Libya’s lurch from one crisis to another

Since the death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has remained in a persistent state of crisis. Western politicians and media have largely failed to understand developments during this period. The nature of the divisions in the country are now such that external observers have repeatedly lost track of who is in charge of what, and this confusion shows no sign of abating. The Next Century Foundation wishes to provide some much needed clarity regarding the current situation in Libya.

Political forces

The deep divisions running through Libya mean that the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli – headed by Fayez al-Sarraj – has failed to exercise any kind of authority which extends beyond its very limited domain in western Libya. Almost the entire east of Libya is under the control of General Khalifa Haftar. With a personal militia force at his disposal (which he calls the ‘Libyan National Army’), and backing from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and France, Haftar has taken command of key strategic centres like Tobruk, Benghazi and most recently Derna. Importantly, the parliament in Tobruk, established after controversial national elections (and currently in direct opposition to the internationally recognised government in Tripoli), has endorsed Haftar’s leadership. This move has met with opposition not only from al-Sarraj’s government, but also from the old Congress based in Tripoli. This congress is made up primarily of people elected in Libya’s first democratic elections, who are now battling to remain politically relevant. The Prime Minister of the Tobruk parliament is Abdullah al-Theni and his speaker is Aguila Saleh. During negotiations in 2015 with the UN (that resulted in the creation of the internationally recognised GNA), the old congress in Tripoli struck a deal to prevent its total dissolution and now officially acts as an advisory body to the GNA under the title of the High Council of State. The reality, however, is that they have long since been diminished as an influential political force. On 29th May 2018 a summit was held in Paris with delegates from each of Libya’s four political factions. It was decided that an election would be held on 10th December 2018. As such, the mandates of both the High Council of State and the parliament in Tobruk will run out and a new government will be elected. At this stage it is unclear whether a new constitution will have been drafted and approved by a referendum before the elections take place.

Ultimately, the most powerful figures in Libya are those in control of its financial institutions: Mustafa Sanalla, head of the National Oil Corporation (NOC), Sadiq Al Kabir, head of the Central Bank and Abdullmaged Breish, head of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA).

Military activity

On the military front, there has been increased activity in the last three months in Derna, Libya’s fourth biggest city. Since October 2014, Derna has been led by the Shura Council of Mujahadeen in Derna, a coalition of Islamist militias. On May 7th, General Haftar announced the “Zero Hour” for the “liberation of Derna” and his forces began ramping up their military offensive. This culminated in victory on June 28th, and the final step in consolidating the Libyan National Army’s grip on eastern Libya.

International involvement

The extent of external interference in Libya from countries near and far has done little to encourage a quicker resolution. This is particularly evident in the way General Haftar’s support comes more from abroad than at home. Egypt, for example, has been supplying his forces with training and various weapons, even carrying out direct air raids in Derna against Haftar’s opponents. At the same time, the UAE are operating their largest foreign military base in Al Khadim, 100 kilometres east of Benghazi. In much the way Iran have entrenched a military presence in Syria aimed at lasting into the future, the UAE have identified the chaos in Libya as too good an opportunity to miss for extending their regional influence. France, on the other hand, has been hosting conferences in Paris aimed at fostering dialogue between General Haftar and al-Sarraj, all the while providing General Haftar with extensive military support during his endeavours in Derna and beyond. It would not be overly cynical to suggest that France’s main concern regarding Haftar’s quest for leadership is the financial benefits it could accrue through Libya’s oil. With such a multitude of foreign actors behind one man, Libyans have good reason to fear that they will be the ones benefitting least in any eventual political settlement.

The complexity in the east is mirrored by the chaos along the southern border. Since 2011, the constant state of flux in Libya has made it very easy for neighbouring countries like Chad and Sudan to infiltrate the 1500-kilometre-long border as and when they like. There is no longer any effective government presence in the south, only ongoing struggles for authority and control amongst local militia forces. Since 2014, the presence of Chadian rebel group FACT in the southern Fezzan region has only increased: they have been reported to have taken temporary control of key areas in the city of Sabha for example. Counterbalancing this is the similarly sizable Sudanese presence in the south. Fighters from JEM, a Sudanese opposition group, have been fighting alongside Haftar’s forces. The various forces pulling against each other in the south highlight the difficulty that any central Libyan government will have in regaining full control of the area in the future.

Way forward?

It is clear that the situation in Libya remains desperate. The al-Sarraj government has had three years to create some stability with a view to peace, and has yielded no results. Lawlessness in Tripoli is rife, the government turns a blind eye to foreign aircraft landing on Libyan territory at will. There has been a scarcity of bread, fuel, and electricity in the capital for years now, the Central Bank is regularly late in paying the salaries of much of the Libyan population, and the drafting of the new constitution has suffered numerous setbacks. Compounding the humanitarian crisis are the large numbers of refugees being trafficked through Western Libya from Chad, Niger, and Sudan. The position of the GNA in western Libya is also weakened by the growing threats of militias who control other nearby cities such as Misrata and Zintan. Exasperated by the lack of constructive change under al-Sarraj’s government, they plan to march on Tripoli to stimulate change in the capital.

