By Maren Mantovani
By defending their national rights the Palestinian people have defended the rights of all revolutionaries in the world and the blood spilled by their sons is like the blood of our peoples. (Fidel Castro, 23 August 1982)
Fidel Castro’s passing has been for many a moment of reflection on Cuba’s past and present. We want to revisit here the Cuban revolution’s contributions to peoples’ struggles across the globe and to the Palestinian people in particular. Firmly convinced about the necessity of internationalism, Cuba played a key role in strengthening concepts of solidarity, bringing peoples together and supporting liberation struggles all over the Americas, Africa and Asia. For the Palestinian people, Cuba has been an important ally for decades and the gateway to the liberation movements in Latin America.
Today, as many movements around the world are grappling to understand, redefine and practice contemporary and effective forms of internationalism and solidarity, a look at this history and at present-day efforts may help to identify new inputs to shape global connections among peoples.
Palestine and Cuba’s Tricontinental Conference
In the first decade since the Nakba ('catastrophe' in Arabic), when Israel’s formation in 1948 meant the expulsion of the majority of the Palestinian people from their homeland and the transformation of the Zionist movement’s settler-colonial aspirations into a state based on apartheid, ethnic cleansing, occupation and aggression, the Palestinian people had two central tasks to complete. On the one hand, they had to organise resistance structures; on the other they had to create awareness about the existence, rights and motivations of their struggle, countering at the same time the notion that expelling the Palestinian people from their homeland and creating a new colonial regime on Palestinian land could somehow be justified as reparation for the Nazi holocaust. In less than a decade the PLO achieved an incredible feat – establishing concrete and solid relations with peoples, governments and movements from Asia to Latin America. The efforts of these years ensured that until today a large majority of the world’s governments support Palestine, even if only nominally during UN voting sessions. This would have been impossible if not for the support of some of the leaders, governments and movements that shaped the world in those days.
Arab leaders, most importantly the Egyptian president Jamal Abdel Nasser, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and the leadership of the People's Republic of China were among the first to help put the Palestinian cause on the agenda of the Non-Aligned Movement and socialist countries, elevating it to a central struggle embodying anti-colonial and anti-imperialist aspirations. Their support ensured strong ties with Asia. Palestine’s breakthrough in Africa started with support from Nasser and Algerian prime minister Ahmed Ben Bella in the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Founded in 1963, the OAU was central in supporting African liberation movements against colonialism. The existence of close ideological, military and economic ties between apartheid South Africa and Israel, both using apartheid as a framework to preserve a settler colonial regime in the twentieth century, and direct relations between the African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) strengthened support for the Palestinian people throughout Africa.
The Palestinian people’s entry to Latin America was largely due to support received from Cuba, in particular during the Tricontinental Conference held in January 1966 in Havana. The Palestinian people played an often forgotten role in the construction of this historic event, which brought together more than 500 representatives of eighty-two delegations. Linking the experience of the Non-Aligned Movement and socialist and national liberation struggles in the global south, it bridged the geographic and ideological divides between revolutionary movements in Latin America and African and Asian anti-colonial struggles and governments. Amongst the delegates were leading figures such as Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende and Amilcar Cabral. It was in fact in Gaza that the celebration of a tricontinental conference was agreed upon. In 1961, the Palestine Committee for Afro-Asian Solidarity hosted a meeting of the Afro-Asian Solidarity Organisation, linked to the Non-Aligned Movement. The meeting, held in Gaza as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinian and Arab people, made significant steps forward in the construction of the Tricontinental Conference.
The First Tricontinental Conference opened up Latin America to the Palestinian liberation movement. A sizable delegation of Palestinian representatives from various PLO factions participated and presented the case of Palestine. They forged solidarity ties and further developed their understanding of Latin American struggles.
Defining solidarity: The tricontinental spirit
Once gathered in Havana, the delegates developed what became known as a ‘tricontinental spirit’. They were imbued with a sense of urgency to form, in the words of the conference declaration, a unique alliance against the ‘system of oppression and exploitation of colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism’ and to devise effective forms of cooperation. At the time, debates on solidarity centred on the Vietnamese people’s resistance; however, the Palestinian struggle had an outstanding place even then. The Tricontinental Conference’s final declaration called specifically for ‘solidarity of all peoples with the Arab people of Palestine in its just struggle for the liberation of its homeland from imperialism and Zionist aggression’. Just as the Palestinian cause was a fundamental part of the tricontinental spirit, the PLO considered its struggle a part of global anti-colonial and anti-imperialist efforts. PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, in a 1969 visit to Cuba declared:
The alliance of the Arab and Palestinian national liberation movement with Vietnam, the revolutionary situation in Cuba and the People's Democratic Republic of Korea and the national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America is the only path to create a camp that is capable of confronting and triumphing over the imperialist camp.
In his letter to the Tricontinental Conference, Che Guevara pointedly stated: solidarity ‘is not a matter of wishing success to those who are being attacked’. This call for concreteness in action was a core element of the meeting. The encounters in Havana strengthened Cuban–Palestinian ties and set the basis for concrete cooperation between the PLO and liberation struggles in Latin America. Since then movements, such as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador, the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua and the Montoneros in Argentina, maintained close relations with the PLO. Latin American militants fought together with the Palestinian movements, and Palestinian movements trained and provided weapons for national liberation struggles in Latin America. The Sandinistas’ spokesperson Jorge Manda stated in an interview in 1979:
There is a union of blood for a long time between the Palestinian revolution and us. Many of the units of the Sandinista movement have been in Palestinian revolutionary bases in Jordan. In early 1970, Palestinian and Nicaraguan blood was spilled together in Amman and elsewhere during the Black September battles.
At the official, diplomatic level, relations forged and strengthened during the Tricontinental Conference yielded important fruits. Cuba became one of the most outspoken supporters of the Palestinian cause in international fora. Cuba co-sponsored UN Resolution 3379, which defined Zionism as ‘a form of racism and racial discrimination’, based on existing resolutions of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation for African Unity. During the 1960s and 1970s, many countries from the global south broke diplomatic ties with Israel. Already in the first years of the PLO’s existence, the Palestinian struggle became a symbol of resistance and inspiration for progressive, left and social justice movements across the entire global south and, by the end of the 1960s, the movement had built increasing ties in Europe and North America as well.
Re-encounters at Durban’s World Conference against Racism
Unfortunately, the 1990s saw a weakening, if not collapse, of many efforts to build global solidarity among peoples struggling against colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism. The collapse of the socialist bloc dealt an almost fatal blow even to the idea of non-alignment, and global anti-capitalist struggles faced dramatic challenges. US and European interventions broke down the last remnants of Arab nationalism. For the Palestinian people, the Oslo ‘peace’ process period mediated by the USA and Europe reflected a new paradigm: Left without almost any safe haven in the Arab world, and at the start of a decade where the West dominated a unipolar world order, Palestinian movements focused much of their international relations on western states.
However, by the year 2000 it was clear that no ‘Pax Americana’ would arise anywhere, let alone in Palestine: Military aggression, not only in the Arab world, continued to increase and, instead of creating a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, Israeli settlements had dramatically increased in the occupied West Bank, stealing ever more Palestinian land and resources, and accelerating ethnic cleansing policies in the Palestinian territories. In September 2000, yet another Palestinian popular uprising, the second intifada, erupted and was drowned in blood only in 2002 when when the Israeli forces conducted large-scale military operations in the occupied West Bank and began building an eight-metre high apartheid wall, stretching more than 700 km in length and encircling Palestinian villages and cities. Israel literally cemented on the ground its plans for a final status solution for the Palestinian people in form of a Bantustan system, akin to the South African apartheid regime’s attempt to contain the black population in isolated reservations. For many years, Gaza has been an open-air prison, while Israel continues inflicting ethnic cleansing policies against the Palestinian population in roughly sixty per cent of the occupied West Bank. The right of return of the refugees, which make up the majority of the Palestinian population, seems further away from implementation than ever, and Palestinian citizens of Israel suffer increasing racial discrimination and displacement. The Oslo period’s end has thus created an urgency to develop new strategies and recover fading alliances.
For Palestine, the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban came at the right time to bring back centrality to a global south country – South Africa – and to revive an almost abandoned argument on Zionism’s racist nature. The grassroots movement’s decision to define Israel’s infrastructure project as an apartheid wall must be situated within this framework.
The re-encounter with South Africa and its anti-apartheid movement’s legacy strongly inspired the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) issued on 9 July 2005 by over 170 Palestinian organisations from all across the historic homeland and the diaspora. Uniting all Palestinian political parties and major unions and networks, this call created once again a cohesive strategy for action at an international level. The rationale of the BDS call is basic: A capitalist and colonial enterprise will only survive as long as it creates profit. As a direct response to the failure of the US and European governments to ensure a just solution for the Palestinian people, the BDS call is a call to the people across the world who share a common goal of fighting injustice, oppression and exclusion. It is a call to governments that respond to the voices of their people or, at the very least, are not intrinsically beholden to Israel.
The context of a tricontinental spirit of the twenty-first century
Fifty years after the Tricontinental Conference, the context in which internationalism operates has changed dramatically. While Cuba remained a reference throughout this time, and the Palestinian struggle remained a global symbol of resistance, resilience and hope for social justice struggles, in most of the countries that at that time supported the Palestinian people, the celebration of neoliberal trade and investment agreements superseded solidarity ties. Movements that once stood side by side with the Palestinian people, and received Palestinian support and training, have in the meantime come into power and favour Israeli investment over historical legacies.
These shifts in positioning of national movements and governments reflect the demise of anti-colonial aspirations as an achievable aim for states as well as economic transformations. Never before in history has transnational capital had such sophisticated institutions and regulatory frameworks protecting and implementing its interests. This does not mean the end of the role of state power but shapes it differently in the face of transnational capital, which is deeply linked with national governments and state institutions. Over the last decades, this understanding permeated movements across the globe, and therefore, they began dedicating significantly more focus in their struggles to targeting these corporate structures and interests.
Another landslide shift occurred with the growing space held by ‘emerging’ economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America in terms of world trade and global GDP. In 2015, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) alone accounted for a total nominal GDP of 16.92 trillion, equivalent to 23.1 per cent of global GDP, equal to the EU’s share. The BRICS share in global exports rose from eight per cent in 2000 to nineteen per cent in 2014. Over the last decades, transnational corporations formed based on capital in the BRICS countries. This theoretically gives emerging economies much greater potential for economic and political leverage. However, in fact this development has in no way overcome imperialist and colonial structures: The peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America still pay the price for colonial and imperialist exploitation. Western states, including Israel, and their transnational corporations continue to reap the key profits from the system. The people in Asia, Africa and Latin America remain caught in proxy wars and brutally repressed whenever they rebel against the system. Israel in this context acts not only as an imperialist stronghold in West Asia but in the era of the ‘global war on terror’ has turned into the world’s most profitable laboratory and exporter of concepts and technology of repression and Orwellian systems of surveillance.
The Israeli military–industrial complex, which fuels and profits from Israel's wars of aggression and repression, has always been dependent on exports for its survival. Today it exports up to eighty per cent of its production. Between 2010 and 2015, eight of the ten major importers of Israeli weapons were in the global south, including India, Turkey, Singapore, Vietnam, Colombia and Brazil. In 2013, Israel exported almost US$4.8 billion worth of arms to Asia, Africa and Latin America, while only US$1.7 billion went to North America and Europe. Created after the 1967 war, the Israeli military industry’s first customers, which provided vital input to the industry, were Central and South American dictatorships that used weaponry to repress the liberation movements with which the PLO had cooperated since the Tricontinental Conference. Today, Israel continues to reap profits from repression and genocide in Latin America and beyond. In Rio de Janeiro, Israeli trainers pass on their knowledge to some of the most brutal police squads on the planet. Israel was directly involved in the Rwandan genocide. Security and military cooperation between India and Israel has exacerbated existing communal conflicts through anti-Muslim propaganda and provision of weapons and training to repress the Kashmiri movements in their quest for self-determination.
In addition, the global south is playing an ever-growing role in sustaining the Israeli economy via civilian trade. The 2008 economic crisis and victories of the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in Europe have both contributed to limiting the profits Israel can reap from economic relations with Europe. Over the last five years Israeli exports to the USA have shrunk by US$ 342 million, making the USA the Israeli market that shrunk more than any other in terms of net value of exported goods. Many EU countries have negative growth rates for imports from Israel as well. As a result, Israel’s financial establishment has looked towards the global south, especially Asia. Leo Leiderman, chief economist at Bank Hapoalim, stated: ‘Israeli exports to emerging markets account for about thirty-six per cent of total exports of goods, similar to emerging markets’ share of global trade...Asian markets, headed by its two giants, China and India, have paramount importance for Israeli export growth in the coming decades.’China is already Israel’s third biggest export destination and India the seventh. Both countries are currently negotiating free trade agreements with Israel. With 14.37 per cent of total Israeli imports (excluding diamonds) coming from China, Beijing ranks number one, even before the USA with 13.42 per cent, as a source of Israeli imports. The BRICS countries together are the source of 20.7 per cent of Israel’s imports. All BRICS countries have had rising annual growth rates of Israeli exports over the last five years. Today, Israeli exports to Asia exceed the value of exports to Europe. Among Israel’s top ten export items are medicine, cell phones, fertilizers and medical instruments – products for which Africa, Asia and Latin America offer huge markets.
Tricontinental solidarity today
This confers renewed tricontinental solidarity an unprecedented opportunity and responsibility. While these efforts and struggles cannot be disconnected from the struggles in North America and Europe the shared position and experience within Asia, Africa and Latin America defines a natural common ground.
One common ground can be found, as said, in the growing focus among social justice movements to hold transnational corporations to account for their infringements of people's rights. The struggles and victories of communities defending their lands and livelihood against mining corporations, such as Glencore International AG, mega-projects such as the Agua Zarca dam in Honduras, or multinationals destroying natural resources such as the struggle against Coca-Cola in India tell stories of popular uprisings successfully impeding, delaying or increasing the costs of construction and operations of transnational capital. Local protests, international pressure, legal struggles and efforts to defund these devastating projects by targeting the banks that give the loans to the corporations are shared tools developed by people to defend their rights and hold corporations and complicit governments responsible.
The Palestinian call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions – to stop impunity not only of the Israeli state but also of all corporations and institutions that profit from or sustain Israeli apartheid – mirrors such struggles. Victories against transnational corporations such as Veolia, which lost over US$20 billion in unsigned contracts and suffered several divestments from financial institutions before it quit operations in Israel, is one example. Another case in point is the growing number of victories against G4S. The global ‘security’ giant, now under pressure from movements across the globe, provides not only vital equipment for the Israeli prison system and military checkpoints but also is involved in mercenary services in Iraq and Afghanistan, and holds the security contracts to guard the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline against which indigenous people and social movements have launched a fierce struggle to defend their land and resource rights.
Probably the best example of how campaigns in support of the Palestinian struggle and its call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions target not only Israeli policies against the Palestinian people but also global structures of oppression is the ‘Stop Mekorot’ campaign. Israel’s national water corporation Mekorot is a key agent in the theft of Palestinian water, which simultaneously ethnically cleanses Palestinian communities by forcing them to abandon their living spaces due to lack of access to water and enables the colonisation of the land by Israeli illegal settlements, to which Mekorot provides water. Since it began international operations a decade ago, the company has profited from water privatisation across the globe. Its contract for a water desalination plant in La Plata, a province of Buenos Aires, which Palestine solidarity campaigners together with trade unionists defeated, highlights not only that the project violated the Palestinian BDS call but more importantly would have exported Israeli water apartheid to Buenos Aires, offering drinking water only to the rich districts and raising prices for consumers unnecessarily. In India, Israel’s proclaimed ‘support’ to the agricultural sector upon closer inspection also comes at a high to cost small- and medium-sized farmers. Israeli Elbit Imaging, for example, has been involved for many years in largely failed and damaging dairy projects, importing foreign breeds in order to industrialise and concentrate the sector under the control of large-scale agro-business enterprises. A report by the Global Forest Coalition on these practices tellingly concluded that: ‘Instead of blindly promoting foreign breeds, the government should support livestock keepers in improving their animals’ food, water and other conditions. The success of the Indian Gir breed in Brazil could provide some inspiration in this regard.’  Movements across the world are finding similar ways to target the oppressor, which unsurprisingly often end up to be the same – controlled by the same capital or employing similar methods.
Especially in the last decades, movements have tried to build new spaces in which to exchange ideas and experiences – ranging from the Intergalactic Encounters initiated by the Zapatista movement to the World Social Forums and other global campaigning networks, such as the Global Campaign to Reclaim Peoples Sovereignty, Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity. Yet, though we are all aware that only when we unite across the globe we can win against a global system of oppression, we far too often get caught up in the emergencies, contingencies and needs of our own struggles to be able to spare the necessary time to question how we can go beyond wishing success for the similarly oppressed.
It is essential that we understand our struggles as a common cause in order to accumulate the necessary forces to stand up against a system, which today is ever more blatantly showing its racist, exclusionary and oppressive nature. From the occupation of Palestine, to the devastating warfare all over West and Central Asia, to the rise of the right from Argentina to India and even in North America and Europe – we urgently need to identify our common ground and how to bring our efforts together into a powerful movement for land and resource rights, equality, self-determination and governing structures that respond to the people’s needs.
Remembering Fidel Castro’s legacy means reflecting on Cuba’s central contribution to the development of internationalism; today it is our responsibility to build an effective internationalism of the twenty-first century.
* Maren Mantovani is the coordinator for international relations of the Palestinian Stop the Wall Campaign and the Palestinian Land Defense Coalition
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 Guevara, Ernesto Che (1967/1999). ‘Crear Dos, Tres…Muchos Vietnam’ [‘Create Two, Three…Many Vietnams’]. https://www.marxists.org/espanol/guevara/04_67.htm.
 de la Torre and Fernando (2014). http://biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar/clacso/becas/20141202041539/ensayoclacso.pdf.
 Othman, Haroub (2005). ‘Africa’s solidarity with Palestine’. Paper presented at the International Conference on ‘Vision of Bandung After 50 Years’, Cairo, 1–3 March. http://www.aapsorg.org/en/vision-of-bandung-after-50-years/541-africas-solidarity-with-palestine.html.
 (2016). ‘BRICS movement gathering momentum’, Business Standard, 11 October. http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ani/brics-movement-gathering-momentum-116101100062_1.html.
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 Cohen, Gili (2016). ‘Defense Ministry Official: Israel, Like Other Countries, Exports Arms Not Only to Democracies’, Haaretz, 20 June. http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.726097.
 The Israeli 'security' company ISDS, for example, since 1982, trained police and military forces for dictatorships in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and the Contras in Nicaragua. In the last decades it has entered the market of megaevents and holds a contract with the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. For many years, it has trained Rio de Janeiro's infamous military police to apply techniques in the favelas ‘just as we do in Gaza.
 Gross, Judah Ari (2016). ‘Records of Israeli arms sales during Rwandan genocide remain sealed’, Times of Israel, 12 April. http://www.timesofisrael.com/records-of-israeli-arms-sales-during-rwandan-genocide-to-remain-sealed; Konrad, Edo (2015). ‘The story behind Israel’s shady military exports’, +972, 22 November. http://972mag.com/who-will-stop-the-flow-of-israeli-arms-to-dictatorships/114080.
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 Johnson, Jimmy (2010). ‘India employing Israeli oppression tactics in Kashmir’, The Electronic Intifada, 19 August. https://electronicintifada.net/content/india-employing-israeli-oppression-tactics-kashmir/8985.
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 Simoes, Alexander (2014). Where does Israel export to? The Observatory of Economic Complexity. http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/visualize/tree_map/hs92/export/isr/show/all/2014 (accessed 26 December 2016).
 ‘Glencore International AG’, Environmental Justice Atlas. https://ejatlas.org/company/glencore-international-ag.
 The case has become even more famous after the brutal assassination of Berta Caceres, leader of the movement opposing the dam, on 3 March 2016, but is definitely not the only example. For more see: de Boissiere, Philippa and Cowman, Sian (2016). ‘For Indigenous Peoples, Megadams Are “Worse than Colonization”’, Foreign Policy in Focus, 14 March. http://fpif.org/indigenous-peoples-megadams-worse-colonization.
 Methews, Rohan D (2011). ‘The Plachimada Struggle against Coca-Cola in Southern India’, ritimo, 1 July. https://www.ritimo.org/The-Plachimada-Struggle-against-Coca-Cola-in-Southern-India.
 (2015). ‘BDS marks another victory as Veolia sells off all Israeli operations’, BDS Movement, 1 September. https://bdsmovement.net/news/bds-marks-another-victory-veolia-sells-all-israeli-operations.
 (2016). ‘UN World Food Programme Drops G4S’ BDS Movement, 6 December. https://bdsmovement.net/world-food-program-drops-g4s.
 Richard Norton-Taylor, Britain is at centre of global mercenary industry, says charity, The Guardian, 3 February 2016,
 Steve Horn, Security Firm Guarding Dakota Access Pipeline Also Used Psychological Warfare Tactics for BP, Desmog Blog,13 September, 2016 https://www.desmogblog.com/2016/09/13/g4s-dakota-access-pipeline-human-rights-bp
 (2014). ‘The agreement with Mekorot in La Plata (Argentina) has been suspended!’ Palestinian Grassroots Anti-apartheid Wall Campaign, 7 March. http://stopthewall.org/2014/03/07/agreement-mekorot-la-plata-argentina-has-been-suspended.
 Khadse, Ashlesha (2016). Dairy and Poultry in India – Growing Corporate Concentration, Losing Game for Small Producers. http://globalforestcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/india-case-study.pdf.
The 13 December surrender agreement between rebel groups and the regime of President Bashar al-Asad marked a turning point in the five-year long Syrian conflict. Opposition demands for Asad to step down through a transition process now seem impractical and unachievable, mainly because the government now controls most urban areas. Further, the agreement’s relative success will empower its chief negotiators, Turkey and Russia, to reshape the conflict to suit their converging interests, which increasingly sees a role for Asad. The regime will, however, find it difficult to establish its sovereignty over the entire country as Turkish troops and rebel groups backed by Turkey and certain Gulf states – including Saudi Arabia and Qatar – consolidate in more rural areas. Significantly, the regime is now more empowered to pursue its aims, even when these do not fully coincide with the interests of its Russian ally.
Announced late Tuesday, the agreement allowed for rebels and civilians trapped in besieged East Aleppo to evacuate to other rebel controlled areas as regime forces regain control of the remains of the city. This completes the main thrust of the regime’s latest strategy, which aimed at consolidating control of large population centres across the country’s east-west spine, confining the rebellion to rural provinces. The government now controls Damascus in the south, Aleppo in the north, and the central Homs and Hama provinces – the areas many refer to as ‘useful Syria’. This means that any transitional agreement that excludes Asad – as the opposition and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia have been demanding – will not be possible, thus voiding a major demand of the rebellion.
Already, Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al –Thani, referred to the Syrian opposition’s calls for negotiations without any preconditions regarding Asad’s role. Further, although rebel groups control parts of the Aleppo governorate, much of Idlib, as well as areas in the south, their armed capabilities have been severely weakened, due in part to fears about their links with Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra). This relationship has made some governments, especially the USA and Jordan (which train and coordinate activities with the Southern Front rebel group) wary. Funding, even from Saudi Arabia, has thus been reduced, and some states, especially USA and Jordan, prefer to conclude agreements with the Syrian regime around combatting the Islamic State group and preventing a spillover into Jordan and Lebanon.
Shifting geopolitical interests have also influenced the conflict. Following Turkey’s apology to Russia over its downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015, a rapid rapprochement has occurred between the two states, and a convergence on Syria is emerging. In September the two countries agreed on Turkish use of Syrian airspace, and in October Turkey aligned its stance on Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham closer to that of Moscow. It is probable that Turkey’s recent troop deployment into Syria was endorsed by Moscow. Russia and Syria have virtually ignored Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria and its efforts to form a buffer zone up to the IS-controlled town of Al-Bab – in return for it limiting its support for rebel groups in east Aleppo.
Ankara’s redeployment of thousands of rebel fighters from Aleppo and its August capture of Jarabulus, in the north of the Aleppo governorate, in was a key factor influencing the Syrian regime’s ability to reimpose its siege on Aleppo in September. In recent months Ankara has attempted to negotiate a rebel withdrawal from east Aleppo, initially only for Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham fighters, thus allowing some opposition governance in the city, and later, following regime objections, for civilians and fighters belonging to other groups. This deal was key to the rapid fall of east Aleppo, and to the fact that Turkish-backed forces rather than the Kurdish YPG will likely be prominent in attempts to drive IS from Al-Bab. Turkey and the other major regional power with troops in Syria, Iran, have also been discussing Syria in the past three months, and have agreed to protect the country’s territorial integrity.
Iran was not, however, directly involved in the surrender agreement negotiations, and has been accused by some as a spoiler, because of its demands that wounded civilians in the regime-supporting towns of Foua and Kefraya in Idlib governorate, which are besieged by rebels, also be evacuated, and by then supporting militia groups which have prevented many evacuation attempts from Aleppo. Iran has attempted a deal on these towns for the past eighteen months with Ahrar al-Sham. Its proposal was to engineer a population swap, with residents of these towns to be exchanged with Sunni residents of Zabadani and Madaya. This would consolidate the Shi'a presence in the area from Damascus to the Lebanese Beka'a Valley. Iran also demanded the bodies of slain militia fighters that it had sent to Syria, including members of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iraqi militias. It also demanded information about any fighters that had been taken prisoner.
The Turkey-Russia agreement stalled repeatedly, and although not part of the original Aleppo agreement, it now includes evacuation plans for Foua, Kefraya, and the parts of Madaya and Zabadani as well.Significantly, the USA and EU played no role in the recent surrender agreement, and initially were unaware of it.
With this reconfiguration in interests and power, Syria could be divided into zones of influence, allowing for some cooperation despite the divergences in the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish positions. The prominence of Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham in Idlib may complicate this plan, especially since Idlib directly borders Turkey, and because the group often coordinates with Ahrar al-Sham, which is supported by Turkey and some Gulf countries. Fissures in Ahrar al-Sham have already emerged, and a splinter group, Jaish Al-Ahrar, which is critical of the former’s reliance on Turkey and its supposed antagonism to Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham, has been formed.
With Aleppo back in Syrian government control, Asad has gained the upper hand in the conflict over control of the state. However, the conflict is not about to end; it will probably continue at a lower intensity as the regime conducts operations in Idlib and other rebel-controlled regions, and because rebel groups will alter their tactics in favour of smaller insurgent operations. Many opposition groups may be forced to accept a political solution as their position further weakens, but it is unlikely the regime will allow the opposition autonomy over areas it currently controls. Earlier versions of the surrender agreement, which would have allowed for the maintenance of the east Aleppo local council, and which was accepted by Moscow and Ankara, was discarded because it was rejected by the regime. In many places opposition to the regime from citizens will endure, and not all rebel groups will accept such an eventuality, arguing that they cannot allow all their sacrifices to amount to nought.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Of the myriad political and social developments since the spectacular rise of the Islamic State group (IS) in mid-2014, it is perhaps the movement’s ability to exacerbate and capitalise on existing fractures between and within Syria and Iraq and regional powers Turkey and Iran that has dramatically altered the nature of politics in the region. IS can be perceived as less a cause than a symptom of the failure of state-building processes in Iraq since the US invasion and occupation in 2003. The operation to retake Mosul from IS began one month ago, but as alliances and rivalries are ever-shifting in the fight against IS, Baghdad has attempted to prevent Turkey from participating in the US-Iraqi campaign to recapture the strategic city.
Mosul, where 5000 IS fighters are based, has historically been an important crossroad for trade and ideas, and was once a major cultural centre of the Islamic world. While it and the Syrian city of Aleppo share an Ottoman past that remains a point of cultural affiliation with Turkey for the people of northern Syria and northern Iraq, Mosul has been the external frontier of Turkey’s war against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) – whose power and access to arms . That area in Iraq is also a centre for Turkish military support to Ankara’s ally, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Masoud Barzani.
Turkey’s military goes back to the early 1990s when a brutal civil war broke out between two Kurdish political groups – Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani. Barzani has always been wary of the latter’s close relations with Baghdad and Tehran, and gave Ankara the green light to pursue PKK militants in the Kurdish area of Iraq under KDP control. His difficult relations with PKK leaders enabled a closer relationship between Erbil and Ankara. In the past few years, Turkey’s military has also had military training programmestohelp professionalise the KRG’s Peshmerga forces.
From the end of 2015, Baghdad began vocalising its desire to limit the Turkish presence in Iraq, throwing the generally stable relationship between the KRG and Ankara into stark relief. As the region saw greater Kurdish political consolidation as a result of the two-year battle against IS, Barzani has become less willing to sacrifice himself for the Turkish cause. In December 2015, the Iraqi president, Haider al-Abadi, under pressure from sectarian networks in Baghdad, called on the United Nations Security Council – with Russia’s assistance – to force Turkey to withdraw its troops from Iraqi territory.
Turkey’s refusal was met with attacks on its operating bases, for which both IS and Iraq’s Kata'ib Hizbullah claimed responsibility. The Iraqi government’s most recent refusal to allow Turkey to join the Mosul operation that beganmid-October was reluctantly accepted by Turkey, and it is believed that an agreement between the two limited Turkey’s combatant role to air support in exchange for it maintaining its bases in northern Iraq, particularly the key Bashiqa base.
Arguing there was a possibility of a spillover of the Mosul operation through the porous Iraq-Turkey border, Turkish Armed Forces and combat vehicles amassed in the border town of , prompting Abadi to threaten: ‘If a confrontation happens we are ready for it. We will consider [Turkey] an enemy, and we will deal with it as an enemy.’ Ankara’s response was as undiplomatic, with its foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, publicly challenging Abadi: ‘If you have the strength, why did you surrender Mosul to terror organisations?’ and ‘If you are so strong, why has the [PKK] occupied your lands for years?
Cavusoglu’s comment exposed a sore point for the Turks: the uncomfortable reality that its strategic relationship with the USA is being tested by the shift towards ethnic and sectarian politics in the region, which, since the rise of IS, has favoured the Kurds (including those in the PKK and the Syrian PYG that Turkey regards as an existential threat) and Iranian-backed Shi'a groups in Iraq. The institutionalisation of ethnicity as a means to attain power is largely a by-product of state reconfiguration initiated by the USA during its Iraqi occupation, when it distributed political power and financial support on ethnic and sectarian bases. Whereas Turkey could previously rely on its NATO membership and on the KRG to check the PKK’s influence, rapprochement between the USA and Iran, Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict, and the legitimation of the Syrian PYD (a PKK ally) have limited Turkey’s ability to decisively influence what happens on its borders. The role of the Shi'a militia, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), and abuses by some Kurdish groups against Sunnis have allowed Ankara to argue that Turkmen and Sunni Arabs in Tal Afar, in particular, will be targeted in revenge attacks, and thus Turkish presence is necessary.
