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Collapse in Iraqi Kurdistan: US’s Plan C fails before it begins

US ploy to use Kurds to increase regional influence and stem rise of Iran disintegrates

Alexander Mercouris

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On 6th October 2017 – less than two weeks ago – I wrote a lengthy article for The Duran explaining how the US, having failed to achieve regime change in Syria (“Plan A”) and having failed to engineer the partition of Syria on sectarian lines (“Plan B”), was now seeking to use the Kurds to destabilise both Iraq and Syria by supporting the setting up of quasi-independent Kurdish statelets in these two countries, in order to stem the rise of Iranian influence there.

In that article I predicted that this Plan C would fail, just as Plans A and B have done, and that its effects would be to alienate Turkey further from the US, bring Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq closer together, and would isolate the Kurds in a region where they were already in danger of becoming over-extended.

What I did not imagine when I wrote that article was that it would take all of two weeks for Plan C to start to fail.  This was because I seriously overestimated the strength and coherence of the Kurds, especially those of Iraq, whose Peshmerga militia it is now clear was grossly overrated, not just by me but by many other observers of the region.

Iraq’s effortless recovery of Kirkuk, and the rapid collapse of Peshmerga resistance in the surrounding areas of the city came to me – as I suspect it did to many others – and as it certainly did to the US and to the Kurds themselves, as a total surprise.

I suspect the main reasons for this collapse are threefold:

(1) The Peshmerga does not appear to be the formidable and disciplined force it once was or was reputed to be.

In saying this some qualification is needed since the Peshmerga has never really been tested in a serious way ever since Saddam Hussein’s defeat in 1991, and it consistently failed when pitted against his army both before and after that defeat.

However it did appear following the collapse of the Iraqi state following the 2003 US invasion that the Peshmerga was the only coherent ‘Iraqi’ force left in the country, and the fact that in 2014 ISIS appeared to make little headway against it, whereas whenever the US trained Iraqi army fought ISIS it immediately collapsed, reinforced that impression.

Possibly the long years of apparent peace in Iraqi Kurdistan made the Peshmerga complacent, and perhaps its internal cohesion has been undermined by the notorious corruption of the Barzani regime it answers to; or perhaps the Peshmerga was never as strong as it seemed, and the impression of strength it gave was simply a mis-impression caused by the earlier weakness of all other Iraqi players.

Regardless, the contrast between the abject rout of the Peshmerga units in Kirkuk and in the surrounding region which has taken place over the last few days, and the fanatical resistance put up over many months by ISIS in Mosul speaks for itself.

(2) The Iraqi army has been transformed, and is a far more determined and effective force than it was just three years ago.

As to that, the Iraqi army’s victory in the face of fanatical resistance against ISIS in Mosul, and its effortless victory against the Peshmerga in Kirkuk and the regions surrounding it, speak for themselves.

I will here express the view that the reason for this sudden dramatic improvement in the combat capability of the Iraqi army is not the flood of US weapons and training it has received since its ignominious collapse before ISIS in 2014.  After all the US has been trying to rebuild the Iraqi army in its own image continuously ever since it invaded Iraq in 2003, with no indication prior to 2014 that it was achieving any success.

Rather I suspect that the reason for the Iraqi army’s transformation since 2014 is the less visible but far more effective help it has had since 2014 from Iran.

The result is that though the Iraqi army still uses US weapons, it acts in battle with a determination and discipline it never showed before.

(3) The failure of the US to support the Peshmerga.

I suspect that this is the single most important reason for the Peshmerga’s sudden collapse.

As I wrote in my article of 6th October 2017, I think it is most unlikely Masoud Barzani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s ‘President’, would have dared to hold the independence referendum that he called without receiving at least an amber light from Washington.

That probably made him and the Peshmerga leadership think that the US would step in to save them if Iraq reacted in a way that put them in jeopardy.  This presumably explains why they seem to have failed to prepare even in the most basic way for the Iraqi army attack, which Baghdad publicly warned them was coming.

