March 24, 2018

The Middle East and North Africa. Analytical Review 02/2018

Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political and Economic Situation in February 2018


In February 2018, the military-political situation in the Middle East and North Africa was tense and explosive. In our opinion, the most high profile events and processes took place in Syria, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya and Egypt.

Defeating by the American troops of a large number of Russian mercenaries from the PMC “Wagner” in Syria was politically resonant in the world, since it was the first direct military clash between Russian and American troops. The Turkish troops' intervention in the Syrian enclave of Afrin is an increasing concern of the United Nations, Turkey's allies in NATO, and even of Turkey's “partners” — Russia and Iran, against the background of further deterioration of US-Turkish relations. In February 2018, Israel's military interference in the Syrian conflict intensified considerably, and relations between Israel and Lebanon became worse once again through a dispute over land and sea borders. US Secretary of State R. Tillerson's visit to Amman showed a strong strategic character of US-Jordanian relations. The International Conference of Iraq Reconstruction and Development opens up new opportunities for ways out of a long-lasting, difficult military-political and economic crisis that has swept the country. D. Trump's administration and the EU's uncompromising position on the Iranian nuclear deal could be the first serious problem in relations between the United States and EU countries. In February 2018, many agreements between the KSA and the Russian Federation on cooperation in the energy sector were discussed at a rather high level, but whether it will ever come to their implementation would obviously become known after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to Washington in March. The rivalry on the verge of confrontation continues in Yemen between the main members of the “Arab Coalition” — the KSA and the UAE. According to UN experts, in the context of further fragmentation of the Libyan state, the continuation of rivalry between the governments in Tobruk and Tripoli, and the clashes between different Libyan clans and tribes, the scheduled for 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya may not be held. Launched on February 9 in Egypt anti-terrorist operation, called “Sinai-2018”, has not yet reached the goal of “destroying centres of terrorism and criminal gangs”.


Fighting. During February 2018, Syrian army and allied forces with the support of the aviation of Russia's VKS, continued fighting against the armed opposition units, extremist and terrorist groups in different parts of the country. The most intense battles took place in the provinces of Idlib, Deir ez-Zor, Homs, al-Hasakah, Raqqa and Latakia, as well as in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. In early February, the Syrian army completely liberated the provinces of Aleppo and Hama from the ISIS fighters. After the Kurdish “People's Protection Units” (YPG) fighters had left Aleppo and gone to Afrin to resist Turkish troops, Syrian government forces took several districts in Aleppo. In February, jihadists continued to attack the positions of government troops in the province of Deir ez-Zor. On the territories controlled by Kurdish units there was clashes between the units of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) and ISIS groups. February 3, 2018, in the province of Idlib, militants shot down Russian Su-25 aircraft. The Russian pilot catapulted, but died in a fight with terrorists. Responsibility for the downed plane was assumed by the “Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham” (former “Jabhat al-Nusra”). In response, the Russian aviation struck on the area where the Russian aircraft was shot down.

Defeating of Russian Mercenaries. On the night of February 8, 2018, in the area near the al-Isba oil refinery, near the village of Khasham in the province of Deir ez-Zor, American aviation struck a column of Syrian pro-government forces in response to their unprovoked attack on the headquarters of pro-American SDF, where US military served as advisers. According to Bloomberg, confirmed by other sources, over 100 Russian mercenaries from the Russian private military company “Wagner” were killed and about 200–300 were injured as result of these strikes.

According to the Commander of US Air Force operations in Syria, Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the US Special Forces informed the headquarters of the Russian military contingent in Syria about a forthcoming strike, but in response received information that there were no Russian troops among those conducting the offensive (”they-are-not-there”). According to some reports, in 2017, Europolis company, that owned by the Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin and funded the PMC “Wagner”, concluded an agreement with the Syrian government on the seizure by Russian mercenaries of oil fields ion the eastern bank of the Euphrates in exchange for their further exploitation together with Syrian oil companies. The defeating of a large number of Russian mercenaries in Syria has led to a large scandal and condemnation of the Kremlin's actions on the part of Russian liberal politicians.

