Putin gets some payback with 'alternative project' for Libya

Why Putin backs Hifter; Barzani’s Sinjar dilemma; Israel’s missing Gaza policy; GCC moves to the margins on Syria.

al-monitor Gen. Khalifa Hifter, the commander in the Libyan National Army, leaves after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, Nov. 29, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov.

Topics covered

gcc, vladimir putin, sinjar, operation protective edge, gaza strip, massoud barzani, khalifa hifter

Mar 12, 2017

Russia seizes opportunity in Libya

Vasily Kuznetsov explains the evolution of Russia’s approach to the Middle East in terms of both its “blunt pragmatism” and, since 2011, defining itself “as an alternative project rather than part of the West … premised on Russian historical experience.”

Kuznetsov writes that this alternative project has extended to support for Gen. Khalifa Hifter in Libya. In backing Hifter, Moscow is seeking to shift its relations with Cairo from “mutual affinity into a solid alliance.” Despite Hifter’s limitations, other armed groups in Libya are “unreliable and weak.” Nonetheless, Kuznetsov notes, “This does not imply that Russia intends to ignore other Libyan actors. Amid the lack of developed institutions and overmilitarized society, the establishment of a resilient system entails a necessary broad consensus. Given the Syrian experience and Moscow’s general approaches, one can assume that as a mediator in Libya, the Kremlin will follow a regional track of the conflict resolution involving Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria as the key players.”

There may also be a bit of payback in Putin’s meddling in Libya. US relations with Egypt have been shaken a bit since the protests that overthrew former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and Russia’s abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which facilitated the US-led bombing campaign that helped depose former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, still stings. Kuznetsov suggests that “it is the West’s ideologically driven policies and its reluctance to recognize the imperfect world that cause Moscow’s considerable irritation.”

Does Barzani have a Yazidi problem?

Fehim Tastekin observes that in a turnaround from a decade ago, Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani is received in Turkey “as a reputable state leader and the Kurdistan flag is hoisted next to the Turkish flag. During his latest visit Feb. 27, the official reception menu in Ankara was printed in Kurdish.”

Tastekin adds, “While Turkey adheres to combative relations with Kurds inside and outside the country, relations with Barzani are based on economic interests such as oil and Turkey’s design to use Kurds against Kurds.”

He explains Turkey’s expectations for Barzani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) include not only dividing Kurds, but Yazidis as well.

“For a while now, Barzani has been goaded into a policy of balancing Rojava’s leading political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its military arm, the People's Protection Units (YPG), with Syria's pro-Barzani Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the peshmerga of Rojava (officially the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria). In Iraq, Turkey expects Barzani to oust the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from Sinjar. Turkey fears the PKK will turn Sinjar into an operations base to facilitate access between Syria and Iraq,” Tastekin writes. “Following Barzani’s latest visit to Turkey, Syrian Kurds organized by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) under the name of 'Roj peshmergas' were sent to Sinjar March 2. The Yazidis' Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) in Iraq, trained by the PKK, did not allow them to enter. Clashes erupted and there were casualties on both sides.”

Tastekin suggests that Turkey may be willing to expand its training bases and intervene in the region, writing, “Persistent declarations by Turkish leaders that Sinjar can't be allowed to become a second Qandil — the main Kurdish headquarters in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq — are naturally cited as confirming Turkey's role. According to high-level diplomatic sources talking to Turkish media, Ankara continues to cooperate with Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan's capital) against the PKK presence in Sinjar and in Makhmour, Iraq, and Turkey will intervene when the day comes. When the Mosul operation is concluded, then peshmerga forces will be able to transfer fighters to Sinjar and Makhmour. Should the Kurdish government want its help, Turkey will set up training bases around Kirkuk and in some northern areas."

Turkey’s interests and interventions deepen the political and military fautlines in Iraq. “The United States and Russia don’t want the Kurds to fight each other, at least as long as the IS threat exists. The cease-fire at Sinjar was arranged by the United States. Iraq's central government is unhappy with Kurdish aspirations to take over more disputed territory, hence its support for the YBS. Baghdad, which had cut off the salaries of Yazidi forces last year, has resumed payments because of protests by Turkey, which didn’t want Yazidis to be dependent on the PKK.”

A Russian role in Gaza?

Ben Caspit writes that the release of a report by Israel’s state comptroller Feb. 28 about Operation Protection Edge, which took place in the summer of 2014, reveals that Israel still does not have a Gaza policy. “Netanyahu has yet to come up with a policy on how to handle Gaza and Hamas. He has not yet decided whether he wants the Hamas regime to continue ruling Gaza in the long term. There is no serious Israeli effort to improve living conditions in the Gaza Strip. Yes, there is a lot of talk, such as remarks by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who said that if Hamas stops digging its tunnels and dealing in terrorism against Israel, Israel will agree to the construction of a seaport for Gaza, the gradual lifting of the closure and maybe even allowing laborers from Gaza to enter Israel for work. But there is very little activity.”

Also assessing the urgency of conditions in Gaza, Akiva Eldar wonders whether Russia’s relations with Hamas could be put to good use in the Gaza Strip. Eldar writes, “At the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting March 5, Netanyahu said that on March 9, in his talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he would demand that any agreement on ending the Syrian civil war take into account Israel’s defense needs on its northern border. Why not make use of Russia’s good ties with Hamas to promote Israel’s security interests on its southern border, too? Less than two weeks ago, the Putin administration hosted Hamas and Fatah movement representatives for reconciliation talks. Putin would probably be glad to cut the ribbon at the new Gaza port.”

GCC states take backseat on Syria

Mona Alami writes, “Iran’s aggressive stance on Syria against the backdrop of a Saudi retreat can be attributed to the various players’ views of the region and their priorities … for Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries, Yemen is perceived as a direct strategic threat,” putting the Syrian opposition parties at a disadvantage in both the UN- and Russian-brokered negotiations.

Moreover, Alami’s explains, “Another detriment to the opposition was the shift in the balance of power: The regime’s capture of Aleppo was accepted by Gulf states as an irreversible blow to the Syrian opposition." She adds, “The change in Turkey’s solid anti-Assad attitude, at least publicly, represented an added challenge for Gulf states. Turkey and Russia reached a deal in August resulting in Ankara assuming a laissez-faire approach to the regime: Moscow gave Turkey the green light to enter northern Syria under the banner of Operation Euphrates Shield. This operation not only pushed into the Islamic State (IS) stronghold, but also landed a serious blow against Kurdish ambitions to unite the three Kurdish cantons of Hasakah, Kobani and Afrin, which could have paved the way for future independence. Without Ankara’s full support, GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries are unable to increase military support to rebels, as the Turkish border is the only supply route to northern Syria.”

She continues, “These nearly concomitant events have left the Syrian opposition isolated and further weakened. Demographic changes occurring in Syria, with rebels pushed out of the Damascus region and Aleppo to the northern areas, has only added pressure on the already-fraying opposition. Increased clashes and fragmentation have taken place within major groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, followed by the emergence of new groups at the behest of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, under the name Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The military head of the group, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in late February denounced the opposition's participation in the Geneva talks, calling on rebels instead to launch fresh attacks.”

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