All of these failures are pointing in the direction of a change, a fresh approach in the governing of Libya. Whether the international community has enough credit to install a new government in place of al-Sarraj is  doubtful considering their underwhelming track record. Nor can we be certain that the international community has the will to implement such wide-sweeping reform in what is now an even more divided Libya. The failure of the Paris summit on Libya in May to produce any concrete results is evidence of the limits of the international community’s understanding of the situation in Libya, and their ability to resolve it. There is room for optimism, however. On the 11th July General Haftar was made to hand back control of Libya’s oil ports to Sanalla’s NOC following a letter from US President Donald Trump that threatened legal action over Haftar’s crippling of Libya’s oil production. This put an end to three weeks of tension after Haftar had seized oil facilities and a force majeure by the NOC on these terminals meant that 850,000 barrels a day were blocked from exportation and Libya lost an equivalent of 900 million US dollars. As eastern oil ports had effectively been closed down, threatening to ruin Libya’s oil industry and exacerbate the wedge between the east and west of the country, Haftar’s return of the ports to the NOC on the 11th July was a welcome end to the immediate crisis. Although this was a relief, it brought to the fore underlying frustrations in Libya over the distribution of wealth and the plundering of resources. These concerns need to be addressed in order for political reconciliation to progress. The situation also highlighted the need to protect the country’s wealth so that – despite the political turmoil – public services will continue to function.  Since then, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mongherini has also visited Tripoli and met with al-Sarraj to re-establish the EU’s diplomatic presence in Libya.

Although elections are set to take place in Libya before the end of 2018, many Libyans are arguing that an election at this stage would be futile before a constitution is properly implemented. A constitution is vital for providing a consensus around the rules and legal framework that would govern the elections. Particularly in Libya, elections in the absence of a constitution would be more likely to exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it. However, despite the relative consensus over the necessity of a constitution, there is still division over its content. Some Libyans want a referendum on the current draft constitution while others want a completely new text. Whatever happens, once an agreement has been arrived at it is essential for the international community to support the decision of the Libyan people.

The best hope for a Libyan government to reassert its sovereignty over the whole country is to find ways of making compromises which generate goodwill amongst the key domestic actors. General Haftar agreeing to allow four oil export ports to reopen is an example of this. At the same time, the kind of decentralised style of government which was so prominent in Libya following its independence must be the foundation from which oil rents can be fairly redistributed to help address dire living standards. Gradually, local authorities could coordinate with each other on the security front and move towards a unified national force. By no means is it an easy task, but it may represent an encouraging starting point on the way to rebuilding what is a terribly torn country.

Algeria’s migrants march across the Sahara

Reports of Algeria’s expulsion of migrants into the Sahara desert have received widespread condemnation from officials around the world. Human rights groups have accused Algerian authorities of arbitrarily arresting and expelling migrants from Sub-Saharan African countries. The expulsions came as pressure mounted from the European Union for North African governments to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean and reaching the shores of Europe.

According to the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM), since May 2017 more than 13,000 people, including women and children, have been rounded up and driven to the desert and pointed towards Niger or Mali.

Survivors who were interviewed by the Human Rights Watch gave accounts of being rounded up on the streets or at their places of work, before being crammed into trucks and driven to the desert. Some also accused the police of beatings and stealing their belongings.

In a report published by the Associated Press, it was found that Algeria forced migrants, by the hundreds every week to traverse the scorching and unforgiving desert where temperatures reached up to 48°C. They were given no food and no water, walking dozens of kilometers before being picked up by UN rescue teams. Survivors told the Associated Press of how their companions vanished in the desert. Migrants used their phones to film their ordeals, documenting their journey as they were being transported en masse in trucks and being marched across the blistering desert.

Algeria has denied all allegations of rights abuses. Journalists were invited to tour their detention centres, or perhaps more accurately described as overcrowded jails, citing it was proof of their humane treatment of migrants. However, journalists were not permitted to travel beyond the detention centers where migrants are held prior to being forcibly expelled, and therefore were unable to see what was transpiring after being ‘deported.’

Since the report by the Associated Press, expulsions seemed to have all but stopped – with the number of expelled migrants dropping significantly. But a recent report suggests that Algeria’s government has again resumed expelling migrants into the Sahara desert, leaving another 391 people to stumble their way through the harsh terrain.

The European refugee crisis admittedly marked an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, which saw the largest influx of migrants into Europe since the Second World War. Yet, figures show that the largest refugee movements happen within Africa itself; with the region of Sub-Saharan Africa being home to 4.4 million refugees and a staggering further 19.5 million “people of concern”. One can hope that the coverage of Algeria’s expulsion of Sub-Saharan Africans highlights the plight of other migrants from not only North Africa but across the entire continent.

ISD’s YouthCAN Lab, Brussels – an optimistic hive of youth activism

Violent extremism and hate speech continue to be two of the most pernicious threats to life in Western Europe today, and are too often a reality for countless groups and individuals made to feel marginalised in their own homes and online. It not only perpetuates division and fear between groups, it also can isolate those most at risk of slipping further down the stream of extremism. That makes events like the Institute of Strategic Dialogue’s Youth Civil Activism Network (YouthCAN) Lab in Brussels particularly important, and particularly promising. 

The workshop

Typically, these 2-day workshops bring together roughly 30 participants from around the world and from diverse backgrounds, drawing them together through a shared passion for civil activism and an ambition to enact real change in communities at home and abroad. The group I joined included Belgian Imams countering extremism daily in local prisons, and communities like Molenbeek in Western Brussels – home to at least three of the Paris 2015 attackers – alongside grassroots student activists and members of the global campaign #TurnToLove, the group whose poignant messages of peace and unity filled newspapers in the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena Bombing. People of all faiths and none, from India to Slovenia, joined together to exchange personal stories of marginalisation, hate speech and even attempted recruitment, in an effort to learn, share and teach about what makes a compelling counter-narrative to those of hate, fear, insecurity and ignorance.

The lab itself, run by ISD and generously supported by the King Baudouin Foundation, encouraged a healthy mix of informal dialogue, panel discussions and lectures to teach us participants about successful online campaigns and grassroots projects making waves throughout Belgium. We were given insights by, among many others, Youcef Naimi of CEAPIRE, an Antwerp-based organisation offering training, prevention and support to counter radicalism in Muslim communities; and Ihsane Haouach who, through the Talented Youth Network (TYN) in Brussels, works directly with young people at the community level, to foster engagement and unity to overcome the pull towards extremism. We were also given training into campaign strategy and social media analytics; giving us the tools needed to create our very own campaigns.

