July 9, 2017

The Middle East and North Africa. Analytical Review 06/2017

 

Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political Situation in June 2017

 

In June the situation in the Middle East and North Africa was tense and unstable. The most resonant event was the so-called “Qatari crisis”, which affected the interests of many countries outside the Middle East region. The main event in the KSA in June was the appointment of a new Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, which can make the foreign policy of the Kingdom more radical. By the end of June, the Turkish Armed Forces had finished preparing for a new ground operation in the north of Syria, this time in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. The military-political conflict in Syria is entering its final phase, which will be characterized by weakening of the military component and strengthening of the political and negotiating (between the Syrian government and moderate opposition, with the assistance of the UN, the LAS, the EU, the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran, and to some extent — of the Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar) ones. The main problem of Iraq after the defeat of ISIS is the struggle of the country's political forces to preserve the unitary status of the Iraqi state, which is threatened by the decision of the leadership of the Kurdish autonomy to hold a referendum on independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25. By the missile attack of 18 June on the positions of ISIS in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, Iran once again demonstrated its missile potential, sufficient to contain any possible aggression against it. In June, relations between Egypt and Qatar, Sudan and Ethiopia in East Africa continued to worsen. The military and political situation in Yemen and Libya remained sluggish in June, largely due to the main actors (KSA, UAE, Egypt, Qatar, Iran) being distracted by the Qatari crisis.

The Middle East and North Africa 

QATAR

State of QatarThe Qatari Crisis. June 5, the KSA, the UAE, the Arab Republic of Egypt and Bahrain suspended diplomatic relations with Qatar because of “Doha's support of various terrorist groups destabilizing the region”. Later, Yemen, Libya, Maldives, Mauritius, Mauritania and the Union of the Comoros joined these countries. In addition to the rupture of diplomatic relations, Qatar was excluded from the led by the KSA Coalition, which is fighting against the Houthis and former President A. A. Saleh's supporters in Yemen. The units of the Qatar Air Force, involved in operations in Yemen, were returned to their homeland. Egypt, KSA, UAE and Bahrain also included 59 subjects of Qatar and 12 Qatari structures on the list of individuals and organizations supporting terrorism. Thus, Qatar found itself in the political and economic isolation from neighboring “brotherly” states.

The KSA and the UAE have previously tried to publicly accuse Qatar of sponsoring terrorist organizations, but the USA held them back so as not to “destroy the reputation” of one of Washington's most important allies in the Middle East, in which the largest US Air Force base is located, along with the forward headquarters of the US Central Command (USCENTCOM). This time, apparently, having received from the USA a guarantee of support, a coalition of the KSA, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain put forward 10 ultimatum claims to Qatar, which Qatar refused to comply with. Saudi Arabia called on transnational companies to leave Qatar. 40 % of food coming to Qatar by road transport through the border with Saudi Arabia was blocked.

It seems that the KSA and the UAE want to turn Qatar into a “scapegoat”, although, according to many observers, these countries themselves have been playing not the least roles in supporting radical Islamist parties and groups in different Arab countries. Along with the rupture of diplomatic relations, an economic embargo and blockade of transport routs with Qatar from land, sea and air are being introduced. According to many observers, the conflict is based on Saudi Arabia's desire to make Qatar abandon its independent policy and the use of its financial resources to expand the country's influence at the regional and international levels, first of all in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

Qatar's support for the “Muslim Brotherhood” movement, which tried to seize power in some Arab states during the Arab Spring of 2011, and in Egypt won in the presidential election in June 2012, causes a great outrage among the rulers of the KSA, UAE and Egypt. Since Saudi Arabia, with the support of the United States, is trying to create and lead a military-political bloc of Arab countries — an “Arab NATO”, directed against Iran, the rulers of Saudi Arabia are especially annoyed by the good-neighborly relations between Qatar and Iran. Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani congratulated Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on his victory in the elections and stressed that he considers the good-neighborly Qatar-Iranian relations an important factor of stability in the Persian Gulf region.

Qatar has a “special relationship” with Iran also because both the countries have been jointly using the world's largest natural gas field “South Pars” in the waters of the Persian Gulf for many years. Realizing that Russia's intervention in the Syrian conflict blocked the project of the Qatari gas pipeline to Europe through the territory of Syria, the Emir of Qatar began secret talks with Iran to discuss the possibility of joint gas supplies to Europe. Having already returned from Riyadh after a meeting with US President D. Trump, Emir Tamim bin Hamad stated that “Iran represents a regional and Islamic power that cannot be ignored and it is unwise to face up against it”. One can't help agreeing with this.

It should be noted that US President D. Trump, in early June, repeatedly accused Qatar of supporting “Islamic terrorism”, and thus pushed the KSA, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain to very tough actions against Qatar. However, after on 15 June, it was officially announced about Qatar's purchasing 36 American fighter jets Boeing F-15QA, worth more than 12 billion US dollars, D. Trump's rhetoric regarding Qatar became more reserved and conciliatory. Besides, it has been announced that Qatar and the United States intend to conduct joint exercises of the Navy of the two states.

Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad and US President D. Trump, Riyadh, May 21, 2017
Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad and US President D. Trump, Riyadh, May 21, 2017

According to some sources, during his meeting with Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad, on 21 May in Riyadh, D. Trump accused the Qatari leadership of sponsoring terrorist organizations in the Middle East, expressed dissatisfaction with Doha's position on “peaceful coexistence” with Iran, and also demanded from Qatar to stop supporting “Hamas” and the “Muslim Brotherhood”. According to the Press Service of the White House from June 7, US President D. Trump offered Qatar and the countries that severed diplomatic relations with it, his mediation in settling disagreements and “if necessary, to organize a meeting in the White House” to solve this problem. According to some reports, by putting pressure on Qatar, D. Trump's administration is also trying to “persuade” Qatar to stop supporting the US Democratic Party, as well as to limit its investments into Iran and Russia.

June 22, the KSA, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain put forward a new ultimatum to Qatar — 13 conditions for the restoration of the suspended diplomatic relations, and gave Qatar 10 days for fulfilling them. The list of demands, in particular, includes lowering of the level of diplomatic relations with Iran, closure of the “Al Jazeera” TV channel, cessation of military cooperation with Turkey and closure of the Turkish military base in the country. Besides, it was stated: “As the hour of truth approaches, we call on the brother (Qatar) to choose his neighbours, choose honesty, truth and transparency in its dealings”. The Government of Qatar called these demands absolutely unacceptable and such that are aimed at limiting the sovereignty of the Qatari state. The answer of Qatar's leadership to the Arab ultimatum can be considered the telephone conversation between Emir Tamim bin Hamad and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, during which the Qatari Emir once again confirmed Doha's intention to “develop relations with Iran to resolve the problems of the Islamic world”. Then there was Emir Tamim's demonstrative meeting with the spiritual leader of the “Muslim Brotherhood”, Egyptian 90-year-old preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whom the authorities of the KSA, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain included into the terrorist list. Yu. al-Qaradawi is the President of the International Union of Muslim Scholars and the author of more than 120 theological books on Islam. He is considered one of the most influential living Islamic theologians. For a long time he was considered the spiritual leader of the “Muslim Brotherhood”, despite his refusal to lead this movement.

The KSA, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain's actions against Qatar were not supported by Kuwait and Oman, which have long established normal relations with Iran. Thus, 3 out of 6 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member countries, namely Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, have good-neighborly relations with Iran and are not going to aggravate them. Besides, Qatar is supported by Iran, Turkey and to some extent Russia, which had many problems in relations with Qatar. China and the European Union call on the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and Egypt to begin direct talks to resolve the crisis around Qatar.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdel Rahman Al Thani with his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel, June 9, 2017
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdel Rahman Al Thani with his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel, June 9, 2017

In the countries of Europe, D. Trump's Middle East policy, aimed at confrontation with Iran, supplying Saudi Arabia with armaments worth astronomical sums and formation of an “Arab NATO”, has been perceived with a considerable amount of skepticism and criticism. Many European politicians consider D. Trump's idea of “being friends with Arabs against Iran” unpromising and counterproductive.

Thus, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has stated that D. Trump's Middle East policy is “an absolutely wrong policy, and, of course, not the policy of Germany. A deep conflict between neighbors is the last thing we need”. It seems that S. Gabriel's statement largely reflects the EU leadership's position regarding the Qatari crisis.

In our opinion, Ukraine should stick to the EU countries' position on this issue, that is, to call on all Arab countries to reconcile. We should point out the traditionally friendly nature of Ukrainian-Qatari relations. Qatar supports Ukraine's political position on Russian aggression in the East of Ukraine and voted for both resolutions of the UN General Assembly on the Russian annexation of the Crimea.

Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad and Ukrainian President P. Poroshenko
Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad and Ukrainian President P. Poroshenko

According to the first Ukrainian ambassador to Qatar, Yevhen Mykytenko, Qatar has always been the only Arab country that provided assistance to refugees and migrants from the Donbas in the amount of 400 thousand Euros. Ye. Mykytenko has also expressed hope that this year “there will be bilateral visits at a very high level”. June 30, Foreign Minister of Ukraine P. Klimkin in his telephone conversation with the Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdel Rahman Al Thani discussed the issues of the development of bilateral relations, as well as the problems recently encountered between the GCC member states.

Taking into account the increased ambitiousness of the leadership of the KSA, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Qatar itself, the Qatari crisis may drag on for several months, but sooner or later reconciliation of these countries will inevitably take place. First, over the past 50 years, these countries have generally had friendly relations, despite some minor differences. Secondly, the confrontation with Qatar will be another factor in the destabilization of the situation in the Middle East, which, in essence, does not meet the interests of either the countries of the region or many countries of the world, including European countries, the United States, as well as Turkey, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the Republic of Korea, receiving Qatari LNG.

 

KSA

Saudi Arabia's New Crown Prince. Some observers did not rule out the change in power in Qatar as a result of the Qatari crisis. However, it seems that Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad's positions are only getting stronger. Nevertheless, the Qatari crisis caused changes in the highest echelons of the power of Saudi Arabia. June 21, King Salman named his 31-year-old son Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud Crown Prince, placing him first in the list of heirs to the throne. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been appointed First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense.

