Forum Islam and Middle East (FINO)

FINO Pointer

The aim of FINO Pointer is to offer the wider public scientific findings in the form of analyses and background reports with a clear daily relevance.

Reinhard Schulze

In a small circle of family members and envoys of Generals, the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi was buried on November 30, 2020. The assassination attempt, which claimed Fakhrizadeh's life on November 27, provoked furious reactions in the Iranian press, which were directed both against the possible perpetrators, and the authorities in the country. They were accused of having learned nothing from the series of attacks in the past and of having so many weaknesses that it was easy for an opponent to implement his sinister plans. At the same time, however, the perfection of the assassination even demanded a certain respect from the press.

The perfection of an assassination attempt

The planning and execution of the assassination indeed indicate a high level of professionalism and support from local actors. The nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh, who had arrived on Friday morning from Rostam in the province of Mazandaran and had been escorted by three other vehicles on his way to Tehran, was on his way to the village of Absard, 45 kilometers east of the capital, when he heard impacts on his armoured car of Japanese make. One of the escort vehicles had previously driven into the village to secure the passage. Fakhrizadeh stopped, probably suspecting engine damage, and got out. At that moment he was hit by a volley fired from a remote-controlled machine gun placed in a pickup truck 150 meters away. After the salvo, the pickup exploded. Hit by at least three bullets, Fakhrizadeh was taken by helicopter to a Tehran hospital, where he soon died.

The media emphasized that not a single attacker had been present during the three-minute attack. The owner of the pickup truck had allegedly left the country before. Everything indicates that the assassins had an excellent logistical infrastructure on site. Their insider knowledge suggests that they had their sources of information not only in the Ministry of Defence, where the 61-year-old Fakhrizadeh had been employed in the Department for Research and Innovation, but also in the security apparatus and probably also in circles of the Revolutionary Guards.

The known-unknown victim

Iranian media are also insufficiently informed about Fakhrizadeh. The authorities would like to keep it that way. In this respect, the fact that the funeral was only allowed to take place in a small circle because of the Corona pandemic suited them. After all, the short ceremony was broadcast by a television station.

It is likely, however, that Fakhrizadeh had made a career in the Revolutionary Guards parallel to his academic work, where he rose to brigadier general, but then worked in the Ministry of Defence for the "Organization for New Defence Research" (Persian acronym Sepand). Since 2017, the Sorkh-e Hesar Nuclear Research Center, located in the east of the capital, and the research program called Amad, which aims at the construction of a nuclear warhead, have also been under the control of this organization.

It is hardly surprising that Fakhrizadeh, often just called Dr. Hasan Mohseni, had many enemies. Above all, the Iranian People's Mujahedin had been seeking to denounce him in public together with other leaders of Iranian nuclear research program. After a team of the Israeli secret service Mossad had stolen heavy files of the Iranian nuclear research in January 2018 in a Tehran warehouse, and brought them out of the country, and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called Fakhrizadeh a mastermind of military nuclear research in May 2018, it was clear that Fakhrizadeh had been put on Mossad's hit list. Prior to this, six other Iranian nuclear researchers had already been the victims of attacks since 2010. But Saudi Arabia and the USA also had Fakhrizadeh on their radar. And even those responsible in Iran must have been aware that November 28, 2020 would mark the tenth anniversary of the assassination of nuclear scientist Majid Shahryari. The signs were for storm.

The Iranian authorities were aware of the threat to which Fakhrizadeh was exposed. Therefore, more and more concerned voices are raised in Iranian reports that not only accuse the Revolutionary Guards, the State Security Service and the Ministry of Defence of failure, but also speculate about leaks, even covert intrigue. Although the Revolutionary Guards won the recent power struggle with the government of President Rohani following the assassination of Qasem Soleiman, the commanders of the Qods Brigades in Baghdad on 3 January 2020 and the accidental shooting down of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 on 8 January 2020, their reputation and above all their credibility had been severely damaged.

Waiting helplessness

Therefore, the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards, Hosein Salami, hastened to declare that revenge for the assassination of Fakhrizadeh and the punishment of the assassins was imminent. A little later, however, he was corrected by the Revolutionary Guard spokesman, General Ramadan Sharif: although the perpetrators were known, the government did not want to be tempted to react too quickly.

Thus, one waits also in Teheran spellbound for how the situation will develop further. Hardly anyone expects a military adventure like the one in January 2020 as a reaction to the murder of Soleimani. Although Fakhrizadeh is considered a martyr and school classes are already named after him, he has never been a public figure like Soleimani, and the regime does not want to change that. For any debate about Fakhrizadeh could also contain information about his field of activity, and this could then be interpreted as an admission by Iran to actually be working on a military nuclear program.

But neither Israel nor the USA, the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia will grant Iran this peace. There is also open speculation in the Iranian press about whether US President Donald Trump ordered the assassination in order to provoke Iran in such a way that a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would be possible. Others even go so far as to fear a wider military confrontation between the new Middle East alliance (USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE) and Iran with its allies. Trump, it is suspected, could use this situation to extend his term of office, as it is unlikely that an orderly transfer of power to Biden can be achieved under wartime conditions.

Why now of all times?

Nevertheless, it is probably not going to happen. However, the timing of the conspiracy does indicate that the United States, in concert with the new Middle East alliance, wants to prevent a rapid return of the Biden administration to a nuclear agreement. Certainly, it was also not about preventing Iran's technological ability to build an atomic bomb by killing one of its specialists. This had been different with the series of attacks from 2010 to 2012. At that time, it was the goal of the USA and Israel to rob Iran of its technological knowledge. Today, when Iran is hardly in a position to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single weapon in the next decade, there is more at stake: It should be made clear that foreign powers can operate in Iran in any way they want, that Iran is no longer the master of its own house. It should be made clear to every external ally of Iran that Iran is only a paper tiger, that it can no longer protect its own inner circle, that the country can never protect the interests of Hizbullah in Lebanon, Ansar Allah (Huthi) in Yemen, Asad's Syria or the Shiite pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, and certainly not the Shiite opposition in the Arab Gulf States. The assassination thus had four objectives: To weaken Iran's nuclear competence, to expose the powerlessness of the Revolutionary Guards, to ruin Iran's reputation with its allies and to prevent the coming Biden administration from retrieving a nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

The great offence

It remains to be seen what of this goal will be implemented. But the nerves are bare in Iran. Even more so than in January 2020, Iran, shaken by the Corona crisis with its deep impact on the Islamic-religious constitution of society, must admit that it really no longer knows what is going on in its own country. On the other hand, the foreign secret services are probably much better informed. The assassination of Fakhrizadeh thus represents an enormous offence, the effects of which will sooner or later affect the regime and its authorities, which are considered incapable. The upcoming presidential elections will show in which direction the insult will drive the population.

Iran will try to make the best of the misery. The country no longer has many options for action. A military reaction is out of the question, unless a hotspur from the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards like General Salami can prevail. President Rohani has already made it clear, as a precaution, that Iran will not let external circumstances dictate the pace and nature of its reaction. It could therefore be that Iran will rather position its allies as proxies and will have needle-sticks carried out here and there against Israel or US institutions. At the same time, however, Iran would have to make it clear that the fact that a foreign power could operate so brazenly in Iran was only a regrettable, one-time industrial accident. But hardly anyone will believe the regime in Tehran anymore.

Reinhard Schulze

At noon on October 23, 2020, five officers from each of the Libyan belligerents signed an agreement in Geneva for a "complete and permanent ceasefire". As members of a Joint Military Commission, they had been working for some time on measures for a disengagement of troops off the central Libyan city of Sirte, the southern airbase al-Jufra and on other local frontlines as well as for a withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from the immediate vicinity of the front. The result so far has been an unofficial ceasefire that has been in place since July 2020. Since last Monday, the negotiation of a binding ceasefire has been on the agenda of the military commission. Under the auspices of the United Nations Libya Mission headed by Stephanie Williams, an agreement was negotiated in which the provisions for a "permanent ceasefire" were laid down on three pages in twelve clauses.

The armistice

Both sides then appeared in front of the press for a joint photo session, leaving the impression that the Libyan government in Tripolitania under Prime Minister Fāyiz al-Sarrāj and the East Libyan government of the House of Representatives, which is in fact under the control of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalīfa Haftar, for the first time recognized each other as negotiating partners. The "complete and permanent ceasefire agreement in Libya between the Libyan Army and the Libyan National Army of the General Command of the Armed Forces" defines in twelve articles the practical measures that should be made possible because of the ceasefire. These include the withdrawal of foreign mercenary units within three months, the withdrawal of both sides from the frontline, the establishment of a joint police force to secure the cleared areas, and the listing of all militias and combatants in a common register that should serve as a starting point for their integration into the armies or their demobilization. The agreement on de-escalation in the media is also significant. The treaty states: "The media escalation and the hate speech that is currently spread via audio-visual propaganda channels and websites must be stopped, and the judicial authorities and the competent authorities are required to take the necessary measures to ensure that these channels and their websites are seriously and deterrently prosecuted". Furthermore, connecting roads between the two territories should be opened and air and sea traffic should be allowed to resume.