In the event when the Iraqi attack came the US did nothing, and in its absence Peshmerga resistance disintegrated.

This touches on a point I made previously in my article of 6th October 2017.  Though there is no doubt of the support of many US officials in Washington for Plan C, it has never been fully discussed and agreed within the US government and there is no consensus behind it, so that it is doubtful that President Trump even knows about it, whilst Secretary of State Tillerson – who almost certainly does know about it – is openly hostile to it.

The result was that when the Iraqi army marched on Kirkuk there was no agreement within the US government about what it should do about it, and in the absence of any such agreement the US did nothing.

The result was that without US help and with most of the local population opposing its presence and supporting the return of the Iraqi army the Peshmerga simply melted away.

There were almost certainly other factors behind the Peshmerga’s collapse.

There has for example been much discussion – especially amongst the Kurds – about divisions between the Kurds themselves being the cause of the collapse.  Amidst the angry recriminations there has inevitably also been some talk of betrayal.  I am not sufficiently familiar with internal Kurdish politics to comment about this.

Another factor to which however I give far more credence concerns the role of Iran.

Whilst the last two years have shown that the Russians are the masters of military strategy and technology in this region, it is the Iranians with their exceptional knowledge of the region who are through their various intelligence and security agencies the region’s undisputed masters of covert activity.

To be clear this is an essential tool of statecraft, particularly in this region, and the fact that the Russians and the Iranians have over the last two years been working together with their differing but complimentary skill-sets is the reason why they have so successfully swept all before them.

The nature of covert ‘cloak-and-dagger’ activity is that it is largely invisible, but inevitably there are already reports circulating that Iran’s General Soleimani,- the commander of the IRGC’s Quds’ Force and the reputed mastermind behind all this activity – has been seen in the region, doing whatever it is people like him do.

Whatever General Soleimani and the Iranians have been up to, it is a virtual certainty that they were acting in concert with the Turks, who as I discussed in my article of 6th October 2017 were also incensed – and with good reason – by Barzani’s independence referendum, and who would therefore have been more than willing to help the Iranians and the Iraqis cut Barzani and the Iraqi Kurds down to size.

The Turks have considerable influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is dependent on Turkey economically, and they no doubt backed whatever threats and blandishments General Soleimaini may have made to Kurdish commanders and officials with threats and blandishments of their own.

Given that some of these Kurdish commanders and officials have financial interests that connect them to Turkey, threats and blandishments coming from Turkey might have weighed on them heavily.  Regardless they will have been left in no doubt that in any confrontation between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army, the Iraqi army would have the backing of Turkey as well as of Iran.

Given that Iran and Turkey are by many orders of magnitude the two strongest powers in this region, any Kurdish commanders or officials hearing that would have known that in a contest with the Iraqi army the Peshmerga would not prevail.

However if Kurdish divisions and the undercover activities of General Soleimani and the Turks doubtless played their role in causing the Peshmerga collapse, the overriding reality is that the Peshmerga turned out to be much weaker than expected, the Iraqi army turned out to be much stronger than expected, and the US failed to take action to help the Kurds.

As to the last point, I would refer to a prediction I made in my article of 6th October 2017, which has been proved true far sooner than I ever expected

…….by positioning themselves as the allies or even the proxies of the US and Israel, the Kurds have upset the major regional powers – Iran, Syria, Iraq and Russia – whilst alarming Turkey, which is now threatening to impose an economic blockade on Iraqi Kurdistan.

If the Kurds are not careful they could find themselves isolated in the region, with all the major regional powers uniting against them.

Should that happen there is no guarantee that the US would ride to their rescue.  On the contrary the recent experience of the Middle East suggests that relying on the US to do so would be a serious mistake.

(bold italics added)

What are the implications of these latest events and of the Iraqi recapture of Kirkuk?

Firstly, the Kurdish position in Iraq has been very significantly weakened, though it has not collapsed completely, whilst the position of the Iraqi government in Baghdad has been very considerably strengthened.

The Iraqi army has driven the Kurds out of Kirkuk, a city where Kurds are a minority, and out of various areas of predominantly Arab population.

