September 10, 2017

The Middle East and North Africa. Analytical Review 08/2017

 

Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political Situation in August 2017

 

In August the situation in the Middle East region was complicated, and in a number of countries it was tense and unstable. Armed conflicts continued in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and other countries. In Syria, especially fierce fighting is going on in the cities of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. The Lebanese and Syrian armies interact in the expulsion of the ISIS fighters from the north-eastern part of Lebanon. The actions of units of the Turkish army in the area of Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria are of concern in Moscow, Tehran and Washington, and in Damascus they cause protests and condemnation. In Iraq, at the end of August ended the liberation of the city of Tal Afar, a major stronghold of the ISIS militants in the north of the country. August 14, the Libyan Field Marshal H. Haftar made another visit to Moscow, where he discussed the possibilities of supplying Russian arms and military equipment to Libya. The main members of the “Arab Coalition” in Yemen (KSA and the United Arab Emirates) continue discussions and disputes about the future status of Yemen and the role of former presidents A. A. Saleh and A. M. Hadi in it. On 3rd and 5th August, the inauguration of Iranian President H. Rouhani took place in Iran, in which the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, F. Mogherini took part, stating that the European Union will never abandon the “nuclear agreement” with Iran. In August, no real progress was made in resolving the “Qatari crisis”. The mediation efforts of Kuwait, the United States, Great Britain, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Russian Federation have not yielded tangible results. The strained political situation in Saudi Arabia is exacerbated by the growth of socio-economic problems in the monarchy.

The Middle East and North Africa

SYRIA

Fighting. In August, military operations by government forces and allied forces with armed formations of the Syrian opposition, terrorist and extremist groups continued in several provinces of Syria. In general, during the offensive in the provinces of Hama, Homs and Raqqa, by August 19 approximately 9,000 square kilometers of the territory of Syria were liberated. From September 2015 to August 2017, the Syrian army increased the country's controlled territory from 12,000 square kilometres to 75,000 square kilometres. At the same time, Islamists and the Syrian armed opposition lost about 7,000 square kilometres within the last 2 months. But, despite the reduction of the territory held by terrorists, they keep replenishing their arsenals of weapons and ammunition.

In the first half of August, government troops continued their offensive southward against the forces of the ISIS militants along the banks of the Euphrates River. There fighting also in the Damascus area, in the provinces of Hama, Deir ez-Zor, as-Suwayda, Aleppo and Latakia. Units of the Syrian army and militia groups occupied the left by the ISIS militants city of al-Sukhnah in the province of Homs. The capture of this city is an important stage on the way to liberation from the terrorists of Deir ez-Zor.

The storming of the city of Raqqa in the north of Syria by the Kurdish “Forces of Democratic Syria” (FDS) with the massive support of the aircrafts of the Western Coalition led by the United States has been on for the third month already. According to the Pentagon, at the end of August, in the city there were about 2 thousand ISIS fighters.

According to various sources, 10 to 20 thousand civilians continue to live in Raqqa, most of whom are concentrated in the city center. As a result of the fighting, hundreds of civilians have been killed and wounded. Part of the Arab population of Raqqa in the ranks of the “people's militia” is fighting along with the ISIS militants. By August 15, units of the FDS had been controlling 65 % of the city's territory. In the south of the province, government forces seized several villages and established control over the areas of hydrocarbon production. By the end of August, the formation of the FDS, with the massive support of the Coalition's aviation, liberated from terrorists the historical center of Raqqa, but the fighting continues on the outskirts of the city.

Thus, the liberation of Raqqa from the ISIS militants is entering its final stage. The commanders of the Syrian Kurdish militia in the FDS are striving to complete the liberation of the city by October. The Kurdish civil administration to govern Raqqa after the liberation of the city was formed on 18 April in the town of Ayn Issa, located 50 km north of Raqqa. The leaders of Syrian Kurds are trying to include Raqqa into the so-called “Kurdish Federal Autonomous Region”, proclaimed in late 2016. Besides, the FDS are hurrying to transfer their troops to the area of the enclave of Afrin, which is threatened by Turkey's occupation. Syrian Kurds are also trying to establish their control over Raqqa before elections to local government bodies, which are supposed to be held in three stages — September 22, November 3, 2017, and January 19, 2018. These elections coincide in time with the referendum on independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan.

Currently, there is an active regrouping of forces and strengthening of the positions of terrorists in the north of Syria, where they try to take control of the main border crossings with Turkey in order to gain access to sources of financing as well as to weapons and ammunition supply channels. At the end of August, the ISIS militants attacked the FDS positions near the US military base south of al-Shaddadah in the southern part of al-Hasakah Governorate in north-eastern Syria. At the end of August, the Syrian army and its allied forces, with the support of the Russian VKS, achieved great success by liberating Akerbat in the province of Hama from the militants of ISIS, having elimintated the last major center of terrorists' resistance in the central part of the country. Taking this city will allow the Syrian government to resume control over oil and gas fields.

The establishment of complete control over the territories of the provinces of Hama and Homs allows the Syrian army to begin the liberation of the province of Deir ez-Zor, the last Syrian province still almost completely controlled by the ISIS militants, who are trying to regroup near Deir ez-Zor and to transfer armored vehicles, weapons and ammunition to the city's area. According to some reports, terrorists in Deir ez-Zor have received significant reinforcements from the ISIS fighters who fled Iraqi Mosul.

The main role in the offensive of Syrian troops on Deir ez-Zor is assigned to the elite 5th Assault Corps of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). At the end of August, the advanced units of the Syrian army reached the line of 5–10 km from Deir ez-Zor. The surrounded in the city units of the Syrian army receive the Syrian and Russian aviations' support from the air, which allows them to repel terrorist attacks within a year. About two years ago, units of the Republican Guard were transferred to Deir ez-Zor to protect large warehouses with weapons and ammunition. Subsequently, the Syrian guards remained encircled in the city and continued to repel terrorists' attacks. Realizing that they will not be taken prisoner, the guards keep the defense “to the last bullet”. According to some experts' forecasts, in September the offensive of government troops on Deir ez-Zor will continue and the city will be unblocked.