Considering that the Russian Armed Forces General Staff is engaged in the preparation and arming of Russian irregular military formations, it is concluded that the above-mentioned actions of the PMC “Wagner” in the province of Deir ez-Zor, without a doubt, were in full coordination with the command of the Russian military contingent in Syria.

The nominal “Commander” of the PMC “Wagner” is a Dmitry Utkin (call sign — “Wagner”), who till 2013 had served in Special Task Forces of the GRU RF. Having retired into reserve in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, he worked at the international private military company Moran Security Group, whose branches are located in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Then he participated in the Syrian expedition of the PMC “Slavic Corps”, commanded units of Russian mercenaries (“volunteers”) in the Crimea and in the occupied part of Luhansk region. According to the SBU, mercenaries of the PMC “Wagner” had been participating in the conflict in the Donbas since 2014. They were involved in the assault on Luhansk airport and Debaltsevo. The SBU identified the names and constituent data on 1570 “Wagner” PMC fighters. December 9, 2016, D. Utkin and three work-mates from the PMC “Wagner” were honored to be photographed with V. Putin during a reception on the occasion of the celebration of the “Day of the Heroes of the Fatherland”. In any civilized country, these individuals would be imprisoned as mercenaries, bandits and murderers, but in Russia they are considered “heroes”…

Since the Cold War, private military companies have emerged in many countries, mostly on a fully legal basis. Usually legal PMCs have international certificates of conformity and in their activities are obliged to adhere to the provisions of international law, which prohibit PMCs to participate in civil wars and military conflicts. Legal PMCs have their headquarters with addresses, contacts and websites, such as the aforementioned Moran Security Group. There has never been anything like this in the PMC “Wagner”. Its status is “they-are-not-there”, that is, it is an illegal organized gang covered by the UN General Assembly resolution of 14 December 1979, which states, inter alia, that “mercenarism is a threat to international peace and security and, like murder, piracy and genocide, is a universal crime against humanity”.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 2401. February 24, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2401, requiring the parties to the conflict in Syria to stop fighting for at least 30 days in order to provide humanitarian assistance to the population in the Eastern Ghouta enclave near Damascus and some other settlements and regions. According to this Resolution, the ceasefire does not extend to operations against ISIS and other terrorist organizations. The US Department of State demanded from the Syrian army to immediately cease hostilities in the Eastern Ghouta. Syria's Permanent Representative to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari said that Damascus “will adhere to the cease-fire, but retains the legitimate right to self-defense”.

On February 25, Syrian troops and militias carried out an offensive against the “Jabhat al-Nusra” militants and drove them out of some areas in the Eastern Ghouta. According to media, government forces took about 25 % of the territory formerly controlled by militants. However, bombing of Damascus by militants from the Eastern Ghouta continued. On February 27, Spokesman for the UN Secretary General Stephane Dujarric said that the parties to the conflict in Syria had completely ignored the UN Security Council Resolution 2401. During the telephone talks, US President D. Trump discussed the situation in Syria with President of France E. Macron, Federal Chancellor of Germany A. Merkel and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom T. May. They all called on Russia to stop bombing of Eastern Ghouta and to persuade the Assad regime to stop offensive operations.



The Turkish “Blitzkrieg” Did Not Happen. In February 2018 Turkish military operation “Olive Branch” in the Kurdish Canton of Afrin gained a protracted character. The pace of advancing of the Turkish troops and units of “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) remained slow, while they suffered heavy losses in manpower and military equipment. Kurdish militia from Manbij were reported to have arrived in Afrin. On February 8, the Pentagon Chief James Mattis, reaffirmed that the United States did not intend to withdraw American units from Manbij on Ankara's request. Earlier, USCENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel said that Washington would continue to support the Kurdish SDF. February 13, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that Turkey's military operation in Afrin “is a cause for serious concern to the Alliance”.

