February 9, 2018

The Middle East and North Africa. Analytical Review 01/2018


Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political Situation in January 2018. Part 1


In the first month of 2018, the military-political situation in the Middle East and North Africa was tense and explosive. The most resonant events and processes took place in Syria, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In January, a series of talks on peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis took place in Washington, Vienna and Sochi. On January 20, Turkish troops invaded Syria again, this time in Afrin's enclave. January 22–23, US Vice President Michael Pence paid a “historical visit” to Israel. In Iraq, relations between Baghdad and Erbil are gradually normalizing. Controversy over the international agreement on Iran's nuclear program continues. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, due to the pressure of the large western transnational corporations, is forced to end the anti-corruption campaign. In Yemen, relations between the main members of the “Arab Coalition” — Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are becoming strained. In Libya, the confrontation between the governments in Tobruk and Tripoli and their foreign sponsors is intensifying.

The Middle East and North Africa


Combat Actions. In January, the Syrian Army and its allies with the support of Russia's VKS continued hostilities against armed groups of extremists and terrorists. The fighting was mainly in the provinces of Idlib, Hama, as well as in the western part of the province of Aleppo and in the Damascus region. In January, government troops continued to develop an offensive in the south-east of the province of Idlib, which began on December 25, 2017. As of January 10, the Syrian Army captured Abu al-Duhur air base, lost by Damascus in late 2015 after a two-year siege. Having established control over this air base, on January 22, Syrian troops launched an operation to eliminate more than 1,500 “Tahrir al-Sham”'s militants locked in the area. Turkish-backed militant groups unsuccessfully tried to stop the offensive of governmental forces. Fierce battles continued in the Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. By January 8, Syrian troops had unblocked a military base near Harasta, where the headquarters of the armored troops of the Syrian Army was located. During January, detached ISIS fighters continued to conduct a partisan war on most of Syria. The units of the Syrian Army and the militia conducted a special operation to identify and eliminate the ISIS units operating in the Syrian desert in the provinces of Homs and Deir-ez-Zor. January 9, the Syrian Army Command accused Israel of air and missile strikes on a military base in al-Qutayfah, 40 km east of Damascus. On January 17, Israeli aircrafts again attacked the Lebanese “Hesbollah”'s targets in the suburbs of Damascus.

The Syrian National Dialogue Congress. January 29–30, the Syrian National Dialogue Congress (SNDC) took place in Sochi, with participation of 1,500 different political and ethno-religious representatives of the Syrian society, the opposition and the Syrian government.

However, representatives of many opposition groups (including the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which represents about 20 Syrian opposition groups), refused to participate in the work of the Congress. Representatives of the Syrian Kurds said they would not participate in the Congress until Turkey's offensive on Afrin stops. According to available information, the invasion of Turkish troops into the territory of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin was not discussed within the framework of the SNDC. Perhaps this was one of Turkey's conditions for its participation in the Congress. In the words of Russian President's Special Envoy on Syria A. Lavrentiev, the quite large delegation of more than 80 people who came from Ankara, “was obviously disorientated and behaved quite aggressively”. During the speech by RF Foreign Minister S. Lavrov, a number of delegates expressed dissatisfaction by shouting accusations against Moscow about the killing of civilians in Syria. A. Lavrentiev mentioned two main results of the Congress in Sochi: providing assistance to the United Nations and the Geneva Conference in launching the constitutional reform in Syria, and the fact that representatives of different groups of Syrian opposition for the first time gathered together and were able to discuss prospects for further reformation of the Syrian state. However, in our opinion, these results are more desirable than real.

The Congress decided to create a Constitutional Committee for Syria, consisting of about 50 representatives of the opposition and the Syrian government, which will be formed by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. Some experts believe that the UN Special Envoy in the formation of the Constitutional Committee is likely to favor the representatives of the irreconcilable opposition, and thus Moscow and Damascus may receive a version of the constitutional reform, which excludes B. Assad's further staying in power and deployment of Russia's military bases in Tartus and Khmeimim.

On the other hand, some experts question the effectiveness of the future Constitutional Committee, since it is already clear that it will not represent all strata of the Syrian society and all opposition groups. Besides, according to current world practice, the draft of the future Constitution must be approved by the new Parliament of the country, which is still to be elected in the national elections. However, for today it is still not known when such elections can take place.