For the Syrian government, this city is important for the restoration of ground communication with Iraq and through it with Iran, and also as a source of hydrocarbon raw materials. According to the Iranian media, the Americans are concentrating the loyal forces of the armed Syrian opposition in Deir ez-Zor by transferring militants to the southern provinces from other regions of Syria. Thus, in the situation around Deir ez-Zor, Russia and the USA find themselves on different sides of the conventional front line.

Today it is becoming quite obvious that the ISIS will be completely expelled from Syria, which will greatly enhance the chances of preserving the territorial integrity of the country. This will be followed by the stage of dialogue and reconciliation between the government and the opposition, formation of a civil society and the reform of the political system of the Syrian state. This stage can last several years.

The USA's Position. August 1, US Secretary of State R. Tillerson, said that Washington was open to discuss with Moscow the steps necessary to resolve the conflict in Syria. At this, he stressed that the United States stands for the preservation of the “united, not divided Syria”, adoption of a new constitution in the country, holding of “free and fair elections” and a “new leadership of the country”.

According to R. Tillerson, “there is no role for the Assad regime in the future governance of Syria, so Russia's support of the government in Damascus led by Assad is unacceptable, and Iranian troops and associated groups must leave the territory of Syria”. The US Secretary of State also pointed out that Washington supports the format of the inter-Syrian talks in Geneva, but, in his opinion, there are no suitable conditions for a new round of talks on the future of the Syrian government yet.

Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov, following the meeting with US Secretary of State R. Tillerson in Manila on August 6, said that Russia expected continued contacts with the United States in Syria in the military and political spheres. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS B. McGurk said on 5 August that the international community would not help in rebuilding Syria while the current president of the country, B. Assad, is in power. He also said that, according to the IMF, the post-war reconstruction of Syria would need more than 20 billion US dollars.

In a recent interview with “The Time” magazine on the occasion of the 3rd anniversary of the Operation “Inherent Resolve” (August 8, 2014), Commander of the Coalition Forces in Syria and Iraq, American Lieutenant-General Steven Stephen Townsend stated that the Western Coalition “has made great progress in destroying the caliphate”, having liberated the city of Mosul in Iraq and conducting an offensive on the city of Raqqa in Syria. At the same time, he expressed doubt that “defeating the physical caliphate will defeat ISIS”. According to him, the ISIS militants have learned how to survive, they will develop a new strategy, moving to guerrilla actions and creating their centres in other parts of the world. “I think we have to defeat their idea,” J. Townsend stressed, — “that's more important than defeating their force”.

However, in our opinion, the terrorists' misanthropic ideas will hardly be able to support the viability of the “caliphate”. It seems that its viability was based first of all on the economic component, on the possibility of receiving revenues from illegal oil trade, as well as from external sponsors of terrorism. No ideology is worth anything if it is not supported economically. Until now, the ISIS has been able to recruit supporters around the world, and primarily because of their financial capabilities. Thus, the ISIS will be destroyed physically and ideologically only when it is possible to cut off the financial flows feeding it, the ways of delivering weapons, military equipment and ammunition.

 

LEBANON

Fighting on the Syrian-Lebanese Border. From the very beginning of the civil war in Syria, the Lebanese were dragged into this war, and on different sides of the “front line”. While the Shiite fighters of Hezbollah are fighting in Syria on the side of government troops, their Sunni compatriots are fighting against the Assad regime in alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS and Syrian opposition armed groups. In the first half of August, there were significant changes in the military-political situation on the Syrian-Lebanese border. August 19, a joint operation of the Syrian troops, the Lebanese army and the Hezbollah against the ISIS strongholds on the border was launched. The Lebanese Army Command coordinated its actions with the armed formations of Hezbollah.

For the first time since the 1980s, the Lebanese and Syrian armies interacted. By August 22, Syrian government forces had driven the ISIS fighters from the southern part of Western Qalamoun, a region on the Syrian-Lebanese border. Realizing the futility of further resistance, on 25 August, the leaders of the ISIS units asked the Syrian authorities to allow them an unimpeded access to the eastern regions of Syria in exchange for abandoning the territories they retained along the Syrian-Lebanese border. The militants and their family members, totaling about 700 people, were provided with transport for their evacuation to the Abu Kamal, located on the border with Iraq, in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor.

The Pentagon's reaction to the free withdrawal of the ISIS fighters was very acute. The Pentagon even accused Moscow of “cooperating with Islamists” and violating “the obligations to jointly fight terrorists”. In order to delay the movement of the ISIS militants evacuated from Lebanon and their supporters to Syria, the Western Coalition damaged the road and destroyed the bridges, although this did not seriously impede the movement of the convoy of 17 buses carrying about 300 militants with families. Nevertheless, the Coalition stated that it would not allow the jihadist convoy to go to Abu Kamal. It should be noted that Abu Kamal is a strategically important settlement for Americans, whose control allows them not only to block the movement of ISIS fighters from Syria to Iraq and back, but also to maintain communications for conducting their operations in Deir ez-Zor.

