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Turkey in Tripolitania

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General Haftar has already responded to Turkey’s moves in Libya – all strongly supporting al-Sarraj’s government – with various actions: on April 27, General Haftar declared the “Libyan Political Agreement” -drafted in December 2015 and later re-submitted by the UN envoy for Lybia, Ghassan Salamè, in 2017 – completely null and void.

 A move that Haftar’s own allies in Eastern Libya have interpreted negatively because it has left them deprived of any international image or power, albeit limited.

 Another fear of General Haftar – now that, however, he no longer has clear military superiority on the ground – is that his allies, who have not appreciated his moveon the “Libyan Political Agreement”, i.e. those of the House of Representatives, the autonomous Parliament in Tobruk led by Aguilah Saleh, may enter into direct negotiations with Tripoli and even with Turkey.

General Haftar also fears to lose support from his international supporters, who no longer hope for the reunification of Libya under the political-military leadership of the LNA in Benghazi.

 This could mean, first and foremost, Russia’s greater support for Haftar’s forces, less strong than before and therefore no longer able to disobey or even deal seriously with the emissaries of the Russian Federation.

 To date this would be the only real alternative to Turkey’s presence in Libya and to the possible reunification of the country under the military and political pressure of al-Sarraj, certainly recognized by the UN, but also a point of reference for an entire area of militant, “radical” and absolutist Islamism. Thanks to the United Nations, of course.

 A significant point of Russia’s new penetration in Libya, also in view of opposing the Turkish one, is the new role of Aguilah Saleh, the man from Tobruk, who explicitly spoke about the Russian support for an attack on Tripoli, while Abu Dhabi, another non-secondary player in today’s Libya, still supports General Haftar in declaring the old agreement brokered and mediated by Ghassam Salamé null and void.

 Another possibility in the connection between Russia and Turkey in Syria could be to trigger an “Astana-style” negotiating process for Libya capable of excluding any other external player in Libya, but with bilateral negotiations sufficiently effective to avoid the escalation of tension between Turkey and Moscow, as in Syria, and also capable of excluding any other external point of reference for the Libyan forces currently present in the field, except for Turkey and Russia.

Furthermore, after the many recent discoveries of oil fields and gas deposits throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, instead of strengthening regional cooperation, this has led to the creation of two opposing political-energy-military poles: on the one hand, the Greek-Greek Cypriot-Israeli axis, with Egypt and, on the other, Turkey alone.

 For the first axis of allies, the external point of reference, at least for the time being, is France alone.

 For Turkey, again for the time being, the “stone guest” could even be Russia.

Obviously it also depends on the Turkish-Russian agreements pending in Libya.

The United States, now outside Syria, has no credible positions in the Eastern Mediterranean, except for those on the Italian territory, while Russia has Syria on its hands and can operate in Eastern Mediterranean very easily.

 Cyprus signed an agreement on its territorial waters with Egypt in 2003 and later with the Lebanon in 2007 – agreements immediately challenged by Turkey at the United Nations.

 Another important issue is that Turkey was initially interested in the Arab Gas Pipeline project, which would have brought the Egyptian gas, extracted by ENI, from Zohr with ramifications in Jordan, the Lebanon and Syria, also with additional submarine sectors and a diversion to Israel and then to the EU -a project that would have connected Turkish gas to its potential EU customers.

In the 2010s, however, explorations and discoveries increased rapidly, leading to a rapid saturation of domestic consumption and, therefore, to a political possibility of selling surpluses abroad, which created a climate of strong rivalry between the Eastern Mediterranean countries.

 Another factor of change was also the reckless policy of the “Arab Springs”, which destabilized -although without any result except for the jihad – precisely those Arab countries that could rebuild energy collaboration.

 It was precisely Turkey which immediately supported the uprising of the Muslim Brothers, also at the origin of Erdogan’s AKP party, both in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as in Jordan.

At the end of the “Arab Springs” circus, there were only two concrete options for regional energy cooperation: the link between Turkey and Israel and the 2014 negotiations in Cyprus.

 Indeed, Cyprus could have exported its gas directly to the EU with a pipeline via Greece and Turkey, to which also the Israeli gas could have been connected.

 The potential agreement ended in 2017 even before it could start.

However, where was the Israeli gas going? The most rational option was that of a pipeline via the Lebanon and Syria to Turkey – a line which, however, was not politically acceptable to the parties.

The other option was to pass through the Cypriot territorial waters, a route that would inevitably cross the Turkish Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). But this was certainly not liked by Israel, which would find itself entangled in the eternal issues and disputes between the two Cypriot areas.

 It was at that point that the Aphrodite gas area was discovered in December 2011.

 A concrete way of linking Cyprus to Israel.

