Is the Middle East destined to fragment?

Robin Wright writes: Pity the Kurds. Theirs is a history of epic betrayals. A century ago, the world reneged on a vow to give them their own state, carved from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The rugged mountain people were instead dispersed into the new states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, with another block left in Iran. Since then, all three countries have repressed their Kurds. Saddam Hussein was so intent on Arabizing Iraq’s Kurdistan that he paid Arab families to unearth long-dead relatives and rebury them in Kurdish territory—creating evidence to claim Arab rights to the land. He also razed four thousand Kurdish villages and executed a hundred thousand of the region’s inhabitants, some with chemical weapons. Syria stripped its Kurds of citizenship, making them foreigners in their own lands and depriving them of rights to state education, property ownership, jobs, and even marriage. Turkey repeatedly—sometimes militarily—crushed Kurdish political movements; for decades, the Kurdish language was banned, as was the very word “Kurd” to describe Turkey’s largest ethnic minority. They were instead known as “mountain Turks.”

Iraq’s Kurds got a bit of revenge this week. In a historic but controversial referendum, more than ninety per cent of voters endorsed a proposal to secede and declare their own country. “The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it,” the President of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, vowed on the eve of the poll. Jubilation erupted. Waving their distinctive flag—three stripes of red, white, and green, with a blazing golden sun in the center—Kurds across northern Iraq took to the streets.

The Kurdish vote reflects an existential quandary across the entire Middle East: Are some of the region’s most important countries really viable anymore? The world has resisted addressing the issue since the popular protests in 2011, known as the Arab Uprising, or Arab Spring, spawned four wars and a dozen crises. Entire countries have been torn asunder, with little to no prospect of political or physical reconstruction anytime soon. Meanwhile, the outside world has invested vast resources, with several countries forking out billions of dollars in military equipment, billions more in aid, and thousands of hours of diplomacy—on the assumption that places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya can still work as currently configured. The list of outside powers that have tried to shape the region’s future is long—from the United States and its European allies to the Russian-Iran axis and many of the Middle East’s oil-rich powers. All have, so far, failed at forging hopeful direction.

They’ve also failed to confront the obvious: Do the people in these countries want to stay together? Do people who identify proudly as Syrians, for example, all define “Syria” the same way? And are they willing to surrender their political, tribal, racial, ethnic, or sectarian identities in order to forge a common good and a stable nation?

The long-term impact of these destructive centrifugal forces is far from clear. But, given the blood spilled over the past six years, primordial forces seem to be prevailing at the moment, and not only among the Kurds. “The only people who want to hold Iraq together,” Lukman Faily, the former Iraqi ambassador to Washington, opined to me recently, “are those who don’t live in Iraq.” That sentiment is echoed, if not as concisely, elsewhere.

The challenge is addressing the flip side: If these countries, most of them modern creations, are dysfunctional or in danger of failing, what then will work to restore some semblance of normalcy to an ever more volatile region? No major player, in the region or the wider world, seems to be exploring solutions. [Continue reading…]

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New order indefinitely bars almost all travel from seven countries

The New York Times reports: President Trump on Sunday issued a new order indefinitely banning almost all travel to the United States from seven countries, including most of the nations covered by his original travel ban, citing threats to national security posed by letting their citizens into the country.

The new order is more far-reaching than the president’s original travel ban, imposing permanent restrictions on travel, rather than the 90-day suspension that Mr. Trump authorized soon after taking office. But officials said his new action was the result of a deliberative, rigorous examination of security risks that was designed to avoid the chaotic rollout of his first ban. And the addition of non-Muslim countries could address the legal attacks on earlier travel restrictions as discrimination based on religion.

Starting next month, most citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea will be banned from entering the United States, Mr. Trump said in a proclamation released Sunday night. Citizens of Iraq and some groups of people in Venezuela who seek to visit the United States will face restrictions or heightened scrutiny.

Mr. Trump’s original travel ban caused turmoil at airports in January and set off a furious legal challenge to the president’s authority. It was followed in March by a revised ban, which expired on Sunday even as the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments about its constitutionality on Oct. 10. The new order — Chad, North Korea and Venezuela are new to the list of affected countries and Sudan has been dropped — will take effect Oct. 18. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s geopolitical PR campaign finds a perfect opening in North Africa

By Cristian Nitoiu, Aston University

Not since the end of the Cold War has Russia carried so much weight. Deeply involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, doggedly safeguarding Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime in Syria, and alleged to have meddled in the US presidential elections, the Kremlin is a force for all the world to reckon with. And now it has a new playing field, one of the various areas where the West has failed to shepherd a state from dictatorship to democracy: Libya.