By the end of August, units of the Lebanese army, in cooperation with the Hezbollah formations, had completely taken control of and cleared terrorists from the area of Arsal in the north of the country where the militants of the extremist organization “Jabhat al-Nusra” (currently “Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham”). In the middle of August, a new military operation was launched, aimed at driving out the ISIS militants from Ras Baalbek to the north of the town of Arsal. After the destruction of 150 terrorists, a truce was signed and an agreement was reached on the withdrawal of about 1,500 Jabhat al-Nusra fighters from Lebanon to the Syrian province of Idlib. The total number of Syrians (militants and their families) who left Arsal was about 8 thousand people. 50 thousand Syrians still are in refugee camps near Arsal. Until recently, in the city there were about 120 thousand Syrians for 40 thousand indigenous people. According to Amnesty International, a total of about 1.5 million refugees, mostly Syrians and Palestinians, account for 5 million local residents in Lebanon, the territory of which makes up one third of the territory of Odessa region.

The majority of the population of Lebanon are very negative about the numerous Syrian refugees, whose presence in a small country causes many problems in the spheres of economy and security, requires additional allocations for the social sphere, education and medicine. Most Lebanese sees all Syrian men between the ages of 16 and 60 as potential terrorists. Almost all political forces and religious confessions of Lebanon have been united by this negative attitude.

Before the beginning of the operation, Hezbollah's leader Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah spoke on “Al-Manar” TV channel explaining his party's position regarding the expulsion of terrorists from Lebanese territory. Given the tension in Lebanon between the Shiite and Sunni communities, H. Nasrallah assured the Lebanese that Hezbollah is fighting not with the Sunnis, but with terrorists. “In the battle against terrorism, we fulfill our duty to the people and do not expect anyone's gratitude or appreciation”, the leader of Hezbollah concluded. It should be noted that since the rebels of Hezbollah played a decisive role in the liberation of South Lebanon from the Israeli occupation in May 2000, the majority of the Lebanese population, despite their religious affiliation, has great respect for the Hezbollah party and its long-time leader Hassan Nasrallah.

During Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's visit to Washington on 26 July 2017, US President D. Trump promised to assist the Lebanese army in the fight against the ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and… the Lebanese parliamentary party “Hezbollah” (?), although it is well known that in the parliamentary elections in Lebanon in June 2009, the Hezbollah-led “March 8” coalition won 57 seats out of 128. The next parliamentary elections in Lebanon were to be held in 2014, but due to problems related to the election of a new president, they were postponed to May 2017, then — to September–October 2017. According to the latest information, the next parliamentary elections in Lebanon should be held in May 2018.

It should be noted that the American instructors and commandos that are today in Lebanese army units fighting against terrorists in the north-east of Lebanon in the Ras Baalbek area are in cooperation with the fighters of Hezbollah. Thus, it can be said that the American special forces are taking part in the fight against terrorists together with the fighters of Hezbollah.

On the other hand, the US President should have known that the elected in October 2016 to the post of President of Lebanon, 83-year-old Maronite Catholic Michel Naim Aoun is a political ally of the Shiite party “Hezbollah”, and his appointments in the army and law enforcement structures have lately made stronger the Lebanese army and Lebanese Shiite detachments in the fight against terrorists and Islamists.

 

TURKEY

Turkey's Actions in Syria. August 5, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his intention to resume and expand the area of the military operation “Euphrates Shield” in the north of Syria. At the moment, there are about 25 thousand Turkish troops on the Syrian border. In mid-August in the north of the province of Aleppo, fighting between the pro-Turkish formations — on the one hand, and the Kurdish forces on the other — intensified. August 26 in the north of the province of Aleppo was recorded Turkish troops' invasion in Syria through the Turkish border town of Kilis in the direction of the Syrian city of Azaz. On 27 August, the Turkish Armed Forces crossed the border in the north of Syria west of the city of Kobani, and immediately entered into battle with the Kurdish forces of YPG. In the following days, shootings with using artillery and tanks continued in the area. The offensive of Turkish troops and their Syrian satellites in northern Turkey caused concern in Moscow, Tehran and Washington, as well as protests and condemnation in Damascus. Trying to disengage the Turkish and Kurdish troops, the command of the Russian contingent in Syria decided to bring into the Kurdish cantons of Afrin and Shahba military police units, reinforced with armored vehicles and marines. Thus, the Russian troops will become a barrier to the militants of the pro-Turkish “Free Syrian Army”, which practically disrupts Ankara's plans to occupy the north-western part of the country.

According to the Turkish “Hurriyet” agency, on August 29, in the north of Syria in the Kurdish area of Manbij, pro-Turkish rebels from the insurgent alliance “Euphrates Shield” (part of the “Free Syrian Army”) fired on units of American special task forces. According to the Pentagon, there were no losses either from the Americans or from the pro-Turkish group of militants. According to other sources, as a result of the clash, three militants were killed and two — wounded. There were no reports on the Americans' losses. According to Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon, US soldiers fired back. The Coalition's Command sent a note of protest to Ankara, demanding to influence the militants.

Everything points to Turkey being preparing anothetr attack on the Syrian Kurds, the most reliable US ally in Syria, in order to prevent the assault of Raqqa by American and Kurdish troops. It seems that Ankara challenges the Trump administration in Syria. And for this, in our opinion, it can even temporarily freeze its participation in NATO. However, if the USA and Western countries put pressure on Ankara (and there are plenty of opportunities for this), Ankara will have to moderate its ardor and blackmail, and accept the rules of the game in Syria dictated by Washington. And in this it will not be helped either by the quasi-alliance with Russia, or by the recent intensification of cooperation with Iran.

J. Mattis' Visit to Turkey. August 23, after visits to Amman, Baghdad and Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited the capital of Turkey. There was no press conference and an official joint communiqué after his talks in Ankara, however, the press release from the US Embassy in Turkey informed that General J. Mattis had a meetings with Minister of National Defense Nurettin Canikli and with Turkish President R. Erdogan. The President of Turkey's meeting with the Chief of the Pentagon was attended by Minister of National Defense N. Canikli, Turkish Presidential Press Secretary ─░brahim Kalin and the Head of Turkey's National Intelligence Organization Hakan Fidan. In the official statement of the Turkish president's administration, the two countries decided to fight all terrorist organizations, including ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). J. Mattis and his Turkish interlocutors disapproved of the upcoming referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to President R. Erdogan, a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as local elections in the Kurdish enclaves in the north of Syria will be the beginning of creation of the Kurdish state in the contiguous territories of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, which, in his opinion, “should never be allowed“.

