Jan 3, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back, World readers. Tonight's global journey is 1,559 words (6 minutes).

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1 big thing: Turkish troops in Libya's proxy war

Erdoğan (R) with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Photo: Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turkey’s parliament today authorized President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to deploy troops to Libya, adding a new dimension to a proxy war that features foreign drones and Russian mercenaries.

The state of play: Libya has been plagued by war and instability since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Ghaddafi in 2011.

  • Turkey supports Libya's UN-recognized government, which is struggling to repel a months-long offensive on the capital, Tripoli, by rebel commander Khalifa Haftar.
  • Haftar's backers include the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Turkey has already provided armored vehicles and armed drones to the government in Tripoli. But sophisticated drones from the UAE and mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group threaten to tip the balance in Haftar’s favor.

  • The new measure, valid for one year, authorizes Erdoğan to respond to “all threats and security risks” endangering Turkey’s national interests. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in a televised address that Turkish troops would provide "technical support and military training.”
  • President Trump urged caution in a call today with Erdoğan, warning that "foreign interference is complicating the situation” in Libya, according to the White House.

Soner Cagaptay, author of “Erdoğan’s Empire,” says it will be difficult for Turkey to sustain a military presence in Libya without a green light from Vladimir Putin. Thus, a summit next week between Erdoğan and the Russian president will be crucial.

What to watch: Erdoğan has shown in Syria that he's unwilling to risk direct confrontation with Russia and won't do so in Libya either, Cagaptay says.

  • But while Putin backs Haftar, he doesn't want to alienate Erdoğan and prompt the Turkish leader to mend ties with Washington.
  • Thus, Cagaptay says, Erdoğan might see an opening for "a soft power-sharing agreement" in Libya.
  • “In the absence of U.S. leadership, given that the Europeans are bickering with each other — the Italians and French, for example — I think Turkey and Russia are going to emerge as the power brokers in Libya, as has also been the case in Syria.”

Erdoğan is motivated in part by enmity for regional rivals like Egypt, but there are strategic reasons for his intervention in Libya, Cagaptay says.

  • A victorious Haftar would rip up a recent Libya-Turkey maritime agreement, leaving Turkey potentially “boxed in” by its foes — Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt — in the Eastern Mediterranean.
  • The fall of the Tripoli government would also leave Erdoğan with just one close Middle Eastern ally — Qatar.

The big picture: Erdoğan, like Putin, has emphasized foreign policy as the economy sputters at home, framing Turkey as a great power in part because of its Ottoman past. Libya was for centuries part of the Ottoman Empire.

  • “Nations that were great powers once upon a time — Turkey, Russia, the United Kingdom — have a malleable sense of their heyday. And I think this comes with a proclivity to be inspired by leaders who can speak to the narrative of that heyday and embody it,” says Cagaptay.
2. U.S. ready to use force against Iran: Esper

An entrance to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after damage from the protests. Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today the U.S. would take preemptive action against Iran or its proxies if it received indication of attacks being planned against American forces or personnel.

  • Esper was speaking in the wake of violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The Iran-backed militia that led the protests, Kataib Hezbollah, withdrew on Wednesday after two days outside the embassy.

What they’re saying: “The game has changed and we are prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region,” Esper said.

  • President Trump threatened to retaliate, but also said he doesn’t want war.
  • A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry said the U.S. showed “astounding audacity” by blaming Iran for protests prompted by its own airstrikes. U.S. strikes targeting Kataib Hezbollah killed 25 people on Sunday.

Between the lines: Unlike most of his national security team, Trump sees very little value in any American presence in Iraq whatsoever, Axios’ Jonathan Swan reports:

  • Some of his more dovish outside advisers have warned him that an escalating conflict with Iranian proxies could quickly blow out into a dangerous new war.
  • The first theater could be Iraq. Iranian militias are well positioned to attack the roughly 5,000 U.S. military personnel still inside Iraq. Go deeper.

The latest: Multiple rockets struck near Baghdad International Airport this evening, injuring multiple people, per Reuters. Details are still emerging.

Situational awareness: Australia’s fires intensify

A kangaroo flees a fire in Colo Heights, Australia. Photo: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

“With more than 100 bush fires raging in New South Wales alone, Australia is bracing for a new round of extreme fire weather this weekend, prompting the unprecedented evacuation of tens of thousands of people in coastal Victoria and New South Wales,” writes the Post’s Andrew Freedman.

3. Middle East: Netanyahu wants immunity

Netanyahu. Photo via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Wednesday that he will ask the Knesset, Israel's parliament, for immunity from pending corruption charges, Axios contributor Barak Ravid reports.

Why it matters: The request by Netanyahu will likely delay any trial until after the country's elections in March — its third attempt to elect a stable majority government in a year. It essentially turns the March vote into a referendum on Netanyahu's political and legal future.

  • This is the first time Netanyahu had admitted he wants to obtain parliamentary immunity to prevent his trial from starting.
  • He denied during the last election campaign that he would try to dodge a trial. A majority of Israelis oppose granting him immunity.

