January 18, 2018

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

 

Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political Situation in December 2017. Part 2

The Military-Political Situation in December 2017. Part 1

IRAQ

The Current Situation in the Country. By December 9, government troops had gained full control over the Iraqi-Syrian border, having dislodged ISIS fighters from there. In addition, according to the Iraqi Command, more than 90 settlements in the provinces of Nineveh and Anbar had been cleared of gangs. In the second half of December, government troops completed operations to clear from ISIS fighters the border between the provinces of Salah al-Din and Diyala. December 28, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense reported that an offensive military operation was being launched on the elimination of ISIS underground groups in the Hamrin Mountains in the province of Salah al-Din.

On December 9, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the end of the war against the ISIS in Iraq. On December 10, a parade of victory over the ISIS took place in Baghdad and was inspected by Haider al-Abadi, and attended by Salim Abdullah al-Jabouri, Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, and other officials and representatives of the Western Coalition. However, according to many observers, celebrating the final victory over the ISIS is premature. Terrorists do not stop attacks on different military targets and resort to terrorist attacks throughout the country. Not trying to capture and control some territories as before, the terrorists carry out attacks on highways and in settlements in the central and eastern parts of Iraq. The ISIS' Command continues to run militant groups, a significant part of which has been moved to other areas of Iraq after Mosul had been captured by government troops, where they went to partisan forms of hostilities and even partially got legalized, entering the local authorities in provinces with the majority of the Sunni population — Anbar, Nineveh and Salah al-Din. In December, a wave of terrorist acts swept across Iraq, killing dozens of Iraqis.

Commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Brigadier General Michael Rouleau told CBC News that, despite the fact that the “Islamic State” was defeated in Iraq, it was not defeated, but simply went underground. Therefore, according to him, Iraqis and Kurds would have to be taught to fight a counter-insurgency and counterterrorism war, which requires a different set of skills for its conduct.

According to some experts, ISIS fighters and other terrorists can be partially eliminated and driven into the underground, but they can be deprived of their social base and substantial material support from the local population, solely by bringing the Sunni tribes in the northern provinces of Iraq to the side of the government. And for this purpose, it is necessary to conduct a full-fledged political reform of the government, in which the Sunni population would be much more represented in the state structures and would receive more dividends from the country's energy resources.

Iraq's government has estimated the damage done by ISIS terrorists to the country's state infrastructure alone, excluding the private sector, at 47 billion US dollars. The government has already prepared a 10-year reconstruction plan for Iraq, which will require several hundreds of billions of US dollars. Western European countries claim they are ready to help Iraq's recovery, but under certain conditions. Thus, German Foreign Minister S. Gabriel said on December 18 that Berlin was ready to finance the reconstruction of Iraq only after internal conflicts, in particular between Baghdad and Erbil, had been settled there.

In December 2017, the Iraqi government continued to take measures to strengthen the combat capability of the army, police and other security forces. Special attention is paid to equipping the troops with new equipment, modern weapons. At the same time, according to many experts, the combat capability of the Iraqi Army and Shiite volunteer groups, as well as of the “Peshmerga” Kurdish armed formations, is still low.

The most significant military aid to Iraq is provided by the United States. The US Armed Forces have several military bases in Iraq's territory with combat training instructors and advisers to Iraqi government forces. According to the Pentagon, there are currently about 5.2 thousand US military on the Iraqi territory. As of January 1, 2018, the International Coalition led by the United States has trained about 125,000 Iraqi security forces servicemen. On December 12, the German Parliament authorized further preparation of the “Peshmerga” Kurdish forces until April 2018, allocating 6.9 million Euros for this. Today, the “Peshmerga” forces in Iraqi Kurdistan are trained by about 150 German officers. Since 2015, they have prepared more than 16,000 Kurdish fighters. Besides, on December 21, the Assistant to the Russian President on military-technical cooperation V. Kozhin said that in 2017, Iraq bought ammunition, anti-tank complexes and a large batch of Russian weapons, mainly tanks, artillery and rifles.

