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The autonomous military groups in Libya

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With a view to currently understanding what is happening in the critical relationship between the Libyan military groups, we need – first and foremost – to look at the role played by the United Arab Emirates.

 In Yemen, for example, the UAEs, which are primary players in the whole Arab context of the post-“democratic revolutions”, i.e. the “colour revolutions” developed by a U.S. model born in the Balkans, have placed both the Special Forces of the Presidential Guard and the traditional support to the local anti-Houthi militias on the ground.

In Yemen, the UAEs operate from the Assab base. In 2016 they reconquered Mukhallah, another very important base, and they finally recovered Al Mokha.

In Libya, the Emirates’ strategy, which is still essential to understand what is happening there, was different: clear support to Khalifa Haftar, certainly, but also direct actions by the UAE forces in favour of the forces of Benghazi’s Libyan National Accord: in the year between April 2019 and 2020 alone, there were as many as 850 drone launches and air attacks with advanced aircrafts on GNA’s Tripolitania, probably with Emirates’ pilots.

As to air attacks alone, the UAEs leave from the baseof al-Khadim, 65 miles east of Benghazi, which they have restructured. It is from this base that also the supplies for Haftar came, sent from al-Sweihan, Abu Dhabi, as well as from Assab, Eritrea, the maritime base from which the Italian colonisation of the Horn of Africa – which would be currently very useful – left in the 19th century.

With specific reference to operations in Libya, the mediation between the Emirates and the local fighting tribes is often mediated on the spot by Egypt, with strong financial, technological and informational support, as already happened in the operations towards Tripoli carried out by Saudi Arabia in 2017.

Hence who are the UAEs supporting in Libya? The Salafists, who often have the primary aim of fighting against the Muslim Brotherhood; many of the former fighters of Saleh’s “National Resistance Forces”; the old Republican Guard or the “Giants Brigades”, a Salafist group.

It should be recalled that in 2013 they were delegated to the government of Misrata, the “martyr city” and the centre of many revolutionary “katibe“. The city government was the prerogative of Ansaral-Sharia, a group affiliated to al Qaeda and arisen within the February 17thMartyrs Brigade, about which we will talk later on.

Hence many factions and “revolutionary brigades”, as well as much real immobility and immutability of the Libyan picture, where no one can win over the other, due to katibe and factions in government. This can be seen as a “guarantee” for silly or lazy Westerners, who think of stabilizing Libya by simply leaving it to its now very evident role of failed state.

In their heart the Emirates would like to have an al-Sisi-style shift towards authoritarianism, but in Libya there are even the Sudanese forces that also support General Haftar and collaborate closely and directly with those of the Emirates. We have already discussed Turkey’s role in Tripolitania in other articles.

Let us see, however, how the still many militarized factions operating in Libya were born and why.

Obviously the fault for all this lies with those who foolishly preached the war “against the tyrant” thinking that the Libya nor Maghreb political culture should be that of downtown Boston or London clubs.

 Or of some ignorant French mythomaniacs who, in 1968, supported the pure Khmer Rouges criminals.

 A global strategy for unsatisfied ladies in salons and social gatherings, a foreign policy of Mormon preachers who have their Bible “stuck in their heads”, as Voltaire used to say.

  The West looks only at itself. It has an inward-looking attitude and can only think of its own silly categories. Therefore, it can no longer understand the others and hence it does not even understand itself.

The insurgency in Cyrenaica in 2011, organized mainly by French intelligence agents, was staged there because of the traditional marginalization of the East Libyan region during Gaddafi’s leadership and of the persistent ideological and organizational presence of the Senussian network, which has always had excellent relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups of the Salafist tradition.

The Senussian sect has an esoteric and sometimes heterodox tradition which, over the years, has come closer to the Wahabi radicalism and literalist sectarianism of some Saudi and Egyptian traditions of Islam. As a scholar of ancient wisdom, I can say that this is a case to be studied carefully.

Hence a mix of local elites from Cyrenaica, superficial foreign agents, but often of local origin, as well as defectors from Gaddafi’s apparata, quickly organised a National Transitional Council(NTC) with French ships a few miles from the coast and even closer French submarines, as well as the advanced weapons supplied to them by the French Intelligence Services.

The NTC did mainly foreign policy, especially in the United States and the E.U. and especially contra Italiam, since Sarkozy’s dream was to have ENI bought by Total, with related presidential bribe, but it did not take care of hierarchically organizing all the various “revolutionary” groups that arose like mushrooms. Westerners paid well, and the “stuff” – as Machiavelli called it – was there for the most violent one.

