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Russia’s ‘constitution’ for Syria (FULL TEXT AND ANALYSIS)

The ‘draft constitution’ Russia presented to the parties at the Astana conference is not a blueprint for Syria’s future and the Russians did not intend in that way. It was a diplomatic play to get the parties talking about other issues than the sterile issue of the future of President Assad, which has prevented process in all the negotiations up to now. In that it appears to have been successful.

Alexander Mercouris

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Since shortly after the Syrian peace talks began in the Kazakh capital Astana rumours have circulated that Russia proposed at the conference a ‘draft constitution’ for Syria.

Rumours about the contents of this ‘draft constitution’ have spread widely, with concern widely expressed that Russia might be seeking to impose its ideas on the Syrian people in quasi-colonial fashion, and that Russia is overreaching itself.

There have also been serious concerns that the ‘draft constitution’ threatens the integrity of the Syrian state by enforcing its federalisation and by granting autonomy to the Kurds, and that Syria’s traditional system of government with a strong executive President is being threatened, thereby making the country ungovernable and unable to meet external or internal threats.

In my opinion these concerns are wrong, though not groundless.  It is always an extraordinary step when one country produces the draft of what it calls a ‘constitution’ for another country, and it is certainly not something that should be encouraged.

Having said this, there were in my opinion valid – indeed obvious – reasons why the Russians acted as they did, and once these are understood and the document itself is explained, it becomes clear that the concerns which have been expressed about the ‘draft constitution’- though made in good faith – are in fact misplaced.

I would say that whilst this will take some explaining, I have no doubt the Russians have explained it all privately to the Syrian government which is why the Syrian government, and the Turks and the Iranians both of whom also oppose Syria’s federalisation, have been so quiet and relaxed about it.

In order to explain this properly, I will now provide a link to the complete text of this so-called ‘draft constitution’.  This is a lengthy document, and I should express my grateful thanks to Mariam Al-Hijab, Editor-in-Chief for Inside Syria Media Center, and to Sophia Mangal, for sending it to me.  Without their help this analysis would be impossible, though I should stress that it is entirely my own and I take sole responsibility for it.

The document – as any document which calls itself a ‘draft constitution’ must be – is very long.  However certain claims which have been made about this ‘draft constitution’ turn out even on a quick reading to be untrue.  For example, it has been claimed that it envisages turning Syria from a Presidential to a parliamentary republic, with the President losing most of his powers and limited to an essentially ceremonial role, and limited moreover to serving for just one term.  The actual text of the ‘draft constitution’ shows that this is all wrong.

The powers of the President are set out in Chapter 4 page 23.

Article 48 makes it clear that the President exercises executive power alongside the government.  Article 49(1) and (2) allow the President to stay in office for two consecutive terms each of 7 years, not just one.   There is no provision that prevents the same individual from standing for a third or more terms as President, provided the third term does not follow directly after the first two.

Article 55 confirms that the President is the guarantor of the constitution, and of Syria’s “independence, unity and territorial integrity”.  Article 57 gives the President the power to issue “decrees, edicts and instructions in accordance with the Constitution and the law”.  Article 60 confirms that the President is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces.  Article 60(1) authorises the President to issue “all the decisions necessary to exercise this authority”.  Article 60(2) makes it clear that it is the President who is tasked with responding to any threat to the state, though he or she is obligated to inform the upper house of the country’s parliament of whatever action he or she is taking.  Article 60(3) gives the President the power to declare a state of emergency, though only with the prior agreement of the upper house of the parliament or – if this cannot be obtained in the time available – with its agreement to be sought within one day.

Article 63(3) confirms that it is the President who “directs the general course of the Government’s activities”.  Article 64 confirms that it is the President who appoints the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s deputies, and Article 63(3) confirms that the President has the right to summon the members of the government to report on their activities, and that the President has the right to preside over meetings of the government.

In summary, though the President’s powers may be somewhat reduced by comparison with what they are now, the ‘draft constitution’ clearly envisages Syria remaining a Presidential republic, with the President normally serving for two consecutive terms of 7 years each (14 years in total), and remaining in command of the armed forces and in control of the government.  The President would still be the country’s leader, and it is doubtful whether in practical terms the position of the President would be significantly different from what it is now.

If rumours about what the ‘draft constitution’ does to the role of the President are wrong, what about the other more serious claims that have been made about it?  Does it in fact provide for Syria’s federalisation and for the grant of sweeping autonomy to the Kurds?

