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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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UAE-Israel relations risk being built on questionable assumptions

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A year of diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel has proven to be mutually beneficial. The question is whether the assumptions underlying the UAE’s initiative that led three other Arab countries to also formalise their relations with the Jewish state will prove to be correct in the medium and long term.

UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed laid out the strategic assumptions underlying his establishment of diplomatic relations, as well as its timing, in a conversation with Joel C. Rosenberg, an American-Israeli evangelical author and activist, 18 months before the announcement.

Mr. Rosenberg’s recounting of that conversation in a just-published book, Enemies and Allies: An Unforgettable Journey inside the Fast-Moving & Immensely Turbulent Modern Middle East, constitutes a rare first-hand public account of the Emirati leader’s thinking.

Mr. Rosenberg’s reporting on his conversation with Prince Mohammed is largely paraphrased by the author rather than backed up with quotes. The UAE’s interest in building good relations with American Evangelicals as part of its effort to garner soft power in the United States and project itself as an icon of religious tolerance, and Mr. Rosenberg’s willingness to serve that purpose, add credibility to the author’s disclosures.

Mr. Rosenberg’s reporting, wittingly or unwittingly, has laid bare the potential longer-term fragility of the relationship that is evident in Prince Mohammed’s timing for the UAE’s recognition of Israel as well as the assumptions on which the Emirates has argued that relations would contribute to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What emerges is that the UAE and Israel have a geopolitical interest in cooperating to contain Iran and militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen that are associated with the Islamic republic. They also reap economic benefit from the formalisation of a relationship that has long existed de facto.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, the implication is that public support for the relationship could prove to be fickle even though comment on social media in a country that tightly polices freedom of expression was dominated by supporters of the Emirati government.

Prominent Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla described the public backing as “a show of support for the government rather than a show of support for ‘normalization’ (with Israel) as such.” Mr. Abdulla was speaking in May as Israeli warplanes bombarded the Gaza Strip in a conflict, sparked by protests in East Jerusalem, with Hamas, the Islamist group that governs the territory.

He noted that “no matter what your national priorities are at the moment or regional priorities are at the moment, when stuff like this happens, the Palestinian issue comes back and hits you.”

It was this sensitivity that persuaded Prince Mohammed that the door would close on establishing diplomatic relations with Israel without a solution to the Palestinian problem if then Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu were to go ahead with his plans to annex parts of the West Bank occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.

“The only way to stop Netanyahu from grabbing what the Emiratis saw as Palestinian land was to go full Godfather and make Bibi an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname.

A proposal by the Trump administration that the UAE and other Arab states sign a non-aggression and non-belligerency pact with Israel without establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state gave Prince Mohammed the opening to push his plan.

“MbZ was open to the idea, but he now realized it would not be enough to pull Netanyahu away from his desire to annex large swaths of the West Bank. The only way to get what he wanted, MBZ recognized, was to give Netanyahu what he wanted most – full peace, full recognition, full normalization. But MbZ would have to move fast” to pre-empt the Israeli prime minister Mr. Rosenberg summarised, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

Quoting then Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, rather than Prince Mohammed, Mr. Rosenberg regurgitates hopes publicly expressed by Emirati officials that the establishment of diplomatic relations would reinvigorate moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The establishment of diplomatic relations promised to be “a 360-degree success, one that goes beyond trade and investment,” Mr. Rosenberg quoted Mr. Gargash as saying.

Emirati economy minister Abdulla Bin Touq said the UAE hoped to boost trade with Israel to US$1 trillion over the next decade. Emirati officials were further banking on the fact that strong cultural and people-to-people ties – absent in Israel’s initial peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan in the 1980s and 1990s – would put flesh on a skeleton of Arab-Israeli relations and ensure that Israel refrains from acts like annexation that would upset the apple cart.

Mr. Netanyahu’s successor, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has put those hopes to bed. He has unequivocally rejected the notion of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, refused to negotiate peace with the Palestinians during his term, and suggested that the improvement of social and economic conditions would satisfy Palestinian aspirations.

That could prove to be a risky bet given a shift to the right in Israeli public opinion, the growing influence of conservative religious segments of society, and the fact that some 600,000 Israelis who populate settlements built on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem make a two-state solution de facto impossible. That would leave a one-state solution as the only solution.

For that to work, Palestinians would have to buy into Mr. Bennett’s approach that is informed by the concept of “shrinking the conflict” that seeks to marginalise the Palestinian problem, put forward by Micah Goodman, an Israeli academic who chose to build a home in a West Bank settlement.

“Twenty per cent of Israelis are on the extremes, for either withdrawing from the territories or annexing them,” Mr. Goodman says. “The remaining 80 percent who don’t want to rule over the territories or relinquish them don’t have a way to talk about the conflict, so they just don’t think about it. Which is the tragedy of the Israeli center.”