Mohammed bin Salman was elected Crown Prince by 31 of the 43 members of the Allegiance Council — the Family Council of the House of Saud, which was established in 2007 to address the issues of succession. The members of the Council swore allegiance to the new heir to the throne at a special ceremony in Mecca. US President D. Trump congratulated Mohammed bin Salman on the phone with his being appointed Crown Prince. The politicians pledged to establish close cooperation “to achieve common goals of security, stability and prosperity in the Middle East and beyond”.

Prior to this, the first in line for the throne of Saudi Arabia was the nephew of the King and uncle of the current Crown Prince — Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who served as the head of the Interior Ministry and Deputy Prime Minister. Now he is retired from all posts.

One of the reasons for changing the Crown Prince is that Muhammad bin Nayef is a close friend of the Qatari Emir Tamim. Some Arab and Iranian media reported that Mohammed bin Nayef is under house arrest in his palace in Jeddah, he is not allowed to leave the Kingdom and his right of movement within the country is limited. Such restrictions were introduced immediately after his resignation from all the posts.

King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef and son Mohammed bin Salman
King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef and son Mohammed bin Salman

According to “The Guardian”, the reason for such measures is explained by the intention to prevent the growth of opposition sentiments during the “transition period”. It should be noted that the opposition to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has already made everything quite clear. Thus, according to the Saudi TV channel “Bedaya TV”, the Banu Tamim tribe refused to swear an oath to the new Crown Prince. Don't forget, this tribe is one of the most influential tribes in Saudi Arabia, to which Mohammed bin Abdel Wahhab — the founder of the ideology of Salafism — belonged, and representatives of the clan of Al ash-Sheikh from this tribe traditionally form the spiritual and religious elite of the Kingdom. More so, the founder of the state of Qatar, Emir Jassim bin Mohammed also originates from this tribe.

According to Arab media reports, the elderly King Salman (aged 81), due to poor health, is allegedly going to abdicate in favor of his son Mohammed. According to other sources, some members of the royal family are trying to persuade Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz (75), brother of King Salman, “to take over the leadership of the country and make a statement about King Salman's inability to reign for health reasons, and about the invalidity of the Decree on the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman Crown Prince”…

So far, sons of the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdelaziz bin Abdel Rahman Al Saud (1880–1953), were elected kings. Today, 9 out of 45 his sons from different wives are alive. The oldest of them is Prince Bandar (born in 1923), who never held any posts. The youngest is Prince Muqrin (born in 1945), who held the posts of the Governor of the province of Al Madinah and the Director General of the Foreign Intelligence Service (2005–2012). So, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has a chance to become the first grandson of the founder of Saudi Arabia on the royal throne. At present, there are about 7 thousand descendants of King Abdelaziz in the rank of princes and princesses, a significant part of whom exercises public administration at various levels.

Note:

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al SaudCrown Prince of the KSA Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, was born on 31 August 1985 and is the son of King Salman and his third wife Fahda bint Falah. He received a Bachelor's Degree in law from the University of King Saud. In 2008 he worked in the commission of experts, which advised the government on financial issues. In December 2009, he became a special adviser to his father Salman, who at that time served as Governor of the province of Riyadh. In 2012 he headed the Royal Court. From 2014 to 2015, Mohammed bin Salman served as Minister of State. January 23, 2015, after his father's accession to the throne, he was appointed Minister of Defense of Saudi Arabia. Since January 29, 2015 — Chairman of the Council for Economic Affairs and Development. April 29, 2015, he became Deputy Crown Prince and Second Deputy Prime Minister of the KSA. Crown Prince Mohammed heads various youth charitable organizations. Has a great capacity for work, works 16 hours a day. He is married and has four children.

 

TURKEY

Turkey's Position on the “Qatari Crisis”. Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's visit to Turkey in December 2001 marked the beginning of the formation of a legal basis for economic and military cooperation between the two countries. In April 2005, Prime Minister R. Erdogan paid an official visit to Qatar, where he participated in the Forum of Democracy, Development and Free Trade in Doha as a principal speaker.

Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad and Turkish President R. Erdogan
Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad and
Turkish President R. Erdogan

In recent years, Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad and Turkish President R. Erdogan have met several times a year. These two leaders have a very good personal relationship.

As of 2016, the total volume of bilateral trade turnover between TR and Qatar amounted to 710 million US dollars, and the volume of Qatar investments in Turkey — about 20 billion US dollars. After a series of “Arab revolutions” of 2011, unlike other countries in the Persian Gulf, Qatar, like Turkey, supported such moderate political currents as “Ennahdha” in Tunisia and the “Muslim Brotherhood” in Egypt, which brought Ankara and Doha together even more. According to some observers, it was Qatar and Turkey that not only stood at the origins of the ISIS, but also helped strengthen this terrorist organization. Qatar — with its cash infusion, and Turkey — by training ISIS' fighters from various countries of the world in its camps and then transferring them to the combat zones in Iraq and Syria. It is also argued that Qatar and Turkey allegedly organized an influx of Muslim refugees into Europe.