Turkey’s key strategic objective is to limit PKK activities in northern Iraq, and to prevent the armed group from joining with the PMU in Sinjar, east of Mosul, which would create a long stretch of territory connecting the Syrian YPG with the PKK in Iraq. Additionally, Turkey has lost prestige as the guardian of Mosul, Sulaymaniye and Kirkuk – regions which historically had significant numbers of Iraqi Turkmen. These areas were ceded by the Ottomans after the breakup of the Ottoman empire following World War I, a sore point for Turkish nationalists like Kemal Atatürk and his successors.
Apart from , Turkey also regards Mosul, together with Aleppo in Syria, as the last outpost of the cultural and historical connection between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Should the city be destroyed, three territories considered ‘disputed territories’ between Baghdad and the KRG will be at the centre of the rebuilding of a new Iraq and, by extension, a new Middle East. This uncertain outcome requires greater attention. Where will IS members seek refuge if not in the porous border region? Who will be responsible for millions of Iraqi refugees? How long can a military battle against IS (or the PKK) be sustained without completely engulfing the region in protracted warfare? To what extent can the politics of sectarianism be exploited at the expense of inclusive and democratic states in the Middle East?
With the operation against IS in Raqqa, Syria, underway at the same time, and with the YPG playing a key role there, Turkish anxieties about the creation of a Kurdish entity on its doorstep are heightening. Should IS continue to be tenacious,and should the war stretch out longer than planned, Turkey may enter the conflict regardless of the Iraqi position. This could no doubt raise serious legal questions, but would also signal a sharp change in the relations between Ankara and both Baghdad and Washington. ISmight be on its last legs as a pseudo-state, but there is little doubt that it has reshaped the nature of the state and politics in the Middle East for some time to come.
By Thabo Mbeki
Analysing two recent key reports issued in the UK regarding the 2011 NATO assault on Libya, former president, Thabo Mbeki, argues that regime change in Libya was always the objective of western countries, and the protection of civilians was not as relevant as claimed. He continues by arguing for a stronger anti-imperialist role that African countries should play in confronting powerful western states.
Twice, in less than a decade, the UK has been involved in two wars of aggression which have caused grave disasters in countries of the South. The first of these was the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, followed eight years later, in 2011, by the NATO aggression against Libya. The first took place under a Labour Party government, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair. The second took place under a Conservative Party-led government, headed by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Recently, in a period of just over two months, the UK published two reports which discussed these two wars of aggression. The first, published on 6 July, is ‘The Report of the Iraq Inquiry’ (the Chilcot Report), released by a committee of inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot. The second, published 14 September, is ‘Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options’ (HCFAC Report), prepared by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and chaired by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt.
These important reports tell a story that is radically different from the misleading propaganda which the UK governments had sought to implant in the public mind, both in the UK and globally, to justify actions which practically amounted to crimes against humanity. In both Iraq and Libya, the UK governments presented themselves as knights in shining armour whose military intervention would bring democracy and human rights to peoples who had suffered for decades under brutal dictatorships. Accordingly, they sought to achieve popular acclaim throughout the world as the liberators to whom all humanity owed a debt of immense gratitude.
However, they also needed additional arguments to justify their acts of aggression. In the case of Iraq, the UK government argued that the Iraqi government possessed weapons of mass destruction which posed a present and immediate security threat to the UK and the peoples of the world, and that these weapons had to be eliminated. The UK claimed it had firm intelligence that these were biological and chemical weapons and that Iraq would develop nuclear weapons, all of which weapons could also fall into the hands of terrorist groups.
In the case of Libya, the UK made strong assertions that the Libyan government, led by the late Muammar Gaddafi, was about to conduct a frightful massacre of large numbers of Libyan civilians to perpetuate itself in power. Supported by a resolution of the UN Security Council, it joined various NATO member states and some Arab Gulf states to conduct a sustained military campaign against the Libyan government on the pretext that it was carrying out a noble Responsibility to Protect (R2P) large numbers of innocent civilians.
In this article I will discuss the matter of the war against Libya and, among others, draw attention to the important findings of the HCFAC Report. But first we must reflect briefly on the findings in the Chilcot Report concerning the war of aggression against Iraq.
It is now common knowledge that the claim by the UK and US governments that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was entirely false. In this regard, when John Chilcot presented his report he said: ‘The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMD – were presented with a certainty that was not justified…The Joint Intelligence Committee should have made clear to Mr Blair that the assessed intelligence had not established “beyond doubt” either that Iraq had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued…
‘It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments. They were not challenged, and they should have been.’
Chilcot continued: ‘The vision for Iraq and its people – issued by the US, the UK, Spain and Portugal, at the Azores Summit on 16 March 2003 – included a solemn obligation to help the Iraqi people build a new Iraq at peace with itself and its neighbours. It looked forward to a united Iraq in which its people should enjoy security, freedom, prosperity and equality with a government that would uphold human rights and the rule of law as cornerstones of democracy.’
However, Chilcot said, the practical outcome was that, ‘The invasion and subsequent instability in Iraq had, by July 2009, also resulted in the deaths of at least one hundred and fifty thousand Iraqis – and probably many more – most of them civilians. More than a million people were displaced. The people of Iraq have suffered greatly.’
The UK Government, thus, with its leading US partner, went to war against Iraq on the basis of a complete fabrication. Iraq neither had weapons of mass destruction nor did it pose any security threat to the UK or anybody else. The UK government had promised the people of Iraq peace, democracy, human rights and prosperity. Instead, its military intervention brought longlasting suffering to the Iraqi people, including continuing war, instability and further impoverishment.
The intervention affected the entire Middle East region negatively, and resulted in an increased threat to international peace and security, including through the emergence of the terrorist Islamic State group (IS), which has developed into a genuine global security threat.
With regard to these matters the Chilcot Report says: ‘The Iraq of 2009 certainly did not meet the UK’s objectives as described in January 2003: it fell far short of strategic success. Although the borders of Iraq were the same as they had been in 2003, deep sectarian divisions threatened both stability and unity. Those divisions were not created by the coalition, but they were exacerbated by its decisions on de‑Ba'athification and on demobilisation of the Iraqi Army, and were not addressed by an effective programme of reconciliation…
‘In 2008, Transparency International judged Iraq to be the third most corrupt country in the world, and in mid‑2009 the Assessments Staff judged that Government ministries were “riddled with” corruption…
‘By 2009, it had been demonstrated that some elements of the UK’s 2003 objectives for Iraq were misjudged. No evidence had been identified that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, with which it might threaten its neighbours and the international community more widely. But in the years between 2003 and 2009, events in Iraq had undermined regional stability, including by allowing al-Qa'ida space in which to operate and unsecured borders across which its members might move.’
When he introduced the report, Chilcot said: ‘We have sought to set out the Government’s actions on Iraq fully and impartially. The evidence is there for all to see. It is an account of an intervention which went badly wrong, with consequences to this day…The Government failed to achieve its stated objectives.’
Let us now look at the war of aggression against Libya. Mass demonstrations started in Tunisia in December 2010. These resulted in the overthrow in January 2011 of the government led by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The related mass uprising in Egypt started in January 2011, leading to the overthrow, a month later, of the government led by President Hosni Mubarak.
Similar demonstrations started in the city of Benghazi in Eastern Libya on 15 February 2011, and developed into an armed uprising. The Libyan government launched its counter-offensive against this armed uprising in March 2011 and quickly advanced towards Benghazi.
On 12 March 2011 the League of Arab States (LAS) called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya. The UNSC adopted Resolution 1973 five days later on 17 March, immediately imposing a ‘no-fly zone’ and calling on member states to ‘use all necessary measures’ to protect the civilians whom both the LAS and the UNSC claimed faced massacre by the armed forces of the Libyan government.
Western countries, led by France, the UK and the USA, started bombing Libya on 19 March, two days after the adoption of Resolution 1973. Ultimately, a National Transitional Council (NTC) emerged as the alternative authority to the government of Libya. The UN recognised this NTC as Libya’s governing authority on 16 September, 2011. By the end of August 2011, the combined and sustained military offensive by NATO, the Arab League and the Libyan militia had largely placed control of Tripoli and other cities in the hands of the NTC.
Finally, Gaddafi was captured and assassinated by his armed opponents on 20 October 2011. The NTC declared victory on 23 October and NATO officially ended its deceptively named ‘Operation Unified Protector’ on 31 October 2011, seven months after it had started its bombing campaign.
Much earlier, on 21 March, two days after the start of the NATO bombing, the UK House of Commons had overwhelmingly approved the involvement of the UK in the war against Libya with 557 votes in favour and thirteen against. When UK Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the House of Commons he said: ‘It’s quite clear the population of Benghazi was under heavy attack. Civilians were being killed in significant numbers (and) an exodus from the town had begun. There was an urgent need to stop the slaughter…A successful outcome is the enforcement of the will of the UN, which is a cease of attacks on civilians.’
Supporting the involvement of the UK in the war of aggression, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Milliband, said: ‘We have to make a judgement about our role in the world and our duty to others. Where there is just cause, where there is reasonable action that can be taken, where there is international consent – are we really saying we should be a country that stands by and does nothing?’
When Cameron made his statement about civilians who were allegedly being slaughtered, he was echoing what French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé had said when he introduced Resolution 1973 at the UNSC, that ‘the situation on the ground (with regard to civilians) is more alarming than ever, marked by the violent re-conquest of cities…We have very little time left – perhaps only a matter of hours.’
The chilling scare that was used to justify the adoption of Resolution 1973 was that the Government of Libya, led by Muammar Gaddafi, was about to massacre countless numbers of civilians especially in Benghazi, where the anti-government demonstrations had started.
Resolution 1973 itself said, ‘[T]he widespread and systematic attacks currently taking place in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity’, and it ‘authorised Member States…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi.’
One of the thirteen members of the UK House of Commons who voted against going to war against Libya was Jeremy Corbyn, now leader of the Labour Party. Explaining his position, he said: ‘I do not know the politics, the aims, the ambitions, or anything else of the people in Benghazi…I think we should be slightly cautious about going to war on behalf of a group of people who we do not know, understand or are aware of what their aims actually are. Many of them were ministers in the Gaddafi government only three weeks ago.’
Another was Caroline Lucas, member of parliament for the Greens. Showing great understanding of the situation, she said: ‘Given the West’s colonial past, its history of adventurism and support for dictatorship in the region, its failure to enforce UN resolutions in Palestine and the legacy of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I think its motives in Libya will always be in doubt.’
Libya was one of the important member states of the African Union (AU), one of the five, including Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa, which were levied a higher subscription than other member states to finance the budget of the Union. It was therefore inevitable that the AU would take steps to help resolve the conflict in Libya which started in February 2011.
On 23 February 2011, eight days after the start of demonstrations in Benghazi, the AU Peace and Security Council (AU PSC) adopted a decision calling for respect for the rights of the people of Libya to ‘democracy, political reform, justice and socio-economic development’, and condemned ‘the indiscriminate and excessive use of force and lethal weapons against peaceful protesters’. It also resolved to send ‘a mission of Council to Libya to assess the situation on the ground’. Unfortunately, this did not take place.
On 10 March, almost three weeks after its 23 February meeting, the AU PSC decided to constitute a five-nation ‘AU Ad Hoc High Level Committee on Libya’, made up of African heads of state and government, mandated to intervene to resolve the Libyan conflict. The committee was directed to ‘facilitate an inclusive dialogue among the Libyan parties on the appropriate reforms’, which would lead to the peaceful resolution of the Libyan crisis. The AU PSC also expressed its ‘rejection of any foreign military intervention, whatever its form’.
A mere week later the UN Security Council adopted its Resolution 1973, which prescribed exactly the ‘foreign military intervention’ which Africa had rejected. One of the immediate consequences of this was that the UN refused to allow the AU Ad Hoc Committee to visit Tripoli and Benghazi on 18 and 19 March 2011 to promote a peaceful resolution of the Libyan crisis, precisely to reduce the loss of human lives while promoting democratic rule in Libya. This meant that had the African peacemakers flown to Libya to carry out their mission, they stood the danger of their planes being shot down by NATO forces.
This was despite the fact that the UNSC was fully aware of the decisions which had been taken by the AU PSC on 10 March, a full seven days before the adoption of Resolution 1973. Indeed, Resolution 1973 itself said that it ‘took note’ of ‘the communiqué of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union of 10 March, 2011 which established an ad hoc High-Level Committee on Libya.’ This Resolution also took note of the 12 March decisions of the Arab League calling for a ‘no-fly zone’ and proceeded to refer to the Arab League as one of the inter-state institutions the UNSC expected to implement its Resolution. It made no similar reference to the African Union.
Indeed, the coalition of aggression against Libya made it a point constantly to mention the Arab League as some kind of mandating power for its actions and took great care never to mention the African Union as a player in terms of resolving the Libyan conflict. For instance, in a 15 April 2011 Joint Letter the principal sponsors of the aggression against Libya, French President Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Cameron and US President Obama, wrote: ‘We must never forget the reasons why the international community was obliged to act in the first place. As Libya descended into chaos with Colonel Gaddafi attacking his own people, the Arab League called for action. The Libyan opposition called for help. And the people of Libya looked to the world in their hour of need.’ They consciously excluded all mention of the African Union decisions taken specifically to help the people of Libya peacefully to resolve their differences.
In an article on 2 April 2011, entitled ‘Libya and African Self-Determination’, I said: ‘The marginalisation of Africa in terms of helping to determine the future of Libya paid absolutely no regard to the fact that failure to end the Libyan crisis correctly will have a long term impact on the Continent and especially the countries of North Africa and the Sahel, such as Sudan, Chad, Niger and Mali, with little effect on the Western
‘Nobody knows how many Libyans will be killed and injured as a result of the on-going civil war in that country and the evolving military intervention of the West, which has unquestionably evolved into support for the armed insurrection in Libya to achieve the objective of regime change.
‘The reality is that the Libyan conflict will claim many casualties. Because the space has been closed for the Libyans to sit together to decide their future, it is almost guaranteed that for many years Libya will experience sustained and debilitating instability, whoever emerges “victorious” from the current armed conflict.’
I also said in that article that the NATO aggression against Libya, marketed as an intervention to save civilian lives, had ‘unquestionably evolved into support for the armed insurrection in Libya to achieve the objective of regime change.’
By contrast, in his 21 March 2011 speech at the House of Commons, Cameron said: ‘In Iraq, we had been prepared to go into a country, to knock over its government and put something else in its place – that is not the approach we are taking here (with regard to Libya).’ Here Cameron made a solemn commitment to the people of the UK that the UK and NATO military intervention in Libya had nothing to do with regime change, as had been the case when the US, the UK and others invaded Iraq.
I quoted earlier from the joint letter which Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama published on 15 April 2011 in three newspapers – The Times of London, the International Herald Tribune and the French Le Figaro. This was only three weeks after Cameron had addressed the UK House of Commons.
In the joint letter the authors say: “Our duty and our mandate under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 is to protect civilians, and we are doing that. It is not to remove Gaddafi by force. But it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi in power…It is unthinkable that someone who has tried to massacre his own people can play a part in their future government…
‘And because he has lost the consent of his people any deal that leaves him in power would lead to further chaos and lawlessness… (After NATO and its coalition partners have succeeded to protect the civilians) then a genuine transition from dictatorship to an inclusive constitutional process can really begin, led by a new generation of leaders. For that transition to succeed, Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good.’
This is a glaring and unashamed example of double-speak.
In the letter, Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama wrote that they had not intervened in Libya ‘to remove Gaddafi by force’; yet in the same letter they said, ‘Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good’.
This manner of proceeding confirmed exactly the point made by British MP Caroline Lucas when she said, ‘Given the West’s colonial past, its history of adventurism…I think its motives in Libya will always be in doubt.’
The joint letter was published exactly three weeks after Cameron had told the House of Commons that, unlike in Iraq in 2003, NATO and its Arab League partners were not pursuing any objective in Libya ‘to knock over its government and put something else in its place’.
The UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (HCFAC) had to consider all the foregoing when it conducted its inquiry and prepared its Report on ‘Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the United Kingdom’s future policy options’. Long before the HCFAC began its work on Libya in 2015, there were others who commented on some of the matters it considered.
For instance in a ‘Report on Libya’ published on 6 June 2011, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said: ‘Much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the (Libyan) regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no real security challenge. This version would appear to ignore evidence that the protest movement exhibited a violent aspect from very early on…
‘Likewise, there are grounds for questioning the more sensational reports that the regime was using its air force to slaughter demonstrators, let alone engaging in anything remotely warranting use of the term “genocide”.’
Similar observations had been made on 14 April 2011 by Professor Alan K Kuperman, writing in The Boston Globe. In an article headed ‘False pretense for war in Libya’, he said: ‘Evidence is now in that President Barack Obama grossly exaggerated the humanitarian threat to justify military action in Libya. The president claimed that intervention was necessary to prevent a ‘bloodbath’’ in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and last rebel stronghold.
‘Obama insisted that prospects were grim without intervention… Thus, the president concluded, “preventing genocide’’ justified US military action. But intervention did not prevent genocide, because no such bloodbath was in the offing. To the contrary, by emboldening rebellion, US interference has prolonged Libya’s civil war and the resultant suffering of innocents…’
The ICG Report also said: ‘The prospect for Libya, but also North Africa as a whole, is increasingly ominous, unless some way can be found to induce the two sides in the armed conflict to negotiate a compromise allowing for an orderly transition to a post-Qaddafi, post-Jamahiriya state that has legitimacy in the eyes of the Libyan people. A political breakthrough is by far the best way out of the costly situation created by the military impasse.
‘Instead of stubbornly maintaining the present policy and running the risk that its consequence will be dangerous chaos, (the international community) should act now to facilitate a negotiated end to the civil war and a new beginning for Libya’s political life…
‘To insist that, ultimately, [Qadhdhafi] can have no role in the post-Jamahiriya political order is one thing, and almost certainly reflects the opinion of a majority of Libyans as well as of the outside world. But to insist that he must go now, as the precondition for any negotiation, including that of a ceasefire, is to render a ceasefire all but impossible and so to maximise the prospect of continued armed conflict.
‘To insist that he both leave the country and face trial in the International Criminal Court is virtually to ensure that he will stay in Libya to the bitter end and go down fighting.’
In 2011 there were many throughout the world, including those who considered themselves genuine friends of the Libyan people, who did not believe the ‘dissident’ voices of those such as the ICG and Kuperman. These, like the coalition of aggression against Libya, had elected to ignore the earnest African demand to ‘(reject) any foreign military intervention (in Libya), whatever its form’.
The UK HCFAC made its own determination relating to many of the matters which had been raised by the African Union and others, including the ICG and Kuperman. It decided that the scary story of the impending massacre of unarmed civilians in Benghazi and elsewhere, told to justify the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1973 and the subsequent NATO and Arab League aggression against Libya, had no foundation.
The HCFAC says: ‘Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence. The Gaddafi regime had retaken towns from the rebels without attacking civilians in early February 2011…
‘The disparity between male and female casualties (after the Government had restored its authority in Tripoli) suggested that Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians. More widely, Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year record of appalling human rights abuses did not include large-scale attacks on Libyan civilians.
‘On 17 March 2011, Muammar Gaddafi announced to the rebels in Benghazi, “Throw away your weapons, exactly like your brothers in Ajdabiya and other places did. They laid down their arms and they are safe. We never pursued them at all.” Subsequent investigation revealed that when Gaddafi regime forces retook Ajdabiya in February 2011, they did not attack civilians. Muammar Gaddafi also attempted to appease protesters in Benghazi with an offer of development aid before finally deploying troops…
‘Alison Pargeter (an expert academic who assisted the HCFAC) concurred with Professor Joffé’s judgment on Muammar Gaddafi’s likely course of action in February 2011. She concluded that there was no “real evidence at that time that Gaddafi was preparing to launch a massacre against his own civilians”.’
The HCFAC went on to say: ‘An Amnesty International investigation in June 2011 could not corroborate allegations of mass human rights violations by Gaddafi regime troops. However, it uncovered evidence that rebels in Benghazi made false claims and manufactured evidence. The investigation concluded that much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge…
‘Subsequent analysis suggested that the immediate threat to civilians was being publicly overstated and that the reconquest of cities had not resulted in mass civilian casualties…In the course of his 40-year dictatorship Muammar Gaddafi had acquired many enemies in the Middle East and North Africa, who were similarly prepared to exaggerate the threat to civilians…
‘In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty. US intelligence officials reportedly described the intervention as “an intelligence-light decision”.’
In other words, in the view of US intelligence, the military intervention by NATO and its Arab League partners was based on very scanty intelligence.
Thus, the HCFAC determined that the propagation of the fabrication by Prime Minister Cameron and the UK Government that there was a dire and immediate threat to civilians, which justified the military intervention, was based on a number of negative factors.
One of these was that the UK had limited understanding of Libyan reality, with ‘the UK’s understanding of Libya before February 2011 (being) constrained by both resources and the lack of in-country networks for UK diplomats and others to draw on’. Another was that the UK government did not make a proper analysis of the Libyan rebellion. Yet another is that it did not verify the threat to civilians actually posed by the Libyan government.
The UK government happily accepted the false assertions made by Libyan emigrés and Arab Gulf countries about the massacre of civilians by the Gaddafi government, despite the self-serving nature of these assertions by people and governments which were hostile to that regime. It selectively used particular elements of what Gaddafi said, deliberately took these at face value, and used what was mere rhetoric to justify its invasion of Libya. It failed to identify the Islamist terrorist element involved in the armed uprising against the Libyan government. It willingly accepted the lead given by France, at all times ready to react to developments manipulated by France, without setting its own strategic goals.
The HCFAC says that, altogether, the strategy of the UK government was ‘founded on erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the evidence’. It also exposes the bare lie that France led the offensive to intervene in Libya because of its serious, well-meaning and passionate concern to protect innocent civilians who stood the danger of being massacred by the Gaddafi government.
It says that ‘on 2 April 2011, Sidney Blumenthal, adviser and unofficial intelligence analyst to the then United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reported [his] conversation with French intelligence officers to the Secretary of State’. Blumenthal reported that these officers said that President Sarkozy’s suggestions immediately to conduct a military campaign against Libya ‘were driven by the following issues:
In this regard, the HCFAC says: ‘The sum of four of the five factors identified by Sidney Blumenthal equated to the French national interest. The fifth factor was President Sarkozy’s political self-interest.’
None of the French objectives explained by French intelligence officers, and known to Hillary Clinton, and therefore to President Obama and the US government, had anything to do with protecting Libyan civilians. They were focused on promoting French imperial interests in Africa, consistent with the historic neocolonial French policy of Francafrique. This explains why the USA went along with the French proposal, supported by the UK, to commit an act of aggression against Libya.
It is necessary to explain this conclusion. The HCFAC explains that the US government was reluctant to support the French and UK proposal to conduct a military operation against Libya. It says:
‘[Former UK Defence Secretary] Dr Fox told us that “the US were quite reticent about getting involved militarily and tying up assets in a Libyan campaign.” [Former UK Foreign Secretary] Lord Hague added that “there were divisions in the American Government” and that the UK and France influenced the United States to support Resolution 1973...Former US Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, pointed out:
“Cameron and Sarkozy were the undisputed leaders, in terms of doing something. The problem was that it wasn’t really clear what that something was going to be. Cameron was pushing for a no-fly zone, but in the US there was great scepticism. A no-fly zone wasn’t effective in Bosnia, it wasn’t effective in Iraq, and probably wasn’t going to be effective in Libya. When President Obama was confronted with the argument for a no-fly zone, he asked how this was going to be effective. Gaddafi was attacking people. A no-fly zone wasn’t going to stop him. Instead, to stop him we would need to bomb his forces attacking people.”
‘The United States was instrumental in extending the terms of Resolution 1973 beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone to include the authorisation of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. In practice, this led to the imposition of a “no-drive zone” and the assumed authority to attack the entire Libyan Government command and communications network.’
Sarkozy and Cameron sought US support because they knew they could not get the UN Security Council resolution they needed without this support. They also knew that they could not use NATO in the aggression against Libya without the agreement of the USA. In practice, despite the repeated claims that the USA accepted the leadership of France and the UK with regard to the aggression against Libya, the fact is that the USA led the NATO military offensive.
It is true that the US government was not particularly in favour of the military intervention against Libya. Among others this led to the open division on the matter between the US State and Defense Departments, led by Secretaries Clinton and Robert Gates respectively, with Clinton in favour of the intervention, which Gates opposed. In the end, Clinton won the battle. This was because the State Department understood the reality that France was determined to intervene in Libya to promote its imperial interests in Africa. This would not serve the strategic interests of the US with regard to increasing its own influence in Africa, necessarily against France in certain instances.
The US State Department, and Clinton, understood that the only way in which the USA could promote its own interests would be to join the inevitable aggression against Libya, thus asserting its own imperial leadership in practical ways and thereby subverting the French strategic objectives which Sidney Blumenthal had explained to Clinton. It was in this context that Clinton sought to take US ownership of the outcome of the aggression against Libya when, in a very distasteful display of celebration of the death of the despised, she said of the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi, ‘We came, we saw, he died!’, and burst out in a macabre instance of merriment.
Later, when events in Libya and the disastrous consequences of the 2011 NATO aggression could no longer be presented as a merry outcome, President Obama felt free to denounce the disastrous outcome, blaming it on the ‘Europeans’ to whom he had earlier cunningly given leadership, and described it in earthy language as ‘a shit show’. ‘In April 2016,’ the HCFAC said, ‘United States President Barack Obama described post-intervention Libya as a “shit show”. It is difficult to disagree with this pithy assessment.’
As part of the scaremongering to justify both the adoption of Resolution 1973 and the subsequent NATO and Arab League aggression against Libya, much was made of the use of murderous ‘African mercenaries’ by the Gaddafi regime.
The HCFAC notes: ‘Alison Pargeter told us that
“the issue of mercenaries was amplified. I was told by Libyans here, ‘The Africans are coming. They’re going to massacre us. Gaddafi’s sending Africans into the streets. They’re killing our families.’ I think that that was very much amplified. But I also think the Arab media played a very important role here. Al-Jazeera in particular, but also al-Arabiya, were reporting that Gaddafi was using air strikes against people in Benghazi and, I think, were really hamming everything up, and it turned out not to be true.”’
At the same time, the UK government ignored the real threatposed by Islamist jihadists, about which the HCFAC said:
‘Intelligence on the extent to which extremist militant Islamist elements were involved in the anti-Gaddafi rebellion was inadequate. Former [UK] Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Richards of Herstmonceux…[said] that “a quorum of respectable Libyans were assuring the Foreign Office” that militant Islamist militias would not benefit from the rebellion. He acknowledged that “with the benefit of hindsight, that was wishful thinking at best.”’
The report then notes: ‘The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should not have been the preserve of hindsight. Libyan connections with transnational militant extremist groups were known before 2011, because many Libyans had participated in the Iraq insurgency and in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda.’
The report continues: ‘We asked Dr Fox whether he was aware of any assessment of the extent to which the rebellion involved militant Islamist elements. He replied that he did not “recall reading anything of that nature.” It is now clear that militant Islamist militias played a critical role in the rebellion from February 2011 onwards.’
This was exactly the point which the British MP, Jeremy Corbyn, had made when he said ‘caution’ was necessary before rushing to support the insurrectionists in Benghazi whose ‘politics, aims, ambitions, or anything else’ were not known. The reality, therefore, is that the HCFAC suggests that so determined were the UK and its NATO and Arab League allies to defeat the Gaddafi government as their strategic enemy that they were ready to cooperate with what it calls ‘militant Islamist elements’, the IS group which has played a major role in the destabilisation of Libya and the African countries in the Sahel.
Correctly, the HCFAC draws attention to Resolution 1973 calling for action to secure the weapons which had been accumulated by the Libyan government over a number of decades. ‘Lord Richards told us that it was a policy objective to secure ex-Gaddafi regime weapons and ammunition in the aftermath of the civil war. However, he could not remember the UK “doing anything to achieve it”.’
HCFAC adds: ‘The United Nations Panel of Experts appointed to examine the impact of Resolution 1973 identified the presence of ex-Libyan weapons in Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Gaza, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Syria. The panel concluded that “arms originating from Libya have significantly reinforced the military capacity of terrorist groups operating in Algeria, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia.” In the 2010-15 Parliament, our predecessor Committee noted that the failure to secure the Gaddafi regime’s arms caches had led to “a proliferation of small arms and light weapons, and some heavier artillery, across North and West Africa”. It identified that Libyan small arms had apparently ended up in the hands of Boko Haram militants [in Nigeria].’
Earlier, the report states:
‘The international community’s inability to secure weapons abandoned by the Gaddafi regime fuelled instability in Libya and enabled and (sic) increased terrorism across North and West Africa and the Middle East. The UK Government correctly identified the need to secure weapons immediately after the 2011 Libyan civil war, but it and its international partners took insufficient action to achieve that objective. However, it is probable that none of the states that intervened in Libya would have been prepared to commit the necessary military and political resources to secure stocks of weapons and ammunition. That consideration should have informed their calculation to intervene.’
Naturally, the HCFAC also addresses the important question of the impact of the NATO aggression on the quality of life of the Libyan people.
‘The United Nations ranked Libya as the world’s 94th most advanced country in its 2015 index of human development, a decline [of 41 positions] from 53rd place in 2010.
‘In 2016, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that out of a total Libyan population of 6.3 million, 3 million people have been impacted by the armed conflict and political instability, and that 2.4 million people require protection and some form of humanitarian assistance. In its World Report 2016, Human Rights Watch stated that “Forces engaged in the conflict continued with impunity to arbitrarily detain, torture, unlawfully kill, indiscriminately attack, abduct and disappear, and forcefully displace people from their homes. The domestic criminal justice system collapsed in most parts of the country, exacerbating the human rights crisis.”
‘People-trafficking gangs exploited the lack of effective government after 2011, making Libya a key transit route for illegal migration into Europe and the location of a migrant crisis. In addition to other extremist militant groups, ISIL emerged in Libya in 2014, seizing control of territory around Sirte and setting up terrorist training centres.’
The HCFAC has also addressed the vitally important matter of the peace which Libya required so that there would be no need for any concern about the safety of civilians. In this regard, bearing in mind that the strident argument used to justify UNSC Resolution 1973 and the subsequent NATO and Arab League aggression against Libya was the alleged immediate threat against the civilian population in Benghazi, the HCFAC says:
‘The combination of coalition airpower with the supply of arms, intelligence and personnel to the rebels guaranteed the military defeat of the Gaddafi regime. On 20 March 2011, for example, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces retreated some 40 miles from Benghazi following attacks by French aircraft. If the primary object of the coalition intervention was the urgent need to protect civilians in Benghazi, then this objective was achieved in less than 24 hours [given that the NATO bombing campaign had started on 19 March].
