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The Mad Dog of the Middle East

The ‘mad dog of the Middle East’, as Ronald Reagan once called Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is on the brink of achieving his life’s ambition: becoming the dictator of Libya. He’s a rather old mad dog by now (75), but after a two-month siege his troops are starting to break through the defences of the country’s capital, Tripoli.

As a young officer, Haftar took part in the coup that overthrew the Libyan king and brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969, and he stayed loyal to the new dictator for two decades. But he was captured during Libya’s lost war with Chad in 1987, and bought his freedom by switching sides and going to work for the US Central Intelligence Agency.

When Haftar’s efforts to overthrow Gaddafi on behalf of the CIA failed, it resettled him in the United States in 1990. He spent the next twenty years quietly in Virginia, acquiring American citizenship along the way – but then came the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010-11, and suddenly he was back in play.

He had little part in overthrowing Gaddafi, which was mainly achieved by NATO bombers. But the multifarious Libyan militias, which were mainly colourful extras playing supporting roles during the bombing campaign, took centre stage when Gaddafi was finally killed, because NATO couldn’t or wouldn’t take responsibility for putting Libya back together after the war.

Haftar’s opportunity came in eastern Libya (Cyrenaica), where Islamist militias had seized control of the regional capital, Benghazi, and murdered the US ambassador in 2012. He created a militia, the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), that set about the lengthy task of reconquering Cyrenaica. The centre of Benghazi was destroyed by artillery fire in the process, but by 2017 the job was done.

Who paid for all this? Haftar’s financial arrangements are murky, to say the least, but his backers would certainly include France, which has a large investment in Libyan oil. Also Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, all of which like dictators and hate Islamist radicals. And, since early 2017, the United States as well.

Haftar’s campaign in the east completely ignored the new, ‘internationally recognised’ government that the United Nations cobbled together in late 2015. It’s not elected, it controls nothing outside of the city of Tripoli, and in fact it doesn’t control much of the city either. It’s the local militias, most of them Islamist, who actually run things.

That’s Haftar’s main excuse for trying to capture Tripoli. He just wants to run the country, but his Saudi, Egyptian, Russian and American backers (and don’t forget the United Arab Emirates) are all paranoid about Islamists under the bed, so he highlights that theme to keep them happy.

The Islamist militias of Tripoli, Misrata and the rest of western Libya are not all religious fanatics and secret members of al-Qaeda. They’re mostly just local boys with guns who are enjoying the ride, and need some sort of ideological justification for behaving badly. But if the stupid foreigners think they are a real menace, Haftar will take their money.

He spent last year conquering the desert south of the country, where most of the oil is, and two months ago he moved his forces back north and attacked Tripoli. The local militias rallied to the defence of the ‘internationally recognised’ government (and of their own local protection rackets), and for a while it looked like a stalemate.

In mid-April Donald Trump telephoned Haftar to thank him for his efforts to “combat terrorism and secure Libya’s oil.” More useful were the Russian-made cargo planes flying in to Haftar’s Libyan bases from Egypt, Jordan and Israel bearing – well, who knows? Maybe dates, olives and halva. Or maybe something more useful.

And now, after almost two months of deadlock, the front has started to move. Haftar’s LNA is reported to be in the eastern and southern suburbs of Tripoli and near the international airport. One LNA spearhead is allegedly in Salah al-Deen, only a few kilometres from the city centre.

Haftar’s offensive may yet fizzle out. He calls himself a field marshal, but the highest rank he ever held while actually in combat command of troops was colonel, and he didn’t do very well with that. On the other hand, the people he’s fighting aren’t exactly military geniuses either, so he could win. What would that mean?

It would mean a new Libyan dictatorship, of course, but it would also mean comparative peace in Libya and maybe an opportunity to rebuild the reasonably competent welfare state that has been destroyed in the past decade. And since Haftar is already 75, he’s not going to match Gaddafi’s 42 years in power.

