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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

From ‘Decisive Storm’ to Secret Talks: The Journey of Saudi Conquest of Yemen

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In the last days of the spring of 2015, Saudi generals were sitting around a V-shaped table in front of a newly appointed defense minister, dwelling on the answer to the rise of Houthi rebels in Yemen which had critically threatened the security of the southern border. For decades, Saudi Arabia has been known for its wise and cagey foreign policy, often following the lead of Washington, in any regional or global military conflict but this time was different.

When the 29-year-old defense minister, Muhammad bin Salman, ordered, “Send in the F-15s,” it shocked all of them. Despite having spent only eight months heading the armies of the kingdom, he was about to shape an aggressive or rather reckless foreign policy of one of the most resourceful and conservative countries in the world.

The Unresolved Conflict

After six years of war in Yemen, 233,000 lives have been ravaged of which more than 3,000 were children, 3.3 million have been displaced from their homes, 24 million Yemenis are in dire need of humanitarian support, while 16.2 million Yemenis are on the verge of food insecurity. Now, Saudi Arabia is finally looking for a way out.

“We want the guns to fall completely silent,” remarked Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, in March, laying out the Yemen Peace Initiative. The Houthis rejected the plan as it imparted “nothing new” according to them. “We expected that Saudi Arabia would announce an end to the blockade,” stated the Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohammad Abdulsalam, to Reuters.

Riyadh had severed diplomatic ties with Tehran in January 2016 after the Saudi embassy was stormed by the protestors angry at the execution of Sheikh Nimr, a top Shia cleric from Saudi Arabia’s eastern province—a region known for being marginalized on the sectarian basis.

Saudi Arabia and Iran held the first official talks, brokered by the Iraqi government, in Baghdad on 9th April. The Baghdad talks canvassed the Yemen conflict as well as the political and economical instability of Lebanon to evaluate whether both countries can reach a common understanding of the situation.

The Zaidiyyah Imamate

Coming to the Yemen conflict, the rugged Yemeni mountains known for their finest coffee growing regions have a thousand-year-long history of the rule of Zaidiyyah imamate carved on them.

The Zaydism Shia sect is rooted in the unsuccessful rebellion of Zayd bin Ali, the grandson of Husayn bin Ali – the direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – against the Umayyad Caliphate in 740AD. Zaidiyyah’s theology differs from Iran’s Twelver Shiism and Ismaili branches in being far more tolerant towards early Islamic caliphs and in set qualifications for an imam to be a ruler.

The Creation of the Yemen Arab Republic

The imamate resisted the Romans and Ottomans to some extent for centuries but a revolution was brewing and the imams provided the catalyst themselves. Amid 1930’s modernism, Yemeni Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din stepped up from his conservative policy of not allowing foreign travel and authorized around forty boys to study abroad. He envisioned them as his “Famous Forty”—leaders of politics, military, and administration.

Until 1959, several hundred boys had gone through advanced studies from Iraq, Egypt, and Europe but they had envisioned something else. They laid the foundation of a progressive republican movement marked with several attempted coups and the assassination of Imam Yahya (1948) till 1962 when the last imam, al-Badr, was deposed by the revolutionary movement. This led to the emergence of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) with Abdullah Sallal as its leader and after that, Yemen was never the same.

Tracing the Root of the Saudi-Yemen Conflict

Al Saud had troubling relations with the imamate since Saudi Arabia had emerged as a kingdom in 1932. “Who is this Bedouin coming to challenge my family’s 900-year rule?” stated Imam Yahya once, which erupted the 1934 war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and ended up in the Treaty of Taif. The treaty demarcated the border and granted Jizan, Asir, and Najran to Saudi Arabia after the kingdom’s victory.