‘We questioned why NATO conducted air operations across Libya between April and October 2011 when it had secured the protection of civilians in Benghazi in March 2011. Lord Hague advanced the argument that “Gaddafi’s forces remained a clear danger to civilians. Having been beaten back, they were not then going to sit quietly and accept the situation.” Dr Fox stated that “the UN resolution said to take all possible measures to protect civilians, and that meant a constant degradation of command and control across the country. That meant not just in the east of the country, but in Tripoli.” Throughout their evidence, Lord Hague and Dr Fox stuck to the line that the military intervention in Libya was intended to protect civilians and was not designed to deliver regime change.’
Further, HCFAC states:
‘We asked Lord Richards whether the object of British policy in Libya was civilian protection or regime change. He told us that “one thing morphed almost ineluctably into the other” as the campaign developed its own momentum…
‘When the then Prime Minister David Cameron sought and received parliamentary approval for military intervention in Libya on 21 March 2011, he assured the House of Commons that the object of the intervention was not regime change. In April 2011, however, he signed a joint letter with United States President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy setting out their collective pursuit of “a future without Gaddafi”...
‘We asked Lord Richards whether he was convinced that military intervention in Libya was in the [UK] national interest in March 2011. He replied that “the Prime Minister felt it was in our national interest.” Former Chief of the [UK] Secret Intelligence Service, Sir John Sawers, reportedly also doubted whether the intervention in Libya was in the British national interest. Lord Richards told us that he was unconvinced by the development of UK strategy in spring and summer 2011...
The report concludes that: ‘The deployment of coalition air assets shifted the military balance in the Libyan civil war in favour of the rebels…
‘The combat performance of rebel ground forces was enhanced by personnel and intelligence provided by states such as the UK, France, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. For example, Lord Richards told us that the UK “had a few people embedded” with the rebel forces.
‘Resolution 1973 called on United Nations member states to ensure the “strict implementation of the arms embargo”. However, we were told that the international community turned a blind eye to the supply of weapons to the rebels. Lord Richards highlighted “the degree to which the Emiratis and the Qataris…played a major role in the success of the ground operation.” For example, Qatar supplied French Milan anti-tank missiles to certain rebel groups. We were told that Qatar channelled its weapons to favoured militias rather than to the rebels as a whole…
‘The UK’s intervention in Libya was reactive and did not comprise action in pursuit of a strategic objective. This meant that a limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means…
‘Political options were available if the UK Government had adhered to the spirit of Resolution 1973, implemented its original campaign plan and influenced its coalition allies to pause military action when Benghazi was secured in March 2011. Political engagement might have delivered civilian protection, regime change and reform at lesser cost to the UK and to Libya. If political engagement had been unsuccessful, the UK and its coalition allies would not have lost anything. Instead, the UK Government focused exclusively on military intervention. In particular, we saw no evidence that it tried to exploit former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s contacts and influence with the Gaddafi regime…
‘We note former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decisive role when the (UK) National Security Council discussed intervention in Libya.’
Trying to restore a semblance of honourable strategic thinking on the part of the UK Government led by Cameron, the HCFAC inserted the following:
‘[Former Defence Secretary] Dr Fox helpfully explained his strategic criteria for UK participation in a military intervention:
“No. 1: what does a good outcome look like? No. 2: is such an outcome engineerable? No. 3: do we have to be part of the engineering? No. 4: how much of the aftermath would you like to own? I think that there is, and has been in our history, a tendency to answer No. 1 without answering the rest of the questions. It is not responsible for any Government at any time to go into any conflict and to deploy our armed forces without answering all four questions.”
‘The answer to question No. 1 was “civilian protection” in February 2011. In that case, the UK Government had plausible answers to questions Nos. 2 to 4. As Lord Richards explained, it had a coherent strategy based on protecting civilians and pausing to explore political options... However, it could not influence its coalition partners to agree and implement that strategy. Instead, it suddenly changed its answer to question No. 1 to “regime change” without addressing questions Nos. 2 to 4. This strategic incoherence formed the root of the international community’s failure to stabilise Libya.’
Perhaps, for understandable domestic political reasons, the HCFAC chose not to embarrass Dr Fox by pointing out that what Lord Richards understood as a ‘coherent strategy based on protecting civilians and pausing [military actions] to explore political options’ collapsed when Cameron appended his name to the infamous Joint Letter of 15 April 2011 which said that ‘Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good’.
Exactly because many of us in Africa and others in the world did not abandon the ‘political engagement’ which the HCFAC says was possible, but was not sought by the UK Government and its allies, during the course of the war in 2011 we supported an initiative to end the war through negotiations among the Libyans. The government of Libya, led by Muammar Gaddafi, the NTC and the traditional leaders had agreed that a senior retired European statesperson, well-known to all Libyans, and supported by former African heads of state and government, should convene them to negotiate an end to the war and agree on the future of Libya.
The European statesperson asked me to engage the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, to get UN approval for the suggested non-governmental intervention, as agreed by all Libyan players, so that these principal Libyan stakeholders could engage one another in negotiations to end the war and determine the future of their country. We needed this UN approval because by then the UN Secretary General had already appointed a Special Envoy, Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib, with the task to facilitate negotiations among Libyan stakeholders. However, these Libyan stakeholders preferred the non-governmental intervention I mentioned. For his part, the European statesperson, and ourselves as former African heads of state and government, wanted to assure the UN that as the non-governmental intervention we would do everything necessary to cooperate with the UN Special Envoy. Accordingly, I did indeed engage the UN Secretary General. Naturally, he had to discuss our proposal with various member states of the UN to authorise him to convey to us the UN approval. The UN approval we sought never came!
Thus did a genuine and very serious effort to put in place an inclusive Libyan process to end the war in Libya perish even before it was born, killed by those in the UN who were never interested to allow the Libyan people to determine their destiny.
It therefore did not surprise me that the HCFAC has posed the critically important question about ‘why NATO conducted air operations across Libya between April and October 2011 when it had secured the protection of civilians in Benghazi in March 2011’. The answer, of course, is that the argument that had been used to justify the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and therefore launch the NATO aggression, was nothing more than a deceitful manoeuvre used to hide the real intention of the sponsors of this resolution. The real goal was to effect regime change in Libya in the interests of the western powers which pushed for Resolution 1973, whose strategic goals had absolutely nothing to do either with protecting Libyan civilians or bringing democracy, human rights and prosperity to the Libyan people.
This is why then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could not hide her feeling of triumph when she openly celebrated the very repulsive and brutal assassination of Muammar Gaddafi by breaking out in hearty laughter saying, ‘We came, we saw, he died’.
What is the coherent story which emerges from these two important reports prepared by authorised UK institutions to assess the involvement of the UK in the two disastrous military adventures in Iraq from 2003, and Libya in 2011? These – “The Iraq Inquiry” conducted under the leadership of Sir John Chilcot, published on 6 July 2016, and the “Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the United Kingdom’s future policy options”, prepared by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, MP, and published on 14 September 2016 – tell a story of a Labour government, led by Tony Blair, and a later Conservative government, led by David Cameron, which argued for and involved themselves in wars of choice in countries of the South, in Iraq and Libya.
Both these wars were launched and waged on the basis of absolute falsehoods which had no factual basis, confirming the correctness of the proposition that the western governments, and perhaps others as well, are ready as a matter of policy to rely on the propagation of lies to achieve their strategic objectives. Practical reality confirmed that the bulk of the mass media in these western countries stands ready to join these governments to communicate such lies. This reality also confirmed the global influence of this western media as much of the media in the rest of the world, including the countries of the South, parroted the false narrative communicated by their western counterparts.
Supported by the mass media, two UK governments went to war in Iraq and Libya despite the contrary opinion and opposition of the majority of the population they claimed to represent. In both instances, the UK and other western governments concerned launched wars of aggression against countries of the South to assert their hegemony in terms of determining the shape of the global order in all its elements.
In this regard, these western governments picked on governments of the South which they viewed as standing out in terms of setting a bad example as openly and consistently defiant rebels against such western hegemony. In this regard, they made certain that they exploited the wrong actions of these governments of the South to demonise them in their own countries and regions and globally, as the very representatives of everything that is evil and universally unacceptable. Accordingly, whatever the protestations of the western governments, the wars they would wage against the targeted countries of the South would pursue the central objective of regime change.
Experience has also shown that even in instances where it might not be necessary and possible to wage war, the western countries will use all other means to achieve such regime change. In the two instances at issue, the South African government, democratically elected as the representative of the masses of our people, also fortuitously serving, at the time, as a spokesperson of the peoples of the South, openly opposed the 2003 war against Iraq. Among other interventions intended to help avoid this war, it sent to Iraq a team specialised on the matter of eliminating weapons of mass destruction to assist the Iraqi government unit charged with the task to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors led by Hans Blix. Its task was to help ensure that the Iraqis worked honestly with the UN weapons inspectors to enable these inspectors properly to determine whether Iraq had these weapons of mass destruction.
After its visit to Iraq, this South African government team reported to the UN, through the UN Secretary General, that it was convinced that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Blix admitted publicly that the visit to Iraq by the South African team had, at least, helped to improve the cooperation of the Iraqis with the UN inspectors. However, many years later, in 2011, the South African government prevaricated with regard to the war against Libya.
During the session of the UN Security Council which adopted Resolution 1973, the South African representative at the UN, who was also a member of the UN Security Council in 2011, said, ‘South Africa supported the dispatch by the African Union of a special mission to Libya.’ However, he also said that by adopting Resolution 1973, for which he voted as instructed by his government, ‘the UN Security Council had acted responsibly to answer the call of the Libyan people.’ He ‘hoped that the letter and spirit of Resolution 1973 would be implemented in full.’
In the instance of Iraq, the western governments concerned made certain that the views of the South African government did not get any significant global public exposure. In the instance of Libya, these governments made certain that the views of the peoples of Africa, as represented by the African Union, also did not get any significant global public exposure. Rather, they used the wrong positions taken by the three African governments which served on the UN Security Council at the time – South Africa, Nigeria and Gabon – to delegitimise the view of the African Union, on the basis that these three had voted in favour of Resolution 1973, which, most unfortunately, they did.
The western governments therefore argued that these three African governments were as legitimate a representative of African opinion as was the African Union. This served as a flimsy justification to exclude the AU as a legitimate player in terms of the resolution of the conflict in Libya. Even when, as private citizens, we engaged the UN Secretary General to encourage an intervention, acting together with a former European statesperson, by then a prominent non-governmental leader, to help peacefully to resolve the conflict in Libya, the western governments ensured that this initiative died on the vine. All this confirmed that the imperialist impulse which had informed the political attitude of many western ruling groups to perpetuate their neocolonialist hegemony over Africa had not disappeared.
The Chilcot and HCFAC reports confirm that the UK political establishment, regardless of political party affiliation, continues to share the objective to ensure that the UK remains part of the conglomerate of the western global hegemon. The reports tell an instructive story of what the UK political establishment is ready and willing to do to make certain that it is not excluded as a member of this global hegemonic power, thus communicating an important message about the contemporary exercise of imperialist power. That message is that while the individual western powers have competing interests with regard to Africa, and will act to promote those interests in conflict with one another, they will also act in concert when they believe that any of our countries constitutes a threat to their shared objective of ensuring that all of Africa accepts their neocolonialist diktat.
The HCFAC Report about the 2011 invasion of Libya by the common western military formation, NATO, illustrates this reality in graphic terms. Thus did the individual imperial interests of the western countries with regard to Africa, as explained in some detail by the HCFAC concerning the French selfish national interests, get overtaken by the larger objective to eliminate a common threat posed by Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Despite its many wrong interventions in Africa, which many of us as Africans opposed in a sustained and principled struggle, Gaddafi’s Libya fought in its own way for the genuine independence of Africa, determined to use the relatively considerable resources it had accumulated as an important oil-producing country with a small population.
It was for this reason, interpreted by the Sarkozy government as a threat to French control of Francophone Africa, that major western countries came to the conclusion that Gaddafi’s Libya constituted a shared threat to the western countries as it was setting a bad example in terms of putting on the agenda the possibility for Africa truly to exercise its right to self-determination. This was what gave the possibility for these western countries to unite around the false proposition of a non-existent threat against Libyan civilians, thus to authorise the NATO aggression against the common enemy of the western powers, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan government.
All this makes the vitally important statement that as Africans we owe it to ourselves clearly to understand what it means for us to determine our destiny, consistent with our hard-won right to self-determination which, through our own struggles, has been inscribed in international law as an inalienable right of all nations, big and small. This firmly places on our agenda as Africans, and other peoples of the South, the task that we have an absolute obligation to be vigilant at all times to ensure that we rely on ourselves and the masses of our people to guarantee our right to self-determination.
The UN Security Council Resolution 1973 and the subsequent NATO war of aggression against an African country, Libya, expressly sought to make the regressive and anti-African statement that as Africans we are grossly mistaken in our belief that we enjoy an inalienable right to self-determination and have any possibility to exercise this right. This is the central reason why the UN Security Council deliberately ignored the decisions taken by the AU PSC on 10 March 2011, which established a High Level Ad-Hoc Committee to mediate a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Libya and spoke strongly against any foreign military intervention to end this conflict.
It was exactly for the same reason that, together with the UN Security Council, the western sponsors of Resolution 1973 – France, the UK and the US, and NATO – emphasised that their decision to attack the Libyan government had been authorised by the Arab League, an organisation from which Libya had extricated itself. It was to make the statement that the African opinion had no standing even with regard to the most important African issues.
As Africans we have to understand that this is part of the deliberate and systemic reality in the contemporary system of power relations, that in the current geopolitical setting the major western powers hold the view that Africa, given its enormous reservoir of natural resources and its potential as a power bloc, if and when it acts in unity, cannot be left alone to determine its destiny. This must be understood within the context of the virulent contradiction and competition between western powers and especially China with regard to both these natural resources and the global balance of power.
The African intelligentsia and the continent’s progressive movement have a shared and urgent obligation properly to analyse, understand and speak openly about the domestic and international challenges Africa faces as it pursues its struggle to achieve its progressive transformation, whose objectives include the achievement of both African unity and Africa’s renaissance. Thus will we, having accepted the positions of this intelligentsia and progressive movement, give real meaning to what Africa seeks to achieve in the context of the agreed AU Agenda 2063.
Central to this must be the understanding that nothing in this Agenda 2063 can be achieved and have any meaning unless it is based on a real exercise by ourselves as Africans of our right to self-determination. Thus must the broad African leadership, in all its echelons, understand that the struggle continues to defend this right and ensure both the equality of all nations in the ordering of international affairs and respect for the rule of international law.
It will only be through the conscious pursuit of these objectives by the organised political and other formations of the African people and the African masses themselves that it will be possible for us to make the assertion without which it is impossible to inspire these masses to engage in the necessary sustained struggle: that the struggle continues, and victory is certain!
* Published with permission of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation
** The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Afro-Middle East Centre
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The election of General Michel Aoun as president of Lebanon earlier this month ends a two-and-half year stalemate when the country could not agree on who the president should be, and parliament extended its own term twice. It also points to a reconfiguration of the bipolar coalition politics which have severely gridlocked the country’s formal political processes. Aoun’s election was spurred mainly by domestic political manoeuvrings, but it will mean little in terms of service delivery and improvements in governance for the Lebanese citizenry. Nor will it result in any immediate change in the country’s stance toward the Syrian crisis. (Syria is an always-looming factor in Lebanese politics.) Indeed, Lebanese politics and governmental functions were only minimally impacted by the presidential vacuum; this because of the country’s entrenched sectarian and religious patronage networks, and because a convergence over the Syrian spillover into Lebanon had, since 2014, seen mainstream politicians being forced to work together. Aoun’s election does, however, indicate that Lebanon’s confessional political system remains entrenched.
Currently leader of the Christian Maronite Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Aoun is a former army chief who had been previously involved in a failed attempt to eject Syrian troops from Lebanon after the 1989 Taif Accords which ended Lebanon’s fifteen-year-long civil war. He spent fifteen years in self-imposed exile in Paris after the war and after his unsuccessful attempt to head a rival administration in the years preceding Taif. In 2006 he and the FPM sealed an agreement with Hizbullah, and Aoun changed his position on the Syrian regime, then headed by Bashar al-Asad.
Elected by simple majority, Aoun’s installation as president was a mere formality after he had received the backing of the largest Sunni party, Saad Hariri’s Future Movement (FM), a week earlier. The main reason that a president could not be elected in the past two-and-half years was that the two main political blocs – one led by Hariri’s FM and the other by Hizbullah – could not agree on a single candidate. This stalemate has its origins in the confessional political system left behind by the French when Lebanon gained independence in 1943. In terms of that system, the 128 parliamentary seats are divided equally between Muslims (Sunni and Shi'a) and Christians (Maronite and Catholic); and the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the parliamentary speaker a Shi'a. The Taif Accords were supposed to be a stepping stone to take the country beyond confessional politics, but the various roleplayers have not succeeded in transcending sectarian politics.
Hariri’s decision to finally support Hizbullah’s candidate meant that an eighty-six-member parliamentary quorum was realised, and thus, on the forty-fifth attempt since the term of the former president, Michel Suleiman, ended in May 2014, the country was able to elect a president. Hariri’s backing means that there has been a serious attempt by all sides to transcend the bitter divide between the Hizbullah-led March 8 and FM-led March 14 coalitions, formed after the assassination of Hariri’s father and former prime minister, Rafic. This is also the first time that the three largest political parties – FM, Hizbullah and FPM – have endorsed the same candidate.
The change is a result of both domestic and regional political shifts, which have caused Lebanese politicians to reassess the coalition politics that had been in place for over a decade. The impasse regarding the presidential vacuum did not serve Hariri’s political agenda. It ensured that he would not be able to become prime minister because he would be blocked by Hizbullah and its March 8 allies. Although the current prime minister, Tammam Salam, was nominated by Hariri’s March 14 coalition, he played the role of an independent candidate by also maintaining ties with March 8, leaving Hariri without firm control over the government. The deal to elect Aoun as president secured Hariri’s position as prime minister, and he is already rushing to form his cabinet before Lebanon’s Independence Day on 22 November. With Lebanon’s presidency being a ceremonial position, the prime minister is actually more important in terms of governance. The cabinet is expected to mirror the confessional proportions in parliament, and could see Hizbullah ministers serving in Hariri’s government. Hariri was likely also concerned that the delay in electing a president was keeping him out of power at a time when Sunni opinions on a number of issues were diverging. Further delays could see other Sunni politicians such as former justice minister, Ashraf Rifi, or Salafi cleric Ahmed Al-Assir, winning over Sunni support. He thus took a gamble – despite opposition even from within his party – and it seems the gamble will pay off.
Another reason for his acceptance of Aoun as president is his recent difficulties with his patrons in Saudi Arabia. His relationship with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, is said to be strained, and Hariri businesses in Saudi Arabia are facing difficulties because of the struggling Saudi economy. Saudi Arabia reneged earlier this year on four billion dollars in military and security aid to Lebanon after the Lebanese government failed to condemn the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January. The Saudis are also much more focused on their war in Yemen, and seem willing to temporarily postpone their interest in Lebanon. It is unclear whether Hariri’s decision to strike a deal with Hizbullah on the presidency was sanctioned by the Saudis, and, if it was, what their strategy might be for this move. It is possible that the January silence on the Tehran embassy issue has convinced the Saudis that they require more loyal leadership in Beirut – even if it means allowing an Asad-supporting Hizbullah candidate to become president.
Yet another domestic factor that should not be ignored is that Lebanese citizens have become increasingly disillusioned with their politicians. In 2015, the Lebanese government’s inability to efficiently dispose of refuse led to the founding of the Youstink movement, and in the May 2016 municipal election the non-aligned Beirut Madinati movement gained around forty per cent of votes in the capital. It has since announced its intention to also contest the 2017 parliamentary election. Both these movements include large numbers of non-partisan Lebanese youth frustrated with the failures of politicians and parties, and less influenced by confessional and sectarian identities. Even in Hizbullah strongholds such as in southern Lebanon and Baalbek, around forty per cent of votes in the municipal election were cast against the Shi'a joint list of Hizbullah and the Amal party.
Mainstream parties such as Hizbullah and Future have thus had to find some means of cooperation to break the political deadlock, prevent a loss of power, and to ensure a reinvigoration of traditional Lebanese politics. This resulted in previously unlikely coalitions for the municipal election, such as between Hariri’s Future and Aoun’s FPM.
For most of Lebanon’s citizens, however, little will change as a result of Aoun’s election and Hariri’s new government. Service delivery will likely continue to be devolved to patronage networks, especially since these are a means for mainstream parties to generate support and revenue. This is especially because these party patronage networks are entrenched, often work more effectively than the state, and have allowed the country to run relatively smoothly throughout the two-and-half-year presidential vacuum. In the meanwhile, Hizbullah’s influence and the maintenance of its armed wing and its weaponry (a cause of much protest from Future and the Saudis in the past) will endure. Further, Lebanon’s stance toward the Syrian conflict and its policy of ‘disassociation’ from the regional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue – even if Aoun does make speeches supporting the Asad regime.
But as the political structure in Lebanon is tightened, the one million Syrian refugees in that country might find that their situation becomes worse. All mainstream political parties have already adopted steps to limit the Syrian conflict’s spillover into Lebanon; and President Aoun’s aggressive stance against Syrian refugees in Lebanon could result in attempts at repatriation.
The election of a new president after two-and-half years is an assertion of the sectarian Lebanese status quo that reinforces the letter of the Taif Accord, but fails to transition to its spirit, which aimed to transcend the confessional system to entrench a strong Lebanese national political identity. It is an indication of how Lebanon remains hostage to regional and international influences, and of its inability to assert its independence as a sovereign nation state. The country’s political system is a reminder of the remnants of the French colonial project, and of the consequences of foreign intervention. In this are lessons for those who are keen to divide Syria and further divide Iraq.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The results of the recent, 7 October, Moroccan parliamentary election means little in terms of the exercise of actual political power, but is indicative of the continued popularity of the ruling Islamist Freedom and Development party (PJD) which won twenty-five per cent of the vote. Voter turnout stood at a low forty-three per cent because of apathy flowing from the realisation that King Mohammed VI will maintain control and the election meant little in terms of politics or power, and the belief that political parties’ objective was to join the extensive patronage networks rather than representing ordinary Moroccans’ grievances. Ideological polarisation and a skewed political system that inhibits the emergence of large political parties will further contribute to the legislature’s inability to keep the monarch in check.
With little real opposition to the king, the PJD’s victory is not terribly significant, especially in foreign policy and long term strategic planning. The party will rather attempt to further pry open the political space by confronting the palace on electoral and constitutional reform, and by focusing strongly on corruption. All this will be an incremental, attritional process.
Moroccan elections have been historically plagued by two major difficulties. First, the system promotes ideological fragmentation by encouraging the growth of multiple small parties. A low three per cent voting threshold is implemented, forcing larger parties to partner with small ones to gain a parliamentary majority. This inhibits ideological and policy coherence and allows Mohammed VI to stymie parliamentary opposition to his rule through what some call ‘political rationalisation’. Second, and more importantly, parliament has little actual power. Even though the king piloted constitutional reforms in July 2011 to curb his powers, he is still able to dissolve the government, and has absolute powers in the realms of foreign policy and strategic planning. Most major decisions must be ratified by the king, who chairs the supreme council of the judiciary, the national security council, and the council of ministers, and is the self-designated ‘amir al-mu'minin’ (leader of the faithful). Electoral power is thus circumscribed and many parties contest elections to gain access to the Makhzen (the palace) and thus its patronage networks.
This was manifest in the 7 October elections. The PJD increased its seat count from 107 in 2011 to 125, beating its main rival and the king’s favoured party, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which won 102 seats. The party must thus partner with some of the other thirty other parties to govern. It has entered into talks with the Democratic Front, consisting of the nationalist Istiqlal party (with forty-six seats), the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP, twenty seats) and the Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS, twelve seats). These will likely form a coalition to exclude PAM. The PJD’s leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, has had to delicately balance his party’s opposition to aspects of the monarch’s power with the party’s need for monarchical endorsement to contest elections. Thus, although criticising the current political system that he calls tahakoum (politically manipulated authoritarianism), he repeatedly clarifies that he serves at the monarch’s behest and that bad decisions should be attributed to the monarch’s advisors and not Mohammed VI himself.
The low election turnout, down from forty-five per cent in the 2011 parliamentary election and fifty-three per cent in last year’s municipal vote, is due to voter apathy, and the boycott calls from the civil society Islamist movement Al Adl wa Al Ihsaane (Justice and Goodness) movement and the leftist Democratic Way party, which have been shunned from the political system. At the heart of the apathy is the realisation that the legislature’s power is severely curtailed. Hence the higher turnout for municipal elections, which many citizens see as more relevant to their needs.
The election has proven the popularity of the PJD, despite the Makhzen’s attempts to weaken it through ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ vote rigging and explicit backing for PAM. The PJD has improved from five per cent in the 2009 municipal election to sixteen per cent in the 2015 vote and from 107 seats in 2011 to 125 in the October poll. The party is thus likely to endure, despite its worse than expected performance in last year’s election, and in spite of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa region, that is unfavourable to parties referencing Islam. However, similar to Tunisia’s Ennahdha and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, the PJD’s success lies in a focus away from ideology and toward partnerships with non-Islamist parties, and a reluctance to strongly pronounce on regional issues.
With youth unemployment at twenty per cent and graduate unemployment in many urban areas at forty per cent, the conditions that sparked the February 2011 Moroccan protests persist. Parties such as the PJD will need to carefully navigate the current political terrain else, or risk being seen as complicit when protests erupt again. Already around eighty per cent of people polled by the Arab Barometer III survey view the state as corrupt and judicial decisions as open to corruption.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The 16 October declaration by Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi of the beginning of the offensive to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group (IS) was welcomed by a range of forces in the Middle East and globally. However, there was immediately an attempt to address fears of potential sectarian violence that might be unleashed upon the liberation of the city, IS’s de facto Iraqi capital.
At a conference of Iraqi tribes held in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to support the Mosul offensive, tribal leaders from Nineveh, the province in which Mosul is located, insisted Shi'a militias should not be involved in the military attempt to liberate Mosul. They feared that Mosul’s Sunnis will be blamed for IS’s crimes, and were afraid of revenge attacks. They based their fears on reports that more than 700 Sunni males had disappeared after Shi'a militias captured Fallujah, and that looting and mass killings occurred in Tikrit when that city was liberated from IS.
Responding to concerns about sectarian reprisals, Iraqi Kurdish leaders promised that their Peshmerga forces would not enter Mosul, and the USA conditioned its air support on Shi'a militias not entering the city. The alliance of Shi'a militias, the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), one of the more successful anti-IS forces, has not been excluded from the battle, however. As the Iraqi army advances from the south and west, and Peshmerga forces conduct a multipronged assault from the north and east, the PMF headed westwards to block IS’s escape route from Mosul into Syria. Adding another sectarian dimension, Turkish forces stationed in Bashiqa camp near Mosul joined the fighting against IS this week – despite protests from the Iraqi government – after an invitation from the Peshmerga. Turkey claimed concern for Mosul’s minority Turkmen population and for the Sunni majority.
Mosul and its surrounding area, although having a majority of Sunnis, is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse areas in Iraq. The last major stronghold of IS in Iraq, its three million population (before IS captured it) included Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, and Circassians, with a religious and sectarian diversity that included Sunnis, Shi'as, Salafis, Yezidis and Christians.
Over the past year IS has taken a battering on the battlefield. Its loss of the Syrian town of Dabiq earlier this month was a huge symbolic defeat. The Iraqi army, meanwhile, has regained morale and momentum with the recapture of major cities such as Sinjar, Ramadi and Fallujah over the past ten months. The Mosul offensive involves more than 30 000 forces, mostly made up of Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga, supported by US air strikes and special forces. IS probably has around 6 000 fighters in the city. The initial advance on Mosul saw more than twenty villages and hamlets liberated by Iraqi and Kurdish forces within two days, but the offensive then slowed down due to the number of explosives and booby traps on the roads. Earlier this week, around forty kilometres separated the coalition forces from Mosul.
There have already been reports of some local IS fighters abandoning Mosul, leaving foreign fighters behind. Nevertheless, IS is expected to mount stiff resistance from within the city. The fall of this crucial city will affect IS politically as it loses territory, thus jeopardising its state-building project, and also financially since Mosul has been a huge contributor of tax revenue for the group. Coalition forces claim, however, that Mosul will fall within two months. They are hoping that, as IS fighters defend the city against coalition forces, resistance within Mosul will rise up to battle IS from within. This has already begun with an Iraqi flag being raised over an IS government building last week.
Much of the city will likely be in ruins before it is liberated. It is uncertain whether the fragile Iraqi state will be capable of reconstructing this and other devastated areas. It will also have to take over the provision of services and security in areas in which it has not had the responsibility for the past two years, thus increasing its resource burden. Most importantly, the grievances and sense of marginalisation of Sunni communities in the north has not disappeared. The real mark of Iraq’s success in defeating IS will be whether the government is able to address this marginalisation, and include Sunnis in the state in a manner that removes these grievances. If not, then the reasons that IS was able to take Mosul so easily will persist, and the region will remain ripe for others who claim to support the Sunnis in the north against the central government.
By Majak D’Agoôt and Remember Miamingi
No country is entirely self-contained or lacking in interdependencies. These interlocking interests form the critical part of any country’s existence. Therefore, compartmentalising South Sudan in matters of interconnectedness is, at best, disingenuous, and at worst, sheer political autarky.
In December 2013, South Sudan descended into a brutal civil war. More than two years after independence, political division and contestation for power within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) quickly turned violent. One cause of this atrocious conflict was the fact that the de jure state had failed to become a de facto state with efficient, fair, politically neutral and transparent institutions capable of serving public interests. Governance institutions remain weak and politicised, lacking oversight. In the absence of a credible and coherent opposition, the government has maintained power via coercion. A highly militarised society and state have left no room for civil society, the media and non-partisan spaces to expand. Rather, this context has created fertile ground for impunity and a breakdown of rule of law.
In the absence of a history of governance and legitimate institutions, South Sudan, as a failing and fragile state, has easily become a source of incalculable security risks, a threat to peace and security domestically, regionally and internationally. Domestic security challenges arising from the rubble of a collapsed state are contagious and transcend its borders. As a result, South Sudan poses an acute risk to international security in the form of transnational organised crime, arms proliferation, civil conflict, terrorism and health hazards. Moreover, given the historical affinities between South Sudan and its immediate neighbours, the region’s countries are not only culturally intertwined but also geographically contiguous. Consequently, South Sudan is not only part of the African continent; it is also an important geopolitical player in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region. In other words, South Sudan occupies a geostrategic position.
It is these interlocking risks that partly motivated regional actors to play an active role in South Sudan’s conflict. Since 2013, beyond the limits of judicial sovereignty, South Sudan’s regional neighbours and international partners have been impelled to respond to risks affecting the country. Strictly, one government’s blunders, resulting from its own untamed wagering, affect the neighbourhood and humanity at large. They should be viewed as occurrences within a wider ecosystem of risks, which may have blood-curdling implications across national borders. Specifically, trans-boundary criminality, such as foreign insurgencies from Sudan and Uganda operating in South Sudan, has increased – and international borders have become less relevant. Hence, its neighbours have the right to intervene, as they did in the past, especially during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005). Fundamentally, a state that considers its sovereignty a license to destroy itself and its people is an illegitimate enterprise.