When all the options are bad, you must choose the least bad, and maybe Haftar is it. And think how many people would rejoice in his victory: President Donald Trump, President Vladimir Putin, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, President (and ex-General) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, President Emmanuel Macron….

If all those wise men like it, who are we to say otherwise?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“He spent…useful”)

Libya: Haftar’s Last Throw?

With Khalifa Haftar’s forces stalled outside the capital, Tripoli, the eight-year omnishambles in Libya is approaching a climax. It’s not clear yet which side is going to win, but at least the dozens of rival militias in the country are now lined up in two recognisable sides. Haftar does have the gift of bringing clarity to a situation.

Alas, he achieves this mainly by making so many Libyans hate him. To them, he is Gaddafi 2.0, a would-be military dictator who aspires to be a Libyan counterpart to Egypt’s General al-Sisi (and is generously backed by the Egyptian dictator). That’s not what they fought the 2011 revolution for.

Of course, the militias didn’t really do the heavy lifting in that revolution. They were colourful extras fighting little local battles, but the real execution was done by French, British and Canadian aircraft operating under NATO command that bombed Gaddafi’s troops almost to extinction in a six-month campaign in 2011.

The militias’ main role was to put a Libyan face on the whole operation, but when NATO walked away after Gaddafi was killed they were left in charge. They split repeatedly as their quarrels over local extortion rights became acute, but they are united in resisting the re-establishment of central control by a national government. It is not in their interest.

There is, however, a basic division between eastern Libya (Cyrenaica) and western Libya (Tripolitania) that underlies the manifold rivalries of tribes and clans in both parts of the country. It’s a division that goes all the way back to Roman times, when the east spoke Greek (the language of the eastern part of the empire) and the west spoke Latin.

It persists today, even though everybody now speaks Arabic. The two parts of Libya live largely separate lives, divided by the central strip of coast where the desert reaches the sea – and the west has two-thirds of the country’s 6 million people.

Haftar controls Cyrenaica and the vast and largely unpopulated desert south of Libya (where most of the oil is), but the west has the advantage of numbers and a profound dislike of being ruled by the east. That’s why the western militias are coming together now, and why his offensive against Tripoli is at least temporarily stalled.

As for the rights and wrongs of the situation, there’s plenty of blame on both sides. Haftar ostensibly represents the parliament elected in 2014, which fled to the east later that year when Islamist militias seized control of Tripoli. It now sits in Tobruk in the east and is entirely under Haftar’s thumb.

This is Haftar’s only plausible claim to legitimacy. Once a colleague of Gaddafi’s, he fled the country, ended up in exile in the United States for fifteen years, and is an American citizen, but he returned to Libya in 2014 and gradually united the militias of the east under his command as the ‘Libyan National Army’ (LNA).
He cleared the Islamist extremists out of Benghazi, the big city in Cyrenaica, in a bloody two-year war, and then set out to take the rest of the country. His troops reached the outskirts of Tripoli early this month.

The ‘internationally recognized’, United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) inside the city is equally unconvincing as a national saviour. It was not elected, but cobbled together by UN mediators in 2015. Its leader, ‘Prime Minister’ Fayez al-Sarraj, didn’t even arrive in Tripoli from abroad until 2016, and he has struggled to establish his authority over the city, let alone over the militias or the entire country.

So now Haftar is making his big bid for power, and Serraj is practically irrelevant. The various militias of Tripolitania that are coming together to resist him undoubtedly outnumber him, but they have no joint command structure and Serraj cannot provide one.

The ‘smart money’ says Haftar is bound to lose, but that remains to be seen. He has both Egyptian and Russian support (although it’s unlikely that either of them authorised this adventure). And ordinary Libyans face a choice between a new 75-year-old dictator and continuing chaos, poverty and intermittent low-level violence as the militias squabble over the spoils. Not that they will actually be asked about the choice, of course.

How much does this matter to other Arab countries? Not a lot. How much does it matter to the rest of the world? Not at all. As Janice Joplin once remarked in a radically different context, freedom’s just another word for ‘nothing left to lose’.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“It persists…people”)

Macedonia: What’s in a Name?

