Regional Security

The Status Quo of the Libya Conflict: Is the Berlin Process Obsolete?

On May 5, the EastWest Institute (EWI) and the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) hosted their third “Brussels MENA Briefing,” a series of after-work briefings on the MENA region, on the state of affairs of the ongoing Libyan Civil War.

Speakers included Anas El Gomati, founder and director of the Sadeq Institute, and Kristina Kausch, senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. CARPO’s CEO Adnan Tabatabai served as moderator.

During the briefing, participants addressed the question of whether the Berlin Conference on Libya—initiated in the German capital in January of 2020 and resulting in a UN arms-embargo—has become obsolete, considering the continuation of the conflict in recent months. At the moment, Libya is divided into two political factions: the Government of National Accord (GNA), under Prime Minister Fayes Al-Sarraj, and opposition forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The UN-backed GNA was installed in 2016 as an interim, unity government meant to persuade Libyans to vote in free elections.

To begin to answer this central question, discussants raised the pivotal events of April 2019, when General Haftar launched an attack on Tripoli with the implicit backing of powerful international players, among them the U.S. and France. General Haftar's actions were not internationally condemned, giving his approach a sense of immunity and the incentive to continue the military campaign around Tripoli.

The EU, paralyzed by differences in stance towards Libya between its member states Italy and France, did little in the wake of General Haftar’s assault. While Italy supports the UN’s efforts in stabilizing Libya and has invested in the diplomatic processes, France provides military and diplomatic support to General Haftar. One participant raised the belief that France is responsible for having held the EU back from condemning General Haftar’s assaults.

Several speakers argued that France’s involvement in Libya has paved the way for more external interference and involvement. While General Haftar receives arms and personnel support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Russia, Prime Minister Al-Sarraj has been backed militarily by Turkey, reportedly in return for a maritime deal between the two parties that allows Turkey economic influence in the Mediterranean.

In the past year, the EU's influence has thus been dwindling. When Russia and Turkey initiated a ceasefire in January 2020 that resulted in failed negotiations, the EU realized the full extent of its sidelined position in the Libyan conflict.

Many players in the international community, especially its host country of Germany, regard the Berlin Conference on Libya as a successful attempt to bring the EU back into the loop. However, speakers at the briefing highlighted that the Berlin process is becoming increasingly obsolete for the following three key reasons:

  1. The conflict has intensified and the international players involved are not showing any signs of retreat. France is reluctant to give up its political capital and Turkey has an invested economic interest in Prime Minister Al-Sarraj’s leadership. At the same time, inviting General Haftar to the negotiation table has given the opposition a greater level of legitimacy and, as mentioned during the briefing, could even be perceived as bending to General Haftar’s will for more power. In this respect, the negotiations have given both parties an opportunity to transform violence into a means of pressure.
  2. The arms embargo reached at the Berlin Conference has not been implemented sufficiently. Germany, which initiated the process, does not have a seat in the UN Security Council, leaving it without any formal power to implement the embargo. France could make use of its seat but instead appears to be providing General Haftar with the diplomatic backing he needs.
  3. The COVID-19 virus has made planned follow-up meetings impossible, thus, the conference is losing its political momentum.

Considering these realities, a continuation of the EU's diplomatic policy is futile unless member states back it consistently, especially France.

The briefing concluded with a discussion focusing on the EU’s remaining options in Libya. One possibility would be for the EU to monitor a ceasefire, agreed on by other international actors, such as Russia and Turkey. Its Maritime Operation “Irini,” launched in April 2020, has already been set up to enforce the UN arms embargo and could be incorporated into such actions.

Another area where the EU could play a larger role is in supporting state-building and local governance, something the EU has tried to do in other conflict areas, such as Syria, but seems strikingly reluctant to do in Libya. Rather, its priority has consistently been countering migration from Libya into the EU, with the recent spread of COVID-19 from North Africa added to the list of its main security concerns. Many experts regard Germany as a prime model of the necessity for state actors to realize the importance of investing more political capital into Libya—but acknowledge the need for other nations to follow suit.