While it has started to take an explicit interest in negotiations between the country’s two warring government’s, Russia’s moves in Libya have been mainly symbolic. In 2016, its only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetzov, stopped there on its way back from Syria. In January 2017, eastern Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar was given a tour of the carrier in the Mediterranean, with talk of Russian support for his regime (which doesn’t enjoy UN backing); come the summer, Moscow tested its new Kalibr and X-35 missiles off the Libyan coast.

On the face of it, this looks like a clear attempt to exploit strategic gaps left by the US and the EU. The West has been unwilling and unable to push forward a solution that would bring together Libya’s rival factions, a failure very much in line with an old Russian narrative that deplores Western intervention in sovereign countries’ affairs.

As Russia sees it, the main lesson of Libya’s descent into chaos since 2011 is that that the West greatly overestimated its grasp of the complexities of North African politics. There’s an obvious parallel with Ukraine, where Moscow’s primary goal since the 2014 “Maidan revolution” has been to show that where the West tries to impose liberalism upon sovereign countries, it is doomed to fail.

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Abedi flew from Istanbul to Manchester 4 days before bombing; UK security services tackle large-scale threat

The Telegraph reports: The security services have foiled five attacks in the past two months since the Westminster attack, a senior Whitehall source has said.

Defending against accusations that MI5 had been repeatedly warned the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, was dangerous, the source outlined the scale of the job facing counter-terrorism officials.

The source said MI5 is currently managing 500 active investigations, involving 3,000 subjects of interest at any one time. [Continue reading…]

In February, The Guardian reported: In the small pocket of Manchester where the suicide bomber who killed himself in Iraq this week grew up, many before him had trodden the same path.

The handful of streets in Moss Side within a mile of the childhood home of Ronald Fiddler, also known as Jamal al-Harith, have been home to nine who are known to have joined terrorist organisations and have either been jailed, have disappeared or have killed themselves in the name of Islamic State.

A Guardian investigation has found that 16 convicted or dead terrorists have lived within 2.5 miles of al-Harith’s home address. It is understood that they were part of a radical network and some of them prayed at the same mosque.

In a nearby gym a group of young men are sweating and sparring through a Friday afternoon boxing session. The scene could easily be one of those glossy local authority propaganda pictures that tells the story of a community trying to shed its guns-and-gangs reputation.

Former champion boxer Maurice Core has trained young men there for decades and acknowledges that terrorism is stalking the area’s disaffected youth.

One of those who is understood to be dead after joining Isis is Raphael Hostey. The 24-year-old was a member of Core’s gym and knew al-Harith. He died last year after leaving Moss Side in 2013. [Continue reading…]

Sky News reports: Abedi and Hostey hung around on the same estates and worshipped in the same Didsbury mosque, before they became disaffected with life in the West.

Counter-terrorism sources have told Sky News they have established a “significant” connection between the two men as they investigate the murder of 22 concertgoers and search for possible accomplices. [Continue reading…]

Financial Times reports: [Abedi] flew from Istanbul to the UK via Dusseldorf’s international airport, a German intelligence official said. A senior Turkish official said the Turkish government sent a file on Abedi to British authorities on Wednesday morning, but declined to discuss the details of the communication. [Continue reading…]

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Manchester bombing suspect likely did not act alone

NBC News reports: [A] U.S. intelligence official who has direct knowledge of the investigation had told NBC News that Abedi’s device was “big and sophisticated,” using materials hard to find in Britain — meaning “it’s almost impossible to see he didn’t have help.”

Abedi — a 22-year-old British national whose family is of Libyan descent — had ties to al Qaeda, received terrorist training abroad and traveled to Libya within the last 12 months, the source added.


A “follow-on” attack is possible, the official said.

France’s interior minister said Wednesday that Abedi was believed to have traveled to Syria and had “proven” links to ISIS. He did not provide details. [Continue reading…]

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Salman Abedi named as the Manchester suicide bomber – what we know about him

The Telegraph reports: Born in 1994, the second youngest of four children, Abedi’s parents were Libyan refugees who fled to the UK to escape Gaddafi.