In addition, the Military Commission has agreed to neutralize the powerful Petroleum Facilities Guard in the west and east of the country, which until now have been close to the LNA, and to instruct their commanders to work out a proposal with representatives of the National Oil Corporation in Tripoli to re-structure and organize the Facility Guard. This will allow for the immediate resumption of oil production and the shipment of the oil in the ports of Eastern Libya.

A compulsion for a ceasefire

The sharp increase in the number of infections with the coronavirus in Libya put the political representatives of the belligerent parties under pressure. In contrast to Egypt, where the number of infections has been falling significantly since July, the daily number of infections in Libya has increased fivefold. Although the weekly incidence is still lower than in Western Europe, Libyan authorities fear that without coordinated health policies between the two governments the situation could spiral out of control.

The agreement makes it clear that due to the military stalemate that has existed since July 2020, both warring parties have come to realize that a continuation of the war would only lead to the further fragmentation of their armed forces and thus to the ruination of their own power. A resumption of fighting would also have created the danger that the cold proxy war between the supporting powers Turkey on the one hand, Russia, and Egypt on the other would have turned into a hot conflict and that the interests of the local warring parties would thus be overrun.

Insisting on the unity of the country

The agreement maintains the "unity of the Libyan territories and the protection of their borders by land, sea and air" and stipulates that the country's policies and resources are not subject to any "foreign power". To the outside world, this raises the illusion that the permanence of the state "Libya" is undisputed and that the war was or still is primarily a war for legitimate rule of that state. The fact, however, that both parties recognized each other as equal contractual partners points in a completely different direction. The agreement first confirms the division of sovereignty over the country and the national territory. Critics of the agreement in Tripoli, such as the militias of the "Revolutionaries of Tripoli," therefore suspect that the government of national accord in Tripoli has de facto approved of Haftar's military rule in the east of the country (Barqa). Last Thursday they kidnapped Muhammad Baʿayū, head of the government's information office in Tripoli newly appointed in September 2020. Baʿayū had wanted to make sure that all Islamist propaganda disappeared from the official and semi-official media and that the martial polemics against Khalīfa Haftar were stopped. Haftar, according to an old promise of the government of al-Sarrāj, should in any case be put on trial and executed in Benghazi. This demand had been fuelled by the discovery of mass graves in Tarhūna, where Haftar's militias had buried their victims. It is likely to be difficult for the government to enforce peace in Tripolitania without some form of legal preparation.

Haftar, for his part, has so far held back with statements. It will be difficult for both sides to find sufficient support for this ceasefire and the pending power sharing in their respective areas of power. At present, the majority of news in the media is still based on the demonization of the enemy. Clumsy statements like those made by Haftar's spokesperson al-Mismārī are of little help. He is said to have recently announced that the mercenaries of the Russian Wagner troops should receive Libyan citizenship and therefore would not have to leave the country. Confidence-building measures that the agreement calls for look different.

Power sharing as partition plan

Even if the Europeans and the UN demand the preservation of national unity, the Libyans have probably realized that this demand would only perpetuate the war. Only the cautious move away from this maximum position made a com-promise possible, based on the political recognition of the opponent as a contractual partner. This politically catches up on something that has long since taken place on a social and cultural level in Libya, namely the dissolution of the unity of Libya constructed by Italian colonialism.

The division of the country itself is less controversial. The internal borders have already been marked out and in part coincide with very old social and cultural cleavages. Thus, it is no co-incidence that the Tripolitans' offensive stopped right outside the city of Sirte and that the Egyptian president had defined this position as a red line that the Tripolitans were not allowed to cross. This line has always corresponded to the eastern border of Tripolitania. The distribution of the unequally distributed resources in the country is controversial. Certainly, Tripolitania, especially in the south bordering Fezzān area, has rich oil and natural gas deposits, but the real wealth of resources is to be found in the region of Ajdabīyah in the east of the country, precisely in the region from which Haftar originated and where he has his allodium.

Ceasefire as military conflict settlement

The ceasefire is thus initially a military solution to the conflict. The political solution, based on a balance of interests and thus on a balancing of burdens and revenues, has been delayed. At least both sides seem to have agreed that the dismantling of enemy images and the corresponding propaganda should be included as an accompanying measure to secure the ceasefire. The reopening of communication channels will also promote the exchange of goods, which will enable the revival or reconstruction of business relations.

Thus, the actual partition of the inheritance in Libya has yet to take place, but it can hardly be prevented. From the perspective of the war-weary population, however, it is imperative. According to many commentators in Libya itself, it is only through the division that a new partnership can be created between the populations of the two countries.

It is unclear what will happen to the southern territories. In the Fezzān basin of Murzuq, there are also major oil and gas production sites, but these are still controlled by militias of the LNA. This legacy from the estate of the Gaddafi regime is coveted and therefore controversial. Local communities have so far drawn little profit and benefit from the production. For this reason, more and more people are coming forward to speak out for the secession also of Fezzān. A peace between East and West does not mean a peace throughout the country. It is no coincidence that these forgotten regions are increasingly becoming niches for ultra-Islamist alliances that carry their terror into the neighbouring areas. A political solution for the South is thus also a condition for a successful partition of the inheritance that could end this long and devastating war.

The division of the estate

The six-year war over the legacy of the Gaddafi regime will probably lead to a division of the estate. All other models of reconciliation are rather utopian. While the political structures in Tripolitania suggest further decentralization due to the different republican traditions of the coastal cities, the power structure in a future Eastern Libya (Barqa) is still vaguely contoured. A revival of the monarchical traditions that have been dominant in this area since the mid-19th century by the Sanūsī dynasty cannot be ruled out. Haftar's claim to autocracy points to this, even if he is more likely to be celebrated as a Libyan Nasser. However, opposition to Haftar's rule is already forming in Benghazi and other cities in the East, even extending to the ranks of the House of Representatives in Tobruq. In recent weeks, the chairperson of the House of Representatives, ʿAqīla Sālih (Aguila Saleh), has distanced himself increasingly from Haftar. Some claim that Saleh, a lawyer from the region of Derna in eastern Libya, even sees reconciliation with Tripolitania as a chance to become president of a united Libya. That is unlikely to happen. It is more likely that the municipalities and cities in eastern Libya will use a peace with the West to put an end to Haftar's military rule, which until now has lived exclusively from Gaddafi's legacy.

Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that the optimism explicitly formulated in the ceasefire agreement is only an interlude in the Libyan War of Succession and that after a respite the fighting will continue. The devastation that Libya would then have to experience would eclipse all the suffering that the population has had to endure up to now.

Reinhard Schulze

The morning after the devastating explosion of a 2750 t ammonium nitrate storage facility in the port of Beirut the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbār ran the headline "The Great Collapse". In a few moments Beirut was destroyed as if by a small atomic bomb, wrote the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Ibrāhīm al-Amīn and Beirut turned into a city of catastrophe.

A grim history

The ammonium nitrate had been stored in the port of Beirut for almost six years, transferred from the Moldovan-flagged cargo ship Rhosus to hangar 12 in the port area of al-Marfa᾽ at the end of 2013 after the rotten ship had had to moor in the port of Beirut due to a damaged engine. The then owner, Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin, declared bankruptcy and wrote the ship off; the ten mostly Ukrainian seamen under Russian captain Boris Prokoshev were later repatriated. The cargo was confiscated by the Lebanese port authorities as security for the demurrage charges that Grechushkin was expected to pay but did not. Years later, the ship sank and the ammonium nitrate remained in hangar 12.

The local port officials wrote at least six times to the owner of the port, the state port authority, pointing out the risk of storing such a highly sensitive material. They demanded a quick disposal of the artificial fertilizer for example on the fields of Lebanese farmers. However, nothing happened. Igor Grechushkin, who probably lives in Limassol in Cyprus at the time of writing, refused to cooperate. State authorities remained inactive.

The Detonation

What finally triggered the detonation of the ammonium nitrate on 4 August 2020 at 18:08 local time is still under investigation. The force of the explosion was enormous. Damage to buildings occurred within a radius of more than 10 km. In an inner radius of two to three kilometres, over 135 people were killed and well over 5,000 injured, almost 300,000 people made homeless. The harbour area and the adjoining areas of the city centre, the main power station and the biggest grain silo in the city were largely destroyed by the enormous shock wave. As a result, the country's grain reserves will now only last barely for another four weeks.

However, the detonation was not only the droplet that made the barrel overflow, but the barrel itself virtually exploded. A devastation of such a magnitude had many commentators compare it to a few minutes of war, a war of the state against its own people. Without any safety measures, the ammonium nitrate had become highly explosive due to the long and dense storage. The port authority (Gestion et exploitation du port de Beyrouth) ignored all complaints and warnings from the local officials. It was only after the disaster that Lebanese President Michel Aoun declared that the ammonium nitrate had been "illegally" stored, which was "totally unacceptable". Since the fact of the stored dangerous substance was well known, the Lebanese public sees this as just another cynicism of a government, which refuses to take responsibility for the mismanagement of officials it was supposed to supervise.

