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Erdogan Looks to Diplomacy Amid Concerns About Military Deployment in Libya

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is accusing Libyan militia leader General Khalifa Haftar of violating a cease-fire agreement. Despite deploying Turkish forces to back the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), though, Erdogan seems to be increasingly looking to diplomacy rather than force. 

“He [Haftar] says he agreed to a cease-fire, but two days subsequent, he bombed the [Tripoli] airport. So how can we trust him?” Erdogan said Friday in Istanbul with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

Haftar’s forces control most of Libya in their war against the U.N.-recognized GNA. 

Merkel on Sunday hosted an international summit in Berlin aimed at resolving the Libyan civil war. A 55-article road map to end the conflict was drawn up at the meeting, which Erdogan attended. 

Erdogan challenged Merkel at the news conference, however, to confirm whether Haftar had signed the Berlin agreement. A visibly uncomfortable Merkel confirmed he only orally agreed to it, noting that officials were still waiting for his signature. 

FILE – Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj leaves after an international conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, May 29, 2018.

Support for Sarraj

Despite the Berlin agreement’s reaffirmation of the Libyan international arms embargo, the Turkish president said he would continue supporting the GNA’s prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj. 

“We sent them a [military] delegation and continue to do so. We won’t abandon Sarraj. We will give the support we can,” Erdogan said. 

“Our soldiers are there to assist in the training [of GNA forces]. We have a history of 500 years, and we have an invitation [from the GNA] that gives us our right,” he added. 

But Erdogan, several times during the news conference, said the forces were purely for training. 

Earlier this week, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Aktar also stressed the training purpose of the Libyan deployment. The Turkish force reportedly still only numbers in the dozens. 

The downplaying of the military deployment contrasts with Erdogan’s recent sharp rhetoric. Last week, the Turkish president, while announcing to Parliament soldiers’ deployment, said Ankara would not hesitate about “teaching a lesson” to Haftar if his forces continued attacking. 

Fears of wider war

Such language reportedly has set off alarm bells in the region over fears that Turkish forces in Libya could end up triggering a wider regional conflict with Haftar’s military backers, including Egypt. 

Given that Libya is 2,000 kilometers from Turkey, though, a military expert questioned whether Ankara was capable of sustaining a hot conflict. 

“The logistic challenge is enormous, and these challenges, as they look now, are insurmountable. It’s far away. It’s not like Syria is just across the border,” said former Turkish General Haldun Solmazturk, a veteran of cross-border military operations. 

“If fighting gets tough, casualties would be inevitable. Returning dead persons and wounded would also be a major challenge. Apart from the fuel, the ammunition, spare parts, there are thousands of items needed to be provided in such an environment,” added Solmazturk, who heads the 21st Century Turkey Institute, an Ankara-based research organization. 

FILE – Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, arrives at an international conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, May 29, 2018.

Turkish forces are already stretched, being deployed in Iraq and Syria, while analysts point out Haftar is in a strong military position. 

“At the moment the situation seems to be working on the side of Haftar. He has better weapons. He has jet fighters. He has superiority of the air and in the field,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. 

Further complicating Ankara’s situation is its international isolation over Libya’s military deployment. Erdogan’s shuttle diplomacy this month drew a blank, failing to win backing from Libya’s neighbors, Algeria and Tunisia. 

Erdogan also reportedly failed at the Berlin summit to secure backing for an international peacekeeping force, including the Turkish military, to be deployed to enforce a cease-fire in Libya. 

Military challenges for Turkey

Analysts suggest Ankara’s isolation only compounds the military challenges it faces in Libya. “The Mediterranean, in terms of naval transportation, is controlled by not too friendly forces. And neighboring countries Tunisia, Algeria and Italy are less than willing to help or to provide any logistic bases or any other logistic support. They seem determined to stay out of this,” said Solmazturk. 

FILE – Turkish lawmakers vote on a bill that allows troop deployment to Libya, at the Parliament in Ankara, Jan. 2, 2020.

“Libya threatens to be another Syria, where countless lives and many treasures will be wasted to defend a very ill-defined ‘national objective,’ ” warned analyst Atilla Yesilada of GlobalSource Partners, an economic and security research group based in New York. 

Erdogan appears increasingly to be looking to diplomacy in a bid to isolate Haftar. In a speech Thursday in the presence of Merkel, the Turkish president called for “pressure” to put on Haftar. 

Erdogan challenged the international community over its courting of Haftar, despite the general’s failure so far to sign on to a cease-fire. “It doesn’t make sense such support is continued,” he said at Friday’s news conference with Merkel, “if such a person is constantly so spoiled.” 

Migrant issue

The Turkish president also is seeking to play the migrant card against Europe, warning of “chaos” if Haftar remains unchecked. 

Some analysts are warning, however, that Ankara needs to face the reality that the region has little appetite for a Turkish role in Libya. 

“The region wants neither Turkey nor Russia seeking to extend its hegemony to Libya and the wider region. This is the reality,” said Bagci. 

