October 15, 2017

The Middle East and North Africa. Analytical Review 09/2017

 

Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political Situation in September 2017

 

In September, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa remained difficult, and in some countries it was tense and unstable. Most intensive large-scale hostilities were in Syria. Sporadic armed clashes continued in Iraq, Libya and Yemen. In September, political and diplomatic negotiation processes with foreign countries' significant interference prevailed in those countries. September 25, in the Kurdish Autonomous Region there was an unlawful referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, which caused a wave of condemnation around the world, excluding Israel. At the end of September, the fifth for 2017 meeting of the Presidents of the Russian Federation and Turkey V. Putin and R. Erdogan took place in Ankara. In Yemen there remains the status quo, based on the “weakness equilibrium” of the opposing sides. Talks on the future state structure of Libya between the authorities in Tobruk and Tripoli continued in Libya, as well as “diplomatic maneuvers” with the participation of France and Italy. There were no significant shifts in the settlement of the Qatari crisis. In Saudi Arabia, a rather tense internal political situation remained due to the possible transfer of power from King Salman to his son Mohammed. Washington has been discussing the legitimacy of the “nuclear deal” with Iran, which is critically perceived in Europe.

The Middle East and North Africa

SYRIA

Fighting. In September, the main combat actions in Syria were in the cities of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa.

On 5 September, forwarded units of the Syrian army, as a result of a blitz offensive, broke through the defense of the ISIS fighters and deblocked the city of Deir ez-Zor after a 28-month siege. A number of oil fields near Deir ez-Zor were also liberated from ISIS militants. In mid-September, the forwarded units of the Syrian army crossed the Euphrates River and gained a foothold on its eastern shore south-east of Deir ez-Zor. At the same time, the troops of the Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), which are supported by the United States, are approaching the Euphrates from the north-east. On September 30, in the east of the province of Deir ez-Zor, the SDF established control over the largest oil production area of al-Jafra. On 29 September, formations of the ISIS carried out a massive counterattack on the positions of government forces in the province of Deir ez-Zor in order to cut them from the rear. As a result of heavy battles, the terrorist attack was defeated. According to Syrian sources, as of September 30, 2017, the ISIS militants control about 60 % of the territory of the city of Deir ez-Zor. According to the governor of the province of Deir ez-Zor, the Syrian army will be able to completely liberate the city from terrorists no earlier than by the end of October. Given that in Syria, the ISIS ranks consist of about 70 % of foreigners and only 30 % of Syrians, it is almost impossible for the foreigners to “get lost” among civilians. Therefore, they have little choice but to resist to the end.

Since the beginning of June 2017, armed formations of the predominantly Kurdish SDF with the massive support of the Western Coalition's aviation and the US Special Forces are fighting the ISIS terrorists in the city of Raqqa. By the end of September, up to 70 % of the city's territory was liberated from jihadists. On September 30, ISIS fighters made an unexpected attack against the Kurdish groups in the eastern part of the city. During the combat actions, the jihadists were destroyed, but Kurdish formations also suffered great losses. According to the UN, up to 25,000 civilians remain in the town of Raqqa today. For the period of fighting in the city from the beginning of June to the end of September, about 1.5 thousand civilians were killed and about 4 thousand were wounded. According to Colonel Ryan Dillon, the speaker of the anti-terrorist Coalition, there were 400 to 800 ISIS fighters and some 30 to 40 thousand fighters of the SDF in Raqqa at the end of September. Despite such an overwhelming advantage on the part of the attackers, according to some estimates, Raqqa can be completely liberated from terrorists not earlier than in late October – early November.

All September through, the Syrian army also was fighting terrorists in the provinces of Hama and Homs in the central part of the country. September 19, militants from the “Jabhat al-Nusra” terrorist group launched a large-scale offensive against the positions of government troops in the “Idlib” de-escalation zone in order to stop the Syrian army's offensive in the Deir ez-Zor area. Within a day, militants managed to wedge into the defense of government troops at depths up to 12 km and along the front to 20 km. There were 29 Russian military police blocked there. However, later, the Syrian troops, with the support of the RF VKS, counterattacked and almost completely restored the situation in the “Idlib” de-escalation zone.

Russia-US in Syria: Interaction and Rivalry. Despite the obvious rivalry between the Russian Federation and the United States in Syria and their different goals, the military contingents of Russia and the United States have to interact in certain ways to avoid a direct conflict between them. September 19, US President D. Trump said that the United States is seeking de-escalation of hostilities in Syria and a political settlement of the conflict in that country. At that, his statement that Syria is governed by “Assad's criminal regime”, obviously does not coincide with Russia's position.

The USA's interaction with Russia in Syria is part of D. Trump's administration's strategy regarding Moscow, which, according to the US National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster, pursues three goals: “to counter Russia's destabilizing behavior in the world, to avoid any escalation of conflicts with Russia, and to look for areas of cooperation with Russia, where interests overlap”. As an example of such an interaction, Mr. McMaster mentioned the situation in Syria.