Throughout the briefing, speakers established that the most important condition for the EU to achieve any positive developments in Libya is to develop a clear policy, followed and backed by all EU members. Meanwhile, the plight of the Libyan people requires much more attention. Whatever future agreement may result from international efforts, the difficult question of reconciliation in Libya’s social fabric and resilience against violence and war after six years of conflict, must be brought to the table and included in future discussions.

About the Brussels MENA Briefings

The Brussels MENA Briefings are a bimonthly format of after-work in-depth roundtable discussions on topics of current significance in the MENA region that EWI and CARPO host in the EWI Brussels office in the first week of every second month. Please note that attendance is by invitation only. Should you be interested in being considered for the invitation list, kindly send an email to Desirée Custers mentioning your name, affiliation and geographical or thematic area of interest and expertise in the Middle East.

Dates for the upcoming Brussels MENA Briefings:

June 9, 2020: A New Government in Town: Iraq’s New Government and its Challenges Ahead

July 7, 2020: Prospects of the Transition Process in Sudan

September 8, 2020: (topic tbd)

Hassan Talks Al-Kadhimi Cabinet and ISIS "Resurgence" with Indus News

On May 7, EWI's Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa program Kawa Hassan participated in a panel interview with the Pakistani TV Station Indus News program Scope with Waqar Rizvi. The other panelist was Mohammed Hussein, policy director at the Iraqi Center for Policy Analysis & Research (ICPAR).

Click here to watch the interview. Hassan's comments begin at 17:09. Read a paraphrased summary of his remarks, below.

Finally, there is a new government in Iraq and that is good news. Whether Al-Kadhimi will be able to solve all the problems Iraq is facing is a big question mark. This is a provisional government—probably for one or two years. Al-Kadhimi said his aim is to prepare the ground for an early, free and fair election, ensure Iraq is not a theater for proxy wars between Iran and the U.S., that the Iraqi state has a monopoly of violence and that all militias will be under the control of the state. There is a good opportunity for Al-Kadhimi to achieve the last aim by gradually bringing militias under state authority, since there is consensus and support among the key Iraqi players. More importantly, Iraq’s lack of a strong state, which controls the means of violence, is one of the reasons for the nation’s current instability. It is a big question whether he [Al-Kadhimi] will succeed in bringing to justice those [officials, leaders] who were responsible for the killing of demonstrators and address the corruption of the ruling establishment.   

Recent ISIS attacks are alarming and worrying. The terrorist organization was weakened in 2018 and 2019, but now, it made a comeback [in rural areas] because of the fragile state of Iraqi institutions, the fragmentation of the political scene and the lack of a national plan for the resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and reconstruction of liberated areas. The fact that ISIS is “resurging” [in rural areas] means that the political establishment failed to learn lessons from the previous expansion of the terrorist organization [in 2014]. 

The problem of the corruption of the ruling elite is as strong and destructive as ever. Yes, there has been some progress in terms of the resettlement of the IDPs—so far, 4.6 million IDPs have been resettled. But there are still almost 1.4 million IDPs that remain. IDP camps are an excellent place for the expansion of the sectarian and destructive ideology of ISIS—in a way, these camps could be the ideal "university" for the "graduation" of [future] ISIS militants because of a lack of national consensus and strategy on how to reconstruct the liberated areas, lack of proper coordination between the different intelligence and security services responsible for preserving security in those areas and, more importantly, lack of a security structure trusted by the local population. 

There is a new dynamic [with respect to the proxy conflict between Iran and the U.S.]. At the moment, Iran is preoccupied with dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Iran is still trying to fill the void left by the killing of General Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Soleimani had enormous influence and relations with key political players across the board. At the same time, the U.S. administration is preoccupied with addressing the spread of coronavirus in the U.S.; also, you hear in certain conservative circles in Washington that there is an Iraq fatigue—that we have been helping Iraqis for the last seventeen years, but look at the situation today, where powerful pro-Iran groups [have gained influence]. As a result, there is a space for the new Iraqi government to take initiative and try to build balanced relations with these two powers—these two key players have two different strategic aims when it comes to Iraq and how they view security and stability in the country.