The Saudis then cultivated alliances within the bordering Yemeni tribes to erect a makeshift buffer zone during the 1960s civil war in Zaydi Imamate. Al Saud sided with Yemeni loyalists when the republican government tossed away the Treaty of Taif in 1962 and Egypt lined up 70,000 troops to assist the republic against Imam Badr’s guerrilla opposition.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, North and South Yemen struggled for coexistence and peace with continuous border clashes, including a bloody civil war in the South, which John Kifner aptly referred to as MassacrewithTea, that cost thousands of souls. Eventually, after 20 years of political and military turmoil, South Yemen’s Ali Salim al-Baidh joined with the North’s Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign the unification agreement of the two states on November 30, 1989.

Yet, while Ali Abdullah Salih was being declared as the president of a unified Yemen and the country was facing an economic collapse, something worse was brewing in the heights of northern Yemen.

The Houthis and the Saudi Construct

Feeling his unique sect threatened by the Saudi-funded proselytization through Salafist preachers, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, a Zaydi scholar from Maran range established a seemingly political and revivalist movement, Ansar Allah (Supporters of God)to preserve the Zaidiyyah sect, followed by 40% of the Yemeni population, which turned into an aggressive armed insurgency in no time.

The point is that the current regional discord has centuries-old bad blood embedded in its roots. The Houthi movement, their substantial public support, and their military successes must be deconstructed from the local perspective, along with the regional one, to reach a better understanding of the conflict.

The Saudi-led coalition has been portraying Houthis just as an Iranian proxy, which is far from reality. In their annual policy paper, the Middle East Institute of Washington D.C stated that the current civil war of Yemen is entrenched in widespread public resentment over political marginalization, a paralyzed economy, and a corrupt and failed state.

Where Saudi Arabia’s policy of sectarian expansionism across the borderlands made the descendants of Zaidiyah Imamate, ousted from a centuries-long rule, feel more vulnerable, discrimination for Shia sects by Abdullah Saleh’s regime and corrupt practices tossed Yemen into a cycle of political upheaval and violence—all of which had nothing to with Iran.

The Houthis took arms against the Yemeni government six times from 2004-2010, a chapter remembered as the Saada Wars, long before Tehran came into the picture.

Civil War in Yemen

In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Houthi leader, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, called countrywide demonstrations to end Saleh’s 33-year rule but after Saleh resigned and declared his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the head of state in exchange of immunity, hopes rose for peace. However, Hadi, shockingly, stepped down in January 2015 and fled the country after the National Dialogue Conference failed to agree on the division of Yemen in the UN-backed transitional process and the Houthis stormed the Presidential Palace.

After the Houthis took over Sanaa in February 2015, Jamal Benomar, the UN special envoy for Yemen, went straight to Riyadh, which highlights Saudis’ concerns over the matter. On March 26, 2015, the Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm, with Saudi jets targeting the military compounds around the capital overnight.

The tactical inabilities of the coalition air force manifested to reality when three days later, Saudi warplanes accidentally bombed a refugee camp killing at least 40 and injuring 200. It was the beginning of one of the most horrible bombing campaigns, a disaster from a civilian and military perspective.

As civilian casualties mounted, the United States, concerned by the human cost of the conflict, urged Saudi Arabia to reach a negotiating position as soon as possible. Riyadh ended Operation Decisive Storm on 21 April, claiming the achievements, and rolled out Operation Renewal of Hope. But the truth was, the Saudis failed to deliver a considerable blow to the Houthis’ hold of the capital.

In May and June, the first reports came of mortar and Scud missile attacks by Houthis across the Saudi border. The Houthis proved tenacious and provoked Riyadh for a ground invasion, which worked out disastrously for the Saudi-led coalition. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Sudan, and others had deployed hundreds of ground troops by the end of the year.

Although they spawned some temporary gains in forcing the Houthis out of key southern provinces, like the vital Aden seaport in July, Zinjibar, and Al-And Airbase in August, the Houthis also inflicted heavy casualties to the coalition. In just one Houthi missile attack on a weapon depot in Marib in September 2015, 45 Emirati and Five Bahraini troops were killed.