September 21, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis expressed confidence in the ability of Russia and the USA to resolve their differences over Syria. The Pentagon has reported that representatives of the RF VKS and the Coalition headed by the USA held a meeting to coordinate the measures to prevent incidents between them in Syria. In particular, it is about expanding the conflict settlement zone in the Euphrates area and supporting three communication lines to prevent incidents between the Russian military and those of the Western Coalition.

According to the RF Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the USA's military presence in Syria violates international law, since it does not have the consent of the Syrian government. Nevertheless, according to S. Lavrov, “we must use the existing opportunity to fight terrorism”. Moscow is constantly blaming the United States for the latter's cooperation with terrorists in Syria. In his speech at the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly (September 21, 2017) S. Lavrov accused the United States of its selective attitude to terrorist organizations in Syria. The RF Ministry of Defense accused the United States of initiating a recent offensive by “Jabhat al-Nusra” fighters in the province of Idlib. Representatives of the Pentagon refused to comment on this statement. The RF Ministry of Defense also called on the Western Coalition headed by the United States “not to interfere with the actions of Syria's government forces to fight terrorists”. On 21 September, the official representative of the Russian Defense Ministry, General I. Konashenkov, said that from the areas on the eastern shore of the Euphrates, in which there were fighters of the SDF together with US troops, Syrian troops were twice massively shelled by mortars and MLRS. By a special communication channel the US Command in al-Udeid in Qatar was informed that “any attempts of shelling from the areas where the militants of the Syrian Democratic Forces are based will be immediately curbed and firing points in these areas will be immediately suppressed by all means of destruction”.

Russian President V. Putin's idea to cooperate with the United States in Syria in the spirit of the anti-Hitler coalition, which he expressed at the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly in September 2015, which, apart from preserving the Assad regime, was intended to divert the attention of the American administration from the annexation of the Crimea and the occupation of the Donbas, was not supported by President B. Obama and is not supported by President D. Trump, since it is impossible to be both a liberator in one country and an invader in the other.

Negotiations in Astana. September 14–15, the sixth round of international negotiations on Syria took place in Astana. It was attended by the delegations of the guarantor countries — Russia, Turkey and Iran, the government of the SAR and the Syrian opposition, as well as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Syria S. de Mistura. The United States and Jordan were present as observers. As a result of the meeting, Russia, Turkey and Iran adopted a joint statement and four documents on the zones of de-escalation: the mandate for deployment in the zones of de-escalation, the rules for the use of military force, the order of service at checkpoints and the provisions of the joint coordination centre. Guarantors have announced the creation of four zones of de-escalation in Syria: in the Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, in the north of the province of Homs, in the province of Idlib, and in some parts of the neighboring provinces of Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo. It is reported that the seventh meeting on Syria will take place in Astana in late October.

 

IRAQ

The Referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. September 12, the Iraqi Parliament voted against a referendum on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan (IK) and ordered the Prime Minister of the country, Haider al-Abadi, “to take all possible measures to preserve the unity of Iraq”. H. al-Abadi urged the Kurdish leadership to begin direct talks on getting out of the crisis, while claiming that his government would not allow a referendum, as this could lead to a dismemberment of the country. On September 14, the Iraqi Parliament voted to remove from office the governor of the Kirkuk province, who supported Kurdish independence, and on September 16 President of Iraq F. Maasum (Kurd by nationality) was dismissed, being accused of violating the oath and supporting the referendum. The Kurdish side recognized these decisions as unconstitutional. On September 15, Kurdish Parliament approved holding a referendum on independence in the Autonomous Region. On September 16, H. al-Abadi declared readiness for military intervention if the referendum leads to an escalation of violence. September 18, the Iraqi Supreme Court stated that the Kurdish leadership's decision was unconstitutional and decided to suspend the vote. September 23, a delegation of the Iraqi Kurdistan arrived in Baghdad to negotiate with the central government, but was not received by Prime Minister of the country, H. al-Abadi. September 24, the Iraqi government demanded that the IK authorities hand over border control points, including airports, to Baghdad. Besides, the Iraqi government called on foreign states “to cooperate exclusively with the central authorities in Baghdad on border issues and oil matters”.

September 25, despite the ultimatums and persuasion on all sides, the referendum on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan did take place. The turnout of voters was 72 %, which amounted to 3.3 million Iraqi Kurds, of whom 92.7 % voted for independence. In total, 4.5 million voters were registered in the Iraqi Kurdistan. In the voting also participated the inhabitants of the provinces that are part of the Kurdish autonomy (Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah and Erbil), as well as of Kurdish districts outside it (in the provinces of Kirkuk, Nineveh, Salah ad-Din). Apart from the Kurds, these provinces are inhabited by Arabs, Christians, Armenians, Circassians, Chechens, Turks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yazidis, Shabaks and other national minorities.

According to the Kurdish “Rudaw” TV channel, on 1 November 2017, the authorities of the Iraqi Kurdistan is going to hold presidential and parliamentary elections. The reason for such a haste is probably the IK President Massoud Barzani's desire to strengthen his own political stance against the background of a nationwide euphoria caused by the successful referendum. M. Barzani's presidential powers expired in 2013, when the second 4-year term for his presidency ended, and was continued for two years by the IK Parliament's decision, but this term of legitimacy of his powers also expired two years ago.

President of the Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani believes that the referendum in the IK was held in accordance with Article 140 of Iraq's Constitution, which provides for the central authorities to hold a referendum on disputed territories if their population wishes to join the Kurdish Autonomous Region, whose territory is 40.6 thousand square kilometers. Besides, Iraq's Main Law gives the Kurds the right to withdraw from Iraq in case of violations of the Constitution and the rights of the Kurdish population. M. Barzani called on the federal government of Iraq to start a dialogue “for the sake of common interests”. In response to this call, Iraqi Prime Minister H. al-Abadi said that Baghdad would not discuss the results of the referendum with the Iraqi Kurdistan's government, as they are unconstitutional. He appealed to the Kurdish authorities with the demand to cancel the results of the referendum and withdraw the Kurdish “Peshmerga” forces from the “captured” territories in the north and north-east of Iraq.

The Parliament of Iraq has obliged the federal government to give up any dialogue with the leadership of the Kurdish autonomy unless the results of the referendum are cancelled and demanded to close all foreign diplomatic missions in the administrative center of the Kurdish autonomy — Erbil. MPs also demanded from the federal government to bring troops into all areas since 2003 controlled by the Kurdish autonomy, including the Kirkuk province, which, by the way, was liberated from ISIS terrorists by the Kurdish forces. The Central Bank of Iraq has suspended all financial transactions with the IK. September 29, a decision of the Iraqi central authorities to stop the international air service with the Kurdish airports in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah came into force.

Almost all the countries of the Middle East condemned the referendum, but especially tough and negative is the position of neighboring Turkey, which has 15 to 20 million Kurds. Ankara even threatens to conduct a military operation against the Iraqi Kurds, just as it did in 2016 against the Syrian Kurds. In addition, in response to the Kurdish referendum, Turkish President R. Erdogan threatened Erbil with an oil embargo. Indeed, if desired, Ankara could easily undermine the economic base of Kurdish independence. To do this, it's enough to stop oil exports from the Iraqi Kurdistan and Kirkuk to Turkey. The result would be immediate. No longer than in a month or two Erbil would simply have to cancel the results of the referendum, since the Kurdish treasury would become empty very soon. However, it seems that R. Erdogan will not resort to blocking the oil pipeline, confining himself to very tough rhetoric. And it is unlikely that he and his Russian partners from “Rosneft” will be stopped by Baghdad's warning “to prosecute any party that will continue to buy oil from the IK”…

In general, the international reaction to the referendum in the Iraqi Kurdistan can be called rather reserved. The UN Security Council did not support the Kurdish referendum, expressing concern at the potential danger of destabilizing the situation in the region. The United States did not recognize the results of the referendum, but called on the central government of Iraq to give up threatening or even hints on the possible use of force against the Iraqi Kurdistan. It seems that this warning from Washington was well heard in Ankara. The US Department of State has stated that the United States' relations with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region will not change after the referendum. Most politicians and experts estimate the possibility of a large-scale armed conflict between Erbil and Baghdad as unlikely. Moreover, we should not rule out that holding a referendum on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan is no more than an instrument of pressure on the central government in Baghdad to make it go to concessions on the expansion of the territory of the Kurdish autonomy, in particular by joining the rich in crude oil province of Kirkuk. This thought is confirmed by M. Barzani's recent statement that the referendum does not mean the IK's immediate disintegration from Iraq, and the Kurdish leadership is ready for talks with Baghdad.

 

ISRAEL

Israel and the Referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. Israel became the only Middle East country that officially supported the decision of the Iraqi Kurds to seek their independence.

For the first time, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly supported this idea as early as January 2014. In august 2017, in his address to the delegation of US Senators-Republicans, B. Netanyahu reaffirmed his position on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan. Apart from B. Netanyahu, a number of Israeli officials, including former Israeli President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Minister of Justice Eilete Shaked, have repeatedly expressed support for the idea of the independence of the Iraqi Kurds. But then, Israel's contacts with the Iraqi Kurds have a long history. In the 1960s, the informal partnership between Israel and the Iraqi Kurds in the field of security, information and intelligence started, which has become noticeably intensified in the past decade and a half, including elements of trade-economic ties and diplomatic relations.

