Former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa: Iranian and Turkish interventionism fuels conflicts in the region

Moussa said: I did not give NATO any legitimacy to strike Libya after Qaddafi’s fall.
Sunday 23/02/2020
Former Arab-League Secretary-General Amr Moussa speaks with The Arab Weekly.
Former Arab-League Secretary-General Amr Moussa speaks with The Arab Weekly.

CAIRO - The Arab region is going through sudden developments and unexpected reversals of events. It started with uprisings and protests in several countries, causing long-standing regimes to tumble and igniting wars that still rage.

The region is caught in turmoil, tensions and conflicts that generated protracted crises. The promised changes of spring turned to a harsh, icy winter reality adding to the region’s woes. People’s dreams of reforms and democracy crashed down with the rise of conflicts and confrontations. Legitimate aspirations for security and stability ended up clashing with the designs and activities of terrorist organisations.

The Arab Weekly met with Amr Moussa, former Egyptian minister of Foreign Affairs, former secretary-general of the Arab League and currently head of the Panel of the Wise at the African Union. Moussa presented his original take on developments in the region and how to deal with them.

He also spoke of the curse that has dogged him -- the accusation that he had approved a NATO-led campaign in Libya, even though he said he strenuously disavowed it.

Moussa said the Arab League, while he was secretary-general, did not give NATO forces legal cover to enter Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi's regime in February 2011. He said Qaddafi’s supporters made the accusation.

“The Arab League did not allow this and did not ask NATO to intervene. It does not have the legal authority to give legitimacy for any foreign alliance to occupy any state,” explained Moussa. “This legitimacy that some people are talking about is just falsehood, political posturing and propaganda.”

Moussa said the Arab League requested “the protection of civilians in Libya based on a decision by the Arab Ministers Council, plus a ban on military aviation of the Qaddafi regime, which had begun air strikes against civilians.

“There was a definite conviction that civilians had to be protected and it was up to the [UN] Security Council to authorise such a ban but what happened was that the Security Council decided to ignore the Arab League’s demands and NATO intervention occurred.

“The significant Arab decision to focus on safeguarding the safety of civilians was abused when there was no objection to the request for the protection of civilians in Libya, especially as reports at the time stated there were hundreds or even thousands of civilian casualties of air raids.”

“What we had asked for was protection,” Moussa continued, “but the Security Council and the superpowers took advantage of this request and misrepresented its goals. I explain this in the second volume of my memoirs, which will be published in two months.

“I boycotted all international meetings related to the implementation of the Security Council resolution after that and expressed my refusal of NATO's intervention in Libya. I told many European leaders that we had not taken the initiative to protect civilians from Qaddafi to expose them to Western bombers from NATO or others. Our aim was to protect them from all air fire and that was my clear and stated position.”

Not all attempts to dispel such accusations against Moussa succeeded. Many Libyans consider the NATO attacks as a major calamity that have befallen the country. The air strikes left the country in ruins and enabled extremists and armed gangs to control daily life in Libya. The NATO forces left without achieving stability, which made the process of settling the crisis in Libya extremely difficult.

Compelling Libyan documents

Moussa stressed that there are compelling documents proving that the Arab League did not authorise or request NATO’s intervention, “including the contacts that took place between me personally and the Libyan delegation at the United Nations and what I warned them about.

“Libya’s permanent representative at the United Nations, Abdel Rahman Shalgam, had said it clearly and I quote: ‘We were afraid of Amr Moussa and we were trying to please him in every way because he insisted that no single foreign soldier enter Libya and was keen to respect Libyan sovereignty and that the intervention be to protect Libyan civilians.’”

Moussa said it was Libya’s UN delegation -- not the Arab League -- that requested the Security Council consider the bloody and political situation in Libya and that he personally clashed with the Libyan delegation opposing Qaddafi because he rejected any formulations that might be construed as allowing foreign intervention in Libya.

Former Arab-League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.
Former Arab-League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

The Libyan crisis rages on, made worse by Turkey’s intervention in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez al-Sarraj. Turkey sent thousands of militants, mercenaries, terrorists and military equipment to Libya, which rekindled the conflict and doubled the challenges to a political settlement.

Moussa said the conflict in Libya is an international one because there are major powers -- which he refused to name -- that have strategic interests and have proxies and allies who interfere on their behalf and under their protection, a reality that created an overwhelmingly confusing situation in Libya.

He pointed out that the Turkish intervention and support for the GNA was dubious and intriguing.