The agreement on the deployment of the Turkish Armed Forces' contingent in Qatar for the purpose of training the Qatari military personnel came into force on 15 June 2015, and the work on its implementation began in October of the same year. According to the Turkish Defense Ministry, April 28 2016, an agreement was signed to start construction of a military base for the deployment of a Turkish military contingent in Qatar, which was approved by the Turkish Parliament on 7 June 2017. At this, Qatar agreed to take on all the costs of building that Turkish military base on its territory, which will amount to approximately 1 billion US dollars. Earlier it was reported that about 3 thousand servicemen from the Turkish Army, Air Force and the Navy will be deployed on that military base.

Since the beginning of the Qatari crisis, Turkish President R. Erdogan has repeatedly expressed public support for Qatar. June 13, he stated that “Qatar does not support ISIS but together with Turkey it makes the biggest contribution to the fight against terrorism”. R. Erdogan described Qatar's isolation as “inhuman and contradicting Islamic values”. The volume of exports from Turkey to Qatar has increased threefold since the beginning of the crisis. Ankara is also not going to revise the agreement with Qatar on the deployment its military base in that country. Moreover, at the end of June Ankara increased the number of Turkish servicemen in Qatar to 1,000 people. It is possible that further increase in the number of Turkish troops in Qatar could cause a crisis in Turkey's relations with the countries of the anti-Qatar coalition. In July, Turkish and Qatar forces will conduct joint military exercises to “strengthen Qatar's defensive capability and maintain stability and security in the region”. In the middle of June, the Turkish Foreign Ministry M. Cavusoglu visited Qatar, the KSA and Kuwait with an intermediary mission.

Proclaimed by the Kurds in northern Syria federal district of Rojava
Proclaimed by the Kurds in northern Syria federal district of Rojava

Preparation of the Turkish Armed Forces' New Operation in Syria. According to the “Milliyet”, by the end of June, the Turkish Armed Forces had finished preparations for a new ground operation in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria. The enclave of Afrin is located in the province of Aleppo and belongs to the federal district of Rojava, proclaimed by the Kurds in the north of Syria. Ankara coordinates this operation with Moscow. Before the start of the Turkish operation, Russia will withdraw its troops from that region, although there are only few of them. There are no Syrian government forces in Afrin either, only a small garrison in al-Hasakah in the northeastern Syria. During the operation, Ankara and Moscow will maintain contacts in order to avoid possible unforeseen incidents. It is assumed that the operation will last 70 days using artillery, tanks and military aircrafts. After establishing control over the Afrin area, it will acquire the status of another zone of de-escalation, although the Kurdish side is not included in the list of participants in the talks either in Astana or in Geneva, where the functioning of these zones was discussed. Most likely, Moscow will not play into the hands of Ankara in the latter's confrontation with Syrian Kurds, but it won't be at war with Turkey over them either.

Most possibly, Moscow will continue to provide secret financial and material support to the Syrian Kurds. According to the Russian orientalist Yuri Shcheglovin, it is important for Moscow to “maintain the Kurdish factor (as a permanently acting factor that irritates Ankara) in the North of Syria, which is a hidden reserve of possible (Moscow's) anti-Turkish steps in case of another change in Turkish President R. Erdogan's priorities”. According to Yu. Scheglovin, the combat potential of the Turkish Army and the Syrian opposition groups loyal to it are far from the level that would allow a successful operation to capture Afrin. On the other hand, such Ankara's operation doesn’t suit Washington, which is against any Turkish military activity in the North of Syria, since it would impede the Pentagon's plans for forming with the help of the Kurds its own stronghold in the North Syria. So, it is highly doubtful that Ankara will manage to conduct its operation to establish control over the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. The USA will simply not let it happen. Therefore, the planning of this Turkish operation should be seen as an element of “trade” between Ankara and Washington on the Kurdish issue.

 

SYRIA

The military situation in Syria, June 2017
The military situation in Syria, June 2017

The Syrian Army's Combat Actions. In early June, the SAR's government troops and their allied forces, with the support of the Russian VKS, continued their offensive in the East of the province of Aleppo, where they liberated Maskanah from the ISIS. Maskanah was held by jihadists for three years. After the liberation of Maskanah, one can actually talk about the complete expulsion of ISIS fighters from the province of Aleppo, where jihadists continue to keep only a few villages. The liberation of Maskanah also opened the way for Syrian troops to the city of Raqqa.

In June, in the North-East of the country, in the province of Raqqa, the Syrian Army and militia units conducted a number of military operations against the ISIS fighters south of the Euphrates River. There were combat actions in the provinces of Hama, Damascus, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor. In the East of the Homs province, Syrian troops fought their way along the Palmira- Deir ez-Zor road and arrived at the city of Arak, capturing which could open the way for the Syrian troops to Deir ez-Zor. Residents and besieged Syrian troops in this city may soon have no drinking water because the ISIS fighters are building a dam to block the Euphrates River. In June, the ISIS militants almost daily attacked positions of government forces in the southern districts of Deir ez-Zor, trying to liquidate the besieged garrisons of Syrian troops in the city in order to take up the defense there after their leaving Raqqa. On 23 June, trying to support the besieged Syrian garrison in Deir ez-Zor, the Syrian troops, with the support of the allied formations, attacked the ISIS' positions near the Syrian-Iraqi border and pushed as far as 8–10 km towards that city.