Israel's support for the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan corresponds to Israel's “peripheral regional strategy”, adopted back in the 1950s. This strategy envisaged the establishment of bilateral relations with non-Arab Muslim states in the Middle East, as well as religious-ethnic minorities in the Arab countries, as an alternative to confrontation with the Arab regimes of the region.

According to well-known Israeli political scientist Zeev Khanin, “in case of the foundation of an independent Kurdistan, there will be a” second Israel” in the Middle East, that is, another stable, pro-Western non-Arab state of the ancient people, not only indifferent to the narrative of the Arab conflict with the Jewish state, but ready to accept the latter as an ally and model to follow”. By supporting the desire of the Iraqi Kurds to become independent, the Israeli leadership proceeds from the assumption that independent Kurdistan will become an ally, sharing with Israel the perception of pressing issues in the Middle East, which will lead to the establishment of full diplomatic relations and conclusion of an agreement on military and economic cooperation.

Many countries in the Middle East strongly condemn Israel's support for the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan. For example, Turkish President R. Erdogan has stated that he will have to reconsider relations with Israel if Jerusalem does not change its approach to this issue. He also stressed that the referendum and Israel's support will not help the Iraqi Kurds. According to him, “the world is not about Israel and waving of the Israeli flags there will not save you”. Israel's support for the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan has also provoked irritation in Tehran and Baghdad. The Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Iran, Mohammed Bagheri, called the referendum “a show that was directed by Israel to undermine the region”. The representative of the Shia national alliance in Iraq, Muwaffaq al-Rubaie has accused the Iraqi Kurds of trying to repeat the Israeli state-building experience. According to him: “ideologues of similar efforts created the State of Israel in 1948”. In Iraqi Kurdistan, Israel's support is perceived with gratitude. Commander of the “Peshmerga” Forces of the Iraqi Kurdistan, Sirvan Barzani has emphasized that Israeli political support is very important for the Kurds at this difficult time.

 

TURKEY

V. Putin's Visit to Ankara. September 28–29, RF President V. Putin was on a working visit to Turkey. Prior to this, only this year the leaders of the RF and the TR had already met four times and held ten telephone conversations.

During the talks, Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan discussed the situation in Syria, the results of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and bilateral trade and economic relations. The most important question for them was the situation in Syria. In fact, it was for the sake of this that V. Putin arrived in Ankara, although his visit earlier was scheduled for the end of October – beginning of November, 2017. During the talks, the parties paid special attention to the situation in the Syrian province of Idlib (part of the de-escalation zone for which Turkey is responsible). Turkey's establishing control in that area is complicated by the fact that there are many pro-Saud groups of the armed Syrian opposition, which are not under Ankara's control. According to Russian analyst Y. Shcheglovin, for Ankara the issue of Idlib is a threat of pro-Saud groups' domination in the province and, accordingly, of the decline of Turkish influence not only in the northwest of Syria, but also throughout the country. According to some reports, Turkey has concentrated on the border with the province of Idlib a military group of up to 80 thousand people, which, in addition to the attack on Idlib, can also invade the neighboring Kurdish Afron canton.

Regarding the referendum in the Iraqi Kurdistan, R. Erdogan obviously wanted to hear from V. Putin assurances that Russia would not in any way support its results and would not supply Iraqi Kurds with weapons and military equipment. Apparently, R. Erdogan did receive such assurances from V. Putin, especially since both parties have common economic interests in the Iraqi Kurdistan, while statements about the non-recognition of the results of the Kurdish referendum are no more than a cover for these interests. The matter is that since 2014 the Iraqi Kurdistan has been exporting to Turkey (at a fairly low price) oil produced by the Russian “Rosneft”, which has invested about 4 billion US dollars into exploration and production. The Iraqi Kurdistan daily exports about 553 thousand barrels of oil through the Turkish port of Ceyhan in the Mediterranean. Besides, “Rosneft” is planning to build a gas pipeline from the Kurdish autonomy to Turkey and then through the Southern Gas Corridor to Europe in 2019. It turns out that the recent referendum, regardless of being recognized by the world community (including Turkey and Russia) or not, will not prevent Moscow and Ankara from receiving their dividends from producing, transporting and selling the now already de facto Kurdish, not Iraqi, energy carriers.

During the negotiations on economic cooperation, the two major projects — the “Turkish Stream” gas pipeline and the first Turkish nuclear power plant “Akkuyu” — were discussed. In June this year the construction of the deep-water part of the gas pipeline began and about 300 km of pipes have already been laid. Note that after Germany, Turkey is the largest importer of Russian gas. In May of this year Russia cancelled the ban on the activities of Turkish companies in certain sectors of the Russian economy, in particular, in June all restrictions on import of agricultural products, raw materials and food from Turkey were lifted. In June, Russia also cancelled restrictions on the sale of tours to Turkey and the ban on charter flights. The number of Russian tourists in comparison with last year has increased by 11-fold and amounted to 2.5 million.