 

YEMEN

According to some reports, after the assassination of ex-president of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh, former Houthis allies, armed units of the former Yemeni Republican Guard, decided to side with their former enemies — “Arabian Coalition”. It should be noted that those units as such do not constitute a serious military force, and therefore they are hardly able to really strengthen the Arabian Coalition. Besides, the Pro-Saudi Yemeni political parties and movements are very suspicious about the supporters of the late A. A. Saleh. In other words, the units of the Republican Guard have decided to implement the plan of their former leader, A. A. Saleh — to break the alliance with the Houthis and to go under the patronage of the Arabian Coalition, led by the KSA and the UAE.

After the assassination of A. A. Saleh, the Emirates try to make President his son Ahmed, who for a long time had served as Yemen's Ambassador to the UAE. The first step in electing Ahmed Saleh as Yemeni President is his appointment as the leader of the General People's Congress (GPC) at an extraordinary Congress in Abu Dhabi in the near future. The decision to choose Ahmed Saleh as the main candidate for the new president in Yemen was approved by Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan in early December himself. In the near future, he plans to discuss this issue with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman. In our opinion, these talks will be very difficult, because in Riyadh, as before, they rely on their creature and “legitimate president” of Yemen, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is also recognized by the world community. It should be noted that the court of the controlled by the Houthis Sana'a has sentenced President A. M. Hadi to death in absentia on charges of “state treason that manifested itself in providing assistance to the aggressors, Saudi Arabia and its allies”.

“Arabian Coalition” spokesman, Turki al-Malki said on December 20 that, since spring 2015, about 11,000 Houthis, supporters of the “Ansar Allah” movement (“Supporters of Allah”) were killed by the Coalition forces in Yemen. According to T. al-Malki, during that period, Houthis and supporters of former President A. A. Saleh launched more than 80 ballistic missiles from Yemen against Saudi Arabia. However, according to Russian expert P. Ryabov, these data are significantly overestimated. The losses among the peaceful Yemeni population as a result of air bombardments by the KSA's and UAE's aircrafts are indeed very significant, causing resentment and condemnation by American and European non-governmental organizations.

According to some experts, this particular circumstance, as well as the humanitarian crisis in Yemen (hunger and epidemic of cholera), forced the current US administration to refrain from direct military intervention in the Yemeni conflict, as well as from supplying the KSA Air Force with some types of ammunition. However, this statement is not entirely true. For example, according to other sources, the Pentagon is currently preparing an operation for landing significant forces from the Arabian Coalition from the sea and, accordingly, is executing reconnaissance of the Yemeni coast in advance. Besides, over the past two years, the USA had sold to the KSA a large amount of air weaponry worth 1.29 billion US dollars, which allows the KSA Air Force to carry out operations to eliminate the insurgent Houthis movement in Yemen. According to US sources, more than 10,000 Yemenis were killed during the 31-month military operation in Yemen from the bombing attacks of the Air Force of the Arabian Coalition and the United States, of which 3.2 thousand-due to misdirected bombing by the US Air Force. According to other sources, in delivered 1,500 tons of aviation kerosene to refuel in the air Saudi F-15SA, at that two-thirds of the fuel were delivered in 2017.

The launched in the spring of 2017, the pro-Emirate South Yemeni units' offensive on the port of Hodeida with the support of the Air Force of the UAE was dramatically delayed. To a large extent, this is due to disagreements between the KSA and the UAE over determining the priorities of combat actions in Yemen. While for Abu Dhabi the main goal is to attack Hodeida, Riyadh sees capturing Sana'a (the capital of the country, which is currently under the full control of the Houthis) as the priority mission. However, in the near future, the Saudis are unlikely to be able to launch an offensive against Sana'a, the approaches to which are well-fortified by Houthis. The matter is that the Saudis at the moment do not have sufficient ground forces for such an offensive. Besides, they have encountered difficulties in bringing to their side local tribes, which are not in a hurry to storm Sana'a, despite generous financial incentives from Riyadh. For example, the Hashid tribe which is de facto commanded by Vice President of Yemen Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, does not show any military activity, despite the received Saudi weapons. Some experts believe that it is their Emirates allies that are putting spokes into the Saudis' wheels in organizing the offensive as they are not interested in the Saudis' capturing Sana'a. The “Arabian Coalition” is like that…