Government troops repulsed the ISIS' terrorists' attempts to regain control of oil and gas fields north of Palmyra. By the end of June, significant territories had been cleared of terrorists and a large number of settlements had been liberated. The advanced units of the Armed Forces of the SAR came to the front line, controlled mainly by Kurdish forces of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF). Besides, on 9 June, the Syrian Army reached the Syrian-Iraqi border to the north-east of the town of al-Tanf, — for the first time since 2015. Simultaneously, Syrian troops regained control over the border with Jordan.

June 17, the Command of the Syrian Armed Forces announced a unilateral ceasefire near Deraa in the South of Syria for 48 hours in order to support the “reconciliation efforts”. On 19 June, the SAR's Armed Forces drove the ISIS terrorists from Rasafa, 30 kilometers south of Raqqa. The fighting for this key city lasted until June 23. June 21, Syrian troops in the province of Damascus made significant progress in the Jobar quarter of the Syrian capital, as well as in the adjacent cities of Ein Tarma and Zamalka. The Syrian troops regained control over several areas in the southeast suburb of Damascus and drove terrorists out of the Bir Qassab area, 75 kilometers from Damascus.

By June 30, the SAR had established complete control over the province of al-Quneitra on the border with Israel. However, the situation in the area is getting complicated due to the Israeli Air Force's strikes against Syrian positions in response to accidental shelling of territories controlled by Israel. In total from June 24 till July 2, the Israeli aircraft had struck five times on the Syrian troops. On 29 June, the UN Security Council strongly condemned the fighting in the zone of separation between Syria and Israel and called on the SAR and insurgent groups to leave the area patrolled by the UN peacekeeping contingent.

The Western Coalition's Combat Actions. So far, the actions of the US-led Coalition in Syria have been limited to the coordinated with the RF zones near the town of al-Tanf in the South-East of Syria. On 6 and 8 June, the Western Coalition's Air Force conducted strikes on the pro-government forces of Syria in the area of al-Tanf, inside the “conflict-free zone” established by the United States and its allies, with the radius of 55 km around the city. Russia called these actions “an act of aggression”. According to US sources, representatives of the American and Russian contingents in Syria held two “secret meetings”, during which they discussed the creation of zones of de-escalation in Syria's South-West.

In early June, formations of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” with the intensive support of the Western Coalition's aviation entered Raqqa, where, with the participation of US Special Task Forces and massive support by the Western Coalition's aviation, in the second half of June were fighting to force the ISIS terrorists out of the city. As of June 26, SDF fighters were controlling about a quarter of the city's territory. At the time, the number of the ISIS fighters defending in Raqqa was estimated at 2.5 thousand. In the southern and eastern quarters of the city, the ISIS' fighters continuously counterattacked, trying to break the encirclement ring. According to the US military's reports, the leaders of the ISIS had fled from Raqqa and Iraqi Mosul to the city of al Mayadin in the East of Syria near the border with Iraq, where the command center of this terrorist organization is now located. In the middle of June, units of the US Armed Forces moved two MLRS HIMARS from Jordan to al-Tanf base.

US troops at the al-Tanf border crossing point
US troops at the al-Tanf border crossing point

The American military's close attention to al-Tanf (in the area of crossing of the Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi borders) is explained by the fact that the city has a military base at which American and British instructors train militants of pro-Western armed opposition fighting both against the Syrian regime and against ISIS. Besides, through that city land communications Iran supplies its Syrian and Lebanese allies with weapons and ammunition. The Pentagon's goal is to break the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Hezbollah “axis of resistance” and to take the Syrian-Iraqi border under its control.

June 18, an American F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter jet, which, according to the US Command, had dropped bombs on the American-supported SDF fighters south of Tabqah in the Syrian province of Raqqa. The Syrian Command stated that the Su-22 acted against the ISIS militants. In Moscow, this USA's action was called “an act of aggression” and “helping terrorists.” The Pentagon was informed that the USA does not seek conflicts in Syria, but intends to defend itself and its allies in case of a threat.

June 26, White House Spokesperson Sh. Spicer said that the US government allegedly discovered signs of the Syrian authorities' potential preparation for a new use of chemical weapons in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov expressed the hope that the USA would not create “far-fetched pretexts for new attacks on Syria based of some mythical intelligence”. Syria's Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar stated that “Syria has completely disposed of chemical weapons, but even if these weapons were available in arsenals, it is hard to imagine that Damascus would benefit from their use”. According to him, the Syrian army wins without weapons of mass destruction, “but, apparently, many do not like it”.

Military bases of the Western Coalition in Tabqah, al-Tanf and al-Zakf
Military bases of the Western Coalition
in Tabqah, al-Tanf and al-Zakf

According to the “Global Research”, in June the USA began to construct a large military air base in the village of Tabqah. It will be a full-fledged air base using the military airfield Tabqah, as well as all military facilities of the Syrian Arab Army in the city. That will be the third US military base built on the territory of Syria. The first two were built in April and May 2017 in the south of the country in the settlements of al-Tanf and al-Zakf, where a joint Operational and Command Center of the Western Coalition's forces will be created.