Representatives of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a large number of delegates from the “Moscow Syrian opposition” believe that the Congress should become a permanent forum for discussing most pressing issues in the Syrian crisis, but this goes against the position of UN Special Envoy S. de Mistura, who intends to concentrate the main work on the constitutional reform in the format of the Geneva Conference and sees the SNDC in Sochi as a local and single action. All peacekeeping activities of the UN Special Envoy show that he is a supporter of preserving the priority of the Geneva negotiating process, even if so far unsuccessful. According to S. de Mistura, the future Syrian Constitution must contain such fundamental principles as unity, sovereignty, integrity of the state, and guarantees of the rights of all ethno-religious groups that can unite the majority of Syria's political forces — pro-government and opposition ones.

An Alternative Plan for a Peaceful Settlement. January 12, Group of Five from the United States, Great Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, at the meetings in Washington prepared an informal alternative document on a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis, based on UN Security Council's Resolution 2254 of December 18, 2015. In particular, it refers to transforming Syria into a parliamentary-presidential republic, decentralization of the country and reformation and post-war reconstruction under the control from the outside. The official representative of the HNC Yahya al-Aridi welcomed the Group's of Five proposals, emphasizing that the opposition intends to make all parties fulfill exactly the UN Security Council's Resolution 2254. The Group's of Five proposals can be seen as an attempt to provide a platform alternative to Russia's, Iran's and Turkey's initiatives for the formation of a new negotiation process in the format of the Geneva Conference. At this, in our opinion, Turkey actually prefers the Geneva format, although formally and situationally it must take part in the talks in Astana and Sochi. Thus, the submission by the Group of Five of the peace settlement project under the UN auspices is actually aimed at breaking down all attempts by the Russian Federation, the IRI and the TR to turn the negotiation process in Astana and Sochi into an instrument of influence on the situation in Syria in order to find such a solution to a peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict, which would guarantee preservation of the interests and influence of Moscow and Tehran in this country.

Beyond all doubt, the United States plays a leading role in the Group of Five, which is an instrument for promoting Washington's initiatives to resolve the Syrian crisis. However, this does not prevent the American administration from voicing its own position on this issue from time to time. For example, on January 17, US Secretary of State R. Tillerson said that the United States will maintain a military presence in Syria focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge. According to R. Tillerson, “Russia must put new levels of pressure on the Assad regime”. According to him, the United States, the EU, and regional partners will not provide international reconstruction assistance to any area under control of the Assad regime. The US Secretary of State also pointed out that the United States intends to seek the removal of B. Assad from power, which is in line with Turkey's position, but not with Russia's and Iran's. R. Tillerson confirmed that the United States would continue training local armed formations in Syria, but, according to him, “it is not the matter of creating a new army or border security force at all”. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, “the USA's new strategy for Syria is aimed at dividing this country, removing the legitimately elected President of Syria from power and an open-ended American military presence on the territory of this sovereign state”.

January 25–26, in Vienna, almost synchronously with the Congress in Sochi, there was the next, ninth round of talks between the delegations of the Syrian government and the opposition, which discussed the plan of the Group of Five, but again without results. The unsuccessful nine rounds of talks show that the Geneva dialogue has come to a standstill. The reason for this is not only the intransigence of the parties, but also that the main part of the Syrian opposition at the talks in Geneva is represented mainly by emigrants who not just strictly controlled by their external sponsors, but also depend on them.



Turkish Invasion of the Afrin Enclave. January 20, Turkey launched an offensive against the Kurdish Afrin enclave in the northwest of Syria under a strange for combat actions name “Olive Branch”, aimed at “protecting the borders of Turkey, ensuring security and stability in the region”.

The Command of the TR Armed Forces intends to create a 30-kilometer security zone along the Syrian-Turkish border in the Syrian territory. In fact, the invasion of the Turkish troops is aimed at preventing the Syrian Kurds from establishing their autonomy in northern Syria. Therefore, the Turks' next target is the Kurdish city of Manbij, located 100 km east of Afrin. January 27, Ankara in an ultimatum form demanded from Washington to the withdraw the US Special Forces from Manbijj area, but the Commander of the Central Command of the United States (CENTCOM), General Joseph Votel has stated that the US troops would remain in the area in the future.

Currently, Afrin is actually surrounded by Turkish troops and their Syrian satellites from the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) from three sides — eastern, western and northern. During the first ten days of the operation, Turkish and FSA troops moved into the Syrian territory for only a few kilometers, and have not yet succeeded in achieving their goals. The Kurds' resisting is fierce and seems to be intensifying. Ankara immediately began to throw fresh units of the Turkish troops into the Afrin area, trying to achieve a radical change in the course of operation. January 25, co-chair of the Executive Council in Afrin, Osman Issa said that if Damascus considers this enclave part of Syria, then hit must protect it from the Turkish aggression.

However, Damascus seems to be in no hurry to help its Kurdish compatriots. The Syrian government has limited itself to “strongly condemning the Turkish invasion of Syria”. In our opinion, if Damascus had tried to help the Kurds of Afrin in repulsing the Turkish aggression, then Moscow would most likely not have approved of such an action. Moreover, according to some reports, units of the Syrian Army have blocked some routes to the Afrin area for the units of Syrian Kurds who are rushing to help their brothers…

Moscow expressed “concern” about reports on the beginning of Turkey's military operation and called on the parties to “restraint”. The Kremlin's rather mild reaction to Turkey's large-scale military operations in northern Syria de facto means the former's approval. However, to a large extent this approval is reluctant. The matter is that Russia is extremely interested in Turkey's participation in the Astana and Sochi talks, despite the numerous problems with this participation. On the other hand, having allowed Turkey an operation in Afrin, Moscow is trying to “punish with the Turkish whip” the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and other Kurdish political organizations for their rapprochement with the United States. Syrian Kurds have accused Moscow of betrayal.

All that D. Trump's administration managed to do is call on Turkey to “limit its military operations in the northwest of Syria in scale and time”. However, I cant help mentioning the statement by CENTCOM's Commander General J. Votel, who made it clear that the United States, despite Ankara's protests and demarche, will continue to cooperate with the “People's Self-Defense Forces”, which form the basis of the coalition of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF). In his words, “SDF were the most effective force on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS and deserve help”.

The EU and leading European countries have taken a tougher position regarding the Turkish military campaign in Afrin. After France had proposed to convene an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on the situation in Syria, the Turkish Foreign Minister M. Cavusoglu said that with this call, France “puts itself on a par with terrorists”… January 22, the UN Security Council limited itself to holding a closed meeting on the situation in Afrin, according to the results of which no statements or explanations were made. The head of the Foreign Ministry of Germany S. Gabriel said that the military confrontation between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria is a matter of great concern, and that is why the German government has decided to suspend the modernization of the Turkish tanks “Leopard”. S. Gabriel asked NATO Secretary General J. Stoltenberg to discuss the situation in northern Syria in order to stop its further escalation. January 16, during a telephone conversation with Turkish President R. Erdogan, NATO Secretary General stated that the North Atlantic Alliance is aware of Ankara's concern regarding the US decision to engage in the preparation of Kurdish militant groups, pointing out that “Americans have not had any consultation with NATO on this issue”. According to him, NATO considers Turkey's operation against the Kurds in Afrin “self-defense and response to terrorist threats”… So, the NATO Secretary General, on the one hand, has distanced himself from the USA's actions in Syria, and on the other hand, he has virtually approved of the Turkish “Olive Branch” operation. Thus, despite the profound differences in the positions on the situation in Syria in general, Moscow, Washington and NATO have situationally taken a very similar position regarding Turkey's Afrin offensive.

In our view, allowing Ankara to conduct an operation in Afrin, Moscow pursued at least three goals: first, to let Ankara get into a “Kurdish trap” and to wait till the Turks ask to help to get out of it, which would allow Moscow to impose on Ankara Moscow's conditions for a further game in Syria; secondly, to exacerbate the already tense relations between Ankara and Washington; and thirdly, to exert pressure on the Syrian Kurds in order to make them distance themselves from the United States and transfer power in the Kurdish territories to B. Assad's government. In our opinion, the main task of Turkey's Armed Forces' “Olive Branch” operation is to interfere with or enable the Syrian Kurds' establishing their autonomy along the Syrian-Turkish border, since such autonomy, along with the autonomy of the Iraqi Kurds, can serve as an example for the Turkish Kurds. And creation of an autonomy is the path to creation of an independent state for the 40 million Kurdish people who have long been living in the adjacent territories of four countries — Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

The fate of the Kurdish people resembles the fate of the Ukrainian people, whose lands at different times were captured by the same Turks, Romanians, Austrians, Hungarians, Germans, Poles and Muscovites. But today, as a result of centuries of struggle for its freedom and independence, the Ukrainian people have their own state in their historical territories, although not all. It seems that, despite all the obstacles and resistance to the establishment of an independent Kurdish state on the part of Ankara, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran, this process will continue historically. Heroic Kurdish people will never stop fighting for their natural right to have their own state.