But for now, Ankara is likely figuring on having a limited military presence in Libya while continuing to push for international deliberations on a resolution to Libya’s civil war and its future. 

Amid Impeachment Drama, Balkan Dispute Gets High-Level US Attention

While Washington obsesses about tensions with Iran and the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, a pair of high-ranking administration officials has been crisscrossing Europe and the Western Balkans in pursuit of a solution to a dispute that most Americans have barely noticed. 

The high-level focus on the quarrel between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo has left some analysts struggling to explain how the issue fits into a Trump administration foreign policy driven by crises in North Korea and Iran and defined by the slogan “America First.”

Trump himself has demonstrated a personal interest in the issue, tweeting approvingly on the eve of the impeachment trial’s opening about the establishment of direct flights between the two countries:

Earlier this week, as U.S. senators argued over the ground rules for the impeachment trial, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, meeting with the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo.

U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who also serves as White House special envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia talks, has meanwhile been visiting the two countries’ capitals – Belgrade and Pristina – urging officials to resume a dialogue on the normalization of relations and to focus on economic development. 

A third official, the State Department’s special envoy to the Western Balkans, Matthew Palmer, has also been deeply involved in the diplomatic effort. 

Belgrade has never formally recognized Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and has campaigned to keep it out of international organizations, including Interpol. Kosovo has retaliated by imposing a 100 percent tariff on all Serbian goods, which it says will not be lifted until Serbia recognizes it as a country. 

In his meetings this week, Grenell urged both countries to compromise. 

FILE – U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell is pictured in Berlin, Germany, May 8, 2018.

“The tariffs must be dropped. That is unacceptable, and I also bring the same request here, which is the de-recognition campaign must stop,” he said in Belgrade, after a meeting Friday with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. “What we’ll do is continue moving in this direction of concentrating on the economy, concentrating on growing jobs.” 

Neither the White House nor State Department responded to requests for comment on the thinking behind the high-level engagement. 

Ripe for resolution

Analysts contacted by VOA see little strategic value for the United States in throwing so much diplomatic muscle at the issue. But they suggest the problem is ripe for a resolution and could provide the administration with an easy foreign policy success. 

“So far as I can tell, the administration is beating the bushes for a success somewhere in the world. There is no real strategic interest,” said Daniel Serwer of Johns Hopkins University in an email exchange with VOA’s Albanian service. 

Damon Wilson, a vice president at the Atlantic Council, a global affairs research group in Washington, offered VOA’s Serbian service a similar analysis, noting the frustrating lack of progress on some of the administration’s biggest foreign policy concerns, including Iran and North Korea. 

“You don’t get easy wins in the Western Balkans, either, and yet in the Western Balkans we are dealing with democratic states that want to be part of the strategic West, that have a shared vision of the future of the region as a prosperous part of Europe,” he said. “This gives us something to work with, and while it might look hard, it actually looks relatively easy when you compare it to Iran, North Korea, Venezuela.” 

FILE – People protest after Kosovo’s decision to raise tariffs on Serbian and Bosnian goods, in the village of Rudare near Mitrovica, Kosovo, Nov. 23, 2018.

Wilson added that the issue gives the United States a chance to show that “we are going to be engaged, we are not leaving a vacuum in the Western Balkans, we’ve got a role to play, we want to play that role and we are going to do it.” 

James Hooper, a former U.S. diplomat and executive director of the Washington-based Balkan Action Council, said a breakthrough on the issue would allow Trump to show he is not distracted by the impeachment drama and give him an achievement to highlight as he seeks re-election in November. 

But Wilson warned against attaching too much significance to the initiative as an election boon, saying, “It’s not exactly a vote-getter out there in Iowa,” where Republicans and Democrats will cast the first votes to select their presidential candidates early next month. 

Chance for progress

Regardless of the motive, Hooper sees an opportunity to make real progress on a dispute that has held back progress in both countries. 

“This is a real opportunity because Washington is paying attention and Grenell is a serious person and he has a lot of influence in the White House,” he said. 

Alon Ben-Meir, a professor at New York University, said both Kosovo and Serbia would be wise to take advantage of that opportunity. 

“They are neighbors. They have to deal with one another. There is interdispersement of population. Many Serbs live in Kosovo. It is time for them to recognize certain facts on the ground that they cannot change,” he said. 

So far, however, there is little indication they will do so. Serbia immediately rejected Grenell’s proposals while Pristina has yet to deliver a clear response. 

“I don’t accept to draw an equality mark between the tariffs and the revoking of the campaign against recognition,” said Vucic, the Serbian president.  “America and Pristina … want Kosovo’s independence recognized. We do not. So it is logical that we have differing positions.” 

Ivana Konstantinovic from VOA’s Serbian service contributed to this report. 

Top Indonesian Official: US Reporter Should Be ‘Deported Immediately’

Indonesia’s top security official said Friday that detained U.S. journalist Philip Jacobson should be deported immediately. 