His mother, Samia Tabbal, 50, and father, Ramadan Abedi, a security officer, were both born in Tripoli but appear to have emigrated to London before moving to the Whalley Range area of south Manchester where they had lived for at least a decade.

Abedi went to school locally and then on to Salford University in 2014 where he studied business management before dropping out. His trips to Libya, where it is thought his parents returned in 2011 following Gaddafi’s overthrow, are now subject to scrutiny including links to jihadists.

A group of Gaddafi dissidents, who were members of the outlawed Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), lived within close proximity to Abedi in Whalley Range.

Among them was Abd al-Baset Azzouz, a father-of-four from Manchester, who left Britain to run a terrorist network in Libya overseen by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as leader of al-Qaeda.

Azzouz, 48, an expert bomb-maker, was accused of running an al-Qaeda network in eastern Libya. The Telegraph reported in 2014 that Azzouz had 200 to 300 militants under his control and was an expert in bomb-making.

Another member of the Libyan community in Manchester, Salah Aboaoba told Channel 4 news in 2011 that he had been fund raising for LIFG while in the city. Aboaoba had claimed he had raised funds at Didsbury mosque, the same mosque attended by Abedi. The mosque at the time vehemently denied the claim. “This is the first time I’ve heard of the LIFG. I do not know Salah,” a mosque spokesman said at the time.

At the mosque, Mohammed Saeed El-Saeiti, the imam at the Didsbury mosque yesterday branded Abedi an dangerous extremist. “Salman showed me the face of hate after my speech on Isis,” said the imam. “He used to show me the face of hate and I could tell this person does not like me. It’s not a surprise to me.” [Continue reading…]

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Libya’s warring sides reach diplomatic breakthrough in Rome

The Guardian reports: Rome has brokered a diplomatic breakthrough in Libya that has the potential to bring the two main warring sides together in a new political agreement after years of division, fighting and economic misery.

The scale of the breakthrough will be tested later this week, but Italy is hailing a compromise brokered between the presidents of the house of representatives, Ageela Saleh, and the state council, Abdulrahman Sewehli.

The meeting was overseen by the Italian foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, and the Italian ambassador to Libya.

According to a statement from the state council, “there was an atmosphere of friendliness and openness” at the meeting in Rome. The statement also said there would have to be further consultations between the two sides this week in order to bring about reconciliation “and stop the bleeding as well as [ensure] the return of displaced persons”. [Continue reading…]

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Trump aide drew plan on napkin to partition Libya into three

The Guardian reports: A senior White House foreign policy official has pushed a plan to partition Libya, and once drew a picture of how the country could be divided into three areas on a napkin in a meeting with a senior European diplomat, the Guardian has learned.

Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Donald Trump under pressure over his past ties with Hungarian far-right groups, suggested the idea of partition in the weeks leading up to the US president’s inauguration, according to an official with knowledge of the matter. The European diplomat responded that this would be “the worst solution” for Libya.

Gorka is vying for the job of presidential special envoy to Libya in a White House that has so far spent little time thinking about the country and has yet to decide whether to create such a post. [Continue reading…]

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Warnings of a ‘powder keg’ in Libya as ISIS regroups

The New York Times reports: After B-2 bombers struck an Islamic State training camp in Libya in January, killing more than 80 militants, American officials privately gloated. On the heels of losing its coastal stronghold in Surt the month before, the Islamic State seemed to be reeling.

But Western and African counterterrorism officials now say that while the twin blows dealt a setback to the terrorist group in Libya — once feared as the Islamic State’s most lethal branch outside Iraq and Syria — its leaders are already regrouping, exploiting the chaos and political vacuum gripping the country.

Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told a Senate panel this month that after their expulsion from Surt, many militants from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were moving to southern Libya.

“The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” General Waldhauser said. “Even with the success of Surt, ISIS-Libya remains a regional threat with intent to target U.S. persons and interests.”

Libya remains a violent and divided nation rife with independent militias, flooded with arms and lacking legitimate governance and political unity. Tripoli, the capital, is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups that have built local fiefs and vied for power since Libya’s 2011 uprising. Running gun battles have seized Tripoli in recent days.