It has been also reported that during the talks, the leaders of the RF and the TR reached agreement on the supply of Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems to Turkey. According to R. Erdogan, Ankara has already made the first payment for them. According to Turkish officials, deliveries will begin within two years and will be completed in 4 years. However, at a press conference, the leaders of the two countries did not comment on this issue, which according to some experts, on the one hand, may mean some problems in the implementation of the contract, and on the other — Ankara's diplomatic game with the United States, which is, of course, not happy with that agreement.

In response to Washington's criticism of the deal, Turkey's President R. Erdogan has stated that Ankara intends to take self-protection measures on its own. His official representative, Ibrahim Kalin, has said that Turkey remains a reliable partner of NATO, despite buying the S-400 systems from the Russian Federation. He called NATO's Secretary General J. Stoltenberg's reaction (who said that every member of the Allies independently decides on the purchase of weapons) right. According to NATO Secretary General, Turkish President R. Erdogan informed him about the start of talks with France and Italy on the purchase of SAMP/T air defense systems produced by the Italian-French concern “Eurosam”.

 

YEMEN

Status Quo Remains Unchanged. September 5, ex-President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh said that relations between his supporters and representatives of the Houthis “Ansar Allah” continued to be allied and friendly. According to him, “there is now no conflict or crisis” between the parties. He also pointed out that “the military and security authorities are in the hands of the Houthis”, and his party, the General People's Congress will continue to support the “Ansar Allah” movement.

In the meantime, A. A. Saleh is still actually under house arrest and guarded by the Houthis at his residence in Sana. In our opinion, the main reason for the planned normalization of relations between A. A. Saleh's supporters and Houthis is their realizing how catastrophic for them could be consequences of the aggravation of the conflict between them, which would allow the “Arab Coalition” to defeat each of them separately. On the other hand, the Houthis have threatened A. A. Saleh with prosecution for the acts of terror against their leaders in the past years if he continues separate negotiations in order to re-approach with the KSA in exchange for the refusal to cooperate with the Houthis. But, most likely, this will not be the case, since both sides are obviously aware that they can survive and resist in the war with the “Arab Coalition” only in a close tandem. Besides, in his separate talks with representatives of the KSA, A. A. Saleh did not get Riyadh's clear guarantees of his clan's complete incorporation into power.

It is also worth noting that Tehran is making every effort to persuade A. A. Saleh and his supporters, as well as the Houthis, to preserve and strengthen their alliance, while promising to continue to provide various assistance and support. Tehran is interested in the military alliance between A. A. Saleh and Houthis, as it allows further depletion of Saudi Arabia's resources in Yemen and thus diverts Riyadh from its confrontation with Iran. Besides, the continuation of the conflict in Yemen allows Tehran to test its missile weapons in real combat conditions, although similar tests are also taking place in Syria and Iraq.

Thus, the KSA and the UAE's attempts to dismantle the coalition between the Houthis and A. A. Saleh have failed to succeed mainly because Riyadh continues to maintain its creature in the person of “President” Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and does not show readiness to provide A. A. Saleh with guarantees of returning his clan to power. This is largely contributing to the “softening” of the UAE's position regarding A. M. Hadi (two months ago, the UAE in an ultimatum form demanded his resignation). The UAE gave their consent to A. M. Hadi's return from the KSA to Aden, along with his cabinet members, as Riyadh agreed to Abu Dhabi's demand to announce an ultimatum to Qatar, which was done on 5 June, 2017. A. M. Hadi's return to Aden is of crucial importance for Riyadh, since it demonstrates the ability of its creature to keep under control the situation in the country and thus legalizes the “Arab Coalition”'s intervention in Yemen to protect “the legitimate regime led by A. M. Hadi”. At the same time, the UAE is freezing the activities of the “transitional government” established under its auspices in southern Yemen.

In response to this “gift” from Abu Dhabi, A. M. Hadi has agreed to hand over to the Emirates for a 25-year lease the Aden port and the island of Socotra (an area of 3.796 square kilometers), in which the Emirates are building resort areas and military base in addition to UAE's military bases, created in the Horn of Africa on the territory of Somalia and Eritrea. However UAE's concessions to A. M. Hadi do not mean that Abu Dhabi has abandoned the main goal of its participation in the Yemeni campaign — to bring South Yemen under the UAE's protectorate.

So, the counter-alliances and coalitions existing in Yemen will be preserved, at least for the nearest months, and this will continue the preservation of the confrontation and conflict in the country for an indefinite period, at least until the next crisis in relations between the parties of alliances and coalitions.