The President of Turkey traditionally expressed concern over the USA's supporting Syrian Kurds. In particular, he reminded J. Mattis about the presence in the north of Syria of supporters of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), while expressing concern about the USA's cooperation with PYD. In response, J. Mattis informed the Turkish side on the goals and objectives of the United States' cooperation with the Syrian Kurds, while stressing that this interaction “will never be directed against Turkey”. They also discussed the situation in Idlib and Afrin in the north of Syria. The parties stated their intention to intensify cooperation in the the defense industry and within the framework of NATO.

J. Mattis' visit to Ankara once again demonstrated that in the relations between Turkey and the United States there are many contradictions and divergences in approaches and assessments of international problems. However, Ankara and Washington, recognizing them, nevertheless try not to cross certain “red lines” in order to preserve the possibility for “intense dialogue” and cooperation in certain spheres, in particular, in military-political and defense ones, which is determined by their status as the leading NATO countries.

The “Security” Wall on the Border with Iran. Back in early 2017, Turkish media reported on the Turkish authorities's intention to wall off from Iran and Armenia. In early August, along the Turkish-Iranian border, the construction of a 144-km-long barrier began to prevent the illegal traffic of Turkish and Iranian Kurds. Besides, the wall will prevent smuggling of arms and ammunition, various goods, especially liquid fuels. The length of the entire Turkish-Iranian border is more than 450 km.

The border barrier will consist of concrete blocks with barbed wire — three meters in height and two meters in width. On the wall they will install thermal chambers and aerial video surveillance systems, as well as large floodlights for road lighting. Each block of the wall weighs about seven tons. Construction will be conducted in five stages, the first of which will end in October this year. Considering the problems with the construction of the “Yatsenyuk wall” along the Russian-Ukrainian border, we could try to invite Turkish companies to implement this project.

Turkish media regularly report that Iran has provided its territory to the banned in Turkey Kurdistan Workers Party for creation of camps. According to some reports, currently there are about 1,000 Kurdish militants in those camps. Tehran welcomed Ankara's initiative to build a barrier wall, believing that it would provide cross-border security for the two countries. At the end of May 2017, the Iranian media reported on the attack of an armed group connected with the PKK on the Iranian border guard unit, when two soldiers of the Iranian army were killed, seven more were wounded. At that point the border line passes through the mountains and is very difficult to control. In June 2017, it was reported that the Turkish authorities, along with the construction of the wall, are also planning to implement the “Integrated State Border Protection System”, which will provide 24-hour online border control.

 

IRAQ

Fighting. August 20, the Iraqi army launched an operation to liberate Tal Afar in Nineveh Governorate, one of the last bastions of the ISIS terrorist group, located 70 km west of Mosul, near the borders with Syria and Turkey. Most of the city's 200,000 people are Turkomans, who are close to Azerbaijanis in ethnic and linguistic terms. The region of Tal Afar has a long history, the first written mention of it appeared 4,500 years BC. This region is several times mentioned in the Bible. Tal Afar was one of the main centers of resistance to the US occupation of Iraq. In September 2005, to suppress the protests of local militants, the US and Iraqi armies carried out the operation “Restoring Rights”. The commander of this operation was Colonel H. McMaster, who today is US President D. Trump's National Security Advisor.

Since June 2014, Tal Afar has been under the control of ISIS for three years. In 2014–2015, hundreds of local Turkmen Shiites were killed by terrorists of ISIS, tens of thousands fled to the south of the country. In the liberation of Tal Afar, along with the Iraqi army, participated Shiite militiamen, soldiers of Kurdish “Peshmerga” formations, as well as American special forces. According to different sources, they were confronted by one to two thousand of ISIS fighters.

On August 31, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made an official statement “about the end of the battle against ISIS in the region of Tal Afar” and liberation from jihadists of the entire Nineveh Governorate. Iraqi soldiers hoisted the national flag of Iraq to the Ottoman fortress of the 16th century in the center of the city. Thus, another major stronghold in the north of the country was cleared from ISIS. However, civilians will not soon be able to return to their homes. Retreating, the terrorists mined most of them. Today, only one large Iraqi city of Hawija, 230 km north of Baghdad in the Kirkurk province, is controlled by ISIS militants. Terrorists also control several areas in the desert along the border with Syria in the province of Anbar.

On 22 August, US Secretary of Defense J. Mattis arrived in Iraq to meet with the leaders of the country and discuss the strategy of combating the ISIS terrorist group. On his arrival in Baghdad, J. Mattis stated that “although the days of the ISIS militants are numbered, it's not over yet, — there's hard fighting ahead”. At meetings in Baghdad and Erbil with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and President of Iraqi Kurdistan Mas'ud Barzani, J. Mattis called for a united Iraq. In his opinion, Kurdistan's disintegration from Iraq will weaken not only Iraq, but also Kurdistan. Earlier, US Secretary of State R. Tillerson called on Mas'ud Barzani to postpone the referendum on the independence of the region.

According to the Turkish “Anadolu” agency, the USA is creating a new military base in the north of Iraq, not far from Tal Afar. By now, the construction of the base has been half completed and armored vehicles and US military have been deployed there. At this stage, the runway is being constructed.