“It’s a huge strategic move,” he said, “and I don’t think that Turkey did it without the knowledge and support of some major powers. Certainly, these countries have not directly given Ankara the green light to intervene but they have turned a blind eye at what Turkey is doing and looked the other way. This opens up a number of possibilities before us to study this position and its intentions.”

He said it is necessary for Libya’s neighbours, the African Union, the Arab League and the European Union -- not a specific European country or NATO -- to contribute to a solution to the Libyan crisis. It is possible to suggest a political solution that reassures the Libyans and stops foreign intervention that allowed the Islamic State and other extremist elements into Libya and armed them. Those interventions are the main and direct causes of the chaos in Libya.

Moussa said the African Union has not played “an effective or important role that can serve the cause and understand its interests more than other groups.”

He stressed that Libya is a civil state and that it should remain so because all attempts to establish religious states in Arab countries have failed and that it is unfair to Libya to try the experiment there.

Libya should be a country that embraces all and includes all its citizens. This is why the tug of war between Tripoli and Benghazi must end, for some of the parties in the conflict are acting on instructions they receive from outside of Libya and not out of consideration for the national interest, he said. Most Libyans feel that they have reached a point where reconciliation is imperative.

Iran's hegemony

Moussa said Iran has been pursuing a regional policy that presented many challenges to Arabs. Tehran’s boasting that it was in control of four Arab capitals did not sit well with large segments of the population of Arab countries and was taken as an insult that shows an obvious lack of judgment and political wisdom.

“Tehran’s meddling in the internal affairs of Arab countries has shaken the pillars of stability in them, spoiled their present and threatened their future,” he said.

Former Arab-League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.
Former Arab-League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

Moussa expressed hope for an end to the crisis in Syria through a settlement that would restore stability to the country. He said such a settlement must include all Syrians but, for that to happen, regional policies aimed at controlling Syrians, whether from Turkey or Iran, must cease and there should be a concerted international consensus about Syria

Turning to the question of guaranteeing the security of the Gulf states, Moussa said Gulf regional security is “not the responsibility of the Gulf countries alone but is also an Arab, regional and, without a doubt, a global one, considering the economic stakes related to oil and gas are tremendous for many countries.

“Any gambling with the wealth of the region is always fraught with huge risks and requires the protection of the Gulf countries. So, Iran cannot be allowed to attack them or harm them in any way, just as Saddam Hussein's Iraq had been prevented from doing so.”

He referred to the Damascus Declaration, agreed to after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which insisted on an Arab role in protecting the Gulf. The agreement established an Arab commitment to protect the Gulf from regional ambitions.

At the time, the threat to the Gulf was from Iraq but now it is Iran that has regional ambitions that present enormous risks to the Gulf countries and that makes it imperative to move to counter these risks, he said.

Moussa pointed out that provoking sectarian strife between Shias and Sunnis is such an outdated strategy that pursuing it represents a civilisational, religious, cultural and political error.

“I call on Iran not to act on that basis,” he said, “and to search for political ways to address the growing problems in the region, which have become extremely harmful to everyone at the current time or in the near and medium future. We must anticipate this and work to end it and there is a need for an Arab strategic movement to weigh and evaluate all existing conditions.”

Moussa did not deny that “whether we like or not, Iran and Turkey are part of the region and therefore the matter of coexistence between Arabs, Iranians and Turks should be approached positively. These two countries have no right to control the Arabs nor should we be looking for enmity with them. They have to reconsider their regional policies.”

He added: “The time has come for Iran and Turkey to realise that a quiet existence in the future will bring them many benefits. That future requires them to reach understandings with the Arab world and not challenge it or occupy its lands or insult its populations.

“We are close to seeing a rebuilding of the regional system where the roles of countries like Iran or Turkey will be determined by how much acceptance they receive in the region.”

From Baghdad to Beirut

In Iraq and Lebanon, people have taken to the streets to demand political rights and call for an end to sectarianism. The protests mark a new type of revolution that might lead to the demise of the barons of sectarianism. In Baghdad and Beirut, demonstrations had similar slogans and demands.

“I think Iraqi President Barham Salih is a very sensible man who feels that Iraq is part of the Arab world and I would like to salute him here,” Moussa said. “I recently saw him at the Davos forum and have seen how he met with US President Donald Trump and others to defend his country and efficiently explain the situation in Iraq.”

Moussa said the situation in Lebanon has deteriorated beyond what was expected and that the country is in an economically and politically critical situation. Various parties in Lebanon accuse each other of causing the crisis and it was unfortunate that massive numbers of young people elected to leave the country. However, the demonstrations are in line with the spirit of the 21st century.