The Iraqi army has not however challenged the Kurds within the own established territory where they are the majority.  It is unlikely that it has any plan to do so, and were it to do so it might find Peshmerga resistance to be much tougher in defence of ethnic Kurdish territory than it was in Kirkuk.

However loss of Kirkuk and the oil rich region around it deprives Iraqi Kurdistan and the Barzani regime of a key source of revenue. This has decisive implications for the “independent Kurdistan” project.  With Kirkuk and its oil an independent Kurdistan cut out of Iraq’s northern regions looked economically viable (there was even some wild talk of it becoming a Kurdish Dubai).  Without Kirkuk and its oil it no longer does.

What that means is that though the Kurds remain a potentially important force within Iraq, the idea of an independent Kurdistan separated from Iraq is no longer practical, with the balance of power within Iraq having shifted decisively in favour of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Though it may take some time for the Kurds in Iraq to accept this – and in the case of some of them they may never do so – over time, urged on by Iran, Turkey and Russia, most of them probably will accept it.

That points to an eventual rapprochement between the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, one which possibly gives the Kurds a measure of autonomy but which nonetheless keeps Iraq intact within its current internationally recognised borders.

That makes the consolidation and stabilisation of the Iraqi state within its internationally recognised borders a much more likely prospect than appeared to be the case just a year ago.

Moreover this will be an Iraq aligned with Iran and anchored in a regional system consisting of Iran, Iraq and Syria, and probably in time Turkey also, rather than an Iraq aligned with the Saudis and the Sunni states of the Gulf, as was the case with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Secondly, the loss of Kirkuk puts in jeopardy the Syrian part of the US’s Plan C.

The supplies the US has being sending to the Kurds in Syria – including the vast arms supplies I discussed in my article of 6th October 2017 – have been going to the Kurds in Syria via Iraqi Kurdistan, with most of the supplies flown by the US to the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil and transported by road from there to Syria across Iraq.

With ISIS on the brink of defeat and with Iraq now in possession of Kirkuk, US leverage on Iraq has significantly weakened.

With Iraq now even more closely aligned with Iran and Syria than before, the extent to which Iraq will continue to tolerate this traffic across its border from Iraqi Kurdistan to Syrian Kurdistan must be open to doubt.

Whilst there is an alternative route via Turkey – one which the US has used – the Turks are likely to draw a line at large-scale arms supplies to the YPG – the leftist Kurdish militia which leads the Kurds in Syria – which they brand an anti-Turkish terrorist organisation.

Whilst it would be an exaggeration to say that the Kurds in Syria are totally cut off from all supply by the US, the extent and sustainability of that supply is now in doubt.

More to the point, the Kurds both in Iraq and Syria have now been provided with a lesson about the limits of US support for them.

If Barzani and the Peshmerga leadership in Iraq did gamble on US support when they called their referendum, then that gamble has obviously failed.

Both the Kurds and the US have in fact overestimated each other.  The Kurds in Iraq and Syria made their calculations based on assumptions of US support for them if the Iraqis or the Syrians attacked them.  The US made its calculations based on assumptions that the Kurds would be able to defend themselves and would not need US support if attacked.

Both assumptions have turned out to be wrong.

The Kurds in Syria – politically more sophisticated than those in Iraq, and facing potentially even more powerful and dangerous adversaries – seem to be learning the lesson.

Even before the debacle of Kirkuk there were reports that some Kurdish leaders in Syria were becoming concerned that the Kurds in Syria were getting too close to the US, and were becoming over-dependent on the US.

The US’s failure to come to the rescue of the Kurds in Iraq in Kirkuk will have reinforced those concerns.

Unsurprisingly it seems the Syrian Kurds are now trying to hedge their bets, turning increasingly to the other Great Power  – Russia – for help to get them out of their current predicament.  Some reports say that one of their top officials – Sima Hamo, the commander of the Kurdish led ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ – visited Moscow last weekend for talks with Russian leaders.

