Is Ukraine’s spiritual independence from Russia really a political win?

In Istanbul as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople handed a Tomos – a decree granting independence, or autocephaly – to the future head of the local Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the spiritual authority Russia once held over its former Soviet neighbour was severed once and for all. This was a political blow just as much as a spiritual setback for the Russian Federation.

On 6thJanuary 2019 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared independence from Muscovite Patriarchal authority after being under its jurisdiction for over 400 years. ‘We have cut the last chain that connected us to Moscow and its fantasies about Ukraine as the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church’ proudly declared the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko. On the contrary, however, President Putin predicted ‘a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed’ over the schism.

Why was the Russian president so furious about the church split?

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, autocephaly has long been a tour de force for nationalism in Eastern Europe – and Ukraine is no exception. An independent Ukrainian Church undermines President Putin’s efforts to re-establish Russian influence over its former Soviet territories. Ukraine’s national identity has long been associated with, and influenced by Russia.

From 1917 until the Second World War, the Crimean Peninsula was an autonomous republic within the USSR. In 1944, Stalin forcibly deported all of Crimea’s indigenous population, the Tartars, to Central Asia – ostensibly as punishment for their collaboration with the Germans. In turn, many Russian and Ukrainian settlers moved to repopulate the Peninsula. As such, when in 1954 the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the proportion of ethnic Russians in Crimea increased significantly. Characteristic of the arbitrary style of Soviet leadership, there was no vote to transfer control of Crimea to Ukraine; the decision was made solely (and in the eyes of many, illegally) by Khrushchev.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a majority of Ukrainians – over 90% –  voted in a referendum for independence from Russia. Initially it seemed as though Russia would respect the result – promising to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in 1995 in return for their Soviet era nuclear arsenal. Again, in 2000 Russia signed an EU deal to formally acknowledge the sovereignty of all former Soviet territories. However, Ukraine’s national identity was still closely tied with Russia. Many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea continued to feel an affinity with their former Soviet identity; the Russian language and church remained a core part of Ukraine’s cultural landscape.

In Ukraine’s Presidential elections in 2004, the election of Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovich was widely alleged to be marred by corruption, voter fraud and intimidation. The protests that erupted in response to his incumbency, known as the ‘Orange Revolution’, were successful in triggering a re-vote and a decisive victory for the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. In contrast with Yanukovich, Yushchenko’s political agenda was more liberal and notably favourable toward European integration.

By 2010, however, Yushchenko’s popularity had decreased and the Presidential election was once again – although this time legitimately – won by the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich.

In 2013 Yanukovich rejected a political agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union in favour of forming a closer economic relationship with Russia. Small-scale protests in Kiev by pro-European Ukrainian citizens soon escalated into the ‘Euromaiden revolution’, which ultimately resulted in Yanukovich being ousted from power and a temporary government being installed in February 2014. This was the backdrop against which Putin sent Russian forces into Crimea – ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians and to ‘return Crimea to Russia’. Despite the ‘referendum at gunpoint’ in which Crimea voted to secede to Russian control, this outcome has not been recognised by the international community.

So what has been happening since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014?

Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has asserted control of both sides of the Kerch strait, a highly strategic waterway connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. On May 16th2018, the construction of a bridge over the strait was completed, joining Crimea and Russia. The bridge is too low to allow large merchant ships through the strait. This greatly restricts access from Ukraine’s eastern ports of Mariupiol and Berdyansk to the Black Sea (and in turn, the Mediterranean). Indeed, between May and August 2018, Russia detained over 140 merchant ships attempting to pass the strait, many of them Ukrainian.

kerch strait

On November 24th, three Ukrainian merchant vessels and 24 crew members approaching the strait were seized and detained by the Russian coast guard for supposedly breaching Russian territorial waters. The Ukrainian Government claimed that the vessels were travelling in shared waters, established under a bilateral treaty in 2003. Ultimately, however, there is very little that the Ukraine government can do on its own to stand up to Russia, having lost up to 80% of its own navy in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. The current Ukrainian President, Poroshenko’s declaration of regional martial law on the 28thNovember did little to stabilise the situation although may well help his public standing ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

Therefore, with such little room for manoeuvre, Ukraine’s declaration of autocephaly was clearly, and rightly, an attempt to stand up to Russia in the absence of more effective political channels. We should, however, expect significant push back from Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many parishes in Ukraine that belonged to the Russian patriarchate are technically owned by the Russian state and Putin has already warned that he is willing to fiercely defend ownership of church property.

