Hardly had the new year begun when the clouds of war began gathering over the East Mediterranean and Gulf waters.
On 2 January, the Turkish parliament approved the deployment of Turkish forces in Libya in the context of the highly controversial memorandum of understanding on security and military cooperation signed on 27 November in Istanbul between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and head of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, Fayez Al-Sarraj.
Late in the evening of 2 January, an American drone targeted Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, commanding officer of the Quds Force, an elite military formation that has carried out foreign military operations in Arab countries, to provide advice, training and assistance to pro-Iranian armed militias like Lebanon’s Hizbullah, Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, and the Houthis in Yemen. This elite force has been engaged in proxy wars against Sunni regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia, throughout the last three decades.
Until his assassination, Suleimani seemed untouchable, He had been everywhere across the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, ascertaining and deepening the Iranian presence and role in leading Arab powers. His role had been amplified many-fold by Arab paralysis that provided Iran with enough space to expand regionally.
The assassination was a very serious blow to the Iranian regime, not because its regional strategy will change, but because Suleimani demonstrated Iran’s political reach in the Middle East. Taking him out means the United States has raised the stakes in its confrontation with Iran, a confrontation that had gotten worse with US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the nuclear accord between the P5+1 group and Tehran), a withdrawal that US President Donald Trump announced in May 2018.
Ever since, the present US administration has imposed severe economic and financial sanctions on Iran in the framework of its strategy of “maximum pressure” so that Iran would accept to renegotiate the nuclear accord of 2015, and stop its “malign activities” — quoting American terminology — across the Middle East and the Gulf. The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, said last week that his country lost $200 billion because of this strategy.
On 3 January, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council convened in an emergency meeting presided over by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He vowed “forceful revenge”.
The whole Middle East is on heightened alert for Iranian retaliation, and the American response, if any. On the other hand, the United States has deployed 3,000 additional troops in the region on top of 750 Special Forces that were dispatched to secure the US Embassy in Baghdad, after its outer perimeter was stormed by pro-Iranian militias last week.
Last Saturday, the US president warned Iran against retaliation. He said: “Let this serve as a warning that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites… and Iran itself, will be hit fast and very hard.”
However, this stern warning will not prevent Iran from some sort of retaliation to save face before its Middle Eastern proxies, within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and before Iranian public opinion.
Farther west, the decision by the Turkish parliament to deploy Turkish forces in Libya has inflamed not only North Africa but also the East Mediterranean, pitting Turkey against a host of Arab and regional powers, Egypt foremost. The presence of those forces a few hundred kilometres to the west of Egypt’s borders with Libya, and the establishment of a permanent military base to house the Turkish troops, amount to a casus belli from the standpoint of Egyptian national security interests.
The same day parliamentary approval was given to the Turkish government to send forces to Libya, Egypt’s National Security Council met, presided over by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. According to a statement released by the Egyptian Presidency, the meeting agreed on a set of measures, not elaborated, to defend the nation against any attempt to attack Egyptian security interests. Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry released a statement in which Cairo called on the international community to shoulder its responsibilities and work for the preservation of peace and security in the Mediterranean area. The statement reiterated Egypt’s right to defend its national security interests.
International reactions to the Turkish move were both ambiguous and ambivalent. The common denominator was that there is no military solution to the ongoing armed conflict in Libya, and to call on the Libyan warring parties to resume negotiations to carry out the United Nations peace plan.
The two superpowers are reluctant to antagonise the new Turkish Sultan, Erdogan, who has successfully — at least so far — blackmailed both Washington and Moscow. He is supposed to receive Russian President Vladimir Putin on 8 January to talk about the situation in Libya. Ten days ago, and in an attempt to justify beforehand the sending of forces to Libya, he had said that his country cannot stand by while “foreign mercenaries” are fighting in Libya in support of the Libyan “National Army”. He had also talked about what he termed “old geography”, in reference to the Ottoman occupation of Libya for three centuries which, apparently, gives him the right to intervene militarily in the old Libyan colony of his predecessors centuries ago. He even claimed, ludicrously and stupidly, that there are one million Libyans today who have Turkish ancestry — a claim answered with disdain by Libyans on Twitter.
Whether the Turkish army would be effectively deployed in Libya remains to be seen. If it happens, Egypt will not stand idly by. It is its national security interests that will be directly challenged by a wayward Turkish government that has destabilised the Middle East for the last 10 years. It is a government, like the Iranian regime, that has Arab and Muslim blood on its hands.
To show its military preparedness to deal with future threats from Libya, the Egyptian navy held manoeuvres on 4 January, to demonstrate its amphibious capabilities. The message is one of deterrence.
The year 2020 seems, from the very beginning, challenging and interesting to watch. It is probably the denouement of the last decade that ended with the demise of 2019.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
**A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly