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Russia’s Game on the Libyan Field: From Gaddafi to Haftar

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Russia’s Libyan strategy has been rather contradictory since the 2011 February revolution in the country. Yet the Kremlin’s refusal to back any one party to the conflict, its constant manoeuvring and zigzagging on the Libyan field ultimately brought Russia unexpected dividends, as this strategy allowed the country, together with Turkey, to lead the settlement of the Libyan crisis. Significantly, the decisions that the Russian leadership openly calls mistakes today (then President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev refusing to veto UN Security Council Resolution 1973 about a no-fly zone over Libya) have in fact boosted Russia’s image in the eyes of every single Libyan political force in power since the February revolution and the first civil war. Consequently, the parties to today’s Libyan conflict hold no bias or resentment against Russia, unlike, for instance, the Syrian opposition. This makes it far easier to maintain contacts with Libyans, even though they do not understand Russia’s repeated statements condemning the destruction of the Jamahiriya and the overthrowing of Muammar Gaddafi.

The Kremlin rather quickly and unconditionally recognized the legitimacy of both the National Transitional Council in September 2011 and the elections to the General National Congress (GNC) in July 2012. This allowed Moscow to launch a constructive dialogue with the new authorities of the post-Gaddafi Libya. At that time, Russia was primarily concerned with the prospects of implementing the large economic projects that had been agreed upon with Muammar Gaddafi. These included, for instance, the construction of the Sirte–Benghazi railway at a total cost of €2.5 billion (Russian Railways had already spent RUB 10 billion on preliminary work under the contract when the civil war broke out). MTC contracts between the two countries that could not be implemented because of the war were estimated at USD 4 billion, while unfulfilled oil and gas contracts were said to be worth USD 3.5 billion. Consequently, Russia’s military-industrial complex was interested in the restrictions on arms deliveries to Libya being lifted as soon as possible, while Russia’s Gazprom and Tatneft were interested in resuming their work in the country. In turn, Tripoli assured Moscow that all agreements would be honoured. Still, the new domestic political storms battering Libya prevented these assurances from becoming a reality.

The Islamists and the Military: Russia Banks on the Military

Despite the constructive nature of the dialogue between Moscow and Tripoli, the background of their interaction was negatively affected by the Kremlin’s attitude to the events of the Arab Spring as a whole. The Russian authorities had an emphatically negative attitude to all manifestations of Islamism and to the revolutionary events that resulted in the strengthening of the Islamist component of the Arab world. In addition, Moscow became increasingly suspicious of the new Libyan authorities, since they adhered to the ideas of political Islam and systematically introduced Islamic principles into the Libyan political agenda. Curiously, Moscow’s antagonism against Islamism often prompted Russian media and experts to falsely represent the late Muammar Gaddafi as a secular leader and contrast him with the new Libyan authorities dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in Russia as a terrorist organization). Muammar Gaddafi had instituted Sharia law in Libya, and many scholars defined his ideology as “Islamic socialism”. When the GNC adopted a resolution in late 2013 enshrining Sharia as the foundation of Libyan legislation, the Council was merely demonstrating continuity with the country’s previously established legal system. However, this step could hardly be taken well in Russia.

Consequently, when General Khalifa Haftar (who attempted to assume dictatorship during the February revolution, but found himself rejected as the commander of the revolutionary forces) incited another mutiny against the GNC in May 2014, Moscow was sympathetic towards his cause. Like the majority of the global community, Russia recognized the elections to the House of Representatives, a new legislature that was to replace the General National Congress.

The elections themselves prompted many questions. For instance, they were essentially carried out at the point of the “bayonets” of Haftar’s forces and took place against the backdrop of continued fighting between Haftar’s forces and GNC supporters. As a result, voter turnout was only 18 per cent (compared to 65 per cent in 2012), and the Libyan Supreme Court declared the elections invalid. However, that did not prevent the UN and the global community from recognizing the elections and declaring the House of Representatives a legitimate legislature. Consequently, the international community put the GNC (that refused to dissolve itself) outside the legal framework. At that point, a duality of power emerged in Libya and the second civil continued between the Libya Dawn coalition supporting the GNC and Operation Dignity launched by General Haftar and the Libyan National Army he had formed, which acted on behalf of the newly elected House of Representatives. The situation was exacerbated by the many hotbeds of terrorist activity in the country led, for instance, by Al-Qaeda (banned in Russia as a terrorist organization), Islamic State (IS, banned in Russia as a terrorist organization) and other groups fighting against both Libya Dawn and the LNA.

Libya’s Nasser or Libya’s Sadat?

The Kremlin was particularly sympathetic towards the LNA and its commander. They were secular Arab forces led by military people who had been educated in the Soviet Frunze Military Academy. Moscow could understand these people and had grown accustomed to interacting with them since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Consequently, Russia unequivocally supported Operation Dignity. However, the LNA’s initial drive was fizzling, while most objectives still remained unrealized, and it was becoming clear that at the present stage Khalifa Haftar would not become “Libya’s el-Sisi.” This prompted increased pessimism on the part of Moscow’s and mistrust towards the self-legitimized rebel commander.

There were several reasons for this. Unlike Bashar al-Assad, Khalifa Haftar had never severed his ties with the United States and the West. On the contrary, he had attempted to gain their support and always received it. The American, French and British special operations units aided Haftar in his operations against al-Qaeda and radical IS Islamists in Benghazi. Russia was fully aware that Haftar had American citizenship and had lived in the United States for a long time while at the same time being a member of the Libyan opposition to Gaddafi’s regime. His ties to the CIA thus appeared obvious. These factors probably prevented Moscow from giving practical aid to the LNA, despite the latter’s repeated requests.

Additionally, the second civil war in Libya reflected the global trends in the Arab world, where the Turkey–Qatar duo (and the Muslim Brotherhood they supported) was locked in a fight against the “triple alliance” of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that had initially spearheaded Haftar’s mutiny and was the LNA’s chief sponsor. At this stage, it appeared too risky for Moscow to become enmeshed in these convoluted coalitions. Consequently, Moscow supported the Libyan Political Agreement that the UN developed in December 2015 and which was signed in Skhirat (Morocco). The agreement was finally adopted by the parties to the conflict on the night of April 5–6, 2016, when the General National Congress in Tripoli transferred power to the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj. The GNA committed to hold elections in Libya within a year of the signing of the agreement. The start of the peace process that put an end to the second civil war opened many more opportunities for Russia to boost its standing in Libya without directly or indirectly participating in the conflict. Additionally, Moscow was occupied with its military operation in Syria that at that point was far from being a success.

Islamists in Moscow

In the post-Skhirat period, Russia was able to largely move away from unconditional support for the LNA and started to develop ties with the Fayez al-Sarraj-led GNA. Soon after entrenching himself in Tripoli and gaining recognition from most groups within Libya Dawn, al-Sarraj came into conflict with the House of Representatives in Tobruk. Having failed to obtain guarantees that he would be given a high-ranking office in the new government, Haftar pressured its deputies to not give their vote of confidence to the GNA. Tellingly, Moscow was able to establish contacts at that time with various Islamist groups that had previously been parts of the Libya Dawn coalition and now supported al-Sarraj. Their role in the counter-terrorist activities was conducive to such developments. In particular, Misrata brigades conducted a successful operation to eliminate the Libyan branch of IS, which chose the city of Sirte as its “capital,” which was captured in 2016. In April 2017, the leaders of the Misrata’s Islamist command, Al-Bunyan Al-Marsoos, who had led the operation in Sirte, visited Russia and met with Russian diplomats and deputies. In April, Special Presidential Envoy for the Middle East and North Africa Mikhail Bogdanov met with al-Sarraj in Tripoli.

While the GNA’s forces were distracted by fighting IS, Haftar, seized the opportunity and in October 2016 captured the ports of the so-called “oil crescent.” The lion’s share of Libya’s hydrocarbon exports went through those ports. Thus, Haftar once again established himself as the key figure on the Libyan field. After capturing the ports, the House of Representatives conferred on him the rank of field marshal. His standing was further bolstered after the Battle of Benghazi (that had drawn out for years) finally ended. Haftar presented it as the decisive contribution to the defeat of radical Islamism in Libya. Moscow had previously steered a very balanced course, maintaining equidistant relations with the authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk. But this course began to change, with Moscow working to accommodate Haftar’s interests. The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation and the LNA leadership established good relations. RSB- Group was the first to go to Libya (at that stage, they carried out “classical” PMC missions such as clearing minefields). Russian lobbyists probably began working with the field marshal, and consequently, the Russian media depicted him as “Gaddafi’s successor” (omitting his entire career in the opposition, starting from his surrender in Chad to his participation in the February revolution), which was supposed to create a positive image of him in the eyes of Russians. Haftar was also positioned as a guarantor of the preservation of the secular state in Libya which, as we have already mentioned, did not exist before. At the same time, the media purposefully omitted the field marshal’s ties to Libya’s radical Salafists, who constituted large parts of the LNA’s units and committed various crimes, including lynching their opponents and destroying Sufi mausoleums. Salafi sheiks led all the religions institutions affiliated with Haftar: the fatwa committee proclaimed Ramadan the “month of Jihad” (against the GNA), while Ibadi Muslims (who had long lived in Libya) were labelled “ infidels without dignity”.

Moscow and the Field Marshal’s “Waterloo”

When the LNA launched its Tripoli offensive in April 2019, Moscow intensified its involvement in Libyan affairs, gradually increasing its support for Haftar. This step was taken because Moscow had become less interested in the Syrian settlement. Moscow had succeeded in making a “comeback” in the Middle East and becoming a key player in the region. However, in order to confirm this status, Moscow needed to move beyond Syrian case, which had not brought Russia any significant economic dividends anyway. Moscow continues to play a double role in the Syrian conflict (as both a participant in the conflict and a mediator in its settlement), but has largely exhausted itself in terms of new foreign political dividends. Moscow’s interest in the Libyan settlement increased accordingly, and Libya began to eclipse Syria in Russia’s foreign policy.

During the battle for Tripoli, Moscow did attempt to maintain relations with all the parties to the Libyan conflict, but it was particularly interested in ensuring that Haftar and forces loyal to him remained the leading players on the Libyan field. Although Russia was not pleased with the prospects of a military leader whom it could not entirely trust establishing a personal dictatorship, the Kremlin expected Haftar and his supporters to have the final say in the post-conflict Libya, even if a certain balance remained and the field marshal’s opponents kept their places as legal political forces.

Turkey stepping up its military aid to Tripoli prevented this scenario from materializing. Ankara’s limited support for the GNA (including small shipments of weapons and sending several drones to the battle ground starting in May 2019) helped Libya’s governmental forces take Gharyan, the LNA’s principal base in the vicinity of Tripoli.