According to the “South Front”, the USA has concluded a treaty with the Syrian Kurds, which will allow the US military to stay in Kurdish-controlled areas for 10 years. In turn, the United States will continue to provide military assistance to YPG. According to a number of Western media, during the period from June 5 to June 20, 2017, the USA had delivered 130 trucks with modern weapons and ammunition to the territory controlled by Syrian Kurds. In total, 12,000 assault rifles, 6,000 light machine guns, 3,500 heavy machine guns, 3,000 shots to the antitank grenade launcher RPG-7, 1,000 AT-4 anti-tank grenade launchers, 235 mortars, 100 sniper rifles and 450 PVS 7 night vision goggles were delivered to the Kurds over the specified period. Ukrainians fighting in the Donbas against Russian aggression can only envy the Syrian Kurds...

According to the observer of “The National Interest” Doug Bandow, the United States is becoming more and more deeply bogged down in the Syrian conflict, which threatens the country with serious consequences in the absence of any benefits. According to him, the USA's participation in the Syrian civil war in the context of the struggle of many groups is fraught with a clash with Iran, Turkey or Russia. The US Congress did not declare war on the Syrian government and did not pledge to protect the Syrian rebels, D. Bandow reminds.

Russian VKS' Combat Actions. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, on 10 June, Russian aviation and the SAR attacked a large convoy of ISIS fighters trying to get out of Raqqa in the direction of Deir ez-Zor. It was reported that as a result of the attack dozens of a machine gun-mounted vehicles were destroyed. According to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, on 23 June, the ships of the Russian Navy conducted strikes with six cruise missiles “Caliber” on the ISIS' control points and ammunition depots in the province of Hama. The attacks were carried out from the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea by the “Admiral Essen” and “Admiral Grigorovich” frigates, as well as by the “Krasnodar” submarine from underwater position.

In June, Russian military aviation would attack almost every day the ISIS' positions in Akerbat in the eastern part of Hama province. Akerbat is the mainstay of the terrorist group in this province, as it is located along the main route for deliveries of contraband oil. According to Deputy Director of the Department of New Challenges and Threats of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia D. Feoktistov, since the beginning of the operation in Syria, the Russian Air Force has destroyed more than 3,000 petrol-tank lorries of terrorists and more than 200 plants for processing and pumping petroleum products. According to him, although the ISIS' revenues from the sale of smuggled oil have decreased 10-fold — from 2 billion to 200 million US dollars, but nevertheless, the terrorist group continues to exist and receive income.

June 27, Syrian President Bashar Assad for the first time visited the Russian Hmeimim air base, where he was photographed in the cockpit of a Su-35 fighter. Also, the President of the SAR was shown the Russian tank support vehicle “Terminator”. B. Asad was accompanied by the Chief of the General Staff of the RF Armed Forces, General V. Gerasimov. Trying to at least partially shift the burden of participation in the Syrian conflict to its CSTO allies, the Russian side proposed sending servicemen from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to the de-escalation zones in Syria. V. Shamanov, the Head of the State Duma Defense Committee, confirmed that Russia was negotiating with these countries to send their servicemen to Syria.

On 27 June, Syrian President Bashar Assad visited the Russian Hmeimim air base

Turkey's Combat Actions. Detachments of the radical Syrian opposition with the support of the Turkish army are attacking the positions of the Kurds near Afrin in the province of Aleppo. On 16 June, Turkish President R. Erdogan called on the USA and KSA to participate in the next round of negotiations on an inter-Syrian settlement in Astana. He also stressed that “it is impossible to resolve the crisis in Syria and Iraq without Iran's mediation”. June 14, US Secretary of State R. Tillerson stated that the American administration was concerned about Ankara's rapprochement with Moscow.

US Secretary of Defense J. Mattis provided Turkey with information on the supply of arms to the Kurdish formations in Syria, while stressing that “after the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa, the weapons supplied to the Kurds will be returned to the United States”. However, on 27 June, J. Mattis announced that the United States would continue to supply arms to Syrian Kurds after the liberation of Raqqa. So, he made it clear that the Pentagon is not going to take away the weapons given to the Kurds, which had been previously promised to Turkey. Turkish President R. Erdogan said that the USA is making a mistake by providing Syrian Kurds with weapons.

The Defense Ministry of the SAR reported on 30 June that Syrian government troops, with the support of the Russian VKS, Iranian troops, militia units and Lebanese Hezbollah, released more than 12,000 square kilometers of the territory and 69 settlements of the country in June. The based in London analytical center “IHS Markit” published on 29 June a study according to which within the last three years the ISIS lost control of 60 % of the previously occupied territory and 80 % of its revenues in Iraq and Syria.