 

LIBYA

Diplomatic Maneuvers. September 3, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived in Tripoli, where he stated that “our objective is the stabilization of Libya in the interests of the Libyans themselves, as well as in the interests of neighboring countries”.

According to him, the main task should be to restore “a united Libya, equipped with functioning institutions, is the condition for avoiding the terrorist threat in the long term and clear the way for reconciliation”. Apart from Tripoli, Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Misurata, Benghazi and Tobruk. In Tripoli and Misurata, the French Foreign Minister tried to persuade the main opponents of Marshal Kh. Haftar to join the process of forming a new government, to agree to his being appointed Defense Minister and for incorporation of their armed units into a single army of the country.

The voyage of the head of French diplomacy is seen by some experts as attempts to intensify the role of Paris in a competitive struggle with Rome for influence in Libya, in particular in the south of the country, where French and Italian companies are trying to consolidate their positions on the Libyan oil market.

At this, it is believed that the current Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, Fayez al-Sarraj, is Italy's creature, while Marshal Khalifa Haftar is France's one. At this, Kh. Haftar mainly controls export oil terminals on the Mediterranean coast of Libya, while F. Sarraj controls a significant part of oil fields in the center and in the south of the country, which virtually equates their chances both in the struggle for power and for the control over the oil and gas industry of the country. Some experts believe that a compromise between Tobruk and Tripoli can be reached when it is reached between Paris and Rome.

On September 28, Marshal Kh. Haftar, Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army, secretly visited Paris, where he had talks with Jean-Yves Le Drian. Kh. Haftar informed him on the results of his consultations in Rome (25–27 September), trying to bring France and Italy closer over Libya. At this, some observers believe that in Italy's position regarding Kh. Haftar has significantly changed: while earlier the Italians used to ignore him, lately they have begun to treat him more favorably. Experts explain this move in Rome's position by the desire to achieve, with the help of the military formations controlled by the Marshall, a greater progress in combating illegal migration from Africa to Italy through Libya, since relying on the use of the tribal militia from the forces of the South-Libyan national minorities of the Toubou, Awlad Suleiman and Tuareg falls short despite the generous financial injections from the European Union. According to some reports, the European Commission has already spent 46 million euros within less than two years on projects on combating illegal migration from the African direction. The agreements between Tripoli, Brussels and Rome, provide for the European Union countries' allocation of up to 1 billion euros to create an infrastructure to prevent illegal migrants' arriving in Europe through Libya.

The warming in the relationship between Kh. Haftar and Rome is observed after Italian Minister of Internal Affairs Marco Minnitti's visit to Benghazi on September 5. Apparently, Kh. Haftar was promised a part of the funds allocated by the European Union and Italy to prevent the flow of illegal migrants to Europe. Kh. Haftar's rapprochement with France and Italy does not make Moscow very happy, as the latter can only promise Marshall arms supplies, while France and Italy can still provide significant financial assistance, as well as buy Libyan energy carriers (produced by their companies in Libya), in addition to arms supplies.

Negotiations in Tunisia. On 26 September, Tunisia hosted talks on managing the crisis in Libya within the framework of the so-called “Joint Drafting Committee”, consisting of 12 representatives — six members representing the parliament (House of Representatives) in Tobruk and six members appointed by the State Council in Tripoli. On the eve of the talks in Tunis on September 22, the UN Security Council presented a phased action plan to resolve the crisis in Libya, which envisages revision of a number of provisions of the Libyan Political Agreement, signed on 17 December, 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco. The initiative was presented by the new Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Libya Ghassan Salamé of Lebanon. The amendments will affect the controversial provisions of the Agreement, which “interfere with the implementation of the agreements”. The plan also foresees the convening of a National Conference under the auspices of the UN Secretary General, which will include the main political forces and civic organizations. After it, work will begin on Libya's new constitution and preparation for parliamentary and presidential elections.

Negotiations in Tunisia, or rather, disputes between the representatives of Tobruk and Tripoli are mainly over the amendments to the above-mentioned Agreement. In particular, for almost two years there has been a sharp discussion over Article 8 of the Agreements regarding the appointment of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the National Libyan Army, as well as the formation of a government (presidential) council on reconciliation and the drafting of a new constitution. Representatives of Tripoli believe that the supreme commander should be the Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj. The representatives of the parliament in Tobruk are against this, as they actually do not recognize the legitimacy of the GNA. The delegates in Tunisia also intend to consider the formation of a single parliament, which would form a ministerial cabinet and a Presidency Council. The current Council consists of nine members under the leadership of the head of the government, F. Sarraj and his three deputies. However, this Council almost never met in full and is not recognized by the parliament in Tobruk. The third issue discussed in Tunis is related to the drafting of a new constitution and holding of a referendum for its approval. However, this draft of the Main Law has been rejected by the national minorities of Libya — Tuareg, Berbers, tribes Awlad Suleiman and Toubou. The national minorities' criticism is mainly based on the fact that the authors of the draft Constitution did not take into account their demands regarding the distribution of national wealth and the guarantees of the creation of national autonomies.