Unlike Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, Russia boosted its standing in Libya, in spite of the field marshal’s failures. First, Haftar’s military weakness and defeats made the LNA more dependent on Russian support. In January 2020, a phone call from Cairo or Abu Dhabi was enough to convince the field marshal to leave Moscow without signing the ceasefire agreement drafted by Russian and Turkish diplomats. But he could hardly afford such escapades four months later. While President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is making threatening statements, PMCs (which the West believes to have arrived from Russia) remain the only buffer keeping the GNA’s forces from capturing Sirte and Jufra on the route to Tobruk and Benghazi. Russia–Turkey consultations are preventing the GNA from launching an offensive against these key areas. Second, Moscow had never banked on the field marshal as the unconditional winner in the civil war. Moreover, Haftar was not Russia’s only point of contact even within the East Libyan camp. In late April, Russia assisted Aguila Saleh, the Chairman of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, in drafting peace initiatives for resolving the conflict, as it simultaneously opposed Haftar’s attempts to usurp power and withdraw from the Skhirat Agreement in early May.

Libya was a main topic during the telephone conversation that took place between the presidents of Russia and Turkey on May 18. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan noted “the need to immediately resume the permanent truce and the intra-Libyan dialogue based on the resolutions of the Berlin International Conference on January 19, 2020.” Soon afterwards, Russian-speaking mercenaries began to leave the frontlines in the vicinity of Tripoli. The PMCs were withdrawn from Tarhuna and Bani Walid and sent to Jufra and Sirte, where the GNA’s offensive was stopped. By taking this step, Moscow could make Haftar more receptive to further peace initiatives, depriving him of support and showing the futility of further attempts to capture Tripoli. Without Russia’s support on the frontlines, the LNA was forced to retreat from many of its key positions near the Libyan capital. The possibility of this being intended to partially satisfy the demands of the GNA’s leader Fayez al-Sarraj cannot be ruled out. At the talks in Moscow Back in January 2020, al-Sarraj made the withdrawal of the LNA’s forces to their original position a condition of agreeing to the ceasefire and engaging in talks with the opponents.

In the final analysis, Russia has succeeded in beating both Cairo and Abu Dhabi in the game they played on the Libyan field and pushing them out of their central positions. The experience of working together that Moscow and Ankara gained during the Syrian settlement was rather successfully transferred into Libya and certainly played a positive role for Russia. This is why experts even talked for a while about Russia and Turkey pushing for an “Astana format” for Libya. Today, all signs point to Russia and Turkey further strengthening their standing in Libya, while el-Sisi’s demarches will hardly be able to diminish their role. Egypt’s unsuccessful attempts to act as a guarantor of the so-called “Cairo Declaration” have forced it to switch to a policy of direct threats against Ankara and Tripoli. Nevertheless, we should take into account the fact that the only thing holding up the frontlines in Sirte and Jufra is the mutual understanding between Russia and Turkey, and not the ultimatums made by Egypt after the GNA had suspended its offensive. Consequently, no matter what moves Cairo makes from here on in, Russia and Turkey are most likely to hold the keys to resolving the Libyan problem, and their efforts will apparently result in freezing the conflict. The political division of the country and the sluggish peace process will be preserved, while hydrocarbon resources will be managed jointly and the revenues distributed between Tripoli and Tobruk.

From our partner RIAC

Director of the Centre of Islamic Research at the Institute of Innovative Development

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Shaping Palestinian politics: The UAE has a leg up on Turkey

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The United Arab Emirates may have the upper hand in its competition with Turkey in efforts to shape Palestinian politics. Similarly, the UAE’s recognition of the Jewish state gives it a leg up in ensuring that its voice is heard in Israel and Washington irrespective of who wins the November US election.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t miss a beat during his address to the United Nations General Assembly, insisting that he, unlike the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, would not accept a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is not endorsed by the Palestinians.

Mr. Erdogan’s solemn pledge may earn him brownie points with large segments of Middle Eastern and Muslim public opinion critical of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the two Gulf states but does not strengthen his weak hand.

The UAE, with whom Mr. Erdogan is at loggerheads over Libya, Syria, and the future of political Islam, may have less clout than it thinks in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, but has, for now, more cards to play.

What those cards are worth will only emerge over time.

The UAE is betting that a combination of soft power garnered through recognition of Israel and close security, economic and technological cooperation will enable it to convince the Israeli government that an independent Palestinian state is in Israel’s interest.

While there is little reason to believe that the UAE will succeed where others have failed in recent decades, Emirati leaders, in contrast to Turkey, potentially could in cooperation with Israel also try to impose an unpopular Palestinian figure who has close ties to the US, Emirati and Israeli leadership.

The move would be designed to install a leader who would be  more conducive to engaging in peace talks on terms that hold out little hope of meeting long-standing Palestinian aspirations.

It is a scenario that 84-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be taking seriously and appears to be trying to pre-empt.

The Democratic Reform Bloc, a political group headed by Mohammed Dahlan, a controversial Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief believed to be close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s de facto ruler, said dozens of his supporters had been arrested or summoned for questioning by Palestinian security forces in recent days.

Mr. Dahlan appeared to be walking a fine line when he recently denied any role in mediating relations between the UAE and Israel.

Mr. Abbas’ suspicions stem from an unsuccessful effort last year by the UAE to engineer a deal in which Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, would share power with Mr. Dahlan.

Mr. Dahlan went into exile in the UAE in 2007 after Hamas defeated his US-backed efforts to thwart the group’s control of Gaza. US President George W. Bush described Mr. Dahlan at the time as “our boy.”