Applying fire protection measures to one’s property – fire retardants or fire extinguishers – ensures a neighbourhood’s safety; in the same way, regional peace and security requires a united effort. For good or ill, decision-making powers in Juba as well as the armed opposition have already crossed borders to regional capitals, with serious ramifications. As the conflict intensifies, the geographic boundaries of national politics and economics are likely to ebb and flow accordingly.
Hawks in Juba have exaggerated the debate on South Sudan’s borders and sovereignty – even if its rulers are acting irresponsibly – in order to distract from the dire humanitarian situation caused by this manufactured disaster. To the extent that state-society relations are central to the functioning of a political entity, the underpinnings of popular and empirical sovereignty have been deliberately buried. State functions, such as the effective administration of territories, holding a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, taxation, provision of public security, etc. are not viewed by the gun-toting leadership in Juba as critical to the government’s mandate.
Such dismal failure and utter denial does not allow a polity to generate a moral voice to claim legitimacy over the population and territories that are under its juridical control. A state operating at the peak of legitimacy is dangerously hollowed out. Clearly, it subjects itself to a low fire-sale price in the eyes of its citizens and allies – and as prey for its enemies. Substantive debate around sovereignty must include rights and responsibilities to act in tandem with national and international laws.
South Sudan’s independence followed decades of bloody conflict and enormous sacrifices by its people. Since 1955, southern Sudanese had taken up arms to end colonialism at the hands of their northern, Arab neighbours. South Sudan’s independence also rested upon significant, sustained regional and international efforts. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) region and the USA played a key role in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), leading up to the 2011 independence referendum.
Since a change of established borders – especially the breakup of a fragile state like Sudan – is fraught with risks, the regional and international community closely followed developments in South Sudan. After the CPA’s signing on 9 January 2005, the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1590, establishing the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Following South Sudan’s independence, and in light of the newborn state’s perceived fragility and potential threats to international security, the UNSC adopted resolutions 1996 (2011) and 2057 (2012), respectively, which established and extended the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) – a peacekeeping mission, in accordance with Chapter Seven of the United Nations Charter. Both UNMIS and UNMISS have involved large military components. In addition, UNMISS established a high-level mechanism to ensure the alignment of its goals to government priorities. Further spheres of cooperation include peace consolidation; decentralisation; infrastructure development; constitutional review; security sector reform, including disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration; conflict prevention; and administration of justice.
Despite the unanimity leading to the establishment of UNMIS and UNMISS – both played an important role in keeping the UNSC actively involved in the peace-building process – external actors have played a negligible role in South Sudan’s state-building process. In fact, the UN system together with other external actors only succeeded in applying astute diplomatic strategies to maintain the peace during an interim period. On many other levels, however, such interventions have borne limited results in achieving the desired goals. More importantly, many external actors saw the region as a complex, continuous emergency, focusing their efforts on humanitarian aid rather than post-conflict recovery and reconstruction. Regardless of a limited shift to development assistance in 2011, the complex emergency response argument quickly appeared whenever levels of insecurity increased in the country.
Whether the 2013 crisis was the natural outcome of a false start or an inevitable tumble, the transformation of UNMIS into UNMISS under a new mandate in 2011 did have benefits. In 2012, when interethnic raids intensified in Jonglei, especially in Pibor County, UNMISS intervention prevented possible ethnic cleansing through mass violence, looting, widespread displacement and starvation. In 2013, UNMISS humanitarian action was remarkably swift. In an atmosphere of targeted killings and revenge attacks, thousands of victims found protection within UNMISS bases in Juba, Malakal, Bentiu and Bor. As violence gained traction, the mission also provided periodic reports and updates on the dire human rights situation in the country.
Throughout the conflict, an array of parties – the IGAD, AU, and the Troika (Norway, the UK and the USA) – took part in intensive mediation efforts, which culminated in the August 2015 peace deal meant to arrest the crisis at an embryonic stage. However, the 2015 peace deal was a compromise. It called for power-sharing and reform leading to a national constitution-making process. It also called for mechanisms to deal with crimes committed during the war and to prepare for democratic elections. The parties to the agreement have never been satisfied with its power-sharing and security components, and implementation got off to a slow start because of disagreements over timing and conflicting interpretations of the way forward.
Nearly a year after the deal was signed many of its security and political milestones have been only partially implemented. For instance, Juba was supposed to be demilitarised, but there remains heavy deployment everywhere; planned joint military and police units have yet to be established, and contrary to the agreement, rival forces have not been cantoned. These disagreements reached their peak in July 2016 when the main parties to the agreement resorted to fighting in the streets of Juba. When the civil war resumed, the IGAD, AU, Troika and the UN embarked on a last-ditch effort to save the deal, which resulted in UNSC Resolution 2304 of 2016.
The post-July 2016 conflict in Juba
There is little accord about what triggered the return to war. Whatever the preferred interpretation, one thing is certain: the Juba conflict resulted from the selective and poor implementation of the security components of the 2015 peace deal and a deep sense of mutual distrust between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, South Sudan’s president and vice president, respectively. The fighting dims prospects for the 2015 peace deal’s successful implementation, a fact further aggravated by the splintering of the SPLM-in-Opposition [CS1]and the swearing in of Taban Deng Gai as the new first vice president. Any trust that might have existed between the main parties has now vanished. The dire economic situation and mushrooming of new rebel movements across the country make the need for a functioning government all the more urgent. The unfolding humanitarian catastrophe and looming famine further complicate an already hopelessly complex situation. According to the UN, a third of South Sudan’s population, nearly five million people, faces ‘dangerous levels’ of hunger and the ‘worst famine in the world’.
After the carnage in Juba, there are two potential outcomes: a return to the status quo ante and a full, immediate and unconditional implementation of the agreement, or a return to full-scale war. The former is the easiest, most principled, least costly and best scenario. The international community knows and supports the roadmap. However, clearly the main parties to the conflict lack the political will to proceed with the agreement. This could very well return the country to full-blown war. Obviously this scenario would be costly, complex and unpredictable. If war breaks out, many different armed groups could become involved with no end in sight. Regional or international players may enter the fray, further complicating the situation.
In order to encourage the former and discourage the latter, the UNSC passed Resolution 2304 of 2016. The resolution strengthens the UNMISS mandate, increases its capacity and capabilities, and provides for the deployment of a regional force to operate within the command structure of UNMISS, but with a specific mandate to provide, by all means, protection to civilians, to protect vital state installations and to ensure humanitarian access. In the event of non-cooperation from the Government of South Sudan, the UNSC may impose an arms embargo and further sanctions.
The way forward
In the wake of UNSC 2304 and the Security Council visit in September, the Government of South Sudan, in its usual waggish behaviour embarked upon semantic negotiations focusing on the differences between intervention and protection or consent and acceptance, as a means to barter and delay the regional protection force’s deployment through a game of synonyms. Yet, beyond the logjam of Juba’s doublespeak on the deployment, external actors have continued to engage with South Sudan, in order not to leave the nascent state to its own devices. Simply put, the region and the international community have taken on a unique ‘brother’s keeper role’ in order to preserve a fragile peace in South Sudan. However, Juba must be disabused of its tendency to intensify semantic arguments or commoditise and mis-sell sovereignty. Its actions and veiled threats to bludgeon internal dissent and gag civil society voices that support the regional protection force’s deployment must stop.
Worse still, the government will try to deceive the regional and international community as a way of watering down Resolution 2304 and the peace agreement itself. If it succeeds to call the international community’s bluff and impose what has been described as Pax Salvatica, South Sudan will find itself on a staircase to hell.
Therefore, the force’s deployment should not be an end in itself as it is not a sufficient condition for South Sudan to exit the conflict. Rather, the emergence of a resilient state requires profound and long-term engagement in peace consolidation and peace-building, reconciliation, healing and accountability, in addition to the creation of durable governance institutions. Such efforts will open up a political space to promote a smooth transition to democracy and crowd out violence in the exercise of political power in the country. This premise justifies the call for a roundtable of all stakeholders including political groups, civil society, and faith-based groups, in addition to partners of South Sudan, to repair aspects of the peace deal that have been fractured by violations and delayed implementation, and to produce an abbreviated, actionable roadmap for the transition. This is more practical than the current life-support option, which calls for either a form of neo-trusteeship/trusteeship or a UN transitional administration.
In particular, the images of President Kiir and former vice president Machar have been terribly tarnished by their self-serving agendas, as highlighted in a 2016 report on corruption, which implicates the two politicians, their families and cronies. Morally, the two leaders are unfit to be part of the transition. A roundtable conference should explore the possibility of a transitional arrangement that excludes Kiir and Machar. A return to the status quo ante must be on the basis of a modified peace deal that embraces a four-year-tenured caretaker administration led by carefully vetted national personalities and technocrats who will have no stake in the future politics of South Sudan. Such an arrangement must be buttressed by powerful international security and political oversight in form of a reinforced Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC). This entails a split of executive authority between the caretaker administration and JMEC. This arrangement must be based on an all-party consensus derived from the deliberations of the roundtable conference.
As the country sits precariously on a cliff, it may fall and hit the surface with a minimum blow. Thereafter, to paraphrase former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, if the world does not seize the moment opportunely, no amount of effort and innovation will be able to put humpty dumpty back together again.
Majak D’Agoôt is an economist and security risk analyst with wide-ranging expertise in war, security and politics. He is a former deputy minister of defence and veteran of the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005)
Remember Miamingi is an international lawyer based at the Centre for Human Rights in the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria in South Africa
Alternatively, SPLM-IO is also known as anti-government forces (AGF) according to Wikipedia, or we could just refer to ‘the opposition’, if that would suffice.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The collapse of the recent Syrian ceasefire and resultant blame game being played by the USA and Russia is an indication of the complex nature of the Syrian crisis and more importantly indicates the interests and motivations of the ceasefire’s chief protagonists. Although violence lessened slightly during the four- to five-day armistice, its collapse points to the differing interests of the actors involved, and to the partiality of the supposed enforcers. The consequent Aleppo offensive has compounded this, illustrating that Russia will continue backing the Syrian regime, while the USA is more concerned about the Islamic State group (IS). Moreover, even Russia recently admitted that it is now impossible to bring ‘peace’ to the conflict arena.
Negotiated between Russia and the USA, neither the regime nor opposition groups fully endorsed the 9 September ceasefire, revealing a clearly erroneous assumption that the conflict is between two clearly identifiable sets of belligerents that could be restrained by their supposed patrons. Further, the agreement was not made public (though it was subsequently leaked), or even made available to the rebel groups that were to implement it, thus inhibiting its chances for success and undermining the already tenuous US influence. Moreover, the regime, though using limited aerial bombardment, utilised the ‘pause’ to consolidate and continued attacking areas in Aleppo, Homs and east Ghouta (east of the capital Damascus). Rebel groups were also accused of violations, especially in Aleppo, although these were mostly less intense than those of the regime. The violations that fundamentally ended the ceasefire, however, were the 17 September USA-led attack in Deir al-Zor that killed sixty-two Syrian soldiers, and the attack on a thirty-one truck aid convoy entering Aleppo, allegedly carried out by Russian aircraft two days later. Fighting subsequently intensified, and the regime resumed its aerial bombardment of besieged east Aleppo, declaring a new offensive to ‘liberate’ the area.
The ceasefire’s flaws were already apparent when considering the interests motivating the chief protagonists and the steps it was to follow. The US views the fight against IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formally Jabhat al-Nusra), still believed by the Obama administration to have links with al-Qa'ida, as more pertinent, and believes that a political solution, however skewed in the regime’s favour, would help attempts to combat these groups. Further, it is wary of intensifying its military involvement in the conflict and has thus concentrated its assistance mainly on the fight against IS. Conversely, the Russians possess strategic interests in Syria, are fearful of a power vacuum were the regime to fall, and perceive most Islamist rebel groups as terrorists that pose a threat to the country. Since September 2015 Russia has acted directly, militarily, to protect these interests. Convergences over IS, and US reticence to confront Russia, meant that the USA endorsed or ignored Russia’s actions. The Obama administration also agreed to include Jabhat in the list of groups against which attacks were allowed even during the ceasefire, and committed to the formation of a joint intelligence centre with Russia to confront these groups if the ceasefire lasted more than a week. Notably, Jabhat had been actively involved in temporarily breaking the siege on Aleppo in July, and its entrenchment in Aleppo and other areas controlled by opposition groups prevent regime forces from continuing attacks in contested areas despite the ceasefire. The USA also altered its stance on the future role of Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, and now is open to Asad leading a transitionary government of national unity.
The ceasefire, thus, to be enforced by parties who were partial, and, especially in the case of the USA, had little influence on the ground because of this partiality and its unwillingness to follow up on policy pronouncements. Further, this partiality inhibited the chances for effective monitoring of the ceasefire, allowing for violations, especially by the regime, to go unpunished. Opposition forces were in a bind: coordinating with Jabhat would render them susceptible to Russian and US attacks, while halting coordination with and confronting the former al-Qa'ida affiliate would allow the disciplined group to consolidate control. In some instances, regime forces captured territory when US coalition attacks forced IS to retreat, and it was feared that Jabhat’s retreat would have a similar result, especially around Aleppo. Therefore, unlike the February ceasefire attempt which was endorsed by groups representing the regime and opposition factions and which lasted around a month, the September truce lasted five days.
Although the ceasefire has failed, it is likely that attempts will be made to broker a new one along similar lines, despite the current war of words between USA and Russia. The USA, believing that IS poses a greater threat than the Syrian regime, and having misgivings about the main Islamist forces that are currently the strongest and most well-organised rebel components, and which would benefit most from Asad’s fall, will go along with a Russian initiative. The balance of power on the ground heavily favours Russia, and dissuades active interference by other foreign powers for fear of confrontation with Russia. Further, the Turkish incursion into Syria is also likely to lead to a weakening of support for opposition groups, especially in light of the recent Turkish-Russian and Turkish-Iranian rapprochements and the belief that Turkey is reassessing its position on Asad. Already, thousands of Turkey-backed fighters have withdrawn from east Aleppo to focus on consolidating Turkey’s control of its 900-square kilometre incursion, and to prepare for a push towards the IS-held town of Al-Bab. Talks on reviving the Geneva peace process will continue after the current US-Russian spat settles, mainly because international powers are unable and unwilling to conceive of new solutions. Thus, even though the twenty-three-member International Syria Support Group meeting, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, collapsed on 22 September with accusations of partisanship and no new measures formulated, and although the USA, the UK and France have accused Russia of war crimes, little actual action is being proposed to make even a ceasefire more enforceable.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Although the United Arab Emirates recently announced that its troops would no longer be involved in Yemen’s civil war, the conflict in that hapless country endures. A ceasefire, which had held between April and August has crumpled, largely due to the collapse of the most recent round of peace talks in Kuwait City. Although calls have been made for a simultaneous, two-track, military and political approach, the plan recently mooted by US secretary of state John Kerry is mostly a rehash of the failed June Kuwait three-point plan, with minor adjustments.
Militarily, a balance of power has emerged. Progress for both parties, the Hadi coalition and that of the Houthis, has been slow and subject to reversals, resulting in worsening conditions for ordinary Yemenis. Thousands of civilians have been killed and millions risk starvation; tens of thousands of refugees have fled the country. For a solution to be found that allows Yemen to emerge united, the nuances within the two blocs need to be considered and addressed in an inclusive manner, and the problem of spoilers will need to be dealt with.
Different actors, competing interests
Generally regarded as a conflict pitting Iranian-backed Houthis (or Ansarallah) against a Saudi-backed Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi coalition, Yemen’s conflict is contested by a variety of actors with varying agendas. The Houthi coalition consists of its own fighters as well as military units – particularly from the republican guard – loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed from office in November 2011 by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Most of Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and certain northern tribes also form part of the coalition. The agendas of these groups for Yemen’s future differ, and are sometimes contradictory; opposition to Saudi intervention seems to be the only uniting factor. There have even been clashes between groups within this coalition. For example, Houthi and Saleh fighters clashed in March 2015, prior to the Saudi intervention, for control of the Raymat military base near Sana'a. The GPC also opposed the Houthi decision to dissolve the government in February 2015. The Houthi are suspicious of the GPC, partly based on Saleh having fought six wars against them between 2004 and 2010; and many in the GPC oppose the Houthi religious fervour. But both were aggrieved at being marginalised from governance after the 2011 GCC initiative which saw Saleh transfer control to Hadi. The Houthis and GPC participated in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) between March 2012 and January 2014, which was to chart a future for the country, but they realised that Hadi controlled the day-to-day running of the state, and that the process was stalling. Iran supports the Houthi-GPC coalition, more in terms of moral and political support, rather than military or financial assistance.
The Hadi alliance is even more disparate, including the southern secessionist Hirak movement, participatory Islamists such as Yemen’s Islah party, and former GPC officials such as Hadi and a group based in Riyadh. Some Salafis, especially from Taiz, and northern tribes – including the powerful Hashed tribe led by Hashim Al-Ahmar – are also in the coalition. The aims of these various groups are diametrically opposed: Hirak seeks the south’s secession, while Islah and Hadi want a unified Yemen. Hirak joined the coalition only because it regarded Houthi incursions into Aden in February 2014 as another attempt at Northern hegemony. Hirak’s members are mostly secular leftists, but a small pro-secessionist Salafi fringe is gradually emerging. Yemen was two separate political entities before 1990 when North and South Yemen reunited, leaving the northern elite dominant, causing tensions and engendering mistrust amongst southerners. A brief civil war between groups from north and south in 1994 paved the way for Sana'a to control Aden.
Formed in 1990, Islah (Reform party) includes tribal figures, businesspeople and Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) chapter. It was initially close to the former Saleh regime, but that relationship grew tenuous and in 2001 it coalesced with other parties to form the Joint Multi Party coalition (JMP). It was one of the first groups to support the Yemeni uprising in 2011, and benefited from the 2012-2014 transitional period. Its role in the current conflict could allow it to consolidate the group within Yemeni institutional politics, and to develop enough of a relationship with Saudi Arabia that the latter might reverse its March 2014 decision labelling Islah a terrorist organisation. Islah also includes Salafis from Taiz and tribal elements from Mirab who seek to protect their regions from northern domination.
The Hadi alliance will probably fragment once a deal is reached that ends the fighting. Apart from their differing positions on southern secession, Hadi’s legitimacy is also tenuous, with the levers of power, especially in the south, now held by Hirak members.
A coalition of ten countries led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE have politically, financially and militarily backed the Hadi bloc and is responsible for Hadi retaking Aden in August-September 2015. The coalition even deployed ground troops to support Hadi. Saudi Arabia exaggeratedly paints the Houthis as an Iranian proxy in a context where it is fearful of Iran’s new role in the region following the Iranian nuclear deal. Different states within the Saudi-led coalition back different factions within the Hadi alliance; Saudi Arabia funded and armed Islah and the Ahmars, while the UAE, which wants to destroy the MB, worked with Hirak and its military wing, the Southern Resistance. The UAE’s decision to no longer deploy ground troops in frontline positions was mainly because Aden and other southern areas are relatively secure, and because it wants to strengthen Hirak and allied groups. It will thus remain involved in the conflict, propping up forces to oppose a revival of the MB.
Roots of the conflict
Even before the 2011 uprisings, conflict seemed to be on Yemen’s horizon. Corruption, a concentration of power, and Saleh’s intention to transfer power to his son Ahmad had caused much disquiet, especially from Islah and influential members of the Hashed tribe. The uprisings gave these movements impetus, and by mid-2011 threatened to erupt as the influential General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar and his first brigade changed allegiances. Fearing this would lead to a long civil war, the GCC secured a transitional agreement that saw Saleh hand over power to his deputy (Hadi) in exchange for immunity from prosecution. A national dialogue process was to formulate a new, more inclusive constitution, and Hadi’s term in office was to expire in February 2014.
The process was, however, flawed from its inception. Hadi and Islah benefited most, and a government comprising of GPC and JMP members (fifty per cent each) was formed. Hadi commenced restructuring the military and Saleh allies were removed from key posts, including from the republican guard and airforce, and replaced with Hadi allies. No one was held accountable for the 2011 events, and Saleh was allowed to remain in Yemen and head the GPC. This indicated too many that only a select few were benefiting from the transition, and that violence was the only means to secure representation. The problem was compounded by the ineffectiveness of the NDC, which was not fully representative and was perceived to be a means of stalling. Two Houthis attending the dialogue were assassinated in 2013-14 and southerners refused to participate as secession was not up for discussion. Government revenue plummeted as tribes from Mirab, often supported by Saleh sympathisers, halted Yemen’s oil and liquefied natural gas production. Social services were non-existent and insecurity and lawlessness increased.
A survey in January 2013 reported that over fifty-five per cent of Yemenis felt the economy was deteriorating and around seventy per cent that job prospects were worsening; forty-two per cent thought corruption was increasing. Events came to a head in August 2014when the government raised fuel prices by more than even the IMF had demanded, increasing disillusionment and support for Houthis. In September that year Sana'a was taken over by forces loyal to the Houthi alliance with little resistance; and in February 2015 the Houthis dissolved parliament, replaced it with a presidential committee, and commenced moving on Aden under the guise of combating al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia and successfully lobbied for Gulf assistance to halt the Houthi advance, playing on Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran position. With the Iranian nuclear deal about to be concluded, and with Muhammad bin Salman appointed Saudi defence minister, the kingdom acted impulsively.
The current stage of the conflict was triggered in March 2015 when the Saudi coalition commenced airstrikes on forces in the Houthi alliance. Following the recapture of Aden by Hadi’s forces in September 2015, many, especially within the Saudi coalition, thought the civil war was reaching its end. However, the past year has illustrated that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to force Houthi and Saleh forces from the north. Hadi’s forces have made gains in sum Northern provinces, recapturing most of oil rich Marib and Jawf, but this was largely due to the hundreds of Saudi coalition airstrikes, and most gains occurred December 2015 during a supposed ceasefire. Houthi forces have never felt welcome in southern provinces, but their entrenchment in the north, especially in Sa'dah and Sana’a, makes it unlikely that the population will revolt against it. Further, most of the forces loyal to Saleh are based in the north. The Saudi strikes also assisted in engendering closer ties between the Houthis and Saleh’s forces, and they recently formed a combined Supreme Military Council to administer territory they control and to better coordinate their activities. With this scenario, it will be difficult for Hadi’s forces to take control of the north.
In the areas around Sana'a, both coalitions maintain control of strategic territory; the frontline has remained relatively constant since Hadi’s gains December 2015. Taiz too remains elusive; though controlled by Islah, the routes around it remain under Houthi control despite the Saudi bombardment. Even after the collapse of the ceasefire in August, there has been little territory changing hands.
The power vacuum and lack of governance resulting from the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, exacerbated by the civil war, has allowed the strengthening of AQAP, adding an additional dimension to the war. The group held the port city of Mukalla in oil-rich Hadramawt province for a year until UAE-backed southern forces forced it out in April 2016, allowing the USA to redeploy troops into Yemen. AQAP has consolidated control in other areas in Hadramawt, and in Shabwa and Abyan provinces in the east. It now controls around 900 square kilometres of territory, but has been the target of coalition airstrikes and US drone attacks in recent months, which in June 2015 had killed its then influential head Nasir al-Wuhayshi. Before this, it had largely been ignored by the Saudi coalition which perceived it as a lesser threat than the Houthis. Although AQAP has consolidated control over a number of areas in southern Yemen, it has not claimed responsibility for any major attack on western targets in the past year and a half, since the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015. Its greater priority seems to be stemming the growth of the Islamic State Group (IS), which has struggled to gain a foothold in Yemen since the establishment of its Yemeni affiliate in 2014, and has been forced to resort to random bombings of Houthi and Hadi targets.
The rise of IS and re-emergence of AQAP has caused global powers to regard Yemen with increased importance. They are especially wary since the Bab-el-Mandeb (Mandeb Strait) is traversed by vessels carrying much of the world’s trade. The UN has thus sought to mediate. After two rounds of failed talks in Switzerland in June and December 2015, the two big alliances finally held three months of talks in Kuwait from mid-April. These too failed, with disagreement on sequencing and representation. The three-point Kuwait plan, which was to commence with the formation of a supreme military council consisting of military personnel not involved in the war, followed by the disarmament and withdrawal of Houthi forces from towns, and culminate in the formation of a government of national unity and holding of elections, was opposed by the Houthis. They oppose the proposal to disarm before the formation of a government of national unity. Kerry’s latest initiative proposes that disarmament and the formation of a unity government should occur simultaneously, but Hadi is unlikely to accept this, and the Houthis will insist on real institutional influence before disarmament. The mediation scenario is further complicated by the presence of Saleh, whose re-emergence is unlikely to be tolerated by Gulf countries and Hadi’s fighters, and whose allied troops are unlikely to agree to disarm. UNSC resolution 2216, the basis of the negotiations, has complicated matters further as it heavily favours the Hadi coalition, and does not represent the balance of power on the ground. For example, it requires disarmament from Houthi forces (and not from Hadi’s), despite their holding territory inhabited by around sixty per cent of the population.
Consequences, humanitarian impacts
The sixteen-month conflict is having dire consequences for the Yemeni population. Over 10 000 people, mostly civilians, have already been killed, and much of the country’s infrastructure is in ruins. Over eighty per cent of civilians (20 million) do not have access to medical assistance and 15 million are deprived of adequate water. Seven million people are severely food insecure, and around a million children risk death and stunted development as a result of severe malnutrition if the conflict continues. Significantly, Yemen imports over ninety per cent of its food requirements, and the coalition’s naval blockade has rendered such importation impossible, despite the formation of an inspection and verification committee.
Just thirty-two kilometres off the coast of Djibouti, the Yemen conflict is also having a dire impact on Horn of Africa states. Before the Saudi intervention, Yemen hosted over 250 000 registered Somali refugees and a million Ethiopian migrants seeking work in the Gulf. The conflict has reversed these patterns and thousands returned to their home countries while others remain trapped in Yemen. This has placed enormous sudden pressure to provide food and other services on already struggling states such as Ethiopia and Somalia, and it is feared that groups such as al-Shabab may use these migration patterns to replenish their capacity. Yemeni trade with Africa has also come to a halt. Remittances sent by African refugees in Yemen are decreasing, placing even more stress on the economies of Horn of Africa states.
Over half of the Saudi coalition, however, is composed of African states. Egypt, Sudan, Senegal and Mauritania have contributed troops to the coalition, and Morocco and Somalia have provided logistical and aerial support. Essentially, this African support is because of financial enticements and solidarity with the Saudis.
An inclusive solution, involving Yemeni actors, needs to be concluded as soon as possible in order to end the war and begin serious reconstruction of infrastructure and lives. The current perception, from the UN and policy makers, that the two blocs have clearly defined and unified agendas risks repeating the mistakes of the 2011 GCC initiative, which merely tried to include and incorporate Islah elements into the governing structure rather than assessing the differing interests of the many actors involved in the attempt to oust Saleh.Already some within the Hirak movement are calling for secession and Hadi, a southerner, has little to no influence over the situation on the ground. The Houthis are nominally open to a federal solution, while Islah and the GPC seek a unified Yemen. Tribes at the margins of the two alliances, such as those in Amran, Hadramawt and Mirab, have the potential to become spoilers if they feel excluded.
The larger conflict could be replaced by multiple smaller conflicts if inclusiveness, transparency and,most importantly, accountability are not enforced. Through the period of the war, small intra-northern and Southern tribal conflicts have re-emerged and been engendered. Further, unlike in the recent past, Hirak possesses arms and has sympathetic members governing southern provinces including Aden and Lahij. The Houthis too are unlikely to relinquish their weapons unless they are provided a real space in the country’s governance structures. Saleh’s supporters (especially from within the republican guard) would need to be incorporated into the newly emerging Yemeni military, but remain potential spoilers.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
While being a violation of the sovereignty of a neighbouring country, Turkey’s incursion into Syrian territory along the Syria-Turkey border and its attacks on Islamic State group (IS) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions there have not been heavily criticised except by the USA and various Kurdish groups. It has received mild criticism from the Russian and Syrian governments, and significant support from the Turkish population and many Turkish opposition groups. The intervention – called Operation Euphrates Shield – is expected to be a longterm one, and is set to worsen already-tense relations between Turkey and the USA.
The operation follows several fatal operations in Turkey by IS and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in the wake of state security weaknesses after the July coup attempt. The Syrian YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and has strong links with the PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. While the US also considers the PKK a terrorist group, it regards the PYD/PYG as an essential element of its anti-IS armed forces in Syria, and a component of what it calls ‘Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)’. Relying on two diametrically opposed actors – Turkey and the YPG, both US allies – to fight a common enemy presents the USA with a tactical and strategic dilemma. Soon after Turkey’s incursion began on 24 August, the USA called on YPG forces to move east of the Euphrates River, a key demand of Turkey, but on Wednesday US spokespersons criticised Turkey’s moves against the group. With the YPG refusing to relocate, USA faces the prospect of losing the largest component of its SDF if it pushes too hard. The head of US Central Command, Joseph Votel,announced at a Pentagon press briefing this week that the YPG had moved east of the Euphrates, but the lack of agreement on whether this is true will exacerbate relations between the two NATO allies.
Turkey had been unable to convince its allies to impose a no-fly zone on the Syria-Turkey border which, Turkey claimed, would help keep millions of refugees safe; Operation Euphrates Shield is likely to create a de facto ‘safe zone’ for refugees and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Turkish planes had begun the first movements in the operation, bombing IS targets in the northern Syrian area of Jarablus. Two hours later 1 500 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters crossed over from the Turkish region of Karkamis, accompanied by an armed battalion of twenty-five M60A3 tanks, and close fire support from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The FSA troops include Faylaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, which Turkey considers ‘moderate’ – particularly after the FSA sidelined al-Qa'ida-affiliated groups two weeks earlier.
The operation involves 350 TSK soldiers, 200 troops from mechanised units, and 150 special forces. They are supported by heavy aerial operations conducted collectively by the anti-IS coalition. In addition, seventeen Turkish war planes are participating in the operation, including eleven F16s. Turkey is also using newly-acquired Bayraktar TB2 unarmed drones. An armed brigade is on reserve at the border area of Karkamis and security analysts suggest the nearby base at Kilis Elbeyli will coordinate air support and medical evacuation with FSA units. Based on the type of armaments used by the TSK, Turkey is likely intending to have a longterm presence in Syria’s north with, possibly, a military base in Jarablus that serve as a coordination and training area for FSA fighters. Turkey hopes the FSA can prove its mettle in the field, and then be able to capture the IS stronghold of al-Bab. Should the FSA take that city, it will favour the opposition politically, and deprive the YPG of its status as the most efficient anti-IS force.