 

LIBYA

Khalifa Haftar's visit to Moscow. On August 14, within the framework of his visit to Moscow, Libyan National Army Commander Kh. Haftar met with Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov and Defense Minister S. Shoigu. That was Kh. Haftar's third visit to Moscow. In the course of the talks, S. Lavrov stressed that “all mediation ideas regarding a peaceful settlement in Libya should be concentrated around the activities of the UN”. According to S. Lavrov, this activity should be aimed at creating the most favorable conditions for a dialogue between the key political forces of Libya, so that they themselves negotiate on the future of their country. The head of the Russian Foreign Ministry supported the continuation of the dialogue between the Libyan authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk, in particular, between Kh. Haftar and F. Sarraj on the basis of the Skhirat political agreement.

The main issue during the meetings was the discussion of the possibility of deliveries of Russian arms and military equipment to Libya. At this, Kh. Haftar complained about the ongoing UN embargo on the supply of arms to Libya. According to him, the forces of the Libyan National Army have already liberated from terrorists 90 % of the country's territory. After the meeting with S. Lavrov, Kh. Haftar said that he welcomed Russia's any role in the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Libya.

On the sidelines of Kh. Haftar's visit to Moscow, a number of comments were made by Russian experts. For example, the head of the Russian contact group on the intra-Libyan settlement at the RF Foreign Ministry and the State Duma, Lev Dengov, referring to the issue of lifting the arms embargo on Libya, pointed out that it is inexpedient to raise this issue before the political settlement of the conflict. However, in our opinion, Russia can supply its weapons to Libya bypassing the UN embargo through third countries, on what Kh. Haftar actually hinted in his interview for the “RT” TV channel. Thus, according to the “Reuters” agency, citing the secret report of the UN Security Council's expert group on Libya, in 2013–2014 Belarus supplied arms and ammunition to the Libyan armed groups. Russian expert Yury Shcheglovin argues that “Abu Dhabi has established close working relations with Minsk on the supply of arms and ammunition to loyal to Abu Dhabi formations of Field Marshal Kh. Haftar in Libya. To deliver these weapons (with Moscow's consent to re-export), the planes of a small Moldovan airline are used”.

L. Dengov also said that soon Russia would be visited by the head of the Libyan government in Tripoli Fayez al-Sarraj. According to L. Dengov, after this visit, the officials of the Russian Federation will try to hold direct talks in Moscow between the two rival politicians. However, not all experts are optimistic about Russian mediation in Libya. For example, Professor of Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU) Grigoriy Kosach believes that Moscow's mediation efforts will hardly lead to a serious breakthrough in the intra-Libyan peace settlement. In his opinion, “Libya is a European zone of responsibility, where the ball is run by France, Italy and other EU member states, so it will be incredibly difficult to strengthen Russia's positions in Libya”.

The Problem of Illegal Migrants. Kh. Haftar's working visit to Moscow took place against the background of aggravation of the situation in Libya, caused by the Italian authorities' decision to send to its shores military ships to intercept illegal migrants. At the talks and in the interview with the “RT” TV channel, Kh. Haftar spoke about the refugee' migration through the territory of Libya. According to him, interception of migrants on the high seas at the borders of territorial waters and returning them back to the Libyan coasts is “an absolutely wrong way and a very strange approach”. In his opinion, this approach means “settling the Libyan territory with refugees, that is, its colonization”. Kh. Haftar believes that the problem of migrants should be resolved not on the coast, but on Libya's southern border with African countries.

According to the UN, the number of refugees who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea, exceeded 114,000 from the beginning of 2017 to July 30, with 85 % of them having arrived in Italy. In agreement with the Libyan government in Tripoli, the Italian government sent two warships to support Libyan Coast Guard. However, these actions of the Italian Navy provoked protests in Libya, whose people remember the dark years of Italian rule. On August 2, the House of Representatives in Tobruk condemned Italy's actions, and Marshal Kh. Haftar accused F. Sarraj of irresponsible behavior and ordered the Navy and the Air Force not to let foreign ships into Libyan territorial waters if they do not have permission from the Libian Administration of Maritime Transport and from the Border Guard.

July 25, while in Paris, Kh. Haftar presented his proposals on resolving the migration problem, the idea of which is to completely close Libya's southern borders with African countries (4000 km), the arrangement of which would take 20–25 years and cost 20 billion US dollars. According to him, it will include the cost of training border guards, the supply of weapons and ammunition, vehicles, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, technical means of border control and protection, including motion detectors and night vision devices. Thanks to this, according to Kh. Haftar's calculations, the absolute majority of illegal migrants will surely be cut off already on the southern Libyan borders.

At this, it should be noted that at present Italy, with the support of the local tribes Awlad Suleiman and Toubou, is taking steps to establish control over the southern Libyan border in order to prevent illegal migration from African countries. In March 2017, under the auspices of Rome, representatives of the two main tribes of Fezzan (Awlad Suleiman and Toubou) concluded an agreement on the formation of a joint “border guard”, which, with appropriate funding and training from Italy, should become a sanitary cordon along the southern border of Libya. August 26, at a meeting in Rome, representatives of the tribes Awlad Suleiman and Toubou, as well as Tuareg finally agreed on joint patrolling and monitoring of the southern border of Libya. Solving the migration problem in the south of Libya, Rome does not miss the opportunity to establish its dominance in Fezzan in order to guarantee the safety of the companies under its control that are developing oil and gas fields in that part of Libya. At this, it should be noted that such Italy's activity provokes ill-concealed irritation in Paris and encourages it to implement its plans with the involvement of ex-security officers of M. Gaddafi's regime and President of Chad I. Deby. The main idea of the French plan is to establish close cooperation between the Warfalla anf Toubou tribes in order to monitor the 1000-kilometer Chad-Libyan border. This way Paris is trying to create a controlled by France analogue of the “border guard” in Fezzan by withdrawing the Toubou tribe from its current alliance with the Awlad Suleiman tribe and thus making the “Roman Pact” incompetent…