The collapse

The state, a state that no longer guarantees the material security of the population, not even aiming to do so, is held responsible for the collapse of society. Already in the course of the prevailing profound economic crisis, the population saw itself betrayed by the state elites, whose internal power struggles and insistence on sectarian power sharing had made it impossible to cope with the economic crisis. The decline in the value of the Lebanese national currency could not be stopped, and while the old elites were able to maintain their standard of living with private foreign exchange reserves, the population had to make do with a now almost worthless currency.

Neither had the quarrelling state elites been able to take measures against the supply crisis, which had been coming to a head for months, now gradually turning into a societal crisis. The 1.5 million Syrian refugees, whose living conditions were becoming increasingly precarious, were not the least of the victims. In the secondary urban centres, such as the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, the voices in favour of a political separation from the centre of power in Beirut increased. Shiite Hezbollah has been suspected of infiltrating the military and preparing a coup d'état.

The Corona epidemic aggravated this already precarious situation, which now became a State crisis. The mismanagement of the state authorities became ubiquitously evident. During July, the number of people infected with the Covid 19 virus tripled. Even before the detonation, which destroyed two of the city's larger hospitals, medical care was no longer guaranteed.

Loss of confidence

"Beirut itself is a disaster" headlined editor Nūr Niʿma of the newspaper ad-Diyār. One might just as well say: For the majority of the Lebanese this state is the disaster. The almost 5 billion dollars, which according to first estimates the reconstruction of the basic structure of Beirut's port area will cost, are not available. If money would come into the country, this, it is feared, would only end up, as usual, in the pockets of the Lebanese oligarchs.

Lebanese newspapers declare the state systematically covering up the "madness" represented by the storage of ammonium nitrate in Hangar 12 and in addition trying to profit from the situation. However, all strategies of the elites to conceal their fatal failure of the state will eventually be doomed. For example, on 7 August the trial of the perpetrators of the 2005 bomb attack, in which the former Prime Minister Rafīq Harīrī and 21 people had been killed, was to begin in a court supported by the United Nations; in absentia four suspects of Hezbollah are accused. This should have been the first time that the attack, which in the eyes of many Lebanese had started the polarization of political and military power in the country, would be legally dealt with. Due to the current economic crisis, the polarization has been realigned: now it is the coalition of the old state elites vs. "the people" with opposite sides seemingly irreconcilable. The loss of trust is so widespread that any political action is in principle considered implausible from the start. The increasingly mutinous people withdraw their support of this state.

The Lebanese Foreign Minister, in office since January 2020 Nāsīf Yūsuf Hittī resigned one day before the detonation stating that he saw Lebanon on the road to becoming a "failed state". Now protesters in the streets of Beirut are demanding the resignation of the government of Hassān Diyāb. It is to be expected that the political elites will "dismiss" Diyāb, in fact drop him as a pawn, in order to keep the uproar at bay and safeguard their image as the country's masters. But this is exactly what the protesters fundamentally doubt and start to deny. Thus, reports are not surprising, some members of the political elites are supposed to be already packing their bags, in order to turn their backs on the collapsing country in good time, should the worst happen.

The horror of the end

In the eyes of many Lebanese commentators, the detonation of the ammonium nitrate marks the final collapse of the order of state and rule. For them, the state in its existing guise has become meaningless. But the state elites will try to sit out this crisis too. For this they will once again attempt to use their traditional patronage system, hoping that the people's ties to their clans and families will continue to work and that those who are not in a clientele relationship will become politically and socially isolated. However, it is doubtful whether this attitude will guarantee their survival in the current crisis. It is more likely that the explosion has heralded the beginning of an end.

Reinhard Schulze

For nearly seven weeks, militias and mercenary troops of the Tripoli government of National Concord (GNA) under Fāyiz Sarrāj and the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Khalīfa Haftar have been menacing each other outside the central Libyan city of Sirte (Syrte). There is an undeclared ceasefire at the front.

Haftar's militias had succeeded in stopping the advance of GNA units at the beginning of June. It was clear to Haftar's allies that if Sirte fell into the hands of the GNA units, the way to the oil production areas in the east and the five large loading terminals, among others in Rās Lānūf and Brēga would be open to them. On 10 June Haftar's allies, the governments of Russia and Egypt, had declared the front line in front of Sirte to be a red line up to 250km south to Waddān. Should GNA militias cross it, this would inevitably lead to a direct military deployment of the Egyptian armed forces.

The Egyptian intervention

Even the strong militia from Misrāta, which form the core of the LNA units, decided not to try again to take Sirte. Nevertheless, they strengthened their positions 20 km west of the city, whereupon the Egyptian side intensified its verbal attacks. President al-Sīsī repeated his threat several times and had the Egyptian parliament unanimously give him carte blanche for a military mission. The President was authorized "to send units of the Egyptian army on combat missions outside the borders of the Egyptian state to defend Egypt's national security". Previously, the Eastern Libyan government of the "House of Representatives" (HoR), to which the LNA is nominally subordinate, had submitted a request for assistance to the Egyptian government.

Similarly, al-Sīsī showed up at a meeting with tribal leaders from Eastern Libya, which took place in Cairo under the motto "Egypt and Libya - one people, one destiny" to coincide with the parliamentary decision. The tribal representatives hoped to receive direct military aid from Egypt. In a highly symbolic act, they invited Hāfiz Khattāb, one of the ruling sheikhs of the Eastern Libyan al-Manafa tribe and grandson of ʿUmar al-Mukhtār, the Libyan resistance hero against Italian colonialism who had been executed in 1931. Khattāb proclaimed, "We will drive the colonial Turks out of Libya, just as ʿUmar al-Mukhtār had driven out the Italians."

However, the Egyptian government refuses to arm the tribes. Only when they place their fighters under the LNA command could they expect to receive arms assistance. Al-Sīsī apparently wants to prevent the tribes from acting as independent actors, knowing full well that the Eastern Libyan tribes are quite capable of mobilizing their factions living in Egypt. This had already been the case several times and had caused massive problems for previous Egyptian governments.

The Arab-Turkish Cold War

The impending Egyptian combat mission in Libya could therefore also aim at averting the danger of tribal separatism in Eastern Libya. The Egyptian regime interprets Libya as its front yard, where it is important to prevent any sign of an Islamist or separatist mood spreading to Egypt in the germ. To this end, Egypt must find ways and means of breaking the alliance between the Tripoli government and Turkey.

The means of choice at the moment is to stir up anti-Turkish sentiment in the Arab world. The aim of Egypt's policy is to contain Turkey, whose regional policy is interpreted as neo-Ottoman colonialism and Turkish imperialism. This deepens the rift between Turkey and most Arab countries that has opened up since 2012/3. Rhetorically, both camps are already in a state of war. The Egyptian press calls the Turkish president a terrorist devil, who wants to colonize the Arab world in alliance with the "terror prince" Bin Hamad, the Emir of Qatar, and the apostate "terrorists" in Tripoli and wants to establish the rule of the "Devil's Brothers", meaning the Muslim Brothers. The Turkish side simply calls al-Sīsī a "tyrant" who is a puppet of the dark terrorist powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Turkish press commented on the sharp criticism of the governments in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for the renewed use of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque with the words: "These countries have left the civilized world.”

The block formation is reminiscent of the Arab Cold War, which dominated the Middle East from 1956 to 1979. The Turkish media never tires of calling al-Sīsī the new version of the Egyptian President Nasser; the Egyptians, for their part, portray Erdoğan as a revival of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Bannā. The block formation is increasingly acquiring a considerable neo-nationalist profile. This time the Arab alliance even unites the two arch-rivals from the time of the first Arab Cold War, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Their political justification scheme is no longer ideological, but is based on a consensus on the need for a restorative national policy to prevent any form of rebellion or revolt against the state. To this end, Islam must be banned from the political public sphere. The Arab Alliance hopes in this way to deprive the fire of a possible new Arab rebellion of its food.

Ottomanization of the Turkish nation

Opponents are primarily the two patrons of political Islam, the Turkish government and the Emirate of Qatar. They construct their nationalisms with considerable reference to Islam. For them, Islam forms the powerful framework order that gives the nation a moral identity. By assigning the nation to Islam, the titular nations gain at the same time in prestige. The Turks are seen as guarantors of an Islamic identity to which other ethnic communities should also assign themselves. Even non-Muslim communities, for example the Armenians, should recognize the advantage of being subjects of a Turkish nation represented by Islam.

This Turkish nation, which has little to do with the nation Atatürk had dreamed of, needs the Ottoman history to justify itself historically. It interprets Turkish nationalism in a cosmopolitanism inherited from the Ottoman Empire. By integrating Ottomanism into the nationalist world of imagination, Turkey gains a platform that points far beyond the geographical area of the Turkish state. Turkey's sphere of action will be the entire eastern Mediterranean region, where it is no coincidence that large oil and gas production areas are being explored more or less successfully. And it is no coincidence that Turkey is tying in with old allies who played a decisive role in the renaissance of the Ottoman Sultanate during the reform processes of the Tanzimat period in the 19th century, among them families with non-Arab Ottoman ancestors, above all in the urban communities in Libyan Tripolitania and in Syria. It is not yet clear whether Ottomanism will also take hold among the Egyptian elites. After all, there is still an upper class in Egypt today that sees itself as the heirs of an Ottoman cosmopolitanism.