If the Kurds in Syria really are turning to Moscow for help then it is the clearest possible sign that they realise the extent of their own overreach and that the project of an independence Kurdistan separated from northern Syria is unsustainable.  The Russians are far too committed to President Assad’s government in Damascus ever to agree to it, and the Kurds know it.

The Russians have however in the past shown sympathy to Kurdish aspirations, and they have recently floated ideas about some form of autonomy for the Kurds in Syria.

Possibly it is these ideas that the Syrian Kurds are now looking to build upon.  If so then the Russians will make it clear to them that a precondition for doing so is negotiations in good faith between the Kurds and the Syrian government in Damascus.

Needless to say should such negotiations for a general settlement of the Kurdish question in Syria ever take place – possibly within the framework of the Astana talks – then the US’s Plan C for Syria will have unequivocally failed, before it has properly speaking even begun.

Already there are signs of recriminations in the West over this latest Middle East debacle.

In Britain the Daily Telegraph – a reliable voice for the neocon regime change lobby in the US and Britain – is already complaining bitterly about the ‘betrayal’ of the Kurds.

More harsh words were said on this same subject in a Press TV television debate which I attended by a US journalist who is a strong supporter of the Trump administration.  Significantly it was Iran that he blamed for this turn of events, even though it was the Iraqi army – nominally still allied to the US – not Iran, which drove the Kurds out of Kirkuk.

In truth what the rapid unravelling of Plan C shows is the rapid decline of US power in this region.

Whereas once the US was this region’s undisputed master, now every step the US takes – whether it be its attempt to use the Kurds to destabilise Syria and Iraq so as to stem the rise of Iranian influence there, or its reneging on its nuclear agreement with Iran – seems only to alienate the region further from the US, and to accelerate the decline of US influence there.

Suffice to say that Iran – the US’s prime bugbear in this region – now has good relations with Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan, as well as with the Central Asian states.  By contrast the US is on bad terms with all of them.

The region is being reshaped in spite of the US and contrary to its wishes, and there seems to be increasingly little it can do about it.

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Major Syrian Army Assault On Southeast Idlib As Sochi Deal Unravels

Though the Syrian war has grown cold in terms of international spotlight and media interest since September, it is likely again going to ramp up dramatically over the next few months. 

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Via Zerohedge


The Syrian Army unleashed a major assault across the southeastern part of Idlib province on Saturday, a military source told Middle East news site Al-Masdar in a breaking report. According to the source, government forces pounded jihadist defenses across the southeast Idlib axis with a plethora of artillery shells and surface-to-surface missiles.

This latest exchange between the Syrian military and jihadist rebels comes as the Sochi Agreement falls apart in northwestern Syria, and in response to a Friday attack by jihadists which killed 22 Syrian soldiers near a planned buffer zone around the country’s last major anti-Assad and al-Qaeda held region. The jihadist strikes resulted in the highest number of casualties for the army since the Sochi Agreement was established on September 17th.

Though the Syrian war has grown cold in terms of international spotlight and media interest since September, it is likely again going to ramp up dramatically over the next few months.

The Al-Masdar source said the primary targets for the Syrian Army were the trenches and military posts for Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in the towns of Al-Taman’ah, Khuwayn, Babulin, Haish, Jarjanaz, Um Jalal, and Mashirfah Shmaliyah. In retaliation for the Syrian Army assault, the jihadist rebels began shelling the government towns of Ma’an, Um Hariteen, and ‘Atshan.

Damascus has been critical of the Sochi deal from the start as it’s criticized Turkey’s role in the Russian-brokered ceasefire plan, especially as a proposed ‘de-militarized’ zone has failed due to jihadist insurgents still holding around 70% of the planned buffer area which they were supposed to withdraw from by mid-October. Sporadic clashes have rocked the “buffer zone” since.

Russia itself recently acknowledged the on the ground failure of the Sochi agreement even as parties officially cling to it. During a Thursday press briefing by Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova admitted the following:

We have to state that the real disengagement in Idlib has not been achieved despite Turkey’s continuing efforts to live up to its commitments under the Russian-Turkish Memorandum of September 17.

