January 16, 2018

The Middle East and North Africa. Analytical Review 12/2017

 

Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political Situation in December 2017. Part 1

 

In December 2017, the military-political situation in the Middle East and North Africa was rather tense and explosive. In our opinion, the most high-profile events and processes took place in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya and Israel.

In December in Syria, government troops fought with the remnants of terrorist groups against the background of confrontation between Russia, Turkey and the United States for spheres of influence in that country. The deterioration of Turkey's relations with the USA, Russia and Israel can be observed. In Iraq, as in Syria, the remains of the ISIS and other terrorist groups resort to methods of guerrilla warfare, mainly in the Sunni provinces in the North of Iraq. There is a tough confrontation between the central government of the country and the authorities of the Kurdish Autonomy. From December 28 to January 3, mass demonstrations were held in many cities of Iran, mainly due to socio-economic problems of the low-income citizens. In Yemen, contradictions are growing between the KSA and the OAU over the approaches to resolving the situation in that country. In Libya, the prospects for a peaceful settlement have come to a standstill because of Marshal Kh. Haftar's attempts to become a single Libyan dictator like M. Gaddafi. US President D. Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has caused a squall of criticism from most of the world, including the closest allies of the United States.

The Middle East and North AfricaSYRIA

Combat actions by the Armed Forces of the SAR. In 2017, the Syrian army successfully counteracted the armed opposition and the terrorists. While at the beginning of the year it controlled about 20 % of the territory of Syria, then by the end of the year, according to independent analysts, — about 60 %. In December, the Syrian Army, with its allies — units of the Lebanese “Hezbollah” and the Iraqi Shiite militia — continued fighting against armed terrorist groups in the provinces of Aleppo, Hama, Idlib, Damascus and Deir ez-Zor. At the end of December, the Syrian army blocked the last positions of the pro-Damascus group “Jabhat al-Nusra” in the provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Homs and forced them to capitulate.

According to some reports, several thousands of militants and their families have used the amnesty provided by the president of the republic, and were transported by bus to the province of Idlib and into the city of Deraa on the border with Jordan. All of them in writing pledged not to fight arms in hand against the Syrian state anymore. Within the framework of amnesty agreements, over the past two years, tens of thousands of opposition militants throughout Syria have given up armed resistance and returned to peaceful life. All “irreconcilable” militants who do not want to give up their weapons, are crowded out by the government forces through special corridors to the province of Idlib, where they will be eliminated if they refuse to surrender.

December 17, in the north-east of the province of Hama near the city of Halfaya, the pro-Turkish groups “Jaysh al-Izza”, “Turkistan Islamic Party” and “Jaysh al-Ahrar” unsuccessfully attacked the positions of the Syrian troops. December 18, ISIS fighters on the border of the provinces of Deir ez-Zor and Homs organized a massive attack on the positions of the government forces, but the attack was repulsed with great losses for the attackers. December 21, in the north of the province of Aleppo, the Kurdish “Forces of Democratic Syria” (FDS) transferred control over a number of facilities and settlements to Syrian government forces, seeking to prevent the offensive of the Turkish troops. December 23, several Turkish soldiers were killed as a result of an attack by Turkish forces and pro-Turkish groups at the FDS positions in the city of Afrin.

In December, armed clashes between terrorists of different orientations became more frequent. For example, on December 18, in the suburbs of Damascus in the Eastern Ghouta, the group “Jaysh al-Islam” executed 45 militants of the “Tahrir al-Sham” group. On December 22, jihadists from “Tahrir al-Sham” attacked the militant positions of “Faylaq al-Rahman” militants, trying to take revenge on them for betrayal.

The RF's Actions in Syria. December 6, Russian President V. Putin announced the “complete defeat of terrorists” in Syria on both sides of the Euphrates River. Chief of the RF Armed Forces General Staff Army General V. Gerasimov said that “all ISIS' gangs in Syria have been destroyed” and the contingent of the Russian troops in Syria will focus its efforts on restoring peaceful life in the country. At that, he pointed out that “if the ISIS sabotage groups turn up on the liberated territory, they all will be destroyed by government forces”. On December 11, RF President V. Putin visited the Khmeimim air base of the RF VKS in Syria, where he reported on the defeat of the main forces of the ISIS terrorist group and the beginning of the withdrawal of a significant part of the Russian military contingent from the SAR. According to him, “conditions for a political settlement under the auspices of the UN have been created in Syria, and the republic has been preserved as a sovereign independent state”. The Commander of the Group of the RF Armed Forces in the SAR, Colonel General S. Surovkin, announced that 23 aircrafts, 2 helicopters, units of Special Operations Forces and Military Police, the Demining Center and the hospital would be withdrawn from Syria. The same day, V. Putin met with B. Assad at the Khmeimim air base.