M. Pence's Visit to Israel. Having visited Egypt and Jordan, US Vice President Michael Pence arrived in Israel on January 21 on a three-day official visit, during which he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuvin Rivlin, spoke to the Knesset and visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and the Western Wall. During the meeting with B. Netanyahu, they discussed the state and prospects of the development of bilateral relations in many spheres. The Israeli Prime Minister once again thanked the administration of President Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and for the demand for a revision of the nuclear deal with Iran and the UN's support to Israel. M. Pence said he was grateful to be representing Trump and that his decision to designate Jerusalem as the Israeli capital would “create an opportunity to move on in good faith negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority”.

January 22, M. Pence spoke at a Special Session of the Knesset and met with its Speaker Julius Edelstein. Addressing the members of the Israeli Parliament, M. Pence reminded about the strong historical ties between the American and Jewish peoples, expressed his enthusiasm for the Israeli people, “who, after the tragedy of the Holocaust, rose from the ashes to resurrect itself and restore the Jewish state”. The content of the speech of the US Vice President to the Knesset leaves no doubt that the current US administration is the most pro-Israeli one in the history of America. Commenting on M. Pence's speech, the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that he “was moved to tears as Vice President Pence delivered his extraordinary address”. Zionist D. Friedman, who became the 20th US Ambassador to Israel, has visited the Jewish state all in all more than seven dozen times. He is known as a prominent supporter of the preservation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and an adversary to the idea of a Palestinian state.

Analyzing M. Pence's speech to the Knesset, Haaretz newspaper concluded that “America is only interested in supporting Israel and has no desire to continue the dialogue with Palestinians”. In other words, creation of a Palestinian state is no longer a significant purpose of Washington's foreign policy. However, we think, this is a too categorical conclusion. D. Trump's administration and even his Republican Party are not all of America. According to the independent American Pew Research Center, currently only 27 % of Democrats support Israel, and less than 20 % of them have a positive attitude to the current head of the Israeli government. For comparison, among the Republicans, the number of supporters of Israel is close to 80 %, and about 60 % of the Party's members are positive to Netanyahu.

Naturally, in Israel itself there are quite a lot of politicians who do not approve of the current overly “fraternization” of B. Netanyahu's government with the administration of D. Trump and his distancing from the American Democrats. Thus, speaking on January 30 at the Conference of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, the leader of Israel's centre-left Labour party (HaAvoda) Avi Gabbay accused B. Netanyahu of “being obsessed with American Republicans”. According to him: “Netanyahu believes that the government in the USA will always be Republican, but he is mistaken. This is a diplomatic miscalculation of Netanyahu's, who thinks he can abandon bipartite relations with the Americans”.

President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Mahmoud Abbas refused to meet with M. Pence and went on a visit to Brussels, where he appealed to the EU leaders to recognize the Palestinian state, which would be a “way to react” on D. Trump's declaration on the status of Jerusalem. As a protest against M. Pence's visit, the Palestinian Authority announced a general strike on January 23.

During his meeting with Prime Minister of Israel B. Netanyahu, on January 25, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, D. Trump said that the United States will not provide Palestine with financial support until its leadership has concluded a peace agreement with Israel. For his part, B. Netanyahu confirmed his willingness to resume talks with the Palestinians and stated that the United States is irreplaceable as a mediator in the Middle East peace process. The Israeli PM emphasized that Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel within the framework of any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

P. Poroshenko's Meeting with B. Netanyahu in Davos. January 24, President of Ukraine P. Poroshenko met with Prime Minister of Israel B. Netanyahu in Davos. They discussed issues of bilateral relations in different spheres, in particular, satisfaction with the positive dynamics of the development of Ukrainian-Israeli political dialogue at all levels. The interlocutors agreed that it is necessary to further intensify economic cooperation between Ukraine and Israel and confirmed their readiness to conclude in the near future the negotiations on an agreement on a free trade area between Ukraine and Israel. The two countries have been negotiating a free trade area for several years. They were supposed sign an agreement on the FTA by the end of 2017, but this did not happen.

P. Poroshenko expressed gratitude to the Israeli leadership for supporting the UN General Assembly's Resolution of December 2017 concerning the Crimea. In view of marking the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the President of Ukraine expressed his solidarity with commemoration of the victims of this terrible tragedy, and also attracted B. Netanyahu's attention to commemoration of the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor of 1932–1933 in Ukraine in 2018, pointing out that Ukraine expects Israel will recognize this tragedy as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. The interlocutors discussed the situation in the Donbas and the need to deploy a UN peacekeeping mission in the occupied territories. The President invited B. Netanyahu to come to Ukraine on an official visit at a time convenient for him.