An Iranian-Turkish alliance?

The neo-Ottoman alliance led by Turkey is experimenting with the idea of entering into a strategic partnership with Iran and even improving relations with Russia. The Turkish press reported with satisfaction that the Iranian government has called the reopening of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque the most important event of this century and that the ongoing consultations between Russia and Turkey on Libya and Syria are bearing fruit. If an Iranian-Turkish rapprochement does indeed take place, it would have far-reaching consequences for the war alliances in Syria. Russia and Iran would move away from the al-Asad regime in Damascus, which in turn would develop its already good relations with the United Arab Emirates and return to the Arab League. Syrian mercenaries in the service of the Damascus regime have already intervened on the LNA side in the fighting in Libya. Al-Asad would have many advantages from this alliance. For example, he could have access to the "Arab alliance" gilded with financial aid from the Gulf states.

Turkey will know that in the long run it cannot take the risk of a double front against Iran (in Syria and Iraq) and against Saudi Arabia (in Libya). It is no secret that Russia increasingly sees the current allies al-Asad and Haftar as a burden. And the Iranian government will weigh up which of the existing front lines is most likely to be abandoned. The existing territories of Iranian or Iran-friendly militias and parties in the Fertile Crescent and Yemen would not be affected, so that Iran could maintain its position of power there. And as for proof, the Muslim Brothers are already testing a positive attitude towards the Shiite tradition. The Emirate of Qatar supports this, because its relations with Iran have improved considerably since the beginning of the Saudi blockade in June 2017.

All this is speculation. In the meantime, rearmament continues on the inner Libyan border. The GNA, which sees the decision of the Egyptian parliament as a declaration of war, has sent new troops to the front. The LNA has deployed missile defence systems around the Sirte. Turkish weapons, Turkish military personnel, and military personnel of Arab states are already facing each other.

The Libyan internal oil boycott

However, after the verbal arguments of the last weeks, it has become strangely quiet. The LNA is increasingly struggling with internal problems. In the loading ports of Brēga and Rās Lānūf, militias of the LNA have been competing for supremacy for more than two days. The LNA had begun an oil blockade in mid-January 2020, which reduced oil production to a minimum and resulted in a loss of more than $6.5 billion in revenue. The National Oil Corporation, based in Tripoli, is currently responsible for oil production in Libya, while the central bank, also based in Tripoli, is responsible for oil revenues. Both institutions are de facto subordinate to the GNA. Haftar's attempt to set up his own state bank with Russian help and to provide it with the income from the sale of oil has failed. "The ports and oil fields will remain closed until the demands and orders of the Libyan people are implemented," said the LNA spokesman, Ahmad al-Mismārī in a statement broadcast on July 11. This would remain so until the LNA's three demands are met: Opening a special account for oil revenues in a nameless country outside of Libya, through which the revenues would be distributed "fairly", preventing the financing of "terrorism and mercenaries" from the oil revenues, and a review of the central bank's expenditures paid from the oil revenue accounts in recent years.

The GNA now wants to put an end to this and exercise military control over the oil production sites east of Sirte. If it succeeds, Haftar's LNA would be thrown back to the East: it would only have those positions it already held in August 2015. Haftar's hopes of gaining control over oil revenues have evaporated. His supposed charisma has suffered massively as a result. The clashes between the hard-fought Petroleum Facilities Guard, which has been watching over the ports in the Gulf of Sirte since 2017, and the Sāʿiqa militia, which is commanded by Maḥmūd al-Warfallī and is considered a follower of the ultra-orthodox Islamic Madkhalīs, show that Haftar's power of command is crumbling. The International Criminal Court had issued an arrest warrant against him in August 2017 on the charge of having ordered extrajudicial executions in connection with the death of 33 people in 2016/7. This is apparently also about controlling the smuggling of oil, which has increased considerably with the boycott.

Haftar has apparently passed the zenith of his power. Now it will be a matter of building a credible alternative. The aim would be to consolidate the LNA's military power in the east of the country and to transform the LNA militias into armed forces under a unified command. But this would mean a far-reaching restructuring of the social foundations of the power relations in the east of the country.

Will there be war?

No one can predict with any certainty what will happen if, intentionally or accidentally, a shot is fired at the front of Sirte. Should the Misrāta militias of the GNA dare to advance eastwards, Egyptian troops will land at Sirte and intervene in the fighting. Without such an intervention, the LNA militias, which are largely made up of mercenary units, would hardly have been able to cope with the Tripolitanians and Turkish supporters. Both sides will thus try to delay the confrontation as long as possible. However, postponed is not dissolved.

Reinhard Schulze

On the occasion of his 20th anniversary as President of the Arab Republic of Syria, Bashshār al-Asad has made himself a gift: the people of Syria celebrated his birthday on July 19 with an election to the "People's Council".

Although the results of the elections have not yet been announced, the outcome is already certain: the National Progressive Front, on which the seven state-supporting parties are represented, will receive 200 seats. The list of opposition groups loyal to the regime will not receive a seat, and of the 50 " independents " to be determined, all will have taken an oath of allegiance to the regime. This also applies to the 2500 candidates who had applied for the party lists. The People's Council is a parliament without any influence. Three times a year there is a session where al-Asad gives one of his rather tiring speeches and where the parliamentarians are allowed to applaud. If the president lacks this applause, he can convene the People's Council for a special session.

Looking back

In the penultimate elections in 2012, the regime had ventured another experiment and admitted an opposition list loyal to the regime called the People's Front for Change and Freedom, which was also joined by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. This list won six seats in the election, and 27 more independents were able to win seats in the constituencies. The Syrian Baʿth, the actual party of the regime, won the absolute majority of seats as usual. In the next election four years later, the balance of power was restored. The opposition, which was loyal to the regime, was no longer given a seat, but the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) was allowed to rise into the illustrious circle of the National Progress Front. This list has now been granted 200 seats, 32 more than in 2016 and 2012. Baʿth will now receive 172 seats, the SSNP seven.

The Baʿth as state party

The Baʿth (officially the Arab Socialist Party Baʿth - Syrian Region) so far provides 30 of the 35 members of the government. Party leader, or in the jargon of Baʿth the "Regional Secretary", is al-Asad. Already under al-Asad's father, many rights had been deprived from the Baʿth cadres; it was even rumoured that al-Asad wanted to dissolve the party. But the social, political and military control over the state people by a party of privileged careerists proved to be extremely functional. It also integrated the clientelism prevalent above all in western Syria and offered the Alawite military personnel direct access to the social and economic privileges offered by the state. Unconditional loyalty to al-Asad ultimately overruled loyalty to the old ideological convictions, a critical observer said.

The transformation of the ideological Baʿth state into a patronage network was completed in the 1990s. What remained was a state that sorted its population only according to their functionality, loyalty and effort. It took on the character of a meritocracy in the form of a dictatorship of merit and obedience, thus laying the foundations for its self-destruction. The Baʿth party became the melting pot of the country's privileged inhabitants. In 1987, the party had only 50,000 members, in 2010 it had 1.2 million.

Patronage and succession

Already in his inaugural speech before the Syrian parliament, on the occasion of his swearing-in on 17 July 2000, Bashshār al-Asad had repeatedly spoken of "my people" who would have offered him the office of president in a referendum. Such a royalistic-looking manner of speaking makes it clear how al-Asad, then 35 years old, saw himself: a monarchical heir to the work of his father Hāfiz al-Asad, whom his subjects had elected to the position of Leviathan with almost 98% approval. At the time, the Arab public speculated that in many Middle Eastern countries the old guard would now step down and that their sons would inherit power. But the old generation (Mubārak in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya, al-Bashīr in Sudan, Saddam Husain in Iraq, Bin ʿAlī in Tunisia) hesitated until history knocked them from the throne. The young ophthalmologist Bashshār, on the other hand, was helped by chance. On June 10, 2000, the Syrian president died of a heart attack during a telephone conversation with the Lebanese Prime Minister Salīm Hoss. Six years earlier, his older brother Bāsil had died in a self-inflicted car accident at Damascus airport. The "Crown Prince" Bāsil had played a major role in the restructuring of the Baʿth system, including the militarization of the bureaucracy, the expansion of the secret and security services and a reorganisation of the meritocracy, as the fight against corruption is called. Bashshār’s Father Hafiz arranged for Bāsil to be worshipped by the people of the state like a martyr.

