Monday 23 January 2012

Libyan Recovery Still Fragile

Jevon Whitby

Manu Brabo / AP Time Magazine Libyan Women and girls attend a celebration in Freedom Square in Misratah on October 23rd 2011, but the Libyan recovery still has an up hill struggle.

Concern over the continuing violence in Libya is a serious problem for the UK and the rest of NATO, who have thus far acted as if their mission has been accomplished. In the face of continuing disorder, last week saw the Foreign Office partially play down the UK's accomplishments in Libya declaring that each of the 'Arab Spring' nations 'face enormous challenges' and that as Eastern Europe showed in 1989, progress 'takes time.'

It would be a great loss to 'back-peddle' British support on Libya simply because the situation remains unstable. Whatever your political standpoint, nations in the Islamic world that are friendly to the West, with democratically elected governments and large oil reserves, are rare, and Britain should not miss out on the benefits of sticking with its new ally.

The emerging problem is that despite the rebel victory, securing and refinancing the new Libya is still proving to be a difficult task for the National Transitional Council and its NATO allies.  Two factors stand between Libya and progress: national and financial security. The first could be a major headache for the UK, the second is an opportunity to improve the situation.

Libya's new draft constitution lays out a number of measures for the creation of a democratic state including a 200 seat Assembly to be formed in June, with several special provisions including 10% of seats for women with strict banning of Gaddafi loyalists or doctrine. 

This is an aspirational luxury of course. Far more critical for the survival of the interim government  is the need for stable and enforceable law. In the first instance the style of the rebel's victory has created its own problems. Many of the heavily armed and locally formed militias, or  'thwar,' which defeated Gaddafi are refusing to disband, citing the need to security. 

Libyan rebels in a mixture of uniforms, on parade in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital. 
                                              © jerome starkey 
The militia's concerns may be justified; the turn of the new year saw Abdullah Nakur, commander of Tripoli's Revolutionist Council announce the foiling of a terrorist plot to attack the capital's power grid system with black-market explosives. All nine of the captured men were ex-Gaddafi loyalists, only heightening the determination of many militias, who insist their presence is still required to forcefully guarantee protection of state-owned infrastructure and guarantee stability. 

Yet the NTC and NATO are understandably wary of allowing regional militia control to continue indefinitely. Disorder continues most notably with the death of four Tripoli militia men last week in an escalated street battle with volunteers from Misrata over a trivial alleged robbery. 

This uneasy situation led National Council Chairman Mustafa Abdel-Jalil to warn this week that Libya must be vigilant to avoid  a new 'civil war.' Attempts to amalgamate the militias into new army and police units are on-going, with some groups agreeing to disarm before becoming manageable official state run units. Whether the new state can even continually pay the wages of the operation is unclear.

For foreign nations therefore, the initial priority is to stabilise Libya by making funds available for use by the interim government. It was the UK that flew in two stages an emergency package worth 1 billion dinars in Libyan banknotes from British currency printing firm De La Rue that kept the rebel government alive in its founding days. Having frozen foreign held assets of Gaddafi's regime, the UN Security Council finally lifted sanctions on the Libyan Central Bank in December, making a total contribution of 1.86 billion dinars (£929m) available from the UK to relieve Libyan cash availability problems. 

Such transfers are not abstract diplomatic gestures; material cash is sorely needed to meet the basic logistical crisis facing Libya's people. Cash withdrawals are currently limited to 750 dinars (£400) a month in order to ration purchasing power, understandably placing great demand on street banks and fuelling the sense of crisis. Here perhaps is a difficult cycle, with the UK unwilling to commit greater funds without greater stability and the NTC unable to insure stability without the required money.

  © 'an agent' 
Perhaps the alternative to international aid could be investment from the oil industry. Oil production makes up 95% of Libya's export earnings and is its most vital business. So often considered a predatory industry, heavy market investment by the oil industry could prove to have unseen humanitarian consequences for Libya's destabilising cash supply problem. Total, ENI and UK based Heritage Oil have all moved back into Libya, with the Know Libya firm estimating that 1 million barrels are now being sold per day, at an approximate total value of £64m. 

Nevertheless production is still far from full capacity (at roughly 54%,) and is being hampered by industrial unrest; this week saw Tripoli's port workers go on strike over wage shortages and alleged government corruption. Each day's instability potentially worsens the outlook for NATO involvement and market investment.