This is the first occasion that a NATO member puts boots on the ground in Syria since the war there began in 2011, and comes at a critical time for Turkey, which just six weeks ago experienced an attempted coup that dealt a severe blow to the TSK’s prestige. Caught between its membership in NATO and the deterioration of domestic security, Turkey extracted much benefit from the recent turnaround in relations with Russia to secure Moscow’s assurances that Russian aircraft will not fire on FSA and Turkish troops during this complex operation. The Russian foreign ministry has officially said it ‘is concerned about Turkey’s incursion into Syria’ and that actions against IS should be coordinated with Damascus. Syria itself responded with a statement complaining about the violation of its ‘sovereign rights’, but not suggesting it would do anything more about it.
Turkey’s direct involvement in Syria reflects a change in Ankara’s regional policy from one that claimed humanitarian issues at the core of its policy to a return to hard security goals by national interest. A key political and security aim is to prevent the creation of a contiguous area controlled by the PYD on the 822-kilometre Turkey-Syria border. To achieve this it becomes necessary for the FSA and other rebel factions to unite under a single political banner that regards the territorial integrity of Syria as a precondition for peace talks. Realising this political aim will require the FSA to secure more than just the Jarablus area, and to extend its control to terrain to the west up to the Rai-Azaz / Jarablus-Cobanbey line. Should it gain control of this area, Turkey will be able to cut off IS supply routes and isolate the PYD in the town of Afrin. Turkish warplanes and artillery targeted YPG targets in Afrin on the second day of Euphrates Shield.
The quiet responses to Turkey’s incursion by Russia and Syria (whose response was limited to a written statement) reflects their similar objective that Syria’s integrity be maintained; they thus would be unhappy to allow the PYD to set up an autonomous Kurdish area. Syria’s Iranian allies are also unhappy about what message Kurdish autonomy in Syria might send to Iranian Kurds – especially since recent clashes between the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and reports that the USA might be supporting the PDKI. Tehran has already said it tacitly supported Turkey in its anti-PKK effort although the Iranian Foreign Ministry said Turkey should halt operations that challenge Syria’s against central government authority, suggesting that Iran remains sceptical of Turkey’s intentions in northern Syria.
Qatar, another regional actor which has supported the FSA, will support Turkey in its push against IS and the YPG as the two countries share similar perspectives on key issues. Qatar has sought to diversify its defence partnerships with the setting up of a Turkish-Qatari military base in the emirate state, which also reflects the rapidly changing security architecture of the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama are due to meet on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in China on 4 September, but it is unlikely that any substantive movement on a Syrian peace deal will be announced as fighting between the government and rebels continue in the key area of Aleppo.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The visit by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia early July was an indication of the Israeli confidence in the support it can expect on the African continent. Apart from intending to strengthen trade ties with these east African countries, Netanyahu prepared the scene for a public endorsement by African countries of the Israeli bid for observer status at the African Union, just weeks before the AU Summit in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
Israel has worked tirelessly in various African countries, and already has strong intelligence, security and agricultural ties across east Africa. In 2015 Israeli military advisers assisted Kenyan authorities against the Somali group al-Shabab during the group’s siege of Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall; in 2014 Netanyahu provided logistical support to Nigeria in its search for schoolgirls seized by Boko Haram militants. Israel has also employed ‘water diplomacy’ across the continent, making water irrigation techniques available to African governments and civil society groups. However, a larger prize has eluded Israel since the AU’s establishment in 2002: observer status of the continental organisation, which it previously enjoyed in the Organisation of African Unity.
Netanyahu’s July charm offensive came after months of bilateral talks, and numerous African leaders visiting Tel Aviv. The choice of countries for his visit was clearly based on prior commitment obtained from them that they would publicly announce their support of Israel’s AU bid. With these countries’ support in the Israel also expects greater diplomatic support in the UN Human Rights Council, General Assembly and other major international bodies. The benefits of Israel’s courting of African countries are demonstrable. In September 2015, for example, if passed, an International Atomic Energy Agency proposal would have forced inspections of Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility. However, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Togo voted against, and a number of other African countries abstained, thus defeating the proposal.
The relationship is reciprocal; Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, thanked Israel for helping secure Ethiopia a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2017, and promised to reciprocate by backing Israel’s AU bid, a position echoed by the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta. The July AU summit, however, did not discuss Israel’s bid, suggesting that Netanyahu’s east African trip was the beginning of a strategy that could culminate in the next AU summit in January 2017.
In Uganda, Netanyahu called for deeper relations between Israel and Africa; in Kenya, Kenyatta said ties with Israel were necessary in the global fight against terrorism. Nairobi is also seeking Israeli assistance to construct a wall on its border with Somalia, similar to Israel’s border fence with Sinai desert and Jordan. In Kigali Netanyahu spoke about joint experiences of genocide between Jews and Rwandans. He omitted to mention that Israel had supplied the 1994 genocidal Rwandan government with weapons, as it continued to do with President Paul Kagame’s government thereafter. In 2014 Kagame had even agreed to accept African refugees denied asylum in Israel and incarcerated in the Negev desert, in exchange for Israeli weapons. At every stop, Netanyahu emphasised joint engagement in development, security and trade.
Netanyahu’s tour launched a $13 million package to set up offices for Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation in the four countries. Businesspeople in Netanyahu’s delegation included a representative of Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest defence contractor; and Aeronautics Ltd., a drone manufacturer.
Israel’s focus on Africa has been part of its ‘periphery doctrine’ which seeks to encircle hostile Arab states with friendly non-Arab neighbours. In the past these friends of Israel included Iran under the Shah, Turkey, and the Sudanese People’s Liberation. Although Arab states and the Arab League are now complicit with Israeli – as seen by recent interaction with Israel by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar – this doctrine continues to be useful for Israel.
Since 2002, a number of African states have determinedly stood against the Israeli bid for AU observer status, including South African and Libya. With Libya’s Muammar Gadhdhafi no longer in power and that country involved in a messy civil war driven in part by western states, and with South Africa becoming friendlier towards the USA and its Africa Command, the question is how long AU members will resist the stronger Israeli push for its seat in Addis Ababa.
By Caroline Timoney
On 22 June, Qatar called for the national prosecution of those who had committed crimes against international humanitarian law in Syria.
This is recognition that the veto of Russia and China at the United Nations Security Council has prevented any attempt to send the issue to the International Criminal Court (ICC), that Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute and that the Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, has so far not begun her own investigation into the issue.
But who would have jurisdiction to prosecute these crimes? What laws would be applicable?
In March, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria stated that prosecution of lower-level perpetrators of war crimes should not wait for peace in Syria, but should occur in foreign jurisdictions. The Commission intended to continue to lobby for a referral to the ICC or an ad hoc tribunal.
Our first question is what system of law would be applicable. In order to answer this one, we must establish whether this is an international armed conflict or a non-international armed conflict. The conflict in Syria easily meets the test for the existence of an armed conflict: is there protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organised armed groups or between such groups within a state?
But in order to be international at least two different states would have to be involved on opposing sides. In Syria, although the United States and Russia have provided air support to government troops, their involvement would not elevate the conflict to be international. Although often criticised, due to this point the armed conflict in Syria does not meet this definition and thus remains a non-international armed conflict.
Common Article 3 of the the Geneva Conventions may be applied or customary international law, but not Additional Protocol II as Syria is not a party to the latter.
The date at which the armed conflict began in Syria becomes important as war crimes can only occur during a recognised armed conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) date the beginning of the armed conflict between February and August 2012. So were there crimes committed against international humanitarian law from this period?
In a word, yes, for the COI’s report from the period 15 February to 20 July 2012 found that there were reasonable grounds to believe that both Government and opposition forces had committed the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, war crimes and gross violations of both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. These violations included unlawful killing, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, indiscriminate attack, pillaging and destruction of property.
Human Rights Watch released a report in 2013 that highlighted the lack of capacity of the Syrian air force to conduct precise air strikes leading to the deliberate or reckless attacks on civilians; compounded by the rebel Free Syrian Army basing themselves in civilian areas. The report noted the targeting of bakeries and hospitals both of which place renewed pressure on food supplies and medical resources (personnel, equipment and supplies).
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented the use of cluster bombs by government forces, which are banned internationally.
On 4 July, Amnesty International released a new report detailing abuses committed by five armed groups in Aleppo and Idlib since 2012. These are the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement, al-Shamia Front, Division 16, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement.
Since 2014 all five of these groups have received military and financial support either from the MOM – a coalition of the United States, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom – in the form of lethal and non-lethal equipment or, and in the case of the latter two groups, have reportedly received military and financial support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement lost their funding from MOM in September 2015 but is thought to still receive financial and military support from Turkey, Qatar and other Gulf states.
The report details cases of abduction, torture, summary killings and the harsh application of Sharia law by inexperienced laymen – all of which are counted as war crimes under the Geneva Conventions.
But who has jurisdiction to prosecute and would it be feasible?
Under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the concept of universal jurisdiction was introduced. If grave breaches of the Conventions occurred then the states parties are required to search for these alleged perpetrators and arrest them for trial under their own national jurisdiction or handed over to another state to prosecute.
States are not given a choice as this obligation imposes an active duty on states to both arrest and prosecute. A state party to the Geneva Conventions must therefore have domestic criminal legislation in place to try alleged perpetrators regardless of their nationality and the location of the offence.
States in the region that have ratified or acceded to the Geneva Conventions would have jurisdiction to try such a case if they are able to arrest an alleged perpetrator, or if they receive such a perpetrator from another nation in the region. Qatar, for example, signed all four Geneva Conventions in 1975 and Additional Protocol II in 1990, as too did the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain.
Turkey, Iraq, Israel and Iran have only ratified the Geneva Conventions, while Yemen, currently in the midst of civil war, has ratified all the above treaties but is probably incapable of effecting a successful prosecution.
Of course the Rome Statute would provide a more coherent legal frame for prosecutors with its expanded list of crimes and greater definitions. However, the only states in the Middle East to have ratified the Rome Statute are Jordan and Palestine.
For example without the Rome Statute, the Geneva Conventions do not explicitly regard rape as one of the grave breaches and cases involving persecution based on gender, sexual slavery and other sexual violence would have to rely on the less clear-cut domestic legislation or customary international law.
The international community, in particular the United Nations Security Council, has often been wilfully blind concerning war crimes in the region. Any international tribunal or referral to the International Criminal Court will take many years to come to fruition; the case of Jean-Pierre Bemba, once vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo charged with two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes, took six years before judgement was given.
Support for Qatar’s proposal may assist in bringing justice to the victims of such crimes. However, justice will be difficult to find where any evidence has fast been disappearing.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, which collates conflict death tolls, stopped counting Syria’s dead in mid-2014 which may hamper the prosecution of alleged perpetrators, and there is currently no solution to the conflict in sight. But any attempt at prosecution may help counter the current culture of impunity in Syria.
* This article was first published in The New Arab
** Caroline is a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre based in Johannesburg. She has a Masters in International Law from the University of Cape Town and her research interests include South African politics, refugee rights and international criminal law.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The evening of Friday, 15 July, saw one of the most severe attacks on Turkey’s democracy since 1997, as a small faction of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) attempted to wrestle control of the state. With more than 200 people killed and 1 500 wounded, a state of emergency was declared days later for a period of three months. As the government began its clampdown against those it accuses of being participants in or complicit with the coup attempt, questions have already been raised about the nature of the democratic process in Turkey, the clampdown by the state, and the stability of the strategically important Eurasian country in an already politically volatile region. Much of this discussion is spiced with a range of conspiracy theories.
How the coup attempt unfolded
The coup operation began around 19:30 Turkish time, and was initially met with shock as many citizens assumed the military presence suggested an imminent terrorist threat; the terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport two weeks earlier was still fresh in Turkish minds. But as tanks rolled onto two Bosphorus bridges in Istanbul, and social media showed military planes flying low over Istanbul and Ankara, it was clear something was awry. A short while later Prime Minister Binali Yildirim confirmed that Turkey was under threat of a coup d'état. The coup plotters did not, however, expect a strong civilian opposition to tanks, attack helicopters and armoured vehicles. After President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s public call on citizens to oppose the military action by those he claimed were members of the movement of US-based Turkish businessperson and preacher Fethullah Gulen, Istanbul and Ankara streets became sites of determined civilian resistance.
The coup plot seemed to have been organised well in advance, and was supported by a significant number of senior officers of the TSK’s air, navy and ground forces. Importantly, the chief of staff, and the heads of the airforce, naval and ground troops refused to cooperate with the plotters, resulting in the breakdown of communication within the army. Had the heads of these strategic arms of the army cooperated, a substantially different picture might have emerged. The putschists incorrectly assumed that they would receive the support of a significant part of the armed forces.
The execution of the plot seemed to have been accelerated by about six hours because of security warnings issued by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) to senior TSK commanders that afternoon. The operation was planned to begin in the early hours of Saturday morning. The confusion resulting from the change of plan helped make the coup a failure. Another failure followed the disorientation of conscript soldiers who faced public resistance, and who were unaware of the intentions of the putschists, having been told they would be performing an anti-terror exercise. The plotters’ strategy was severely weakened by the fact that they failed to shut down satellite communications, and media was was able to broadcast messages from the prime minister. Further, they seem to have been blindsided by the calls from minarets around the country for civilians to oppose the coup. The Turkish media played a major role in encouraging resistance to the coup, and, in a rare show of unity, media outlets from across the political spectrum declared the coup illegal and a threat to Turkey’s democracy. (In contrast, some western and Arab media such as CNBC and Al Ahram falsely reported Friday night that Erdogan had fled, and sought asylum in Germany.)
Whose coup is it anyway?
From the first announcement about the unfolding coup by Erdogan, Yildirim and other government sources linked the operation to Gulen and his Hizmet movement. His followers around the world are estimated at between three and six million. US court records estimate his institutions’ worth as being between 20 and 50 billion dollars in the USA alone. Some figures put the total global assets as 150 billion dollars. Some opposition groups, notably the fiercely secular Hurriyet newspaper and the opposition Republican Party (CHP) – both extremely critical of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – also pointed fingers at Hizmet. Hurriyet’s Ahmet Hakan, one of the loudest critics of the AKP and Erdogan, also dismissed the theory posited in western media that the president had planned the coup to strengthen his grip over the state. A number of other theories also allege conspiracies, with some accusing the USA, including the claim that the CIA had plotted with Gulen; and others adding that the MIT had been pre-emptively informed of the coup by the Russians as part of their attempt to strengthen relations with Turkey. These theories were spurred on by the fact that western politicians waited for the coup to fail before condemning it, and that the aircraft involved in the coup took off from Incirlik military airbase where the US airforce fighting the Islamic State group (IS) is based.
The timing of the coup attempt is likely linked to the fact that the government already had plans to shake up the top ranks of the army before the end of 2016, with a number of officers, it is suspected, being dismissed, retired or tried. In addition, the annual meeting of the Supreme Council of Ministers, which is tasked with the appointment of military personnel, is to take place in August 2016, and Gulenists expected that meeting to result in a purge of their members in the army. An MIT list of alleged Gulen ‘infiltrators’ was to be used at the meeting, and it is likely that a number of the putschists’ names were on that list. The July coup would, then, have been their last opportunity to protect their positions and oppose Erdogan and the government. Many of the coup plotters, government sources claim, had graduated from Hizmet schools.
The Gulen-AKP alliance and split
The Gulen movement – now outlawed in Turkey as a terrorist organisation – has a long history in Turkish politics dating back to the early 1970s when Gulen's exceptional oratory skills made him a popular preacher, and his network of schools was started. Gulen’s views on the need to mainstream Islam within the major organs of the state in the 1980s, when the Turkish state was a secular fundamentalist state ruled by an anti-religious military junta, gained it favour with Islamists such as those from Necmettin Erbakan’s MilliGorus (Felicity) Islamic Party. Erdogan, a former student of Erbakan, became the mayor of Istanbul in 1996 on a MiliGorus ticket. Although Erbakan remained sceptical of Gulen’s ideology, the AKP, a MiliGorus breakaway that won national elections in 2002, perceived Gulen as an ally against a hostile state that positioned the military as the guardian of the republic.
Erdogan saw Gulen as politically significant precisely because Hizmet, although never openly contesting for space on the Turkish political stage in its forty-year history, was regarded as apolitical. This perception allowed the preacher to cross the boundaries between politics, religion, power and influence. A core arm of Hizmet is its huge school network which includes around 930 schools in Turkey – many catering to the upper echelons of Turkish society, and whose graduates have occupied significant positions in the state apparatus since the mid-1980s, as well as about 2 000 schools in 160 other countries around the world, including South Africa. These cater for a total of around 1.2 million students.
There is little doubt that Gulen wields significant influence, and that millions of dollars flow through his global education network and associated business, media and other organisations. The ease with which Gulen schools operate around the world, employing hundreds of teachers, enrolling thousands of students, and with strong government and civil society contacts, has resulted in allegations that its activities are convenient for intelligence gathering and exercising political influence. Unlike various Middle East Islamist parties which have usually been met with sanctions, Hizmet has become an influential lobby in the USA. It cultivates the image of a ‘moderate’ Muslim group led by a ‘moderate’ Muslim personality who focuses on what Hizmet calls ‘cultural Islam’ – as opposed to ‘political Islam’ . This brand of Islam made Gulen popular in the West, particularly in post-9/11 USA where Gulen became a significant voice in the US ‘war against terror’.
The Gulenist emphasis on interfaith dialogue and its relaxed attitude in some circumstances on issues like alcohol attracted the attention of states that view Erdogan and the AKP as more extreme. As important for his critics is the fact that Gulen never criticised Israeli policies or US foreign policy in the Middle East – even when this seemed detrimental to Turkish interests. Gulen was scathing in his criticism of the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ that attempted to ferry aid to the besieged Palestinian territory of Gaza. In contrast to global condemnation of the murder of nine (Turkish) civilians on board the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the 2010 Freedom Flotilla, by Israeli security forces, Gulen blamed flotilla organisers because they did not obtain Israeli permission. He also said those in the flotilla knew that they had put their lives at risk, suggesting they deserved the treatment they received from the Israelis.
The AKP’s first decade in power helped strengthen Gulen’s power base in Turkey. The AKP-Hizmet alliance proved useful for both parties – even after Gulen criticised Erdogan for the Mavi Marmara debacle – until 2012 when MIT head Hakan Fidan was arrested. Fidan was leading secret peace talks with the leader of the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. The arrest was seen by the government as an attempt at sabotage by Gulenists within the judiciary who were loathe to see reconciliation between the Kurdish rebel group and the state. In response, the government sponsored a bill which, after it was passed in 2014, threatened closure of Hizmet’s chain of preparatory schools in Turkey. This was followed by corruption allegations against AKP politicians, leading to the arrests of top AKP officials, and a number of resignations and dismissals of officials. The AKP alleged this was a campaign by Gulenists in the judiciary who were part of what the AKP began calling a ‘parallel state’. Relations between the former allies descended into distrust and acrimony, with tit-for-tat actions that included banning of pro-Gulen media and judicial attacks against AKP members.
Aftermath and impact
The most obvious result of 15 July was the mass arrests that include people from the military, police, judiciary and the education sector. The coup attempt provided the AKP government an opportunity to crush Hizmet and get rid of its members in state structures, and also to clamp down on other dissenting voices. Around 10 000 people have been detained, with around 9 000 of those being soldiers, and there have been allegations that some detainees are being tortured. In addition, around 40 000 military officials, police officers, judges, governors, teachers and academics have been suspended or dismissed.
While most Turkish opposition parties have expressed support of the government’s security efforts after the defeat of the coup attempt, various western governments have been vocal in their criticism of the mass arrests and clampdown in Turkey. In particular, European and US spokespersons have repeatedly insisted that Turkey must deal with the coup within the ‘rule of law’ – even before the arrests had begun.
This places Turkey on a collision course with the USA. Although a formal extradition request for Gulen has not yet been submitted to the USA, various Turkish officials – including Erdogan – have emphasised that it will be. US officials, including secretary of state John Kerry, have responded by insisting that such a request will only be considered if sufficient evidence is provided that Gulen is guilty as claimed. Relations between Turkey and the USA – fellow NATO members and ostensible allies – have been rocky for the past few years. Despite the US use of Turkey’s Incirlik airforce base to launch attacks against IS, the relationship is fraught. An extradition demand, together with the warming of relations with Russia, will likely make US-Turkish relations even more tenuous.
Turkey’s relations with the European Union and various EU member states are also likely to sour. Erdogan’s ignoring of European demands regarding the mass arrests are set to be significantly readjusted. Anti-EU sentiment has risen in Turkey, reflected in the opinion columns of newspapers. This is a result of what many in Turkey see as the hypocritical stance by the EU that was reflected in its slow reaction to the attempted coup, and threats that Turkey might will disqualify itself for EU accession should it reinstate the death penalty will help ensure that Turkey becomes even more distant from the possibility of EU membership. However, the manner in which . Turkish officials believe that if their country had not been able to join the EU after fifty-three years, it is unlikely to succeed now. EU accession has been used as a carrot by the bloc and its members, they believe, to garner Turkish support in the Middle East with little benefit to Turkey. Turkey, meanwhile, has been a benefactor for NATO states. With Turkey’s interest in the EU waning, the country seems more concerned in rebuilding relations with its neighbours.
Relations with Russia are set to improve. The coup attempt came three weeks after Turkey began a rapprochement with Russia, following a break in relations after Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet. Turkish-Russian relations have been tested by Russia’s airstrikes on the Turkmen region of Bayirbucak in Northern Syria. However, the soldiers responsible for downing the Russian jet have been arrested on suspicion of being part of the coup network. Some Russian officials suggest that their government has accepted the Turkish version that the Russian jet was shot down as part of a Gulen plot. Russia having been one of the first governments to condemn the coup, and with Erdogan and Russian president, Vladimir Putin, set to meet in weeks, Turkey will seek to advance its political and economic relationship with Russia. Turkey’s suggestion that it will improve relations with Syria will likely be taken forward – with Russian help. And relations with Iran – with whom there is already booming trade – will also likely improve.
A key question relates to the seeming intelligence failure that allowed the plot to proceed as far as it did. Erdogan’s irritation at the lack of intelligence has been plain. Fidan’s role as MIT head will likely be reviewed, with questions already raised about why, if Fidan’s office had information about the plot, it was not timeously directed to the presidency.
The instability in the intelligence sector and armed forces will definitely impact upon Turkey’s war on the PKK, with the Kurdish group being handed an opportunity as a large number of senior officers are removed from the army. As the instability is exploited by Turkey’s southern nemesis, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Asad, matters will be further complicated for Turkey by the PKK’s links to the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD). Syria has, previously, successfully used Kurdish grievances against the Turkish state.
Domestically, the AKP will use the fallout from the attempted coup to its advantage. With Erdogan riding a wave as a saviour of Turkish democracy, it is possible that at the end of the state of emergency there will be either a snap election or a constitutional referendum on the question of a presidential system, which Erdogan could not have won before the coup attempt but which could now turn out favourably for him. Already there are indications that most opposition parties will support constitutional amendments, although it is unclear what precise amendments they are referring to.
There is no doubt that after the dust has settled in the squares and the sense of unity that is generally being felt across the country in response to the coup becomes less tangible, Turkey will be faced with greater challenges than the overt violence of a week ago. The Turkish state is fragile, and state institutions could either be stabilised or could further weaken as a result of the current purges. Should the Gulen movement be legally charged with subversion, its networks in Turkey and globally could be seriously affected. This could have implications for Turkey’s foreign relations, especially its policy towards countries that maintain links with the Hizmet movement, and, in particular, with the USA where Gulen resides. Turkey’s view of and its role within NATO could also be considered more carefully, given that no assistance was given to a member whose institutions were being attacked from the air by hostile forces. Whether Turkey will be able to weather the storm in the long term will depend on the willingness of all political forces to cooperate in the best interests of the broader society, and whether the government considers the rights of its citizens as important as it does the security of the state. Of course, as long as the legitimate grievances of its Kurdish population are not addressed, the Turkish state will remain in a state of uncertainty and instability. It also remains to be seen whether Turkey decides to reprioritise its domestic and regional imperatives over those of its global alliances.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The recent African Union decision adding a more ‘robust’ peace enforcement component to the current 12 000 strong UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) risks further militarising an ostensibly political conflict over resources and patronage. Further, even if implemented, the proposed force will be difficult to sustain in light of the complex and overlapping nature of the conflict and the differing agendas of outside actors. The ‘temporary’ replacement of now former vice president Riek Machar with Taban Deng through an internal coup in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLMIO) underscores the complexity and fluidity of South Sudanese politics and alliances.
The decision, at the just-concluded AU heads of state summit in Rwanda, follows a proposal by the East African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) for the AU to request that the UN expands its mission in South Sudan to include peace enforcement modelled on the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in eastern Congo. The proposal came in the wake of a collapsing power-sharing agreement between the two main protagonists in South Sudan, President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, in early July when conflict erupted between their security details in Juba.
Since its establishment in 2011, South Sudan has experienced continual conflict; first was the clash imposed on it by its northern neighbour, Sudan, over oil revenue and borders in 2012; more recently – between December 2013 and August 2015 – militia allied to Machar and Kiir clashed. That conflict was halted through a power-sharing agreement reached in August 2015, in terms of which the rivals would retain their prior positions as president and vice president, and would integrate parts of their militia. The deal only came into force in April this year when Machar was restored as vice president and entered Juba with 1 400 troops as part of the pact. The agreement was fraught from inception. It assumed that there were only two belligerents, Kiir and Machar, and failed to integrate other groups such as the Shilluk clan (South Sudan’s third largest tribe after the Dinka and Nuer), and address more localised concerns between tribes over land and revenue distribution. Further, it failed to adequately consider the roles played by outside forces such as Uganda in propping up Kiir, skewing the balance of forces and disincentivising compliance. Moreover, it failed to adequately consider South Sudan’s fractious history and lack of institutional capacity as engendering a situation wherein securitisation is prioritised and instrumentalised by political actors. Thus, even before the agreement was concluded, Kiir expressed dissatisfaction, arguing that it was a foreign imposition, and because militia loyal to him held the balance of power. Further, no effort was made toward reversing his decision to redraw South Sudan’s provincial borders, increasing the number of provinces from ten to twenty-eight in order to benefit tribes and militias loyal to him. Deng’s power play – possibly engineered by Kiir – changes little because South Sudanese politics is still governed by force, and Deng’s support and influence in this area is less than Machar’s.
The proposed intervention force will be hamstrung by a number of factors. First, distinguishing the main belligerent in an arena wherein there is a multiplicity of groups – often with local grievances – will complicate and stall armed intervention measures. This is especially true in light of Machar’s ‘temporary’ replacement. Will UNMISS distinguish between Machar’s well-armed support and that of Deng, who is even distrusted by Kiir?
Moreover, the brigade is to comprise forces from Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan, all with differing interests in the conflict, which currently support different actors, maintain antagonisms toward each other in the quest for sub-regional hegemony, and – in the case of Uganda – has already deployed thousands of troops to support Kiir.
Further, South Sudan’s lack of central institutional governing capacity and fractious nature will complicate territorial handovers and administration efforts. The neutrality of the force will also be questioned, impeding its legitimacy. This is mainly because UNMISS has often coordinated activities with Kiir’s forces, even when these had been accused of being partly responsible for intensifying the most recent conflict. Notably, UNMISS’s mandate included working with Kiir’s government in the pursuit of state building following South Sudan’s independence, and, at the conflict’s inception, the force was outnumbered and outgunned, and forced to rely on the government for its survival.
Last, the global economic slowdown will mean that funding the expansion will be challenging. Already, some EU members have reduced their contributions to peacekeeping missions by over twenty per cent. This is significant, as the brigade will not only comprise a few thousand troops, but will require advanced weaponry and airpower to confront government forces. Even in the DRC, where the FIB has been viewed as a template for the South Sudan mission, problems are currently plaguing the mission.
The AU resolution thus will escalate the militarisation of a complex political matter. A properly enforced arms embargo could contain the situation better, and allow time to conceptualise and implement a more inclusive power-sharing agreement through IGAD, especially since South Sudan is landlocked and reliant on its neighbours, and because the USA and China can pressure the Ugandan and Sudanese governments to comply. Moreover, this would require less funding and be easier to implement. In the meanwhile, conflicts continue in Jonglei, Equatoria and other states, while the international community is fixated on the capital Juba, and on the notion that there are two clearly distinguishable belligerents.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
On 17 July, a Bahraini court banned the main opposition party, Al-Wefaq, on charges of terrorism and inciting violence in the kingdom. Wefaq is the largest political party in Bahrain, largely supported by the majority Shi'a population, with the most legislators in the lower house of parliament. The parliamentary members were all recalled following a 2011 government crackdown. Two other opposition parties, al-Tawiya and al-Risala, were also banned.
The banning was not entirely unexpected. It comes within the context of a broader crackdown; after Wefaq’s suspension in June, top Shi'a cleric Shaykh Isa Qassim was stripped of his nationality, and five other senior Shi'a clerics were interrogated. The case concerning Wefaq had been postponed until 4 September, but was expedited due to a justice ministry request. The defence panel withdrew from the case before it ended in protest against their inability to access the Wefaq offices.
The June suspension was not the party’s first – it had previously been suspended in October 2014, a month before parliamentary elections; but the party will now be dissolved, and all its funds seized by the state. Wefaq’slawyers have forty-five days to appeal, or the judgement will become final. The court’s decision was given a day after the government decided to charge Isa Qassim with illegal fundraising and money laundering, causing him to face up to seven years in jail and a $2.6 million fine. In December 2014, Wefaq’s secretary-general, Ali Salman, was imprisoned on charges of attempting to overthrow the government and collaborating with foreign powers. He denied the charges, but was sentenced to four years in prison in June 2015. Last month the appeal court increased the sentence to nine years.
The authoritarian Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty rules Bahrain, a country where approximately seventy per cent of the population is Shi'a. After the 2011 uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, including Bahrain, the divide between Sunni and Shi’a Bahrainis became more pronounced. Although the issue was originally a political rather than a religious or sectarian issue, the growing sectarian divide is partly due to government policies of repression against Shi'as, and partly because of the increasing sectarianism in the region over the past six years. The monarchy’s recent moves against Shi'as have met with international and domestic opposition. Within the country, the peaceful sit-in outside Isa Qassim’s house in Diraz against the stripping of his citizenship has been going on for a month and, after the banning of Wefaq was announced this week, protests broke out in the capital Manama with clashes between police and demonstrators.
Outside Bahrain, the UN and various human rights organisations condemned the government’s repressive actions as being in violation of international law. On Sunday 17 July, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, issued a statement of concern about recent steps taken by Bahrain to suppress non-violent opposition, asserting that it undermined security in Bahrain and stability in the region. As expected, Iran denounced Wefaq’s banning as ‘unconstructive’, and Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said he was ‘alarmed’ and that ‘[u]rgent international attention is essential to avoid another catastrophe in our region’. The Bahraini regime hit back, calling such criticism unjustified and ‘unacceptable interference’ in Bahrain’s internal affairs. Such criticisms, the government argues, will encourage extremism and terrorism, using an argument that is regularly used by Middle Eastern autocrats.