Collapsing oil prices have a destructive impact on Iraq's economy. It is worrying that there is less and less international interest in fighting ISIS and to help Iraq economically, partly, because of Iraq's structural problems and the corruption of the ruling elite that came to power in 2003. 

Post-Sultan Qaboos Oman: Transition Opportunities and Challenges

On April 8, the EastWest Institute (EWI) and the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) hosted the second “Brussels MENA Briefing,” a series of after-work briefings on the MENA region, this time focusing on Oman in the post-Sultan Qaboos era.

Invited speakers were Dr. Yousuf Hamed al Balushi, CEO of Smart Investment Gateway and Dr. Cinzia Bianco, Visiting Fellow on Europe and the Gulf at the European Council on Foreign Relations and Senior Analyst at Gulf States Analytics. The Briefing was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and moderated by Kawa Hassan, EWI’s Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa program.

Under the late Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id al-Sa’id, who ruled Oman for 49 years, the country maintained good relations with regional and international powers, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States and Israel. It has always been seen as a beacon of neutrality in a turbulent Middle East. It used its position of neutrality to mediate several conflicts in the Gulf region, among backchannel dialogues between the U.S. and Iran, which ultimately led to the historic nuclear deal (JCPOA), sealed by the EU/E3+3 and Iran.

Oman’s new Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, pledged to maintain peaceful relations with its neighbors and international powers. However, as our briefing highlighted, internal and external challenges, in addition to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current drop in oil prices, beg the question of how long Oman can retain its neutrality and remain resilient to the polarization and fragmentation of the region. In this respect, it was suggested that Oman can benefit greatly from Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to develop its technical and financial knowledge.

While Oman’s economy has significantly progressed in the past decades, reliance on oil revenues, the threat of the "Dutch Disease" and a dependence on imports for consumption have forced the country to reform its economy and explore alternative avenues of financial investment, such as developing the private sector by creating jobs in strategic sectors such as tourism and fisheries. The Oman Vision 2040 aims to diversify the economy away from overreliance on oil revenues by becoming an attractive and competitive destination for FDI.

It was argued by both speakers that the fact that the political succession from Sultan Qaboos to Sultan Haitham went smoothly indicates the resilience of the political system. At the same time, the financial vulnerability of the Sultanate has strongly increased. Oman’s discrete engagement in backchannel diplomacy stands unique in a region that does not possess regional conflict resolution mechanisms. The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA led to deep disappointment in Muscat. There was hope that an economically-strengthened Iran would become an important trade partner of the Sultanate. Instead, it took the blame for what the Trump administration and its regional allies called a “historic mistake.” It was highlighted during the briefing that Omani officials have started asking themselves what will be the cost of maintaining neutrality if they end up being torpedoed by other players. Oman’s geographical position furthermore exposes it to potential spill-overs from neighboring conflicts, such as the war in Yemen. This political and geographical context makes it increasingly challenging for Oman to remain neutral.

In light of the increasingly polarized regional environment, as well as the internal and external obstacles to reforms, the EU can play a crucial role in supporting Oman’s ongoing transformation in accordance to its Vision 2040. This would not only be in the interest of Oman, as was discussed, but equally beneficial for the EU, which has a vested, strategic interest in the stability of the Gulf region. It would help the EU and Oman support backchannel diplomacy to resolve regional conflicts, such as the conflict in Yemen, as well as to de-escalate regional tensions, in particular, in the strategic Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf. In this regard, it was suggested that the European-led maritime surveillance mission in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASoH) could be scaled up by exploring certain confidence building measures related to maritime security. It was highlighted, furthermore, that a strategic partnership between Oman and the EU—with the aim to support strategic sectors including tourism and fisheries—would contribute significantly to the financial resilience of Oman and bolster its role as a mediator in regional conflicts.

About the Brussels MENA Briefings

The Brussels MENA Briefings are a bimonthly format of after-work in-depth roundtable discussions on topics of current significance in the MENA region that EWI and CARPO host in the EWI Brussels office in the first week of every second month. Please note that attendance is by invitation only. Should you be interested in being considered for the invitation list, kindly send an email to Desirée Custers mentioning your name, affiliation and geographical or thematic area of interest and expertise in the Middle East.