The remainder of the lab was spent in groups, divided by sub categories like ‘youth’, ‘faith’ and ‘gender’, and set free to build our own campaigns, to then be presented at the end of the workshop to a panel of insiders. These sessions gave us the opportunity to interact with the others in our groups to share expertise and ideas; and gave us an insight into designing a campaign from the foundations up. This prompted us to think about targeting, message and monitoring of prospective campaigns and helped us form the bare bones of the projects.

A few criticisms

The issue though was that much of these skills seemed to be applicable to any online marketing campaign. Somewhat lacking was any in-depth context framing the practices of extremist groups themselves or indeed exposing attendees to some of the messages deployed by these groups. It would have been valuable to be given an insight into how these groups recruit members, communicate between themselves, and/or target and disseminate their information, as well as engage in online activity like ‘raids’, the use of ‘bots’, or campaign hijacking. Some access to comprehensive field research might have been useful, as would a specific session focused on research into our particular target groups and their demographics, motivations and so forth, rather than merely brainstorming sessions. I often felt that for us to be expected to create an effective, targeted campaign, each group should have had access to input from experts on those extremist groups themselves. Instead, it felt as though we were creating campaigns on behalf of the marginalised but which would only resonate with those already sympathetic to their struggle, without really knowing who we needed to convince or how we could go about doing so

The second key issue with the event was one of structure and (understandably) constrained time. Being only a 2-day event meant that it was difficult to both educate us about online campaigning and extremism; and build our campaigns from the foundations up. I felt that for either of these tasks to be done thoroughly, they would each require 2 days alone, or at the very least a whole day committed to creating the campaign. In reality, we spent a few 10-15 minute sessions thinking through conceptual ideas for the campaign, interspersed with lectures and presentations, then only 45 minutes to fully create a whole campaign message and strategy, and consider logistics. Perhaps this might have been enough for groups whose target audience was other ‘young people’ and their message about general political open-mindedness (which one of the campaigns sought to address); but for such a complex and pervasive issue as Islamophobia among lower-middle-class and working-class whites in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, such brevity simply made any thorough campaign design impossible. In this sense, the event did seem somewhat overly ambitious or its programme poorly balanced.

The campaigns

Nevertheless, the workshop produced several potential online social media campaigns, designed to break into echo chambers and provoke engagement by offering alternative narratives to those of mistrust and hatred, pedalled by extremist groups online. One campaign, titled #MyValues, sought to counter the fear among some white working-class Western European groups, of Islam, fuelled by a misperception of the religion as one of violence and hate. It imagined Muslim citizens integrated in their local communities, and engaged in acts of day-to-day compassion and unity; their good deeds all underpinned by values of kindness and respect, so familiar to their extremist opponents, yet themselves informed by Islamic scripture so feared by them. In stark contrast, another campaign tackled the conservative views of older generations, by inspiring young people online to “Make Our ‘Grannies’ Cool Again”, informing them about the threat of fake news and offering information to people’s less technologically savvy relations.

The campaigns themselves were imbued with a tremendous sense of hope; and the enthusiasm of the participants to foster real change online and in their own communities. What the ISD’s YouthCAN Lab demonstrated, was real willingness on the part of young global activists, to counter the most damaging messages of hate they see online daily. It also showed the promise of such fledgling projects, powerfully put forward by a dynamic group with real insights into social media and an understanding of grassroots, online extremism. I’d like to see future YouthCAN events more focused on certain categories of extremism. While the four campaigns were diverse and innovative in their own ways, a greater division of labour in two larger groups may have allowed more thorough research into targets, message and monitoring. This might replace four half-formed and un-costed potential campaigns with two comprehensive, research-driven and immediately implementable campaigns.

The YouthCAN lab in Brussels was undoubtedly a positive experience and certainly productive in bringing together diverse young activists and in giving them the most crucial tools to build their own grassroots and online campaigns. There were also clear ways in which the experience could have been improved. In truth, much of this simply came down to time; but much could also have been improved by dividing the event up in larger blocs, one focused on education, the other on implementation and campaign planning. This is, however, certainly not to overlook the success, importance and enjoyability of the workshop – and other events like it run by the ISD – or to deny the sense of hope derived from having so many enthusiastic and inventive young activists working together to counter the hate and extremism so sadly widespread in our communities and on the internet.

The Great Mosque of al-Nuri: a symbol of IS occupation

A deeply sad sight: The Great Mosque of al-Nuri was reduced to rubble during the Battle of Mosul in 2017. Here it is today, just a year after the liberation, photographed by NCF member and war artist, George Butler, who is currently in Mosul. The mosque had stood on this site for almost 850 years and its leaning, 45-metre tall minaret, al-Hadba’ (“the hunchback”) had been a famed landmark for many centuries.

It was more recently where Daesh’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood during Friday prayer on 4th July 2014 to declare the formation of a new “caliphate”, after Islamic State (IS) seized the city just weeks previously. Following its demolition in June 2017, Iraqi government forces claimed they had found evidence to suggest that the mosque may have been deliberately blown up by IS, a gesture described as their “declaration of defeat”, by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi.

With Mosul having been wrested from IS control in July 2017, the Mosque is now a symbol for the destruction of the city and its rich heritage both during and in the aftermath of the Daesh occupation.

In April of this year, the United Arab Emirates pledged over $50 million to help rebuild the Mosque and other nearby sites, in conjunction with UNESCO, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and Iraq’s culture ministry. This will take at least five years, the initial project focused on clearing the rubble on site and surveying for future rebuilding.

In time, the al-Nuri Mosque may be restored to a semblance of its former magnificence. But for now, it seems a long way off.

Image by George Butler

Why does France support General Haftar in Libya?