The banning, however, does not spell the end of Wefaq. Although the party is out of parliament, it remains the largest opposition group, and commands considerable support. But it is also an indication of the regime’s determination to shut down all meaningful avenues for citizens to express opposition: from organising political groups to tweeting criticism of the government. The banning of Wefaq is a clear indication that the regime will not only be intolerant of critics on the streets, but in parliament as well. While previously the regime might have been more sensitive to foreign criticism, with its relationship and that of its patron, Saudi Arabia, with the United States having deteriorated, it is unlikely Bahrain will respond positively to American criticism. It is also unlikely that the USA will follow up its criticism with any censure of Bahrain and risk worsening its relations with Saudi Arabia.
By Larbi Sadiki
Ennahda’s Tenth Congress in May 2016 was a leap of faith into re-endorsing the movement’s historical leadership as well as learning to ‘Tunisify’ its specific brand of Islamism – or whatever is left of it. The stakes are high, and so are the challenges lurking ahead. At a historical juncture of intra-Islamist divisions from Morocco to Egypt over matters of substance and organisation, and parallel divisions among secularists, Tunisia’s Islamists seem to favour the contest of power over the contest of ideology: policy is now primary; ideology is secondary.
Have they ‘killed’ Muslim Brotherhood ideologues Hassan Al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and the late Hassan Al-Turabi, and prominent Shi'a religious leaders Imam Khomeini and Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah – all iconic ideologues whose writings stamped Islamist dogma with the dictum that Islam is ‘din wa dawlah’ (religion and politics)? Tunisian Islamists, like their Moroccan and Turkish counterparts earlier, seem to have rethought their ideas, which have postulated the inseparability of Islam and politics for almost a century.
Ennahda’s resolve to finally put to bed the conundrum of religion and politics, by declaring their separation at its congress, may be a turning point in the movement’s thirty-six-year history that amounts to a ‘second founding’. But the move is not necessarily motivated by tactical manoeuvring; ‘civic habituation’ is a moderating force too.
Neo-Political Islam and the primacy of practical knowledge
Three key observations are in order here.
First, the tendency today by Islamists in places such as in Morocco and Tunisia to ‘separate’ religion and politics – or, more aptly, to de-emphasise religion in their brand of politics – speaks to the failure within political Islam to translate theoretical ideals, agendas and knowledge into a convincing and satisfactory practice in terms of political behaviour and civic engagement in many Arabo-Islamic settings. There are qualified exceptions; Turkey and Malaysia may be imperfect examples but both function well.
Second, separation of religion and politics by Islamists subverts the original paradigm: instead of moving from theory to practice, the new trend that focuses on the experience of political Islam has the potential to inform theory-building. Perhaps the practice of political Islam at the level of the state will eventually enable deeper appreciation of the theoretical potentialities of Islam as a religion. This will help incorporate practical knowledge into the organisation of politics by Islamists who are informed by theories that have thus far eluded application. Reconciling this ‘contradiction’ is a huge challenge for Arab politics in general. It is easy to pontificate about an ideal – such as social justice or its ethical foundations – as do many Islamist theoreticians, postulating it as an indispensable virtue of Islamic democracy or governance. It is a greater challenge to apply it as integrally part of lived Islam.
Third, the tendency today to separate religion and politics may bode well for levelling the playing field. The interpretation of religion ceases to be the exclusive bastion of righteous voices whose missionary zeal in some settings may have turned them into self-appointed speakers on behalf of ‘Islamic correctness’. No one reserves the right to claim the moral high ground and dictate what religion in the public sphere should and should not mean.
The Tunisian context
Islamism is not going away. Scholars from John Esposito and John Volli to Khaled Abou El Fadlii have confirmed this axiom. It is, however, the dogma that underpin the various Islamisms vying for attention in the Muslim world that should be under close scrutiny or is subject to tactical shifts or rethinking. Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori view ‘Muslim politics’ as involving ‘the competition and contest over both the interpretation of religious symbols and the control of the institutions that produce and sustain them’. Consequently ‘Muslim Politics’ is a sophisticated analysis of the ever-changing correlation between the sacred and the profane in the Muslim world.
Eickelman and Piscatori advance the idea that the politics of language that embed the expression and organisation of Muslim politics must be ‘deconstructed’. The Muslim world has witnessed a process of ‘objectification of consciousness’, a process sparking fundamental questions in the minds of believers. This objectification has come about as a result of mass education and wider channels of communication within the Muslim World, rendering exegesis widespread.iii Tunisia, like other countries that experienced uprisings in 2010-2011, is today awash in contestation over meaning in politics, religion and culture. It is a facet of maturing pluralism, civic engagement and freedom.
Political Islam or Islamism is simply refashioning itself according to the exigencies of time and space. Old conundrums are being tackled head on, and Tunisian Islamists are not exempted from this process. In his recent book Young Islam, Avi Spiegel, referring to Morocco, makes relevant points to those pondering the state of play within Islamism.iv Taking a leaf from Eickelman and Piscatori about how ‘Muslim politics’ is lived, Spiegel considers political Islam in practice, in the way it is operationalised, especially by the younger generation of activists, dealing with a huge lacuna in research on Islamism.
Spiegel makes two important points when accounting for transformative processes within Islamism.
First, that Islamist-Islamist relations inform behaviour and thinking more than external factors. This is more relevant to Morocco than Tunisia because Morocco’s Islamism is more dispersed and plural, with competing versions of Islamism, including establishment Islamism, competing for influence in the monarchy’s ‘public sphere’. Tunisia’s Ennahda has been shaped by its relationship to the state (which Spiegel says is not the case in Morocco). A brand of secular nationalism led by Tunisia’s first post-independence leader, Habib Bourguiba, provoked Islamists into opposing the suppression of Tunisia’s Islamic identity and heritage in nation- and state-building. Ennahda today argues that the question of identity no longer divides Tunisians. It is doubtful whether Ansar al-Shari'ah,v the violent extremist group designated as a terrorist organisation by Tunisia and much weaker now than three years ago, has forced policy rethinking within Ennahda.
Second, that the separation of al-siyasi (civic activism or politics) and da'awi (religious or proselytisation activities) has been in the offing within Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD). Using the example of Abdelali Hamiddine, amongst others, Spiegel shows how there is a separation between the religious movement (harakah) and the political party.v This is the direction Ennahda has just taken.
Ennahda’s emerging brand of rethought Islamism provides a more open engagement in the socio-political sphere after the democratic reforms that routinised the Islamist party as a major stakeholder in Tunisia’s fledgling ‘public sphere’. This brand of civic Islamism that slots the political and the religious into two different compartments works in tandem with increasing civic engagement, contest of power, a power-sharing record since 2011, and massive investment in the professionalisation of the party.
Concomitant with its new status as a power broker in Tunisian politics, Ennahda engages with deeply entrenched leftist and secular forces through both dialogic (including alliance with secularists in government in 2011 and currently) and concessionary means. Ennahda has adopted a declaratory policy of deference to the state when it comes to the management of mosques – leaving them as venues of worship. It has also supported current plans to re-educate imams and professionalising their functions. This may also be a defence mechanism at a time when the state is eager to counter terrorism and overall religious radicalisation, especially amongst youth.vi Religiously-inspired actors in the Muslim world are trying to define themselves in opposition to the likes of the Islamic State group (IS); Ennahda is no exception in this narrative pitting ‘moderates’ against ‘radicals’.
Distinguishing between the fixed (al-thabit) and the mutable (al-mutaghayyir) may explain Ennahda’s attitude towards the state. Politics, the party argues, belongs to the sphere of the changing. I propose that there is a public utility or ‘maqasidi’ framework at play here, and that exigencies and necessities of the Tunisian context have influenced this move.
In the Tunisian national milieu, Ennahda is also probably responding to the misgivings of its detractors that it conceals a secret theocratic agenda; that once in power it will impose dictatorship. The shift is intended also to pre-empt criticisms from liberals and secularists that it does not respect Tunisia’s political identity. Ennahda can now claim it is transcending politics of identity.
The plan to refashion Ennahda as per the movement’s Tenth Congress can be summed up in the following areas:
It commits to a civic state (dawlah madaniyyah), which rethinks earlier Islamist positions to make shari'ah (Islamic legal system) the law of the land.
It moves away from the revivalist brand of Islamism by locating itself as a national actor sharing political space with other power claimants and contestants. The old claim by Muslim Brotherhood movements that ‘Islam is the solution’ is no more (even though Ennahda never really used this motto).
It redefines Islamism as approximating ‘political ethics’ rather than ideology that informs political ends in the contest for power. In this sense Ennahda attempts to become post-ideological in a quasi-‘end of ideology’ moment.
It embraces the market unambiguously. This position breaks with earlier Islamist reservations about capitalism (Sayyid Qutb is a leading voice in this regard, with Islam’s social justice being a key tenet of his political thought). Ennahda’s discourse after the uprisings also embraced social justice.
It renounces moralisation in the social realm in a society which is ninety-nine per cent Sunni Muslim. This aims to end the pursuit of da'wah or religious propagation by the newly-professionalised political party, and to end its monopoly over interpreting religious dogma – much less endeavouring to implement it.
Where Ennahda is concerned, the fundamentals that defined Muslim Brotherhood-type movements (such as ‘the Quran is our constitution’; ‘jihad is our method’) no longer apply in any evaluative (normative) or practical (political) sense.
Like Islamist parties in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Sudan, Ennahda is undergoing a phase of ‘civic habituation’. Islamists today are faced with having real power, reversing past practices when they were excluded.vii Moderating policy and political behaviour may thus not be just tactical or ephemeral. The party has a fixed constituency and following (sympathisers and members) that secure it political visibility and prominence, though not always as the winning party as was the case in the 2014 parliamentary elections. It has gained kudos, status and know-how that deepen civic habituation. Before the uprisings, Ennahda was at the receiving end of the dictatorial proverbial ‘stick’. Now its political fortunes have improved and with that come increased legal participation, recognition of the political system, legitimacy, and shared power.
As a stakeholder, Ennahda is now concerned with self-reproduction – via the contestation of power, effective political strategies and responsive public policy platforms. Ideology ceases to be a guiding force, even if in the minds of many members and the wider Islamist transnational community the separation of religion and politics may seem heretical. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) showed how contest and acquisition of power play a moderating role, thus informing incipient civic habituation. Most MB groups conducted a de facto separation following the Arab Spring; the Egyptian MB, for example, founded the Freedom and Justice Party, open to members and non-members, which accepted the civil state and political pluralism, at least in theory.
Adaptation is the name of the game: the challenge to measure up to the demands of pluralism, freedom and democratic transition through constant training in the art of politics. That is, finding a shared space for engaging self and other through clear messages, legal and democratic strategies, shared values and rallying multipartisan objectives. Thus Tunisia’s Islamists may contribute in a practical sense to a form of ‘Islamic democracy’, an oxymoron for many of their detractors.viii In fact, as so-called Arab liberals continue to fragment or are slow at self-reforming,ix it is legalised Islamists that seem to be turning the learning curve of democratic government.
Of course, it is moot whether civic habituation through increased participation as a result of the adoption of the separation of religion and politics produces radicalisation or deradicalisation within society. It is undeniable that there is demand for a role for religion in political affairs in Tunisia, as in many other Arab states. Abandoning a powerful tenet of Islamism may be read as a form of retreat, which may have a radicalising effect.x Nevertheless, the rule of thumb is that civic engagement spells moderation and de-emphasis of ideology, not radicalisation.
Is Ennahda renouncing ‘Islamism’, its doctrinaire sine qua non and the basis of its foundational identity? Since its emergence in the late 1970s as the ‘Islamic Tendency Movement’, identity politics – promoting the idea of Islam as an organic frame of reference for imagining polity, society and economy – has defined the movement’s declaratory policy, rhetoric, discourse and political engagement.
This template and attendant agency came at a high price: exile, imprisonment, and exclusion under both Bourguiba and his successor, ousted dictator Zinelabidine Ben Ali. Under Ben Ali, Ennahda sought accommodation and even contested by-elections, showing early indications of electoral support in the late 1980s, which made the then-dictator buckle and shift policy from co-existence to systematic exclusion and coercion. No single political current in Tunisia’s history suffered as much at the hands of Ben Ali’s police machinery.
Neo-Ennahda emerged over a three-day historic congress punctuated by fascinating and heated but pluralist debates, part of which I witnessed first hand, as a national political party with an Islamic frame of reference that deploys democracy as a mode of political engagement. To this end, Neo-Ennahda is now committing to separate the religious (al-da'awi) and the political (al-siyasi).
A vision that was upheld for over three decades has ceded to a new brand of civic Islamism. As an analogy, Neo-Ennahda has not only edged closer to the notion of a civil state, but also to Turkey’s AKP and further from Egypt’s standard Muslim Brotherhood or ‘Ikhwani’ model: the former operationalises politics with minimum ideology, the latter has historically harboured ambitions of Islamising polity.
This is why, in one of his interventions during the congress, party president Shaykh Rachid Ghannouchi adopted a new discourse angled at stressing the primacy of the market, economic growth, renouncing the politics of identity (huwiyyah), elements which had been part of the fundamentals of his thought for over thirty years.
There are three interconnected motivations for the change.
First,normalisation of Ennahda with the ‘deep state’, which has preserved the imprints of Bourguiba’s political modelling of it a la Francophile: secular in nature. Tunisia’s society is similarly shaped, manifesting a deeply hybrid national persona that reveres Islam but with a bent for civic engagement of all aspects of the horizontal side of life, including politics. Ennahda is finally being intelligently and deftly adaptive, seeking a brand of ‘Tunisification’ of its identity as a major political force with a fixed thirty-five to forty percent political following.
Second,professionalisation, and this is common to all major parties anywhere as they mature politically. So by defending a new identity that separates the religious and the political, Ennahda has turned an important learning curve on the way to a fully-fledged civic political party. The amendments, all of which passed with absolute majorities of more than 800 votes, prove that several months of internal debates have come to full fruition for the party’s reformists. This includes further empowerment of the party’s Shura Council, of which 100 members are directly elected by conference, and another fifty by the Council’s elected representatives. Ennahda’s partnering in the troika government that delivered the country’s democratic constitution in early 2014 provided the party with an invaluable ‘reality check’, which it used to reflect, revise and adjust.
Third,democratisation via ‘factionalisation’: a salient feature of maturing political parties anywhere. One of the most fascinating debates and the first ever in the history of Ennahda took place on the morning of 22 May. Three leading leaders representing first and second generations took to the floor to openly contest and defend their respective views of how the party should be internally organised, led, and administered. (I am not at liberty to disclose more.) This was unthinkable before the uprisings. Ennahda’s practice of internal democracy has produced a kind of factionalisation, which may, over time, serve to reduce the huge concentration of power in the party executive. Islamist parties, like Arab secularist parties, tend to be resistant to democratic transformation in party structures and internal democracy. From this perspective, factionalisation must be seen as having a democratising effect, at least in the long term.
Al-Banna’s Islamism no more?
Surveying the state of political Islam in the aftermath of the uprisings, what is most conspicuous is the presence of a spectre of stagnation, crisis and fragmentation. From Egypt to Tunisia there are signs that there is confusion in the ‘Islamic project’ adopted since the days of Hassan Al-Banna (assassinated in 1949), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood ideal and model of socio-politico-moral organisation.
Morally, the flame of the ideal has not dimmed; it still lights up millions of subaltern lives. Al-Banna – and after him other like-minded iconic figures ranging from Sayyid Qutb (MB ideologue and scholar hanged by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966) to Maulana Abu 'Ala Maududi (leading Scholar of Indian-Pakistani origin, d 1979) – made a strong case for ‘Islamic governance’. They found in Islam an organic repertoire for giving the former colonised a voice, and also the means to resist subjugation, westernisation, secularisation, moral decay, and dissolution into followers of Euro-American models of organising polity, society, economy and morality.
In a short but brilliant ‘Foreword’ to Sayyed Abul Hassan Al-Nadwi’s famous book Islam and the World,xi Qutb seconds the author’s ideas of an Islam that sanctions liberation from ‘superstitions and banalities’, ‘slavery and degradation’, and from religious and political ‘tyranny’. Islam, Qutb argues, blesses life with faith, a font of ‘knowledge, fraternity, justice and self-confidence’. These are in turn life-giving values that through hard work maximise humans potential for realising the quest for a ‘just, healthy and balanced system’.xii The genius of Islam resides in the telos of a ‘just’ and ‘balanced system’. A balanced system defuses the tension between dualisms such as God/man, this world/the hereafter, Muslim/non-Muslim (or peoples of the Book), community/individual, and theory/practice.
Qutb does not mince his words when it comes to articulating the primacy of Islam as ‘din wa dawlah’ (religion and state), and in terms of visibility and leadership in world (and worldly) affairs. He affirms that there is ‘good’ to be had when Islam assumes a leading role ‘to fashion life according to its own special genius’.xiii There is no doubt in his mind that justice and a balanced society or polity derive from Muslims leading, not following. He regards leadership as intrinsic to Islam. Moreover, he affirms that ‘proving’ and ‘testing’ Islam’s mettle obtains only when assuming responsibility. Thus in his view Islam is predisposed to ‘lead the caravan of life. It cannot be a camp follower.’xiv Perhaps this is no longer the case. Muslims, being today plugged into the international economy, integrated in an international order not of their making, and, of late, as they are being converted to the notion of separation of religion and politics, cannot be but ‘camp followers’.
The issues that shaped Qutb’s thinking more than fifty years agoxv – the ideological standoff with the ‘West’, colonial penetration, Muslim identity – do not seem to feature large in the thinking of current Islamist ideologues. Qutb found both capitalism and communism to be inferior to Islam,xvi with both steeped in materialism. Even when they valorise justice, as did communism, they expunge it of all spiritual content.
In its continuous transformation, Islamism has, thus, shifted emphasis according to time and space, oscillating between phases of confrontation and reconciliation, rejection and accommodation. Some of these shifting emphases include:
The deployment of Islam as a moral and educational medium for raising levels of consciousness and resisting colonialism;
Islam as a medium of resisting secularisation, to the point that sometimes mere political participation in ‘secular’ politics was considered heretical;
Resurgence or sahwah islamiyyah that positioned the question of identity at the heart of the quarrel with national-secular elites and states;
Islamisation of state, society, morality and knowledge, all overlapping agendas that gave rise to transnational rethought Islamisms, recognising authoritarian regimes (what the MB and the PJD did in Egypt in Morocco respectively), and approving of engaging the secular state by equating the Islamic concept of ‘shura’ (consultation) with democracy;
Islamism going hand in hand with revolution, and the emergence of Islamist resistance movements;
The Wahhabi Salafi explosion promoting literalist interpretations of Islam that spread to all corners of the Muslim world;
Intra-Salafi divisions and the rise of intellectual and radical salafisms;
Divisions within moderate Islamisms (for example, in Egypt, Jordan, Sudan), and attendant ‘rationalisation’ of Islamism through adoption of formerly rejected positions such as separation of religion and politics.
End of Political Islam? End of Ideology?
It is too early to confidently state that the shift marks the end of political Islam, because it depends firstly on how one defines political Islam. A strict ideological definition will lead to the conclusion that it is the end of political Islam, in a certain sense. But if one allows for the elasticity of ideas and practice within political Islam, then it is not, but a recognition that Islamists come in all shapes and colours: they are neither fixed nor unitary.
For me, a Tunisian who closely follows the politics of a fledgling democracy, I never cease to remind myself of the enduring legacy of Bourguiba’s secularism. It lives on, and today reshapes Tunisia, including its Islamists. Many Tunisians – including Ennahda sympathisers and members – are left with a big question: was Bourguiba right all along? This is a question Ennahda has to ponder. For, after the tragic experiences of torture, martyrs, exile and suffering, a big volte face on this issue cannot be easy. Was the suffering for nothing at all? Has Ennahda abandoned its original vision that Islam and politics belong to an organic sphere in which they are mutually reinforcing as a matter of conviction or necessity? These are questions that will not disappear for some time.
*This article was originally published on Al Jazeera Centre for Studies website.
iJohn L Esposito and John O Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
iiAbou El Fadl, Khaled et al., Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).
iiiDale Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996).
ivAvi Max Spiegel, Young Islam: The New Politics of Religion in Morocco and the Arab World (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2015), pp 177-178.
vAaron Y Zelin, ‘Tunisia: Uncovering Ansar Al-Sharia,’ p 178.
viRachid Khechana, ‘The thorns in the side of Tunisia’s young democratic process,’ Aspen Institute, 25/04/2016, https://www.aspeninstitute.it/aspenia-online/article/thorns-side-tunisias-young-democratic-process.
viiEmmanuel Sivan, ‘Why Radical Muslims Aren’t Taking Over Governments,’ Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1998).
viiiGudrun Krämer, ‘Islamist Notions of Democracy,’ Middle East Report, No. 183 (1993), pp 2-8.
ixJon Alterman, ‘The False Promise of Arab Liberals,’ Policy Review (June/July 2004).
xMichael Georgy and Tom Perry, ‘Special report: As Brotherhood retreats, risks of extremism increase,’ Reuters, 28 October 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/28/us-egypt-brotherhood-special-report-idUSBRE99R0DU20131028.
xiSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’ in Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Al-Nadwi, Islam and the World: The Rise and Decline of Muslims and its Effect on Mankind (Leicester: UK Islamic Academy), p vii.
xiiSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’, p vii.
xiiiSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’.
xivSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’.
xvSayed Khatab, The Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb: The Theory of Jahiliyyah (London: Routledge, 2006).
xviSayyid Qutb, Al-Adalah Al-Ijtima’iyyah fi Al-Islam [Social Justice in Islam] (Cairo: Makatab Masr, 1949). See also, Sayyid Qutb, Ma’rakat Al-Islam wa Al-Ra’smaliyyah [The Battle of Islam and Capitalism] (Cairo: Dar Al-Shuruq, 1975).
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Turkey’s Kurdish question: Historic foundations and contemporary issues
After about eighty years of marginalisation and persecution, Turkey’s Kurdish population had a glimmer of hope for the resolution of the ‘Kurdish question’ through talks between the Justice and Development (AKP) government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 2013. The PKK had pursued an armed insurgency against the state since 1984, but proximity talks between Turkish National Intelligence Service and PKK representatives in Oslo in 2009 suggested the possibility of a new dawn. The talks developed into a dialogue with PKK leader and ideologue, Abdullah Ocalan, who had been serving a life sentence in the Imrali Island prison since 1999. In 2013 both sides declared a ceasefire, which substantially held until 2015. In September 2015 Turkey and the armed PKK renewed hostilities, effectively terminating two years of peace talks. Since then, the Turkish military has bombed PKK bases in the Iraqi Qandil Mountains and implemented martial law across Turkey’s Kurdish dominated southeast, as a string of bombings rocked Turkish cities, and an uprising erupted in various Kurdish urban centres.
Numbering between 15 and 20 million, Turkey’s Kurds form the largest part of the Kurdish community, which is split across Kurdish inhabited areas in Syria, Iraq, Iran and parts of the Caucasus. Since the division of these areas following the Second World War, Kurdish groups across this region have called for increased autonomy from central governments, and, often, complete secession that would allow the various parts of the Kurdish community to unite into a new Kurdish state. That discourse has changed over the past few years, with new ideas of democratic autonomy diluting the push for succession which once dominated the Kurdish national movement.
Victims of Ataturk’s nationalist project
After the First World War, with the Ottoman empire divided into several new states, a group of former Ottoman Officers headed by Mustafa Kemal, a charismatic general known among Turkish nationalists as the ‘father’ of modern Turkey, or Ataturk, led the Turkish War of Independence which resulted in the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. In his vision for a secular republican Turkey, Ataturk pursued a programme of social and political reform which included the abolition of Islamic institutions; the introduction of western legal codes, dress, and calendar; and the latinisation of the Turkish language from the Arabic Ottoman alphabet. The reforms formed part of a Turkish nationalist project which championed the primacy of Turkishness over other ethnic identities. Secular Turkish nationalism ensured that development in the Kurdish regions was stymied, and the Kurdish language was banned in public spaces, including schools, resulting in disproportionately high illiteracy levels among Kurds. The effects of this policy persist. The channelling of state development projects to West Turkey resulted in the underdevelopment of the east, which was used as a cheap reservoir of labour. The 1950s were years of major political upheaval for the Kurdish southeast; feudal relations suffered as numerous rural uprisings took place against the state, increasing urbanisation.
Roots and evolution of the PKK
In the 1960s, educated and unionised Kurdish counter-elites gained control of the Kurdish national movement from its more traditional and conservative support base. Years of cultural patronisation and economic neglect stemming from Ankara’s Kemalist socioeconomic policies radicalised Kurdish youth. The combination of socioeconomic factors and renascent Kurdish cultural idioms produced a new Kurdish movement. Soon the leadership began to use a Marxist discourse, mainly within trade union movements – the only legal avenues for Kurdish political thought and action. In 1978 Ocalan and a number of radical Turkish and Kurdish intellectuals established the PKK with the aim of seceding from Turkey and joining with other Kurdish regions to form a Kurdish state – a call which grew stronger among Turkish Kurds after military rule in 1980. In 1984 the PKK’s armed wing, The People’s Liberation Army of Kurdistan (ARKG) began an armed insurgency against the state. Although the armed campaigns enjoyed rural support, there were also Kurds who were opposed this strategy. This section of the Kurdish community was mostly tribal, conservative and religious. Ankara, aware of these fissures, sought to divide support for the PKK through increased urbanisation programmes, and the introduction of a Kurdish paramilitary force known as The Village Guard, ostensibly to protect Kurdish villages from PKK insurgents. Rogue elements in the Turkish security apparatus also provided support to the Turkish Hizbullah (no relation to the Lebanese Hizbullah), a militant Islamist group which fought the PKK, adding another dimension to Kurdish infighting.
Nevertheless, by the 1990s the Turkish state was unable to destroy Kurdish identity and political expression, and the PKK and other armed Kurdish groups were unable to secede from Turkey through armed force. In 1993, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Ocalan began discussing autonomy for the Kurdish regions, promoting self-rule within existing states, and abandoning the notion of secession to create a Kurdish state. This ‘Democratic Confederalism’ project, as he called it, would provide for the development of autonomous sociocultural systems with defined independent economic domains aiming to move away from the central state and parochial nationalism, diversifying governance from the ‘bottom up’, and championing localised governance whilst celebrating ethnic and linguistic difference. The PKK reframed armed resistance as ‘self defence’, and the ARKG changed its name to People’s Defence Forces (HPG). Inserted into the Democratic Confederalism discourse, ‘self-defence’ was a way to address the contradictions between the continued existence of an armed wing, and the official policy of peace.
Kurdish participatory politics
Between 1993 and 2008, Kurds attempted to create political parties which could contest Turkish parliamentary elections. Seven were launched in this period, and all were banned by Turkey’s constitutional court. They also suffered state repression in the form of imprisonment and assassinations. Although some parties had ties to the PKK, many were banned due to their policies of autonomy – consistent with the Democratic Confederalism model – which they attempted to institutionalise in municipalities that their members controlled. Since 2005 the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), which promotes Democratic Confederalism through assemblies and grassroots participatory politics, has expanded its operations. With a similar objective, the Democratic Society Congress, a brainchild of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) – one of the seven banned parties, was formed in 2007, aiming to further autonomy in Kurdish areas.
By 2007 Kurdish political leaders regarded the hegemonic Kurdish nationalist discourse as the cause for poor performance at the polls, and for consistent legislative attacks from the state. In order to address this, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) aligned with twenty socialist parties to form the People’s Democratic Congress (HDK); it won thirty-six seats in the 2011 general elections. In 2013 HDK was given a historic opportunity to push its pluralist agenda to an even broader audience after the Gezi Park protest movement erupted in central Istanbul, driven by objections to gentrification in Istanbul and deteriorating press freedoms. The Gezi Park movement offered the HDK a mouthpiece within Turkish urban centres. In October 2013 the HDK established the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the most inclusive Kurdish-led political party thus far, which appealed to anti-austerity, socialist and progressive Turks who had found a platform at Gezi.
As Kurdish political parties grew throughout the 1990s, Islamist Turkish parties emerged. The roots of these parties lie deep within the Turkish social fabric, and date back to the founding of Turkish nationalism, when Turkish identity was founded as a derivative of Islam. The military junta played a role in the mid-1980s in laying the ground for the entrance of Islamist political discourse into the fiercely secular Turkish political scene. As part of its attempt to combat the rise of left-wing politics, it introduced ‘Islamisation from above’ policies which included compulsory religious education, and the reopening of religious schools and institutions. More profoundly, it fused Islamic symbols with nationalism in the hope of combating the revolutionary Islamic thought emanating from post-revolutionary Iran. It also introduced deregulation reforms which strengthened the emergence of an Anatolian bourgeoisie which had strong roots in Islamic culture. This, together with the elitism of Kemalist parties, resulted in the emergence of the Welfare Party, the Islamist precursor to the AKP.
In1997 eighteen ‘28 February Recommendations’ by military and Kemalist leaders were issued, designed to stem the growth of Islamism Turkish politics. The military gave the Welfare party-led coalition government an ultimatum over issues regarding secularism and political Islam. A year later the Welfare Party was outlawed. Despite the retaking of the political realm by Turkey’s military elite, the growth and popularity of Islamic politics had been established, and it had captured the imagination of groups of people – particularly conservative or religious Turks and Kurds – who had been marginalised by elitist, secular fundamentalist and nationalist politics. The AKP emerged in 2001 within this context, and secured substantial Kurdish support by utilising the influence of religious Kurdish groups, particularly the Naqshbandi Sufi order. From the 2002 to the 2007 parliamentary election the AKP doubled its support in the southeast due to the support of conservative and religious Kurds.
The 2012 Peace Process
AKP victories at the 2002, 2007 and 2011 elections symbolised the return and victory of Islamist politics within Turkey. These electoral wins were secured partly through consistent support from the southeast, where the Kurdish electorate saw the AKP as the only party willing and able to resolve the Kurdish question and to secure a lasting peace with the PKK. To address the Kurdish issue decisively, the Turkish prime minister and leader of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, opened a dialogue with Ocalan and the PKK high command in late 2012. He wanted to finally resolve the problem of Kurdish marginalisation, while securing a diplomatic coup for his party. The PKK claims, cynically and in retrospect, that he also wanted to create a peaceful environment in the run up to the 2014 elections, and to build support for a presidential system in Turkey among Kurds.
The emergence of the HDP as the voice of participatory and radical Kurdish politics, however, challenged the AKP’s position as the sole political force for peace. The HDP could not be ignored in any peace process, and was chosen as a courier between Imrali Island and Ankara, and, at points, to represent Ocalan in negotiations with government. A February 2015 meeting between HDP leaders and the deputy prime minister, Yalcin Akdogan, at the Domalbache Palace resulted in a ten-point roadmap for a final resolution. Erdogan, however, rejected the Domalbache agreement, blaming continuing violence between state security forces and the PKK, and criticising the HDP for not condemning the Kurdish group.