Despite NATO's new found caution, the National Transitional Council is likely to survive for the time being, despite disorder on the streets. The UK has already developed a modest but tangible sense of pride about the new Libya. It is now heavily invested both financially and morally in the 'Arab Spring,' hence support must be maintained. France and the United States are also unlikely to tolerate the collapse of the NTC during their presidential election years.

Instability and money supply issues must be dealt with in order for willing foreign investment to flow in. Should Libya deal with its demons, the future may well look promising. As for the UK, it is far too late to retract the support that cost £300m, so make the most of Libya’s strategic, political and business opportunities. If that isn't motivation enough, then the Foreign Office should imagine the political fallout if the UK were ever to abandon its hard fought progress.

The Nuclear Question

Michael Young

The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has attacked western sanctions as 'the heaviest economic onslaught on a nation in history'. NY Daily News 

Military confrontation with Iran over its nuclear programme is the last thing the UK wants. 

Yet a regime that desires to ‘wipe Israel off the map’ is not one that should be allowed to develop a nuclear warhead. Estimates are that it will take Tehran only two to three years from now to do so. A sovereign state has every reason to be allowed to pursue a peaceful programme that produces energy under the conditions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the careful watch of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – yet Iran is not being entirely transparent about its operations. Despite continually insisting that its nuclear programme is indeed for ‘peaceful purposes’, the West is understandably suspicious, calling on the regime to halt its nuclear ambitions, at the very least temporarily, until the full facts can be established.

The UK, in line with the United Nations and the European Union, would always pursue talks and exhaust all liberal options before even considering military action against Iran. The solution to date has been sanctions, and the idea is to cripple a state economically in order to make it submit politically. Sanctions have been tried against North Korea in what is a similar situation and were in some ways successful – bringing the regime at one point to the negotiating table. But with countries like North Korea and Iran, the worry is that sanctions affect the ordinary man, woman and child much more than the political elite. What is clear is that the policy simply isn’t working with Iran.

Despite four rounds of UN sanctions, Iran has not showed any signs of giving up its nuclear ambitions. Recognising this, some states have taken an even harder line since the new IAEA report was published last year and adopted their own unilateral measures. The UK government blocked all financial transactions between London and Tehran last November, which ultimately led to the storming of the British embassy in the Iranian capital. This, in turn, led to the severing of diplomatic ties with the regime. UK Relations with Iran have been far from cordial in recent years - British Navy personnel were kidnapped by the Iranian navy in 2007, and Ahmadinejad’s supporters accused Britain of encouraging protest during the 2009 presidential election which saw the incumbent re-elected for a second term. He cannot, according to the constitution, seek re-election.

The problem is, sanctions against Iran have been rather half-hearted and devised with little enthusiasm. Like every country in the region, Iran’s economic strong point is producing and exporting oil, and as long as sanctions do not affect the industry then the Iranian economy isn’t dramatically affected. This view is shared by Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently stated that sanctions must target the country’s biggest export, and its banking sector. Tel Aviv is getting rather restless and increasingly anxious over the situation, and is likely to have been considering an attack on Iran for several years now. Even though it would almost certainly not take any action unless it could be sure to receive strong support from Washington. 

Iran says it has a right to develop nuclear energy. BBC News.
We cannot sit and wait until the doomsday clock ticks yet another minute closer to midnight. If Iran’s regime was not so consistently threatening towards Israel and often hostile towards its neighbours, it would be hard to argue that the country should not be allowed to pursue a nuclear programme (West-compliant Pakistan has been allowed to run a nuclear programme for several years now). But given the fact that the regime does has a history of animosity towards other states, of supposedly sponsoring terror groups and committing gross human rights abuses at home, a nuclear armed Iran cannot be justified. 

If the UK government is serious about halting Iranian nuclear activity, it must pursue sanctions that work, and the only sanctions that would work would be ones that significantly damage Iran’s oil exporting industry. Although if this were to happen, there would be three major problems - firstly, the price of oil would almost certainly rise. Secondly, we’d become virtually reliant on one state, Saudi Arabia, for oil. Thirdly, China - Iran’s biggest importer of oil - would reject the sanctions and could even purchase more oil from Iran to help make up for the shortfall. 

If Iran were to close the Strait of Hormuz - the passage between Iran and the United Arab Emirates through which over 20% of the world’s oil passes through – in retaliation to further sanctions, military confrontation could easily break out. The US and Europe needs to keep the Strait open as a matter of economic urgency, and the UK would probably be more than willing to commit forces to ensuring this with the backing of many countries in the region, leaving Iran isolated. Also, Iran would not be able to hold out for long - they may disrupt the flow of oil for a time, but Iran’s Navy is no match for any opposition. Blocking the strait would be a perilous, desperate move by Tehran, and the regime knows it. 