It may well be decades until there is a resolution, but for now this is an important victory for Ukraine. It is also a moral victory for the idea of the Ukrainian nation taking its own course independently from Moscow that is likely to help Poroshenko in upcoming elections in March.

The International Response

As well as sending a Royal Navy Ship to the Black Sea, the UK’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson visited Odessa in December and made a point of meeting with families of the 24 Ukrainian sailors being held in Moscow. Symbolic actions such as these are incredibly important. Not only do they set an example to the international community but also show Russia that Ukraine will not be left to fend for themselves against Russian aggression.

On 19thDecember the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented the findings of its periodic report on the situation of human rights in Ukraine. It was disappointing, while unsurprising, to learn that Russia refused to allow the UN mission into Crimea where reports are emerging of rights violations such as arbitrary imprisonment and suppression of freedom of speech and assembly. In eastern Ukraine casualties are still being incurred from shelling activity and there are no means for civilians to receive compensation for injury or death resulting from the conflict.

In addition to its condemnation of the Russian Federation, the report was clear that many casualties were attributable to Ukrainian government forces. It also highlighted a reluctance in Ukrainian law enforcement institutions to investigate the human rights violations by state actors.

After such a comprehensive, balanced report it was disappointing that the international community had nothing to say on the role of Ukrainian state actors in committing human rights violations. While we cannot allow Russia’s actions to go unchecked, all UN members must be held to similar standards so as not to undermine the legitimacy of our peace-keeping institutions and the very concept of universal human rights.

After Palermo – What Next for Libya?

On the 18thNovember, a conference to discuss the future of Libya was held in Palermo, Italy. The previous conference had been in May, held in Paris by the French President Emmanuel Macron. Elections this December in Libya – a vaunted outcome of the Paris summit – have officially been ruled out by the UN Special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame. This is hardly surprising since the country still lacks electoral law, not to mention violent militia infighting that would likely prevent safe elections. Instead, Salame has claimed that Libya will host a National Conference in early 2019, with elections projected for the spring. He blamed both sides of Libya’s political divide – the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the West and the House of Representatives (HoR) in the East – for trying to postpone a vote while over 80% of Libyans support elections.

Indeed, Libya is still a severely divided country. Rifts between the European powers played out on Libyan soil only postpone an already agonisingly slow UN-led peace process. Italy supports the internationally recognised GNA headed by Fayez al-Sarraj while France (along with Russia, Egypt and the UAE) supports General Haftar in the East, who presides over the HOR. Both are ineffectual rulers. While Prime Minister Sarraj of the GNA has very little influence outside of Tripoli, General Haftar is a law unto himself.

Despite feigned benevolence from the international community, the majority of the powers involved are driven primarily by self-interest. Libya needs fresh political parties its people can get behind, not incompetent governments imposed by the UN or undemocratic war lords. Unfortunately, however, no other Libyan representatives from alternative political parties were invited to Palermo. Many of Libya’s key political factions were excluded, and by key factions we do not just mean the Muslim Brotherhood or the warlord people smugglers. There are plenty of genuine Libyan factions that deserve to be included. If different political parties or blocs are not included in these mediated dialogues, then there is a very little chance that Libya will haul itself out from this political stalemate.

Financial motives of international powers are also hard to separate from the political situation. While the Libyan energy market has thus far been dominated by the Italian energy company ENI (the gas pipeline conveniently lies in the west of the country), the French energy company Total has recently began to expand its shares in the market. Libyan oil is cheap and can easily be exported to Europe, ensuring that vested interests are always attempting to influence Libya’s domestic agenda.

The headlines surrounding the Palmero conference indicated where international attention was truly focused. As the first political initiative of the new right wing populist government of Giuseppe Conti, all eyes were on the presence – or absence – of world leaders at the event. Already on its first day former Italian PM Matteo Renzi deemed the Conference a ‘resounding flop’ as it became evident that the likes of Macron, Trump and Putin were no-shows.

This kind of politicised rhetoric is unhelpful, and draws attention away from the real issues faced by Libya. The GNA has almost no control in the West and relies heavily on militia support. The south of Libya is caught up in fighting between Tuareg and Toubou militias. General Haftar is tightening his iron grip in the east, having seized oil ports from the National Oil Corporation in the summer. Civilians live in a climate of fear and lack basic commodities.