 

YEMEN

Two “Presidents” with an Indefinite Status. The status of the current “President” of Yemen Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is the KSA's creature, has been very shaky and uncertain for more than two years and its legitimacy is under big question. On 21 February 2012, in the early presidential elections, being the only candidate, Mansour Hadi was elected “technical” President of Yemen for a two-year transition period immediately after the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power. At this, A. M. Hadi's candidacy was supported by both the ruling party and the parliamentary opposition. In January 2014, A. M. Hadi's term was extended for another year. January 22, 2015, in the course of the armed conflict and the seizure of state institutions by Houthis rebels in the country's capital, Sana'a, A. M. Hadi submitted his resignation, which the parliament was to consider. The government of the country also gave up power. In fact, the President and Cabinet of Ministers were under house arrest. February 6, 2015, a Revolutionary Committee was formed in Sana'a, which appointed a Presidential Council consisting of five members.

This made A. M. Hadi's resignation de facto final. However, on 21 February 2015, A. M. Hadi managed to escape from Sana'a to Aden, where he announced the withdrawal of his resignation and announced Aden the provisional capital of the country. On March 25, 2015, after the Houthis rebels had established control of Aden, A. M. Hadi moved to Saudi Arabia, where he called on Riyadh for a military invasion of Yemen. Since then, A. M. Hadi has been almost always in the territory of the KSA.

The invasion of Yemen by the Coalition Forces of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia began on February 26, 2015, and in July the Houthis forces were driven out of Aden by the Arab Coalition. It should be noted that earlier there had been disagreements and disputes between the main members of the Arab Coalition (KSA and the United Arab Emirates) over the future status of Yemen and A. M. Hadi's role in it. While the UAE's main task in Yemen is to establish control over the southern part of the country within the boundaries of the former PDRY with further turning this region into a separate state, Saudi Arabia seeks to preserve the unitary status of Yemen and to prevent the separation of South Yemen as an independent state. On the other hand, Abu Dhabi is making efforts to remove A. M. Hadi as the “legitimate President” of Yemen. Thus, on 26 May, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, demanded A. M. Hadi's immediate resignation.

Over the past two months, the Saudis and Emirates have had exhausting negotiations for a compromise. And in principle it has been achieved. The Emirates made certain concessions regarding A. M. Hadi's “unconditional resignation”, provided that Riyadh announced an ultimatum to the Qatari leadership, which was done. As is known, on 5 June, KSA, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain suspended diplomatic relations with Qatar because of “Doha's supporting various terrorist groups destabilizing the region” and later put forward a number of ultimatum demands. The United Arab Emirates were the main initiator of the ultimatum to Qatar. Riyadh resorted to this forced step solely because of the desire to maintain its allied relations with Abu Dhabi. Besides, the Emirates demanded from the Saudis to return A. M. Hadi to Aden, where he had to arrive on 31 August, but the last minute his departure was postponed because his safety was not guaranteed in Aden. It should be noted that by that time the Emirates had established their full control in Aden, having ousted from it the forces loyal to A. M. Hadi. Moreover, they initiated the establishment in Aden of a pro-Arab “national government” and with the help of several dozen former Iraqi officers began to train loyal to them South Yemeni armed formations. In addition, a significant part of the Sudanese Expeditionary Corps in Yemen actually went under the command of the United Arab Emirates' contingent, although the initiator of sending it to Yemen was Saudi Arabia.

The status of another ex-President — A. A. Saleh also remains rather vague and shaky. Reportedly, recently the Emirates have demanded that the Saudis agree to start secret talks with ex-President of the country A. A. Saleh demanding from him to withdraw from the union with the Houthis. Having learned about the secret contacts and negotiations between A. A. Saleh and the representatives of the KSA and the UAE aimed at making an agreement with them on the transfer of power in the country to him, on the 31st of August the Houthis fully blocked A. A. Saleh's residence with his environment and body guards. De facto A. A. Saleh is now under house arrest and is trying to persuade the Houthis that he was “misunderstood”. At this, it should be noted that the Houthis and A. A. Saleh's troops were repeatedly on the verge of breaking their largely situational and temporary military alliance within the framework of the common struggle against the Arab Coalition. The Houthis have not forgotten that when A. A. Saleh was President, he nine times (!) fought with them unsuccessfully in the province of Saada. Most likely, the final break between the Houthis and A. A. Saleh can happen only after he receives from the KSA and the UAE a firm guarantee of his clan's return to power. And solely if A. A. Saleh succeeds in escaping and fleeing to the territory controlled by the Arab Coalition. At this, we should not rule out that the Houthis can physically destroy their not-quite-reliable “ally”.

 

IRAN

Federica Mogherini's Visit to Iran. The inauguration of Hassan Rouhani, who won the presidential elections on 19th May, took place on two rounds (3 and 5 August). In the first part of the ceremony he received his presidential precept from Supreme Leader of Iran Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei. The second part of the inauguration was held in the Mejlis with the participation of Iranian MPs, government members and foreign guests from 90 countries. Among high-ranking foreign guests was the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, who became the first foreign politician to congratulate H. Rouhani on winning the election. This visit of the head of the European diplomacy became the third after the conclusion of the “nuclear agreement” with the countries of the Six (the USA, France, Great Britain, Germany, China and Russia) — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that was signed on July 14, 2015 and entered into force January 16, 2016. Besides President H. Rouhani, F. Mogherini also held talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Foreign Policy Adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati. She also participated in the “round table” in the Foreign Policy Council.