It was fine with the London-based ophthalmologist Bashshār to do so, because it enabled him to create his networks without getting entangled in the apparatus of Baʿth. Bashshār’s network put the four Alawite families from the area of Qardāha, who had been privileged by al-Asad, completely in the centre of power. The main beneficiaries were the families Makhlūf, Shālīsh, Akhras), ʿAbbūd and Khayyār, with whom the Asads are partly related by marriage: Bashshār al-Asad's mother is a Makhlūf, his wife Asmā᾽ an Akhras. The power of the Asads was based on the fact that they had succeeded in exercising hegemony over Syria through Baʿth the clans of the Kalbīya federation in the north of the Alawite country. At the same time, however, this required that the Asads had to use their patronage to secure their privileges for the large clans of the Kalbīya. However, this seemed to be less and less successful in the past. Between the ʿAbbūd and the Khayyār there had already been a dispute about the order of precedence in the summer of 2012, which was partly settled by force of arms. The family Makhlūf fell out of favour as a result of the lack of subordination of al-Asad's cousin Rāmī.


The Asads disguise the ingenious patronage system through a royal self-dramatization. Some performances by al-Asad and his British-Syrian wife Asmā᾽ seem like a re-enactment of the public performance of British royals. Although commander-in-chief of the Syrian-Arab army, al-Asad emphasizes his civilian role more than ever and leaves the military symbolism of representation to his satraps in the country. This includes in particular the provincial governors and army generals, who often come from privileged families outside the Alawite leadership circle. Some of them owe their acceptance into the leadership circle to the regime through a special bond of solidarity, which is accompanied by ruthless brutality. One of them is Major General ʿAlī Mamlūk, for a long time head of the National Security Bureau and today Vice President for Security. Other families, however, were unable to maintain their position in the al-Asad system. The families by marriage Tlās, al-Jabīr and al-Khayr from Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, who were still close allies of Hāfiz al-Asad, have since fallen from grace altogether.

The electorate

For constituencies not under the sovereignty of the Damascus regime, voting was made possible in neighbouring regions. In this way, the regime wanted to demonstrate that the whole of Syria had elected the new People's Council. The Syrian media competed to demonstrate normality. There was such a crowd of people in the polling stations that the distance rules issued due to the corona pandemic should have been pointed out again and again, it was said.

However, the elections for the new People's Council, which celebrated the president and his regime, will only have a short-term effect: For a moment, the elected officials may be convinced that they truly represent the "people". But soon the regime will recall whose mandate the parliament represents: not that of the people, but that of the regime. In keeping with the Leviathan model of power, the regime will declare its elected representatives to be the real "people", who have taken on the historic burden of fighting the rebellious population and eradicating terrorism.

Presidential elections are then to be held next year. The patronage system will require al-Asad to stand for re-election and he will of course comply with this request. The regime will then not just put two more bogus candidates in the race, as in the last election in 2014, but five, six or perhaps even more. In this way, the regime wants to show that the Syrian people actually had an election and that al-Asad will be re-elected with over 90% of the votes, despite the competition.

So what next?

But this is dreams of the future. The elections cannot gloss over the structural crisis of the Syrian patronage and representation system. Russian influence is growing in domestic decision-making processes as well; Shiite Hezbollah units and Iranian militias have secured niches in various municipalities in central Syria that are no longer controlled by the regime. In southern Syria, the war threatens to flare up again, and in the southeast and east, American and Russian units face each other. The fighting that has been going on for months west of the town of Hama shows that the regime currently has no military strategy to extend its sovereignty in the south of Idlib if it does not want to risk conflict with Turkey. Almost 80% of the population is dependent on international aid, the infrastructure has collapsed, the economy is functioning only for the privileged groups of the state. Syria's secret reserve, the Lebanese economy, can no longer step in, as it is itself on the ground.

Reinhard Schulze

On 15 June 2020, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif visited his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in Ankara. The political rapprochement between the two regional powers suggests a far-reaching shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. Is an accommodation emerging, and if so, how far will it go? Will it have an impact on the situation in the war-torn Middle East?

In the current period of political restoration following the revolts and war devastation of the past decade, initiatives to put Turkish-Iranian relations on a new footing come as no surprise. All three Middle Eastern regional alliances led by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey respectively agree that military interventions to prevent revolts at home are in principle legitimate as long as they do not affect the interests of another regional power. The current Iranian-Turkish flirtation is therefore based on a convergence of interests.

An old alliance

What is surprising is how blatantly both sides are ignoring the tensions of recent months. Remember: until October 2019, the relationship between the two countries was reasonably intact. Iran was one of the first countries to condemn the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016, as President Erdoğan repeatedly emphasized. Turkey and Iran worked well together in the Astana coalition protected by Russia; even a security policy cooperation between Turkish authorities and the Iranian revolutionary guards was possible. The conflict of interests in Syria hardly seemed to disturb the relations. When the first units of the al-Quds brigades of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards intervened in Syria in May 2012 in favour of the al-Assad regime, Turkish politicians and military officials did not see this as an immediate threat to Turkish security interests. In fact, until October 2019 there had hardly been any dangerous rapprochement between Turkish and Iranian troops in Syria.

Iran and Turkey supported each other in their respective disputes with the US in the summer of 2018: Turkey publicly opposed US sanctions against Iran and Iran condemned the sanctions against Turkey that the US government had decided to impose after the detention of Presbyterian Pastor Andrew Brunson by Turkish police.

Setbacks and differences

At least for the public, relations deteriorated after Turkey decided to intervene in Rojava, the Kurdish dominated northeast of Syria, in October 2019. While the Iranians accepted earlier Turkish occupations in northwestern Syria, the military actions in Rojava went too far for the them. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif protested, probably also because Turkey had not previously agreed to the intervention with Iran. Then Turkey decided to comply with US sanctions and stop buying oil from Iran. Relations now cooled off noticeably and reached a low point when it became clear that Turkey had indirectly supported the USA in the killing of the Iranian commander of the al-Quds brigades, Qāsem Solaimāni, on 7 January 2020.

However, as Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif stressed, soon after the outbreak of the Corona crisis both sides agreed that economic relations, the value of which had collapsed by almost 50%, and cooperation in the energy sector had to be resumed. It was threatening for Turkey that in addition to the absence of European tourists due to the Corona crisis, Iranians were now also absent. As a result, the Turkish economy lacked income of almost €1.4 billion, or almost 4% of total income from the tourism business. In addition, Iran has great interest in supplying the European energy market with natural gas via a pipeline that runs through Anatolia ("Persian Pipeline"), even if this should lead to competition with the Russian Turkish Stream project opened on 8 January 2020.

Turkish Courtship

Turkey also appears to have a growing interest in normalizing relations with Iran. Turkey leads the smallest of the three alliances in the Middle East having only one reliable partner, namely the Emirate of Qatar. Tunisia, Oman and Kuwait flirt with Turkey from time to time, but so far have not wanted to join the alliance. Moreover, with the Libyan government in Tripoli, Turkey has gained yet another partner. However, the Saudi alliance's arms expenditure is five times as high as that of the Turkish alliance, which still has a little more capital at its disposal than the Iranian alliance, which, apart from Russia, has only weak partners at its side.

Closer cooperation between the Turkish and Iranian alliances would therefore have great advantages for both sides: Turkey would be able to improve its strategic position significantly, and Iran would have the chance to offset at least partially the military superiority of the Saudi bloc.

A strategic cooperation would have to be justified by a convergence of interests. This would have to go beyond the fact that Iran and Turkey have both equally fallen victim to the US sanctions policy. It should become clear that Saudi Arabia has become the main enemy for Iran as well as for Turkey. Moreover, it would have to become clear that with Israel's entry into the Saudi alliance, the new Iranian-Turkish alliance could become the guarantor of Islamic-Arab interests in the Middle East.

If this is the case, perhaps it might also be possible to find ways to resolve the Iranian-Turkish proxy conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. There are already the first signs of this. The Iranian Government has in fact recognised the legitimacy of the Libyan Government of Tripoli and has stopped open arms assistance to Khalifa Haftar's LNA. In return, the Turkish government has made clear that it wants to disengage the still strongly anchored party of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, al-Islāh, and its militias from the alliance with the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition and the Hādī government. If this were to succeed, the Saudi coalition would face another opponent who, for his part, has good social networks with the North Yemeni Ansār Allāh, i.e. Hūthī.

The Islamic divide

It should be much easier for Iran to accommodate the Muslim Brotherhood and its environment than for the Muslim Brotherhood to accommodate the Shiite Iranians. Here again, a new orientation is indicated: Important representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and its think tanks in Qatar are approaching to reassess the roles of the Shiite tradition in Islamic history. Some also recall that also in the Shiite tradition a trend existed that pursued a similar concern as the Muslim Brotherhood; this included above all the powerful Daʿwa party in Iraq.

However, not everything fits together yet. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are currently once again celebrating the so-called Resistance Alliance, i.e. the transnational alliance of Shiite communities that have sworn allegiance to the Iranian revolutionary leader Khamenei. The Turkish policy of promoting the national conservative Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood has no place here.


However, it is possible that both options will continue to exist side by side. On the one hand, the two alliances, which are clearly different in terms of discursive and power politics, and on the other hand, a community of interests standing outside the coalitions, which forms an alliance against the new Saudi bloc.

