NATO

Can South Asia’s future be any different?

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A mild flutter ensued after External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s recent meeting with his Turkiye counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York on September 21 when it came to be known that Cyprus figured in their discussion. Jaishankar highlighted it in a tweet. 

The Indian media instinctively related this to Turkish President Recep Erdogan making a one-line reference to the Kashmir issue earlier that day in his address to the UN GA. But Jaishankar being a scholar-diplomat, would know that Cyprus issue is in the news cycle and the new cold war conditions breathe fresh life into it, as tensions mount in the Turkish-Greek rivalry,  which often draws comparison with the India-Pakistan animosity, stemming from another historical “Partition” — under the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) that ended the Ottoman Empire.

The beauty about peace treaties is that they have no ‘expiration date’ but the Treaty of Lausanne was signed for a period of a hundred years between Turkiye on one side and Britain, France, Italy, Greece, and their allies on the other. The approaching date heightens the existential predicament at the heart of Turkiye’s foreign policy.

The stunning reality is that by 24th July 2023, Turkey’s modern borders become “obsolete”. The secret articles of the 1923 Treaty, signed by Turkish and British diplomats, provide for a chain of strange happenings — British troops will reoccupy the forts overlooking the Bosphorus; the Greek Orthodox Patriarch will resurrect a Byzantine mini state within Istanbul’s city walls; and Turkey will finally be able to tap the forbidden vast energy resources of the East Mediterranean (and, perhaps, regain Western Thrace, a province of Greece.)

Of course, none of that can happen and they remain conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, the “end-of-Lausanne” syndrome remains a foundational myth and weaves neatly into the historical revisionism that Ataturk should have got a much better deal from the Western powers.

All this goes to underline the magnitude of the current massively underestimated drama, of which Cyprus is at the epicentre. Suffice to say, Turkey’s geometrically growing rift with Greece and Cyprus over the offshore hydrocarbon reserves and naval borders must be properly understood in terms of the big picture.

Turkiye’s ruling elite believe that Turkey was forced to sign the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 and the “Treaty of Lausanne” in 1923 and thereby concede vast tracts of land under its domain. Erdogan rejects any understanding of history that takes 1919 as the start of the 1,000-year history of his great nation and civilisation. “Whoever leaves out our last 200 years, even 600 years together with its victories and defeats, and jumps directly from old Turkish history to the Republic, is an enemy of our nation and state,” he once stated.

The international community has begun to pay attention as Turkiye celebrates its centenary next year, which also happens to be an election year for Erdogan. In a typical first shot, the US State Department announced on September 16 — just five days before Jaishankar met Cavusoglu — that Washington is lifting defence trade restrictions on the Greek Cypriot administration for the 2023 fiscal year.

Spokesman Ned Price said, “Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken determined and certified to Congress that the Republic of Cyprus has met the necessary conditions under relevant legislation to allow the approval of exports, re-exports, and transfers of defence articles.”

The US move comes against the backdrop of a spate of recent arms deals by Cyprus and Greece, including a deal to purchase attack helicopters from France and efforts to procure missile and long-range radar systems. Turkiye called on the US “to reconsider this decision and to pursue a balanced policy towards the two sides on the Island.” It has since announced a beefing up of its military presence in Northern Cyprus. 

To be sure, the unilateral US move also means indirect support for the maritime claims by Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, which Turkiye, with the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, rejects as excessive and violates its sovereign rights and that of Turkish Cypriots.

Whether these developments figured in Jaishankar’s discussion with Cavusoglu is unclear, but curiously, India too is currently grappling with a similar US decision to offer a $450 million military package to Pakistan to upgrade its nuclear-capable F-16 aircraft.

Indeed, the US-Turkey-Cyprus triangle has some striking similarities with the US-India-Pakistan triangle. In both cases, the Biden administration is dealing with friendly pro-US governments in Nicosia and Islamabad but is discernibly unhappy with the nationalist credo of the leaderships in Ankara and New Delhi.

Washington is annoyed that the governments in Ankara and New Delhi preserve their strategic autonomy. Most important, the US’ attempt to isolate Russia weakening due to the refusal by Turkiye and India to impose sanctions against Moscow.

The US is worried that India and Turkiye, two influential regional powers, pursue foreign policies promoting multipolarity in the international system, which undermines US’ global hegemony. Above all,  it is an eyesore for Washington that Erdogan and Prime Minister Modi enjoy warm trustful personal interaction with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The photo beamed from Samarkand during the recent SCO summit showing Erdogan arm in arm with Putin must have infuriated President Biden. Modi too displayed a rare moment of surging emotions when he told Putin at Samarkand on September 16,

“The relationship between India and Russia has deepened manifold. We also value this relationship because we have been such friends who have been with each other every moment for the last several decades and the whole world also knows how Russia’s relationship with India has been and how India’s relationship with Russia has been and therefore the world also knows that it is an unbreakable friendship. Personally speaking, in a way, the journey for both of us started at the same time. I first met you in 2001, when you were working as the head of the government and I had started working as head of the state government. Today, it has been 22 years, our friendship is constantly growing, we are constantly working together for the betterment of this region, for the well-being of the people. Today, at the SCO Summit, I am very grateful to you for all the feelings that you have expressed for India.”