The main aim of F. Mogherini's visit was to confirm the EU's readiness to cooperate with Iran in the full implementation of the JCPOA against the background of the tightening of the White House's policy towards Iran and the “nuclear agreement”, that was perceived in the European Union with a certain degree of skepticism and critics. F. Mogherini has repeatedly stated that the European Union will never abandon the JCPOA and no party to the agreement has a legitimate opportunity to terminate it unilaterally. At the meeting with F. Mogherini, Iranian President H. Rouhani stressed the important role of the EU in concluding the “nuclear agreement” and pointed out that “all parties are responsible for the protection of the JCPOA”. H. Rouhani also emphasized that “Iran will fulfill all its obligations related to the implementation of the JCPOA, provided that other parties do not violate it”. Recently, the Iranian Parliament has approved a bill according to which, in case of termination of the JCPOA by the USA, Iran will renounce all its obligations to reduce the nuclear program. Thus, the European Union has actually become Iran's main ally in preserving the “nuclear agreement” achieved as a result of years of exhausting negotiations. Taking into consideration the EU's unequivocal position on normalizing relations with Iran, it seems that it will be quite difficult for Washington to conduct an anti-Iranian policy.

After the USA on July 18 imposed sanctions on 18 Iranian individuals and organizations accused of supporting Iran's ballistic missile program, the Iranian authorities have accused the USA of violating the provisions of the “nuclear agreement” of July 14, 2015. In his inaugural speech on August 5 when he took office, President of Iran H. Rouhani stated that Iran would not violate the “nuclear agreement”, but would respond to the United States' breaching it. He called this agreement and the subsequent lifting of the embargo on Iran one of the main achievements of the current government. It should be noted that the day before the imposition of sanctions against Iran, the administration of D. Trump for the second time informed the US Congress that formally Iran complies with the conditions of its nuclear program agreement, but “breaks its spirit”.

 

QATAR

Confrontation continues. In August, no real progress was made in resolving the “Qatari crisis”. Moreover, the development of the situation in the Persian Gulf region shows that, to a large extent, the artificially created crisis between the “Arab Quartet” and Qatar is far from being completed. On 2 August, Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, expressed readiness for a dialogue with the “Arab Quartet”, if they respect the sovereignty of his country. However, according to him, at present, Qatar rejects the conditions for overcoming the crisis, provided in the statement of the Foreign Ministers of the “Arab Quartet” following the meeting in Manama in late July. Besides, the Qatari leadership in some aspects attacks the “Arab Quartet”. For example, regarding the trade blockade, Qatar has filed a complaint at the World Trade Organization against KSA, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. On 24 August, in Tehran arrived the Ambassador of Qatar who was recalled in January 2016 out of solidarity with Saudi Arabia, whose embassy in Tehran had been attacked.

The leadership of Qatar is also paying greater attention to the development of the national armed forces. It is planned to deploy more than 3,000 Turkish military on the “multipurpose” Turkish military base in Qatar, including the Air Force, Navy, military instructors and special task forces. In June 2017, joint Turkish-Qatar military exercises were held on the territory of the Emirate, and in early August — joint naval exercises “Iron Shield”. August 2, Qatar signed a contract for the construction in Italy of seven ships worth 5.9 billion US dollars for the national Navy. Qatar's order includes the construction of 4 corvettes, 1 amphibious ship and 2 patrol ships, and their further maintenance for 15 years. While visiting in Russia the international military-technical forum “ARMY-2017” on August 21–26, Qatar's Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, in his conversation with RF Defense Minister S. Shoigu discussed the possibility of buying Russian S-400 SAM, as well as technologies for its production.

Mediation efforts of Kuwait as well as of US Secretary of State R. Tillerson, the British Foreign Secretary B. Johnson and the Foreign Minister of the FRG S. Gabriel, have not brought tangible results. According to Qatar's Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, some Arab countries prevent the settlement of the crisis, ignoring the mediation efforts of Kuwait and other countries. In August, Kuwait put forward the idea of holding a summit with the participation of the leaders of all involved in the conflict states, but this initiative was not approved by the “Arab Quartet”.

August 30 ended a three-day tour of Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov to the three countries of the Persian Gulf — Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar. Summing up the talks in Doha, S. Lavrov said that Russia did not introduce any new ideas to resolve the “Qatari crisis” and only supports Kuwait's mediation efforts. The main role in the settlement of the crisis, according to S. Lavrov, should be played by the GCC. In our opinion, S. Lavrov's tour was aimed at probing — how much the region is ready to perceive Russia's role of an intermediary. It seems that the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf do not show such interest yet, given that Moscow is an ally of Iran, with which the KSA, the UAE and Bahrain have, to put it mildly, strained relations, as well as the fact that in Syria the Russian policy is directed against the interests of the KSA and the United Arab Emirates. On the other hand, in the long run Moscow does not benefit from reconciliation between Qatar and the “Arab Quartet”. The current confrontation between Qatar on the one hand and the KSA, the UAE, the Arab Republic of Egypt and Bahrain on the other hand undoubtedly meets Russian interests, as it distracts much of the forces and resources of the warring parties and significantly reduces their activity in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and also in Muslim regions of Russia itself. Given that the KSA, the UAE and Qatar are helping various groups of the Syrian armed opposition, during his tour, S. Lavrov also touched upon the Syrian problem. It was important for the Russian Foreign Minister to make sure that Russia's policy in Syria would not suffer as a result of the crisis around Qatar. According to some reports, Doha has significantly reduced its funding the Syrian opposition, which is obviously a pleasant surprise for Moscow and Damascus. According to some reports, Moscow offers the countries of the Persian Gulf to hold an international security conference. In the current situation, all countries of the region are to be put at the negotiating table — this in itself would already be a great success for Russian diplomacy, — the Russian Foreign Ministry believes.