“The Lebanese youth are talking about their rights as citizens and not from the premise that this one is a Christian and the other one is a Shia or Sunni Muslim,” he said. “The old distinctions are outdated. Reactionary ideas that invest in ignorance and the ignorant will become obsolete within a few years.

“The beginning of their end has taken place in the squares and streets of Lebanon and in the streets of Iraq. Yes, there may be a counteraction but what is certain is that, were it not for these protests, the loud voices calling for the end of sectarianism and communitarianism would not have been heard, and this is a very important matter.”

Urgent Arab moves

The Palestinian cause has been the central issue of the Arabs for decades but, considering the recent regional conflicts and the war on terrorism, its urgency receded significantly. Moussa said, however, he believes such a retreat was “temporary.”

“The war on extremist organisations will take the time it needs and then end,” he said, “while the Palestinian cause has been weakened by divisions but even these are also a phenomenon that will not last.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C), Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit (L) and former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa (R) during the opening of a museum honouring the late Yasser Arafat, in Ramallah, Nov 9, 2016. (Reuters)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C), Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit (L) and former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa (R) during the opening of a museum honouring the late Yasser Arafat, in Ramallah, Nov 9, 2016. (Reuters)

Moussa indicated that the US peace plan for the Palestinian issue “does not constitute a deal because the other side was not represented and the official Arab position is clear and was expressed at the foreign ministers meeting at the Arab League headquarters in February.”

He suggested there should be pragmatic thinking of what Arabs are to do. Perhaps the Palestinians and their Israeli rivals will turn their backs on each other and that would be the signal for Tel Aviv to do whatever it wants in the Palestinian territories, being assured of American support, he said. That means all Palestinian lands would be transformed into Israeli settlements, ending any chance for dialogue.

“It is urgent to start immediate negotiations in which the Palestinian side, backed by the Arab side, would take to the negotiations table the Arab peace initiative, which balances the obligations and rights of the Palestinians and those of their Israeli counterparts and from that moment the Trump plan would not be the only document present at the negotiations table,” said Moussa.

Moussa said if there is an opportunity to negotiate, the US proposal should not be considered a final position but just an American-Israeli opinion, coming against an option represented by the Arab initiative and the decisions of international legitimacy. Such negotiations should take place under the auspices of the five major powers and the international quartet and Egypt and Jordan must be present.

In the first volume of his memoirs, titled “Kitabeih,” published three years ago, Moussa wrote that, during the 1996 Sharm el-Sheikh Summit of Peacemakers, he noticed that important files representing the core of the Palestinian issue were ignored and most of the attention was focused on other tracks, including Israeli security.

“The US position was launched based on putting the foundations of Israeli security at the top of its priorities while giving some space to the rights of the Palestinian people,” Moussa said. “This is what I was told personally by [US] President Bill Clinton at the time because I was very angry at the serious imbalance (in the American position).

“He told me in the presence of a number of diplomats: ‘I know the extent of your anger but I assure you that actually agreeing on issues of Israeli security is part of our files, but we never rule out working to establish the rights of the Palestinian people and not ignore them.’”

Arab-League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.
Arab-League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

“The positions of the successive American administrations, even the administration of George W. Bush, were that they were trying not to come to an agreement that carries a complete bias towards Israel but rather have most of it in favour of Israel and they were keen to achieve even a little balance,” Moussa said.

“The position of the American administration differed during Barack Obama's terms. Obama turned his back on the entire issue because he saw it as a source of unnecessary bother and annoyance with no possibility for reaching a solution. He thought the whole issue would be costly for him internally within the United States without being matched by gains felt by the administration or the American people.”

“It is clear that under [US President Donald] Trump, there is unity in the American-Israeli position,” continued Moussa, “and this makes it difficult for America to mediate because it has become a non-neutral party after taking its position on Jerusalem and recognising the annexation by Israel of Palestinian lands occupied in 1967. With this attitude, it becomes difficult for the US to carry out any mediation.”

About the overall situation in the Arab region, Moussa said: “The Arabs are lost and confused. They don’t know what they’re doing. I believe the absence of Egypt led the Arabs to this result because Egypt can lead the Arabs and manage a large number of their affairs in mutual, regional or international relations. This was evident during decades of joint work, knowing that not all of the outcome of that work was a failure.”

He explained the decline of Egypt’s role on the regional level environment was the result of conspiracies and manoeuvres woven to thwart Egypt and prevent the Arabs from reaching the stage of self-sufficiency and the ability to compete properly at the world level.

He said Egypt’s return to a leadership role is inescapable, even if there exist powerful forces working to ensure that it does not.