February 11, the Kurds shot down the second Turkish helicopter, killing 9 Turkish servicemen. February 12, Kurdish formations counterattacked the positions of pro-Turkish forces and destroyed 5 Turkish tanks and up to 23 Turkish military and their allies. On February 16, Kurdish fighters destroyed another 4 Turkish tanks. February 25, as a result of another clash, up to 35 Turkish soldiers and fighters of the FSA were killed. According to the Turkish General Staff, during Operation “Olive Branch”, 2002 Kurdish soldiers were killed or captured. As of March 1, the Turkish General Staff acknowledged the death of only 40 Turkish military during operation, but according to independent observers, the number of killed Turkish soldiers was significantly higher. The command of the SDF on February 24 reported the deaths of 1219 Turkish soldiers and fighters of the FSA in the battles for Afrin.

According to some sources, in mid-February, Damascus and the Kurds agreed on the deployment of Syrian government troops in Afrin. At the end of February, pro-governmental Shiite formations were brought to the Afrin area, whose movement was accompanied by the Russian military police. On February 25, the Command of the Kurdish YPG units announced its readiness to abide by the cease-fire in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2401, while reserving the right to respond to the attacks of the Turkish army and its allies. At the same time, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said that the UN Security Council Resolution on ceasefire in Syria does not apply to the operation of the Turkish army in Afrin because it “is being conducted against terrorists”. According to different sources, we can conclude that in Afrin, Kurds are assisted openly by Damascus and secretly — by Russia, Iran and the United States, supplying weapons and ammunition. Thus, according to the Pentagon's budget report, the supply of US weapons to the Kurdish YPG includes: 12,000 AK’s, 6,000 machine guns, 3,500 heavy machine guns, 3,000 of US make RPG-7, 1,000 American AT-4 and Russian SPG-9 grenade launchers. Given this circumstance, it can be assumed that the full control over Afrin and Manbij will cost Ankara a lot of time, efforts, and human resources.

The Exhausting American-Turkish Dialogue. February 15–16, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ankara, where he met with President Recep Erdogan and it took them three hours to discuss the situation in Syria and Iraq. It is reported that the Turkish President “frankly” told the US Secretary about the Turkish leadership's hopes for the US actions in Syria and his points of view on a number of other issues within the framework of bilateral relations. R. Tillerson's visit took place in a rather tense atmosphere, since President R. Erdogan and other country officials' anti-American rhetoric seems to have reached its climax, which looks rather unusual for the NATO “allies”. R. Tillerson described this tense atmosphere in bilateral relations in a very peculiar way: “We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship”. There is a crisis in the relationship, but it is very small…

Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlut Cavusoglu said that his talks with Rex Tillerson “were quite constructive”. He also emphasized that “Turkey's relations with the USA are at a critical stage, requiring their normalization”. R. Tillerson admitted that United States recognizes Turkey’s legitimate right to secure its borders, but called on Ankara to show restraint in its operation in Syria’s Afrin and “avoid actions that would escalate tension in Syria”. They also raised the issue of Turkey's possible purchasing of Russian S-400 air-defence systems, which is very critically perceived both in Washington and in NATO.

According to the Turkish media, R. Erdogan announced, and M. Cavusoglu duplicated the following list of claims and demands of the Turkish leadership to the United States: to stop the support of the Syrian Kurds' “Democratic Union Party” (PYD) and “People's Protection Units” (YPG); to remove them from the “Syrian Democratic Forces” coalition; to withdraw “Kurdish terrorists” from the Turkish-Syrian border to form a “buffer zone” there, where Ankara plans to resettle at least one million Syrian refugees from Turkey; Kurds must leave Manbij. In addition to these Ankara's demands, R. Tillerson heard a few unpleasant questions: Is it not time for the Americans to get out of Syria? When will the Americans extradite the fugitive cleric Fethullah Gülen and release Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab?

On the 14th March, 2018, in Brussels there was a meeting of Nurettin Canikli and James Mattis — Defense Ministers of Turkey and the USA. The Pentagon Chief urged Turkey to focus its efforts in Syria mainly on the fight against ISIS, and not against the Syrian Kurds. At the same time, it was stated that NATO and the United States backed Turkey in terms of security issues on its border with Syria and the fight against Kurdish separatists inside the country. For his part, N. Canikli “demanded” from the United States to stop providing any support to the Kurdish formation in Syria.



Israeli Aviation's Actions in Syria. February 7, 2018, Israeli planes launched several missiles against the positions of Syrian government troops near Damascus. According to the Israel Defense Forces, on February 10, Israeli Air Defence shot down an Iranian UAV (a “clone” of the US RQ-170 Sentinel) which allegedly invaded Israel's airspace from Syria. After that, Israeli aviation struck Iranian facilities in SAR and destroyed Iran's UAV control center at the Syrian Tiyas Military Airbase (T-4 Airbase) in the province of Homs in the center of the country. The Israeli F-16 fighter that was involved in the raid was shot down by the Syrian Air Defence. The crew of the aircraft catapulted in the north of Israel. In response, Israeli aviation struck 12 military targets in Syria, including three air defense batteries and four Iranian facilities.

Israel-Lebanon Border Disputes. In February, the long-standing border dispute between Lebanon and Israel intensified, both on land and at sea. The Lebanese authorities protested with the Israeli construction of a barrier wall along the Lebanese-Israeli border, arguing that part of the fence runs on the Lebanese territory. However, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), based in southern Lebanon, said that the work was being conducted somewhat south of the Lebanese-Israeli border recognized by the international community.

The controversy over the maritime border between the two countries near the Israeli Leviathan gas field on the Mediterranean shelf has also intensified. In 2010, Lebanon stated that the northern part of the deposit is located in its territorial waters. Both countries claim their right to the area of 850 square kilometers between the two shelf blocks of this marine area. In response to the Lebanese authorities' attempts to begin the development of gas blocks near the maritime border with Israel, the Israel's authorities have repeatedly “advised” these companies “to stay away” from the disputed area. Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the Lebanese tender for oil and gas exploration near the maritime border with Israel “very provocative” and called on international companies not to take part in it. In response to this, Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said that Israel's claim is “invalid in form and substance and comes within Israel’s expansionist policies to undermine the rights of others and threaten regional security”. Israel and Lebanon appealed to the UN to clarify the maritime economic boundaries between them. At the same time, on February 9, Lebanon's government signed a contract with a consortium of Russian gas company Novatek, French Total and Italian Eni on the development of hydrocarbons on two shelf blocks in the territorial waters of Lebanon.



A Friendly American-Jordanian Dialogue. February 14, 2018, R. Tillerson paid a visit to Jordan, during which the US Secretary of State and King Abdullah II confirmed the commitment of Amman and Washington to further strengthen strategic cooperation between the two countries. Within the framework of the visit, they signed a new five-year Memorandum of Understanding in which the United States makes a non-binding commitment to support providing no less than 1.275 billion US dollars per year in US bilateral foreign assistance to Jordan for 2018–2022. The United States also provides Jordan with serious economic assistance both in the form of cash transfers and within the framework of the USAID Program). Earlier, a three-year plan for helping Syrian refugees in Jordan for 2018-2020 was announced, with a total budget of 7.3 billion US dollars.

The United States is Jordan's main military and technical partner. The USA's arms supplies account for approximately 60 % of Jordan's military imports. In 1996, Washington granted Jordan the status of the USA's “Major non-NATO ally”, which allowed the Kingdom to receive US military assistance and arms on preferential terms. (It would be great if Ukraine got this status). In 2015, the US Congress approved a bill that allows the United States to directly supply weapons to Jordan, which since 2014 has been a member of the International Coalition led by the United States. Jordanian aircrafts took part in strikes against the ISIS in Iraq. Jordan's secret services interact with the US CIA in conducting anti-terrorist operations. Since 2011, the “Eager Lion” international exercises (the main participants of which are the Armed Forces of Jordan, the United States, Great Britain, France, the KSA and the UAE) has been conducted annually in the territory of the Kingdom. When the Syrian crisis began, the Pentagon created four military bases in the north of Jordan, on which F-16 fighters, AH-64 Apache helicopters, Patriot air-defence systems and the US Special Forces units are stationed.