On 29th May 2018, France convened an international meeting on Libya, bringing together representatives from its four divided political factions. This included Aguila Saleh (the Chair of the House of Representatives in Tobruk whose Prime Minister is Abdullah al-Theni), Khalid al-Mishri (the head of the High Council of State in Tripoli which was originally the old congress), Fayez al-Sarraj (the head of the internationally recognised Presidential Council) and General Khalifa Haftar.

General Haftar, commander of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), has taken control over much of eastern Libya. He has command of the strategic port city of Tobruk and Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi. In late June Haftar also took control of the city of Derna in a ground offensive by the LNA. This followed a two-year siege by Haftar’s forces and hundreds of civilian casualties.

The main division in Libya, therefore, is between the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in the West, headed by al-Sarraj, and Haftar’s forces in the East. Macron’s goal for the summit was to get all four Libyan sides to commit to an agreement under the auspices of the UN and to start arrangements for staging elections before the end of 2018. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no tangible results have come from this meeting. A similar meeting between al-Sarraj and Haftar in July 2017 also produced no positive outcome. It is becoming clear that these summits on Libya are heralded more as a diplomatic accomplishment for France rather than a genuine breakthrough in the conflict.

Despite encouraging open dialogue and peaceful conflict resolution, however, France has maintained its controversial support for General Haftar for the past three years instead of backing the GNA, which was implemented by a UN-led initiative in 2015. Almost immediately after Macron’s summit at the end of May it became apparent that France had provided General Haftar with reconnaissance aircraft to help his forces advance on Derna.

Why, then, is there such a discord between Macron’s rhetoric about peace and diplomacy on the one hand, and his provision of weaponry to a particular side of the conflict on the other?

During the summit in May, Macron was keen to promote a quick presidential election in Libya, supposedly as a means to centralise the government and reduce tensions in the region. Many are arguing, however, that elections cannot happen until there is a constitution which would provide a set of rules and a legal framework to govern the elections. Many Libyans are afraid that elections in the absence of a constitution will only catalyse conflict rather than resolve it. It is likely, therefore, that France’s ambitions for a quick election in Libya are part of a coordinated step with the UAE and Egypt (Haftar’s other international supporters) to facilitate the General’s takeover while the GNA is weak.

France ultimately sees Haftar as the ally who could best serve its interests in Libya, which is why they have supported the consolidation of his control in the east and are vying for his success in upcoming presidential elections. From a geopolitical standpoint, France wants to have a dominant international presence in Libya. Having had brief direct administrative rule from 1944-51 over Fezzan in southern Libya, it is keen to maintain a close presence in the region which is rich in reserves of oil, gas and minerals. This would also allow France to extend its influence over the nearby countries of Chad, Mali and Niger.

Macron is also keen to compromise Italy’s interests in Libya, and chose a strategic moment for the summit (announcing it only a week beforehand) at a time when Italy was occupied with its own changing government. Despite Rome’s attempts to maintain a presence in Libya and curb the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, its influence in Tripoli has waned of late. Italy’s ties with western Libya had previously been through the city of Misrata, which is now largely autonomous and ruled by militias opposed to the GNA. France and Italy are also leading foreign stakeholders in the Libya’s hydrocarbons sector and have competing business interests in the country’s oil revenue. Therefore, by supporting Haftar France not only provides the military general with legitimacy but also asserts itself as the leading international actor in Libya’s internal politics and stands to gain financially. Haftar also presents himself as the military strength of Libya against terrorism, an image that France is keen to propagate. He claimed that his recent offensive on Derna, for instance, was in order to relieve the city of ‘terrorists and those who carry weapons against the LNA’.

At a time when Libya needs unity and stability more than ever, international players like France need to prioritise the interests of Libyans above their own. Upcoming elections will be undermined if a constitution is not put in place to guarantee a safe transition to a centralised, democratically elected government. France needs to use its influence to smooth divisions in Libya, not exacerbate them.

Syria: the current state of play

This is the NCF’s update on the current state of play in war-torn Syria:

Military offensive in the South-West

In the last three weeks, Syrian government forces – with significant Russian air support – have been sweeping through Deraa province in the south-west of Syria, the birthplace of the first uprisings in 2011. Following military losses near Damascus and Homs in recent months, losing Deraa province leaves only Idlib in the north-west as a notable rebel stronghold. In recent days, a number of towns in the south-west, like Dael and al-Ghariya al-Gharbiya, struck surrender deals with government forces independently of the main rebel factions. Last Friday, the pressure finally told: Ibrahim Jabawi, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army faction of the rebels, announced that surrender terms were agreed with Russia. Heavy weaponry will be handed over in return for a government retreat from a number of villages. This has paved the way for government forces to take control of the strategically important Nassib border crossing into Jordan, and reduces rebel held territory in the region to a thin corridor along the Jordanian border.

In the midst of the aerial bombardment of Tafas (northwest of Deraa) and Said (east of Deraa) on Wednesday, stop-start ceasefire talks failed to stem the flow of refugees out of the region. UN estimates put the number of people that have been uprooted since the offensive began at 320,000, though around 200,000 of them have now returned to their towns under Syrian government control. Those who fled for the Jordanian border had little luck: the Jordanian border has been closed since 2016 and the Jordanians maintain that they cannot take more than the 650,000 Syrians that have already arrived since the war began. Those headed towards the Golan border fence were extended humanitarian assistance, but expressly denied entry into Israel’s territory.

Turkish involvement in the North

In the coming months, attention will be turning to the likelihood that Idlib province in the north-west of Syria will experience a humanitarian disaster of even bigger proportions. The Free Syrian Army has been fortifying its defences in Idlib, with the help of Turkish troops who have been stationed along the front lines for over two months now. After the surrender negotiations in Deraa last week, the Free Syrian Army said they had been warned by the Russians that only slaughter awaited them in Idlib. The range of actors who will be involved in any armed conflict in Idlib means that it has the ingredients to become the most brutal, and likely the final military flashpoint in the Syrian War.