According to the Syrian edition of Al Masdar News, December 27, the Missile-Artillery complex “Pantsyr S-1” covering the Khmeimim air base destroyed two missiles launched by terrorists from the town of Bdama in the province of Idlib, located about 50 km from the air base. According to Russian experts, the missiles were launched by the pro-Turkish group “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), who wrote on one of their shells: “Sochi is yours, but Hama is ours”.

On December 31, at least 7 planes (four Su-24 bombers, two Su-35S fighter jets, one An-72 transport aircraft) and an ammunition warehouse were destroyed due to the mortar shelling of the Khmeimim air base. Two Russian soldiers were killed and about 10 — injured. The same day, a Russian helicopter Mi-24 crashed allegedly due to a technical malfunction during the flight to the Hama airfield, resulting in the deaths of both pilots. According to the Russian expert Yu. Shcheglovin, all those sabotage allegedly were planned in Ankara, which in such a way “demonstrates to Moscow its negative attitude to Russia's intensifying its military actions in the area of interests of Turkey — in Idlib and Hama”.

The expert also believes that Ankara may refuse to participate in the Moscow-initiated Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, will be against the military resolving the issue of the “Jabhat al-Nusra” group, may agree to an alliance with Saudi Arabia and stop participating in the talks in Astana. So, apparently, the relationship between Ankara and Moscow is gaining new tensions.

At the end of December, RF VKS aircrafts hit targets of the ISIS, “Jabhat al-Nusra” and “Tahrir al-Sham” groups in the provinces of Idlib and Hama. December 27, the Russian-Syrian units from the Deir ez-Zor air base were massively transferred by Il-76 aircrafts to the Hama airfield. On December 26, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced the beginning of the formation of permanent garrisons at the bases in Tartus and Khmeimim.

US Armed Forces' Actions in Syria. According to the statement by Spokesman at the Pentagon Rob Manning, “Syria has not been fully liberated from ISIS militants yet, and therefore it is necessary to counter the threat of the extremists' returning to the country”. According to the Command of the International Coalition, in Syria and Iraq, there are no more than 3,000 fighters of the ISIS. The Pentagon believes that Russia's contribution to the defeat of the ISIS was “negligible, and much of the territory of Iraq and Syria has been freed by the efforts of the International Coalition”. The RF Ministry of Defense has called the USA's statement “wishful thinking”. At the moment there are about 2,000 US military in Syria.

According to the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria, at the US military base south of city of al-Shaddadah in the southern part of al-Hasakah Province, US instructors are preparing an armed formation called “New Syrian Army”, which soon will move to the south of the country to fight government troops. According to Russian sources, the United States has been using the area for more than half a year to train militants. Currently there are about 750 former ISIS and “Jabhat al-Nusra” “Jabhat al-Nusra”, who allegedly have been relocated with the Pentagon's support from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor to the al-Hasakah Province.

Inter-Syrian Negotiations. December 5, in the absence of the delegation of the SAR Government, talks on the Syrian settlement were resumed in Geneva. UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Syria Staffan de Mistura consulted with the Syrian opposition's joint delegation, which continues to insist on President B. Assad's resignation before the start of the transition period. December 5, US Secretary of State R. Tillerson said that the United States would support B. Assad in the Inter-Syrian negotiations as long as he remained in power. The US Department of State said that “the Syrians themselves have to decide whether it is necessary to keep Assad in his post”. On December 10, the Syrian government's delegation arrived in Geneva to resume talks, but on December 14, the 8th round of inter-Syrian negotiations ended without result. According to S. de Mistura, the delegations of the SAR government and the opposition “created a negative and irresponsible atmosphere at the talks, constantly putting forward conditions”. Damascus accused the West and Saudi Arabia of breaking the Geneva talks.

