palestinians, their freedom of movement, of speech, of association, equality and non-discrimination rules.

As well known, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the world longest-running struggle between two self-determination movements: the Jewish Zionist and the Palestinian nationalism that claim the same territories and throughout this atavic conflict Israel has been accused of treating non-Israelis people as in the Soth African’s apartheid.

On both sides, have been recorded unlawful killings, that are crime of war, arbitrary detentions, many forms of discrimination, human trafficking, denial of humanitarian access, abuses and maiming of women and children, used as human shields and forced to be involved in military actions in an overall framework of rides, incitation campaigns and retaliations.

In his annual report on children and armed conflict, the UN Secretary General Guterres reported in June 2020 the omission from the “list of shame” of  States perpetrating these crimes, such as Saudi-led coalition, Yemen, Myanmar and also Israel, despite abuses in the occupied territories have been well-documented by UN. Human rights associations and organizations from all over the world are asking  this list be evidence-based, avoiding to coddle powerful countries.

The uprising of the turmoil in these strips of land are likely to escalate at a planetary level.   In front of what has been described by A.I. as an incoming “law of the jungle” after latest elections, this ngo is currently urging international community to strengthen the implementation of international law stressing, that any annexation of the occupied West Bank is nul and void. It’s also claiming an halt of the construction of Israeli illegal settlements and infrastructures in the OPT and all trades with them, decrying the Israeli attempts to undermine Palestinian human rights, including the right of return of Palestinian refugees and supporting ICC investigations and calls on governments to offer political and practical support to the Court over the Palestinian situation.

In fact, according to art.47 of the 4th Geneva Convention, protected people who are in occupied territories shall not be deprived of their rights as the result of the occupation neither by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the occupying powers, not by any annexation of whole or part of the occupied territories.

Moreover, it’s not clear what will be ruled out about citizenships and residency under this incorporation of lands. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu affirmed that Palestinian residents in the areas that will be annexed wouldn’t get Israeli citizenship.

Profiting from illegal blockade on Gaza and fragmentation of the population in the OPT, annexation would result in a mass-expropriation of private and agricultural Palestinian lands and home demolition, thus violating the right to adequate housing (in 2019 Israel demolished 617 Palestinian structures and evicted 899 people in the West Bank). The law of occupation prohibits demolitions if not necessary for military operations. Punishing demolitions are collective punishments, thus forbidden by international law as well as the transfer of prisoners in the occupying country, being in Israel occurring administrative detentions, with neither fair process nor accusations, of about 4600 people.

The PA (governing body of autonomous Palestinians regions) and the paramilitary  PLO called international community to impose sanctions against Israel and started boycotts and disinvestment, announcing that this Israeli expansion would face with the resistance of Palestinians in any forms, considering it as a “declaration of war” .

On the wave of the USA proposed “Deal of the Century”, an “International Conference on the Question of Palestine” was held last February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, gathering practitioners, academics and civil society, in order to thwart the phenomenon of unilateral actions and to implement the substantive exercise of inalienable rights in Palestine. In this occasion Member States of ASEAN were urged to continue their operations in the pursuit of justice and peace and was highlighted the uselessness of a new plan and the necessity of an effective execution of existing agreements and UN resolutions, based on the two-State formula.

More precisely, the 28 January Trump administration held a press conference in the White House, announcing a “peace to prosperity: a vision to improve the lives of the Palestinian and Israeli people” plan, that pleased to the new coalition government in Israeli. It proposed the incorporation of the existing Israeli settlements in West Bank, including Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem; Jerusalem as undivided capital of Israel; a territory for the future Palestine, including parts of West Bank, Gaza strip and some Jerusalem surrounding; linking of the Palestinian territories through new roads, bridges and tunnels; freezing for 4 years Israeli settlement construction; US embassy in Palestine; investment of $ 50 billion to build a new Palestine state.

The PA and the League of Arab States, among others, rejected the plan and under the mounting pressure of Tunisia and Indonesia, thereafter USA proposed many amendments.

Thus it’s crystal clear that lately  protests against the recently announced plan for annexation, proclaimed by Israel and sponsored by USA, and lockdown security measures against Covid-19 have dragged Palestinians in a hell of oppression and restrictions that considerably limit the freedom of civilians that are currently exacerbating further clashes and opposing resistance, regardless the ban of gathering for the pandemic and the quarantine imposition, being their lives at risk in any case.

The outbreak of coronavirus in 2019 propelled a common effort and a new opportunity of collaboration between Palestinians and Israelis in the attempt to enforce the Middle East peaceful process, being the watchword a strong cooperation on the ground and one at an international level. Nicholay Mlandenov, the Bulgarian Special Coordinator for the Middle East Process in the UN Security Council, stressed the “inspiring example” of cooperation in these lands, before the elections, in order to contain the spread of the virus and seized the moment to impact communities in order to make further steps toward peace and to reject unilateral decisions. In this perspective, UN has delivered over 1 million of aid items, such as protective equipment and test kits, for Palestinians hospitals and clinics, due to insufficient funding. Special Coordinator added that UN will do its utmost for the well-being and safety of Palestinians and Israelis, ensuring that no less than $137 million would be transferred to the region in the coming four months.