We could also glimpse – very clearly – a Western campaign of simple and rough defamation against the “tyrant” Gaddafi and of progressive military support, especially in terms of air protection, to favour the “rebels”, all turned into “democrats”, with the magic of the aforesaid dull Western propaganda.

 The Italians, forced by a series of subtle but very clear threats, were forced to participate in the anti-Gaddafi operation and, with this silly choice, they marked their progressive cancellation from the Mediterranean.

What about Mohammed bin Salman? Andal-Sisi? And the King of Jordan, a great and enlightened statesman? Are they “democratic” only because they are liked by the sloppy and superficial Westerners, who in the Middle East operate like the classic bull in a China shop? Was only Gaddafi the “villain” of this B western movie or were also the others there?

 So let us forget the propaganda nonsense often orchestrated – as is the case with France – by enfantsgâtés who were trained – as I said above – among Pol Pot worshippers. After 1968, a path from De Gaulle’s enemies to U.S. propaganda men. A linear path, but the 1968 protesters did not know it.

As is well-known, the so-called Islamic revolution in Libya, but supported by Westerners, ended in August 2011, when the “democratic” Salafists and the Islamic Brothers took Sirte and Bani Walid, the last areas under Gaddafi’s control.

Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA) has long had limited internal support, despite its being backed at international level with all the useless fanfares.

 No one will ever know the formula of the spell that has enabled Tripoli’s GNA to receive the so-called “international legitimacy”.

 The Presidential Council has been established in Tripoli since March 30, 2016. Led by Fayez al-Sarraj, former member of the Tobruk Parliament, where he represented Tripoli, it originated from a Libyan Political Agreement supported by the United Nations and signed on December 17, 2015, i.e. the Shkirat agreement, which was a pact between the two main factions to achieve a unitary national government between Tripoli’s GNA and Tobruk’s Parliament. Ninety Tobruk MPs signed the written agreements at the “Mohammed VI Centre” in the Moroccan city. Also the 27 Tripoli MPs signed it, but they had the “proxies to vote” of other 42 MPs living in the capital city who did not leave to vote. At the time the Presidential Committee was made up of 6 personalities, all designated by the United Nations. Later 3 other politicians were added, two representing Fezzan and one representing Cyrenaica. It was that Presidential Committee that drew up the list of Ministers of the unitary government. We know how it ended up. The legal-political fact is that the Tobruk Parliament accepted the 2015 agreement, but refused to sign Article 8 of the Shkirat text, which would force Tripoli’s government to control the autonomous forces of Cyrenaica.

 Furthermore, at the time, the Tobruk Parliament did not accept the names proposed for the future, but impossible Libyan national government. A great and definitive chaos.

However, who is Fayez al-Sarraj? He graduated in Architecture and Town Planning from the University of Tripoli in 1982. He had secondary, but not negligible roles in Gaddafi’s regime and then inevitably joined the “revolution”.

It should be recalled, however, that the Presidential Council was the real Libyan “Head of State”.

 But why did the Security Council vote unanimously the Political Agreement of December 2015? In fact, the aforementioned Shkirat agreement of 2015 was defined mainly to resolve the dispute between the regularly elected House of Representatives operating in Tobruk-Al Bayda, the General National Congress of Tripoli and the other centripetal forces that had already been formed. The latter won the fight against two weak governments depending on “others’ weapons”.

 The idea in the Shkirat pact was good in principle, but, without deciding who should be entrusted with “sovereignty”, disputes are bound to last forever.

 Tripoli’s Presidential Council, currently led by al-Serraj – when, as you may recall, the current leader of Tripolitania had to arrive by sea because he knew that, if he arrived at the airport of Mitiga, he would be killed- was born, however, to create a unitary government with all “Parliaments” in Libya, not to operate alone.

The funny result is that the United Nations and all the sheep-like and spineless EU member States keep on looking the other way pretending nothing happened and treating the GNA as the only “legitimate” government. Moving forward almost by inertia, we could say. A heritage of the negative Western experiences in Iraq – but the brain is made to be used and not to project one’s own petty bourgeois preconceived ideas onto the Arab world, which is much more complex than we might think.

 The United States has always fully supported the Government of National Accord (GNA), but Egypt, the Emirates, Russia and also, indirectly, China argue that a “national and unitary Libyan army” is particularly needed and therefore they support – first and foremost – KhalifaHaftar, especially in an  anti-Islamistic and anti-jihadist function.