December 21–22 in Astana, Kazakhstan, for the eighth time within 2017, negotiations were held on the settlement of guarantors (Iran, Russia and Turkey) and observers (the United Nations, the United States and Jordan) of the Astana process. The Syrian side was represented by government and opposition delegations which discussed the functioning of the four zones of de-escalation and control over the cease-fire in Syria. As a result of the talks, Iran, Russia and Turkey have issued a joint statement committing to completely liquidate the ISIS, “Jabhat al-Nusra” and other terrorist groups, as well as to contribute to the settlement of the Syrian crisis by adopting a constitution and conducting elections. The final statement emphasizes that IRI, RF and TR will contribute to strengthening Syria's sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity. Representatives of the guarantor countries have repeatedly emphasized that the Astana format is not an alternative to the negotiations in Geneva, but rather a complement to them. The ninth round of talks in Astana is scheduled for the second half of February this year.

On Moscow's initiative, Syrian National Dialogue Congress is scheduled for January 29–30 in Sochi with participation of representatives of different ethno-confessional groups and political forces of the country. Despite Turkey's objections, about 150 delegates from the Syrian Kurdistan will also participate in the work of the Congress. 40 Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey have already said that they will not participate in the work of the Congress unless a decision is made to dismiss B. Assad at the beginning of the transition period. However, it is clear to everyone that this demand cannot be realized, since it is B. Assad that Moscow and Tehran rely on.

 

TURKEY

Ankara's Plans for Syria. On December 25, the pro-presidential newspaper Yeni Safak reported that the Armed Forces of Turkey's operation against the Kurds in northern Syria would not be limited to the canton of Afrin alone. According to the newspaper, the Turkish troops, together with the opposition's FSA intend to create a security zone of 4.5 thousand square kilometers between the settlements of Afrin in the West of Syria and Fiela — in the East in order to prevent reunification of the regions controlled by Kurds in the North of Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that “Afrin is a very important area for Ankara because it constantly threatens the national security of the country”. Earlier, Turkish Presidential Press Secretary ─░brahim Kalin stated that “Turkey is ready to conduct an operation against the Kurdish “People's Protection Units” (YPG) in Afrin, come the need”. Ankara believes that the YPG, like the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is a Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker' Party (PKK), which is recognized as a terrorist organization in Turkey.

It should be noted that Moscow and Washington, for their own reasons, with a rare unanimity are categorically against any military action of the Turkish Armed Forces near Afrin. While Moscow is interested in preserving the Kurdish Afrin enclave as a “sanitary border” on the Turkish-Syrian border, Washington is interested in partnering with the Syrian Kurds as part of its presence in Syria. In our opinion, despite the numerous bellicose statements by Turkish officials about the need to establish Turkish control over the enclave, Ankara is still not taking this step for at least two reasons: due to the unpredictability of the consequences of an armed conflict with Kurdish units, and also because of the possible complication of its relations with the “allies” — Russia and the USA. Although even without the situation around Afrin, Ankara's relations with Moscow and Washington are constantly tense. According to R. Erdogan, during their bilateral meeting in Hamburg at the G20 summit in July 2017, V. Putin promised to withdraw Russian troops from Afrin, but the Russian military contingent is still there. At this, all the supplies to Afrin are made through the Syrian territory under the control of government troops.

The greatest irritant in the Turkish-Russian relations is Moscow's support for B. Assad's regime, whom R. Erdogan calls “a bloody tyrant”, accusing of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and stating that it is impossible to negotiate with him. At this, mutual irritation over Syria is increasing, which makes declarations about the strategic nature of Turkish-Russian relations rather conditional, and the relations themselves — unpredictable. Commenting on the volatile and controversial nature of bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey, a columnist for the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper, Deniz Zeyrek calls on the Turkish leadership to “stop putting all eggs in one Russian basket” and intensify the dialogue with other countries, first of all with the United States. On December 11, RF President V. Putin visited Turkey, where he met with R. Erdogan for the seventh time within 2017. Exhausting attempts to negotiate in Syria continue, but so far to no result. Too different are Moscow's and Ankara's goals and approaches to the settlement of the Syrian crisis and ensuring the interests of both countries.

 

IRAN

The Situation around the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). On December 5, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, said that the consistent implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (JCPOA) is a key issue for European security. Paris and Berlin have also expressed their support for the JCPOA, but they insist that Iran should stop developing its missile program. On December 7, US Secretary of State R. Tillerson said that the United States remains a party to an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program and is not yet going to leave it. On December 13, a meeting of the Joint Commission of Iran and the international “Six” (five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the Federal Republic of Germany) took place in Vienna. The participants of the event discussed the implementation of the JCPOA and confirmed their commitment to its consistent implementation. According to the US Department of State, the decision on Washington's further participation in the JCPOA will be approved by the Congress not earlier than January 2018.