Dates for the upcoming Brussels MENA Briefings:

May 5, 2020 (topic tbd)

July 7, 2020 (topic tbd)

September 8, 2020 (topic tbd)

Kawa Hassan Talks to EL MUNDO on How ISIS Benefits from Coronavirus Spread in Iraq

On April 11, EWI's Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa program Kawa Hassan gave an interview with EL MUNDO to discuss the resurgence of ISIS in Iraq, amid the global coronavirus outbreak.

Click here to read the interview on EL MUNDO (in Spanish). Click here to read a translation of Hassan's comments in Arabic.

Read an English tranlsation of Hassan's comments, below. 

Recent ISIS attacks against Iraqi security forces and civilians are worrying, yet, they haven't gained sufficient media and policy attention due to the preoccupation of the world with the spread of COVID-19.

In this regard, ISIS is benefiting from four factors. First, coronavirus has forced the government and security forces to focus on containing the spread of the virus. Second, lack of coordination and cooperation between federal security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga have created a security vacuum in the disputed territories—after the Kuridsh referendum in 2017, Iraqi security forces and the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) regained control of these territories and the Pehmerga were forced to withdraw to the Kurdistan region. Third, military attacks by paramilitaries against the U.S.-led international coalition have forced the coalition to scale down their support to the operations of Iraqi forces against ISIS. Fourth and final, due to the fear of being infected with coronavirus, the U.S.-led international coalition and NATO training mission suspended their operations [for two months).

Taken together, these developments have given ISIS a new lease of life. According to some Iraqi media, ISIS has changed its tactics. Now, they operate in small groups in the disputed territories, they conduct long term surveillance of Iraqi security forces and then wait for the right time to attack by taking advantage of bad weather and relaxing posture of Iraqi forces.

Algeria-Morocco Business Dialogue: The Agricultural and Food Manufacturing Sector

On January 20-21, 2020, the EastWest Institute (EWI) held its first meeting in Berlin as part of its new Algeria-Morocco Business Dialogue, an initiative aiming to address the impediments to greater cross-border trade.

By convening sector-specific meetings between local business people from both countries, the project aims to produce a concrete set of feasible recommendations to encourage greater bilateral trade. 

The inaugural January meeting brought together small to medium-sized business leaders from the agricultural sector to consider boosting greater trade on a micro level, as well as discuss the shortcomings and challenges of each countries’ agricultural and trade policy. 

Click here to read a French translation of this event report. 

Click here to read an Arabic translation of this event report.

Climate Change: Rethinking the Footprint of Military Operations and Destruction

On January 29, the EastWest Institute (EWI) hosted a roundtable discussion with Ali Borhani, managing director of 3Sixty Strategic Advisors, on “Climate Change: Rethinking the Footprint of Military Operations & Destruction: The Role, Weight and Responsibility of Conflicts and How to Prevent Them.” The discussion was moderated by EWI’s Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa program Kawa Hassan.

Borhani opened the discussion by pointing to a void in the debate on climate change where most attention centers on the carbon footprint of industries and much less is given to armed conflict. He explained the undeniable consequences of wars and the impact of foreign military interventions that result in the destruction of infrastructure, outlining the climate costs of mobilizing military assets and personnel overseas—the value chain of which includes the movement of manpower, millions of tons of hardware and equipment, food supplies and related services. The primary, secondary and tertiary carbon footprint of destruction is embedded throughout the demolition of infrastructure, industry and housing, cities and countries. Furthermore, the use of airspace above conflicted areas is radically constrained, increasing the use of jet fuel to bypass these geographies. Lastly, Borhani pointed to the carbon footprint of attending to and dealing with migration and refugee crises caused by conflict.  

Borhani believes it is necessary to make the whole value chain of this carbon footprint accountable by requiring actors to compensate for their effect on the climate. He suggests the need for a model that measures the carbon footprint which can then be translated into clear and tangible, preventive financial measures. If the carbon footprint is emphasized in the public eye, it is possible to minimize, mitigate and prevent future conflicts.

