Lebanon’s Choice

Last week’s clashes in Beirut represented the deadliest violence the capital city has seen in decades. At the core of the violence is Hezbollah’s attempt to derail the judicial investigation into the August 2020 port explosion. If Hezbollah is successful in its venture, the rule of law in Lebanon will be pushed to the side permanently. Hezbollah and its allies have been pushing for the dismissal of Tarek Bitar, the judge in charge of investigating the 2020 blast. Through this effort, Hezbollah has intensified Lebanon’s political crisis and crippled the new government, which was already in a precarious state. The message from Hezbollah and its political allies to the Lebanese people is clear. Their demands for justice will bring on another civil war.

The governmental stasis, coupled with the violence seen last week is conjuring up dark memories of the past. Specifically, the Lebanese Civil War that raged from 1975 until 1990. The Lebanese people have lost faith in many of the nation’s institutions. They overwhelmingly blame the corrupt political class for the condition of the country. The bungled aftermath of the port explosion created a powder keg of sorts which the nation and its population is presently perched upon. The drive to remove Bitar threatens to be the spark that ignites Lebanon and transforms it into either a true failed state, or on the flip side, an Iranian vassal.

No Mediation In Sight For The Conflict In Northern Ethiopia

Ethiopia is resisting calls for international mediation as the conflict in its northern Tigray region. Fighting has been taking place there since 4 November when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a ground offensive and air strikes on Tigray in response to local leaders there defying his authority. The fighting is bringing on a humanitarian crisis. Casualties are over 1,000 according to third-party NGO sources, and over 25,000 refugees are flooding into Sudan. To make matters even more dire, the conflict is spilling over into Eritrea. The bad blood between Eritrea and Ethiopia is well known and it’s safe to assume that if the fighting continues it will endanger Eritrea-Ethiopia relations, which have been improving in recent times.

Ethiopia’s move into Tigray was long-expected. The establishment of the Prosperity Party in December, 2019 as a replacement to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front was bitterly opposed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which viewed the merger as illegal and did not take part. In September, 2020 regional elections were held in Tigray against the wishes of the central government. Ahmed has regarded these elections as a step towards Tigray secession and was likely a prime reason for the military offensive.

There have been claims of victories, liberated towns, and casualties coming from all corners of the conflict. At present though, communications mainly down and the media is barred from the battle zone, making independent verification almost impossible. On Monday, Ethiopian warplanes attacked Mekelle, the capital city, of the Tigray region, according to Ethiopian government sources. There has been no word on what the intended targets were, or of casualties.

Turkey Considers Sending Troops to Libya

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Earlier this week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted that his government is considering the possibility of sending troops to Libya to prevent Russian-supported forces from capturing Tripoli. Erdogan was quick to point out that such an intervention would not occur unless the UN-recognized Libyan government requested it.

Erdogan’s comments indicate just how much the position of the Government of National Accord (GNA) has deteriorated. Forces under the control of militia leader Khalifa Haftar, heavily backed by Russian weapons, and advisers, have tightened their siege of Libya. Haftar is publicly claiming his forces will be inside of Tripoli by the end of the year, a realistic probability given the present situation on the ground.

Libya, at the moment, keenly represents the mishmash of competing interests, and actions by powers in the region. In the past three months Russia has thrown its lot in behind Haftar, contributing a considerable number of mercenaries, and equipment. These moves has enabled Haftar’s forces to successfully resume the drive on the Libyan capital. Government forces opposing them are reaching the breaking point. If they are unable to prevent Haftar’s troops from entering Tripoli, it will likely mean the collapse of the GNA. Libya could once again descend into a long period of fighting between militias opposed to Haftar, and his forces. This turmoil will inevitably bring on a fresh exodus of refugees looking to escape the fighting. The most likely destination of these people is Europe, a scenario the European Union can hardly afford.

Russia is not the only nation backing Haftar. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have provided weapons, and material support in the hopes Haftar and his authoritarian style can restore stability to Libya. The US, and other Western powers have publicly supported the Tripoli government and UN efforts in Libya, but very little military support has been provided, on the surface at least. Behind the scenes is another matter entirely.  Earlier this week the US claimed a Russian air defense system was responsible for bringing down an American UAV in Libya.

Turkey’s support for the GNA is partly due to the continuing rivalry between it and the Saudi-led bloc. It has become the major provider of military hardware for the Tripoli government, though its motivations are not confined to Ankara’s desire to counter the Saudis. There is an economic element as well. Just days ago Turkey signed a deal with the GNA giving Ankara drilling, pipeline, and maritime rights over a wide area of the Mediterranean between the two nations. That particular move has set off a firestorm in Greece, and across Europe, however, it has not deterred Erdogan. For better or worse, Turkish involvement in Libya appears ready to escalate now that the survival of the GNA is directly tied to Turkish economic and geopolitical fortunes in the region.

Dark Days Ahead for Iraq?

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Iraq continues to deteriorate as the anti-government protests that have plagued the nation since October threaten to turn into a full-scale uprising. As if this were not enough to contend with, the government is now facing a full-blown political crisis that could potentially unravel the central government at the worst possible moment. On Thursday security forces opened fire on a group of protesters in Nasiriyah killing 24 and wounding over 200. Protesters were also killed in Baghdad, and Najaf. On Friday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation, resulting in a cautious optimism among protesters. Mahdi leaving office is a start, but there is still much work to be done.

The protesters in Iraq are seeking a reform of the government, and an end to Iranian influence in Baghdad. The resignation of one man alone will not be enough to satisfy them. Too much blood has been shed in the streets. Too many promises have been left unfulfilled by the leaders in Baghdad. When Mahdi’s resignation is approved by parliament, the search for his successor will begin. This will likely be a long-term process. In the meantime, Mahdi’s cabinet could stay in power as a caretaker government. The protesters may not respond kindly to this scenario if it becomes reality. Their battle against an entrenched and corrupt political class will continue, and as it does, the post-Saddam Iraq constructed by the United States hangs in the balance.

When US troops completed their withdrawal in 2011, the hope was that the new Iraqi government’s foundation would be strong enough to withstand the coming challenges. As it turned out, this wasn’t the case. Without US support the foundation rapidly transformed to quicksand. Corruption, and nepotism swept through the public sector. Sectarianism became endemic. These factors, coupled with the removal of American forces created a vacuum in Iraq that its neighbor to the east swiftly moved to fill. Iranian actions, and influence have helped to bring the Iraqi system to the verge of a permanent breakdown.

The Iraqi parliament will have 15 days to name a new successor. Yet, as I mentioned above, it has historically taken much longer to name a new leader in post-Saddam Iraq. The clock is running though. If a leader who appeals to all major factions cannot be agreed upon, Iraq could be plunged into a full-fledged civil war.