He has since been indicted by Mr. Abbas’ Palestine Authority on corruption charges.

UAE recognition of Israel constituted an acknowledgment that the 18-year old Arab peace plan that offered Israel diplomatic relations in exchange for land and a Palestinian state had produced naught.

In its rivalry with Turkey, whose assertive support for the Palestinian cause has likewise failed to produce results so far, the UAE is banking on the expectation that it has the upper hand in getting not only Israeli but also the attention of Washington that under US President Donald J. Trump has disregarded Palestinian rights.

The UAE assumes that it will be able to capitalize on the fact that Emirati recognition of Israel has further complicated Turkey’s relations with its NATO ally, the United States.

Turkey’s relations with the US are already troubled by US support for Syrian Kurds; Turkish military backing of the Libyan government in Tripoli; tensions between Turkey and Greece, another NATO ally, in the Eastern Mediterranean; and Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system.

The Trump administration hopes to finalize by December the sale of F-35 fighter planes to the UAE in the wake of the deal with Israel.  Earlier, it cancelled Turkey’s acquisition of the same plane in response to the country’s S-400 deal with Russia.

For now, Turkey can look at appreciation by important segments of Arab and Muslim public opinion as an upside of its  strident support for the Palestinians.

Seeking to capitalize on its Palestinian goodwill, Turkey has been attempting to end the rift between Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah movement and Hamas in a bid to get the Palestinians to agree on elections and the formation of a joint government.

The two groups, agreed during  talks in Istanbul this week to work together and hold long overdue elections in the next six months.

The joker in Turkish-Emirati differences over Israel and Palestine is the upcoming US presidential election in November.

Irrespective of who wins, Turkey has lost to the UAE the beneficial mantle of being Israel’s best Muslim friend.

Nonetheless, an electoral victory by Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who is expected to be more critical of arms purchases by the UAE and other Gulf states and take them to task on human rights issues, could put both Turkey and the Emirates on the back foot.

A Biden victory would be for Turkey a lost opportunity. The very issues that are at the core of its strained relations with the UAE are likely to complicate its relations with a Democratic administration.

Recent media reports reminded Mr. Erdogan that Mr. Biden had described him in a conversation with The New York Times early this year as an “autocrat.” The Democratic candidate suggested that the US. should “embolden” his opponents to defeat him in elections.

In the conversation, Mr. Biden mentioned other issues, including the Kurds, Syria, and tension in the Eastern Mediterranean that do not bode well for US-Turkish relations should the Democrat occupy the White House. Mr. Biden is expected to be also critical of the UAE’s interventions in Yemen and Libya.

Nonetheless, the UAE, despite its own issues with the US, is likely to still find itself in a better place in Washington no matter who emerges victorious from the November election.

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Arabs-Israeli Peace must be Well-Anchored, not Neatly Fantasized

Mohammed Nosseir

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Watching a few Emirati and Israeli citizens dance in Chabad House, Dubai to celebrate normalization may give the impression that these nations have realized a genuine peace; a false assumption that disregards the facts that the peace treaty between Israel and two Arab Nations is meant to serve Donald Trump in his upcoming presidential election, values the “ground reality” that clearly favors Israel over United Nations resolutions upholding the “land for peace” principle, and advances western politicians’ view that peace can be imposed top-down, seconded by autocratic Arab rulers.

As an Egyptian, I highly value the peace treaty between my country and Israel that was based on regaining occupied Egyptian land, the Sinai Peninsula. The treaty has helped to alter Egyptians’ views of Israel fundamentally; no longer seen as a permanent enemy, Israel is presently perceived as a “cooperative” neighbor that has offered us millions of tourists and a few sound investments – solid pillars for normalization. Meanwhile, the clear majority of Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims continue to sympathize with the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation – a crisis that can only be resolved by pursuing the same path towards peace as that of Egypt.

For years, the United States has been trying to impose a peace treaty between the Arab nations and Israel based on the concept that Arabs should accept Israeli territorial expansion in return for the injection of substantial U.S.  funds to boost the Palestinian economy, a proposition strengthened by Israel’s military power and Arab rulers’ injudicious, hasty attitude towards the crisis. Underneath this reality lurks the further empowerment of the political Islamist proposition that places Israel as a permanent enemy, which could easily drag our region into additional, unpredicted violence. 

Arabs societies generally appear to lead a “double life”. On the one hand is the reality that 60% are either poor citizens or citizens who are vulnerable to poverty, an unemployment rate of roughly 11%, the lack of basic freedoms and living under autocratic rule; a sad status that has become even more dramatic with the advent of Covid-19. These factors combined intensify Arab youth’s anger and frustration towards their rulers and towards the United States, seen as a solid supporter of those rulers. Obviously, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation rule have an extra challenge to deal with.

On the other hand is the fantasy life constituted of GDP growth and the implementation of a few mega projects that Arab rulers like to exhibit and that western politicians and scholars tend to recognize as a sign of success – completely overlooking the fact that these projects are often awarded to the rulers’ cronies and that the unequal distribution of wealth will keep large portions of Arabs living in poverty for generations to come, making them more vulnerable to violence. Likewise, expanding trade deals between Arab nations and Israel or receiving economic incentives from the United States have proven to benefit only the same cronies.