This followed Russia also recently condemning  “sporadic clashes” and “provocations” by the jihadist group HTS (the main al-Qaeda presence) in Idlib.

Likely due to Moscow seeing the writing on the wall that all-out fighting and a full assault by government forces on Idlib will soon resume, Russian naval forces continued a show of force in the Mediterranean this week.

Russian military and naval officials announced Friday that its warships held extensive anti-submarine warfare drills in the Mediterranean. Specifically the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s frigates Admiral Makarov and Admiral Essen conducted the exercise in tandem with deck-based helicopters near Syrian coastal waters.

Notably, according to TASS, the warships central to the drill are “armed with eight launchers of Kalibr-NK cruise missiles that are capable of striking surface, coastal and underwater targets at a distance of up to 2,600 km.”

Since September when what was gearing up to be a major Syrian-Russian assault on Idlib was called off through the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement, possibly in avoidance of the stated threat that American forces would intervene in defense of the al-Qaeda insurgent held province (also claiming to have intelligence of an impending government “chemical attack”), the war has largely taken a back-burner in the media and public consciousness.

But as sporadic fighting between jihadists and Syrian government forces is reignited and fast turning into major offensive operations by government forces, the war could once again be thrust back into the media spotlight as ground zero for a great power confrontation between Moscow and Washington.

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Trump Quietly Orders Elimination of Assange

The destruction of Assange has clearly been arranged for, at the highest levels of the U.S. Government, just as the destruction of Jamal Khashoggi was by Saudi Arabia’s Government.

Eric Zuesse

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On June 28th, the Washington Examiner headlined “Pence pressed Ecuadorian president on country’s protection of Julian Assange” and reported that “Vice President Mike Pence discussed the asylum status of Julian Assange during a meeting with Ecuador’s leader on Thursday, following pressure from Senate Democrats who have voiced concerns over the country’s protection of the WikiLeaks founder.” Pence had been given this assignment by U.S. President Donald Trump. The following day, the Examiner bannered “Mike Pence raises Julian Assange case with Ecuadorean president, White House confirms” and reported that the White House had told the newspaper, “They agreed to remain in close coordination on potential next steps going forward.”

On August 24th, a court-filing by Kellen S. Dwyer, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Alexandria Division of the Eastern District of Virginia, stated: “Due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure [than sealing the case, hiding it from the public] is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged. … This motion and the proposed order would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter.” That filing was discovered by Seamus Hughes, a terrorism expert at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. On November 15th, he posted an excerpt of it on Twitter, just hours after the Wall Street Journal had reported on the same day that the Justice Department was preparing to prosecute Assange. However, now that we know “the fact that Assange has been charged” and that the U.S. Government is simply waiting “until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter,” it is clear and public that the arrangements which were secretly made between Trump’s agent Pence and the current President of Ecuador are expected to deliver Assange into U.S. custody for criminal prosecution, if Assange doesn’t die at the Ecuadorean Embassy first.

On November 3rd (which, of course, preceded the disclosures on November 15th), Julian Assange’s mother, Christine Ann Hawkins, described in detail what has happened to her son since the time of Pence’s meeting with Ecuador’s President. She said:

He is, right now, alone, sick, in pain, silenced in solitary confinement, cut off from all contact, and being tortured in the heart of London. … He has been detained nearly eight years, without trial, without charge. For the past six years, the UK Government has refused his requests to exit for basic health needs, … [even for] vitamin D. … As a result, his health has seriously deteriorated. … A slow and cruel assassination is taking place before our very eyes. … They will stop at nothing. … When U.S. Vice President Mike Pence recently visited Ecuador, a deal was done to hand Julian over to the U.S. He said that because the political cost of expelling Julian from the Embassy was too high, the plan was to break him down mentally…   to such a point that he will break and be forced to leave. … The extradition warrant is held in secret, four prosecutors but no defense, and no judge, … without a prima-facie case. [Under the U.S. system, the result nonetheless can be] indefinite detention without trial. Julian could be held in Guantanamo Bay and tortured, sentenced to 45 years in a maximum security prison, or face the death penalty,” for “espionage,” in such secret proceedings.

