April 6, 2018

The Middle East and North Africa. Analytical Review 03/2018

Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political and Economic Situation in March 2018

In March 2018, the military-political situation in the Middle East and North Africa was tense. In our opinion, the most resonant events and processes took place in Syria, Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen and Egypt.

 

SYRIA

In March, the main fighting in Syria was in the Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, Afrin and in the province of Deir ez-Zor.

Eastern Ghouta. The operation of the Syrian Army in the Eastern Ghouta began on February 20 in response to Damascus' systematic shelling. Within March 7 alone, militants from the “Jaysh al-Islam” pro-Saudi and pro-Turkish group fired more than a dozen mortar shells on residential neighborhoods in Damascus, killing 27 and wounding 58 civilians. At the beginning of March Western countries accused Damascus and Moscow of violating the UN Security Council Resolution 2401 on the cessation for 30 days of hostilities in Eastern Ghouta. At this, the United States threatened to strike at government streets of Damascus. In response to this, on March 7, an official Spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Russia saw no violations of the UN Security Council Resolution in the actions of the Syrian Army in Eastern Ghouta, and would continue to support the fight against terrorists by the actions of their VKS. March 13, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Army General V. Gerasimov discussed the situation in Eastern Ghouta with Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General J. Dunford by telephone and “warned Washington against a strike on Damascus by the US-led coalition”. By March 15, government troops had occupied about 70 % of Eastern Ghouta. March 19, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Eastern Ghouta, where he met with Syrian troops.

Under the conditions of a rather successful offensive by government forces and militias, the leaders of most radical Islamist and terrorist groups operating in this enclave agreed to evacuate militants and their families to the northwestern province of Idlib. On March 22–25, about 10,000 militants from different Islamist groups, including members of their families, left Eastern Ghouta for Idlib. In total, by the end of March, more than 128,000 civilians had left the enclave, most of them settled in temporary accommodation centers in the vicinity of Damascus. The main centre of the resistance of the militants of the group “Jaysh al-Islam” was the city of Douma. Representatives of this group said they had refused to compromise with B. Assad's regime, but on March 30, after difficult negotiations, it was still agreed to evacuate them along with family members from the city of Douma to the Jarabulus area in the North of Syria near the border with Turkey. Thus, since March 30, Eastern Ghouta almost completely has been under the control of government troops. In general, the establishment of control over the area of Eastern Ghouta in the vicinity of Damascus is a great success for the Syrian Army, since it removes the threat hanging over the capital of the country.

Afrin. March 12, the Turkish troops and allied with them formations completely encircled the administrative center of the Kurdish canton of Afrin. The command of the mainly Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) transferred control over 9 villages to the Syrian military.

Until March 16, Turkish troops and allied formations had been controlling 70 % of the territory of the canton of Afrin. March 18, Turkish troops and formations of the opposition “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) took full control of the city of Afrin. Kurdish “People's Protection Units” (YPG), having left Afrin, announced the transition to a tactic of a partisan war against Turkish troops. Ankara said they were not going to transfer Afrin to Damascus, but would turn it into a security zone. According to some reports, the number of Kurds who have left Afrin, fleeing from the Turkish troops, has reached about 170 thousand people. According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Turkey, as of March 31, during the “Olive Branch” Operation in the canton of Afrin, 3820 Kurdish fighters were killed and captured and 52 Turkish soldiers were killed and 229 injured.

According to some reports, after the occupation of Afrin, an armed clash occurred in the city center between brigades “Firqat al-Hamza” and “Akhrar al-Sharqiyah” of the pro-Turkish FSA  during their division of the plunged from the Kurdish population. All in all, about 30 people were killed on both sides and another 70 were wounded. After the intervention of Turkish military, several hundred militants of the FSA were withdrawn from the canton of Afrin eastwards — to the city of Akhtarin, probably to pillage it too.

March 19, Turkish President R. Erdogan said that after taking Afrin, the Turkish Operation “Olive Branch” will spread to other cities controlled by the Kurds in the border areas of Syria. He informed the Presidents of Russia and the USA about this. At present, rather difficult negotiations are taking place between Ankara and Washington on possible joint actions in the city of Manbij, where there are several hundred of US servicemen. March 22, R. Erdogan discussed with D. Trump further actions of the Turkish Army in the northwestern part of Syria. March 30, they once again discussed on the phone bilateral relations and the situation in the Middle East, stating the need to “strengthen the interaction between the two states, being NATO allies”. But nonetheless, US-Turkish relations remain very tense and problematic, and the USA's position on confrontation between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds can be called “suppressed discontent”. It seems that Moscow is in no hurry to defend the “pro-American Kurds” either and strongly encourages further advance of the Turks in northern Syria in the area of the US Special Forces, if not for a direct clash between Turkish and American forces in Syria, then at least for the purpose of further exacerbation of US-Turkish relations. March 26, Turkish troops and FSA units launched an offensive against the city of Tell Rifaat, where, according to the commanders of the Armed Forces of Turkey, a large group of Kurdish fighters, who retreated from Afrin, are hiding. This city is also strategically important for Turkey, as it is located on a line connecting the Turkish border city of Kilis with the Syrian Aleppo. In storming Tell Rifaat were involved up to 10 thousand Turkish soldiers and FSA militants. By the evening of March 27, the Turkish troops had captured Tell Rifaat and several neighboring settlements, as well as the Menagh Military Airbase. It was reported that Kurdish fighters had left those territories without any resistance.