Reverting to the official structures of the now inevitably fragmented Libya – just now, when we need it well united – there is also Khalifa Gwell’s government, based on the now remote authority of a General National Congress, which had its moment of glory during the 2012 Parliamentary elections.

The “Parliament of Tripoli”, which has nothing to do with al-Sarraj, largely moved to the High Council of State, a body chaired by the leader of Misrata, Abdul Rahaman Sweli. Later, however, the Tobruk Parliament began to support the government of Abdullah Al-Thinni operating directly from Al-Bayda.

 All the revolutionary groups participating in the easy insurgency against Gaddafi, the thuwar, as they are generically called in Libya, did not want – from the beginning – the continuity of the Armed Forces and the Libyan police. Quite the reverse, they strongly contested that assumption.

All of them had developed the vague concept of “revolutionary legitimacy” and it was precisely the first non-Gaddafi government, led by Abd Al Rahim al Kib (which lasted from November 2011 to November 2012) which actually appointed “guerrillas” from Zintan and Misrata, as well as Salafists and many jihadists, to Ministerial posts, at least to rebalance the distribution of presences in the “revolution” between Colonel’s old loyalists and new “Islamic revolutionaries”.

As was obvious, those jihadists and most of the thuwar, be they Salafists or not, did not accept at all the presence of the old men of Gaddafi’s regime in other areas of the Libyan government. In their opinion, their “revolutionary legitimacy” allowed them to have a right of control and expulsion – often “immediate” – for the old elements of Gaddafi’s “regime”.

 Another factor not to be neglected in the analysis of the Libyan structural crisis is the scarce conceptualization and official regulation of military power and security.

 Some roles in the Intelligence Services were abolished by the anti-Gaddafi revolution, based on the idea – we all know in Italy, but which remains silly anyway – that certain qualifications recalled sad moments (but only for them).

 Even the Defence Ministry was abolished and the new laws for the intelligence sector made the Services a semi-private function, so to speak.

 The laws adopted by the NTC and the National General Congress were always ambiguous and badly drafted, just like the Italian ones. Therefore any political players had the possibility of favouring their own military faction to the detriment of the others.

 Therefore, first and foremost, the lack of clear and unambiguous rules and the intentional ambiguity of security laws mainly favoured the so-called “revolutionary legitimacy” of the thuwar against the professionalism of  former Gaddafi’s supporters or even of the men that the West – always foolishly and carelessly – chose to lead the “new Libya”.

 The ultimate aim of the insurgency was the destruction of Gaddafi’s family, who reasoned by clans and tribes. That held true for all the thuwar, although they had nothing in common.

Hence all of them and their katibe could not seriously control the Libyan territory and the concept of State power and unitary control of the territory did not even exist. We could define it a “federalism of civil war”.

95% of the small katibe, the “battalions” of the thuwar, were composed of less than 1,000 elements – little more than extended families, like the mafia gangs in the South of Italy – and in the Libyan West they organized themselves mainly through “Military Councils”, while in Eastern Cyrenaica through rather loose coalitions of “fighting groups”.

 By Darwinian natural selection, two large reference organisations soon emerged for all the small katibe: the “17th February Coalition” and the “Coalition of Revolutionary Organisations”.

 The “17th February Coalition” soon divided into two other sections.

 The first one was called “Preventive Security Apparatus” and performed mainly counter-espionage and border control activities, also to counter the many elements still linked to Gaddafi.

 The second one was called the “Libya Shield Force” and was composed of small groups that had operated mainly in Brega and operated mainly in the oil-rich Tripolitania.

 In Misrata a brigade was formed, led by a defector of Gaddafi’s forces, Salim Joha, but made up of groups of trained civilians, with a size ranging from 1,000 men up to even 10-20 that, however, soon reached the size of as many as 236katibe.

Almost all of them were battalions specialised in one single task or function. Most of them enrolled – so to speak – in the “Misrata Union of Revolutionaries” or even in the “Misrata Military Council”.

  In November 2011, at its best, the Union had 40,000 militiamen.

 In the West, in the region generically defined as Tripolitania, there was a clear differentiation among the contact people of the countries that had carried out the (illegitimate) attack on Gaddafi – a differentiation that referred to military groups, policy lines and even areas of influence.

 In Zintan there were 6,000 “revolutionaries” divided into eight brigades, while in Nalut there were 5,000 divided into six brigades.