“Libya is descending into chaos,” said Brig. Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue), a senior Chadian officer who directed a major counterterrorism exercise here in the Chadian capital last week involving 2,000 African and Western troops and trainers. “It’s a powder keg.” [Continue reading…]

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Russia appears to deploy forces in Egypt, eyes on Libya role

Reuters reports: Russia appears to have deployed special forces to an airbase in western Egypt near the border with Libya in recent days, U.S., Egyptian and diplomatic sources say, a move that would add to U.S. concerns about Moscow’s deepening role in Libya.

The U.S. and diplomatic officials said any such Russian deployment might be part of a bid to support Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, who suffered a setback with an attack on March 3 by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) on oil ports controlled by his forces.

The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States has observed what appeared to be Russian special operations forces and drones at Sidi Barrani, about 60 miles (100 km) from the Egypt-Libya border. [Continue reading…]

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Russian private security firm says it had armed men in east Libya

Reuters reports: A force of several dozen armed private security contractors from Russia operated until last month in a part of Libya that is under the control of regional leader Khalifa Haftar, the head of the firm that hired the contractors told Reuters.

It is the clearest signal to date that Moscow is prepared to back up its public diplomatic support for Haftar — even at the risk of alarming Western governments already irked at Russia’s intervention in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad.

Haftar is opposed to a U.N.-backed government which Western states see as the best chance of restoring stability in Libya. But some Russian policy-makers see the Libyan as a strongman who can end the six years of anarchy that followed the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi.

The presence of the military contractors was, according to the head of the firm, a commercial arrangement. It is unlikely though to have been possible without Moscow’s approval, according to people who work in the industry in Russia. [Continue reading…]

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Europe’s child-refugee crisis

Lauren Collins writes: Wasil awoke to the sound of a knife ripping through nylon. Although he was only twelve years old, he was living alone in a small tent at a refugee camp in Calais, France, known as the Jungle. Men entered his tent; he couldn’t tell how many. A pair of hands gripped his throat. He shouted. It was raining, and the clatter of the drops muffled his cries, so he shouted louder. At last, people from neighboring tents came running, and the assailants disappeared.

Wasil had left his mother and younger siblings in Kunduz, Afghanistan, ten months earlier, in December, 2015. His father, an interpreter for nato forces, had fled the country after receiving death threats from the Taliban. Later, Wasil, as the eldest son, became the Taliban’s surrogate target. Wasil was close to his mother, but she decided to send him away as the situation became increasingly dangerous. Her brother lived in England, and she hoped that Wasil could join him there. To get to Calais, Wasil had travelled almost four thousand miles, across much of Asia and Europe, by himself. Along the way, he had survived for ten days in a forest with only two bottles of water, two biscuits, and a packet of dates to sustain him. Before leaving home, he hadn’t even known how to prepare a meal.

Wasil was stunned by the conditions of the Jungle. The camp, a forty-acre assemblage of tents, situated on a vast windswept sandlot that had formerly served as a landfill, didn’t seem fit for human habitation. “I did not come here for luxury,” Wasil told me, in excellent English, which he had learned from his father. “But I can’t believe this is happening in Europe.” A chemical plant loomed nearby. There was no running water, and when it rained the refugees’ tents filled with mud and the camp’s rudimentary roads became impassable.

The Jungle had one thing to recommend it: its proximity to the thirty-mile-long Channel Tunnel, which connects France and England at the Strait of Dover. Thousands of refugees and migrants from all over the world congregated at the camp, amid rats and burning trash, with the sole objective of making it, whether by truck, train, or ferry, onto British soil. On one of Wasil’s first days at the camp, he called his mother on his cell phone. “Are you safe?” she asked. “I was saying to her, ‘I’m in a good condition, I am too safe. I’m going to school and learning French. . . . I can touch the water that one side is here and the other side is England,’ ” Wasil recalled. “I’m not telling her the real situation.” [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s arc of influence from Ukraine to Libya threatens Europe

Politico reports: When EU leaders began wrestling with how to confront Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine, there seemed little connection between events in Crimea and Donbas, the raging conflict in Syria and the outset of a second civil war in Libya.

As they gather Friday for an informal European Council summit on the island of Malta, a striking new geopolitical landscape has come clearly into focus: a crescent of Russian influence, arching from Donetsk in the east to Tripoli in the west.