Moreover, the present rumour that the United States is building a block of Arab nations and Israel meant to potentially engage in a war with Iran is a catastrophic approach. Should it happen, it will thrust the entire region into a state of intense violence and enduring war that could well lead to the collapse of many of the signed treaties. Furthermore, a peace treaty between Israel and two Arab nations, who are not in conflict with Israel, will not help to resolve either the Palestinian crisis or the Iranian conflict – Bahraini and the Emirati citizens will never validate such a treaty, if it is presented to them fairly.

There is a huge difference between a peace treaty concluded between two mature, democratic nations whose respective governments truly represent their citizens, and an agreement that is imposed on nations whose citizens are – to put it mildly – in disharmony with their rulers. Arab citizens, often accused of engaging in violence and declining to peacefully settle with Israel, are in fact caught between two fires: their autocratic rulers, who deliberately offer them undignified living conditions and Islamic extremists, who promise them eternal salvation as a reward for engaging in violence and terrorism.

Permanent Arab-Israeli peace can only be achieved through a bottom-up approach that is designed to last, which entails keeping away from western pragmatism and enforcement, both of no value to this crisis. Israel is continually working to enhance its security, an absolute necessity for its citizens. It needs to offer Palestinians the opportunity to live a dignified life based, first, on regaining their occupied land and establishing a state of their own, followed by advancing their economic status. Offering the later at the expense of the former will keep us in this vicious circle of violence for decades to come.

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Untangling Survival Intersections: Israel, Chaos and the Pandemic

Prof. Louis René Beres

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MUNCH, Edvard The Scream (detail) 1893 Oil, tempera & pastel on cardboard, 91 × 73.5 cm The National Gallery, Oslo

Is it an end that draws near, or a beginning?”-Karl Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age (1951)

INTRODUCTION TO THE ANALYSIS:  Day by day, traditional global anarchy (with discernible roots in the seventeenth century Peace of Westphalia) is being supplanted by chaos. This exponential replacement has very substantial implications for (1) comprehensive global stability; (2) regional stability in the Middle East; and (3) Israeli national stability. Because the replacement  is taking place alongside a still-expanding global pandemic, variously resultant forms of chaos must be considered as multi-layered, tangled and synergistic.

 What next? Among others, Israel’s senior strategists and policy-makers will have to examine these dissembling expressions of chaos by proceeding with continuously capable scholarship.  Accordingly apt emphases in  Jerusalem and Tel Aviv should soon be placed upon plausible alterations to decisional rationality (both Israeli and adversarial) and on prospective nuclear competitions oriented to achieving intra-crisis “escalation dominance.” In the worst case scenario, such analyses would pertain to certain potential instances of nuclear war-fighting, a sobering narrative that reinforces Israel’s unceasing imperative to seek nuclear deterrence ex ante, and not revenge ex post.

There is more. The article that follows is self-consciously conceptual/theoretical. By design, it is unlike other more usual essays that concern global/ regional stability in world politics.

This article can be useful to military practitioners and national security planners because it could lead them well beyond any orthodox or narrowly “current events” focus on applicable strategic thought. By explaining this historically unprecedented transition from anarchy to chaos, it can also point serious readers toward a new corpus of pertinent strategic theory. “Theory is a net,” we all learned earlier from Karl Popper’s classic The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), “only those who cast, can catch.”

—————–

As Chair of “Project Daniel,” a special policy task force assembled to analyze the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel two decades ago,[1] the author is not new to analytic assessments of complex geo-strategic hazards, including existential ones. Still, twenty years back, when Daniel sprang from a private conversation he was having in Tel-Aviv with two-time Israeli Ambassador to the United States Zalman Shoval,[2] overriding security perils were being examined as part of some presumptively coherent world order. This is not meant to suggest that the post-Westphalia[3] order was ever reassuringly stable or satisfactory, but only that the classical  balance-of-power regime had not yet become entirely unpredictable.

               That was then. Today, all serious scholarly assessments, irrespective of  specific country particularity, must be undertaken with a starkly different view. This updated perspective assumes, inter alia, that the world order system is no longer “merely” anarchic,[4] but is also chaotic. Now, a crucial part of this dissembling context is worldwide disease pandemic, a devastating plague that only renders an already unstable global structure even worse.[5]

               In essence, an incremental metamorphosis of system-wide anarchy into chaos has been underway for some time, but the sudden and sweeping comprehensiveness of Covid19 has produced a quantum jump in this already-significant transformation.

               Though a decidedly  global issue, some states will be affected more than others by any spreading chaos. In the specific case of Israel, our focus here, the prospective impacts of certain ongoing change patterns are apt to be considerable. This is because of that country’s conspicuously small size, its still-multiple enemies and its correspondingly unique dependence (for deterrence,[6] not war-fighting)[7] upon nuclear weapons and strategy.[8]

               Looking ahead, the challenging security tasks for Israel need not be regrettable or without any tangible benefits. There do exist sound and science-based reasons to acknowledge advancing chaos as a  security positive for Israel, at least in part. While distinctly counter-intuitive, such compelling reasons ought now be more closely and capably examined.

               These reasons should not be casually minimized or disregarded.

                As drawn from its core meanings in classical philosophy and mythology, chaos represents the literal beginning of everything, the good as well as the bad.

               This “positive”  concept of chaos now warrants very serious and meticulous scholarly assessment. This is not the same thing as suggesting, more prosaically, that scholars and policy makers should try to make better analytic sense of assorted security threats and circumstances, e.g., the Iran nuclear threat or the Palestinian terror threat (neither of which has in any way been diminished by the new Israel-UAE agreement). What is being urged here is the more self-conscious construction of pertinent theories, a painstaking process that must inevitably be contingent upon an antecedent and more refined conceptual understanding.