Jacobson, 30, a reporter for the California-headquartered environmental news outlet Mongabay, was detained December 17 in Borneo for an alleged visa violation. 

The reporter was held without formal due process after attending a regional parliamentary hearing involving the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, Indonesia’s largest indigenous rights advocacy group. 

This week, Jacobson was formally arrested and told he faced up to five years in prison for visiting Indonesia with the wrong visa, a claim his employer and U.S. officials have disputed. 

Official: Reporter’s work, arrest not linked

Speaking with VOA on Friday, Indonesia’s Chief Security Minister Mohammad Mahfud MD reiterated claims made by Borneo officials that Jacobson’s arrest was not linked to his reporting on sensitive stories about Indonesia’s myriad environmental and corruption woes. 

But then he said Jacobson should be released. 

“He came to Indonesia on a visit visa and then turned out he did journalism activities to write the news,” said Mahfud. “There was already evidence and then he was detained. Yes, that’s the fact, Indonesian law is like that, but he should just be deported immediately.” 

Mahfud’s comments preceded by hours a report published by Mangobay that said Jacobson had been “moved from prison to ‘city detention’ in Palangkaraya.” 

“We are grateful that authorities have made this accommodation and remain hopeful that Phil’s case can be treated as an administrative matter rather than a criminal one,” said Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler. “We thank everyone for their continued support.” 

Employer surprised by response

According to Mongabay, Jacobson traveled to the country on a multiple-entry business visa. The news outlet expressed surprise that Indonesian immigration officials took such stringent actions against its reporter for the perceived administrative violation. 

According to various news reports, Jacobson repeatedly had entered and left Indonesia on a non-journalist visa. The Jakarta-based Legal Aid Center for the Press told VOA the hearings Jacobson attended and his activities were “in accordance with applicable legal norms.” 

Summoned Friday by the Indonesia Security Ministry, U.S. Ambassador Joseph R. Donovan said: “It is important for us to deal with issues like this through the proper channels.” 

This story originated in VOA’s Indonesian service. Some information is from AFP. 

France’s Government Introduces Pension Bill Amid New Protests 

Tens of thousands of French took to the streets Friday for another day of protests as the government unveiled its controversial legislation to reform the country’s pension system. 

Rock music and giant union balloons were out in force at the Place de la Republique, where protesters gathered to march to Concorde, the iconic square of the French Revolution. But their numbers were sizably down from last month’s demonstrations. Representatives from moderate unions — now in negotiations with the government —  were noticeably absent. 

But students, lawyers and retirees were on the street. So were Paris Opera employees like Shirley Coquaire. 

Paris Opera worker Shirley Coquaire fears she will have to retire later for less pension money under President Emmanuel Macron’s reforms, in Paris, Jan. 24, 2020. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Coquaire operates heavy equipment at the opera. The current system allows her to retire at 57. Under the government’s plan, she said, she’ll retire much later and get a smaller pension. 

Civil servant Nathalie Wiseur, 52, sported the red vest of the hardline CGT labor union. She’s been part of the pension protests since they started in early December. 

Wiseur said it was important to keep protesting for the sake of future generations. She said she supported the current hardening of strike action to include blockages of highways and factories, as long as they’re peaceful. 

Nathalie Wiseur, 52, says she’s demonstrating to ensure future generations get the same benefits she has, in Paris, Jan 24, 2020. (LIsa Bryant/VOA)

The government plans to replace 42 separate pension schemes with a single point-based system and introduce a minimum pension. Health Minister Agnes Buzyn, charged with the reforms, said they would give all French the same pension rights. 

The government argues the reforms are vital to respond to a growing and longer-living elderly population. But they have triggered France’s largest transport strike in history, which marked another day Friday. 

Jean Grosset, who heads the Observatory for Social Dialogue at the Jean Jaures Foundation, a Paris think tank, said the government has done a bad job of communicating its reforms to the public. It may prevail, he said, but it will pay a price. 

The government has backed down somewhat in some cases; for instance, it has scrapped the goal of changing the retirement age from 62 to 64. But other analysts believe it’s been largely successful in getting what it wants.  

The bill next goes to parliament, which is controlled by President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party and is almost certain to approve it. 

Demonstrators opposed to French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms prepare to march in Paris, Jan. 24, 2020. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Hardline unions have vowed to keep protesting, but polls show public support is waning. 

Parisienne Diane Le Tourneur said she was sick of the protests and strikes. She said they’re hurting businesses and France needs pension reforms. The demonstrators need to start thinking about what’s good for the country, she said, and less about themselves.

Amid Virtual News Blackout, Lebanese Protests Default to Social Media

Since October, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese citizens have taken to the streets of Beirut to protest what they say is a corrupt political system that has failed to provide even the most basic of services. But in a media marketplace crowded with overtly partisan publications, protestors are using social media to get the word out. VOA’s Betty Ayoub reports.