There is a fine line between the necessity for genuine international attention on problems faced by Libya and self-serving intervention by greater powers.  Perhaps next year’s National Conference in Libya will be more inclusive of Libyans themselves, rather than just providing an opportunity for others to show off their diplomatic stature. The international community – as a unified whole –  must support and empower the Libyan people. A solution for peace will not be possible without their total involvement.

Photo above: Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord.

Idlib buffer zone: diplomacy at last?

As Syria’s seven year war ostensibly draws to a close, there is still a great deal of uncertainty over the future of Idlib in northern Syria, the country’s last remaining rebel stronghold. With nowhere else to run to, its three million inhabitants (including around 60,000 opposition fighters) are edging ever closer back into the clutches of the Syrian Government and its President, Bashar al-Assad. Although more than half of Syria’s population have already lost their homes, it is this final struggle that may prove the most costly for President Assad and his allies in humanitarian terms.

Presently, Idlib is controlled by rebel factions who, despite their common opposition to the Syrian Government, are divided amongst themselves. A large swathe of Idlib – around 60% – is controlled by the radical Islamist group, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that has hsitoric ties to al-Qaeda. The National Liberation Front (NLF) – an opposition group supported by Turkey – controls another substantial area.

Throughout Syria’s war Turkey has provided support for opposition groups like the NLF, while Russia and Iran have backed Bashar al-Assad. Of course it was Russia’s intervention in the war in 2015 that marked a decisive shift in favour of Assad’s forces and it now seems as though Bashar al-Assad will soon regain control over much of the rest of Syria after years of uncertainty. The Syrian Government has no qualms about a large-scale offensive on Idlib; on 8th October Assad pledged to ‘liberate’ all areas under ‘terrorist control’. Syria’s deputy foreign minister has also declared that Idlib will be captured one way or another, either peacefully or militarily. And Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, told the NCF directly that if Turkey failed to withdraw, Syria would go to war to regain its territory.

Despite this belligerence, foreign powers involved in the war have shown a new commitment to avert further humanitarian catastrophe. A deal reached between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia on September 17th in Sochi, resolved that a 15-20 kilometre buffer zone would be created around Idlib after the removal of heavy weapons and radical fighters from the area. A ceasefire agreement was also established between the opposing parties. It was created in an attempt to prevent (or postpone) a Russian led attack on Idlib and allow time for further political discussion to take place without the threat of violence.

The first stage of the agreement, which stipulated the removal of heavy weaponry from the buffer zone, was successful. The NLF promptly withdrew its weapons in what was seen as a victory for Turkey, who has taken the responsibility for negotiating with fighters inside the buffer zone. Although HTS did not initially reveal its stance on the agreement, it too seemed to withdraw its weapons in time for the 10th October deadline.

More problematic, however, was the second deadline of the 15th October for the removal of jihadists from the area. There were some early reports that HTS and al-Nusra (another jihadist organisation) had refused to withdraw from the demilitarised zone because Turkey hadn’t guaranteed their safety. And so, the deadline came and went without any sight of the rebels leaving. HTS made a public statement vowing that they would continue to fight, and that they refused to trust Russia. General Naji Mustafa of the NLF also said that Russia’s commitment to the deal could not be trusted, insisting ‘we are absolutely ready for the forthcoming battle’.

There are fears that a breakdown in the agreement will give the Syrian Government and Russia an excuse to carry out a military offensive on Idlib. This is compounded by an ominous text message received by residents in the buffer zone last Friday from the Syrian army reading ‘get away from the fighters, their fate is sealed and near’. These fears are not unfounded; both Assad’s government and Putin have demonstrated their determination to win back all Syrian territory. In the past, Russia has also cited the presence of HTS as a reason for attacking areas of Idlib.

Despite this, there are signs that Russia is remaining flexible and willing to support Turkey’s implementation of the agreement on the ground, even though the deadlines have not immediately been met. This is in the interests of both Russia and Turkey, despite their opposing sides in the conflict. Putin has already spent a vast amount on the war in Syria and does not want to take responsibility for the humanitarian disaster that could occur if there was a military assault on Idlib. Russia is also concerned with reconstruction in Syria, which could feasibly start sooner if a peace is maintained. Turkey shares a border with Idlib and wants to avoid the inevitable influx of refugees if its people are forced to escape through the north.