Although Borhani’s suggestion resonated with the audience, several participants posed challenges to the model, particularly the political will needed to institutionalize and implement such an accountability system, highlighting the paradigm shift that will be required for widespread adoption by the defense sector. Others pointed to the danger such a model could present to the legitimization of conflicts, either by militaries presenting their operations as "climate friendly," or simply by paying off their carbon emission. In response, Borhani acknowledged the necessity of having an entity not dissimilar to the World Trade Organization, perhaps a WEO (World Emissions Organization), which can monitor the carbon footprint of conflicts and military interventions and hold the responsible states and actors accountable.

Borhani affirmed that his proposal should be considered as an unconventional and innovative solution. He states that it is most important to ensure that the carbon footprint of military operations and the climate impact of war and conflict-related destructions are on the agenda. To that end, Borhani believes that the 26th session of the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26)—expected to take place from November 9-19, 2020 in Glasgow, UK—should take this proposal into serious consideration, debate and discussion as part of its main agenda.  

Click here to listen to the Business Families Foundation's "Round Peg Podcast" on the subject: “Climate Change: The Untold Story of the Carbon Footprint of Destruction & Conflicts."

The old city of Homs, pictured in February 2016. (Image credit: AP)

Hassan Calls for International Mediation in Iraq Crisis

On January 28, Kawa Hassan, vice president of EWI’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) program, appeared on the Voice of America (VOA) Kurdish Service program KURD CONNECTION to discuss the continuing crisis in Iraq and how international actors can contribute to a negotiated solution.

The interview focused on a policy recommendation that Hassan presented at a recent policy dialogue panel at European Policy Center about the consequences of the U.S.-Iran conflict in Iraq.

Click here to watch the interview on VOA (in Kurdish).

Read an English summary of Hassan's remarks, below:

Despite repression and intimidation, the protests continue in Iraq. The government and ruling class, particularly the Shiite parties, can't find a reasonable solution for the crisis. The result is a dangerous political stalemate. Day by day, the conflict gets bloodier and more complicated. If the current repression continues, which I am afraid will be the case, the peaceful protest movement—or part of it—might decide to take up arms to defend unarmed demonstrators, causing the situation to spin out of control.

The fragmentation of political forces, especially the Shiite parties, makes it extremely difficult to find a political solution that can be accepted by all parties and the protest movement. To break the deadlock, there is a need to pressure and persuade the most influential Shiite parties and government to accept international mediation.

The idea I suggested at the EPC policy dialogue event is to organize an international conference akin to the recent Berlin Conference on Libya. All the key actors should participate in this conference, including the Iraqi government, representatives of the protest movement, Iran, the U.S. and other relevant regional and international powers and institutions. Through EWI’s engagement with Iraqi and regional actors over the past seven months, we know that to a large extent the EU is considered a neutral player. This neutrality would allow the EU—in partnership with key European countries and the UN—to take the lead in organizing this international conference.

I know this is not an easy task given the internal fragmentation inside Iraq coupled with external intervention. Furthermore, I am mindful of the fact that decision-making within the EU is a slow process, and it takes time for the member states to arrive at a common policy. However, we don't have the luxury of time or chance; we cannot say "let's wait and see." The situation is deteriorating very rapidly. Now is the right time to act and initiate an international mediation process for the Iraqi crisis.   

Hassan Speaks at EPC Policy Dialogue on Impacts of U.S.-Iran Crisis on Iraq

On January 23, Kawa Hassan, vice president of the Middle East and North Africa program at the EastWest Institute, spoke at the European Policy Centre's (EPC) latest policy dialogue entitled "The U.S.-Iran crisis: impact and implications for the region, Europe and beyond."  

The dialogue addressed the potential consequences for the stability of the Middle East following the death of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, as well as the future role of the U.S. and Europe in the region. 

Other featured speakers included: Christian Koch, senior advisor at the Bussola Institute; Joost Hilterman, program director at the International Crisis Group; Adnan Tabatabai, CEO at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO); and moderator Amanda Paul, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre.

Click here to read Kawa Hassan’s presentation.

Click here to read the presentation in Arabic.


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