Whatever the outcome, the President of the Syrian regime in Damascus will be the laughing third. On the one hand, he can look forward to the EU and the United Nations meeting on 30 June 2020 at the fourth Brussels conference "Supporting the future of Syria and the region", to mobilise aid for Syrians within the country and in neighbouring countries, including for the host communities, through pledges totalling US$5.5 billion for 2020 and multi-year pledges of almost US$2.2 billion for 2021 and beyond. Al-Assad will no doubt interpret this as meaning that the pressure on Syrian fiscal policy is now easing. On the other hand, the regime in Damascus will be well rewarded for its willingness to participate in an overall solution. The Kurdish question will remain a stumbling block, however. There may be a convergence of Syrian and Turkish interests on this issue, as there was 22 years ago when PKK leader Öcalan was expelled from Syria. However, this time Iran would have to play along.

The possibility of surprises is not excluded

Some observers of Middle Eastern politics, however, interpret the Iranian-Turkish rapprochement as a purely tactical security partnership, should the actual political goal, namely a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, fail. In fact, even in the United Arab Emirates there is a growing willingness to seek a balance with Iran, at least on an informal level. For some politicians in the UAE, Shiite Iran is less threatening than the policy of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has found a powerful patron in the Turkish government. Saudi Arabia and the UAE certainly have a great interest in isolating Turkey. It is not yet clear whether the Saudi princes will take such a diplomatic risk. Whatever the outcome of the game of restoration policy, the prelude seems to have been made with the visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to Ankara. He will soon travel to Moscow, and another visit to Damascus is part of his travel plans. The fact that he is travelling in person this time and not getting involved in video meetings suggests that Iran does not want to leave anything to chance here. The end-result could indeed be the negotiation and consolidation of a new Middle Eastern bipolar order.

Reinhard Schulze

Syria and Lebanon are facing economic and political collapse. Poverty is rampant in both countries, and in both countries, there is widespread resentment even among those who had previously placed their trust in the government. The two countries are not only facing national bankruptcy, but also a food crisis, which may lead to a widespread disintegration of the social order. In Syria, disintegration has been a reality for more than a decade. In Lebanon, the fifteen-year civil war is threatening to start again.

The Syrian Decline

Once again, Syrian state media are launching the news that the "Syrian Arab Army" (SAA) has prepared to conquer the rebel-held territories in Idlib province. The Russian media also give the impression that Russian troops want to enforce control over the M4 state road leading through the southern part of Idlib province. This road is considered a border between the Russian and Turkish zones of influence in Idlib.

A meeting of Turkish, Russian and Iranian representatives in Istanbul, scheduled for 15 June to discuss the situation in Libya and Syria, was cancelled at short notice. As if to prove that the regime in Damascus was serious, Russian combat aircraft and SAA artillery intensified their attacks on a 300 square kilometre area south of the state road on 14 and 15 June. However, it is uncertain whether these are really harbingers of an attack with ground troops.

It may also be a matter of putting a double lock on the ultra-Islamic warring factions that have established themselves in the area south of the road, in agreement with Turkey. On June 12, five ultra-Islamic alliances that had split off from the Organization for the Liberation of the Levant (HTS) announced that they had formed a common "operation room" called "So be steadfast" (fa-thbutū according to Quran 8:45).

Economy in ruins

Certainly, however, this news serves to conceal the catastrophic economic situation in Syria. US sanctions, which will be tightened on 17 June when the US government's Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, passed in December 2019, comes into force, and which are explicitly designed "to deny the Assad regime the financial resources used to fuel his campaign of violence and destruction", could cause an economic meltdown in Syria.

For the country's economy is already ruined. The recent increase in prices has made the economic and social disruption abundantly clear. Even before prices got out of control, a third of the population did not have enough to eat, and soon it is expected to be half the population. While the average monthly income in May was still 90 US-$, in June it is only 20 US-$. Only about 25% of the population has an income with which a one-person household can be financed. Today, the upper middle class has to rely on savings to support a family. Now, even a civil servant with a middle income would use up his entire salary if he went to a hamburger snack once a week.

Financial disaster

The government in Damascus has largely used up its financial reserves. Lebanon, whose financial sector has saved Syria from bankruptcy on several occasions, can no longer help. The Lebanese banking sector, which is based on the dollar and used by Syrian companies for their foreign business, has collapsed due to the unrest in the country. New foreign currency is hardly coming into Syria. Oil and gas production in those areas controlled by government troops now supplies almost only a black market; the profits from this strengthen the position of the new oligarchs, local commanders and gangsters. The regime's attempt to remove control of the family of Rāmī Makhlūf over their companies, which control large parts of the Syrian economy, has not brought about the longed-for relief in the financial sector.

The regime is desperately trying to take countermeasures. The newly appointed Prime Minister Husayn ʿArnūs (67) who has been part of the government apparatus for some time and as an engineer, was most recently responsible for water management, is to head the government until the announced new elections (currently scheduled for 19 July): The focus is on "maintaining strict control over the currency market and the exchange companies". At the same time, the money circulation in the country is to be brought back under the control of "regular institutions", as the governor of the Central Bank of Syria, Hāzim Karfūl announced. The protests in the Druze city of as-Suwayda and in Darʿā, which have been continuing since June 7, are quickly reinterpreted by the state media as "protests against the US sanctions". In reality, however, the protests are directed both against the regime's economic policy as well as against the presence of Iranian troops in the region.

There is little prospect of success for these countermeasures. Large parts of the Syrian market are kept alive by a black economy and smuggled goods. The directive to the ministries to compile a list of goods that are mainly smuggled seems cynical. By simplifying import and export procedures, by issuing import certificates and by extending the import list, the state should then ensure that the movement of goods takes place "through the regular channels". The only consolation for the regime is the Russian and Iranian criticism of the "economic terrorism of the Western states". Moreover, delegations from China, who are currently in Damascus, announce that a new, financially strong player will soon settle in Syria.

New Protests in Lebanon

On 15 March, the Lebanese government had largely sealed off the country due to the Covid 19 pandemic. The borders with Syria were closed. So far, the pandemic has only been partially contained. Between 16 and 18 June, the country plans to reopen two border crossings with Syria (in the north towards Tartūs and on the Damascus-Beirut highway). However, only Lebanese who are in Syria will be allowed to cross the border. In the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, young men blocked the highway to Syria on June 12 to stop two trucks of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) that were supposed to transport food aid to Syria. Demonstrators claim the trucks were supposed to smuggle goods into Syria. The protests quickly spread to Beirut and other cities in the country. In the process, numerous public facilities in downtown Beirut were destroyed, shops looted, firebombs thrown and passers-by attacked by motorcyclists.

The government in Beirut agrees that the state must react harshly to the protests. "These are not protests against hunger and the economic situation. It is an organised campaign of sabotage, and a firm and decisive response should be taken to counter this growing phenomenon. Those who instigate finance and direct it must be arrested," said Prime Minister Hassan Diab. President Michel Aoun called for preventive measures against potential "saboteurs". The former prime minister Saʿd Harīrī suspected the Shiite parties Hizbullah and Amal of "fomenting chaos" in order to eventually launch a coup against the government with the help of the army. As expected, Hizbullah spokespersons rejected these accusations and clarified that the demonstrators called 'Scooter Rioters' did not belong to a certain sect or came from a certain part of the country. Indirectly, Hizbullah thus confirmed there are a growing number of people in Lebanon not only wanting to get rid of the political elite, but having renounced the whole system of regional-sectarian order.

This distancing does not convince many Lebanese. They claim that Hezbollah is "working against a confessional peace" and is opposed to a secular democratic order. They fear that Hezbollah is infiltrating the state authorities in order to force the state to close ranks with the regime in Damascus.

The Lebanese Doom

The country is deeply divided. The only thing the protesters agree on is their anger at politics and the state, which they blame for the catastrophic economic situation. Hunger is spreading in the formerly rich country. Almost 40% of the working population is unemployed. Only 20% of the population can still afford to live in the country without getting into debt, drawing on savings or moving around in an economy.  Similar to Syria, the Lebanese currency has lost dramatically in value against the dollar. The dollar shortage, combined with already negative economic growth, has put pressure on the Lebanese middle class and increased poverty. Since the banks have massively restricted the withdrawal of dollars, many families who have invested their savings in dollars are no longer able to pay their debts. Officially, the Lebanese lira has been pegged to the US dollar since 1997, but the lira is now only traded at one-fifth of the pegged value.

In the meantime, the government has also recognised that large sections of the population are rapidly becoming impoverished and many are starving. This is especially true for the approximately one million Syrian refugees in the country, many of whom would like to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

Hope for oil

With a debt ratio of about 180% of GDP, Lebanon is the most indebted country in the world after Japan and Greece. For weeks now, the Lebanese government has been holding talks with the International Monetary Fund to agree a financial rescue plan. Between 10 and 15 billion dollars in external financing will be needed to carry out a minimum of government tasks. However, so far there are no signs of an imminent agreement.