Islamic State territory down 60 % and revenue down 80 %
on Caliphate’s 3rd anniversary

In our opinion, the military-political conflict in Syria is entering its final phase, which will result in the radical armed Syrian opposition and terrorist groups' being defeated by the Syrian government troops and their allies, despite the intervention of Turkey and the Western Coalition led by the United States. At this, it is unlikely that Syria will remain a unitary state. Most likely, the Syrian Federation will be established as part of religious-ethnic autonomies: Alawi, Sunni, Kurdish, Turkoman, Druze and possibly Christian with a formal central government in Damascus. In other words, “Balkanization” of Syria is a real threat. But the most dangerous thing is that all these autonomies will be controlled from outside — by Russia, Turkey, the United States, Saudi Arabia and possibly Iran, which will resemble the occupation of Germany after the Second World War. The only positive moment in this situation is that none of the above-mentioned countries will be able to independently control and determine the situation in Syria, which will force them to agree on the future status of the country within the framework of the UN Security Council, as well as conferences in Geneva and Astana.

 

IRAQ

Battle for Mosul, late June 2017
Battle for Mosul, late June 2017

Combat Actions. According to Chinese sources, within the 126 days of the operation to liberate Mosul, the International Coalition had destroyed 142 underground tunnels, 396 secret fire positions, 161 militant vehicles. At that, the US Air Force planes alone had dropped 12093 air bombs. The operation involved 9,000 Iraqi Armed Forces military servicemen, plus 5,200 US Army's personnel.

June 25, a representative of the Iraqi Armed Forces Command stated that the old part of Mosul had been almost completely liberated from the ISIS fighters. However, despite all the Iraqi government's victorious reports on the capture of Mosul, ISIS fighters continue to hold positions in the Old City and even make counter-attacks. Thus, on 30 June, the ISIS fighters conducted a series of successful counterattacks, knocking out units of Iraqi troops from the eastern part of the Old City. US experts point out that the advancement of Iraqi and US troops is restrained by narrow streets, which minimizes the use of heavy weapons. The second factor that slowed down the offensive of the Coalition's forces was the actions of enemy snipers. And even after the establishment of complete control over Mosul, it is doubtful that the ISIS militants will disappear. It seems that they will simply switch to illegal position and to methods of guerrilla warfare. At this, ISIS fighters continue to control several areas in the desert zones of the Anbar province, populated mainly by Sunnis. The positions of the ISIS supporters are also strong around Tal Afar west of Mosul and in the vicinity of Kirkuk. According to the forecasts of the American experts, the ISIS' units will try to retain their control over the sections of the Syrian-Iraqi border so that, if necessary, they can maneuver and transfer forces and resources from Syria to Iraq and vice versa. In the opinion of American experts, the Iraqi Armed Forces are not able to conduct independently large-scale military offensive operations, especially in zones of traditional Sunni living, and only the presence of US troops in Iraq can save the Iraqi Army from inevitable defeat.

Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraqi Kurdistan

Referendum on the Iraqi Kurdistan's Independence. June 8, the Head of the Kurdish Autonomous Region Mas'ud Barzani instructed the Supreme Electoral Commission of the Autonomy to organize a referendum on independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan on 25 September. This decision was supported by the majority of the Kurdish parties, however, the Gorran Party and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan stated that the decision to hold a referendum could only be taken by the Kurdish regional parliament, whose work has been suspended since October 2015.

The referendum participants will have to answer the question: “Do you agree that Kurdistan Region and Kurdistan's areas outside the region's administration should be an independent country?”

The decision of the Kurdish leadership to hold a referendum on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan was assessed in Iraq and abroad as illegal and anti-constitutional. The central government of Iraq condemned the decision of the Kurdish leadership. The Iraqi “Turkmen Front” expressed a protest against the referendum on the independence of Kurdistan in those areas where Turkomans live compactly. The European Union negatively reacted to this decision and advocated the preservation of the unity of the Iraqi state. The US Department of State has stated that Washington supports a “unified, stable and democratic” Iraq. In the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the referendum on Kurdish independence was called a “terrible mistake”. Tehran believes that the region of Iraqi Kurdistan should remain an integral part of Iraq.

 

IRAN

Iran's Missile Potential. Iran's military industry includes virtually all branches of the production of weapons and military equipment, but construction of rockets is in the first place in the country. When implementing the national missile program, Tehran prioritizes copying, as well as modernization of Russian, North Korean, Pakistani, Chinese and American products. Iran has seven major centers for the development and production of missiles. At present, Iran produces small and medium-range missile systems, ballistic missiles with a range of up to 2–3 thousand kilometers, cruise missiles with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers and anti-ship missiles. To date, a whole series (more than 20) of missile carriers of various classes has been created in Iran. All of them are mobile, adapted for operations in different regions of the country and are protected by echeloned air defense.