Amazingly, the western media censored this stirring passage in its reports on the Modi-Putin meeting!

Notably, following the meeting between Modi and Erdogan in Samarkand on Sept. 16, a commentary by the state-owned TRT titled Turkiye-India ties have a bright future ahead signalled Erdogan government’s interest to move forward in relations with India.

India’s ties with Turkiye deserve to be prioritised, as that country is inching toward BRICS and the SCO and is destined to be a serious player in the emerging multipolar world order. Symptomatic of the shift in tectonic plates is the recent report that Russia might launch direct flights between Moscow and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state supported and recognised only by Ankara. (Incidentally, one “pre-condition” set by the Biden administration to resume military aid to Cyprus was that Nicosia should roll back its relations with Moscow!) 

Without doubt, the US and the EU are recalibrating the power dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean by building up the Cyprus-Greece axis and sending a warning to Turkiye to know its place. In geopolitical terms, this is another way of welcoming Cyprus into NATO. Thus, it becomes part of the new cold war.

Can South Asia’s future be any different? Turkiye has so many advantages over India, having been a longstanding cold-war era ally of the US. It hosts Incirlik Air Base, one of the US’ major strategically located military bases. Kurecik Radar Station partners with the US Air Force and Navy in a mission related to missile interception and defence. Turkey is a NATO power which is irreplaceable in the alliance’s southern tier. Turkey controls the Bosphorus Straits under the Montreux Convention (1936).

Yet, the US is unwilling to have a relationship of mutual interest and mutual respect with Turkiye. Pentagon is openly aligned with the Kurdish separatists. The Obama administration made a failed coup attempt to overthrow Erdogan.

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Understanding Libya’s Relentless Destabilization

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After leading a military coup in 1969, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi cemented his rule over Libya for more than 40 years. A variety of different political ideologies—Pan-Arabism, Pan-Africanism, socialism, Islamic leftism, and others—characterized his leadership, which were further reinforced by a cult of personality. While living standards for Libyans increased under his rule, Gaddafi attracted resentment among some non-Arab populations, Islamic extremists, and other political opponents.

As the Arab Spring spreadoutward from neighboring Tunisia into Libya in February 2011, protestors and militant groups seized parts of the country. Loyalist armed forces retook control of much of what they had lost over the next few weeks after the outbreak of the protests, but Gaddafi’s historical antagonism toward Western governments saw them seize the opportunity to impose a no-fly zone and bombing campaign against Libyan forces in March 2011.

Alongside assistance from regional Middle Eastern allies, the NATO-led intervention was successful in helping local militant groups topple Gaddafi, who was later captured and executed in October 2011. Soon after his death, questions were immediately raised about how Libya could be politically restructured and avoid becoming a failed state. After militant groups refused to disarm, they along with their allies began to contest territory and control over Libya’s fragile new national institutions.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) was established to coordinate rebel groups against Gaddafi, and naturally inherited much of the Libyan government after the war. But a number of countries did not recognize its authority, and after handing power over to the General National Congress (GNC) in 2012, Libya’s weak central government steadily lost political control over its enormous territory to competing groups.

Libya’s population of almost 7 million people lives in a highly urbanized society that has led to the development of strong regional identities among those living in its northern coastal cities. There has also historically been an east-west divide between the two coastal provinces of Cyrenaica in the east and Tripolitania in the west.

A large Turkish and part-Turkish minority also live throughout Libya’s major cities, particularly in the city of Misrata. Most of them have descended from the Ottoman troops who married local women during Ottoman rule from 1551-1912, and though not a strictly homogenous group, the majority revolted against Gaddafi as nationwide protests began in Libya.

The historical lack of central authority in Libya’s more rural south resulted in widespread autonomy for the Tuareg tribe in the southwest and the Tubu tribe in the southeast. While the Tuaregs largely supported Gaddafi, the Tubu joined the revolutionaries, sparking increased tension between these two tribes to gain control over the city of Ubari, local smuggling routes, and energy infrastructure.

Alongside ethnic and cultural disputes, Libya was further destabilized by radical Islamists after the fall of Gaddafi. Mass unemployment among Libya’s relatively young population fueled recruitment for ISIS and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia. Having gained battlefield experience and with limited economic prospects, many militants in Libya had little incentive to return to civilian life, while the influx of foreign jihadists also kept the violence ongoing.