So the government is taking a wait-and-see approach. It hopes that the money will somehow come from outside. It is also counting on Lebanon's share of the presumed oil and gas reserves in the Mediterranean, which are soon to be developed through exploratory drilling. President Aoun had announced that Lebanon had now joined the elitist club of oil producers. However, tenders for bids for a second offshore licensing round for companies like Total in France and Novatek in Russia have only recently been opened. Both companies, together with Italy's ENI, belong to an international energy consortium that has been awarded a contract for test drilling in 2017 in two of the ten exploration blocks claimed by Lebanon.

However, it would still take a decade for money to flow into the state coffers, provided the size of the deposits is in line with expectations. In April, the country's Minister of Energy, Raymond Ghayyār, had to admit that the initial exploration had failed to find any gas that could be developed commercially and profitably. So one hopes for better news about the other nine exploration blocks.

The neighbouring countries, above all Israel and Cyprus, have already made considerable progress. In January 2019, energy ministers from Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Jordan and Israel met with representatives of Italy and the Palestinian Authority in Cairo to launch the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which aims to create a regional gas market and ensure security of supply and demand. Lebanon did not join the EMGF, as it has no official diplomatic relations with Israel. However, in doing so, the country was gambling away the chance to reach an agreement with Israel to settle the crippling dispute over the offshore border demarcation.

Expecting a radical new beginning

Most observers in Syria and Lebanon agree: both countries need a radical new beginning, which means not only far-reaching structural reform but also effective policies against corruption. Only a new departure could build trust and give people the prospect of a self-responsible civil society. The old sectarian patterns of order, in which the ruling elites have established themselves for almost 100 years, no longer represent the social reality that is reflected in wars and protests. Only when the elites confront this reality without blinkers and, together with the population, develop new patterns of the relationship between power, politics and authority, which have the trust of a larger part of the population, will there be a chance of breaking the Gordian knot.

Reinhard Schulze

Only three months ago, Khalīfa Haftar's militia alliance, the Libyan National Army (LNA), appeared to be gaining supremacy in Tripolitania as part of its spring offensive. However, since the end of April 2020, the military situation has dramatically shifted in favour of the militias of the Government of National Concord (GNA) in Tripoli, and since 19 May, the LNA militias have been on the defensive. Beside important local communities in Tripolitania leaving the alliance with Haftar, highly equipped mercenary troops withdrawing from the combat zones, the increase of Turkish logistical support of the GNA - weapon supplies, the use of drones and a probable deployment of military personnel paved the way. Whether or not and to what extent Turkey also deploys mercenaries in Libya as well is uncertain, but quite likely.

The Red Line

The advance of the GNA troops has now reached the town of Sirte, which has been largely destroyed by earlier various acts of war. Sirte, home of the Gaddafi clan, lies on the border between Tripolitania and the Libyan East. In the course of the Libyan wars, the sovereignty over the city changed four times, the most notorious being the rule of the so-called "Islamic State" in the city from February 2015 to September 2016. In January 2020, units of the LNA conquered the city. After local notables had declared their willingness to form an alliance with the GNA, militias from Misrāta tried to establish themselves in the town. The LNA's fierce resistance, however, forced them to retreat to positions about 20 km west of the town.

A second combat zone is developing in the southwest of the country. Armed groups led by Muhammad Khalīfa, the head of the so-called Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), stormed the oil field al-Sharāra in Fezzan (southwest Libya) ordering to stop production. Fezzan's main town, Sabhā, is still under LNA control, but will most likely not prevail against the almost 30,000 men of the PFG. In alliance with the government in Tripoli, the PFG commanders may be tempted to attack the al-Jufra airbase, located about 260 km south of Sirte. If the advance were to succeed, the front line would probably be marking the future division of Libya.


"There will be political negotiations with the East," the GNA Minister of the Interior, Fathī Bāshāghā, was quoted in Arab Weekly, "but Sirte and al-Jufra must first be reconquered... We must prevent Russia from establishing bases in Sirte and al-Jufra". Bāshāghā, a hardliner of the Tripoli Muslim Brotherhood, originating from Misrāta, leaves no doubt about his position. In his opinion, Sirte, al-Jufra with the nearby town Hūn and the oil production areas in Fezzan form part of Tripolitania. But, as far as Sirte and al-Jufra are concerned, other members of the GNA are less determined.

For Haftar, Sirte belongs to the sphere of power of the LNA and the government of the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk. He is supported in particular by those parts of the population of Sirte who identify themselves with the tribal federation Firjān. Sirte is one of the urban centres of Firjān, another one is the city of Ajdabīya, located 400km to the east. Ajdabīya is Khalīfa Haftar's hometown, being himself member of the Firjān. His brother is the chief of Benghāzī Firjān. From Haftar's point of view, Sirte is therefore not part of Tripolitania, but belongs to the sphere of power of Barqa (Cyrenaica), the Libyan East. The Tripolitans can argue that in the 19th and 20th centuries Ottomans, Italians and, from 1951 to 1963, the Libyan Kingdom had always placed the city and region of Sirte under the administration of Tripoli.

A conquest of Sirte by the Misrāta militias would therefore be an irreplaceable loss of prestige for Haftar. For his allies, a loss of al-Jufra and the extraction sites in Fezzan would be just as threatening. Therefore, the Russian and Egyptian governments let it be known that a red line has been drawn off Sirte and al-Jufra, which the militias of GNA should not cross under any circumstances. News confirming that the Egyptian army has moved troops along the border with Libya and that Russia has now replaced outdated LNA war material with new weapons and equipment show their determination.

Whether under these circumstances the GNA will dare to launch another attack on Sirte is open to speculations. Rather moderate forces within the GNA will agree to make the future status of Sirte the subject of political negotiations.

The logic of the Libyan divide

Evidence suggests that the partition of Libya is seen as inevitable by all conflict parties. For some, such as the PFG, this division has even become a political agenda. In fact, it corresponds far more to the social reality in the country than the attempt to cling to the idea of a unified Libyan nation. In Libya, there had never been a social place of such a Libyan nation. It was always represented solely by the discourse of power. Even the Gaddafi regime had to make concessions to this. After the crisis in 1986, the tribal federations were massively upgraded to social pillars of the ruling order. This resulted in a double structure of rule: the centralist state apparatus, in which certain parts of the population (mostly members of tribal federations from the region around Sirte, Hūn and Banī Walīd) were privileged, and regional versus local solidarity alliances, which often identified themselves as tribes. The latter's power had been strengthened to such an extent that Gaddafi could only give the appearance of an absolute ruler. His way out was to present himself as the patron of both the state and the tribes. Therefore, after 1979 officially no longer holding a political mandate, he defined himself as the "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya".

In the meantime, however, these two powers have largely become independent. Libya as a sovereign state now exists only in a few fields such as disease control. In contrast, regional forms of statehood are becoming increasingly important; tribes gained considerable influence among the local police and security forces. In political geography, they are increasingly oriented towards collective traditions of the pre-colonial era. Tripolitania now appears as a landscape of autonomous cities and municipalities that are interlinked by kinship, origin and social fields. For example, the ethnically diverse Fezzan region to the south, with its main town Sabhā, is drawing back on a trans-Saharan identity and communality. The East, called Barqa or Cyrenaica, is the landscape of Libya, where state power and tribal authority were closely intertwined and where, as in Saudi Arabia, the Islamic tradition was an important resource for the formation of a community of subjects. The fault line between Barqa and Tripolitania forms one of the oldest cleavages in North Africa, marking the border between the Arab East (Mashreq) and the Arab West (Maghreb).

One last (?) attempt to save Libya

The partition of Libya has yet to be decided. On 6 June, Egypt's President 'Abdalfattāh al-Sīsī had tried to force a ceasefire by what he termed an initiative. "This initiative calls for compliance with all international efforts and initiatives by declaring a ceasefire on Monday, 8 June 2020, starting at 18:00 [17:00 CET]," al-Sīsī said at a press conference on 6 June. He also called on the UN "to invite the rival Libyan governments to talks." Yet al-Sīsī made it quite clear to whom his support is directed. He specified that the initiative calls for "the dismantling of the militias and the handover of their weapons so that the Libyan National Army [i.e. the LNA of Haftar] can fulfil its military and security tasks and duties". In other words, pacification would be achieved by bringing together the governing powers of Tripoli and the House of Representatives in Tobruk in the form of "an elected presidential council" and placing it under the protection of the LNA. This means that Haftar, as he has always sought, would be made Lord of Libya and representatives of both governments would be appointed as his executive.

In al-Sīsīs logic, the military should be the sole guarantor of state power. And since the LNA Haftars claims to be the "Libyan army", this would raise him to a certain extent above the state executive, just as the ex-General al-Sīsī sees himself as the patron of the government, indeed as the supreme father of the Egyptian state and thus of the Egyptian nation.

Al-Sīsī will therefore certainly come to Haftar rescue, should the military situation in Sirte become a threat to the LNA, it is to be feared that the Egyptian army will intervene.

Is the chance for peace increasing?