It is a good sign that Russia has continued to honour the Sochi agreement. Although many are understandably cynical, this may well be the last remaining hope for the safety of the three million people living in Idlib. Talking about whether such an agreement will work in the ‘long term’ for Syria seems redundant given the fast changing nature of the war. What matters for now is that both sides remain committed to a diplomatic solution for Idlib that minimises casualties and sets a course for the Syrian Government to follow.

NCF update: 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 and 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 entrenched divisions in Libya are reflected by its myriad political factions, who each claim to have authority over the region. The international community has done little to diffuse these tensions by supporting whichever faction best suits their vested interests rather than prioritising the interests of the Libyan people. Currently, there are four main political factions in Libya:

  1. The Government of National Accord (GNA) – The GNA was established in 2015 in UN-backed negotiations to try and impose a stable authority in the region. It is the only internationally recognised government in Libya and is headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Unfortunately, however, the GNA has failed to exercise any kind of authority extending beyond its very limited domain in western Libya, where it operates from Tripoli. Many argue that the GNA is a corrupt institution, accusing its leaders of earning exceptionally high salaries while doing little to resolve the country’s problems.
  2. The High Council of State – The High Council of State was formerly the General National Congress in Tripoli, formed in Libya’s first democratic elections in 2012. After its members refused to dissolve the congress in 2015 (and lose their salaries) a deal was struck during the UN negotiations to re-establish the congress as the ‘High Council of State’, an advisory body to the GNA. The reality, however, is that they have long since diminished as an influential political force. It is headed by Khaled al-Mishri, who replaced Abdarrahman Swehli in April 2018. He is a leading figure in the Justice and Construction Party (the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya).
  3. The Tobruk Parliament – also known as the House of Representatives, it was established after controversial national elections with a turnout of around 18% in 2014. It is based in Tobruk, a port city in the east of Libya. Its chairman is Aguila Saleh Issa who regards his Tobruk-based government (headed by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thenni) to be the only legitimate government in Libya. It is also important to note that the Tobruk parliament has endorsed the leadership of General Khalifa Haftar.
  4. General Haftar – General Khalifa Haftar controls almost the entire east of Libya. With a personal militia force at his disposal (which he calls the ‘Libyan National Army’ (LNA)) 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. The capture of Derna on 28th June was an important step in consolidating Haftar’s position, as it remained the last sizeable bastion of opposition to him in the east. Prior to Haftar’s takeover, since October 2014 Derna had been led by the Shura council of Mujahadeen, 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.

Other, arguably more influential, centres of power in Libya are its financial institutions. Saddiq Kabir, for example, is head of the Central Bank and responsible for paying the salaries of many Libyans. Mustafa Sanalla is head of the National Oil Corporation and Abdullmaged Breish is head of the Libyan Investment Authority.

It should also be noted that General Haftar recently attempted to oust Saddiq Kabir from his position as governor of the Central Bank but was unsuccessful. He accuses Libya’s Central Bank of funneling money to extremist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood.

INTERNATIONAL INVOLVEMENT

The external interference in Libya from countries near and far has done little to encourage a quicker resolution to the conflict. 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.

POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS

On May 29th, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a summit in Paris with representatives from Libya’s four political factions: al-Sarraj, Haftar, Saleh and al-Mishri. Each representative endorsed a motion to hold elections in Libya on 10th December, when the mandates of the High Council of State and the Tobruk Parliament will run out. It was also agreed that by 16th September a constitutional basis and electoral laws would be established.

Whether these elections (if held at all) will be fruitful, however, is another matter. In May of this year twelve people were killed in “an ISIS attack” on the headquarters of the Electoral Commission. Nor is it likely that there will be agreement on a draft constitution any time soon. 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 for 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. There are also reports that the constitutional committee was abandoned after it became apparent that its leader had dual Libyan-American nationality. Whatever happens, once an agreement has been arrived at it is essential for the international community to support the decision of the Libyan people, 1 million of whom are registered to vote in December’s elections should they take place.