In December 2017, disagreements and contradictions in the positions of the main participants in the “Arabian Coalition” — the KSA and the UAE — increased also over the issue of the future state of Yemen. Thus, the UAE leadership is activating measures to separate Southern Yemen. This, in particular, is reflected in the UAE's actions aimed at creating Emirates' military bases, both on the Yemeni Red Sea coast and in the region of the Horn of Africa. In 2016, the UAE began to establish its first naval base outside the country — in southern Eritrea, near the port of Assab, located less than 60 km from the Yemen coast. In addition, according to some reports, the UAE plans to open a second naval base in Berbera in Somaliland and the third one on the Yemeni island of Socotra in order to block the supply of Iranian weapons to Houthis and also to control the Gulf of Aden in general. At present, the UAE has formed in Socotra a local military special force of 5 thousand fighters, has established control over all air and sea ports. Besides, the Emirates plans to build an exquisite seaside resort on the archipelago.

 

 

LIBYA

Prospects for a Political Settlement. December 17, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan National Army Commander, said in his address to the people that the Skhirat Agreement on the settlement of the Libyan crisis (signed on December 17, 2015 in the Moroccan city of Skhirat) had expired, so “all the bodies created on the basis of this agreement have automatically lost their legitimacy”. In the above-mentioned address, Kh. Haftar also stated that the Libyan army would not be controlled by any political structure that had no legitimate support from the Libyan people. In fact, Marshall Kh. Haftar has decided to torpedo a “road map” for a peaceful settlement in Libya, which provides for holding of presidential and parliamentary elections in March 2018.

Kh. Haftar's another step in blocking the conclusion of a new political settlement agreement was the December 19 “vote” in the House of Representatives in Tobruk on the election of loyal to Kh. Haftar Mohammad al-Shukri as head of the Central Bank of Libya. The “vote” was held under the pressure of armed militants of a “Popular Mandate Committee” which had seized on the eve the parliament building in Tobruk and demanded from deputies guarantees that “the national political agreement and the constitutional declaration will not be discussed at this session”. Representatives of the Government of National Accord of Libya in Tripoli saw the actions of Kh. Haftar and the parliament in Tobruk as “a step deepening political chaos”.

So, Kh. Haftar has actually refused to participate in any agreements with the head of the GNA Fayez al-Sarraj, who, besides Italy and France, is also backed by the UN Special Envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé. According to some experts, Kh. Haftar may agree to a new agreement only if he receives the post of Minister of Defense in al-Sarra's government. According to some reports, such a scenario for the settlement of the Libyan conflict is supported by France, Egypt, the UAE and the Russian Federation. However, F. Sarraj undoubtedly understands that in case of Kh. Haftar's becoming Defense Minister, the prospect of his being Prime Minister will be very uncertain.

Therefore, F. al-Sarraj is looking for an alternative option for formation of the future All-Libyan government without Kh. Haftar. It is believed that such an alternative is the “self-nomination” of Muammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam as a candidate for the upcoming presidential election in mid-2018. This became known on December 17 from publication in the Egypt Today. According to Gaddafi's lawyer, 45-year-old S. al-Islam participates in the life of the Libyan society, maintains contacts with public figures and leaders of Libyan tribes in order to form an election program. According to the lawyer, S. al-Islam was considered by his father a probable heir. He was awarded a Ph.D. degree from the London School of Economics. In November 2011 S. al-Islam was arrested by the militia as he was trying to escape from Libya to Niger. He was then transferred to Zintan City Prison. On July 24, 2015, the Court of Appeal in Tripoli in absentia sentenced him to death, accusing him of “crimes against the Libyan people”. However, the militia refused to hand him over to the government in Tripoli. In early June 2017, S. al-Islam was released from Zintan Prison. According to some analysts, S. al-Islam's returning to active political life is the initiative of political groups in Zintan in order to create a political and military counterweight to Kh. Haftar. S. al-Islam's candidacy is being nominated for the presidential election, also because he still controls large foreign holdings of the former Libyan leader M. Gaddafi, as well as enjoys the support of his Qadhadhfa tribe. To all that, against the background of the endless devastation and struggle of all sorts of factions for power and economic resources, most of the Libyans mention the years of M. Gaddafi's rule as the best in their lives and dream of the “Gaddafi era” to return.