Turkey’s determination to remove what it regards as the threat posed by an autonomous Kurdish region on their southern frontier has meant that the Turkish presence in the north of Syria continues to be felt. This will be a great cause for concern for Syrian government forces once they start looking north again. Since the Turkish military and its Free Syrian Army allies led “Operation Olive Branch” on January 20, YPG Kurdish fighters have been driven from Afrin along with much of the population and Turkey has quickly consolidated its hold on the region. The most recent UN estimates show that over 167,000 people have been displaced from Afrin since the Turkish offensive began. The city has been ravaged by looting and seizures of property by Turkish-backed rebels, with Turkish forces resettling their fighters into the empty homes belonging to the displaced people of Afrin.

Turkish-controlled areas of Syria now make up 3460 square kilometres of occupied land, including some 500 towns and villages. Furthermore, the way the Turkish language has come to dominate police training, schooling, and hospitals in Afrin indicates that President Erdogan has no intention of heeding the warning from US Senator Lindsey Graham and others against sustained Turkish involvement in Syria. This conflict has pitted America’s most reliable ally on the ground in Syria, the Kurdish YPG forces, against a NATO ally in Turkey. Managing this delicate balance will be crucial for any long-term settlements for the area: in the last month the US and Turkey have been working on a deal for a joint military presence in Northern Syria, “to ensure stability” in an area that was fairly stable before Turkey arrived – while keeping YPG fighters confined to an area well east of the Euphrates river.

Iranian influence

Meanwhile Iran’s presence in Syria shows no sign of waning. As much as the US and Israel may rail against a long-term Iranian presence in Syria – in particular anywhere near the Golan Heights – Iran’s investment in Syria is by now too deeply entrenched to be sacrificed in a withdrawal any time soon. Some estimates as to how much money Iran has ploughed into its Syrian project suggest it has been as much as $150bn.

Losing influence in Syria is not an option for Iran. To withdraw from Syria now would cut off the direct land route to Lebanon and Hezbollah, thereby threatening the collapse of Iran’s broader ambitions in countries such as Iraq and indeed in the Middle East as a whole.

Israel’s anxiousness

As the fighting has veered towards the south-western region of Syria, Israel has become increasingly anxious. It has echoed UN complaints regarding Syrian armed incursions into the de-militarised zones on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line on the occupied Golan. Israel demonstrated militarily that it did not like having Iranian forces or their Hezbollah proxies near the current border on the Golan. Following the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran launched a rocket attack on the part of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel. The next day, Israel responded with a carefully orchestrated missile attack on multiple Iranian targets in Syria with very modest numbers of casualties. Last week, Israel appears to have fired two further missiles at targets near Damascus airport.

Israel has also now reinforced its tank and artillery deployment on the Golan. Syria of course already deploys large forces on the Syrian side of the Golan cease fire line and has always done so. Indeed it was an area used to station forces that were predominantly Sunni. Only forces of the Syrian Army whose loyalty was beyond question have been used in the civil war. The rest have been barracked on the Golan throughout. It is possible that more Syrian government forces will move from Deraa towards Quneitra on the Golan. But it seems more likely that attention will turn to the north. While Hezbollah has been involved in the assault on Deraa, it has still maintained a relatively low profile on the Golan. In the unlikely event that this begins to change, we can expect to see Israeli wariness turn into hostility.  But it would seem more likely that Hezbollah’s eyes will turn to the Turkish invasion in the north.

Remains of ISIL

Once perceived as the most significant threat to the West in Syria, the presence of ISIL is now limited to al-Hajar al Aswad (south of Damascus) and Albu Kamal. It does, however, command the area of the triple border point between Israel, Syria and Jordan, with around 80,000 civilians under its control there.

The beginning of the end

As far as the Syrian Revolution goes, developments in the last few months have dealt it a series of telling blows. The more momentum that is gained on President Assad’s side, the fewer incentives there are for temporary ceasefires. The way the rebels have been abandoned by the United States during the south-western offensive stands in stark contrast to the decisive support provided to Assad by his Russian and Iranian allies.

For the first time since the war began, the Syrian government is removing several roadblocks that restricted the movement of its people. Russia are also aiming to bring stability to Damascus by dissolving various pro-government militias and integrating their members into government military units. There is a growing acceptance in the air that Free Syrian Army strongholds are all but disappearing, and the government is gearing towards a settlement from which Syria can begin its daunting rebuilding process. In the meantime, there will surely be more slaughter and more displacement. At this stage, international efforts must be focused on avoiding an even more dangerous escalation in the north in the coming months.


Reconstruction in Raqqa

The city of Raqqa in northeast Syria, the one-time de facto capital of ISIS, was first captured by ISIS in 2014. Inhabitants who did not manage to flee the city and yet still survived ISIS’s brutal executions of Alawites, Christians and suspected supporters of Bashar al-Assad, lived for three traumatic years under ISIS rule. A distorted normality set in; children attended schools where ISIS ideology was taught, beheadings were a form of public punishment and the old sacred buildings were decimated.

In June 2017, however, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) supported by a U.S. led coalition (which included the British) launched a campaign to liberate Raqqa following the similar campaign in Mosul. The SDF campaign in Raqqa was aided significantly by the Western Coalition’s air strikes. By October 2017 the liberation of Raqqa was declared complete, and since then very little attention has been paid to the fate of those attempting to return to their former homes.

Raqqa may be rid of ISIS but it is not yet liberated from its troubles. The Coalition’s aerial bombardment destroyed much of the city and most of its civilian infrastructure. According to the UN around 80% of Raqqa was left uninhabitable after the battle, rendering homeless almost all of the 270,000 people who had fled the city to escape the bombardment. It is also estimated that over 3,000 civilians died during the airstrikes. There is an enormous lack of transparency, however, as neither the British nor American government has admitted the true scale of the destruction. For example, despite the UK government carrying out 215 airstrikes in Raqqa it has only ever acknowledged one instance where a civilian was unintentionally killed. A single instance of collateral damage by an RAF reaper drone in Eastern Syria in March 2018. Again, US officials have stated that civilian deaths only occurred during instances where ISIS members used civilians as human shields during the airstrikes.