According to different sources, Qatar has enough resources and opportunities to withstand the economic blockade of the “Arab Quartet”. Moreover, the blockade has become a stimulating factor for the country's economy, creating for it new development opportunities. At this, Iran and Turkey almost completely replenish the supply of food products from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. During the telephone conversation on 31 August with Iranian President H. Rouhani, Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani thanked Tehran for supporting Doha “in the face of ruthless sanctions”. He also expressed readiness to strengthen ties with Iran in all spheres. Since the shortest distance between Iran and Qatar by sea is only about 200 km, the delivery of goods to Qatar from Iran is not particularly difficult. In 2014, within the framework of the bilateral agreement between Qatar and Iran, a free economic zone was established in the Iranian city of Bushehr. Under this agreement, Iran exports agricultural products and food to Qatar through three ports in southern Iran.

The delivery of goods from Turkey, which is 2 thousand km from Qatar by airline, and by sea through the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz — several thousand kilometers, involves significantly higher transportation costs. Nevertheless, in recent months, there has been a significant increase in trade between Qatar and Turkey. In July 2017, Turkey sent a large consignment of goods to Qatar using 200 cargo aircrafts. But since air transportation could not meet Qatar's needs in food, the two countries have established sea container shipping. Henceforth from Turkish Izmir, once a month, a cargo container ship with a carrying capacity of 5,000 tons will depart, and it will take it 11 days to reach the shores of Qatar. However, as the cost of air and sea transportation between Turkey and Qatar is very high, Ankara has agreed with Tehran on the delivery of Turkish goods to Qatar via Iran. In our opinion, Turkey is helping Qatar not least because Turkish companies have won contracts worth more than 13 billion US dollars to build infrastructure facilities related to the preparation for the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

The presence in the Qatar Central Bank of 40 billion US dollars in gold reserves and 300 billion US dollars in reserves in the Qatar Investment Fund will allow Qatar to survive the financial turmoil associated with the blockade. The international “Fitch” rating agency predicts a slight slowdown in the country's GDP growth rate from 2.2 % in 2016 to 0.2 % in 2017 and up to 1.3 % in 2018–2019. However, these forecasts of Qatar GDP may change increasingly, as “Qatar Petroleum” State Corporation has recently announced plans to increase by 30 % the volume of natural gas production by 2024 from 77 million to 100 million tons in the liquefied state. This means that Qatar voluntarily suspends the moratorium on the development of the “North Pars” gas field in the Persian Gulf, which it announced in 2005. At this, despite the worsening relations with the UAE, “Qatar Petroleum” does not plan to block the gas pipeline that supplies gas to that country.

 

KSA

The Political and Socio-Economic Situation. Iranian “FARS” news agency, citing sources in Riyadh, has reported that an attempt on the life of Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, was committed in Jeddah. One of the Saudi princes planned to kill the heir to the throne, but has already been arrested. Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself was not injured.

Earlier, it was reported that the King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, could abandon the throne in favor of his son before the end of 2017. In the near future, the King intends to go on vacation for two months and give his son the opportunity to temporarily perform the duties of the king. The son of the late King Fahd, Saudi Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd Al Saud wrote on Twitter that “the constitution of Saudi Arabia has no value, and King Salman has no authority”.

The strained political situation in the country is exacerbated by the growth of socio-economic problems in the monarchy. According to the Saudi Credit & Savings Bank, the gold and currency reserves of the KSA in July 2017 amounted to approximately 164.6 billion US dollars against 346.6 billion US dollars in December 2014. The Kingdom's foreign currency deposits to foreign banks decreased by 25 % between July 2016 and July of this year, from 127.7 billion US dollars to 95.3 billion US dollars. The state invested money for the period from the first quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of 2017 decreased by 23.8 %, namely — from 784 million US dollars to 597.3 million US dollars.

According to the IMF forecasts, Saudi Arabia's GDP growth in 2017 will be only 0.4 %, whereas earlier, in October 2016, it was forecasted at the level of 2 %. The main reason for such a significant decrease in the GDP forecast is the decrease in oil production. In the first quarter of 2017, Saudi Arabia reduced oil production by an average of 580,000 barrels per day, compared to the average production in 2016, that is, by about 5.5 %. According to the IMF calculations, the reduction in oil production by about 5 % will slow the overall GDP growth in Saudi Arabia by 80 %. In August, the government of Saudi Arabia plans to reduce the supply of crude oil to consumers by 600,000 barrels per day, which will result in the production of crude oil reaching its minimum and amount to approximately 6.6 million barrels per day. According to the IMF experts, the reduction in oil supplies, the drop in prices for it to 40–45 US dollars per barrel, as well as athe increase in military spending, the lack of alternative sources of development and sufficient investment will lead to a doubling of the state budget deficit in 2018 and will have a negative impact on all sectors of the Saudi economy.

Under such circumstances, the prospects for the implementation of the National Transformation Program “Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030”, proposed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud in April 2016, appear to be very problematic. The same can obviously be said about the large-scale arms deal between the KSA and the USA, concluded in May 2017, in the amount of 109.7 billion US dollars within the framework of the US President's visit to Saudi Arabia. All this takes place against the background of the KSA's spending many billion dollars on the war in Yemen, the long-term support of the Syrian opposition and some Arab and Muslim regimes, as well as on non-governmental organizations around the world.

According to some reports, the Saudi authorities are preparing to axe tens of thousands of of jobs of civil servants, which can lead to mass unemployment, given that there are about 7.4 million foreign workers and employees in the country for 33 million indigenous people. All this leads to an increase in discontent among the citizens of Saudi Arabia. They are particularly indignant at the recently adopted law, according to which any Saudi citizen can be found guilty by a court if he in any form sympathizes with Qatar. For this, a person accused of sympathy for Qatar may face a prison sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of up to 0.5 million US dollars. And yesterday the Saudis and Qatari people were “brothers”, almost like Ukrainians and Russians…