At the end of December, Marshal Kh. Haftar made a series of statements that testified to his reluctance to negotiate with the head of the GNA F. Sarraj and his intention to become the sole dictator of Libya. This is evidenced by the organized by the Marshal cleansing of the eastern part of the country from the remnants of the opposition. Thus, on December 30–31, Kh. Haftar's troops wrested ground from fighters in the city of Benghazi. By activating the fighting, Kh. Haftar tis trying to create an unfavorable condition for holding presidential and parliamentary elections in the controlled by him territory. These Kh. Haftar's actions have caused concern among European leaders who are trying to persuade him to abandon his intentions to “torpedo the peace plan for Libya and disrupt the holding of elections”. In particular, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Diane demanded from Kh. Haftar “not to let a failure of the UN-approved agreements on stabilizing the country”, reached in July 2017 during Kh. Haftar's meeting with F. Sarraj in Paris.

December 30, in his speech on the Libya Al Hadath TV channel, Kh. Haftar rejected the allegations that he “opposes a political decision in Libya and plans a coup to establish a military dictatorship”. And even more so, Kh. Haftar stated that he supported the holding of general elections in Libya in 2018. However, he transparently hinted that if the political process breaks, in the summer of 2018, he intends to declare himself a president of Libya in accordance with the allegedly “national mandate” he has received — 1.291 million signatures of the Libyans who are in favor of the transfer of power to him without holding elections in 2018. So, everything is heading to the struggle for power in Libya in 2018 being resolved not at polling stations, but on the battlefield. It will plunge the country into a new wave of chaos, the way out of which will be difficult and long, and will only aggravate the tragedy of the Libyan people, inspired by external forces in 2011.

 

ISRAEL

D. Trump's Decision on Jerusalem. December 6, US President D. Trump signed a memorandum that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In his speech, D. Trump pointed out that “two decades of American presidents' postponement of the correct and fair decision of the Congress did not bring Israel and the Palestinians closer to lasting peace”. Therefore, in his opinion, the decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem removes the obstacle to moving towards a settlement, since it does not allow the Palestinians to continue to sabotage the normal negotiation process, linking it with the issue of the status of Jerusalem. D. Trump also emphasized that the transfer of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would not take place immediately, but after some time.

D. Trump declared his intention to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel during the presidential election campaign in 2016. D. Trump's idea was “prompted” by his advisers from among the American Zionists, in particular by David Friedman, who was appointed US Ambassador to Israel in early 2017. In early October 2017, D. Friedman stated that “The president has made clear that he intends to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is not a question of if, it is a question of when”.

The formation of D. Trump's pro-Israeli views was also influenced by his son-in-law and Senior Advisor to the US President Jared Kushner, who at the Trump administration is in charge for the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and has a friendly relationship with the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu.

To date, D. Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has actually not been supported by any country other than Israel. Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu urged world leaders “to understand the impossibility of peace without recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to immediately take as an example Americans and transfer to Jerusalem embassies of their countries”. D. Trump's intentions to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem have caused a wave of outrage and protests of the “Arabian street” in some Arab countries and, above all, in the Palestinian territories.

December 7, the head of the government in the Gaza Strip and the leader of the Islamic resistance movement (HAMAS) Ismail Haniyeh expressed his disagreement with the format “two states for two peoples” and the division of Jerusalem, and called on the Palestinians to resort to terror and armed struggle. On the same day, mass protests of Palestinians and demonstrators' clashes with Israeli soldiers and policemen began in Israel. December 8, missiles were launched from the Gaza Strip against Israel. In response, Israeli aircraft bombed military facilities in the sector. But then the situation somewhat normalized. Perhaps the Palestinians are already tired of the “intifadas” (uprisings), which, apart from the death of hundreds of people, do not yield the desired results.

Among the leaders of Muslim countries, Turkish President R. Erdogan chose the most rigid and uncompromising position on D. Trump's decision on the status of Jerusalem. December 15, he said that his country would do its best to “annul this illegitimate decision, first at the UN Security Council, and if it was proscribed by the United States, then at the UN General Assembly”. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Muslim world would resist the “American conspiracy” to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel. President of the IRI H. Rouhani called on Muslims all over the world to “rebel one and all against the announcement of Jerusalem as the capital of Zionist territories”. Saudi Arabia considers the US President's decision “irresponsible”. Qatar sees such a decision as “a death sentence for all directions of the Middle East peace process”. The League of Arab States has called on the United States to cancel the decision made by D. Trump, calling it invalid and contrary to international law.