The conflicts over Sirte offer the chance to finally start negotiations for a "divorce". But that would presuppose all sides renouncing their claim to hegemony over an imagined Libyan nation. In recent years, structures and institutions have emerged in the countries of Libya that can function as future pillars of state power, and the remnants of a civil society can serve as nuclei of a pluralistic democratic order. Divorce thus offers a chance for social and political reconciliation between the lands of Libya as the only way to achieve lasting peace.

Reinhard Schulze

The militias of the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNA) have made significant gains in terrain against the troops of the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalīfa Haftar over the past six weeks. On 5 June, they succeeded in capturing the small town of Tarhūna barely 95 km south-east of Tripoli. Has Haftar's power passed the zenith?

Illusion of a success

The Chairman of the Libyan Presidential Council Fāyez al-Sarrāj used his simultaneous visit to Ankara, where he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to emphasise that a political solution with Haftar was out of question. In a joint press conference, al-Sarrāj stressed that his government's militias will try to take control of the entire country and "bring all criminals to justice". Al-Sarrāj made no secret of the fact that the military successes are due to Turkish support. He said Libya was "looking forward" to the return of Turkish companies to help with infrastructure and reconstruction projects in Libya. Turkey, for its part, would do everything in its power, Erdoğan said, to ensure that Haftar and the Tobruk government of the "House of Representatives" would not continue to market the oil.

Several thousand people have meanwhile fled the combat zones south of Tripoli in the direction of Banī Walīd. Members of the Russian PMC Wagner group and Sudanese Janjawid-unites have also withdrawn to this area. The spokesman of the LNA, al-Mismārī, only indirectly confirmed the loss of territory and spoke of a tactical retreat. A "Turkish advance towards Banī Walīd" had been repulsed and the village Sūq al-Khamīs 40 km west of Tarhūna had been reconquered according to al-Mismārī. The Russian government linked the success of the GNA militias with an increased presence of fighters of the Syrian Levant Liberation Organization (HTS) from Idlib.

If the militias of the GNA were able to establish themselves in Tarhūna, this would be more than just a prestigious success. From Tarhūna it is only about 100km to Banī Walīd, which has been under the control of a local tribal council of the Warfalla Federation for years. This federation is said to have about 1 million members. Together with the Magraha Federation, which is almost equally in number, they are said to have formed the backbone of the Gaddafi regime.

Tribal politics

The alliance of these two federations with Haftar's militias does not lack a certain logic because of their former loyalty to the Gaddafi regime. However, there are cracks in this alliance. The Warfalla in Banī Walīd occupy the road to Tarhūna and protest against forced recruitment by Haftar's troops. Although they have now let the Wagner people and the Sudanese pass, this does not mean that they will maintain the alliance with Haftar. But Haftar's legitimacy is also at stake. In July 2017 Haftar had arrested the Saiqa Special Forces Major, Mahmūd al-Warfallī, who was wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague (ICC), but two years later, after his escape from custody, he disappeared into Banī Walīd. It is said that Haftar even promoted him to lieutenant colonel. The future of Haftar's alliance, especially with France, also depends on whether he can transfer al-Warfallī to the ICC.

Whoever gets the upper hand in southern Tripolitania, Turkey will be able to boast that it has significantly defended the UN-recognized GNA government. This will, it is hoped, strengthen its position in the conflict over the staking of claims on the continental shelf in the eastern Mediterranean. Even if the Memorandum of Understanding agreed between the Turkish government and the GNA regarding the continental shelf is considered by the US as "unhelpful-provocative" and not binding on third countries, any upgrading of the GNA means a stage victory for Turkey in the conflict over hegemony over the Eastern Mediterranean.

Accordingly, the Turkish media now celebrate the entry of the GNA militias in Tarhūna. The media of Haftar's Arab allies LNA announce that it is Turkish units that have taken Tarhūna. As usual, they are thus shifting the conflict from Libya to a regional political level and embedding it in the conflict between the Gulf States and Turkey.

However, there is more at stake for Turkey in Libya than for the Emirates, Saudi Arabia or Egypt. The GNA in Tripoli is Turkey's second last remaining ally in the Arab world. As late as 2012, it had appeared that Turkey would become the political, economic and cultural model of a fundamentally changing Arab world. Only the Emirate of Qatar has been loyal to Turkey.

Arabism instead of Islamism

The "alliance" of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Sudan as well as Khalīfa Haftar's Libya, which took firm forms in 2015/6 and which Saudi Arabia and the Emirates rival for its strategic orientation, had for a long time gained its legitimacy from the fight against terrorism of ultra-Islamic federations. Although the Alliance was indeed involved in battles against ultra-Islamic federations such as the "Islamic State" or al-Qāʿida in Yemen, Libya and Egypt, its political struggle was primarily directed at the right-wing populist Muslim Brotherhoods. Their efforts to gain state sovereignty over society, using Islam as a stirrup, were seen by the Gulf States as mutiny. Almost ten years ago, the Gulf States went on the offensive against the Islamists. They financed the overthrow of the Egyptian president in 2013, declared the Muslim Brotherhoods and allied associations to be "terrorist organizations" that had conspired against the nation state, and intervened in the Yemeni war in 2015 as well as in the Libyan war in 2017.

Rhetoric was now clearly modified: in lieu of an Islamic discourse of justification, which for decades had had to defend the ruling order, an Arabism now took its place, which had to reinforce the separation of state and religion. This is not the militant left-wing nationalism that brought down countless Arab monarchies in the 1950s and 1960s, but a new Arabism that no longer encompasses a social utopia. It is not ideological, but gains its legitimacy solely from the centrist defence of the state and its system of rule. This nationalism is restorative in that it seeks to protect the state from a new revolutionary uprising. At the same time, it empowers the state to be the patron of an Islam that renounces all participation in power.


Restoration in Middle Eastern countries is thus much more than a conservative policy of maintaining power. It is also a policy of intervention reminiscent of the "Metternich system", based on alliances of interests. The aim is to prevent revolutions and uprisings by allowing alliances to intervene militarily and by means of a policing system even in the "forecourt of the powers". The "forecourts" are those countries in which mutiny has already spread far and wide and where there is a threat that it could spread to the Restoration states. Iraq is regarded as Iran's forecourt, Yemen as Saudi Arabia's and Syria as Turkey's. The Middle Eastern regimes secure their interventionism through foreign policy alliances. These guarantee the possibility of intervening in other states in order to prevent the spark of a possible rebellion against the state from spreading. Here, some elements recall the period of European restoration after the Napoleonic wars. But in the Middle East, no single "Holy Alliance" was formed and no single Restoration policy emerged; instead, three alliances were formed, which today dominate the whole of the Middle East. Despite the profound antagonism, the big three Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as the hegemonic powers of their respective alliances, agree on the overall goal: to prevent the emergence of a "revolutionary" mood. For most of the Middle Eastern states it was expedient to join one of these alliances. Only Kuwait and Oman have tried to form partnerships with both the Turkish and Saudi alliances.


The belligerents in the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen are also pursuing a policy of restoration and, to this end, are submitting to the logic of their alliance partners. In essence, they compete for the power of the state, which they determine as the representation of the nation, as if by consensus. The state is thus not necessarily related to existing social realities. If this were the case, the wars in these three countries would have to be pacified through a process of radical decentralization or through the secession of social and geographical spaces. But the belligerents demand that the subject community pay homage to the state as sovereign and to the person who sees himself appointed as a representative of that sovereignty. There is no room for more than one potentate in such a logic.

The newly inflamed Turkish nationalism, which is increasingly overshadowing the old Islamism of the AKP, thus only differs from the Arabism of the Gulf States in terms of interests. As Arabism, it is part of a consensual conservative restoration. Haftar in Libya has committed himself to this restoration, as has done the Egyptian President al-Sīsī. However, he does not succeed in uniting the Libyan population in a single community of subjects. Not only the Turkish "Holy Alliance" counters this, but above all the social reality of an autonomy-oriented solidarity order of the major tribal federations. After all, Haftar had been working skilfully for almost two years on an alliance with the two largest federations in the country, the Warfalla and the Magraha, and had had to make some compromises in the process. But he never managed to integrate the mercenary militias, above all Russians, Sudanese and Chadians, into such an alliance system. When the mercenaries were withdrawn from the front lines off Tripoli a few weeks ago, the alliance with the tribal federations also cooled down. This caused the two supporting pillars of Haftar's LNA to falter. They have not yet fallen, but the slight wavering alone has made the advance of the GNA militias possible. Obviously, the robust Turkish support has also contributed to this.

The echo

It is not yet clear whether and if so, what effects the withdrawal of the LNA will have on the rather filigree architecture of the Middle Eastern restoration order. However, since the war in Libya has long since mutated into a dispute over hegemony in a restoration order desired by all war parties, there will initially be no fundamental change. Only if secessionist forces prevail, as in Yemen, will restoration policy face new challenges. The restoration will succeed only as long as it can maintain the illusion of a united community of subjects upon which the state is founded. It may therefore be that a "Vormärz" is already slumbering in the Middle Eastern underground, bearing the seeds of a second and perhaps even more intense "spring".