As has been pointed out by several people, the words “federal”, “federalisation” and “federation” appear nowhere in the document.  Article 1 says that that the names of the country are “the Syrian Republic” and/or “Syria”, with the two names being used interchangeably.  Article 1(2) says that “Syria relies on the unity of its nation and is a common and indivisible homeland for all its citizens”.  Article 9(1) says that “the territory of Syria is indivisible, inviolable and integral”.  Article 9(2) says that “the territory of Syria is inalienable”.

These provisions are more consistent with a unitary state, such as the one Syria is now, then with a federation or with a federal structure.  Certainly the right of secession of any constituent part of Syria is expressly ruled out.

The ‘draft constitution’ does however contain certain other provisions, which some see as pointing in a different direction.  What do they say?

The key provision is Article 15, which reads as follows

  1. Syria consists of constituent parts;
  2. The law states the number of constituent parts, their boundaries and status;
  3. The organization of local administration is based on applying the principle of decentralization of authorities and responsibilities.  The law states that the relationship between these units and the central authority, their mandate, financial revenues and control over their work.  It also states the way such authorities are appointed or elected;
  4. The law shall the status of the Kurdish Cultural Autonomy.

Alongside Article 15, certain other provisions need to be considered.  Specifically there are some particular provisions concerning language in Article 4 which pertain to this question.  Article 4 reads as follows

  1. The official language of the state is Arabic.  The law shall regulate how the official language is used;
  2. Government agencies and organizations of the Kurdish cultural autonomy shall use Arabic and Kurdish equally;
  3. Syrian citizens shall be guaranteed the right to educate their children in their native language in state educational institutions and in private educational institutions that meet the educational standard;
  4. Each region shall have the right to use another majority language in addition to the official language as is regulated by the law, if such use was approved by a locally held referendum.

One big change the ‘draft constitution’ introduces to Syria’s existing arrangements is that it replaces Syria’s existing directly elected unicameral parliament with a bicameral one.  This is relevant to the question of Syria’s “federalisation” because of the way the new upper house of this bicameral parliament – referred to in the ‘draft constitution’ as the “Constituent Assembly” – is set up.  The relevant provision is Article 40

  1. The Constituent Assembly shall be formed to ensure participation of representatives of the constituent parts in legislative activities and administration of the state;
  2. The Constituent Assembly consists of representatives of the constituent parts;
  3. The law shall specify how members of the Constituent Assembly are delegated, their number, status and term of service.

Article 44 sets out the powers of the Constituent Assembly.  Mostly these mirror those of the lower house (the People’s Assembly) but in addition the Constituent Assembly possesses the following further powers: “resolving issues of war and peace” (Article 44(1)(3), “terminating the mandate of the President of the Republic” (Article 44(1)(4)), and “approval of the President’s decision to declare the state of emergency or mobilization” (Article 44(1)(5).  The power to “terminate the mandate of the President” in Article 44(1)(4) requires an impeachment process initiated by the lower house and involving the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court, the details of which are set out in Article 61.

These are extraordinarily vague provisions.  It is not clear for example whether the “Kurdish cultural autonomy” mentioned in Articles 4(2) and 15(4) is a political entity, or whether it is simply a provision granting Syria’s Kurdish people certain cultural and linguistic rights.

The number, boundaries and powers of the so called “constituent parts” and their relationship to the central government are left unresolved, to be decided by another law (passed by whom?).  Amazingly, the ‘draft constitution’ leaves unresolved even the basic question of whether the governing bodies of the “constituent parts” are to be elected by the local people, or are to be “appointed” (by whom?), whilst it seems members of the Constituent Assembly will not be elected but will be “delegated” (again by whom?), which will inevitably reduce their status and power.

Of course not all constitutions define or discuss the parts that make up a federation.  That of the US for example does not.  However in such cases the federal parts that make up the union usually already exist or are in the process of formation before the new constitution comes into effect.  That is far from being so in the Syrian case.

Such vague provisions are scarcely a programme for Syria’s federalisation, and – as I have said – some of the other provisions appear to envisage Syria remaining a unitary state, albeit one which may be somewhat more decentralised than it is now, though again the decentralisation provision is so vague as to be almost meaningless.

Such vagueness in such key provisions on such contentious subjects points to the real purpose of the ‘draft constitution’.  It is not a blueprint for Syria’s future.  It is a tool in a diplomatic play.