Having cemented Russia’s role as the dominant belligerent against a pro-Western Ukraine, where the half-frozen conflict in the east has flared up in the past week, and in Syria where a fragile ceasefire has taken hold with Moscow’s ally Bashar al-Assad still in power, President Vladimir Putin has turned his attention to Libya.

For Europe, this raises the worrying prospect that Russia could gain control over the flow of migrants across the central Mediterranean, giving Putin leverage to destabilize Europe by unleashing a flood of refugees like the exodus from Syria that caused a crisis in Europe in 2015.

“It would have a tap to open when it needs something from us,” warned one Central European diplomat. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab Spring is far from over

Koert Debeuf writes: What were once high hopes for a new, free and democratic Arab World have turned into civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. Instead of democracies, countries like Egypt, Bahrain and even Morocco have become even more repressive dictatorships.

In Egypt alone, no less than 40,000 people have been detained since President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July 2013. All independent television stations have been closed and critical journalists arrested. Most NGOs have been shut down or can simply no longer function. And then there is the Islamic State, the most barbaric outcome of the chaos that followed the 2011 uprisings.

These may seem like more than enough reasons to call the Arab Spring an utter failure. But, in truth, it depends on how carefully you look at what is happening. On the surface, the political upheavals look like failed revolts against dictatorships. But dig a bit deeper into the societies of these Arab countries and there are reasons to believe what we see is not a simple revolt, but an epochal revolution.

If that is true, today’s depressing situation is not the end; it’s just one of the stages the region is going through on its way to a better future. That, at least, is one of the lessons we could learn from history.

Take the French Revolution. The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, didn’t come out of nowhere. In the 18th century, the population of France had grown by 50 percent. The large young generation couldn’t find jobs because the economic system was stuck. The people were getting poorer, while the grandees who populated the court in Versailles were excessively rich. There was no freedom of religion, and the Church was amassing power and wealth. The French Revolution didn’t stop when Napoleon took power in 1799. It took 80 years and 12 constitutions before France became a stable democracy in 1870. [Continue reading…]

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In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs

Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson write: In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs in seven countries. This estimate is undoubtedly low, considering reliable data is only available for airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and a single “strike,” according to the Pentagon’s definition, can involve multiple bombs or munitions. In 2016, the United States dropped 3,027 more bombs — and in one more country, Libya — than in 2015. [Continue reading…]

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Libya could become even more chaotic after the ISIS loses its stronghold

The Washington Post reports: Libyan militias backed by American airstrikes said they have cleared the stronghold of the Islamic State in Libya, a defeat that would set back the group’s ambitions in North Africa. The country, however, remains very unstable amid battles between rival militias and the remaining militants could still undermine a fragile U.S.-backed unity government, analysts said.

Libyan fighters erupted in celebration in the coastal city of Sirte on Tuesday after a nearly seven month struggle to oust the Islamic State, as the mostly pro-government forces were searching for any remaining militants.

The Islamic State’s hopes of extending their self-proclaimed “caliphate” beyond Syria and Iraq into Libya have been dashed, at least for now. But while their propaganda war and recruiting efforts have also been weakened, analysts said, the group remains active in other parts of the country.

Libya now faces the specter of clandestine cells staging terrorist attacks, much like they’ve done recently in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, after battlefield reverses there. [Continue reading…]

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Why it’s taking so long for the U.S. and its allies to finish off the ISIS in Libya

The Washington Post reports: A U.S. air campaign against Islamic State militants in Libya, which was supposed to be a brisk illustration of the effectiveness of U.S. support for local forces, has turned into an extended operation with no clear end in sight.

About 100 militants are believed to remain in the coastal city of Sirte, which in 2015 became the most important Islamic State stronghold outside of Iraq and Syria. They are holed up in a small, densely packed residential area. For months, U.S.-backed local militia fighters have struggled against militant defenses and sniper attacks; last week, 14 fighters were killed on one day alone.

The elusiveness of victory in Sirte underscores the challenges that continue to face U.S. efforts to defeat extremists from North Africa to Afghanistan: the limitations of local fighting forces, including inadequate battlefield support and poor morale, and the corrosive effects of local political feuds. [Continue reading…]

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