The Kuwait Talks: A Failed Attempt at Resolving the Conflict

After a year into the war with no end in sight, reports came in March 2016 of the first Houthi delegation’s visit to Saudi Arabia, led by Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the Houthis’ senior advisor and spokesperson.

Two weeks later, the UN envoy for Yemen, Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed, stated that talks will circumvent the withdrawal and disarmament of militias and inclusive political dialogue. Kuwait’s emir and legendary peacemaker, late Sheikh Sabah, mediated talks between the delegations of the Houthis, Abdullah Saleh, and ousted president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who had returned to coalition controlled Aden in September 2015. Riyadh kept its distance from the Kuwait talks held in April  2016.

“Saudi Arabia seeks through the Kuwait talks to exonerate itself from its aggression against Yemen and to portray said aggression as a civil Yemeni war,” accused Yahya Saleh, a former general and Saleh’s nephew, after the Kuwait talks struck a stalemate over Houthis demanding a new consensual transitional regime while Hadi’s delegation insisted on a return to the current government, an out and out surrender for Houthis.

The peace talks were formally suspended in August 2016 when Houthis announced a new ten-member governing body to replace the interim Supreme Revolutionary Council, which had run the country since February 2015. The unilateral move was immediately denounced by Saudi Arabia and the United Nations. “Houthis, as well as their supporters, are making the search for a peaceful solution more difficult,” declared the statement issued by the group of G18 ambassadors of nations that backed the UN peace talks while tens of thousands of Houthi supporters rallied through Saana to show their support for the Houthis.

In all of this, a frangible ceasefire was held throughout the year with occasional skirmishes. In October 2016, a coalition double airstrike cremated a crowded funeral hall, killing around 140 mourners, adding to the domestic and international pressure on the US to review the billion dollars arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition.

Previously, The Guardian had concluded that each one in three Saudi strikes hit civilian targets but the coalition kept sweeping all of this under the rug. The Houthis also left no stone unturned to kill any hopes of negotiations when in March 2017, a Pro-Houthi court sentenced President Hadi and six other top officials to death in absentia for high treason. This was followed by the Burkan missile attack on Mecca in July 2017, although the Houthis claimed that it was aimed at the King Fahad airbase.

The United States’ Endless Support of Saudi Arabia

In August 2017, the Middle East Eye reported an email leak between UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, and a former high-level US diplomat, Martin Indyk, which revealed that the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Muhammad bin Salman, wanted out of Yemen but Riyadh could not withdraw without ensuring the cross-border security.

On the other hand, in a striking development, the Houthi-Saleh split went real in December 2017 amid Saleh’s attempt to switch sides with the coalition and turned up in Houthis killing the former president of Yemen, who had been the sole ruler for more than three decades.

As 2018 unfolded, the international criticism for Saudi intervention and Washington’s role in the Yemeni chapter of war crimes plummeted. Houthis were no angels either as a UNHCR report published in Aug ‘18 noted coalition hitting civilian targets, it also documented blanket use of force on the civilian population in Houthi controlled areas.

“The group of experts is concerned by the alleged use by the Houthi­-Saleh forces of weapons with wide-area effect in a situation of urban warfare.” stated the report. It also stated that the Houthis were hitting women and children through shelling and snipers in their homes, fetching water at local wells, or traveling to seek medical attention.

On August 18, another coalition strike annihilated 40 boys, aged from six to eleven, in their school bus. As Bellingcat traced back the Mk-82 bomb, approved by the US Department of State, used in the attack to Lockheed Martin, it added to the criticism of the US’s unconditional support to the Saudi regime.

In June 2018, the Yemeni National Army backed by a Saudi-led alliance had launched an offensive to recapture the northwestern port city of Hodeidah, a significant economic hub and fourth-largest city. After six months of intense fighting, both parties agreed to a truce, total withdrawal from Hodeidah, and a “mutual understanding” in Taiz.