On 14th June a coalition of armed forces seized the largest oil terminals in Libya’s eastern oil crescent, resulting in many civilian causalities and damage to infrastructure. General Haftar has since accused the Central Bank of channeling money to the militia leader responsible for blockading the oil terminals. Although General Haftar’s LNA was successful in recapturing the facilities on the 25th June, he announced that management of the facilities would be transferred not to the internationally recognised National Oil Corporation, but to a different NOC in the east. In retaliation, the official NOC imposed a force majeure on the oil terminals; 850,000 barrels a day were blocked from exportation and Libya lost over an estimated 900 million dollars. On the 11th July 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. Although this relieved the immediate crisis, 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.

WAY FORWARD?

Although the upcoming elections are heralded as a positive step forward by many, it is difficult to see how they will bring about any fruitful change while the country is so fragmented. If there is no constitution then corruption and political violence will only flourish. Divisions in Libya will also remain entrenched while international powers continue to exploit the region and prevent self-determination of the Libyan people. There is little point in diplomats congratulating themselves on rhetorical commitments to elections and ongoing dialogue, for there will be very little to congratulate until Libya reemerges as a functioning state.

Indeed, 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 and 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 incite 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 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.

#Libya #UN

By Ardi Janjeva and Isobel Thompson

FGM in the UK: how to prevent this tragedy

Although it has been over three decades since FGM was made illegal in the UK, UNICEF estimates that it is currently a reality for 137,000 British girls and women and a further 144,000 are currently at risk of FGM in England and Wales. Despite these staggering figures, only two FGM cases have ever been brought to court in the UK and both have resulted in acquittals.

One of the great difficulties is that police often struggle to obtain enough proof to secure a conviction. Although FGM is certainly being carried out in the UK, most cases are carried out abroad over the summer holidays before the child is brought back to school. Even when it does occur in this country, many of the affected communities are socially isolated and children feel a duty to protect their complicit family members. Many cases also exist where a person has undergone FGM before taking up residency in the UK.

Since being first made illegal in 1985 (in the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act) the law has been amended multiple times to safeguard potential victims of FGM and also to introduce mandatory reporting of FGM in under-18s. Despite this legislation, many are angry that there have been no prosecutions related to FGM in the UK, whereas in France there have been more than a hundred convictions over the past few decades.

The eradication of FGM is made all the more difficult by the domestic nature of the practice – many rightly argue that sending a child’s parents to prison is unlikely to be in the child’s best interests. Education, therefore, is the key to changing the societal attitudes that underpin and perpetuate this crime. FGM is not sanctioned by any religion, there are no health benefits, and the psychological and physical damage from the procedure are long-lasting, not to mention the numerous human rights violations it entails. More time and money must be invested in the prevention of this hugely damaging and out-dated procedure so that FGM is no longer a reality for thousands of vulnerable young girls both in Britain and across the globe today.

#FGM

Who would be a better Prime Minister for the Middle East?

In these turbulent times for British politics, one can be forgiven for some mild hypothesising over potential successors to Prime Minister Theresa May, whose premiership is likely to be short-lived once the Brexit process is over. Many on the right are already championing Jacob Rees-Mogg as the next Conservative Party leader, a man as true to his socially conservative values as he is to severing all ties with the European Union. Or perhaps Boris Johnson will finally have his way after years of seeking the role and positioning himself as an alternative to May’s ‘soft’ Brexit approach. Nor should we underestimate the potential for Jeremy Corbyn, who represents the opposition to nearly a decade of Conservative government austerity, to win the next General Election.

But what would each of these different politicians mean for Britain’s relations with the Middle East? Might there be other – less well-known – MPs whose track record suggests that they would be a better Prime Minister for the region?

Jeremy Corbyn once stated that opposing violence and war has been ‘the whole purpose of his life’. He is also one of the few politicians who has been right to link British military interventions abroad with terrorist attacks in the UK. This is something other UK politicians ought to come to terms with in order to have a well-considered foreign policy. Bombing cities in order to rid them of terrorism is more likely to exacerbate resentment of the West than to create a peaceful environment.

His anti-interventionism is certainly a refreshing trait after the campaigns of the 21st century so far, which have seen the destruction of so many cities and lives in the Middle East – most recently Raqqa and Mosul where over 80% of their civilian infrastructure was destroyed in a western coalition campaign to rid them of ISIS.