Rivalries between these numerous factions helped lead to the outbreak of the second Libyan civil war in 2014. The UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) was signed in December 2015 to create a Presidential Council (PC) for appointing a unity government in Tripoli but failed to curtail growing violence between local actors.

Two major entities came to dominate the country. The Government of National Accord (GNA), which was presided over by the PC, was recognized in March 2016 to lead Libya, with Fayez Serraj as the Libyan prime minister. This move partly incorporated elements of Libya’s political Islamic factions.

The Libyan House of Representatives (HoR), meanwhile, refused to endorse the GNA, and relocated to Tobruk in Cyrenaica after political pressure and Islamist militias forced it out of Tripoli in 2014. The HoR is led by former General Khalifa Haftar, who commands the Libyan National Army (LNA).

The GNA retained official recognition by the UN as well as Libya’s most important economic institutions, including the Central Bank of Libya (CBL). But both the GNA and the HoR continued to fight for influence over the National Oil Corporation (NOC), while many other national institutions were forced to work with both factions.

Military force has also been integral to enforcing rival claims to Libya’s leadership. In 2017, Haftar’s forces seized Benghazi, consolidating power across much of the east and center of the country. But his attempt to take Tripoli in 2019-2020 was repelled by GNA and allied forces, prompting an HoR retreat on several fronts. A ceasefire between the GNA and the rival administration of the LNA declared an end to the war in October 2020, but tensions and violence persisted.

Libya’s civil conflict has also been inflamed by outside powers. Turkey opposed the original NATO-led intervention in 2011 but supported Libyan Turks, some of whom founded the Libya Koroglu Association in 2015, to coordinate with Turkey. Ankara has also supported the GNA with arms, money, and diplomatic support for years, and Turkish forces and military technology were integral to repelling Haftar’s assault on Tripoli.

Turkey’s business interests in Libya and desire to increase its power in the Mediterranean remain Ankara’s core initiatives, and in June it voted to extend the mandate for military deployment in Libya for another 18 months. Both Turkey and Qatar, which has also been a strong backer of the GNA, are close with the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and associated political circles in Libya, to attempt to promote a brand of political Islam that rivals Saudi-led initiatives.

With few core interests in Libya, the U.S. has shown tacit support for intervening again in a conflict it had allegedly won, but from 2015 to 2019, U.S. airstrikes and military support helped the GNA push ISIS out of many Libyan cities. Yet, Washington has remained wary of being associated with the Libyan conflict and with Islamists allied with the GNA, and the U.S. harbored and provided support to Haftar for decades to pressure Gaddafi before the civil war.

Egypt has been one of the HoR’s most crucial allies, providing weapons, military support, and safe haven through Libya’s eastern border. Besides protecting Libya’s Egyptian population, Egypt’s military-led government is also seeking to suppress political Islam in the region after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood briefly ruled Egypt from 2011 to 2013 following Egypt’s own revolution. In 2020, Cairo approved its own intervention in Libya.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have similar interests in suppressing rival political Islamic forces in the region and have provided funding and weaponry to Haftar. Doing so has brought them closer to Russia, which has also supported Haftar with substantial military assistance. This includes warplanes piloted by the Russian private military company Wagner, which is suspected to be partially bankrolled in Libya by the UAE.

Libya’s destabilization complements the Kremlin’s attempts to influence Europe. Haftar’s forces and supporters managed to block Libyan oil exports in 2020 and again earlier this year, threatening continental supply and increasing Russia’s leverage. Additionally, instability in the region and porous borders encourage migrant flows to Europe, often increasing the popularity of right-wing political parties which have grown closer to Russia over the last two decades.

The HoR has also found less direct aid from France. Officially, Paris has supported UN negotiations and the GNA and has sought to minimize perceptions of its involvement in the conflict. But the death of three undercover French soldiers in Libya in 2016 showed that Paris remained deeply involved in the country’s civil war, and it has sold billions in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to help Haftar. This is part of France’s efforts to suppress Islamist groups in Africa, where France retains considerable interests.

France’s position has brought criticism from Western allies. In 2019, Paris blocked an EU statement calling on Haftar to stop his offensive on Tripoli, while its support for Haftar has severely undermined its relationship with Italy, which has seen its economic influence in Libya decline.

Since the conclusion of the second Libyan civil war in 2020, steps have been taken to unify the country. A Government of National Unity was established in 2021 to consolidate Libya’s political forces, and the new Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh reached an agreement with Haftar in July 2022 to enforce a ceasefire.

But based on the current dynamics of limited intervention, there is relatively little risk and high rewards for foreign powers to continue destabilizing Libya. Turkey and Russia are also using the conflict to add to their leverage over one another in Syria. With repeated delays in holding elections in Libya and rival local and foreign actors seeking to dominate the country, Libyan citizens risk continuing to be used instead of being helped to ensure a stable and secure future for their country.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.