 

QATAR

Confrontation Continues. In early September, political activity intensified around the crisis in relations between Qatar and the “Arab Quartet” (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain). On September 8, the “Arab Quartet” stated: “The military scenario has never been considered and is not on the agenda”. At this, it was pointed out that Doha “should not put forward preconditions for the beginning of the dialogue”.

US President D. Trump again has reaffirmed his readiness to become an intermediary in resolving the KSA and the UAE's conflict with Qatar. September 8, D. Trump and Emir of Qatar Tamim Al Thani discussed the developments around the Qatari crisis by telephone. At this, T. Al Thani stated the need to resolve the crisis at the negotiating table, if there are guarantees of the unity and stability of the GCC. D. Trump also had telephone talks with the Crown Prince of the KSA, M. bin Salman, and Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the UAE Armed Forces, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. D. Trump urged the leaders of Qatar, the KSA and the UAE to unite and develop a single position against Iran's threat. September 9, Emir of Qatar T. Al Thani and Crown Prince of KSA, M. bin Salman, discussed by telephone different aspects of the ongoing crisis. According to information available, Emir Tamim “expressed his desire to sit down at the negotiating table” and to discuss the Quartet's demands “in order to achieve common interests”.

Since the beginning of the conflict between the emirate and the four Arab countries, Qatar has been forced to spend 38.5 billion US dollars (which is about 23 % of the Emirate's GDP) to support its own economy. To date, Qatar faces serious financial, economic and social problems because of restrictions imposed by the Arab states on the tourism business, trade and banking. As a result of the conflict in June and July alone, almost 30 billion US dollars were transferred from the banks of the Emirate to foreign countries. At the same time, with the conflict continuing this year, Qatar will be able to cover its internal expenses independently without borrowing funds in the international financial market.

In mid-September Emir of Qatar T. Al Thani visited Turkey, Germany and France, where he held talks with leaders of those countries on bilateral relations and the settlement of the crisis with the “Arab Quartet”. In Berlin, the emir declared Qatari's readiness to sit down at the negotiating table with the “Arab Quartet” to resolve the crisis. The UAE, KSA, Egypt, and Bahrain governments in their joint statement of September 14, reaffirmed that their actions against Qatar were “legitimate”, and once again accused Doha of pursuing a policy “of financing and concealing terrorism and terrorist groups”.

 

SAUDI ARABIA

Internal Situation in the KSA. Over the past 2–3 months, experts have been actively discussing rumors about King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud's abdication in favor of his son, Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman.

At this, if M. bin Salman is proclaimed King, the issue of the appointment of a new Crown Prince remains unresolved. Observers see Prince Bandar bin Abdulaziz as the most likely heir. Some influential members of the royal family suggest not hurrying with the proclamation of M. bin Salman the King and give him the opportunity to implement the initiated by him ambitious macroeconomic economic development program “Vision 2030”. In other words, let first the Crown Prince prove his qualities and abilities of the leader before he is entrusted the royal throne and the country. However, this proposal may end in M. bin Salman's having to forget about the royal throne, since it is already clear today that the implementation of the “Vision 2030 “program is failing. Besides, the reforms highly unpopular with a large part of the population, may lead to a fall of the Crown Prince's authority.

Significant difficulties arise with reforms to combat bureaucracy and rejuvenate the civil servants’ staff. The course of “Saudization of the workforce” proposed by M. bin Salman, faces the unwillingness of a large part of the young generation of Saudis to work at all. The human resource problem in the country is complicated by the fact that several thousands of Saudi Princes (grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the first King Abdul Aziz) claim senior positions in the government, municipal councils, business, banking, police, army and diplomatic service only by right of birth, while an absolute majority of them do not have elementary managerial skills or professional training.

The project of nationalization of the part of the national “Aramco” oil company is being staked, and all goes to the fact that this procedure will be postponed from 2018 to 2019. The main reason is the lack of unity among the ruling elite regarding the choice of the main operator for the first initial public offering (IPO). M. bin Salman insists on the American stock exchange, while his very influential opponents in the royal family — on the British one. These disagreements have intensified because of heated discussions about the fate of huge arms contracts signed in May 2017, during US President D. Trump's visit to Riyadh. There is no unambiguous opinion on this issue in the American Congress, in which a large number of congressmen from two parties accuses Riyadh of committing “war crimes” in Yemen. Crown Prince Mohammed is condemned for “unreserved commitment to the USA” and for the fact that he “had drawn over” the entire complex of Saudi-American relations. To top it all off, this year the royal income from the sale of hydrocarbons fell by 17 %. The plan to fill the state budget with revenues from oil exports in the first half of 2017 was not fulfilled. Under these circumstances, it is possible that the transfer of power from King Salman to his son Mohammed may be delayed indefinitely and it is difficult to say what the “Allegiance Council” will decide on this issue.