Shrinking the conflict, rather than solving it, is what Mr. Goodman calls “replacing indifference with pragmatism.” He suggests that initiatives such as the creation of corridors between Palestinian enclaves on the West Bank and a border crossing to Jordan “up to the level that the Palestinians feel they are ruling themselves, without the capacity to threaten Israel” would tempt Palestinians to buy into his concept. Mr. Goodman’s plan would ensure, in his words, that Palestinians “don’t get anything like the right of return, a state or Jerusalem.”

Prince Mohammed appears, based on Mr. Rosenberg’s account of his conversations with the UAE leader and other Emirati officials, to have adopted the approach.  

“MbZ believed that by breaking the mould and making peace with Israel without giving the Palestinian leadership veto over his freedom of movement, he could open the door for other Arab countries to see the benefits and follow suit,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote.

Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco were quick to follow the UAE’s example. Some 300 Iraqi tribal and religious leaders, activists and former military officers called last week for diplomatic relations with Israel in a gathering in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil.

“Just as we demand that Iraq achieve federalism domestically, we demand that Iraq join the Abraham Accords internationally. We call for full diplomatic relations with Israel and a new policy of mutual development and prosperity,” said Wisam Al-Hardan, a spokesman for the group and onetime tribal militia leader that aligned with the United States to fight al-Qaeda in 2005.

Mr. Rosenberg noted that “as more Arab states normalized relations with Israel, MbZ and his team believed it could create the conditions under which the Palestinians could finally say yes to a comprehensive peace plan of their own with Israel.”

That may prove to be over-optimistic. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly this week, President Mahmoud Abbas warned that the Palestine Authority would withdraw its recognition of Israel and press charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court if Israel did not withdraw in the next year from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and lift the 14-year-long blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The assumption underlying Prince Mohammed’s hopes that Palestinians as well as Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon for that matter, would ultimately fall into line, creates a false equation between most Arab states and those bordering on Israel or under Israeli occupation.

Most Arab states like the UAE have existential issues with Israel that need to be resolved, which makes public opinion the potentially largest constraint on recognition of the Jewish state. There is no doubt that for Palestinians the issue is nothing but existential. The same is true for Jordan that has historic connections to the West Bank and whose population is more than half of Palestinian descent.

Similarly, Lebanon and Syria host large numbers of Palestinian refugees. Syria, moreover, has its own issues with Israel given the latter’s occupation of the Golan Heights since 1967.

Improving the social and economic conditions of the Palestinians are unlikely to satisfy their minimal needs or those of Israel’s immediate neighbours. Not to mention what the accelerated prospect of a de facto one-state solution to the Palestinian problem would mean for an Israel confronted with the choice of being a democratic state in which Palestinians could emerge as a majority or a Jewish state that sheds its democratic character and claim to be inclusive towards its citizens.

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Syria: 10 years of war has left at least 350,000 dead

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A decade of war in Syria has left more 350,200 people dead, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the Human Rights Council on Friday, noting that this total was an “under-count of the actual number of killings”.

These are a result of a war that spiralled out of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Based on the “rigorous work” of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she said that the tally, which includes civilians and combatants, is based on “strict methodology” requiring the deceased’s full name, the date of death, and location of the body.

People behind the numbers

In the first official update on the death toll since 2014, Ms. Bachelet informed the Council that more than one in 13 of those who died due to conflict, was a woman – 26,727 in all – and almost one in 13 was a child – a grim total of 27,126 young lives lost.

The Governorate of Aleppo saw the greatest number of documented killings, with 51,731 named individuals.

Other heavy death tolls were recorded in Rural Damascus, 47,483; Homs, 40,986; Idlib, 33,271; Hama, 31,993; and Tartus, 31,369.

Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights”, reminded the High Commissioner.

“We must always make victims’ stories visible, both individually and collectively, because the injustice and horror of each of these deaths should compel us to action.”

More accountability needed

Her office, OHCHR, is processing information on alleged perpetrators, recording victims civilian or combatant status and the type of weapons used, Ms. Bachelet said.

To provide a more complete picture of the scale and impact of the conflict, the UN agency has also established statistical estimation techniques to account for missing data.  

The High Commissioner explained that documenting deaths complements efforts to account for missing people and that her office has been helping the families of the missing, to engage with international human rights mechanisms.

Given the vast number of those missing in Syria, Ms. Bachelet echoed her call for an independent mechanism, with a strong international mandate, to “clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people; identify human remains; and provide support to relatives”.

No end to the violence

Today, the daily lives of the Syrian people remain “scarred by unimaginable suffering”, the UN human rights chief said, adding that they have endured a decade of conflict, face deepening economic crisis and struggle with the impacts of COVID-19.

Extensive destruction of infrastructure has significantly affected the realization of essential economic and social rights, and there is still no end to the violence.

It is incumbent upon us all to listen to the voices of Syria’s survivors and victims, and to the stories of those who have now fallen silent for ever”, the High Commissioner concluded.

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Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds

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The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.

It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.

The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.

Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.

Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.

Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.

There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.

The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.

This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.

The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.

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