               Analysts may begin such epistemological processes at their most proverbial beginnings. To wit, Jewish theology discovers its primal roots in Genesis, an observation to be generally viewed with favor in a Jewish State. Whether in the Old Testament or in more-or-less synchronous Greek and Roman thought, chaos can be understood as an intellectual tabula rasa, a blank slate which, when thoughtfully completed, can best prepare the world for all things, both sacred and profane.

               Most significantly, chaos can represent that inchoate place from which absolutely all civilizational opportunitymust credibly originate.

                With such unorthodox thinking, chaos is never just a repellant “predator” that swallows everything whole; callously, indiscriminately, and without purpose. Here, instead, it is more usefully considered as an auspicious “openness,” that is, as a protean realm within which entirely new kinds of human opportunity may be suitably revealed or gleaned.  For Israel, this means that any advancing chaos in the Middle East need not necessarily be interpreted by the country’s senior military planners as a portentous harbinger of regional violence and instability, but rather, in at least some respects, as a potentially gainful condition for critically improving national security.

                There is more. By extrapolation, this same caveat should be extended to include any discernible elements of chaos in certain other regions of the world, though the intellectual or analytic arguments would then be based upon determinably other underlying conditions or outcomes.

               The next question arises. How best to harness such a radical re-conceptualization of chaos in Jerusalem (politics) and Tel Aviv (military strategy)? This is a manifestly difficult, subtle and many-sided question. Still, it would be better answered imperfectly than be wholly disregarded. Such an answer should suggest the following: Israel’s authoritative decision-makers must more intentionally stray beyond ordinary or usual national security assessments,[9] and then venture more wittingly in the direction of illuminating avant garde analyses.[10]

               To be sure, any such venture would have its detractors. “Whenever the new muses present themselves,” warned Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset in The Dehumanization of Art, “the masses bristle.

               Among these studies would be scholarly examinations that hypothesize various radical redistributions of power in the Middle East, including some never-before considered alignments. Such unexpected alignments, born of a now palpably expanding regional chaos, could include not only assorted state-state relationships (e.g., Israel-Egypt; Israel-Jordan; Israel-Saudi Arabia; Israel-UAE; Israel-Russia), but also state-sub state or “hybrid” connections (e.g., Hezbollah-Iran; Hezbollah-Russia). Just as with certain state-state relationships, relevant intersections could sometime be synergistic. In these potentially most worrisome cases, the “whole” of any specific intersection would exceed the simple sum of its constituent “parts.” Of course, for Israel, not every expected synergy would necessarily be harmful or “bad.” Some of these intersections could be determinably auspicious or “good.”

               As an example of positive synergistic outcome for Israel, scholars and planners could consider alignments that would favor directly Israeli goals or objectives, and alignments that would be presumptively harmful or injurious to that country’s acknowledged foes.

               Similarly unprecedented but also worth considering would be steps taken toward alleviating the more expressly structural conditions of chaos in the Middle East region, including certain specific forms of cooperation that could move incrementally toward assorted forms of regional governance. Such  forms would have to be tentative, and also very partial, but they could nonetheless provide a generally welcome start toward greater area order than area chaos.[11] In specifically Hobbesian terms, these forms of governance would be intended to supplant the generally corrosive “war of all against all”[12] in the Middle East with some designated “common power.”[13]

                Recalling English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the core objective here would be to keep all state and sub-state parties “in awe.”[14]

               Ironically, a unique opportunity for regional movements toward greater area collective security would have been made possible by decision-maker perceptions of a more general revulsion with anarchy or chaos. This opportunity will have been born of a growing existential desperation, that is, of a sense that “business as usual” in Middle East peacemaking can no longer suffice. Of course, it is altogether possible that this particular sense of opportunity could sometime be mistaken or misunderstood, in which case any presumed benefits of chaos might turn out to be a double-edged sword.

               There is more. With regard to any such injurious inversions of opportunity for Israel, Jerusalem need only be reminded of its unchanging obligation to avoid taking existential risks wherever possible.[15] Ultimately, this fixed and immutable obligation can be fulfilled only by assessing all risks and opportunities according to well-established and optimally rigorous intellectual standards. Among other things, even when chaos might beckon seductively to Israel as an unanticipated font of future strategic opportunity, there could be no adequate substitute for capable scholarly or intellectual analysis.

               Reciprocally, however, any such diligent analysis must eschew “seat of the pants” determinations, and rely instead upon an amply-refined strategic theory. Always, theory is a “net.” Only those who “cast” such an indispensable net can ever expect to “catch.”

               What else? When “casting,” Israel’s strategic planners should pay especially rapt attention to any discernible links between a prevailing or still-anticipated chaos, and the expected rationality of its relevant adversaries.[16] What might first appear as an unwittingly promising source of improved national safety could be reversed promptly by those enemies who would value certain normally subsidiary preferences in world politics more highly than national or collective survival.

               Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               Such “absurd” enemies are not historically unknown in world politics.[17]

               Not at all.

               At this moment, the most compelling threat of such enemy irrationality appears to come from a seemingly still-nuclearzing Iran. Significantly, there is no way for Israel’s decision makers to systematically or scientifically evaluate the authentic probabilities of any such uniquely formidable threat.[18] This is because (a) any truly accurate assessments of event probability must be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events; and (b) there have been no pertinent past events (i.e., no nuclear war).