The International Conference of Iraq Reconstruction and Development was held in Kuwait on February 12–14, attended by delegations from 76 states and international organizations, a large number of representatives of non-governmental organizations and business entities (2,300 companies). According to estimates by the Iraqi authorities, about 88 billion US dollars is needed to rebuild the country, of which 22 billion are in the short term. At the Conference, Iraq presented a detailed 10 year plan of reconstruction and development of the regions of the country affected by the war. The Conference agreed to allocate 30 billion US dollars to Iraq in total, and at this — in the form of soft donor commitments for the long-term. The largest contributions were agreed by Turkey (5 billion US dollars), Kuwait (2 billion), and Saudi Arabia (1.5 billion). The United States decided not to make any contributions, since it has already spent tens of billions of dollars on training and armament of the Iraqi army, as well as providing economic assistance to Iraq. As an alternative, Washington is ready to encourage private sector investment, as well as to try to persuade Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf to send their financial flows to Iraq's economy recovery in order to bring Baghdad closer and reduce Iran's influence on its politics. According to some experts, official US assistance for the development of Iraq and other countries will continue to shrink in line with D. Trump's slogan “America First” and pledges to end the “nation-building era”.

China also refrained from allocating certain financial resources for the restoration of Iraq, since it already is involved in the development of many sectors of Iraq's economy. Thus, as of December 2017, Chinese state-owned companies are the largest investors in the oil sector in Iraq, especially in modernization and development of Iraq’s oil infrastructure. For example, 60 % of all electricity in Baghdad is made by Chinese companies. China also holds leading positions in other key sectors of the Iraqi economy — transport infrastructure and communications. The strategic objective of Beijing is to provide conditions for Iraq’s integration as the most important link in the global infrastructure project “One Belt — One Road”.



The EU-the USA: Disagreements on Iran. In the course of the election campaign, and then as US President, D. Trump repeatedly criticized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the nuclear program of Iran, signed on July 14, 2015 by Iran and five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the EU, arguing that this agreement gives one-sided advantages to the Islamic Republic of Iran. On October 13, 2017, D. Trump put forward a new, more rigorous US strategy towards Tehran aimed at concluding an agreement with European allies in order to “correct the horrific flaws” in the nuclear deal with Iran. D. Trump gave Secretary of State R. Tillerson 120 days to try to persuade Brussels to join his vision of the Iranian problem. It seems that R. Tillerson did not succeed, which apparently became one of the reasons for his resignation from the post of US Secretary of State on March 12, 2018.

The European Union and the leaders of the major European countries have repeatedly stated their disagreement with these plans of D. Trump. In case of a possible unilateral withdrawal of the USA from the JCPOA, the European Union is considering a variety of options to counter US sanctions against Iran. In particular, the EU can take measures to protect its firms from the USA's extraterritorial sanctions. We can’t help pointing out the categorical rejection of any revision of the agreement on nuclear deal with Iran by Moscow and Beijing. It is clear that in this case Brussels has no intention to retreat, and this is the main challenge to Washington from Europe. It seems that the struggle around the nuclear deal with Iran can be another serious problem in the relationship between the US and the EU. To all this, the European Union is interested in using energy resources of Iran, in particular natural gas. For example, on February 15, 2018, Vice President of the European Commission for Energy Union Maroš Sefcovic in his speech at the press conference following the 4th Ministerial Meeting of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) Advisory Council in Baku stated that the European Union was ready to discuss the possibility of connecting Iranian gas pipelines to SGC, in particular to the TANAP gas pipeline. Iran is greatly interested in gas supplies to Europe. Previously, there were many options for implementing this mutual interest with the EU, which, of course, cannot make happy Russia and Qatar as Iran's main rivals in the gas industry.