Sanctions against Iran’s oil industry is clearly the next step. Yet if these fail or if Iran retaliates and the government did find itself embedded in a conflict, questions may be asked as to why we are putting military resources into a country that poses no immediate threat when, for example, the Syrian government has been firing on protestors for what is nearly a year. Any attack on Iran could therefore seem more personal - a possible appeasement of Israel and the US. The reality is that no evidence exists of a nuclear weapons programme, but until we can be satisfied that this is definitely the case – hopefully (but optimistically) through further talks and sanctions - then the Iranian government will have to continue to expect hostility.

The Syrian Dilemma

Geoffrey Howard

 Bashar al-Assad looks confident as he addresses crowds in Damascus in Mid January 2012. The Scotsman 

Whilst the international community awaits the report of the Arab Leagues ill-fated and controversial mission to Syria, the situation within the country grows more serious by the day.  Pockets of opposition remain steadfast and increasing numbers of people are taking to the streets in defiance of Assad.  In response, the government continues its brutal crackdown, despite the presence of Arab League monitors, and has ramped up its claims of foreign conspiracies and terrorist insurgencies.  Indeed a number of bomb attacks in the capital in recent months, blamed on al-Qaida, had all of the hallmarks of a state engineered plot. 

What is perhaps most troubling is that Assad’s demise appears by no means assured and the apparent confidence with which he addressed crowds in Damascus recently highlighted this.  The regime remains, by and large, strong.  Despite the enormous unrest seen in recent months, the balance of power has yet to move away from the regime’s core.  The opposition is divided and much of the population remains on the sidelines, secretly supporting the resistance movements but, perhaps unsurprisingly, not wanting to incur the barbaric treatment of the regime.  Horrific stories of torture, rape and murder at the hands of the regime emerge daily.  

Syrians Protest in 2011 The Guardian
The regime appears to remain united and strong and has yet to suffer splits or defections.  The core pillars of the regime, namely the Ba’ath party, the army and security apparatus, the commercial elite and the ruling presidential family, appear to be relatively cohesive and steadfast. Perhaps this is unsurprising for a regime that has already successfully secured the father to son succession deemed to be so potentially destabilising for autocratic regimes.  Without the trinity of, firstly, the emergence of a cogent opposition group, secondly, the appearance of divisions within the regime and the army, and thirdly, an end to the loyalty of the commercial sector, it appears more likely that Assad will remain in power.

In light of the deteriorating situation, what role should the international community play in the situation?  The Syrian National Council, in a reversal of its earlier stance, has called for intervention, along the lines of the Libyan aerial support mission. The Qatari’s have called for ground troops to be deployed and the Arab League is considering what level of military power could be used. The international community continues to impose sanctions on Syria and to call for the end of Assad’s reign. Whilst it is extremely difficult to witness the atrocities across the country, this must remain a Syrian struggle.  Liberal interventionists flush with the apparent success of the mission in Libya would be wrong in thinking a similar policy could be applied to Syria.  In light of the apparent strength of the regime and the security apparatus, coupled with the complex and diverse ethnic and sectarian mix in Syria, any form of intervention seriously risks descending into a bloodbath of civil war and sectarian conflict. The Lebanese civil war should remain fresh in the minds of all policy makers.  
Western powers may well continue to impose economic and political sanctions on Syria.  However, such moves should be used selectively.  Widespread sanctions are likely to hurt the people most seriously and could add credence to Assad’s claims of a foreign conspiracy.  Furthermore, the Assad dynasty has neither feared nor shied away from international isolation in its 42 years of power.  One of the toughest regional stances on Israel has been consistently favoured over the economic advantages of peace seen in Jordan and Egypt.  A foreign policy based on patient diplomatic pressure and pragmatic strategic negotiation should be adopted.  In this sense, President Obama, criticised by many for being slow to act, should be given more credence.  Far from being caught off guard by the events of the Arab spring, he has chosen to closely and quietly observe events rather than rush in with rash and ill-considered pronouncements or actions.      

It is important that we do not dismiss Assad as a lunatic dictator.  He is skilled and ruthless, and is surrounded by a cohort of cronies whose singular aim it has been for 42 years to prevent the overthrow of the regime.  They know what they are doing. The networks that support the mechanics of Arab autocracies such as Syria do not disappear overnight, nor can they be imposed from the outside.  Any resolution to this conflict should result from a battle of wills between the Assad ruling elite and the Syrian people.