On December 14, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley said that Washington intends to form a coalition to confront Iran's actions, in particular, in the development of its missile weapons. According to her, after the conclusion of a “nuclear deal” with Tehran in July 2015, “Iran's behavior has only worsened and the Iranian authorities have fueled the flames of the conflict in the Middle East”. According to US Vice President Mike Pence, Washington intends to initiate a long-term agreement on Iran's nuclear program, which will impose sanctions not only for the development of nuclear weapons, but also for the means of delivery of warheads, that is, missile weapons. However, according to many experts, such an agreement will be unequivocally vetoed in the UN Security Council by Moscow and Beijing, and will most likely not be supported even by the USA's European allies. Anyway, high-ranking representatives of the European Union have repeatedly stated that they do not support the escalation of relations with Iran.

Protests. December 28, mass protests began in Iran, which immediately spread to a large number of cities and towns. But already on January 3, they ended as quickly as they started. Today, most actively in expert circles is discussed the question of the reasons for the current mass protests in Iran, the possibility of which had not been forecasted until recently. Strange as it might sound regarding a theocratic society, in our opinion, Iran is a relatively democratic Middle Eastern country, in which representatives of different political forces and civil society organizations often arrange pickets and protest demonstrations against the government, mainly with economic demands containing a political subtext. In the Iranian Internet, for a long time now there have been discussions on the direction of the development of the Iranian society. In our opinion, the theocratic regime in Iran has proved its ability to evolve towards democracy under the pressure of the civil society, whose influence and role in Iran are constantly increasing.

Current protests in Iran were caused by both, internal and external reasons. As for the internal factors, one of the reasons for the current protests is the decline in the living standard of the poor people of the country: growing prices, unemployment, inflation, low wages and pensions. Although the Iranian economy is now strengthening and beginning to come out of the crisis, one of the reasons for which was the international sanctions because of the “Iranian nuclear program”. The price increase was quite moderate though — in 2017, inflation did not exceed 10 %, although 5 years ago it reached 30 %. In general, Iran is a social state that provides targeted assistance to the poor in terms of subsidies, fixed prices for basic food products, and infrastructure development.

Taking into consideration that the economic situation of even the poor population is not that terrible, the protesters quickly switched from economic demands to political ones, calling for release of political prisoners, ending the tyranny of the police, stopping Iran from participating in conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Demonstrators chanted: “Not in Gaza, not in Lebanon, I live in Iran!” and condemned Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria. There were also individual calls to change the state system in the country, turning the Islamic republic into a secular one. Some protesters even called for returning the Iranian monarchy and the descendants of the 35th and last Shah (emperor) Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown as a result of the 1979 Islamic revolution. The protesters were openly supported by former Shahbanu (Empress) of Iran Farah Pahlavi and her son Reza Cyrus Pahlavi, who since 1979 have been in exile in Paris and Washington. The 57-year-old “heir to the throne” Reza Pahlavi urged Iranian security forces to join protest actions and “distance themselves from the repressive elements of the regime”. The protesters were supported also by the “Tudeh Party of Iran”, the heir to the Iranian Communist Party banned by the government. So, the very wide range of claims and slogans of the protesters shows that they represent the full spectrum of existing political forces in Iran, both legal and illegal, so there are no grounds to call any particular political force a leader and organizer of the current protest movement.

Protests were observed in many cities, but they were isolated and uncoordinated. Moreover, as experts point out, in the current protest movement there are no bright and charismatic leaders, there is no single opposition, a single center, so this movement was doomed from the beginning. Arab media reported arrest of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for supporting anti-government protests, who is accused of “stirring up riots”. According to other sources, he is under house arrest. Experts say the latest demonstrations are largely a reflection of the conservative struggle with the reformist government headed by President Hassan Rouhani. The fact that during the presidential elections in 2013 and 2017, H. Rouhani won the first round, gaining almost 58 % of votes at the latest election, which is by 8 % more than in 2013, shows that most Iranians support the reformist government headed by H. Rouhani, not the conservatives. H. Rouhani believes that recent Iranian protests were directed first of all against conservative forces that are opposed to his plans for expanding individual freedoms and international détente around the country.

