Uncomfortable trio: West, Dictators and Terrorism

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“People talk about the Middle East as if there were only two options: dictatorship or terrorism. However, this is a false dichotomy, both are terrorist groups”.

(Dr Maha Azzam)

This concluding remark by Dr Azzam last night at “Al Qaeda and Beyond: where do Arab dictatorships fit” is a powerful key to interpreting developments in the Middle East. Experts on Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Iraq analysed the relationship between dictators and terrorism, posing the question “why is the West so obsessed with dictatorships?”

In a post Arab Spring world, voices from both Europe and the USA have been advocating a return to dictatorial government in the Middle East. Distant spectators observed democratic revolutions turning into violent uprisings, peaceful protests becoming armed resistance groups and once quiet areas becoming terrorist controlled regions. The focus quickly shifted back home, with many voices denouncing ISIS attacks and asking how all of this could have happened. It is this fear and shock that has lead many to advocate increased support for Assad and Saleh, questioning the possibility of a democratic future in the region.

The history of support for dictatorships by the West is a story as long as colonialism. Even at the time of the Pahlavi dynasty in Persia, Western powers strongly supported dictators throughout the Middle East. A single individual was easier to control than a democratically elected government and his ethnicity could easily be exploited to maintain the divide and rule strategy adopted in colonial times.

It is clear that the West has benefitted from their relationship with dictators since the end of formal colonialism. From the trade deals between Italy and Libya to the military support given to Mubarak by the US, dictators in the region have been strong partners and supporters of Western interests in the area. On the opposite side of the spectrum, whenever an unfriendly government took power, Western democracies resorted to terrorist groups to destabilize the country and re-obtain their control. A classic example was the Taliban in Afghanistan, armed and supported by the US in its quest for a pipeline from Central Asia.

We should not disregard however the use dictators themselves made of terrorist groups. As illustrated by Basher Al Assad releasing jihadist prisoners in the wake of the Syrian revolution, terrorist groups have been widely used by local powers to portray themselves as “the lesser of two evils”. More recently, Sisi has used the threat of ISIS to curb peaceful civil society groups and to justify the brutal actions of Egypt’s army in Sinai. This creates a vicious cycle in which opponents of the government, deprived of their freedom of speech and assembly, resort to armed revolts, justifying increased violence from the government.

Nowadays there are two terrorist movements in the Middle East: state terrorism and religious terrorism. Depending on the time and circumstance, the West has simply opted for one or the other, perpetrating breaches of human rights and the lack of democracy in the region.

By Martina Villa

Eid Mubarak!

Eid Mubarak to all our friends celebrating around the world!

 

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Italia e Libia, verso un nuovo equilibrio?

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Negli ultimi mesi si è parlato molto, e con poca chiarezza, di un possibile intervento militare contro l’IS in Libia. L’Italia, inizialmente immaginata dagli Stati Uniti a capo di una coalizione Occidentale, per lungo tempo non ha preso chiare posizioni su un futuro intervento.Le ultime notizie sembrano smentire un futuro ritorno in Libia da una possibile coalizione occidentale per ragioni politiche, di sicurezza, e tattiche. Al contrario si può notare una nuova attenzione da parte dell’occidente agli sviluppi sul lungo termine nella regione e alla necessità in Libia di maggiore stabilità politica.

Nel dicembre 2015 il Consiglio di Sicurezza aveva supportato la creazione di un nuovo governo Libico con sede a Tripoli. Ma, nonostante il sostegno a livello internazionale, l’amministrazione di Al Sarraj ha dovuto confrontarsi per il controllo del paese con i due governi rivali, a Tripoli e Tobruk, e, soprattutto, con le centinaia di milizie locali. L’Italia, durante le discussioni su un possibile intervento nei primi mesi del governo Al Sarraj, ha dato estrema importanza alla rischiosa frammentazione politica Libica. In un primo momento la condizione posta dall’Italia per un eventuale azione è stata la presenza di un governo di unità nazionale in Libia in grado di approvare, congiuntamente con il Consiglio di Sicurezza, l’eventuale intervento Italiano. Tali considerazioni sottolineano le lezioni imparate dai passati interventi in Medio Oriente e la voglia in Italia di seguire la legge internazionale, muovendosi con il supporto internazionale e locale.

Successivamente, la decisione di Al Sarraj a luglio di non chiedere il supporto di truppe estere contro l’IS indica nuove possibilità diplomatiche tra il Nord Africa e l’Occidente. L’IS non ha la capacità di impadronirsi di una zona estesa in Libia e, al momento, un intervento sarebbe precoce. Inoltre, a differenza di quanto precedentemente deciso ed attuato in Iraq e Siria, la consapevolezza che l’IS non possa essere sconfitto senza un forte e legittimo governo locale ha guidato le decisioni Italiane. L’interesse mostrato dall’Italia verso le scelte del governo locale è un importante precedente per le future scelte politiche e militari, in quanto si è posta attenzione alla ricostruzione e alle scelte del governo, presupposto per la creazione di una stabilità interna.

Iraq debate differentiates between legality and morality

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Under article 2(4) of the UN Charter, states have to refrain from the use of force against other territorial states unless one of three qualifications has been met. In the case of state consent, self defense or approval by the UN Security Council, forceful actions can be taken legally by states. The recently published Chilcot report cast new light on the legality of the UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, allowing for new debate on the contraposition between the morality and the legality of forceful interventions.

Since the NATO intervention in Kosovo, international lawyers have had to deal with a new question: can an intervention be illegal but justified? In the case of Iraq, the UNSC resolution 1441 did not automatically allow the use of force. The intervention was justified on the basis of a report on the existence and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which had been previously banned through UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq. However, the Chilcot report highlighted how the majority of the Security Council was “not persuaded that the inspection process had reached the end of the road”. Additionally, it reported clearly that intelligence had not been established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein continued to produce chemical and biological weapons or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons persisted.

The Chilcot inquiry stated that the “choice to intervene was made before exploring peaceful option, and military action was not of last resort”. Overall, it is clear that according to the UN Charter, the British intervention in Iraq was illegal, but was it morally justified? Such question cannot be answered simply in legal terms, but involves broader consideration of policy and decision making. Despite this, too much focus is usually posed on the “crisis idea”, concentrating on the moment when intervention is necessary rather than the run up to it. Different decisions could have been made before 2003 by the international community to peacefully resolve the situation in Iraq. The current pattern of humanitarian intervention by external powers is configuring more and more to a strategy of regime change. This brings back questions of imperialism and neocolonialism which fuel unilateral action by Western powers.

Beginning an invasion based on mistaken information and with no post-invasion plan, the UK initiated a conflict whose effects are still strongly perceived in the region. Unilateral action of this type not only threatens the authority and stability of the Security Council, but it also opens the door to a world in which the West has the ultimate decision on the legitimacy of foreign regimes and governments. While, as the Chilcot inquiry underlined, only an international tribunal will be in the position to fully assess the legality of the Iraq war, its analysis brings back old ghosts and future fears.