The KSA-the RF Cooperation in the Energy Sphere. February 14, 2018, the 2nd meeting of the Russian-Saudi working energy group was held in Riyadh under the co-chairmanship of Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Engineer Khalid al-Falih and Russian Minister of Energy Alexander Novak, during which issues of bilateral interaction in the oil and gas sector were discussed. During the talks, projects were considered that are planned to be implemented by Saudi Aramco state-owned company jointly with Russian oil and gas companies Gazpromneft and Novatek.

February 14, A. Novak was received by King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz. During the talks, the issue of a possible reduction of oil production under the agreement between the OPEC members and a number of non-cartel states was discussed. The main purpose of the agreement in the “OPEC+” format is to remove surplus crude oil from the world market in order to stabilize and raise oil prices. On the same day, the President of the Russian Federation, V. Putin, had a telephone conversation with the King of Saudi Arabia, during which he expressed his readiness to “build up fruitful coordination of actions on the world markets for hydrocarbons”.

Recently, Saudi Aramco has been interested in different projects, the implementation of which requires cooperation with large foreign companies, including Russian ones. In the near future, Saudi Aramco plans to hold an initial public offering (IPO). According to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the company can be estimated at 2 trillion US dollars. Some major Russian oil and gas companies are considering the creation of a consortium to participate in the Saudi Aramco IPO.

Saudi Aramco is currently conducting commercial negotiations with the Russian company Novatek in order to coordinate the positions and proposals for signing an agreement on the development of the “Arctic LNG-2” with a capacity of 19.1 million tons per year and a cost of 20 billion US dollars on the Gydan Peninsula (Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug of Russia). The possibility of constructing three stages with capacity of 6.6 million tons per year is considered. The launch of the first stage of the “Arctic LNG-2” may take place in 2023, and of the second and third stages — in 2024 and 2025, respectively. The supplier of technology for liquefaction of natural gas may become a German company Linde. At this, Saudi Arabia is interested in its participation in the entire LNG chain: production, liquefaction, transportation and marketing.

In the history of Russian-Saudi relations, there have been many cases where both countries agreed on joint large-scale projects in the energy sector and in military-technical cooperation, however, it somehow never came to their implementation. Given that the negotiations between Moscow and Riyadh were usually held on the eve of large-scale agreements between the USA and the KSA, the Russian-Saudi talks often looked just like a prelude to the trade between Washington and Riyadh. Whether this will happen this time, obviously, will become clear after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's many-day (from March 19 to early April) visit to the United States. So far, Americans have tended to find “very convincing arguments” to persuade the Saudis not to implement the agreements concluded with Moscow. It seems that the recently appointed US Secretary of State, former CIA Director Mike Pompeo has more than enough of “very convincing arguments” against the Russian-Saudi rapprochement.



Sporadic military actions in Yemen continued throughout February. As Al-Arabiya reported, as a result of the clashes with the KSA Army on the Kingdom's border with Yemen on February 14, about 20 Houthis rebels (supporters of the “Ansar Allah” movement) were killed attacking the positions of Saudi forces in the province of Najran in the south of the Kingdom. It was also reported that February 15 fighters from the “Arab Coalition” destroyed the facility for launching ballistic missiles, and also killed at least 8 rebels near the Hodeida airport in the western part of Yemen. Earlier, 40 Houthis were reported to have been killed during a clash with Yemen's government forces in the Hajjah province in the northwest of the Republic. Air support for government troops was provided by the Coalition's Air Forces led by the KSA. In February fighting was also taking place in the southwest Taiz province, where local militias, with the support of the KSA, were unsuccessfully trying to squeeze the Houthis for a long time to unlock the main highway, which leads to the captured by Houthis Sana'a — the capital of Yemen. Clashes were also in northern provinces between the Houthis on the one hand and the local tribes and the Al-Islah Party’s units on the other.