December 13, at Turkey's President R. Erdogan's initiative, an extraordinary Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) took place in Istanbul, in which representatives of 48 states from 57 OIC members took part. Summit participants called on all countries of the world “to refrain from supporting the USA's decision and not to move diplomatic missions to Jerusalem”. In his speech at the Summit, R. Erdogan stated: “Having trampled international norms, the United States has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — a terrorist state. The decision of US President Donald Trump is illegal and is an attempt to punish the Palestinian people who, for decades, have been countering Israel's occupation policy”.

At the Summit there were also calls for putting pressure on Washington and even for imposing sanctions on the United States, but they were not reflected in the final document. In the opinion of many experts, despite the rather rigid rhetoric of representatives of some Muslim countries, and above all Turkey and Iran, we should not expect from the OIC any practical steps to put pressure on the administration of D. Trump, as for many Muslim countries good relations with the United States are more important than the problem of Palestine. At the same time, in our opinion, the extraordinary summit of OIS in Istanbul did show the USA's significant reputation losses in the Muslim world. And this — just half a year after D. Trump's speech at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh, attended by 55 heads of state and governments of Muslim countries. Then the leaders of the Muslim countries listened to D. Trump in the hope for strengthening the pro-Muslim orientation of US foreign policy, but this hope never came true. Tiny Israel has been and remains the main USA's ally in the Muslim ocean.

The heads of the leading countries of the European Union — French President E. Macron, German Chancellor A. Merkel, British Prime Minister T. May, as well as Italian Foreign Minister A. Alfano expressed regret over D. Trump's decision on the status of Jerusalem. According to the head of European diplomacy F. Mogherini, the European Union is seriously concerned about D. Trump's decision and calls on the parties to the conflict to exercise restraint. Ukraine's position on the status of Jerusalem is in line with the position of most European countries. In the comments of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, it is emphasized that Ukraine advocates observance of international law and the need to implement relevant UN Security Council's decisions on the status of Jerusalem. The comment contains an appeal to the parties to the conflict to immediately resume the negotiation process on the Middle East peace settlement.

December 8, 14 members of the UN Security Council, including the Ukrainian delegation, opposed the decision of US President D. Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Even the USA's allies (Great Britain, France, Sweden, Italy and Japan) criticized D. Trump's decision, insisting that the status of Jerusalem should be determined within the framework of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The joint statement of these countries reads that D. Trump's decision is not in accordance with previous resolutions of the UN Security Council, and therefore has no legal force and does not serve to establish peace in the Middle East. As expected, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations N. Haley vetoed the above-mentioned resolution.

On December 21, the UN General Assembly approved the almost same draft resolution on non-recognition of the USA's decision on the status of Jerusalem. The draft resolution submitted by Egypt does not mention the United States, but expresses its deep regret over recent decisions concerning the status of Jerusalem. For non-recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital voted representatives of 128 countries, against were 9 countries, while another 35 states abstained. Among the 20 UN member states, Ukraine and Georgia did not vote at all for this resolution, since they are counting on US assistance in confronting Russian aggression. Earlier, US President D. Trump said that Washington could reduce financial assistance to those countries that would vote for the UN General Assembly's resolution on the status of Jerusalem.

Before this highly provocative decision by D. Trump, the problem of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict against the background of the “Arab revolutions” of 2011 and the subsequent civil wars, coupled with the escalation of the problem of terrorism in several Arab countries, had been gradually losing its relevance and moving to the background on the list of Middle Eastern problems. D. Trump himself explains that taking this rather risky decision on Jerusalem, he tried to stimulate the Israelis and Palestinians to reach an agreement on the creation of one Israeli-Palestinian state or “two states for two peoples”. However, many experts doubt the effectiveness of such D. Trump's step and believe that his actions, on the one hand, have driven the Middle East peace process into a deadlock, and on the other — have weakened the USA's positions in the Middle East. However, in our opinion, it is premature to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the Trump administration's Middle East policy. The President of the United States and his team still have time to adjust, finalize and try to implement it with the involvement of major Middle Eastern countries.

 

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