13 January 2019

The Congo Republic (pop. 5 million) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (pop. 88 million) manage to share their name quite amicably. Russia and Belarus (White Russia) don’t seem to mind either. Sudan and South Sudan don’t get along at all, but their quarrel was never about a mere name. Whereas Greece and Macedonia….

After 28 years of argument and anger, the two Balkan countries signed an agreement last June that changed Macedonia’s name to ‘North Macedonia’, because the Greeks said they couldn’t use the original one-word title. Greece could and did blackball the Macedonians, saying they couldn’t join the NATO alliance and the European Union until they changed their name – and eventually the Macedonians gave in.

The Macedonians jumped through a lot of constitutional hoops to keep their end of the bargain, and last Friday their parliament officially changed the country’s name to ‘North Macedonia’. So the Greeks got what they wanted, and now it is the Greek parliament’s turn to ratify the deal and lift its ban on ‘North’ Macedonia joining NATO and the EU.

But no. A small ultra-nationalist party called the Independent Greeks, whose seven seats Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras depended on for his majority in parliament, walked out of the coalition on Sunday.

Tsipras has betrayed Greece, they say. No foreigners should be allowed to use the sacred Greek name of Macedonia, even in the phrase ‘North Macedonia’, and what those foreigners really secretly want is to take over the whole of northern Greece. So Tsipras now has to hold a vote of confidence, and if he loses it there will have to be an early election.

He may well lose it, because most of the people in the main opposition party, New Democracy, are also paranoid nationalists. Or more precisely, they know that paranoid nationalism is the way to maximise the right-wing vote. Some of them are privately quite reasonable men and women, but they know what they have to say to win, and they will say it.

How has this nonsense come to dominate the politics of two entire countries for more than two decades? When the old Communist regime in Yugoslavia lost power in 1991 and the six ‘republics’ that made it up became independent countries, the southernmost one was called the Republic of Macedonia.

It came by the name honestly. From the Roman empire 2,000 years ago down to the Ottoman empire only a century ago, its territory was always part of a larger province called Macedonia. No other country was using the name, so independent Macedonia kept it.

There was, however, a region in northern Greece that also used to be part of that province, and also called itself Macedonia. No harm in that: the people in the Republic of Macedonia weren’t claiming that the Greek region called Macedonia belonged to them. But the Greeks insisted that they were, and wouldn’t let them join any organisation that Greece belonged to.

So the Republic of Macedonia was frozen out of NATO and the European Union (and all the EU’s subsidies for post-Communist countries in eastern Europe). It only got a seat in the United Nations by agreeing to call itself the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM) for UN purposes. And the foolishness dragged on for a generation.

The Macedonians themselves – sorry, the ‘North Macedonians’ – eventually developed their own ultra-nationalist crazies, who insisted that they were the true heirs of the Alexander the Great. Skopje, the capital, is littered with monuments and statues extolling him, put there by the previous government basically to yank the Greeks’ chain.

It’s not clear why you would want to claim descent from Alexander the Great, whose main achievement was conquering a lot of countries, killing a lot of people, and dying at thirty, but then the people of Mongolia take pride in having Genghis Khan as an ancestor. At any rate, the Macedonians did what they did, and the Greeks rose to the bait. It was really ugly for a while.

But finally the wheel turned, and both countries ended up with grown-ups in charge at the same time: Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Zoran Zaev in Macedonia. Both are social democrats who have other fish to fry, and just want to get rid of this issue that the nationalist right exploits endlessly. It hasn’t been easy, but they are almost there.

Zaev had to hold a referendum on the deal in Macedonia, and got 90 percent ‘yes’ votes – but the nationalists boycotted the ballot, and so invalidated the outcome because fewer than 50% of the potential voters took part. That meant Zaev had to get a two-thirds majority in parliament instead, which required him to bribe some shady members of parliament with amnesties for their alleged crimes.