Corbyn was also one of the handful of MPs who voted against the attack on Libya, another disastrous campaign which has led to Libya becoming a failed state with four dysfunctional ruling factions. He has also called for an independent enquiry into the UK’s arms exports policy to Saudi Arabia after a UN panel ruled in 2016 that the Saudi led bombing of Yemen was against international humanitarian law. Taking responsibility for British actions abroad and a commitment to fair distribution of aid would certainly make Britain more of a credible arbiter in the Middle East, making it easier to hold other countries to high standards without being undermined by accusations of hypocrisy.

However, Corbyn’s cooler approach to Sunni Arab nations would mark a significant departure from the Conservative government’s long-standing approach to the region. Although his humanitarian considerations are respectable, some worry that, under Corbyn, trade relations would suffer with Gulf States. Traditionally, our relations with GCC countries have been seen as vital to British economic and security interests, and a withdrawal of our friendship could open opportunity for other countries, such as Russia, to cement their ties with these powerful states.

Whatever their views, the Labour party has certainly been clear on its position regarding the Middle East, attaining a level of transparency that the Conservative party has failed to live up to. While the last Labour election manifesto in 2017 clearly laid out the party’s position on the region, the Tory manifesto made no mention of the Middle East whatsoever.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has stressed his ambition to develop free trade deals with the Middle East after Brexit. While such deals could do much to foster relations with GCC countries – no bad thing – increased sales of armaments can only draw the UK further into regional conflicts, such as its indirect involvement in Yemen by providing Saudi Arabia with weapons. He has also voted in favour of air strikes to attack supposed chemical weapons facilities in Douma and defended Theresa May’s decision to do so with no parliamentary vote on the matter. Again, this sort of impulsive behaviour is problematic. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has not yet even been able to confirm that chemical weapons were used in the attack in April, let alone been able to discern who was responsible.

Indeed, if anything is to be learnt from the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is to exercise restraint and caution before embarking on any kind of military intervention. Moreover, his objective to reduce Britain’s foreign aid budget – describing it as ‘fundamentally wasteful’ – is at odds with his support for air strikes, which inevitably destroy civilian communities and infrastructure. It is a mistake to assume that Western air strikes in the name of combatting terrorism will be wholeheartedly welcomed by civilians if there is no aid set aside for reconstruction after the damage has been caused.

However, it should be noted that Rees-Mogg hasn’t always been supportive of intervention in Syria. He has been cynical of the UK’s support for Syrian rebels, arguing that this has done nothing but facilitate the rise of terrorism, prolong the conflict and the mass displacement of people. While his opinions in this regard do demonstrate some genuine insight, it is a shame that this hasn’t informed his overall attitude towards Middle Eastern foreign policy.

Boris Johnson – with his notorious penchant for buffoonery – has shown himself to be largely ineffectual during his time as Foreign Secretary, with Britain’s voice gradually dwindling in the Gulf region. His sparse achievements were largely offset by his tasteless jokes – about dead bodies in Libya, for example – which could prove even more damaging if he were to be Prime Minister.

As we can assume Corbyn is here to stay, who else from the Conservative party might come forward as a potential successor to May, and what can we predict about their positions on the Middle East?

Rory Stewart (former Minister of State for International Development in Asia and the Middle East and Minister of State for Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) has shown great capability and lucidity when it comes to Middle Eastern affairs. He certainly has the experience; after leaving the Foreign Service where he served as the coalition Deputy-Governor of two provinces in Southern Iraq in 2003, he walked for 21 months across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, staying in 500 village houses on the journey. Even Stewart, however, has expressed concerning opinions about the ‘need’ to kill British volunteers fighting for ISIS without bringing them back for a proper trial.

Tobias Ellwood, on the other hand, who has also served as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East, Africa and Counter Terrorism, has voiced his support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, with little else to say regarding the indiscriminate bombing of Yemeni civilians.

Striking a balance between humanitarian, security and diplomatic concerns is always going to be difficult. Three particular areas of concern seem to be a lack of coherent understanding among politicians about the situation in the Middle East, and an unwillingness to recognise the plight of civilians. Another is the tendency to make knee-jerk responses when it comes to military intervention without following proper procedure – such as after the supposed chemical weapons attack in April.

As instability persists in the Middle East, it is more important than ever for Britain’s future Prime Minister to act with clarity and compassion to ensure diplomatic solutions that provide stability and peace for civilians. Some politicians certainly have more strengths than others, but on balance perhaps Jeremy Corbyn would prove most beneficial for the region with his emphasis on caution, and construction.

 

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.

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.

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.