Among the external factors, the ones most affecting the situation in the country are the traditional pressure from the United States and Israel and the chronic confrontation with Saudi Arabia, with which Iran actually runs proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. January 3, Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was accused of organizing protests and riots of “Iran's enemies”, who “used various instruments, including money and weapons to create problems for the Islamic Republic”. January 4, Iran's Attorney-General Mohammad Montazeri announced that the United States wanted to implement a “Libyan scenario” in Iran, for which a special unit was created in the CIA with the participation of intelligence agencies from Israel and Saudi Arabia, led by the well-known Ayatollah Mike, aka the Dark Prince, aka Michael D'Andrea. Of course, with the onset of protests in Iran, some media in the United States, Israel, the KSA and other countries intensified hybrid information and psychological diversion operations against Iran, heroizing the protesters and demonizing the regime. However, in our opinion, the participation of foreign (American, Saudi, Israeli) agents in organizing the riots, if any, was at a rather low level, which was not decisive. It is likely that the United States, the KSA, and Israel do not have in Iran intelligence networks powerful enough to influence the demonstrations in order to turn them into an uprising against the regime for its overthrow. It seems that the fact of the beginning of the demonstrations was a complete surprise for the intelligence and agents of these countries.

US President D. Trump considers protests in Iran to be logical, since “Iranian authorities steal people's money and spend it on terrorist activities, it seems that the Iranians no longer intend to put up with it”. The White House Spokeswoman said that “a real popular uprising against the ruling clerical regime” was taking place in Iran, but in my opinion, D. Trump's administration mistakes the wish for the reality. From our point of view, there was no real “nationwide uprising” in Iran, since it actually ended January 3, 2018. Credit should be given to Iranian authorities, who refrained from using excessive force to stop protests.

On the other hand, there were pro-government demonstrations, participants of which condemned the protesters for their violent actions, for the destruction and burning of shops, offices, cars. All this contributed to the rather rapid expire of the demonstrations. In total, according to different estimates, 15 to 45 thousand people participated in protest actions against the current leadership of Iran. Perhaps these data are slightly underestimated, but even if there were several millions of protesters across the country, that was a small part of the 82-million people in Iran. European leaders are more reserved in perceiving these protests than American politicians are. For example, President of France E. Macron has stated that although the international community should increase pressure on Tehran, it is unacceptable to interrupt the dialogue with the Iranian side, let alone to make an “axis of evil” of it. German Foreign Minister S. Gabriel has said that “Berlin does not support the American assessment of protests and is against the attempts to manipulate issues related to internal conflicts in Iran”.

Thus, “New Year's protest fireworks” show that in Iran there is a so-called non-systematic, politically active part of the population, which is ready for street protests on any occasion. According to some observations, the majority of well-known protesters urged not to overthrow the existing state system, but to remedy and improve it, through “replacing bad government officials with good ones”. This Iranian protest movement is somewhat reminiscent of Ukrainian Maidans. It seems that Iranian activists are not yet able to form their own strategy and a common basis for the unification of different political forces to achieve a single goal. However, one way or another, but the Iranian politically active public began to realize its strength and next time it will act in a more organized and purposeful way. However, it is important that the Iranian civil movement does not become an instrument on the one hand for different political forces and politicians in the realization of their corporate and personal interests in the struggle for power, and on the other — for external forces in their subversive actions against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Iranian state.

It seems that the Iranian leadership should also draw proper conclusions from recent protests. The main conclusion, in our opinion, should be the realization that the Iranian nation will no longer humbly perceive all the shortcomings, miscalculations and crimes of the current government, so the government must learn to foresee “bottlenecks” in its activities, be more open and transparent for people and conduct a permanent dialogue with them. The Iranian authorities must realize that now the politically active part of the population will grow, become more organized and there will no longer exist undeniably authoritative leaders, messiahs or guides. It is time for the Iranian authorities to realize that it is not the people who must serve them, but they must serve the people. Since the strength of any nation is in its unity, it is obvious that the Iranian authorities will intensify their activities on this direction. Hence, the viability and effectiveness of the Iranian government, as well as the unity of the Iranian society, will henceforth depend on its ability to draw conclusions, adequately perceive the community's criticism and, accordingly, adjust its activities.

I am confident that, despite current political, economic and external pressures, Iran will soon be on the mainstream of its successful and comprehensive development and will take the rightful place among the countries of the world community. Besides, thanks to huge reserves of oil and gas, Iran has a powerful economic base for its development and satisfaction of the material and spiritual needs of the young Iranian nation, which has a great and long history dating back to the third millennium BC.

The Military-Political Situation in December 2017. Part 2

Reliable Counter