At that juncture, Greece developed a new line, namely EastMed, which passed through the Greek part of Crete and the Greek metropolitan territory, thus completely excluding Turkey.

In January 2019 the East Mediterranean Gas Forum saw the participation of Italy – which, however, is now playing what jurists call the “part of the defendant”, or even the part of the fool -as well as the participation of Cyprus, Israel, Greece, Egypt, Jordan and of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).

 Obviously, these operations have been seen by Turkey as eminently anti-Turkish ones.

 Therefore, the AKP regime implemented the “Blue Homeland Strategy”, previously developed by the Turkish Navy, aimed at defending – always and in any case -Turkish interests on the open sea. As if they were the territory of the motherland.

 Secondly – and here we go back to Libya – Turkey signed an agreement with al-Sarraj’s Libyan government on November 27, 2019.

 The agreement, which redefines Turkey’s entire maritime border line to the west, is primarily intended to stop the development of the EastMed natural gas line.

It also blocks Greek claims to Greek sovereignty over some of its islands, which supports not only Turkish claims, but also Libyan claims to the continental submarine base of their maritime areas.

 Moreover, the Turkish and Libyan expansion and extension towards Kastellorizo and the Greek sea also support the rights defined by Egypt’s continental shelf towards Greece and Cyprus, with the criterion – always supported by Turkey -that, in principle, the islands of a “closed sea” such as the Mediterranean have no territorial waters defined – as always happens in other areas – by the purely geographical criterion of the “middle line”.

Only after the Libyan-Tripoline acceptance of the maritime demarcation line proposed by Turkey precisely towards Tripoli, did the Turkish Parliament approve the deployment of armed forces in al-Sarraj’s GNA territory in Tripoli.

Hence the creation of the interdependence between the Libyan issue and the equilibria not only in the Maghreb region, but throughout the Middle East.

 Greece immediately expelled the GNA Libyan ambassador and then urged Khalifa Haftar to “teach a lesson” to Tripoli. On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates, formerly supporting EastMed and hence interested in stopping the Turkish presence throughout the Middle East, moved in correlation with Greece and Israel.

It should be noted that the Turkish-Libyan line of their new EEZs passes just below the Greek area of Crete.

 But there are other additional sub-conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean: the overlapping of Lebanese submarine deposits with the Israeli ones, for example, while Israel and Cyprus still have disputes over the borders of the Aphrodite field, which still borders on the Israeli gas area of Yishai, but with individual countries’ further disputes also with respect to extraction companies.

 Erdogan, however, operates on a large scale, especially where he can afford to support his operations in the Middle East, i.e. in the Maghreb region.

Precisely on December 25, 2019, Turkey sent a high-level mission to Tunisia, with a view to supporting economic aid entailing the use of the island of Djerba for the passage of material and soldiers to Tripoli. Nevertheless, as in the agreements of January 8, 2020, a possible agreement is expected also with Russia, for a shift of the Russian operations in Libya from Haftar’s forces aloneto the Wagner group’s paramilitaries.

Furthermore, Turkey has so far sent at least 2,500 militants of the “Isis”, i.e. the so-called Islamic jihadist Caliphate, via Tunisia (and hence Djerba) to Libya, and probably also the Somali “section” of the Isis could soon move towards Tripolitania, again via the Turkish intelligence.

 They are supposed to be 3,800 Somalis trained by Qatar, already deployed in Turkey to be later transferred to Libya-Tripoli as soon as possible.

 A pleasant result for the Tripoli Libyan side, the only one “recognized” by the UN foolish officials.

On that occasion Putin also supported a ceasefire. It is obvious that Russia’s interest in Libya is much weaker than the one in Syria and the Russian Federation does not want to create the opportunity for a series of Turkish energy operations that would stop the passage of Russian gas to the EU.

On the other hand, Tripoli’s GNA is supported by Turkey only, while General Haftar’s “front”- which, indeed, has shown it cannot certainly reunify Libya – is still the point of reference for Egypt, Russia, France, but also for the United Arab Emirates, as well as for other non-State Arab actors and, always behind the scenes, Saudi Arabia.

Currently only Qatar is with Turkey, which the Italians keep on praising and incensing – following a sort of beggar-style attitude – for its possible investment in Italy, without imagining that this money has a strong energy and strategic equivalent consideration and counterpart.

It should be recalled, however, that Italian Prime Minister Conte did not sign the anti-Turkish declaration of Cairo – the eternal heir of the anthropological September 8 of our republican governments, inimico a Dio e alli inimici sua.(enemy to God and to his enemies).However, he discussed with Erdogan – although we do not know what-in Ankara on January 13, 2020, while on January 21 Italy denied having negotiated with Turkey for the joint exploitation of Libyan oil resources, but also asked Turkey–as in a Walt Disney movie – to “start negotiations with all the parties involved, especially for the new exclusive economic zones”.