Blaming Iran

In January 2019, the Council of Foreign Relations and the Italian Institute of International Political Studies had listed Yemen in the Top Conflict Watch of the year. As Houthis scaled up their military capabilities, shooting down US MQ-9 reaper drone with Iranian assistance—according to CENTCOM—reports came of UAE pulling out from Aden, amid intensified tensions between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf.

On September 14, 2019, at 3:31 to 3:42 am in morning, the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry and the world’s largest oil processing facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais Oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, were attacked by Houthi drones, shutting down half of the kingdom’s crude output.

Despite the Houthis’ taking credit for the attack and the UN’s claims regarding the Houthis acquiring long-range drones (1200-1500km) capable of hitting Riyadh, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, the United States and Saudi Arabia asserted that the attack hadn’t stemmed from Yemen. Instead, Iran was directly behind the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” tweeted the US Secretary of State at that time, Mike Pompeo.

Tehran immediately refuted all such accusations. Despite this continuous rhetoric, US President Donald Trump’s statements had hinted that Washington would avoid any additional escalation with Iran which would have doomed global energy supplies further down the hill while markets hadn’t recovered from the previous attacks on Saudi facilities.

The Saudi-Emirati Rivalry in Yemen

On the other hand in a dramatic twist, the civil war turned multi-layered when the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) separatists seized Aden’s control from coalition-supported government forces. Few days after a joint statement was released from both Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers urging for peace talks between the Yemeni government and southern separatists, the UAE struck Hadi’s forces to aid southern separatists, killing 30 Yemeni troops as per Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

In November 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia successfully struck the Riyadh agreement, between the southern separatists and the Yemeni government, which entailed power-sharing in cabinet and the military withdrawal of all forces from Aden, Abyan, and Shabwah. The landmark deal granted the absolute authority of southern Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Later in the same month, Reuters reported indirect talks in Oman between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.

In January 2020, the Houthis claimed to seize 1,500 square miles of territory in Al-Jawf and the Marib governorate, and in March, they successfully captured the strategic city of Al Hazm. “Control of the capital of Al-Jawf could totally change the course of the war. The Houthis are changing the balance in their favor,” Majed al-Madhaji, executive director of Sanaa Centre, deciphered the situation to AFP. 

Bethan McKernan, The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent reported the same that Saudi-Emirati tussle had been dragging the conflict as Riyadh was already back channeling with Houthis through Oman while the UAE was pressing the attacks to keep the Saudi-backed Islah faction in check.

The One-sided Agreement

In April 2020, in light of the proposal sent by UN Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, the coalition announced a unilateral ceasefire amid the globally surging COVID-19 pandemic, although the coalition forces kept violating the ceasefire with at least 106 airstrikes in just a week.

The Houthis had already called it a “ploy”, demanding the lifting of air and naval blockade of Yemen which had been depriving the population of food and medicines. It seemed like the international pressure on the coalition, and the financial strain on Al Saud was dealing with, had not gone unnoticed by those controlling most of northern Yemen.

The Houthis had released their own proposal which Elana DeLozier from the Washington Institute narrated as a “wish list”, as it had thrown all the responsibility of ceasefire on the coalition with demands of demilitarization of borders and above all, war compensations and salaries in northern Yemen for a decade, but all were non-starters for Riyadh.

The Saudis kept extending the one-sided ceasefire but things only got worse. The STC separatists withdrew from the Riyadh agreement six months after signing, announcing the establishment of self-rule in southern Yemen. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government immediately denounced the declaration while the Houthis were claiming to “liberate” 95% of the Al-Jawf governorate; this left only the Marib province in the north under the control of Hadi’s forces.

The Houthis were keenly observing and seizing the fruits of coalition infighting. Separatists moved to redirect the revenues from ports, free zones, and an oil refinery to the STC accounts as reports surfaced of the Yemeni government attacking the separatists in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.