Despite the Coalition’s insistence that they took great pains to minimise civilian casualties, in June 2018 Amnesty International released a detailed report that gravely challenges these claims. Amnesty argues that the Coalition’s forces did not do enough to minimise harm to civilians. For instance, its research shows that 39 members of a single family in Raqqa were killed during the battle. This is only one of many harrowing stories they obtained after interviewing over 100 of Raqqa’s surviving residents. Today the city is still uninhabitable; almost every building has been damaged and there is no clean water or electricity apart from what local entrepreneurs are able to provide. Unexploded mines and IEDs are also still causing casualties.

The Western Coalition needs to face up to its myriad responsibilities and commit to reconstruction in Raqqa. Firstly, it needs to reduce resentment in the region by acknowledging and apologising for its destructive campaign. At the moment, they are in danger of exacerbating the same alienation from the West that gave birth to extremism in the past. Residents are already questioning whether the ‘liberation’ from ISIS was worth the destruction and loss of life. The West also needs to take an active role in the reconstruction of the city. Getting rid of ISIS was an achievement, but the success risks being reversed if no clear strategy to rebuild the city is put in place. Raqqa is now administrated by a civil council made up of SDF forces. There are growing tensions between the Syrian Kurdish commanders of the SDF and Raqqa’s predominantly Arab residents, particularly since the forces in control are coercing unwilling civilians into the army. Alternative prospects, however, are also undesirable. There is fear that Assad’s forces will take over from the SDF and seek revenge on those they deemed to have conspired with ISIS.

Frustratingly, the UK Government has repeatedly ignored the clear links between its role in wars abroad and increased terror threats, most recently in its updated counter terrorism strategy released in July 2018. Coalition governments are responsible for this humanitarian disaster; they have a duty to acknowledge their role in the destruction of people’s homes and lives. Presently, refugees arriving back to Raqqa have no homes to return to and no means of rebuilding them. The West must provide funding and materials for the shattered city of Raqqa to be rebuilt.

Turkish Elections: Now the dust has settled on the Victory for Erdoğan

Turkey’s long standing leader yet again won outright in the first and only round of the country’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections. President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan also achieved an overall majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). More than 56 million people were eligible to vote in this twin election. The voter turnout was one of the highest in Turkey’s history, with reports putting participation at 87%. The most important election in recent years, this was the first time a credible opposition had risen to challenge the AK Party since they came to power almost fifteen years ago. Surprise opposition came in the form of Muharrem İnce, the candidate of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP). Mirroring the charismatic and fiery rhetoric of Erdoğan, İnce drew a million people to a rally in Istanbul where he urged voters to end the rule of Erdoğan and his AK Party. Despite İnce’s popularity, which was steadily gaining traction, he ultimately won 30.64% of the vote against the president’s 53% –  it was not enough to force a second-round of elections.

What is important about these elections?

The significance of this vote lies in the unprecedented changes to the Turkish constitution that will follow in the wake of the election. Changes that were narrowly approved in last year’s referendum. The vote ushers in a new Turkish governing system, one that abolishes the role of the prime minister and replaces it with a new and powerful executive presidency. New powers will include but are not limited to the president directly appointing top public officials, including judges, ministers, and vice-presidents; the power to intervene in the country’s legal system; and the power to impose a state of emergency.

The president is no stranger to criticism, with many and rightly so, highlighting the authoritarian nature of his rule. Politicians and news outlets from across Western Europe and elsewhere have lambasted Erdoğan for his crackdown on political dissidents, the judiciary, public officials, and various media outlets, following the failed military coup in 2016. It is, therefore, no surprise that he is under scrutiny again for the controversial, sweeping new powers that have now been formalised. His critics have pointed out the lack of checks and balances in the new governing system, a system that effectively concentrates power into the hands of one man.

Turkey is, therefore, a curious case of where East meets West. French political scientist, Alain Rouquié, aptly describes Turkey as a “hegemonic democracy” – a system that does not fit neatly into any particular category. He argues that whilst Turkey is clearly not a liberal democracy because the rule of law, the rights of minorities, and media freedoms are not respected; neither is it a dictatorship as elections are held and political alternation remains a possibility. Despite the legitimate criticism levied at Erdoğan and the new governing system, the voter turnout was higher than most Western European countries, including that of the UK and France.

Erdoğan has consistently won every election for the last fifteen years and has amassed a powerful base of supporters within the country. He has overseen and delivered years of economic growth and is responsible for the construction of roads, bridges, airports, hospitals, and schools. For better or worse, Erdoğan is a pivotal figure in Turkey’s modern history despite his controversial status. Erdoğan’s victory was also a cause of celebration in places as far flung as, Skopje, Sarajevo, Baku, and Crimea, and even in Arab street. There is something to be said about a statesman that is able to garner popular support outside of Turkey from people who are not even Turkish.

This is not to defend Erdoğan. No leader, statesman or politician is above criticism, and much criticism can be directed towards President Erdoğan, his policies, and his rule in Turkey. But one must look at the situation holistically and appreciate the nuances that exist in every imperfect system. The extent and impact of Erdoğan’s new executive powers will become apparent over the coming months and years. It will, therefore, be interesting to see how the president will now tackle the economic challenges currently facing the country, as well as the issue of national security concerning Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey and neighbouring Syria.

Why is Syria so important to Russia?