 The katibe of Jadu, Zawiya, Zuwara and the other small centres were mainly linked to the Border Guards, to the forces for controlling oil wells or even to those for Vital Installations.

Moreover, in Tripoli as many as 17 “revolutionary councils” were created, mainly fuelled by the 16,000 common criminals that Gaddafi had freed shortly before his fall. None of the groups was completely autonomous nor could control acceptable parts of territory. Many of them were involved in drug dealing with drugs stolen from the warehouses of the security apparata or operated in the “black market” and in the private protection sector.

There were also “revolutionary” groups that were created, but later, in the regions where Gaddafi’s power had lasted longer: in BaniWalid, Tarhouna and in the Warshafana area.

 Those groups were a mix of old Gaddafians, orphans of their leader but always and absolutely part of the same tribe, and also of new “revolutionaries” who imitated the exploits of the katibe operating in the major centres.

Most of those groups later returned to the ranks of the Oil Guards that paid better than others.

Nevertheless, Gaddafi was also to blame for that chaos. He had created a State security structure that did not report only and directly to the Chief of Staff, but to two different and clearly separate bodies: the “Temporary General Committee on Defence” (initially led by Abu Bakr YunisJabr) and the “Standing Committee on Defence”, led by various figures but, actually, by Gaddafi himself.

The safety net of Gaddafi’s regime was also very complex: there was the “32ndBrigade”, led by Khamis Gaddafi, as well as the Mohammed al Maqariaf, Sahban, Fadhil Abu Omar, Faris, Hamza, Suqur, Abu Minyar and finally the Maghawir brigades.

In Gaddafi’s organization of State security, also the other military forces were divided into two. Only the Eastern units immediately defected, while the others remained loyal to the Colonel.

 A part of the Saeqa battalion joined the “revolutionaries” of Eastern Cyrenaica to form the “Zawiya’s Martyrs Brigade” but, as the advance of jihadists and Westerners from the East proceeded, many officers – albeit fewer we may think – began to defect also in Tripolitania.

Nevertheless, many of the military units stationed in the South and in the West remained loyal to Gaddafi almost until the end.

 After the death of the Sirte Colonel, the units of the West and of the South met with the “revolutionary councils” in the regions where the regular Armed Forces were strong while the revolutionary katibe were weak. This happened mainly in Gharyan, Khums, Sabha, Surman and Tarhouna, the city where a former director of our “external” intelligence Services was born. A hybridization of the political-military forces that make us reflect and is very characteristic of the Libyan anti-Gaddafi insurgency.

Instability obviously grew, while the Westerners, who foolishly caused it, washed their hands of it, probably waiting for the Holy Spirit of some invariably rigged election.

 There was also the strengthening of some institutions which, however, were already very fragmented: the “Libya Shield Force”, the “Preventive Security Apparatus”, the “Lybyan National Guard”, a structure initially created by Khalid al Sharif, former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a network that was already born in the run-up to the 2011 insurgency.

Ubioccidentalia, ibijihadismus, and forgive me for the inevitable mistakes in Latin.

 There were even other organizations of Gaddafi State that absorbed elements of the katibe to stay in power and have some kind of operational base. To survive and do business or just to stay alive. The economic crisis caused by the fall of the regime in 2011 bit immediately.

 Oil accounted for 97% of Tripoli’s revenues at the time of the Colonel. The Libyan oil was processed and exported by ENI, French Total, German Wintershall, Russian Gazprom and Spanish Repsol. With many Italian managers inside them. Obviously Westerners were waiting for the capital of the Libyan Investment Authority to be mobilized – 67 billion in late 2012 – but the political issues arising from the factionalism of the katibe and governments were endless, as it was easy to predict. There were also the General Electricity Company of Libya (GECOL), the Libyan Iron and Steel Company (LISCO), the Economic and Social Development Fund (ESDF), the Office of Development or Administrative Complex (ODAC), the free port area of Misrata. Since Gaddafi’s time, an economy that, before the 2011 insurgency, had already been largely privatized but that the “revolutionaries” could not interpret and were not able to control.

Also the institutions fell into chaos, often applying Westernist models to a very different situation: for years the position of “Supreme Leader of the Armed Forces” remained not legally clear, but fluctuated within the GNC, as a result of power struggles, and was often harshly contested by the many “little bosses” of the katibe.

 Before the governments split into two, there was also the often immature conflict between the Defence and the Interior Ministries and the government itself which led, even in the midst of an uncertain and always personalistic management of oil transactions, to an administrative, social and political stalemate – which, in turn, led to an increase in mass poverty.