               All the same, an eventual Iranian nuclear threat to Israel remains plausible; it should thus suggest certain worrisome prospects for a “final” sort of regional chaos. To make reassuringly positive or at least gainful use of this vision, Israel ought soon to focus explicitly and meticulously on its still-tacit “bomb in the basement” nuclear strategy.  Preparing to move beyond the prospectively lethal limits of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity,” Jerusalem would need to (1) rank-order identifiable thresholds of enemy nuclear peril as tangible “triggers” for its incremental nuclear disclosures; and (2) prepare for rank-ordered release some very specifically limited sets of information concerning the invulnerability and penetration-capability of its own nuclear forces.

               These sets would include selected facts on nuclear targeting doctrine; number; range; and yield.

               As Israel can learn from certain intimations of some impending chaos, the country’s national security might be better served by reduced nuclear ambiguity than by any more traditional commitments to complete strategic secrecy. This seemingly counter-intuitive argument is rooted in the altogether reasonable presumption that Israel’s continued survival must depend very considerably on successfully sustained nuclear deterrence.

               When 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche initially explained chaos as something contained deeply within each individual human being,[19] he did not intend this to represent a distressingly negative portent. On the contrary, like the German poet Hölderlin,[20] with whose work he was intimately familiar, Nietzsche understood that even from apparent formlessness can emerge things of great or even inestimable value. Accordingly, at this currently precarious moment in its contemporary history, Israel’s leadership would be well advised (a) to think seriously and inventively about such challenging conceptual opportunities; and (b) to fashion strategic theories that begin but do not end with conspicuous portents of the apocalyptic  “abyss.”

               This would not be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted, or for those who are constitutionally unable to recognize promising strategic “muses”[21] But the security payoff for Israel’s national defense could still prove overwhelmingly gainful. It follows that such a task would be determinably “cost-effective.”

               One last point in this broad argument now bears repeating. It is that Israel has absolutely no choice about either welcoming or rejecting chaos. Incontestably, this condition is not something that Israel can in any way push aside, negotiate, forestall or prevent. Because chaos in some form will inexorably emerge from a traditional global anarchy, Jerusalem must do whatever it can (as soon as it can) to reconcile and optimize its pertinent security strategies with chaos. A full acknowledgment of this unavoidable imperative could represent the acme of Israel’s decisional acumen and decisional rationality.[22]

               In the months and years ahead, Israel’s overriding obligation remains plain and obvious. To best meet this evident security imperative of collective survival, that nation’s strategic analysts and planners will first have to better understand the relevant policy correlates of any expanding chaos, and to accomplish this goal by means of a markedly advanced conceptual scholarship. At a particularly fragile moment in contemporary history when biology could prove even more fundamentally worrisome than capable enemy armies, this scholarship will need to take special note of our current and still-expanding Corona virus pandemic. 

               This “plague,” though “merely” biological, will likely produce certain unanticipated and hard to remediate forms of  social and political disintegration, both expressly regional (Middle East) and worldwide. At the same time, should Israel and its relevant area foes sometime recognize this viral pandemic as an exceptional menace that is nonetheless common to all –  one best diminished by some generally shared strategies of cooperation –  it could conceivably become a welcome agent of a more genuine Middle East peace.[23] Though ironic and more-or-less implausible,  microbial assault could represent just the right agent for enhanced geopolitical vision, for shaping a tabula rasa from which more promisingly audacious national security opportunities could sometime be born.

               If this novel opportunity for embracing chaos were sufficiently acknowledged, it could be a “beginning” that “draws near,” not an “end.”


[1] Our formal report, “Israel’s Strategic Future,” was discussed widely in global media and delivered by hand to PM Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem on January 16, 2003. http://www.acpr.org.il/ENGLISH-NATIV/03-ISSUE/daniel-3.htm

[2] Ambassador Shoval has been Professor Beres’ several times co-author on vital matters of Israeli security and international law. Most recently, see Louis René Beres and Zalman Shoval, West Point (Pentagon) https://mwi.usma.edu/creating-seamless-strategic-deterrent-israel-case-study/

[3] The historic Peace of Westphalia (1648) concluded the Thirty Years War and created the still-existing state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two treaties comprise the “Peace of Westphalia.”

[4] Hobbes, the 17th- century English philosopher, argues that anarchy in the “state of nations” is the only true “state of nature.” In Chapter XIII of Leviathan (“Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery”),  Hobbes explains famously: “But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of war, one against the other, yet in all times, kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independence, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continual spies upon their neighbors, which is a posture of war.”

[5] With chaos, but not anarchy, even the usual mainstays of decentralized world politics (e.g., deterrence and balance of power processes) are replaced by more eccentric or idiosyncratic factors of national decision  making.

[6] As emphasized at Israel’s Strategic Future: The Final Report of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003): “The primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.”

[7]See, for example: Louis René Beres, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/5/29/israels-nuclear-strategy-enhancing-deterrence-in-the-new-cold-war-part-i; Louis René Beres, INSS Israel, https://www.inss.org.il/publication/changing-direction-updating-israels-nuclear-doctrine/

and, at Harvard Law School, Louis René Beres: https://harvardnsj.org/2014/06/staying-strong-enhancing-israels-essential-strategic-options-2/

[8] See,  by Professor Beres, https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy

[9] Such proposed “straying,” which might range anywhere from an eleventh-hour preemption to much greater commitments to regional collective security, could still be in more-or-less complete accord with pertinent international law. In this connection, a core or jus cogens principle of international law remains the unambiguous imperative: “Where the ordinary remedy fails, recourse must be had to an extraordinary one.” (Ubi cessat remedium ordinarium, ibi decurritur ad extraordinarium.” (Black’s Law Dictionary, 1520 – 6th ed., 1990).