From the 1950s onwards, Syria received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military and economic assistance from the Soviet Union. In return, in 1971 Syria’s new president Hafez al-Assad allowed the USSR to open its naval military base in the port city of Tartus. Cordial relations continued into the 1980s as Syria and the Soviet Union signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. However, though ties with Syria were maintained, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that the vision of socialist utopia was in ruins.

As a nation that has, historically, sought credibility by projecting itself as a formidable power – regardless of its internal weaknesses – post-Soviet Russia has been keen to regain its position as a key player on the international stage. Inevitably, therefore, Moscow has looked to Syria as a region where it can build upon historic ties and exert influence to rival that of the United States across the Middle East. Russia has been successful in achieving this aim. It is now regarded as a key arbiter in the region and boasts the defeat of ISIS in Syria despite President Obama’s claims in 2015 that Russian interference in Syria would be to no avail. Moreover, in November 2017, Putin hosted  talks with the leaders of Iran and Turkey to discuss Syria’s future, highlighting the international consensus that Russia will play a key role in Syria’s reconstruction. Since then, Putin has continued to flex his muscles in the region and proven himself to be a fundamental player in the outcome of the conflict. This not only bolsters his international standing, but also his domestic reputation as a leader who is intent on transforming Russia into a formidable power once more.

There are, however, more tangible interests at stake for Russia in Syria. The naval base in Tartus which was established in 1971 is now Russia’s only military facility outside of the former Soviet Union and holds great strategic importance. By remaining close with President Bashar al-Assad there is a possibility that Russia could, in the future, advance its presence in the Mediterranean. Furthermore Assad is reliant on Russia for providing critical air support, affording Russia a valuable opportunity to test its arms systems.

At present, therefore, Russia is centre stage in the attempt to navigate a Syrian peace settlement. This involves overcoming several challenges that have presented themselves now that the conflict has started to dissipate. For example, Assad has adopted a more unruly attitude now that he perceives himself as a ‘victor’ in the conflict and thus less dependent on Russia. Moscow recognises that Assad cannot fully resume his old powers, but must also contend with the factionalism that is rife within Syria (between anti-Assad opposition groups, pro-Turkish and pro-Iranian militias and the Kurds). If the commentator Dmitri Trenin is correct and Russia is paving the way for a coalition government by creating several de-escalation zones then Putin will need to persuade Assad to accept this, as well as accepting Iran’s interests in the region that Israel has unsurprisingly perceived as a threat.

In his attempt to build his reputation as an international strongman, Vladimir Putin has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew. As long as his international exploits earn him credibility at home, Putin will continue to exert influence over an ever-changing state of affairs in the Middle East. But now that he has successfully raised Russia’s international standing, it remains to be seen whether Putin’s diplomacy will continue to live up to his rhetoric.

Iran: Juvenile death penalties and the drug epidemic: a means to tackle both?

The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently facing a drug epidemic within its population. It also continues the sentencing of juveniles with death penalties. The two issues are linked.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad, spoke following the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council, of Iran’s practice of the executing of juvenile offenders, or individuals who were juveniles when the crime was committed. Iran executed five juveniles in 2017, more than any other country in the world. This is a major concern. It goes against both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, two treaties which the Islamic Republic of Iran has ratified.

There is a need for Iran to display compassion to those individuals that have committed these crimes. The behaviour of a child should not, regardless of their actions, be punished with the death penalty. The Next Century Foundation asks the Islamic Republic of Iran to remember the behaviour of the Prophet Mohammed and his willingness to show compassion to those that transgressed.

Iran has made efforts to curb the number of executions within the country. The suspension of the death penalty to around 5,000 inmates that were on death row is an encouraging sign and should be praised. This despite the fact that many within Iran believe that harsh criminal punishments are one of the few ways to curb the drug epidemic that Iran is currently suffering from.

Iran has a major drug problem. Levels of drug addiction are soaring and there is a serious need to control this epidemic. In 2017, there were 2.8 million people who were ‘regularly consuming drugs’. The vast majority of this drug use is opium. The real figures may well be larger as often people do not wish to admit to drug use. This is truly an epidemic and one that is damaging Iranian society.

This is a strain on the hospitals that are needed to aid victims of drug abuse. 25% of heroin users in Iran are now HIV/AIDS positive. The epidemic has also placed a major strain on the police and border control. Youth unemployment has caused many to turn to drug use, including those that have completed higher education. All addictions are tragedies, but excessive drugs use by the young and disenfranchised is a major concern.

90% of the world’s opium is produced in neighbouring Afghanistan. This is no coincidence. Since the resurgence of the Taliban, opium production in the country has skyrocketed, and this has caused major problems in Iran. 60% of drug traffic out of Afghanistan goes through Iran. Iran is the beginning of the smuggling journey to the rest of the world.

Therefore, we have two major problems that need addressing: juvenile executions and the drug epidemic. The Next Century Foundation requests that the international community offer its aid in helping to curb the drug epidemic in Iran. In response, as a sign of a willingness to co-operate, Iran could introduce further criminal justice system reforms. The international community can offer to improve border security in Iran along its Afghan border. IImproved security there will help lower the volume of drugs smuggled into the country and reduce the supply side of the drug economy that is damaging Iran.

Recognising there are many within Iran that believe strong punishments for drug offenders are a necessity to prevent skyrocketing drug abuse figures; the Next Century Foundation asks that Iran at least removes the death penalty for juveniles convicted of non-drug offences. This will show a willingness to work  to progress further towards international standards.

Ensuring progress continues: the UAE and the freedom of the judiciary

The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law index, which analyses good governance, has the United Arab Emirates as one of the higher placed countries in the Middle East. This index analyses much more than simple judicial independence, and some key countries such as Saudi Arabia are not even listed in the index. This due to a refusal by the country concerned to allow the organisation to analyse their institutions, rather than an intentional oversight. The UAE however, despite its young age, has made tangible progress in improving judicial independence and the rule of law in the country.

