From Rome To Damascus, Via Tripoli: The Mediterranean Chessboard

Silvio Berlusconi’s decision for Italy to join the bombing campaign against Gaddafi has roots and reverberations across a region where all is connected, and nothing is certain.

A game of chess near the Roman ruins of Temple of Jupiter in Damascus
A game of chess near the Roman ruins of Temple of Jupiter in Damascus
Marta Dassu’

Italy's announcement that it has decided to take part in NATO's raids against Libya marks a strategic turning point for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Over the past few weeks, Berlusconi has repeatedly dismissed the possibility of using Italian firepower in the NATO airstrikes, given Italy's colonial past in Libya. But it became increasingly difficult to maintain this position as NATO put more and more pressure on the Italians. But it was the Italian government's April 4 recognition of the National Transition Council in Benghazi as Libya's sole legitimate representative that made the position virtually impossible. In foreign politics there is a line between positions that are just incoherent and those that come with too high a price.

Theoretically, when the Libyan crisis began, Italy could have taken a different position. Opting for a cautious position, as Germany did, was still possible. Instead, the Italian government first granted to the international coalition the use of its military bases and pushed to give the command of the operations to NATO. Then it received in Rome, with open arms, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the leader of Libya's provisional rebel government, and sent some military advisors to Libya.

Italy's refusal to send Italian bombers to Libya was entirely inconsistent with its actions in support of the rebels. Italy was already paying the political costs of the war against Gaddafi and was already undertaking the risk that Gaddafi could seek revenge. At the same time, Italy was losing its credibility inside the North Atlantic coalition and was legitimizing the first-line role of France and United Kingdom in the future of Libya.

After much hesitation, the intervention became necessary, at least to give the appearance of having some sort of coherent foreign policy. The decision finally arrived Monday after a phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama. Italy had to avoid being isolated in a crisis in which it has many interests and is exposed to many risks. There was little to gain and much to lose.

This choice could prove useful if Italy will seriously try to influence an international strategy that by now has been confused and ineffective. Too often in the past, our country's foreign policy started and ended with the modest desire to just be on the playing field, while others were actually making the decisions. Today, Italy should press for a real debate on some basic but still unanswered questions. What kind of support will we provide to the recently recognized Libyan rebel forces? What should be done to avoid the partition of Libya ? How can an intesified military effort promote a political solution that brings the removal of Gaddafi?

Coherence has not been the main trait in European and American reactions to the Arab uprisings since January. The United States is dealing with the weight of their debt, the Pentagon" s strategies and realpolitik. They have not decided yet how far they should go in supporting an Arab awakening that by now has triggered the fall of an ally rather than enemy regimes. Europe is divided on the immigration issue, with leaders in France and Italy using it to play electoral politics.

While the US is hesitating and Europe is divided, the Arab spring is facing its winter in Syria. Bashar al-Assad's regime's violent repressions and the West's weak reaction show that Paris can push for a military action in Libya – an oil-producing nation not part of the Middle East balance of powers – but has not been able to save Saad Hariri's standing in Lebanon or to reduce the influence of Syria, which is allied with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

According to some theories, the Arab awakening did not start in Tunisia, last December, but in Lebanon in 2005, when the murder of the former Sunni prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, led thousands of people to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. On April 26, 2005, Syria finally withdrew, after a UN resolution pushed by France and US. At the time, Syria's Assad accused foreign powers of contributing to the area's destabilization. It was just the beginning of the current showdown between the Syrian Alawi minority and the Sunni majority.

This theory argues that the longevity of the Arab spring (or winter) will ultimately be determined by what transpires in the core of the Middle East rather than at the periphery in northern Africa. The show of strength in Syria will affect security in Lebanon and Israel, Iraq and its Kurd minority, and Turkey, which in recent years has built stronger relationships with its former foe in Damascus. By this view, in comparison with Syria, what happens in Libya could start to appear marginal. But it is not: the outcome of the use of force against Gaddafi will also weigh heavily on the choices of Bashar al-Assad.

Read the original article in Italian.

Photo - spdl_n1

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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