[10] In his 1927 preface to Oxford Poetry, W.H. Auden wrote: “All genuine poetry is in a sense the formation of private spheres out of public chaos….” Looking ahead with an appropriately avant-garde orientation, Israeli strategists must essentially seek to carve out livable national spheres from a steadily expanding global chaos. Ultimately, of course, following Nietzsche, they must understand that such chaos originally lies within each individual human being, but – at least for the moment of their present strategic deliberations – they must focus upon collective survival in a true Hobbesian “state of nature.” This is a condition wherein “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest,” normally possible only where individual human beings coexist in nature, but possible also in world politics wherever there exists nuclear proliferation. Accordingly, the German legal philosopher Samuel Pufendorf reasoned, like Hobbes, that the state of nations “lacks those inconveniences which are attendant upon a pure state of nature….” Similarly, said Baruch Spinoza: “A commonwealth can guard itself against being subjugated by another, as a man in the state of nature cannot do.” (See: A.G. Wernham, ed., The Political Works: Tractatus Politicus, iii, II; Clarendon Press, 1958, p. 295).

[11] Back at Princeton in the late 1960s, I spent two full years in the University library, reading everything available about world order. The initial result was published in my early book The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (University of Denver, 1973) and two years later, in Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (University of Denver, 1975).

[12] This Hobbes-described orientation represents the explicit underpinning of US President Donald Trump’s announced foreign policy, and stands in direct opposition to the core jurisprudential assumption (i.e., international law) of imperative solidarity between all states. This immutable or jus cogens assumption was already mentioned in Justinian’s Digest (533 CE); Hugo Grotius’ Law of War and Peace (1625); and Vattel’s The Law of Nations, or the Principles of Natural Law (1758). According to General McMaster, Mr. Trump’s earlier National Security Advisor, this policy is an expression of “pragmatic realism.” Historically, this term is essentially a self-reinforcing falsehood, as no forms of “realism” or “Realpolitik” have ever worked for long. For Israel, the best “lesson” to be extracted from this egregious US policy error is to think of the erroneous Trump-era posture as one of “naive realism,” and to draw upon certain expectations of advancing chaos to inspire more promising forms of both national strategy and international cooperation.

[13] Following the recently negotiated Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain agreements, it could be assumed or alleged that this “corrosive” condition has been correspondingly modified or reduced. Nonetheless, Israel’s principal security challenges have never come from these Gulf states; it is also arguable that the threat of renewed Palestinian terrorism has actually been increased by these US-brokered pacts.

[14] See Hobbes, Leviathan, especially Chapter XVII, “Of Commonwealth.” More generally, the presumed obligation to use force in a world of international anarchy forms the central argument of Realpolitik from the Melian Dialogues of Thucydides and the Letters of Cicero to Machiavelli, Locke, Spykman and Kissinger. “For what can be done against force without force?’ inquires Cicero. Nonetheless, the sort of chaos that Israel could confront shortly is much different from traditional anarchy or simply decentralized global authority. In essence, it is conceivably more primordial, more primal, self-propelled and potentially even self-rewarding.

[15] Such a primary warning is the central motif of Yehoshafat Harkabi’s The Bar Kokhba Syndrome: Risk and Realism in International Politics,” (New York: Rossel Books, 1983).

[16] See, by Professor Beres: https://besacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/516-Israeli-Security-and-Enemy-Rationality-Beres-Author-approved-version.pdf

[17] See Sigmund Freud in Civilization and its Discontents: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind….usually they have wreaked havoc.”

[18] Regarding also the expected consequences or “disutilites” of a nuclear war, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, SURVIVING AMID CHAOS: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016/2018); Louis René Beres,  APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres,  MIMICKING SISYPHUS: AMERICA’S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1983);  Louis René Beres, REASON AND REALPOLITIK: U S FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (Lexington MA;  Lexington Books, 1984);  and Louis René Beres, ed.,  SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[19] “I tell you,” says Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “ye have still chaos in you.”

[20] In philosophy, Hölderin, Nietzsche and Heidegger struggled with the fundamentally same ontological problems of existence, or “being,”

[21] Once again, “Whenever the new muses present themselves,” cautions Spanish existentialist José Ortega y’ Gassett in The Dehumanization of Art, “the masses bristle.”

[22] Reciprocally, a rational state enemy of Israel will always accept or reject a particular option by comparing the costs and benefits of each alternative. Wherever the expected costs of striking first are taken to exceed expected gains, this enemy will be deterred. But where these expected costs are believed to be exceeded by expected gains, deterrence will fail. Here, whatever the prevailing levels of order or chaos, Israel would be faced with an enemy attack, either as a “bolt-from-the-blue” or as an outcome of anticipated or unanticipated crisis-escalation. In this connection, too, Israeli planners will want to stay abreast of each side’s ongoing search for “escalation dominance.”

[23] More generally, see by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Jurist:  https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/04/louis-beres-trump-empathy/ To be sure, the recent US-brokered Israel agreements with UAE and Bahrain are actually net-negative for Middle East Peace because they provide no per se Israeli advantages with these Gulf states, and because they exacerbate Israel’s much more essential relationships with Iran, the Palestinians and Hezbollah.

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