A careful re-reading of Machiavelli’s main book is urgently needed.

 But the military agreements between Turkey and al-Sarraj’s regime, which were officially reached on July 4, 2020, explicitly state that al-Sarraj’s GNA is the only “guarantor” of Turkish interests throughout Libya.

 Furthermore, the Tripoli government has officially allowed Turkey to establish its own military bases – not necessarily in cooperation with Tripoli’s forces – only on the GNA territory.

 A legal advantage of Turkey over the local population, as well as a strong privilege for Turkey and finallythe definition of diplomatic immunity for the jihadists coming from abroad and for all arms transfers from Turkey or from “friendly” areas – an authorization that extends to arms and ammunition also internationally prohibited by UN agreements.

As far as we know, on a strictly economic level, Turkey is thinking about a compensation to Tripoli for lost machinery and destroyed infrastructure, as well as 1.2 billion U.S. dollars for writing off the debt of Tripoli’s GNA and finally about a letter of credit for additional 1 billion dollars for future purchases.

 Al-Sarraj’s government is also discussing whether, and especially how, to deposit at least 4 billion U.S: dollars in some Turkish banks.

Who pays the Turkish support to al-Sarraj? To a large extent, obviously the support comes directly from Tripoli, but it is likely that Turkey finances itself, but above all receives sound support from Qatar.

 Qatar has already paid many politicians in Tripoli and some anti-Haftar jihadist groups, but it has also paid for all the current military equipment in Tripoli, which is always sent only via Turkey.

Since January 2020, however, Turkey has “exported” at least 15,000 Syrian mercenaries, including child soldiers, to Tripolitania with other jihadist soldiers from Yemen.

 The GNA has also abolished its autonomous right to check, even formally, Turkish ships and aircraft. It also allows Turkey to set up bases that are even outside the Tripoli GNA’s formal jurisdiction.

In short, Tripoline Libya has gone back to being a wilayet, a peripheral part of the Ottoman Empire, but this time under the orders of Turkey alone.

On the other hand, for France alone, at least formally, the support to General Haftar was justified by the will of the man from Benghazi to “eliminate the jihadist groups” that even France had supported during the war against Gaddafi’s (legitimate) forces.

Meanwhile two Turkish sources inform us that the large air base of Al-Watiyah will be rebuilt and enlarged, with only the Turkish forces present, while the port of Misrata – in the areas of which there is still the large field hospital of the Italian armed forces, forgotten as usual – will host a vast Turkish naval base. Furthermore the entire port, including its purely commercial parts, will be granted to the Turkish government for 99 years.

 But Turkey talks also with Malta.

It should be recalled that Malta had withdrawn from the EU operation called “IRINI” as early as last May. It was a sign particularly appreciated by Turkey, which sees the EU operation – albeit useless – as a clearly opposing action.

 Italian Defence Minister Guerini, too, paid a visit to Tripoli.

For Italy, the topics to be dealt with were mine clearance, negotiations on territories, health in Libya and finally the planned return of Italian companies to Tripolitania, as well as the reactivation of oil production, which General Haftar officially reopened four days ago.

We lacked only “Nutella” and the little trains of the old, glorious Rivarossi company!

Furthermore, Minister Guerini made places available for training the cadets of Tripoli’s Armed Forces that will anyway be at Turkey’s orders, as well as medical support for the GNA forces. Finally he also offered to move the Italian hospital in Misrata to “another more suitable location”, in case it should cause trouble to the port in Turkish hands.

Last thing we need is an Italian-Libyan film festival and a cooking course for the entire Tripoli government.

Turkey, however, has officially requested that Italy leaves Misrata airport completely.

Already done, of course.

Turkey also wants the full inclusion of Algeria, Qatar and Tunisia in the Libyan peace process – a move that would have been obvious for Italy but, as you know, you need a brain to think.

 Meanwhile, probably for broadening his international support base after the leonine agreements with Turkey, al-Sarraj is even proposing elections throughout Libya by the end of March and announcing the ceasefire, certainly to cover up Turkish rearmament, with the request that all “foreign militias” (including Turkey’s?) should leave Libya before the elections.

 Negotiations with the United States in Morocco and Tunisia are well advanced, but this is doubtful considering that the militias of Misrata and Zintan are totally against the agreement, brokered and mediated by Aguila Saleh who, craftily, has not “his own weapons”.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran want to be friends again

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Eventually the ice-cold relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia began to melt. The two countries sat at the negotiating table shortly after Biden came to power. The results of that discussion are finally being seen. Trade relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have already begun to move. Although there has been no diplomatic relationship between the two countries since 2016, trade relations have been tense. But trade between Iran and the two countries was zero from last fiscal year until March 20 this year. Iran recently released a report on trade with neighboring countries over the past six months. The report also mentions the name of Saudi Arabia. This means that the rivalry between the two countries is slowly normalizing.