The Rivalry Between the KSA and the UAE. The rivalry on the verge of confrontation between the main members of the “Arab Coalition” — the KSA and the UAE — for spheres of influence in Yemen has been going on for more than a year. While Riyadh relies on the “legitimate president,” Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in fact — a helpless Saudi puppet, and is trying to preserve the unitary nature of Yemen, Abu Dhabi does not actually recognize A. M. Hadi, who is constantly in Riyadh, and does everything to minimize his power in Yemen.

Abu Dhabi's main task is to separate southern Yemen as an independent state, as it was before the country's unification in 1990. Besides, the Emirates seek to establish control over the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, as well as Yemeni islands and ports in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The rivalry between the KSA and the UAE in Yemen intensified at the end of January 2018, when south-eastern groups (including the Transitional Council of the South) put forward an ultimatum to the “legitimate president,” A. M. Hadi, demanding the dissolution of the Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghr. A. M. Hadi refused to fulfill the ultimatum, and a fierce fighting broke out in Aden, during which separatists managed to capture several government and military facilities. During the clashes separatists managed to take control of the Aden Sea Port and most of the city. Ahmed bin Daghr's government hid in the presidential palace guarded by the units of the Saudi Guard. The separatists did not dare to storm the presidential palace in order not to bring the situation to an open combat clash between supporters of the KSA and the UAE. It should be recalled that the “Southern Transitional Council” was formed in May 2017 with the assistance of the UAE as an instrument for implementing the Abu Dhabi's plan for dividing Yemen into Southern and Northern. The formation with the support of the Emirates of an actually parallel government led to a confrontation between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, which further complicates the peaceful settlement of the Yemeni conflict.

Thus, while until December 2017 the main confrontation in the Yemeni civil war was observed between Houthis rebels with the support of forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on the one hand and “legitimate president” Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi's forces with the support of the KSA — on the other, by February 2018, both the groups had splitted, which further complicated a peaceful settlement of the Yemeni crisis. Recent events in Yemen have led to the actual collapse of the “Arab Coalition”, which in turn threatens the very existence of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the unity of which was undermined in June 2017 as a result of the conflict between Qatar and the “Arab Quartet” of the KSA, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, with the “neutrality” of Oman and Kuwait. All this testifies to “frustration and flutter”, as well as the lack of elementary understanding in the once-cohesive “family of Arabian monarchies”.



UN on the Situation in Libya. February 7, UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salamé expressed doubts about the possibility of holding transparent and democratic parliamentary and presidential elections in the country in 2018, in the situation where the problem of relations between the Libyan governments in Tobruk and Tripoli, that is, the problem of dual power, is not resolved. Besides, before the elections in Libya, it is still necessary to hold a referendum on the draft constitution and to pass the law on elections, as well as to create appropriate conditions for the security of those elections. In the opinion of the UN Special Envoy, the implementation of the plan for disarmament of the population is also a prerequisite for the formation of the recognized by the world community Libyan government. According to unofficial data, 6 million Libyans have 20 million pieces of small arms. Besides, arms are flowing to Libya through uncontrolled borders.

After 2011, Libya has become the main transit space for hundreds of thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa via the Mediterranean route to Europe, which imposes an additional burden on Libya's already miserable social and economic resources. Recently, the slave trade in the country has reached catastrophic proportions. February 5, the UN's expert group published a 157-page interim report detailing the proliferation of large-scale slave trade in Libya, which involves the structures of Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya in Tripoli, which facilitate the brigades of former insurgents in controlling major flows of illegal migration. In particular, experts say that representatives of the Libyan authorities arrested illegal migrants and then sold them to slave traders. It is also reported that GNA created a special Directorate to Combat Illegal Migration (DCIM) which runs by 24 concentration camps for migrants. However, in reality, these camps and migrant flows are controlled not by DCIM, but by armed groups that are more powerful than the government's ones.