UN will move in this direction especially through the Middle East Quartet (composed of Russian Federation, USA, EU, UN), that see cooperating the world’s existent superpower countries and institutions involved in the pacification of these areas, its agencies (i.e. UNRWA and coordination office for Humanitarian Affairs -OCHA) and other international organizations, such as WHO.

In order to tackle the spread of the virus, Israeli government has approved a legislation for a partial lockdown and has increased restriction of movement of people and trade, exception done for health workers in Gaza strip, for special medical and humanitarian cases. Furthermore, it has imposed a curfew in the West Bank. It has also tactically allowed counter-terrorism surveillance technology to be used to track infections. On the other hand, an internal cooperation within Palestine, between Hamas and Fatah (in the PA) has been tightened.

Israel was one of the first countries to close its borders and imposed restrictions when the global pandemic first outburst and soon after PA followed its example, by adopting measures such as the suspension of. public prayers, although the mosques are still opened.

All over the world, many western countries, such as France and UK, but also countries in the Arab world, such as Gulf Arab states, are declaring and recognizing that, although their Israeli backing, this plan is occurring in open violation of international law, thus execrable, severely damaging and affecting human rights of Palestinians, not even ensuring the international minimum standard and the right of repatriation, compelling those who left their country to stay abroad.

The 1 July hundreds of Palestinians gathered in Gaza and West Bank against the annexation. The following day, Pope Francis summoned the US and Israel ambassadors for preventing an escalation of violence in these lands, reckoning that the state of Palestine and that of Israel have the same right “to exist and live in security, within international recognized borders”, discouraging unilateral actions.

The Pope and UN are, in fact, in search of an establishment that seems will never happen, trying to demonize the upcoming of a new world conflict, triggering an international alarm to stop this crusade and massacre of civilians. The Holy See recognized the State of Palestine in 2013, soon after followed the recognition by the UN with the status of non-Member observer State. Last March also the Muslim World League urged the moral duty of an interfaith partnership to overcome the crisis.

Israeli defence minister and alternate prime minister Gantz has announced that it would be desirable that the propaganded annexation would take place after the proclaimed state of emergency due to the coronavirus. In fact, the Palestinian ministry of health last week said that 2636 people have tested positive for Covid-19 compared with 1256 recorded a week ago, expressing the fear of a “second wave”of infections after the easing of the full lockdown since last May.

What furthermore is inflaming the crisis is the Palestinian economic dependence on Israel, especially for the 150.000 Palestinians working in Israel (5000 in Gaza) with official permit and about 60.000 work illegally in Gaza strip and West Bank. Their average daily income is 250 Israeli shekels (about $70 per day), so the adopted restrictions mean depriving hundreds of millions of dollars flowing for Palestinian market and a decline of Palestinian purchasing power due to the lack of liquidity, causing a reduction of 50% of the Palestinians civil servants wages. Moreover, the health measures imposed at Israeli airports, crossings and ports have impeded the arrival of imported products from Palestine, whose exportations have been banned, putting at risk the furniture of goods and foods. To get things worse OPEC continues to cut oil exports, holding up the prices. The World Bank reported in April that, if coronavirus crisis and its economic effects wouldn’t ease, the Palestinian economy will shrink by 7%, causing an unprecedented collapse.  Palestinian financial minister has already asked for a loan from Israel of 500 million Israeli shekels ($141 millions) per month until the end of the pandemic but it’s unlikely it could fulfill its obligations.

So, in conclusion, the economic downturn, the spread of Covid-19 and the paralysis of the both nationalisms, that claim the same lands under their religious auspices and believes, have highlighted the weakness of the international system in the Middle East, and in particular in Israel and Palestine, putting them in the hands of Trump’s American hegemonic policy of “America first”, consisting in the affirmation of its economic global power and its presence on the field in an anti-terrorist key of interpretation.

 As a matter of fact, although resonant speeches, has been revealed a consistent lack of democracy and effective protection of liberal values, especially from USA and UN on one hand, and through continuous terrorist attacks from Palestinian organizations recognized as terrorists by UN and EU such as i.e. Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, al.Aqsa Martyr Brigade and LFP, on the other

Bearing in mind that “terrorism” has been defined in 1994 by the UN as “criminal acts intended or calculating to provoke a state of terror in general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them”,  it’s clear that on both sides the destiny of innocent civilians, that are daily struggling simply for their livelihood are nowadays still put at risk.

In an economic strangulation and political entanglement, many Palestinian people are actually living in danger and facing violence; they are often forced, having no choice, to be enrolled in military corps, both terroristic or legally recognized, in order to avoid indigence, in a quest for revenge and social redemption.

 Once again, in the slowness and inadequacy of political summits in the control rooms of power, through the diplomatic meetings and clumsy changing strategies in the international arena, long distant from the dramatic reality ground, this is one of the saddest quarrels in which are always the helpless battered people that continues on suffering and paying for economic giants damages and interferences and that are far to be resolved in a lack of a clear direction and  solutions for a long-lasting peace and security at the four corners of the world.

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