Oт 18 June, Iran launched missile strike targeting ISIS militants in Syria
Oт 18 June, Iran launched missile strike targeting ISIS militants in Syria

On 18 June, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) shot mid-range ground-to-ground missiles against the positions of ISIS in the Deir ez-Zor province, while the Iranian missiles' firing positions were in western Iran in the province of Kermanshah. As it became known from Iranian sources, the IRGC used about 6 ballistic missiles of the “Zolfaghar” type (”Fatah-313”) and “Qiam-1” (”Shahab-2”) with a range of 700–800 km. Although Iranian officials reported on very successful results of this missile strike, however, according to Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, the Chief of the General Staff of the Israel's Defense Forces, the results were much more modest: only one of the six missiles hit a target and another exploded near. Some observers regard this missile strike of Iran as a kind of warning to the Americans, because in early June, pro-Iranian Shi'ite formations of “Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi” in Syria were subject to several attacks of the International Coalition led by the United States. Thus, with this missile attack Teheran tried to demonstrate the possibility of a respond. The Iranian launch of missiles, apart from purely tactical tasks, had strategic ones: to demonstrate to the USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia the possibility of hitting their targets and objects. During the launches for the first time, in the combat mode, at all levels (strategic, operational and tactical) the tools for command and control were used.

According to experts, Iran is henceforth a full-fledged missile power with sufficient potential to contain any possible aggression against it. Currently, about 40,000 American servicemen are deployed at military bases around the Iranian borders (15,000 in Kuwait, 10,000 in Qatar, 7,000 in Bahrain, 5,000 in Iraq, 5,000 in the United Arab Emirates and 200 in Oman). According to many experts, including American and Israeli ones, Iran's missile capability allows it to overcome the missile defense of Israel, the USA and their allies in the Middle East region in order to inflict unacceptable damage on them.

 

EGYPT

President of the Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his generals
President of the Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his generals

Tensions between Egypt and Qatar, Sudan and Ethiopia. Relations between Egypt and Qatar have deteriorated sharply after the military coup in Egypt (July 3, 2013) under the leadership of the current President and former Defense Minister, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as a result of which President Mohammed Mursi, one of the leaders of the “Muslim Brotherhood” movement (supported by Qatar and Turkey) was removed from power. After the rupture of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Qatar, Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “Qatar spreads the ideology of al-Qaeda, supports the Islamic state and terrorist attacks on Sinai, and continues to interfere with internal affairs of Egypt and the countries of the region, which threatens their national security”. Egypt also accused Qatar of conducting anti-Egyptian propaganda through the “Al Jazeera” TV channel controlled by Doha and supporting the “Wilayat Sina'a” terrorist organization.

The conflict between Cairo and Doha is also being aggravated by various approaches to the settlement of the Libyan crisis. While Qatar supports the “Fajr Libya” Islamist coalition, Egypt supports the Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, representing the Libyan government in Tobruk in the East of Libya, near the Libyan-Egyptian border. Note that about 300 thousand Egyptians work in Qatar, whose population is 2.4 million people, of which no more than 500 thousand people are citizens of Qatar.

Hala'ib Triangle
Hala'ib Triangle

At the end of May 2017, the tension arose between Cairo and Khartoum over the disputed territory, the so-called “Hala'ib Triangle” (the area of 20 580 square kilometers and the population of only about 1,000 people), on the Egyptian-Sudanese border. For almost the entire second half of the 20th century, this territory had been controlled by Sudan, but in 1995 Egypt introduced its troops into the area and declared it its territory. Since the ownership of this territory has not yet been determined by the decision of the United Nations, there were no sufficient legal grounds for condemning Egypt for the seizure of that territory. However, most Western countries consider the “Triangle” part of Sudan in accordance with the demarcation of the border from 1902. Currently, on the territory of the “Triangle” there is the Egyptian national park and discovered oil reserves. Recently, the Egyptian leadership has sent an additional contingent of troops to the area.

Grand Renaissance Dam Project on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia
Grand Renaissance Dam Project on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia

The conflict between Egypt and Sudan over the “Hala'ib Triangle” looks somewhat strange, because in Yemen, Egypt and Sudan joined the “Arabian Coalition” under the leadership of the KSA and, it would seem, they should be considered allies or at least partners. However, not all is so simple. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait have called on Cairo and Khartoum to end the conflict as soon as possible and to resolve the problem through direct negotiations. In this Egyptian-Sudanese conflict, Addis Ababa supported Khartoum, as Ethiopia also had a conflict with Egypt over disagreements over the construction of the “Renaissance” dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. The commissioning of this dam can drastically reduce the spillway to the Nile, which could have a negative impact on the food security of Egypt.

According to some reports, through its special services and with the financial support of the UAE, Cairo conducts subversive actions and sabotage against Ethiopia using opposition Ethiopian insurgents. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, which is an ally of the UAE and Egypt, traditionally supports Addis Ababa. On the other hand, the Foreign Minister of ARE Sameh Shoukry visited the capital of Uganda, where he tried to persuade Ugandan President Y. Museveni to deny Doha in its desire to create a military base in Uganda and “to limit Saudi influence”. On 6 June, General Mohammed Nour Yunis, the Chief of the Ethiopian General Staff, visited Khartoum and promised Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir “to protect Sudanese airspace in case of Egypt's aggression or provocations”, apparently referring to possible Egyptian air raids on the training camps of the Egyptian “Muslim Brotherhood” in Sudan near the border with Egypt, from where they make raids deep into Egyptian territory right up to Sinai, where terrorist acts have recently become more frequent.