Her phrase, “because the political cost of expelling Julian from the Embassy was too high” refers to the worry that this new President of Ecuador has, of his cooperating with the U.S. regime’s demands and thereby basically ceding sovereignty to those foreigners (the rulers of the U.S.), regarding the Ecuadorian citizen, Assange.

This conservative new President of Ecuador, who has replaced the progressive President who had granted Assange protection, is obviously doing all that he can to comply with U.S. President Trump and the U.S. Congress’s demand for Assange either to die soon inside the Embassy or else be transferred to the U.S. and basically just disappear, at Guantanamo or elsewhere. Ecuador’s President wants to do this in such a way that Ecuador’s voters won’t blame him for it, and that he’ll thus be able to be re-elected. This is the type of deal he apparently has reached with Trump’s agent, Pence. It’s all secret, but the evidence on this much of what was secretly agreed-to seems clear. There are likely other details of the agreement that cannot, as yet, be conclusively inferred from the subsequent events, but this much can.

Basically, Trump has arranged for Assange to be eliminated either by illness that’s imposed by his Ecuadorean agent, or else by Assange’s own suicide resulting from that “torture,” or else by America’s own criminal-justice system. If this elimination happens inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, then that would be optimal for America’s President and Congress; but, if it instead happens on U.S. soil, then that would be optimal for Ecuador’s President. Apparently, America’s President thinks that his subjects, the American people, will become sufficiently hostile toward Assange so that even if Assange disappears or is executed inside the United States, this President will be able to retain his supporters. Trump, of course, needs his supporters, but this is a gamble that he has now clearly taken. This much is clear, even though the rest of the secret agreement that was reached between Pence and Ecuador’s President is not.

Scooter Libby, who had arranged for the smearing of Valerie Plame who had tried to prevent the illegal and deceit-based 2003 invasion of Iraq, was sentenced to 30 months but never spent even a day in prison, and U.S. President Trump finally went so far as to grant him a complete pardon, on 13 April 2018. (The carefully researched docudrama “Fair Game” covered well the Plame-incident.) Libby had overseen the career-destruction of a courageous CIA agent, Plame, who had done the right thing and gotten fired for it; and Trump pardoned Libby, thus retroactively endorsing the lie-based invasion of Iraq in 2003. By contrast, Trump is determined to get Julian Assange killed or otherwise eliminated, and even Democrats in Congress are pushing for him to get that done. The new President of Ecuador is doing their bidding. Without pressure from the U.S. Government, Assange would already be a free man. Thus, either Assange will die (be murdered) soon inside the Embassy, or else he will disappear and be smeared in the press under U.S. control. And, of course, this is being done in such a way that no one will be prosecuted for the murder or false-imprisonment. Trump had promised to “clean the swamp,” but as soon as he was elected, he abandoned that pretense; and, as President, he has been bipartisan on that matter, to hide the crimes of the bipartisan U.S. Government, and he is remarkably similar in policy to his immediate predecessors, whom he had severely criticized while he was running for the Presidency.

In any event, the destruction of Assange has clearly been arranged for, at the highest levels of the U.S. Government, just as the destruction of Jamal Khashoggi was by Saudi Arabia’s Government; and, just like in Khashoggi’s case, the nation’s ruler controls the prosecutors and can therefore do whatever he chooses to do that the rest of the nation’s aristocracy consider to be acceptable.

The assault against truth isn’t only against Assange, but it is instead also closing down many of the best, most courageous, independent news sites, such as washingtonsblog. However, in Assange’s case, the penalty for having a firm commitment to truth has been especially excruciating and will almost certainly end in his premature death. This is simply the reality. Because of the system under which we live, a 100% commitment to truth is now a clear pathway to oblivion. Assange is experiencing this reality to the fullest. That’s what’s happening here.

—————

Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of  They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of  CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.