Apart from illegal migrants, a lot of the indigenous population of Libya is on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in 2018, 1.1 million Libyans (of which 400 thousand are children), or 17 % of the population, will need urgent humanitarian aid. In 2017, 1.6 million people (25 % of the population) directly suffered as a result of hostilities in the country. According to the ACLED's data, 1,289 civilians died in Libya in 2017 alone. In some areas controlled by all sorts of armed groups, an unprecedented high level of criminal offenses, sexual violence, harassment in the rights of women and children is recorded.

The UN experts have concluded that “based on the dynamics of hostilities and the interference of a number of regional actors in Libya, in the short term a political solution to the Libyan conflict seems impossible”. Thus, in the situation of further disintegration and fragmentation of the Libyan state and the continuation of the “war of all against all”, presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya are unlikely to take place this year.



ATO on Sinai. November 29, 2017 after the largest Egyptian terrorist attack in a mosque in northern Sinai, which killed more than 300 people, the President of the Arab Republic of Egypt Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi gave security officials three months to restore order in the Peninsula. This term ends in March 2018, three weeks before the scheduled for March 28–29, 2018 un-alternative presidential elections, the only candidate in which is the current head of state. February 9, the largest over the last years anti-terrorist operation in Sinai, the Nile delta and the Western Desert on the border with Libya under the name “Sinai-2018” was launched to “destroy the centres of terrorism and criminal gangs” and to demonstrate the resolve of the A. F. al-Sisi to bring order to the country on the eve of the presidential election.

The current ATO has become unprecedented in the number of servicemen and military equipment involved in it. The operation involves Army units, forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Border Guards, Air Force and Navy. The Navy provides security to the Suez Canal, as well as the complete blockade of Sinai, with the aim of preventing the penetration of extremist elements into the Peninsula, and preventing the withdrawal of militants from the region via the Mediterranean Sea. According to some reports, most of foreign jihadists in Sinai are Libyans, who over the past few months have been thrown there by sea from the Libyan Misurata on Turkish ships at Qatar's money. Earlier, the Turkish President R. Erdogan argued that it was the United States that allegedly contributed to the transfer of ISIS fighters from the Syrian Raqqa to Sinai, which is, in our opinion, rather dubious. Why should Washington undermine the security of its strategic ally, to which the United States has been providing annual military assistance for over 40 years in the amount of about 1.3 billion? Within the last 30 years alone, Washington has allocated Cairo total of 80 billion US dollars. At the same time, it is well known that since the military coup in Egypt in July 2013, Turkish-Egyptian relations have been very tense and even hostile.

However, the anti-terrorist operation of Egyptian security forces in Sinai so far has not been successful. It is still not possible to destroy the main forces of Islamists. Egyptian security forces are suffering heavy losses. Terrorists have switched to methods of guerrilla warfare by small groups, which limits the use of Egyptian aviation, which, to all this, has proved to be unable to support the action of the Army. In this situation, the Egyptian authorities made an unofficial request to Israel to send their attack aircrafts to strike at positions and objects of terrorists in Sinai. Besides, Israel provides Egyptian troops with intelligence and radio intercept data, which fact is carefully hidden by the Egyptian side before the upcoming presidential election. According to the New York Times, since the end of 2015, Israeli UAVs, helicopters and fighter jets without identification marks have participated in secret operations in Sinai, causing more than 100 air strikes on terrorist bases in the Peninsula. However, Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Rifai has denied this information. And he could not help denying, because for the sake of the rating of the president of A. F. al-Sisi it is extremely undesirable to act as an ally of Israel. However, cooperation between the intelligence agencies of Egypt and Israel within the framework of the struggle against terrorists and Islamists has existed since the Egyptian presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Moreover, in recent years, in view of the needs of the Egyptian Army in the struggle against terrorists, Israel, violating the agreement on demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, signed by the two countries under the Camp David Accords in 1979, allowed it to transfer significant additional forces to Sinai.