Tsipras will face an uphill fight to win a confidence vote, and if he loses that he may also lose the election. He has spent a lot of his political capital in his struggle to rescue Greece from its financial plight. But these two men deserve to succeed. Maybe they will.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The Macedonians…while”)

Ukraine: No Big War

The Russian-Ukrainian naval clash in the Black Sea is not going to end up in a world war. Ukraine would love to be part of NATO, but the existing members won’t let it join. Why? Precisely because that might drag them into a war with Russia.

Russia doesn’t have any real military alliances either. Various countries sympathise with either Ukraine or Russia, but none of them have obligations to send military help, and they are not going to volunteer.

Secondly, there’s not even going to be a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine because Ukraine would lose. Russia has more than three times the population and its economy is ten times bigger. The Russian armed forces are far bigger and vastly better armed. No sane Ukrainian would choose an all-out war with Russia regardless of the provocation.

The Russians obviously have more options, but conquering Ukraine is probably the furthest thing from their minds. It has no resources they need, and if they occupied the country they would certainly face an ugly and prolonged guerilla war of resistance. They have nothing to gain.

They actually have a lot to lose, because a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would trigger a Western reaction that would come close to bankrupting Russia. NATO would conclude that this was the first step in President Vladimir Putin’s plan to reconquer all of the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, and start re-arming in a very big way. The Russians would go broke if they tried to keep up.

They did go broke trying to keep up with Western military spending back in the Cold War, and in the end the entire Communist system collapsed. Russia is now a largely de-industrialised country with half the population of the old Soviet Union, and the collapse would come a lot faster – probably sweeping Putin away with it. He knows that, because he lived through the collapse last time.

So what we have here is really just a local crisis. The Russians started it in order to make a specific local gain, and they know that they can win. They will not face major Western retaliation because it’s just not a big enough issue.

The actual clash on Sunday saw three Ukrainians injured, 29 others arrested, and three Ukrainian navy ships boarded and seized. The ships were trying to pass through a Russian-controlled strait from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, a relatively shallow body of water (maximum depth 14 metres) that is about the size of Switzerland.

Until the Russians took Crimea from Ukraine four years ago, the strait had Russian territory on one side and Ukrainian territory on the other. A treaty signed in 2003 said that
both countries had free access to the Sea of Azov and their respective ports along its coasts, no permission needed.

In 2014, however, Russia infiltrated troops into Crimea who pretended to be a new local militia. They took control of the entire peninsula and its two million people, staged a referendum on whether it should become part of Russia, and won it. The Ukrainian government protested, but it didn’t have the troops or the nerve to resist the takeover by force.

Russia tried to justify its action by pointing out that the great majority of the people in Crimea spoke Russian, not Ukrainian, and that it has been part of Russia for centuries until a Soviet leader with strong Ukrainian connections handed it over to Ukraine in 1954.

International law does not accept border changes imposed by force as legitimate, and Russia has been under severe Western sanctions on trade ever since it annexed Crimea. Its economy is in serious trouble, but the annexation was immensely popular in both Russia and Crimea, and Putin will not reverse it.

Since there was no land connection between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, Putin decided to build an 18-kilometre bridge joining the two sides of the Strait of Kerch. By a happy coincidence, that would also give him the ability to control or even block shipping trying to get to Ukrainian ports on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov.

The bridge is now open, and Putin is exercising that option. The Ukrainians tried to send their (rather small) warships through to show that the treaty of free passage signed in 2003 still applies.

The Russians didn’t actually deny that, but said that they were closing the strait temporarily for operational reasons. The Ukrainian warships pushed on, and the Russians attacked them.

The Russians are legally in the wrong, but they are going to win this one because Ukraine had almost no navy left and nobody wants a bigger war. Ukraine has imposed martial law in areas that border on Russia for the next 30 days, but that’s mainly window dressing. There may be further sanctions against Russia, but that’s as far as it goes.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“They did…time”; and “Russia…1954″)