Riyadh's Position on Syria. Over the past few weeks, Riyadh's position on the conflict in Syria has undergone some changes. The Saudi leadership seems to have realized the hopelessness of overthrowing the regime of B. Assad by force in the coming months, but the fact that it will continue to try to overthrow it does not cause any doubt, as it is not doubtful that Moscow will surrender B. Assad immediately, as soon as it becomes beneficial. And the advantageous conditions for the implementation of this deal are being thought over by strategists in both Riyadh and Moscow. Obviously this issue will be touched upon during King Salman's visit to Russia on 5 October, 2017.

After the collapse in August of the most pro-Turkish group of the Syrian opposition “Ahrar al-Sham”, special services of the KSA took steps to make some of its factions part of pro-Saudi detachments of the “Jabhat al-Nusra” group. However, here it does not mean formation of a single Saudi-Turkish bloc of Syrian armed opposition groups, but the transition of pro-Turkish groups to the side of pro-Saudi ones, causing extreme irritation on the part of the Turkish leadership, losing its support points in Syria. Riyadh's attempt to unite under its control the largest groups of the Syrian opposition opens the opportunity for the KSA to officially act as an influential player in the international negotiations on the Syrian settlement. In this situation, Moscow is clearly supporting Saudi Arabia, creating de-escalation zone “Idlib”, in which the groups of the pro-Saudi “Jabhat al-Nusra” will be virtually untouchable, which will let Riyadh fully retain its influence in Syria. After the defeat of the ISIS in Syria, “Jabhat al-Nusra” becomes the main force of the Syrian armed opposition, which makes the KSA a rather influential external force in determining the format of the future state of Syria.

Moscow is “courting” of Riyadh in the hope to continue an agreement to reduce oil production by members of the OPEC and the RF. Besides, Moscow in order to spite Washington, has long been trying to enter the KSA's market of weapons and military equipment. On the other hand, “Rosatom” has recently sent a proposal to the Saudi leadership to build the country's first nuclear power plant. For its part, Riyadh also tries to enlist the support of Moscow against the background of the success of Syrian government forces on the battlefield and makes curtsey towards Moscow. For example, Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, in his speech at the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly, called “historic” the King Salman's visit to Russia before it took place.

“Pleasing” Riyadh was also the aim of the RF Foreign Minister S. Lavrov's visit to Saudi Arabia (10 September, 2017) during which he held talks in Jeddah with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and the head of the Foreign Ministry of the KSA Adel al-Jubeir. During the talks, S. Lavrov said that Russia supports the initiative of the KSA to unite different opposition groups (“Riyadh's”, “Moscow's”, “Cairo's”) under the Saudi command, in order to create a united negotiating team of the Syrian opposition to negotiate with the Syrian Government in Geneva.

 

IRAN

Discussions on the “Nuclear Deal”. In September, in Washington there were discussions on the legitimacy of the “nuclear deal” — the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA) of July 14, 2015. September 19, US President D. Trump once again criticized this document, stating that “the Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States”. At this, he called IRI a “rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos”. September 20, D. Trump said he had made a final decision on Washington's possible withdrawal from the “nuclear deal”. At the same time, US Secretary of State R. Tillerson said that the United States would comply with the terms of the “nuclear deal”, if necessary changes are made. He called the “weakest place” of the JCPOA the provision according to which a series of restrictions imposed on Iran would be lifted in 2025. Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu also said that the world community should lift or change the agreement on Iran's nuclear program. At the same time, the leaders of Western Europe supported the JCPOA. For example, President of France, E. Macron, believes that abandoning the deal would be a “serious mistake”.

In the margins of the UN General Assembly, head of the European diplomacy, Federica Mogherini, after the ministerial meeting between Iran and the “six” (Great Britain, China, Russia, Germany, France, USA) stated that all the parties to the agreement fully comply with their conditions, and the possibility of the USA's withdrawal from the JCPOA was not discussed at the meeting. The Russian Federation, the People's Republic of China and the Federal Republic of Germany have also supported the JCPOA. Iranian President H. Rouhani has stated that he considers it unacceptable to make any additions to the JCPOA, and that in case of cancellation of the Agreement, Tehran could resume work on uranium enrichment to the level necessary for fuel production for the nuclear power plants. Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General J. Dunford, said on September 26 that Iran had complied with the terms of the Agreement on limiting its nuclear program and warned that the USA's withdrawal would lead to other countries's being less likely to enter into any deal. On September 28, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, N. Haley said that Washington stands for the IAEA's inspections of Iran's military facilities because of the fear that Tehran secretly develops nuclear weapons in violation of the “nuclear deal”.