The PKK’s main complaint about the peace process was that it only guaranteed the rehabilitation of PKK fighters, and gave few guarantees regarding demands for autonomy. This strengthened an environment of distrust, intensified when Ankara began building military bases as PKK fighters were withdrawing. As a result of this PKK scepticism, its military units began to return from the Qandil Mountains in 2014, enforcing checkpoints and imposing taxes, resulting in pitched battles between PKK militants and the army, and skirmishes between PKK youth and Kurdish Islamists. By late 2014 the PKK had accused Ankara of negotiating in bad faith, and of marginalising the HDP. This saw an increase in militancy within the PKK and other groups such as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), with them undertaking bombing campaigns and armed attacks. The situation exploded early 2015 with Erdogan’s ambivalence towards the Islamic State group’s siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, which was controlled by PKK-affiliated Peoples Protection Units. This perceived complicity in the siege saw two dramatic developments for the tattered Kurdish peace process: the PKK called on youth in the southeast to rise up against the state, and the significant Kurdish vote the AKP had enjoyed gravitated to the HDP and another Kurdish party, Huda Par, in the June 2015 parliamentary election.
Future for Turkey’s Kurdish question
In the subsequent October 2015 elections, the HDP lost a large number of votes to the AKP and lost twenty-one of its eighty parliamentary seats. With armed battles and deep suspicion now characterising the relationship between the PKK and the state, it is unlikely that talks between them will resume anytime soon. In this context, the AKP hopes to solve the Kurdish issue unilaterally, without negotiating with Kurdish representatives.
With the HDP’s loss in the October election, many frustrated Kurds that had been drawn to the party’s participatory narrative became more amenable to PKK militancy. However, the PKK does not enjoy complete support in Kurdish areas, and has made a number of strategic errors in 2015. Its call on urban youth to revolt, for example, failed to attract broad support among Kurds. The instability on the Syrian border, and the emergence of the PKK-linked PYD as a potential power broker in any Syrian solution has complicated the Kurdish question for Ankara. Failure to engage meaningfully with the political forces ranged against it has emboldened those in the PKK who advocate a violent response.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The Iraqi army’s assault on the city of Fallujah held by the Islamic State group (IS) has ground to a halt in light of fierce house-to-house fighting with IS fighters. The city has been under IS control since January 2014, with 90 000 civilians trapped inside. Some 20 000 civilians fled during the first few weeks of the fighting, which began on 25 May, through IS lines, dodging Iraqi army fire, and even swimming the Euphrates river. In the initial push towards Fallujah, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al-Sha'bi) were at the forefront of the battle. These Shi'a militias have been accused of numerous human rights violations against Sunni communities, since their cooption by Baghdad in the fight against IS.
Merely fifty kilometres north of Baghdad, Fallujah is strategically important to the Iraqi capital. IS has used it as a staging ground for infiltrating the capital, and executing attacks that have sapped confidence in the government’s ability to provide security. The manner in which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi retakes Fallujah and returns it to Baghdad’s authority will serve as the template for the Iraqi army’s impending assault on Mosul, which will be conducted in coordination with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The battle of Fallujah also represents an internal political issue for Iraq’s Shi'a political class. The successes of the Badr Brigade, a Shi'a militia with strong links to Tehran, in securing Baghdad and beating back IS from Diyala province has provided Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri with significant political capital. Meanwhile the protest movement in Baghdad against corruption and poor service delivery threatens to de-legitimise Abadi’s fledgling government.
The inability of Iraqi forces to coordinate with Sunni tribal leaders – who the government had alienated through heavily sectarian security measures – granted IS the ability to consolidate its control over Fallujah in 2014. In light of the failures leading up to the fall of Fallujah, the government has recently worked to increase coordination with Sunni tribes and militias in battles to retake territory seized by IS since mid-2014. This coordination is a conscious attempt by Abadi to provide a united national front against IS, exemplified through the increasing purchase Sunni tribes and militias have over Baghdad’s approach to retaking Sunni areas. Sunni tribes have called on the government to reign in Popular Mobilisation Forces in the Fallujah assault. Abadi had attempted to hold them on the outskirts of the city. In the days leading up to the current assault, reports of abuses by these forces against Sunni civilians in the liberated areas south of Fallujah prompted Anbar’s Provincial Council to call on ‘sectarian factions [to keep] away from the battle of Fallujah’. In light of these abuses, Abadi also ordered the government to prosecute fighters accused of committing violations.
Within the Shi'a political class, Abadi is on the back foot. The Badr Brigade has become a prominent force within Iraqi politics through its successes against IS. Badr’s political front, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is poised to become kingmaker in Iraqi elections. This party receives much financial support from Tehran, and uses its control of Diyala province to exhibit its potential as a ruling partner. Meanwhile, the Sadrist camp, led by influential Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seized upon the May protests in Baghdad’s Green Zone to demand the prime minister changes his cabinet to a technocratic one, eradicates corruption, and enhances service delivery. Sadr and Abadi support the incorporation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces into the Iraqi army, a move opposed by Badr head Ameri. Other militia leaders echo this.
The battle for Fallujah will be a protracted engagement for Iraqi national forces, is becoming increasingly bloody as Iraqi forces get closer to the centre where IS militants are holed up, allegedly using civilians as human shields. Abadi knows that using the militias will grant political points to his rivals. However, these forces have proved effective at clearing and occupying rural zones around contested cities. Abadi thus devised a formula in which Popular Mobilisation Forces are held at the outskirts to prevent IS reinforcements entering the cities, but play no visible role in the liberation of the city. This is a positive development in the battle against IS. The perception of the Iraqi army as liberators in Sunni Fallujah will assist in the pursuit of national unity. Success could guarantee Abadi’s administration the popular support it drastically needs.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The February 2016 announcement by Moroccan King Mohammed VI that the kingdom intended to upgrade diplomatic ties with South Africa pointed to a recalculation of that country’s national interests. This has mainly been caused by regional factors such as the increase in militancy in the Sahel, and the drop in oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices. In Morocco’s assessment, these factors have helped weaken support for Saharawi independence, and the kingdom believes that its 2007 autonomy plan will soon be accepted as an optimal method of resolving the issue, especially since it has created new facts on the ground. Morocco thus expelled UN civilian monitors in March, and wants to ensure that the mandate of the United Nations’s Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) no longer includes holding a referendum. Moreover, it has stepped up attempts to engage with African countries, such as South Africa and Kenya, which recognise the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), to gain support for the Moroccan position on the SADR, and lobby the African Union to alter its stance on this issue.
The slowdown in the global – and especially European – economy following the 2008 financial crisis, and the weakening of domestic demand, has also forced Rabat to look toward Sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, for economic partnerships. An upgrade in ties between Morocco and South Africa will, however, be of little political consequence. Although bilateral economic opportunities and counter terrorism coordination will likely be facilitated and increase, South Africa will continue its support for the Polisario Front, the Saharawi liberation movement, and its recognition of the SADR, which has an embassy in Pretoria. Morocco hopes economic convergences and increases in bilateral trade will help mitigate these differences.
Relations since 1990
Moroccan-South African relations were formally established in September 1991 after Pretoria established an interest office in Rabat. Morocco reciprocated in April 1992, and both offices were upgraded to embassies in 1994. Earlier, Morocco had supported the anti-apartheid movement and provided diplomatic, military and financial backing to the African National Congress (ANC). Nelson Mandela had travelled to the kingdom in the 1960s to garner support for the anti-apartheid struggle, and received some military training there. Since 2004, however, relations between Pretoria and Rabat have been tense because of ANC support for independence of the SADR, whose territory is claimed by Morocco.
Morocco formally downgraded relations in September 2004 after severely criticising Pretoria’s inauguration of a Saharawi representative office in Pretoria. South Africa believed that it could maintain good relations with both Morocco and the SADR, which it views as independent states. This is similar to South Africa’s position on Israel and Palestine. When the term of South Africa’s ambassador to Rabat ended in 2006, Ashraf Suleiman was appointed to head the South African mission. Rabat ignored the appointment and did not issue South Africa with the necessary agrément (approval). After about a year of waiting, it seems President Thabo Mbeki got the message. He deployed Suleiman elsewhere, and downgraded South Africa’s representation in Rabat to chargé d’affaires level.
At the time, trade between the two countries stood at around 500 million rands annually, with companies such as Eskom and Anglo American benefiting the most. NEXSA (formally the nuclear energy cooperation of South Africa) had been building a facility in Morocco and procuring material to assist in the area of nuclear medicine.
The situation has since changed. A 150-member Moroccan delegation, including the country’s prime minister and foreign minister attended last year’s Africities summit in Johannesburg, and it is probable that diplomatic ties will soon be upgraded to ambassadorial level, following a February announcement by King Mohammed VI of a new ambassador to Pretoria, AbdelKader Chaoui. He is, however, no longer the ambassador-designate because of ill-health, and the king is currently considering a replacement. That Chaoui’s appointment was publicly announced suggests that agreement had been received from Pretoria for the upgrade in ties, and South Africa will likely reciprocate. In a further indication of an upgrade in relations, Royal Air Maroc (Morocco’s national carrier) will soon launch direct flights to South Africa.
Why the change from Rabat
The change in approach is mostly in terms of Morocco’s foreign relations; Pretoria has not altered its positions much from its 2004 decision to recognise the SADR – the main reason for Rabat’s downgrading of relations. Until then, the kingdom had believed that it had the upper hand in attempts to get African states to withdraw recognition of the SADR and its Polisario Front. South Africa’s recognition, unofficial from the ANC’s accession to power in 1994 until 2004, was an obstacle in this process.
Morocco claims Western Sahara, a Spanish colony until 1975, as part of its territory, and has since occupied much of the territory. Morocco also refuses to join international and regional organisations which recognise the independence of the SADR, pulling out of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1984, and playing little role in other regional bodies on the continent. Pretoria, though, views the Saharawi struggle as the last anti-colonial struggle in Africa, has lobbied international organisations for the Saharawi right to self-determination, and believes that its support for the SADR is integral to a foreign policy guided by human rights imperatives.
Rabat now believes that there is no longer enthusiasm for Saharawi recognition, and that the Polisario’s capabilities are on the wane – because of three key factors. First, the kingdom believes it has created a situation on the ground that makes Saharawi independence less viable than previously. It has conceptualised an autonomy plan that will allow the territory some legislative and judicial powers, but guard Rabat’s control over defence and foreign policy. Certain major powers, such as USA and France, have responded positively to the plan, and have worked with the kingdom to halt opposition to it. France and Senegal (currently a non-permanent UNSC member) have even lobbied to alter MINURSO’s mandate to exclude the hosting of a referendum.
Second, the South Sudan crisis has diluted optimism for independence struggles even amongst European states. No African state has gained independence since Namibia (formally South West Africa) in 1990 with South Sudan’s 2011 recognition being an anomaly. Morocco assesses that many states will reconsider SADR recognition if African heavyweights and the AU accept the 2007 autonomy plan. To date, over thirty of the around eighty-four states that had recognised Western Saharan independence have frozen or/and withdrawn SADR recognition, even though such a move does not comply with the 1933 Montevideo convention on statehood recognition.
Furthermore, the kingdom believes that the increase in weapons proliferation and militancy in the Sahel, largely caused by the NATO-led overthrow of Muammar Gadhdhafi, will increase the tendency for states to favour their own stability over the right to self-determination of others. Morocco has thus been actively engaging with states such as Mali and Mauritania after Gadhdhafi’s ouster, and supported the French 2012-13 Mali intervention. The increasing influence of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in areas around Western Sahara and the group’s recruitment of Saharawi youth convinced Rabat that its assessment of states’ response was correct. Its position received a boost when it was elected to lead the Community of Saharan and Sahelian States’ (CEN-Sad) executive committee in 2013.
Third, Rabat believes that the oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) price drop has negatively impacted Algeria to the extent that it would be unable to continue supporting Polisario at the same levels as previously. It also believes that Algeria’s succession question will weaken its resolve. The over fifty per cent drop in the oil price between 2014 and 2015 placed immense pressure on Algiers, which sought loans and suspended subsidies. Algeria, however, argues that it remains committed to the Saharawi struggle, and that its economy will weather the oil price crisis.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic opportunities
For Morocco, Sub-Saharan Africa represents a significant market for its industries. Although previously relying on Europe for over sixty per cent of its exports and for foreign direct investment, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent increase in competitiveness of Eastern European states placed pressure on this export potential. Under Mohammed VI the kingdom thus looked southwards, backed by Moroccan companies which possess a competitive advantage in many industries such as banking, construction and electricity generation. Domestic demand within Morocco has stagnated, increasing by a mere 2.4 per cent from around six per cent in 2011, and the free trade agreement with the US failed to realise an increase in trade.
The rest of Africa still however remains third in Morocco’s foreign relations priorities, after Europe and the USA. Moreover, even though trade between the Kingdom and the rest of the continent has increased in recent years, it only comprises around five per cent of overall Moroccan trade. Moroccan exports to sub-Saharan Africa tripled from around 250 million dollars in 2000 to over 840 million in 2010, and foreign direct investment from Morocco to the rest of the continent has doubled to around 500 million dollars in 2010 from 250 million just two years earlier. Focal sectors include banking, agriculture and pharmaceuticals. Airline diplomacy, cultural ties, and counter terrorism cooperation have been used to strengthen ties with francophone West African states such as Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. King Mohammed VI has himself increased his visits to West and Central Africa, and concluded treaties on eliminating double taxation and reducing tariffs.
With this change in approach, Morocco is also increasing its diplomatic clout and activities in multilateral organisations. Apart from its leadership role in CEN-SAD, it was elected to the UN Security Council in 2012 as a non-permanent member. As such, it successfully prevented the UN from extending its Western Sahara mandate to include human rights monitoring. Morocco also regards conflict resolution as an important component guiding its foreign policy, and it attempted to mediate between various parties following the failed coup in Guinea (2010), and acted as a mediator to smooth US relations with Mauritania after the 2008 coup there. Furthermore, the recent agreement to form a unified Libyan government, which resulted in the Government of National Accord, was partly driven by Morocco, and signed in the Moroccan resort city of Skhirat.
The Kingdom is keen to restore its African Union seat, but will rejoin the AU only if the SADR’s recognition is revoked. While the AU’s Constitutive Act does not permit the de-recognition of a state, the act can be amended to allow for this, and there is a precedent in this regard. At the founding of the OAU in 1963, the Portuguese protectorate of Kabinda was recognised as the thirty-ninth African state still to be decolonised, and Angola the thirty-fifth. However, when Angola gained independence in 1975, the OAU recognised the incorporation of Kabinda into Angola despite Kabindan opposition. For any such attempt by Morocco, South African support will be crucial, partly because of Pretoria’s clout in Southern Africa, and because it is one of the ‘big five’ members of the African union.
Impact on Morocco-South Africa relations
it is within this context that Morocco is looking to upgrade relations with Pretoria and return them to ambassadorial level. Chaoui, named by Mohammed VI as the new ambassador to South Africa, is a former dissident who spent fifteen years in jail for belonging to the Leninist ‘March 23’ movement. Released in 1990, he joined the justice ministry, and is currently the ambassador to Chile. It is probable that Chaoui was strategically selected because of his dissident credentials and favourable reputation amongst Moroccan opposition parties, which Morocco would have hoped would endear him to Pretoria. His replacement will likely have similar credentials. However, it is inconceivable that any ambassador to South Africa will have a different position on the SADR than Rabat; most political parties and politicians operating in Morocco, those supporting and those opposing the monarchy, support the king’s claims over Saharawi territory.
The participation of a large delegation – with the largest exhibition stand – to the Africities summit in Johannesburg in November 2015 was not coincidental. Morocco’s attendance was to garner support for its stance on Saharawi independence, and to exhibit its local government-decentralisation model. Yet the country’s foreign minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, met with South Africa’s Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. It is likely that Chaoui’s appointment and Pretoria’s reciprocation was a key issue discussed.
The upgrading of diplomatic ties and recently-announced direct flights between Morocco and South Africa will have mainly economic implications. Opportunities for investments for both South African and Moroccan companies will increase. This is especially pertinent because they are the two largest investors in the continent. South African companies, especially in the areas of retail, finance and mining, have been very active on the continent, while Morocco’s banks have replaced much of the French continental banking investments following the 2008 economic collapse. In 2015 South Africa’s largest insurer, Sanlam, acquired around thirty per cent of Moroccan insurer Saham Finances in a five billion rand deal that will allow Sanlam to have a foothold in the largely untapped and lucrative Francophone West African market. South African trade statistics already show an increase in bilateral trade from around thirty four million rand in 1992, when the interest office was established, to over four billion in 2015. The tripling of exports from South Africa to Morocco from 1.2 billion in 2014 to over 3.2 billion in 2015, and the quadrupling of imports from Morocco to over one billion in 2014 from around 270 million the previous year point to increasing economic convergences. It is thus not surprising that Morocco’s reading of the change in the SADR situation prompted it to reconsider its diplomatic relations with South Africa.
The political consequences will, however, be minimal. The upgrade might strengthen continental counter terrorism cooperation, which Morocco is keen on. However, South Africa’s stance on the SADR is unlikely to change. Pretoria has been emphatic on the issue, and altering its position will undermine its soft power, hegemonic aspirations and its moral authority on the continent. Pretoria is also unlikely to support Moroccan attempts to lobby the AU to change its position regarding SADR recognition. South Africa’s close ties with Algeria will ensure that it will defer to Algeria’s position on the SADR, which is unlikely to change even with the current budget crunch and succession battle. If Rabat seeks better diplomatic relations with South Africa while ignoring Pretoria’s recognition of the SADR, the upgrade in relations will be successful; however, if the kingdom expects to move Pretoria’s position on the SADR, it will likely fail. Economic convergences can mitigate these differences, and bilateral relations will likely improve in the short- to medium-term.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
A French initiative to revive the ‘peace process’ between Israel and the Palestinians will kick off at a foreign ministers’ conference in Paris on Friday, 3 June. It will bring together around twenty countries including the USA, Russia, and South Africa, as well as the European Union, UN Security Council, and the Arab League in a multilateral attempt to refocus attention on a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, which the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs says is vitally important to stem violence and ensure peace.
The initiative, was first proposed by then French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in January 2016. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis have been invited to Friday’s conference, but both will be included at a later stage.The French hope to mobilise external parties to meet to utilise international law and UN resolutions to develop a blueprint for future negotiations that will then be presented to the two protagonists. This week’s meeting will discuss issues such as the nature of a future Palestinian state (with the 1967 borders as the basis), Palestinian refugees, natural resources (especially water resources in the West Bank), and the status of Jerusalem. French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault hopes it will establish an international support group comprising of the UNSC, the EU, members of the Arab League and other countries.
Although a French project, the Paris Initiative represents the EU policy that supports a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. In pursuance of this policy, the EU has been more strident than the USA with strategies attempting to reach that objective, such as the labelling of consumer goods sourced from the illegal Israeli settlements, and funding for nascent Palestinians state institutions.
Palestinians are divided on whether to support the Paris initiative. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officially supports it, and regards it as of paramount importance for Palestinian statehood. PLO chairperson Mahmoud Abbas even met President Zuma in Cape Town to encourage South Africa’s participation. However, that sentiment is not universal among Palestinians, or even within the PLO, and reflects the dominance of Abbas and his Fatah faction in the organisation. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has rejected the initiative, viewing it as a pretext to undermine the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and Hamas regards it as a ruse to allow Israel time to expand its settlement enterprise.
For Abbas, whose obsession with negotiations as the only means to realise Palestinian aspirations has proved to have been misplaced, and whose hope that the USA will help reach a resolution has been dashed, leaving him with no strategic space to manoeuvre, Paris is yet another opportunity to give his strategy a chance. To emphasise how important they believe the French initiative is, some Palestinian Authority officials have threatened that if it fails they will embark on a more concerted effort to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet their delaying the submission of a resolution on settlements to the UN Security Council, and repeatedly delaying and hesitating about the laying of charges at the ICC suggests this is another empty threat.
Israel is much more unequivocal, and has flatly rejected the initiative. This position has been strengthened as the Israeli governing coalition becomes more right-wing, and includes racists who not only resolutely refuse any possibility of a Palestinian state, but would also prefer Israel used any means to rid itself of the Palestinians it occupies. Israel also knows from experience that its rejectionism can be wielded with great strength, which will be used against France, whose volte-face on a UNESCO resolution in April that attacked Israel’s control over East Jerusalem suggests that France could yield to Israeli pressure even without Israeli participation. This despite Ayrault’s threat that if the Paris initiative fails France will recognise a Palestinian state.
The Arab League has endorsed the French project, but its members are unlikely fully to use their diplomatic pressure, being more concerned with other crises in the Arab world, such as events in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Although US Secretary of State John Kerry will attend the Paris conference, the USA is yet to explicitly back the plan, and has been somewhat reserved on the initiative, primarily due to Washington’s perception that it should take the lead in any Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’. Nevertheless, the participation of Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov does add considerable weight to the talks.
Not much, however, should be expected from the conference or the process that might follow. The weakness of the Palestinians, as a fractured disharmonious political force, and the diplomatic, military and economic strength of Israel means that even without their presence at the initial talks, the initiative will ultimately favour the Israeli line as western powers, in particular, dilute any real strategies in order to appease Israel. Tel Aviv torpedoed the 2013-2014 Kerry initiative, which also claimed to be based on international law, was driven by the most powerful member of the UNSC, and favoured Israel from the outset. The latest initiative does not come with unequivocal support of Israel’s greatest ally, the USA, or with unified international pressure on Israel.
By Steven Friedman
An assault on democracy has begun in the United States of America and Europe. Its source is not the ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ that is regularly branded a threat to democracy, or right-wing demagogues who use fear of immigrants and radical Islam to foment hate. It comes, rather, from the mainstream of these societies.
Legislatures, courts and university governors in the liberal democracies of the global North are being used to close down the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which seeks to use non-violent pressure to alter the behaviour of the Israeli state. The campaign to muzzle BDS is a stark contravention of the self-image of these societies, which routinely claim that love of freedom sets them apart from those who campaign against them. The campaign against BDS has been described as the greatest threat to free speech in the West today. And yet it has been met with silence by mainstream opinion.
The attack on BDS is not an isolated example: for well over a decade, it has been clear that the liberal democracy that these countries are eager to export – sometimes by waging war – does not extend to Palestinians and those who sympathise with them. Academics in these countries who zealously study and support the extension of liberal democracy to all show no interest in whether Palestinians have this right, and some are actively hostile to their exercising it.
Of course, measures to suppress or outlaw BDS are a response to pressure from the Israeli state, which has adopted its own measures to suppress boycott activity. But Israel is not a liberal democracy – it is an ethno-nationalist state. There is no such thing as Israeli nationality in Israeli law: citizens are classified as Jewish or non-Jewish. Western democracies’ embrace of anti-democratic measures to defend the Israeli state is, by contrast, a denial of the values that these states publicly proclaim.
Palestine is thus the scandal of western democracy and the academic theories that sustain it.1 It is an unacknowledged blind spot, which makes all of western democratic deed and thought open to the charge that it is not a doctrine of universal freedom but a means to justify dominance. If ‘universal’ values do not apply to everyone they are simply cultural biases. As long, therefore, as democratic values and rights are off limits to Palestinians, western democracy will be open to the charge that its ‘freedoms’ are a prejudice, a means by which the powerful chain the weak. Palestine is thus the litmus test of western democracy and its advocates, a test that they currently fail. As long as advocates of western democracy exclude one group of people from its rights, its claim to speak for all humanity will lack credibility.
All the actions to suppress BDS use the same fig leaf: anti-Semitism. Because it might not be defensible to justify abridging democracy to protect the Israeli state purely on the grounds that it is a western ally, measures against BDS are usually justified as action against anti-Jewish racism. This endorses a deeply undemocratic and possibly racist notion – that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. This rallying cry of the Zionist right is designed to demonise criticism of the Israeli state by labelling it a disguised form of prejudice against Jews. It advances the untenable idea that opposition to a political ideology is also hostility to an ethnic group. No political ideology enjoys the unanimous support of any ethnic group – to say that an entire group endorses the same ideology is to insult it by implying that its members are incapable of independent thought. It is also anti-democratic because it delegitimises difference – it implies that any Jew who is not Zionist is not a Jew.
A second rationale for suppressing BDS, advanced repeatedly on US campuses, is that this is necessary to ensure that campuses are ‘safe places’ – despite the fact that there are no published instances of BDS activists directly threatening anyone with violence, let alone actually using it. This may reflect and seek to manipulate deep Jewish fears as well as a more general fear of Muslims (who might be assumed to behind BDS even though most activists are not Muslim and many are Jewish). A core rationale of Zionism has been the assumption that Jews are always under threat of violence and need their own state to protect themselves. The notion of BDS as violent expresses the Zionist view that opponents of the Israeli state are inherently violent, even if their only weapons are words, and also seeks to manipulate Jewish students into fearing threats to their safety when none exist.
There are two types of action against BDS. The one shows insensitivity to Palestinian rights but is not necessarily anti-democratic, while the other breaches democracy. In the first category are statements of government opposition to BDS, even when backed by law. The most important example is the 2015 US law, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, which make preventing boycotts of Israel a ‘principal trade negotiating objective’ of the USA. This commits the US government to a political preference but does not require it to act against those who hold the opposing view. The second category does infringe those rights since it actively seeks to suppress people’s voice or their choices or both.
A summary of anti-BDS actions published by the Palestine National BDS Committee confirms that the most repressive anti-BDS measures have been implemented in France where a nineteenth-century law is used to criminalise BDS: more than thirty activists have faced criminal charges for participation in nonviolent BDS advocacy. One was arrested for wearing a BDS T-shirt. Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently said he would discuss with the Ministry of Interior further measures to repress BDS activism.
In the USA, anti-BDS bills or resolutions have been introduced in twenty-one states and in the Congress, while universities have also been seeking ways to curb BDS. Most US measures have stopped short of suppressing BDS, but they curtail democratic rights in other ways. The emphasis is on using public funds to deter BDS activity: the New York State Senate cut 485 million US dollars to senior colleges in the City University of New York system despite a speech by a legislator who said that her (Jewish) husband was a CUNY professor, and ‘he has never brought home to me any concerns about anti-Semitism’. Universities also act against BDS activity as part of a wider clamp down on support for Palestinian rights: Palestine Legal, a US-based group, reports that action against campus BDS activity includes administrative sanctions, censorship, intrusive investigations, restriction of advocacy and criminal prosecutions. American companies are barred from cooperating with ‘state-led’ boycotts of Israel; this violates their right to take decisions and therefore abridges their right to engage freely in economic activity.
The British government has also avoided removing the civil liberties of BDS campaigners. However, its proposed measures violate democratic principle in another way – by barring local councils and other public bodies from supporting BDS. This breaches the democratic principle that an elected government should be entitled to take any decision that it believes represents the will of the voters. Canada has not yet taken action to restrict BDS, but there are well-founded fears that it may do this: officials have threatened criminal prosecution against anyone supporting boycotts against Israel.
Liberal democracy in peril
A relentless, well-funded campaign by the Israeli state to suppress BDS activism has, therefore, attracted willing support in major western countries.
In varying degrees, this has prompted them to violate rights: even a core American value – the right of businesses to manage their property in the way they see fit – is considered dispensable in this rush to support the Israeli state. Rights are not absolute in liberal democracies – they can be abridged when exercising them infringes the rights of others or when the security of the state is said to be threatened. But there is nothing in liberal theory that allows for suppressing free speech and association on behalf of a foreign state when those who oppose the actions of that state do not threaten the state imposing the restriction.
The spurious claim that these actions are aimed at anti-Semitism further undermines the good faith of liberal democracy. While it presents itself as a philosophy of freedom, its critics argue that it is meant to preserve the freedoms of some at the expense of others – liberalism, argues one of its critics, has always distinguished between the ‘civilised’ and the ‘barbarian’. Equating BDS with anti-Semitism and violence neatly fits this negative portrayal of liberalism: it stigmatises a fight for universal human rights, and critics will note that western democracies’ supposed enthusiasm for outlawing anti-Semitism does not extend to anti-black racism or hostility towards Muslims, indigenous people and others who suffer racial bigotry.
The attack on BDS seems to confirm that western democracies are only interested in protecting the rights of some against the supposed onslaught of others and that whether or not you are protected is related to your race, creed and culture. The effect is to demolish the credibility of liberal democracy as a guarantor of the rights of all and to portray it as a view of the world and a system of government that recognises the rights only of those who do not offend the sensibilities of the dominant group for which these rights are really meant.
Palestine is a scandal for liberalism and its version of democracy not only because the reaction to it in the West is born of cultural prejudice, not concern for the rights of all. It is this also because of the depth and the width of the consensus that supports it: it is impossible to see the belief in liberal democracy’s blindness to Palestinian rights as a distortion or only a particular interpretation when it is embraced by virtually the entire liberal spectrum and includes academics and activists whose interest is democracy promotion, extending to every human being the rights and systems of government that are said to be enjoyed by the citizens of Western Europe and North America.
As evidence that the suppression of BDS is of no concern to democracy promoters, we can look at a decade-old example of this double standard in action – the rejection by North America and Western Europe of a 2006 Palestinian election deemed free and fair by observers because the winning party, Hamas, was considered hostile to western (and Israeli) interests: democracy promoters ignored this obvious violation of the Palestinians’ right to choose. It is routine for democracy promotion academics to monitor or analyse democratic progress around the world without allowing at all for the Palestinians’ right to govern themselves or to be free of attacks on their rights – in many of these exercises, Israel is listed as a democratic country, and analysis assumes (by omission) that only Jews are its citizens. Activist academics in the United States who doggedly work to bring Latin American rights abusers to book actively support the Israeli state or never mention it as an abuser. It is an unwritten assumption of democracy promoters that all people are entitled to democratic government and rights as long as they are not Palestinian.
Conclusion: The sense of the scandal
Why is it important that the suppression of BDS – and of Palestinian rights generally – makes liberal democracy appear as a cultural prejudice masquerading as a charter for the rights of all?
Support for the Palestinian cause, and for BDS, is usually associated in the mainstream with Muslims or the political left, the two groups who have been most vocal on this issue. While Muslims and left-wingers have as much right to be heard as anyone else, the effect is to relegate Palestinian rights to the outer margin of society, exempting the Israeli state from the human rights scrutiny that impedes other rights abusers.
If we understand the suppression of Palestinian rights as a scandal of liberal democracy, suppressing BDS or resisting the Palestinians’ right to democracy and freedom is not a refusal to be ordered around by Muslims and leftists – it is a refusal to honour the principles the West itself proclaims and is therefore a threat to the credibility and even perhaps the survival of liberal democracy. The more this point is placed at the forefront of Palestine solidarity campaigns, the more difficult will it be to relegate the Palestinian cause to the margins.