Historically, Shia-dominated Iran was opposed to the Ottoman Empire. The Safavids of Persia have been at war with the Ottomans for a long time, However, after the fall of the Ottomans, when the Middle East was divided like monkey bread, the newly created Saudi Arabia did not have much of a problem with Iran. Business trade between the two countries was normal. This is because the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran at the time were Western-backed. That is why there was not much of a problem between them. But when a revolution was organized in Iran in 1979 and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established by overthrowing the Shah, Iran’s relations with the West as well as with Saudi Arabia deteriorated. During the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the ouster of Western-backed rulers from the Middle East. After this announcement, naturally the Arab rulers went against Iran.

Saddam Hussein later invaded Iran with US support and Saudi financial support. After that, as long as Khomeini was alive, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran were bad. After Khomeini’s death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatemi tried to mend fences again. But they didn’t get much of an advantage.

When the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s influence in Shiite-majority Iraq continued to grow. Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran’s influence in the region has grown. Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a series of shadow wars to reduce its influence. It can be said that Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in the Cold War just like the United States and the Soviet Union. Behind that war was a conflict of religious ideology and political interests. Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a complete standstill in 2016. Iranians attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran after executing Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimar al-Nimar.  Since then, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations.

Finally, in April this year, representatives of the two countries met behind closed doors in Baghdad. And through this, the two countries started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations again. The last direct meeting between the two countries was held on September 21.

Now why are these two countries interested in normalizing relations? At one point, Mohammed bin Salman said they had no chance of negotiating with Iran. And Khomeini, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, called Mohammed bin Salman the new Hitler. But there is no such thing as a permanent enemy ally in politics or foreign policy. That is why it has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran back to the negotiating table. Prince Salman once refused to negotiate with Iran, but now he says Iran is our neighbor, we all want good and special relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has realized that its Western allies are short-lived. But Iran is their permanent neighbor. They have to live with Iran. The United States will not return to fight against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia. That is why it is logical for Iran and Saudi Arabia to have their ideological differences and different interests at the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia has been at the negotiating table with Iran for a number of reasons. The first reason is that Saudi Arabia wants to reduce its oil dependence. Prince Salman has announced Vision 2030. In order to implement Vision 2030 and get out of the oil dependent economy, we need to have good relations with our neighbors. It is not possible to achieve such goals without regional stability, He said.

Saudi Arabia also wants to emerge from the ongoing shadow war with Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon to achieve regional stability. The war in Yemen in particular is now a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are unable to get out of this war, nor are they able to achieve the desired goal. Saudi Arabia must normalize relations with Iran if it is to emerge from the war in Yemen. Without a mutual understanding with Iran, Yemen will not be able to end the war. That is why Saudi Arabia wants to end the war through a peace deal with the Houthis by improving relations with Iran.

Drone strikes could also have an impact on the Saudi Aramco oil field to bring Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. Because after the drone attack, the oil supply was cut in half. The Saudis do not want Aramco to be attacked again. Also, since the Biden administration has no eye on the Middle East, it would be wise to improve relations with Iran in its own interests.

Iran will benefit the most if relations with Saudi Arabia improve. Their economy has been shaken by long-standing US sanctions on Iran. As Saudi Arabia is the largest and most powerful country in the Middle East, Iran has the potential to benefit politically as well as economically if relations with them are normal.

While Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Iran, its allies will also improve relations with Iran. As a result, Iran’s political and trade relations with all the countries of the Saudi alliance will be better. This will give them a chance to turn their economy around again. The development of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia will also send a positive message to the Biden administration. It could lead to a renewed nuclear deal and lift sanctions on Iran.

Another reason is that when Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Iran, it will receive formal recognition of Iran’s power in the Middle East. The message will be conveyed that it is not possible to turn the stick in the Middle East by bypassing Iran. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran need to be normalized for peace and stability in the Middle East.

But in this case, the United Arab Emirates and Israel may be an obstacle. The closeness that Saudi Arabia had with the UAE will no longer exist. The UAE now relies much more on Israel. There will also be some conflict of interest between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Prince Salman wants to turn Saudi into a full-fledged tourism and business hub that could pose a major threat to the UAE’s economy and make the two countries compete.

Furthermore, in order to sell arms to the Middle East, Iran must show something special. Why would Middle Eastern countries buy weapons if the Iranian offensive was stopped? During the Cold War, arms dealers forced NATO allies to buy large quantities of weapons out of fear of the Soviet Union. So it is in the Middle East. But if the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is normal, it will be positive for the Muslim world, but it will lead to a recession in the arms market.

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Middle East

Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Middle East

Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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