The ‘draft constitution’ was circulated to the Syrian parties at the peace conference in Astana. Russia’s objective at the peace conference was to consolidate the shaky ceasefire which is in force in some parts of Syria, to get the Syrian opposition groups which are attending the conference to accept Russia as an honest broker, and to get the Syrian parties talking about a possible settlement that will hopefully bring peace to Syria.

In order to have any hope of achieving these things the Russians need to get the Syrian opposition groups talking about issues which go beyond the sterile subject of the future of President Assad.  This is vital because it is this issue which has stymied all attempts to secure an agreement up to now.  The ‘draft constitution’ was the Russians’ tool to do this.

Everything about the ‘draft constitution’ suggests that it is a hurriedly cobbled together document probably farmed out to a postgraduate student at some institute.  Most of it consists of cliches, whilst some sections – for examples the ones concerning the Constituent Assembly – seem to be based, though in a very sketchy way, on Russia’s own constitution.  That the ‘draft constitution’ is so vague on so many of the most crucial issues however shows that it is not intended seriously as a true constitutional document, or even as a subject of discussion or a position paper.

Once the ‘draft constitution’ is understood in the way it is intended – as a diplomatic play – it becomes clear that none of this matters, and the true purpose of its provisions becomes clear.  Precisely because it is not a genuine constitutional document or even a position paper, it is able to offer something to everyone whilst fully satisfying no-one.

The Kurds are given references to their language and their ethnicity, promises of some sort of vague ‘autonomy’, and a provision that some officials of the central government will be picked according to ethnic quotas, which would include them.  Also the world “Arab” is removed from the country’s name.

The secular Ba’athists are given a strong directly elected executive President and a promise of what looks like a unitary state.  The ‘draft constitution’ is also determinedly secular, and importantly it safeguards women’s rights.

The preamble reassures the Arab nationalists by referring to the Arab League and confirming that the official language will be Arabic, whilst the Islamists are offered a reference to the Charter of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

There are vague suggestions of decentralisation such as might give hope to some Sunnis in some of Syria’s provinces, with nothing however so concrete that the Baathists or the Arab nationalists might balk at it.

Needless to say none of these people – the Kurds, the Ba’athists, the Arab nationalists or the Sunni fundamentalists – would consider this ‘draft constitution’ remotely acceptable, and all of them have rejected it, as the Russians of course knew they would.  The point is that by presenting it to them the Russians have got them all talking about something other than the future of President Assad, whilst highlighting areas for future discussion, and leaving open the possibility of a future invitation to Astana to the Kurds, who are currently being prevented from going there by the Syrians and the Turks.

Early indications are that the play was successful.  It seems that the Jihadi groups who came to Astana have warmed to Russia, accepting that the Russians are indeed prepared to act as honest brokers and not simply steamroller over them on behalf of President Assad.

The result was that there were no tantrums or walkouts, the peace process is continuing, and the parties are all talking, if not yet to each other.  The ‘draft constitution’ has given them topics they can all talk about other than the status of President Assad, and – since they all dislike it – even something they can all agree about.

If this all sounds clever, the answer is that of course it is.  However one should not overstate this.  Anyone who has been involved in mediation exercises knows that presenting a document like the ‘draft constitution’ is actually a standard diplomatic and mediation ploy to break the deadlock, get the parties to accept the bona fides of the mediator, and get the parties talking to the mediator if not yet to each other.

One of the great problems in international relations over the last several decades is that the country which has usually tried to fill the role of honest broker in international disputes – the US – is temperamentally unsuited to the role.  What the US invariably does in any dispute it becomes involved in (which is to say all of them) is pick sides, reduce everything to black and white, and demand that the side it has decided against accept in its entirety whatever proposal the US considers the appropriate outcome to the quarrel.  The result is that instead of peace there is usually war, with the settlement of disputes becoming incredibly protracted.

The Russians have a very different approach to diplomacy, one they have perfected over the centuries as a result of their long history as a great European and Eurasian power which – unlike the US – has had throughout its history to deal with other cultures and other countries on equal terms.  The ‘draft constitution’ is exactly the sort of play that might be expected from them, just as it is the sort of play that an earlier generation of diplomats – a Bismarck or a Gorchakov for example – in a like situation might have also used.

With the shift in what old Russians still sometimes call “the correlation of world forces” (which means more than just the balance of power) it is likely that Russian diplomacy will become more prominent in future.  If so then diplomatic plays of this sort will become more common, and we should try to understand them better.

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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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