A week later, the STC president, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, landed in Riyadh to talk over the deadlock that persisted between supposedly anti-Houthi allies. The Yemeni government and STC separatists agreed to a ceasefire to begin peace talks in June 2020. In December 2020 while a freshly established cabinet of coalition-backed government arrived in Yemen after agreeing to equal power-sharing, two blasts shook Aden International Airport. With cabinet members remaining safe, 22—with most being aid workers—were killed in this fatal attack.

Coalition’s Failure in Yemen

“Incompetence, lack of unified leadership, and the absence of a military strategy by the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition played into the hands of the Houthis,” stated Nadwa Al-Dawsari from the Middle East Institute. Local tribes lacked the medium-range surface-to-air ballistic missiles and other advanced weaponry on which Houthis built their tactical achievements.

The Houthi combat units constituted 20, or even fewer men, and three trucks for higher mobility to counter the constant aerial surveillance by coalition UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and the US satellites. According to Jamestown Foundation, disregard for meritocracy and skills, the weary chain of commands, and persisting corruption in Yemeni government forces due to Saudi black-cheque strategy laid the ground for coalition failures. While perpetual imprecise bombings cost thousands of civilian lives and the worst humanitarian crisis due to the air and naval blockade, the public resentment against the coalition fueled.

In the aftermath of King Abdullah’s death in January 2015, his brother Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended to rule but being 79 with speculations of dementia and Parkinson’s enabled his most ambitious son, Muhammad bin Salman, to rise as a de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Reportedly he is named “little general” behind his back due to his craving for respect from Washington and turning down his advisers who predicted a catastrophic outcome from an all-out Yemeni offensive, including former foreign minister Saud al-Faisal. Saudi military failure in Yemen hatched from a “panicked reaction of an inexperienced prince with too much to prove” rather than from his desire to check Iranian influence and rescue Yemen, wrote Sophia Dingli, a lecturer in international relations from the University of Hull.

Besides all this, Washington has also altered its course with Joe Biden in the Oval Office. “The war in Yemen must end,” stated President Biden in his first significant foreign policy speech. A week later, the state department repealed the Houthis’ status of Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organization(SDGT) and Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) enacted a day before Donald Trump left the Oval Office.

Saltana Begum, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) advocacy manager in Yemen, voiced that at that time “We had famine warnings where 16 million people – that’s one in two Yemenis – were close to starvation.”

Setting Terms for Peace

In June this year, the Saudi-led coalition even ceased the air raids temporarily for “preparing the political ground for a peace process in Yemen,” remarked the coalition spokesperson Turki al-Malki. The gesture came as efforts ramped up for a political settlement. The US Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking had visited Riyadh in the same month where he met several government officials along with UN Envoy Martin Griffiths.

Saudi and Houthi camps have been reportedly close to a ceasefire deal. The Houthis want the end of the blockade “without impossible conditions” before a “comprehensive ceasefire”, stated Houthi’s chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam. As promising as it all might seem, and although Oman has been an excellent mediator with its impartial and carefully measured foreign policy, there are still a lot of bridges to cross and compromises to be made from both sides for a mutually beneficial post-war arrangement.

The Saudis would not just demand guarantees on border security from Oman and Iran but also a check to Iranian influence and even that won’t cater to the grievances of anti-Houthi factions battling alongside coalition forces. So, the peace process has to be inclusive for sustainable accords.

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Turkey’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Artsakh

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The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently hosted a conference on international religious freedom and peace with the blessings of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founding president of the Walk of Truth, was one of the invited guests. She spoke about genocide and her own experience in Cyprus, warning of Turkey’s religious freedom violations. Hadjitofi also called for joint legal actions against continued ethnic cleansing and destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and other places by the Turkish government and its regional allies including Azerbaijan.

During the two-day conference, access to places of worship in war and conflict zones, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, and preservation of cultural heritage were among the topics addressed by many distinguished speakers.  The conference paid particular attention to the situation of historic Armenian monasteries, churches, monuments, and archeological sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that have been under Azeri occupation since the 2020 violent war unleashed by Azerbaijan.