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Libya’s Peace Process Dies in Palermo

The best the Palermo negotiators could come up with at the end was a bland statement declaring their hope that sometime in the future all the Libyan forces will meet to sort out their differences.

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Authored by Richard Galustian for the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity:


“Resounding flop” was the verdict of Italy’s former prime minister Matteo Renzi on this week’s Libya peace conference held in Palermo. He’s not wrong. The conference hosted by Italy’s new government achieved the remarkable feat of making Libya’s tensions worse, not better. Acrimony broke out between the parties, and Turkey’s delegation walked out, its vice president Fuat Oktay accusing unnamed States of trying to “hijack the process.”

Some sources in Palermo suggested, yet to be verified, that the US thought the Conference was not too bad: a joke if true.

Moreover the mystery we might ask is what “process” is there to hijack? Because the truth is, the peace plan the conference was supporting is already dead.

That plan was the brainchild of the United Nations, launched more than a year ago with the aim of ending Libya’s split between warring Eastern and Western governments with elections in December.

Even before the first delegates set foot in the pleasant Sicilian city of Palermo this week, the UN admitted the election date of December 10 they had decided to scrap.

The eastern government, led by the parliament in Tobruk, had made moves in the summer to organize a referendum on a new constitution which would govern the elections. But no referendum was held, and most Libyans agree it would be pointless because Tripoli, home to a third of the country’s population, is under the iron grip of multiple warring militias who have the firepower to defy any new elected government. Hours after the delegates left Palermo, those militias began a new bout of fighting in the Tripoli suburbs.

The best the Palermo negotiators could come up with at the end of the talks was a bland statement declaring their hope that sometime in the future all the Libyan forces will meet in a grand conference to sort out their differences – and this after four years of civil war. To say that chances of this are slim is an understatement.

Dominating the Palermo talks, and indeed Libya’s political landscape, was and is Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army, the country’s most powerful formation. In four years, the LNA has secured Libya’s key oil fields and Benghazi, its second city, ridding most of the east Libya of Islamist militias.

Haftar met reluctantly negotiators in Palermo, but insisted he was not part of the talks process. The Italian government press office said Haftar was not having dinner with the other participants nor joining them for talks. Haftar specifically opposed the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood champion, Qatar, at the event along with Turkey.

Haftar clearly only attended because he had a few days before visiting Moscow – which sent to Sicily Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev – and because also of Egyptian President Sisi’s presence along with his allies.

Possibly Haftar was simply fed up. Twice in the past two years he has attended previous peace talks, hosted each time in Paris, giving the nod to declarations that Libya’s militias would dissolve. Yet the militias remain as strong as ever in Tripoli.

Haftar is detested by the militias and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) but supported by a large segment of the population – 68 percent, according to an opinion poll by America’s USAID. His popularity is based on a single policy – his demand that security be in the hands of regular police and military, not the militias.

Not everyone is happy, certainly not Turkey, which is backing Islamist, MB and Misratan forces in western Libya who detest Haftar. Yet Turkey’s greatest statesman, the great Kamal Ataturk, was a champion of secularism: After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War One Turkey faced the prospect of utter disintegration, and it was Attaturk who rose to the challenge, defending the country’s borders, while ordering that the mullahs, while responsible for spiritual welfare, have no political power.

Political Islam is not popular in Libya either. Libya is a Muslim country, its people know their faith, and most want government to be decided through the ballot box.

The problem for Libya is what happens next with the peace process broken. Haftar has in the past threatened to move on Tripoli and rid the militias by force if they refuse to dissolve, and it may come to that – a fierce escalation of the civil war.

The second possibility is that Libya will split. The east is, thanks to the LNA, militarily secure. It also controls two thirds of the country’s oil and operates as a separate entity, down to it banknotes, which are printed in Russia while the Tripoli government’s are printed in Britain. A formal split would be an economic boon for the lightly populated east, but a disaster for Tripolitania, its population losing most of the oil, its only source of export income.

Yet with the failure of peace talks, and no sign of Tripoli militias dissolving, military escalation or breakup seem more likely than ever.

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