That added to the Baroque and elaborate structure of institutions, pursued almost exclusively to avoid command and responsibility: the above mentioned Supreme Defence Committee in Tripoli (where also the Salafist and jihadist influences were more evident than in other regions),also divided throughout Libya into 54 regional sectors, had as many as 16,000 guerrillas available only in the old Gaddafi’s capital.

As already recalled, again at the Libyan post-national level, there were 54 local sectors of the Supreme Defence Committee, as well as 23 anti-crime committees, 45 units supporting defence activities, the Ėlite Forces and the Special Deterrence Forces.

 It should also be noted that the Forces that had sought the support of the various factions of the Supreme Defence Committee -often succeeding in obtaining it – even included pro-Gaddafi katibe or even mere common criminals, in addition to elements already classifiable as Qaedist jihadists.

In Ben Ashur, for example, the members of the anti-crime brigades were all ex-convicts.

Until the dissolution of the Supreme Defence Committee, this was the mechanism of Libya’s post-Gaddafi “security”. We will talk about this matter again in other articles.

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. “

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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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Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga

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Image credit: Hurriyet daily news

The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.

Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.

Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.

By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.

The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.

Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.

This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.

The Central Asia factor

These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.

Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.

Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).

The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.

“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.

All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.

As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.

Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.

Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.

This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.

Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.

In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.

Restoring balance with the West

Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.

Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.

This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.

However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

The Battle for the Soul of Islam: Will the real reformer of the faith stand up?

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Saudi and Emirati efforts to define ‘moderate’ Islam as socially more liberal while being subservient to an autocratic ruler is as much an endeavour to ensure regime survival and bolster aspirations to lead the Muslim world as it is an attempt to fend off challenges rooted in diverse strands of religious ultra-conservatism.

The Saudi and Emirati efforts to garner religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates build their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf states are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define what strand or strands will dominate the faith in the 21st century.

The battle takes on added significance at a time that Middle Eastern rivals are attempting to dial down regional tensions by managing their disputes and conflicts rather than resolving them. The efforts put a greater emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than hard power confrontation often involving proxies.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE propagate a ‘moderate’ Islam on the back of significant social reforms in recent years that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and relegates the clergy to the status of the ruler’s clerics.

The reforms include Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving, enhancing of women’s professional and personal opportunities, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing Western-style entertainment.

The UAE last November allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosened alcohol restrictions and criminalised “honour killings,” a widely criticised religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring her family.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist strands of the faith that are laced with nationalism.

The Gulf states’ state-led moderation of religious practices rather than of theology and Muslim jurisprudence is also challenged by some strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded.

“Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on questions of foreign policy,” said scholar Andrew Hammond.

While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, autocratic monarchical rule is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond dubs the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state player in the battle for the soul of Islam, that advocates and practices reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The arrests in recent years of Saudi scholars and preachers such as Safar al-HawaliSalman al-Awda, Sulayman al-Duwaish, Ibrahim al-Sakran, and Hasan al-Maliki suggests as much.

Implicitly drawing a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defanging Wahhabism not dethroning it.”

The crown prince, since coming to office, has radically cut back on the investment of tens of billions of dollars in the propagation of religious ultra-conservatism across the globe, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and shave off the rough social edges of the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the faith. His subjugation of the clergy, and incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far-right, put an end to a 73-year long power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.

The left has entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, called for political liberalisation and civil rights and in some cases endorsed the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats.

The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging the conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the Muslim world’s grassroots beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country as well as its foremost democracy. In its first outreach to grassroots elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than proposals put forward by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps better described as more liberal rather than an ideological left-wing of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.

The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts starkly with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation that involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ to religiously legitimise repressive rule under which protests, political parties and petitioning of the government are banned and thought is policed.

“The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralising the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy … As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-Awda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the imprisoned cleric.

The track record of proponents of autocratic religious moderation is checkered at best. While the UAE has created a society that is by and large religiously tolerant, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight a soft power battle in the Muslim world but seeks to project itself as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.

Prince Mohammed has met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet, non-Muslims remain barred in the kingdom from worshipping publicly or building their own houses of worship.

In Egypt, Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old student, lingers in prison since February 2020 on charges of spreading false news and rumours for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

Mr. Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the UAE. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.

By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Staquf recently told the story of Riyanto in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of American Evangelical anti-Muslim sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he removed it from a pew.

“To us in Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honour his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,” Mr. Staquf said.

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