What he's saying: In a statement on prime time TV, Netanyahu said the immunity would end once he finishes serving as a member of the Knesset.

The other side: Netanyahu's political rival Benny Gantz told the press the immunity request endangers the principle that all are equal before the law and harms Israeli democracy.

What's next: Netanyahu's immunity request starts a separate process inside the Knesset. Because the Knesset is currently dissolved, there will have to be a special vote on forming a special committee to begin that process.

Go deeper.

4. Africa news roundup: Cash, troops and corruption

Isabel dos Santos. Photo: Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty

1. Eight West African countries are about to abandon a currency, the CFA franc, that is pegged to the euro but tainted in many eyes for its colonial legacy.

  • “It is no small matter for eight nations, seven of them former French colonies, to rid themselves of a currency whose acronym originally stood for Colonies françaises d’Afrique,” writes the FT’s David Pilling.
  • “Nor is it a trifle that the countries concerned — Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, Togo and Guinea-Bissau — no longer have to keep half their reserves in France or have a French emissary occupying a seat on their central bank.”

What to watch: “France says it will continue to support the currency’s peg to the euro. But this guarantee — in effect a promise to make unlimited transfers from the French treasury if the eco comes under speculative attack — is one that markets may doubt, especially in a crisis,” per the Economist.

2. The Trump administration is reportedly considering a “major reduction” — or even a complete withdrawal — of troops in West Africa, the NY Times reports.

  • Those discussions “include abandoning a recently built $110 million drone base in Niger and ending assistance to French forces battling militants in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso."
  • If the withdrawal goes forward, the CIA “would not be able to safely deploy their officers far beyond embassy walls” in that region, the NYT’s Julian Barnes reports.
  • The discussions are part of the Trump administration's efforts to pull back from counter-terrorism and focus on “great power competition” with China and Russia.

3. Africa’s richest woman has had her assets frozen by an Angolan court.

  • Isabel dos Santos is the daughter of Angola’s former longtime leader, José Eduardo dos Santos. She and her associates allegedly left a $1 billion hole in the state’s coffers.
  • João Lourenço, dos Santos’ successor, is carrying out an anti-corruption drive.
5. Red notice for fugitive car boss

Ghosn on a rainy Tokyo day, thinking it might be time for a getaway. Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Interpol today issued a red notice asking Lebanon to arrest Carlos Ghosn, the former Nissan chairman who fled house arrest in Japan for Beirut.

Driving the news: Investigations into Ghosn’s escape are underway in Japan and Turkey, where the private plane he took from Tokyo stopped. Seven airport staff and pilots were arrested in Istanbul, per the FT:

  • “Ghosn, who was arrested in late 2018, had been awaiting trial in Tokyo on charges of financial misconduct — accusations he has consistently denied and which he claims were trumped-up as part of an attempt to remove him from his position as chairman of Nissan.”
  • “For the past seven months he had been living in a large house — a former embassy building — in central Tokyo under strict bail conditions and what was thought to be the watertight scrutiny of Japanese prosecutors.”
  • “Mr. Ghosn’s escape had been planned with the help of private security operatives since October, according to people familiar with the situation.”
6. What I'm reading: A tire titan in West Africa

Welcome to Harbel. Photo: Danielle Paquette/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In 1926, American industrialist Harvey Firestone acquired the land that would become the world's largest contiguous rubber plantation for just 6 cents an acre.

Why it matters: Firestone built up a company town — named Harbel after Firestone and his wife Idabelle — in which some 5,400 workers still live. Still Liberia's largest private employer, Firestone is now winding down a presence in the country that has been both deeply controversial and crucial to the struggling economy.

Danielle Paquette tells the story in the Washington Post.

  • "The end came with a letter, but Moses Tokpah couldn’t read it. Twenty-two years of fumes at the rubber factory had damaged his vision, he said, so a friend delivered the news: Firestone was laying him off."
  • "As the price of rubber slips on the global market, Firestone — a company founded in Ohio with nine decades in this West African country — is shedding large swaths of its staff to cope with what it calls 'continued and unsustainable losses.'"
  • “Firestone is the anchor,” said Gyude Moore, Liberia’s former public works minister. “Like the auto industry was for Detroit — except for an entire country.”

Read the piece.

7. Stories we're watching

Sikhs carry the Guru Granth Sahib (holy book) during a procession in Amritsar, India. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images

  1. In photos: Cities around the world ring in the new year
  2. Macron says pension reform will go ahead despite protests
  3. Renewed bombing campaign worsens crisis in Syria
  4. Pope Francis apologizes for slapping woman's hand
  5. Floods kill 21 and displace 30,000 in Indonesia
  6. The saga of Iraq's debts
  7. Huawei ends 2019 with record-high revenues

Quoted:

"You won't be getting any votes down here, buddy. You're an idiot."
— One of several residents in a town hit hard by bush fires who jeered Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Dave Lawler