Supporters of the Palestinian fight for recognition are more likely to be heard if they centre their campaigns on the gap between what the western mainstream says and what, in Palestine, it does: this is unlikely to influence governments and the democracy promoters who provide them with an intellectual rationale – but it could make sense to many citizens who, because they are more removed from power may be less inclined to see the values proclaimed by western states as a useful political device rather than a deeply held principle. Portraying the suppression of BDS – and Palestinian rights – as a scandal of liberal democracy frames the Palestinian fight for freedom as a cause to which many in the West can relate rather than one that requires them to leave behind their cultural roots. It turns the language of the campaign into one that citizens of the West understand and so offers a route out of marginalisation.
1 For philosophers, a scandal is a glaring weakness to which thinkers are blind or which they choose to ignore. The term may originate with Immanuel Kant, who found it scandalous that philosophy had not found a rational proof of the existence of the external world. See for example Luigi Caranti Kant and the Scandal of Philosophy: The Kantian critique of Cartesian Scepticism (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2007).
* Professor Steven Friedman is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
*This article was originally published on Al Jazeera Centre for Studies website.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Protests by Egypt’s main journalist syndicate and Egyptians previously loyal to the military regime point to increasing opposition to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and his regime, and to their inability or unwillingness to scale down their repression of citizens.
The most recent protests were sparked by the police’s storming of the journalist syndicate’s Cairo headquarters and the arrest of journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud el-Sakka. They were accused of inciting protests against Sisi’s April 2016 decision to hand over the islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia. The decision was widely criticised by Egypt’s elite and media. Ironically, one of the ‘reasons’ cited for the military coup against former president Mohamed Morsi was the (false) claim that he intended transferring control of North Sinai to the Palestinian resistance group Hamas. Badr and el-Sakka had opposed the unpopular island transfer, which saw thousands protesting and 1 200 arrested. Over 150 protesters were subsequently sentenced to between two- and five-year prison terms for the protests, which violated the November 2013 protest law adopted to quell dissent after Morsi’s ouster. Even former Sisi supporters, including Popular Current Party’s Hamdeen Sabahi, challenged the island decision in court, and it is likely that opposition will increase further if parliament ratifies the handover.
The May protests follow a pattern of increasing dissatisfaction with Sisi’s policies, which have failed to stimulate an economy that contracted in 2015. Inflation currently stands at eleven per cent, and the much- touted eight billion dollar Suez Canal expansion project only marginally increased government revenue, owing to the global economic slowdown and drop in oil prices. Shortages of cooking gas and electricity continue, and the drop in foreign reserves has caused the government to tighten exchange controls, especially since Gulf aid has diminished following the accession to power of King Salman in Saudi Arabia. Further, the military has aggressively increased its already numerous activities in Egypt’s economy, thus competing with private business. Egypt’s elite has been impacted, and Sisi has come under increasing criticism from private media outlets and commentators. His popularity has decreased drastically.
The protests have been endorsed by over 3 000 members of Egypt’s 8 000-member journalist syndicate, including editors of most major private and even state-owned media outlets. Supported by the previously apolitical doctors’ syndicate, which opposes the interior ministry’s treatment of doctors, protesters have demanded the removal of the country’s interior minister, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar. The syndicate has refused to publish the minister’s name until an apology from Sisi is received, and has vowed to escalate actions into a full-blown strike in the coming weeks.
Traditional opposition parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and activist youth groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement have added their voices, and for the first time since seizing power, Sisi faces a backlash from most major Egyptian constituencies. Prior to the large 15 and 25 April protests, the frequency of and attendance at anti-regime protests had been waning when compared to late 2013; however, the island transfer has galvanised many Egyptians. It seems even some officials in the interior ministry are sympathetic, and memos alluding to methods of regime discourse manipulation and instructions on constraining protests have been leaked. Much of the media had previously supported the regime, and endorsed Sisi’s crackdown on the Brotherhood, enabling him to control public discourse and silence opposition figures.
The regime responded by increasing its crackdown on opposition figures, including journalists, insisting in one leaked memo, that it ‘cannot retreat from this position now; a retreat would mean a mistake was made, and if there was a mistake who is responsible and who is to be held to account?’ Sisi has, in recent months. sought to silence opposition even from the supportive elite, insisting that it threatened the country’s stability. He even implored Egyptians in one speech to listen only to him.
In January 2016, the Al-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo reported ‘195 deaths, 42 cases of torture, including eight people who were tortured to death, 60 cases of medical neglect, 20 cases of group violence by the police, and 66 forced disappearances, while 32 people were reported to have reappeared in various places of detention, in some cases months after they had vanished.’ Authorities subsequently shut down Al-Nadeem in February. It is noteworthy that the sentences issued to recent protesters are less punitive than those issued to people believed to be close to the banned Brotherhood. Six people, including three journalists (two from Al Jazeera) were sentenced to death on 7 May, accused of ‘leaking information to Qatar’.
Although opposition to the regime has increased, the regime remains unthreatened in the short term, especially since many Egyptians are content with the ‘stability’ Sisi’s rule brings. Moreover, the internal opposition is too fragmented, and the regime crackdown too heavy-handed to allow for the formation of a unified and coordinated stance. Moreover, many from within the Egyptian left and secularists are still prejudiced against the role of Islamists, specifically the Brotherhood, in a new dispensation, and are likely to advocate reform rather than revolution. The protests do, however, illustrate that Egyptians’ aspirations and expectations have grown since Mubarak’s overthrow, and that if Sisi’s policies to stimulate the economy continue to fail, Egyptians are unlikely to allow him the same amount of leeway as was afforded Mubarak, especially since the regime no longer operates from behind a liberal veneer.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) met in Vienna on 17 May to discuss the ongoing civil war in Syria. The group of seventeen countries, chaired by the USA and Russia, is tasked with devising a diplomatic solution to the war afflicting Syria since 2011, which has killed between 250 000 and 400 000 people. This week’s meeting was mostly concerned with humanitarian assistance to areas still under siege, and with the internationally endorsed ceasefire that began on 27 February, through Security Council Resolution 2268. These points had been part of the measures agreed upon in order to restart negotiations between the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, and the Syrian opposition, represented by the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC).
The withdrawal of the HNC from UN-brokered talks on 20 April set back weeks of shuttle diplomacy by UN special envoy Stefan de Mistura. Continued violations of the ceasefire and questions concerning Asad’s future – which the regime, Moscow and Tehran insist is not under discussion – were perceived by the HNC as Asad negotiating in bad faith.
The Vienna meeting was different from previous meetings in February when there was great optimism that talks would recommence. The ISSG reiterated the need for the 1 August deadline for the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254 to be met ‘at an appropriate time’. In the strongest worded statement from the ISSG yet, it was noted that failure to adhere to the ceasefire would be followed by the removal of its legal protection to those party to it. Saudi Arabia commented that if the ceasefire were to fail it might provide the rebels with heavier arms, including surface-to-air missiles. While US State Department officials echoed this comment, US Secretary of State John Kerry, eager not to alienate Russia, omitted this possibility in public.
An ISSG meeting in March had guaranteed humanitarian assistance to areas under siege. Since then, limited UN humanitarian aid has been airlifted to Deir ez-Zor – besieged by the Islamic State group (IS); and aid convoys have passed through government-controlled areas to rebel-held territory in Idlib province, which previously faced drastic shortages of food and medicine. Since the ceasefire began in February, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have delivered assistance to 255 000 people in besieged areas and 473 000 people in hard-to-reach areas. However, continued fighting between regime forces and their allies, aided by Russian airstrikes, on the one hand, and rebel groups on the other has made aid delivery into Aleppo and the Idlib countryside extremely difficult. Difficulty has also been experienced getting aid to the outskirts of Damascus, and there are reports of starvation in the suburb of Daraya.
After the Vienna meeting the ISSG said the UN plan for ‘priority humanitarian deliveries’ in June, as stipulated in UNSC Resolution 2254, should progressively be built upon until aid can be delivered throughout the country. Kerry noted that he and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, would coordinate airdrops to areas blocked by Asad’s forces if Damascus did not facilitate aid deliveries. This is an admission of the failure of previous aid declarations, and an indication that even Asad’s Russian backers are concerned about his regime ignoring agreements. The difficulty of aid delivery is linked to the 27 February ceasefire which allowed Russian and Syrian aircraft to continue striking areas controlled by IS, al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and allied groups. Due to increased pressure on various rebel groups, particularly in Aleppo, many rekindled or forged alliances with Jabhat al-Nusra, a fact which was used by the Russians to bomb these groups, resulting in massive destruction on civilian areas in these groups’ control.
The USA, currently moving towards an election, will not push for drastic changes, and thus will play the role of junior chair of the ISSG over the coming months. The current ceasefire allows continued bombing of areas in a state of flux, changing hands between rebel groups. Until a more comprehensive ceasefire is endorsed, the violence will continue. The latest ISSG meeting raised less expectations than previous meetings did, indicating that the real negotiations on the fate of the political transition in Syria will take place elsewhere.
This paper examines the reasons for the military steadfastness of the Islamic State group (IS) in the face of local and international forces that are larger in numbers and equipped with more and better weaponry. The paper is divided into three sections. The first reviews some security and military studies that explain the reasons behind the success, or steadfastness, of militarily weaker players in the face of stronger parties. The second focuses on IS’s military capabilities and ways of using its power tactically and strategically. The final section discusses the crisis in the Arab political environment, contradictions in the strategy to combat IS, and the implications of such actions. The paper concludes that while defeating IS militarily may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region, the roots will remain valid.i
After more than seven months of the US-led air campaign against IS, and following a multiplicity of ground attacks by various parties, even opposing ones, the group remains able not only to survive but also to expand. This puzzling result emerges despite the group’s lack of numbers and materiel compared to those of its enemies, and despite its great losses since early 2015.
In June 2015, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, confirmed that coalition air strikes in Syria and Iraq had destroyed more than 6 200 IS targets and killed more than 10 000 of its fighters since the strikes commenced in September 2014. In December 2015 the Pentagon updated those estimates to more than 8 600 attacks by the US Air Force alone, comprising of more than 28 000 bombs in its raids in Iraq and Syria. That’s about sixty bombs and seventeen air attacks daily for nearly a year and a half.ii The Pentagon estimated the death toll of IS fighters during the last seventeen months at 20 000 people, while it did not recognise any killing of civilians with the exception of six people killed by ‘mistake’.iii In December 2015, US President Barak Obama estimated that IS had lost forty per cent of its territory in Iraq,iv while other reports issued by military research centres specialising in intelligence analysis estimated that the group had lost fourteen per cent of its territory (12 800 square kilometres) in Iraq and Syria from January to December 2015.v
Despite losses in Ramadi, Tikrit, Baiji, the countryside of Hasaka, and some towns and villages around Raqqa, Homs and Hama, the organisation has not collapsed. This is contrary to what was suggested by the balance of forces on the ground, or any conventional military analysis that took those views into account.
It is interesting to compare IS with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ba'ath Party in Iraq. The former lost control of its capital, Kandahar, within two months of air strikes by the US-led international coalition and opposition forces loyal to the coalition. The latter lost control of its capital, Baghdad, less than a month and a half after the Anglo-American invasion began in March 2003. However, after nearly a year and a half of strikes by an international coalition consisting of more than sixty countries, IS dominates in both its capitals, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. During 2014 and 2015, the organisation expanded and remained on land stretching from parts of the Syrian Aleppo province to parts of the Iraqi Salah al-Din province, an area 650 kilometres in width.
This area includes large parts of the provinces of Anbar, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Diyala and Salah al-Din in Iraq, as well as large parts of Raqqa, Hasaka, Deir al-Zor, Aleppo, Homs and Damascus in Syria. The organisation had also conquered the suburb of Al-Hajar al-Aswad and large parts of Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus by late 2015, and it had reached within five kilometres of Umayyad Square in central Damascus. These areas (or ‘provinces’, according to the groups’ administrative-geographic division) are home to an estimated ten million people. In addition, the organisation has control or influence – through advancing and retreating – in parts of central and eastern Libya (Sirte and Bin Jawad), north-eastern Nigeria, eastern Afghanistan (especially Nangarhar), Egypt (northeastern Sinai) and other areas.
The smaller group: How to succeed militarily
Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the military capabilities of armed opposition groups against states and governments have risen steadily. Many military and security studies have documented a significant increase in the success of these groups against existing state authorities or the authorities’ inability to defeat these groups, which are much weaker than other groups in terms of resources and numbers. This is a significant change from the prevailing historical pattern. For example, a study of 286 armed rebellions between 1800 and 2005 showed that ruling authorities won only twenty-five per cent of the battles with armed revolutionary organisations between 1976 and 2005. This can be compared to success in ninety per cent of battles with armed rebels between 1826 and 1850.vi The RAND Corporation, partially funded by the US Pentagon, reached a similar conclusion in a study of eighty-nine internal armed conflicts, stating that regular armed forces triumphed in twenty-eight cases (thirty-one per cent), irregular forces won in twenty-six cases (twenty-nine per cent), and there were mixed outcomes in nineteen cases (two per cent, including cases of political negotiation or geographical division). The rest can be summarised as cases of continuous conflictsvii – i.e., regular armed forces of the ruling authority were defeated, failed to win or have been continuously fighting – in sixty-nine per cent of studied cases (mostly in the second half of the last century).
Security and military studies provide a range of explanations of the reasons for the military success, or steadfastness, of weaker entities in the face of more powerful entities – whether international alliances, individual countries or non-state actors such as armed institutions (i.e., factions of the regular army or armed revolutionary organisations). Most explanations and the theories they build upon have focused on rugged geography and complexities of topography, popular support factors of various types (populist, ethnic, sectarian, regional, religious, intellectual/ideological) and international military support for the weaker party, as well as the military tactics and strategies of the conflicting parties.
Mao Zedong, the supreme theorist of modern revolutionary war, shed some light on the local population’s loyalty to any successful armed resistance, whether against tyranny or colonialism: ‘The guerilla must move amongst the people as fish swim in the sea.’viii The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, based primarily on experiences in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, with an intensive study of other cases, reached the same conclusion, emphasising that conflict between a regular soldier and an insurgent is a ‘loyalty contest’ to co-opt the general public which is mostly not in favour of the warring parties. Therefore, success in the fight against an insurgency requires winning the hearts and minds of a neutral public.ix There exists a near consensus among strategic military specialists in revolutionary war studies that when a local population is brutally treated by regular forces this aids irregular combatants in recruitment, collecting resources and validating their legitimacy. General Stanley McChrystal, former leader of US forces in Afghanistan, referred to this relationship as ‘insurgent math’. ‘Every innocent civilian killed by regular forces generates ten new fighters against them,’ he suggested.x
Military explanations that focus on geography and its complexities are numerous and varied. James Fearon and David Laitin confirm in a well-known study that geography is one of four critical variables in situations of successful armed rebellion.xi Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese military commander and philosopher, also considered it as one of five critical factors in any type of armed conflict. Mao wrote that guerilla wars were more effective in large countries where it was easy to strike regular forces’ supply lines with small numbers and at low cost. As Neil McCauley showed, hundreds of left-wing revolutionary fighters of several nationalities could defeat a regular army of 40 000 troops during the 1950s Cuban revolution by using rugged terrain to turn the military balance in their favour. The well-known French officer and scholar of revolutionary wars, David Galula, asserted, ‘The role of geography, a significant one in an ordinary war, may be overriding in a revolutionary war. If the insurgent, with his initial weakness, cannot be assisted by geography, he may well be condemned to failure before he starts.’xii Kenneth Boulding introduced the ‘Loss of Strength Gradient (LSG)’ to geographic explanations, arguing that the further fighting centres (such as capitals, large cities and camps) are from regular forces, the more likely it is that they will lose some of their strength. Sebastian Schutte adjusted the theory in 2014, saying regular forces lose ‘accuracy’ in striking targets, and not necessarily strength, the further they are from the centres. Their attempts to kill insurgents become more random and less accurate, and the resultant local anger increases rebels’ legitimacy, and their ability to mobilise and recruit.
Other scholars have focused on the importance of different forms of external support to the militarily weaker party. The RAND study of eighty-nine armed rebellions against a variety of systems (authoritarian, democratic, colonial) found that armed movements that benefited from the care of an external state or states won militarily in sixty-seven per cent of unresolved cases. However, when external support ceased, and dependency shifted internally, the ratio of victory decreased to twenty-five per cent of unresolved cases (i.e., cases with a clear victory or defeat; these ratios do not take into account mixed cases or unresolved ongoing confrontations).
Another group of military strategy scholars showed that a weaker party’s victory may be explained through field tactics and military strategy. In terms of field tactics, a Yale University study found that modern military vehicles (especially armoured vehicles and aircraft) undermined the ability of soldiers to create positive relationships with the local population, and thus undermined their ability to gather valuable intelligence from local collaborators. A large number of scholars of military strategy – particularly from US and British universities – concluded that it is no longer the preserve of a state, capturing regime or armed actors to employ new military technologies in weapons, communications, information and intelligence gathering, transportation, infrastructure, regulatory and administrative sciences.xiii ‘Breaking the monopoly’ has allowed armed organisations independent from states and regimes to improve their combat performance. This remarkable increase in the number of defeats of regimes or state governments by armed organisations that are weaker in number and equipment differs from the historical trend. Some specialist researchers have provided a framework for the complex strategic interactions between varying strengths of military entities. The study concluded that the weaker party could often win if it adopted opposite strategies to the strategies and tactics of the stronger party. For example, a ‘guerilla’ strategy (indirect fighting strategy) is the most appropriate strategy against a direct attack by a stronger party, including strategies referred to as ‘shock and awe’ (blitzkrieg).
Military capabilities of the Islamic State group: Strategy and tactics
Many of these elements of military and strategic theories and studies help us to understand the status of IS in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. However, the group’s survival and expansion has not been fully explained until recently. Explanations citing geography, popular support factors, external support and related theories do not help much in understanding the situation. Most of the areas under IS control are not as rugged as the mountains of Cuba, Afghanistan or Chechnya, where weaker military parties have benefited from geographic complexities. The ‘support factors’ do not exceed minorities that shrink and grow according to the ferocity and brutality of regimes in conflict with IS. The Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies in Iraq conducted a micro-level opinion poll in the city of Mosulxiv and found that in June 2014 the percentage of those who believed that IS represented their views or interests did not exceed ten per cent; in December 2015, after the coalition strikes, the percentage increased to thirty-nine per cent.xv
Some IS supporters (not members) in areas such as Sirte (Libya), Deir al-Zor (Syria) and Sinai (Egypt) view IS as the lesser of two evil, where the greater is the ruling regime. In addition, the organisation is not only in a state of war with governments and regimes inside and outside the region, but also with large segments of conservative Muslim communities, as well as with many Sunni and Shi'a Islamic groups, and even with some jihadists – including al-Qa'ida. And, despite an abundance of conspiracy theories espoused by all parties for the purposes of political propaganda and to discredit opponents, it has not yet been proven that IS receives systemic support directly from any government or regime, similar to, for example, Soviet support for the Cuban rebels, or Pakistani and Saudi support for the Afghan mujahideen groups.
IS’s military strategies and tactics may better explain its ability to withstand and expand. The organisation does not have large numbers of troops and equipment compared to the sophisticated resources of its enemies. With regard to numerical strength ratios, the CIA in 2014 estimated the number of IS fighters to be between 20 000 and 31 000. Compared just to the Iraqi armed forces, this means that there is one IS fighter for every ten soldiers. This excludes the number of supportive or allied forces such as popular militia, tribal groups, Peshmerga units and international coalition forces. In the battles of Mosul (June 2014) and Ramadi (December 2015–January 2016), the ratios dropped to one fighter for every twenty soldiers and officers in Mosul, and one fighter for twenty-five soldiers and officers in the case of Ramadi. In areas outside Iraq and Syria, the numerical strength ratio sometimes drops to one fighter against 500 soldiers and officers, as in northern Sinai. These ratios only estimate numerical strength, without taking into account the quality of the weaponry, ratios of firepower, effects of air support and intelligence, and strategic/schematic regional and international advice and aid; none of these factors and ratios are in IS’s favour.
However, with a mix of general military strategy principles, discipline in the field, a decentralised command and control structure, the commitment of soldiers to leadership structures and the dedication of fighters to their work – whatever the degree of brutality, combined with unusual tactics on the ground and the use of sudden, fast, accurate and repeatable methods, the organisation has been able to overcome not only a lack of human resources and equipment, but it has won battles where victory was unexpected based on traditional military data.
Some of its combat methods are consistent with Sun Tzu’s strategies, particularly regarding the collection of intelligence about the enemy, stealth before and after striking, attacking the weaker flank, efficiently using the element of surprise, avoiding the enemy in its strongholds and the time of readiness.xvi Tactics of ‘urban terrorism’ (especially car bombs; suicide bombers; sudden, frequent and extensive use of snipers; and assassinations before and during attacks) combined with traditional revolutionary warfare methods (especially mixing military and trained volunteer units, a quick hit-and-run approach and small numbers), in addition to conventional tactics (light artillery, heavy armoured vehicles and tanks, as well as different types of guided and unguided missiles) have proven highly effective despite the small number of IS fighters.
IS’s attack pattern is designed to establish control on the ground (in a village, town or city neighbourhood); followed by its combat units attacking from three sides at the same time while using high intensity fire to push defending forces to the fourth side. When the defending forces gather there, they are attacked by one or a series of car bombs (either detonated remotely or by suicide attackers), which often leads to the defending forces’ collapse or weakening, making the attack much easier. Captain Hassan Al-Hajri, a commander of the Suqour al-Jabal Brigade in Syria, pointed out that after attacking with booby traps, the ‘Inghemasiyoun’, a small commando unit of not more than twenty IS shock troops (mostly non-local), carry out further attacks.xvii This unit is given special training on tactics of close quarters combat.xviii Its main task after attacking with booby traps is breaking enemy lines, raiding hard targets and then progressing slowly. As a former officer in the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Squad 101 said, ‘After car bombing, IS sends not more than ten to fifteen fighters of different nationalities. They advance fifty metres, lie down, then advance another fifty metres, then lie down and concentrate their efforts. We have not heard of this specific method of attack in any Arab military academy, including those of the Ba'ath Party.’xix
Various kinds of booby-traps (containers, cars, motorcycles, etc.) have proven effective in breaking troop lines, initiating attacks and even as defensive tactics, but their place in the military doctrine of IS is still a mystery. Some military analysts argue that the element of shock and horror, and its effect in weakening and confusing enemies, has proven valuable for IS. Others focus on the extensive damage caused by car bombs. Thus, a quick resolution of battle is in favour of IS’s forces even if the conventional military balance is not in their favour. When FSA officers and Libyan military forces from Battalion 166 who fought IS in Sirte were asked about the reasons for the organisation’s military victories, despite its lack of human resources and equipment, the answers were similar and can be summed up as ‘booby traps are the key to victories’.
There is another important aspect with regards to the command and control framework of IS: the group’s decentralised approach to military action. IS sometimes attacks sites and towns that are not strategically important and has small numbers of people. It appears that, in these cases, mid-level leaders have taken attack decisions, without reference to senior leadership. Despite the tactical failure of some of these attacks, their frequency and success in other instances is an important indicator of the degree of centralised decision-making at the command and control level. This decentralised military modus operandi is more mature and effective than the methods of many Arab armies, which is one reason for their semi-chronic tactical weakness. In practice, IS has overcome a major obstacle facing the military effectiveness of some Arab armies. These armies, which sometimes show some tactical initiative and creativity, lack the ability to innovate and improvise without orders from the top brass. They have little ability to adapt to sudden and unexpected circumstances, and are unable to undertake independent tactical operations. The degree of centralisation may reflect the weakness of ‘strategic coherence’ between military units and ‘tactical turmoil’; it is a traditional point of weakness that may defeat and obliterate any military entity. However, in the case of IS, a centralised senior leadership with a decentralised field of operations has proven vital for enhanced military performance. The dynamic attack forces allow the organisation to make quick decisions when facing superior forces. In addition, it seems that IS leaders on the ground learn quickly, continually improving their performance.
On the other hand, most IS air defences are weak, limited and undeveloped. The group can defend only against helicopters and old military aircraft flying at low altitudes (at 20 000 feet or less). This has been very costly for the organisation. The traditional irregular warfare style (especially the use of armoured vehicles) has been undermined to a large extent due to coalition air strikes, and the lack of capacity of terrestrial defences to respond. However, the group was able to avoid further losses by dispersing and concealing heavy weapons and some armoured vehicles and tanks that had survived the bombing. During IS attacks, its fighters benefit from the confusion created by both sides using a combination of Russian, US and Chinese weapons. This makes coalition air forces unable to distinguish between friendly and IS forces. The difficulty of precise targeting also increases because of the limited number of joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) – plants for qualified personnel closely working to provide offensive air operations with information.
The quality of the fighters who join IS brigades has added to its military balance, in terms of discipline on the battlefield and focus on the goal. Its combatants may be divided into three categories: former members of regular armed forces (especially from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Georgia) who had served in various structures, including the republican guard, military, intelligence, artillery, armour and police (civil and military); unlawful combatants who fought in previous wars, have abundant combat experience in a variety of geographies (mountains, jungles, deserts, cities, villages and towns); and local fighters who had accumulated long-term experience in combating local regular troops and providing logistical support for building networks over the past decade. Some fighters, especially from the second category, fought many defensive battles to prevent the enemy from controlling villages, towns or cities in several countries. In later wars, they used commando tactics when they had lost land to their enemies. These tactics relied on light infantry units with ten to fifteen fighters clashing with the enemy at close range (fifty to 250 metres), which prevents the use of heavy artillery and shelling from the air.
The near future and the far enemy
In conclusion, attention must be focused on the environment within which IS has developed, remained and expanded. In most countries in the region – with a few exceptions – legitimacy obtained through religious advisory opinions (fatawa) or through extreme nationalism are the crucial means by which to access or remain in political power. In most Arab political environments, elections, constitutions, laws, principles of good governance, and social and economic achievements are merely secondary factors, and sometimes only cosmetic. The regional context proves that the bullet is frequently more effective than the ballot in reaching and staying in power. In this context a large proportion of political, social and cultural elites see force as a way to filter and eradicate political dissent – at least through torture, or, at most, through genocide – and mutual concessions and political compromises to prevent bloodshed are regarded as forms of ‘betrayal’. IS and other jihadi groups have merely increased the dose of violence, multiplied its targets and radicalised religious interpretation, but they did not depart from the prevailing political pattern in the region. These jihadi tendencies organisations are a natural consequence of this pattern of violence and ruthlessness.xx
IS, therefore, does not face considerable difficulty in recruiting minorities that support it because the repressive political environment helps to give credibility to its tactics. This explains the imbalance in the long-term strategy to contain and destroy it, which depends on four major pillars: two military/security pillars, a political/reform pillar and an intellectual/rhetorical pillar. This translates into air strikes to contain it in the short term; local partners who collaborate with coalition forces to weaken and destroy it on the ground in the medium or long terms; attempts to repair the political environment through settlements and/or reconciliation and/or democratisation to create a political and social environment that would prevent the group from reproducing; and the production of ideologies and discourses to counter the ideas and behaviours of the organisation and behaviours arising in the long-term. These pillars are incompatible with each other, with the most conflicting being the second and third pillars. Considering that the regimes have committed massacres against their own people and crimes against humanity, being ‘partners’ in the fight against terrorism (which are some of the second pillar’s concerns) would harm the third pillar of the strategy over the long term. Thus the military defeat of IS – a result that should not be seen as an accomplishment of tactical/field significance given the enormous differences in numbers, equipment and weaponry – may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region. However, the roots of the crisis remain valid (unless the third pillar succeeds). Consequently, those roots will generate another symptom that may be more extreme, violent and rigid.
* Dr Omar Ashour is a lecturer in security and strategic studies at the University of Exeter, and associate fellow in security studies at the Royal Institute of International Studies (Chatham House)
i The paper ignores several important dimensions that the author sees the need to discuss in greater depth. First, at the field or operational level, the importance of individual battles in the countryside of Aleppo (January 2014), the city of Raqqa (January–March 2014 ), Mosul (June 2014), Al-Ramadi (May 2015, and December 2015–January 2016), Sirte (May–August 2015), Sheikh Zuid (July 2015) and the countryside of Deir ez-Zor (January 2016). The paper also avoids analysing the Islamic State group’s security and intelligence capabilities; this has proven most important in military action, especially its ability to penetrate its opponents and map internal opposition parties or the regimes that it is fighting. This paper also avoids delving into the extreme ideological discourses employed in IS’s mobilisation and propaganda, despite the importance of this militarily as well as in special operations that continue and sustain recruitment, thus giving IS the ability to train, substitute and replace fighters; to survive and expand in the battlefield; and to continue as a ‘state’ structure.
ii Schultz, Bryan (2015). ‘The Pentagon Says It Has Killed 20,000 ISIS Fighters—and Just 6 Civilians’, Mother Jones, 23 December. <http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/12/united-states-isis-bombing-civilian-deaths/>.
iii Schultz, Bryan (2015).
iv ‘US hitting IS harder than ever, says Obama’, BBC, 14 December. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-35097279> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
v Strack, Columb (2015). ‘Islamic State’s Caliphate Shrinks by 14 Percent in 2015’, Jane’s Intelligence review, 21 December. <http://www.janes.com/article/56794/islamic-state-s-caliphate-shrinks-by-14-in-2015>.
vi Strack, Columb (2015).
vii Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). ‘How Insurgencies End’, RAND Publications, <http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG965.pdf/> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
viii Mao, T (1937/61). On Guerrilla Warfare. Champaign: University of Illinois.
ix Petraeus, David, Amos, James F and Nagl, John A (2007). The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
x Dreyfuss, B (2013). ‘How the War in Afghanistan Fuelled the Taliban’, The Nation, 23 September. <http://www.thenation.com/article/how-us-war-afghanistan-fueled-taliban-insurgency/>
xi Fearon, James and Laitin, David (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90.
xii Galula, D (1964). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Westport, CT: Praeger.
xiiiThe conclusions are based on a large number of military and strategic studies, such as: Ashour, O (2009). The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements. New York, London: Routledge; Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). How Insurgencies End. Arlington: Rand Publications; Fearon, JD and Laitin, DD (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90; Johnston, PB (2008). ‘The Geography of Insurgent Organization and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone’, Security Studies 17 (1): 107–37. Kalyvas, S (2006). The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Kalyvas, S and Kocher, Matthew A (2006). ‘Ethnic Cleavages and Irregular War: Iraq and Vietnam’, Politics and Society 35 (2): 183–223.
xiv See the poll details at: <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
xv See <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views>.
xvi Tzu, Sun The Art of War, Pax Librorum, 2009
xvii Hendawi, Hamza. Abdul-Zahra, Qassim and Mroue, Bassem (2015). ‘Inside ISIS Battle Strategy, Use of Special Forces’, Associated Press, 8 July. <http://bigstory.ap.org/article/873276499f8145eba8680d5b4e1e13f1/secret-success-shock-troops-who-fight-death>.
xix Interview with the author, September 2015.