The UAE is an absolute monarchy, and those within the royal family can appear to act with impunity. Naturally, as long as the monarchy rule with no checks on their power, one cannot point to the UAE as a champion of judicial independence. However, the Royal Family administers justice privately in regard to its own in the UAE and has often done so ruthlessly. Being a UAE royal may mean you can ignore parking tickets and speeding fines but you are unlikely to emerge unscathed if you commit a major crime.

The UAE is placed high on the index for a reason. The ruler of the UAE has taken steps recently that have granted the judiciary near-complete independence regarding all matters. In 2016, he issued a law stating that judges must hold all to the same standard of litigation and are now completely independent. Whilst the success of such a new law is difficult to quantify, early indications are positive.

The country also appears to be progressing in another area of concern: the rights of foreigners. The government has had to hire multiple foreign judges to handle the work of the country’s courts. According to the Special Rapporteur on the independence of Judges and Lawyers’ report on the UAE, in 2015, these individuals are not given the same guarantees as national judges, leaving them more susceptible to outside pressures. Furthermore, in the Special Rapporteur’s report, they mentioned that foreigners did not have faith in the court system. This often led to unwillingness to report crimes; for fear that the case would be mishandled. This is cause for concern. However, the creation of a new prosecution unit for domestic workers is encouraging. This new unit highlights a willingness from the government to protect the most vulnerable within their society. This improved with the introduction of one day courts for misdemeanors in January of this year, reducing legal costs, as well as the decision to have the government pay the legal fees of low-income individuals two years ago.

The major concern within the judicial system remains the power of the state to influence and manipulate court processes involving matters of ‘state security’. This problem is certainly not unique to the UAE or the Middle East in general. However, it is vital to improve upon the transparency of these court proceedings. The Special Rapporteur, in their report, claimed that, during arrests regarding ‘state security’, warrants were not issued, lawyers were not permitted to meet their clients and individuals were left incommunicado for weeks or even months.

Once these cases eventually reach court, they are often taken privately. There are sensitive issues that require secrecy, especially regarding state security. However, it is vitally important that, once the case has gone to court, that these hearings are public, even if some evidence is only circulated privately. Without such publicity, the reputation of the court process is damaged. People will assume foul-play if they are not aware of the charges.

Torture appears to have been used for some of these cases as well. The United Arab Emirates is making tangible progress in regard to its judicial system. However, forced confessions under duress are not legitimate. If someone has committed acts against the state, the state must prove this with hard evidence, and never utilise torture.

The United Arab Emirates appears to be genuinely concerned with improving its judicial process and practices. They are clearly tackling the problems concerning differing treatment between nationals and foreigners as well as improving judicial independence. This is to be praised. At the same time, it is important that they recognise the need for transparency in all of their cases, including ones concerning state security. Without this, they risk losing the progress they have made.

Is Iranian institutional overlap preventing judicial independence?

Iran has made progress in its judicial process. There is a concerted effort by the government to reduce the number of executions that take place within the country and to try and conform to international standards of practice. Furthermore, Iran has made efforts to create an independent judiciary, with some success. However, there are institutional problems that are preventing further progress that should be addressed.

Iran’s constitution has, in its wording, an independent judiciary. Its criminal and civil courts, held within the ‘Courts of Peace’ and the ‘Public Courts’, can act with relative independence. The executive appears to remain separate from these court processes. Judges are separate from the executive and legislative branch, with judges being appointed by the Supreme Leader. There is further separation of powers under the constitution article 170 of which, for example, states that: “Judges of courts are obliged to refrain from executing statutes and regulations of the government that are in conflict with the laws or the norms of Islam, or lie outside the competence of the executive

The fact that the Supreme Leader chooses the judges is not an ideal way to separate the legislative and executive from the judiciary, but it does achieve a level of separation. After all even in the USA the President chooses the Supreme Court and in the UK the Prime Minister selects the Supreme Court neither of which is perfect.

However, there is certainly a problem regarding judges imposing pressure upon lawyers. There is concern regarding the former UN Special Rapporteur’s reports that lawyers have been disbarred for representing certain defendants. This is of great concern as a lawyer should not be punished for doing their job. Lawyers are to be independent of the criminal.

Much like their democratic institutions, the country suffers from varying independent institutions that work over each other. The Religious and Revolutionary courts are both separate from the regular criminal and civil courts. They also both have the power to overrule these courts and take over cases they deem to be within their remit. Whilst the standard courts have due process, the other courts work at the behest of a select few that can ignore due process and arrest arbitrarily under the guise of ‘national security’. Now, every country has national security concerns, and this is not to suggest that Iran does not have enemies that could be involved in attempts to subvert the state. However, the lack of transparency regarding these cases is highly problematic, as the hiding of evidence suggests foul play, rather than a legitimate concern. Additionally, cases held by the Revolutionary and Clerical courts are notoriously vague, often citing ‘un-Islamic’ behaviour as an element in their reasoning. There have been cases of forced confessions, suspects held without charge for extensive periods of time, and televised show trials. Defendants in these cases are forced to select from an official pool of lawyers chosen by the head of the judiciary. This unnecessary stipulation may mean that the defendant will not be properly defended and possibly even that the lawyer might be expected to ensure his client is found guilty. It would certainly be more conducive to creating a positive image in the eyes of the international community to streamline the courts into a less convoluted, more transparent and more accountable system.

Iran’s judiciary appears to mostly act free of executive pressures. However, there remains an issue regarding the practice of disbarring lawyers for their choice of defendants and a lack of merit-based promotions. This situation must improve if Iran is to have a fair and independent judiciary. The autonomy of the IRGC continues to create a negative image for Iran. What progress Iran does make, and with moderate figures such as Rouhani it is wrong to suggest progress is not desired by much of the population, is regularly critiqued with questions over whether the progress can have a genuine effect on the country if the IRGC and Clerical courts can continue to act with zero accountability.