B. Netanyahu's Visit to Moscow. January 29, the Israeli Prime Minister paid a 5-hour blitz visit to Moscow, where he met and held talks with V. Putin in the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre. The central topic of the negotiations was the situation in the Middle East. The content of these negotiations can only be found in the publications of political observers, since the communique on the results of the visit was not made public, besides, many issues were discussed in closed mode. According to the observers, B. Netanyahu once again tried to persuade V. Putin that there is “a need to limit Tehran's actions in Syria and Lebanon”, which, in our opinion, is absolutely unrealistic at least because Moscow does not have too much influence on Iran's policy. Along with B. Netanyahu, chief of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate (AMAN) General Herzl Halevi arrived in the Russian capital, who presented to V. Putin and representatives of the Russian GRU “a detailed review of Iranian preparations in Syria and Lebanon”. Quite possibly, B. Netanyahu also tried to persuade V. Putin if not to refuse to support the maintenance of the 2015's nuclear deal with Iran, then at least to curtail cooperation with Iran in the nuclear sphere.

As for the possible interaction between the Russian Federation and Israel in Syria, given that Israeli aircrafts quite often strike at different sites in that country, it is limited only to the need to avoid collisions and manifestations of “respect for each other's special interests” in Syria.

Obviously, the negotiations in Moscow also raised the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli settlement, taking into consideration that in February Moscow will be visited by the PNA leader M. Abbas who on January 22 already met with the head of the EU diplomacy F. Mogherini and heard from her the assurance of the EU's adherence to the case of creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in Eastern Jerusalem. Indirect evidence that the status of Jerusalem was also discussed at the talks is the participation in them of Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Zeev Elkin. It seems that B. Netanyahu could also inform V. Putin about his Davos meeting with US President D. Trump, who said that “the issue of Jerusalem is closed and will no longer be discussed in talks with the Palestinians”. Probably B. Netanyahu also informed V. Putin about some details of his meetings in Davos with German Chancellor A. Merkel and French President E. Macron. It is possible that V. Putin, during his meeting with B. Netanyahu, once again voiced the old idea of holding an international conference on the Palestine-Israeli settlement in Moscow. Following the negotiations, B. Netanyahu and V. Putin addressed the visitors to the Tolerance Center on the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the Sobibor Uprising.



Normalization of Relations between Baghdad and Erbil. In January, in Iraq, attempts were made to normalize relations between the central government of the country and the authorities of the Iraqi Kurdish Autonomy.

Thus, on January 20, during Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's meeting with Prime Minister of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government Nechirvan Barzani, the parties confirmed the unity and sovereignty of Iraq, and stressed the need to pass transfer the control of border crossings and airports of Iraqi Kurdistan to the central government, with “preserving the international borders under federal control”. H. al-Abadi also pointed out “the need to transfer all the oil produced in the region to the federal government”. According to him, the export of oil “should be carried out exclusively by the federal government through the state oil company SOMO”. Baghdad pointed out the “climate of confidence and the beginning of the thaw” between the central Iraqi government and the authorities of the Kurdish Autonomy.

A Conference of the Donor Countries. February 12–14, in Kuwait will be held an International Conference of Iraq Reconstruction and Development. According to a statement issued by the National Investment Commission of the Republic of Iraq, 70 countries, international and regional organizations, about 1,000 companies are participating in the Conference. Such a large number of people willing to participate in the restoration of the Iraqi economy is due to the high capital intensity of projects for restoration and modernization of the Iraqi economy, in particular in the sphere of energy infrastructure. The proposed investment projects cover 12 sectors of the Iraqi economy, including petrochemicals, construction materials, transport, agriculture, housing and communal services, health care, and others. In particular, six projects in the sphere of rail transport totaling 29.6 billion US dollars are investment objects, and so is the construction of the Baghdad-Basra railroad with branches, total length of 910 km and a cost of 13.7 billion US dollars.

Probably Ukraine could participate in this Conference and try to get involved in the projects of rail transport and agriculture. On the other hand, it is worth studying the organization and conduct of such events, given that our country may (let's hope) have a task of restoring the occupied territories in the Donbas’ after their liberation from Russian occupation.

The Military-Political Situation in January 2018. Part 2