Hadjitofi presented about the situation of Cyprus, sharing her recent visit to the Cypriot city of Famagusta (Varoshia), making historic parallels between the de-Christianisation of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, and its allies such as Azerbaijan. See Hadjitofi’s full speech here.

Author of the book, The Icon Hunter, Hadjitofi spoke with passion about her recent visit to the ghost city of Famagusta, occupied by Turkey since 1974. Her visit coincided with the 47th anniversary of the occupation. She was accompanied by journalist Tim Neshintov of Spiegel and photographer Julien Busch as she made several attempts to visit her home and pray at her church of Timios Stavrou (Holy Cross).

Hadjitofi explained how her own human rights and religious freedoms, alongside the rights of tens of thousands of Cypriots, were violated when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan illegally entered her country and prayed at the newly erected mosque in her own occupied town whereas she was kneeling down in the street to pray to her icon in front of her violated Christian church. In comparison, her church was looted, mistreated and vandalized by the occupying forces.  

Hadjitofi reminded the audience of the historic facts concerning Turks discriminating against Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. They also massacred these communities or expelled them from the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey, a process of widespread persecution which culminated in the 1913-23 Christian genocide. Hadjitofi then linked those genocidal actions with what Erdogan is doing today to the Kurds in Syria, and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Turkey’s wealthy friends such as the government of Azerbaijan.  She also noted that during her recent visit to her hometown of Famagusta, a delegation from Azerbaijan referred to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus as “Turkish land” and a “part of Greater Turkey”. This is yet another sign of Turkish-Azeri historic revisionism, and their relentless efforts for the Turkification of non-Turkish geography.

Hadjitofi called for a series of legal actions against Turkey and its allies, reminding Armenians that although they signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), they have not ratified it. She noted that it must be the priority of Armenians if they want to seek justice. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, neither signed or ratified the Rome Statute.

During her speech Hadjitofi also emphasized the need for unity amongst all Christians and other faiths against any evil or criminal act of destroying places of worship or evidence of their historical existence anywhere in the world. 

In line with this call, the Republic of Armenia instituted proceedings against the Republic of Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

In its application, Armenia stated that “[f]or decades, Azerbaijan has subjected Armenians to racial discrimination” and that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture and other abuse”.

Hadjitofi said that “Armenia’s lawsuit against the government of Azerbaijan is a positive move in the right direction and more legal actions should be taken against governments that systematically violate human rights and cultural heritage. I’m also in the process of meeting members of the Armenian diaspora in Athens, London, and Nicosia to discuss further joint legal actions. But the most urgent action that Armenia should take is the ratification of Rome Statute of the ICC,” she added.

Other speakers at the conference included representatives of the main Christian denominations, renowned scholars and experts from around the globe, all of whom discussed issues related to international religious freedom and the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage.

Baroness Cox, a Member of the UK House of Lords and a prominent human rights advocate, was among the participants. She has actively defended the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through her parliamentary, charity and advocacy work.

Meanwhile, the organizing committee of the conference adopted a joint communiqué, saying, in part:

” We re-affirm the principles of the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international and regional human rights treaties. We claim this right, equally, for all people, of any faith or none, and regardless of nation, history or political circumstances – including for those Armenian prisoners of war still illegally held in captivity by Azerbaijan, for whose swift release and repatriation we appeal and pray, and for the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh whose rights to free and peaceful assembly and association necessarily implicate the sacred character of human life.”

On September 11, the delegates of the conference were received by the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, in his palace in Yerevan where they were thanked. The guests also visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial-Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), where Hadjitofi was interviewed on Armenian national TV. She said:

“I read about the Armenian Genocide and I am glad that more countries recognize it as such but I am disappointed that politicians do not condemn actions of Turkey and its allies in their anti Christian attitude towards Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh. I see an interconnection between the genocide and the adopted politics of Azerbaijan, when the ethnic cleansing takes place, when cultural heritage is destroyed, gradually the traces of the people once living there are eliminated and that is genocide”. 

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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