Deir ez-Zor. In March, in the Deir ez-Zor province there continued sporadic military operations between government forces and ISIS groups, which turned to the guerrilla warfare tactics. Thus, on March 17, ISIS fighters attacked the positions of government forces near the cities of Abu Kamal, Mayadin and T-2 Airbase. This offensive showed the ISIS' great capability of restoring the potential and regrouping forces, as well as the earliness of victorious statements about the complete defeat of the ISIS in Syria. Moscow accuses the US side of countering the return of districts in the eastern part of the Deir ez-Zor province under the control of Syrian authorities. According to some reports, the so-called “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria” (DFNS) which includes the Kurdish and Sunni populations of these provinces, was established in 2017 at the initiative of the United States on the territory of the Syrian provinces al-Hasakah, Raqqa and in the eastern part of the Deir ez-Zor province. It is the matter of creation with the assistance of the USA of alternative to the central government authorities within the framework of broad political and socio-economic autonomy of the territories to the East of the Euphrates, which include oil fields with the corresponding infrastructure. According to some experts, Washington intends to withdraw hydrocarbon deposits from the control of Damascus, in order to limit its ability to rebuild the country and, accordingly, to weaken its position as a central government. In our view, both Damascus and Moscow will try to hinder Washington's plans and this threatens with new direct clashes between Russian and US military contingents on the territories to the East of the Euphrates, as it happened on the night of February 8 near the oil refinery in Deir ez-Zor province, resulting in the deaths and injuries of several hundred mercenaries from the Russian PMC “Wagner”. Indeed, at the end of March in the valley of the River Euphrates in Syria, a new battle between the Russian “Wagnerians” and the American military could have occurred. According to the Chief of the Pentagon, James Mattis, the Russian unit came too close to the area controlled by the US Marines. In order to prevent an armed conflict, US Marines had to contact the Russian Command in Syria urgently.

 

TURKEY

The EU-Turkey Summit. March 26, EU-Turkey Leaders' Meeting took place in in Varna, Bulgaria. The initiator of the summit was Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. The European Union at the summit was represented by President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, European Parliament President, Antonio Tajani. The Turkish delegation was headed by President Recep Erdogan.

The main aim of the summit was to discuss ways and means of implementing the EU-Turkey agreement on migrants and refugees, concluded in March 2016. As part of the deal, Brussels promised Ankara 6 billion Euros to support refugees in Turkey, but the provision of these funds has been repeatedly delayed for different reasons. One of them was that Turkey sought the right to make independent decisions on the use of the money, and the European Commission stated its willingness to give money only for specific transparent projects. Within the two years since the signing of the agreement, Ankara has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from it, accusing the EU of not fulfilling its obligations. However, over the past few months, the parties have started to make more efforts to fulfill their obligations under this agreement. At the summit in Varna, President of the European Commission J.-C. Juncker said that today the agreement between the EU and Turkey on migrants has been successful, and this is the merit of Turkey, which has sheltered 3.5 million refugees from Syria on its territory. According to the UN, in 2017 about 172 thousand migrants arrived in Europe, compared with more than 1 million in 2015. President of the European Council Donald Tusk also pointed out that mutual understanding had been reached between Turkey and the EU on the issue of refugees from Syria. On March 14, the European Commission approved the allocation of Turkey's first tranche of 3 billion Euros, but R. Erdogan confirmed getting only 1.8 billion Euros from them. In response, J.-C. Juncker assured that there should be no doubt about the payment of all the promised aid.

Before leaving Varna, R. Erdogan said that Turkey was interested in continuing the negotiations on EU membership. At this, President of the European Commission J.-C. Juncker guaranteed the continuation of these negotiations, although some EU countries are categorically against Turkey's joining the European Union. Anyway, there are many issues over each positions of the parties do not coincide. Thus, the EU leadership critically assesses Turkey's actions in Syria, in particular against the Syrian Kurds. And after the summit in Varna, the EU continues its demands to Turkey on human rights, improvement of relations with Greece and Cyprus, especially concerning exploration and extraction of hydrocarbons on the shelf and in territorial waters of those states in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, on March 22, the leaders of the EU member states called on Turkey to stop illegal actions in the waters of Cyprus and Greece.

For its part, Ankara has repeatedly expressed its dissatisfaction with the EU's delaying providing visa free entry of Turkish citizens to the countries of the European community, but most European countries do not support visa free regime for Turkey. There are also many problems in Bulgarian-Turkish relations. At the same time, Turkey's relations with the EU are important for both sides. Turkey ranks fourth in exports and fifth in imports from the EU which is Turkey's main trading partner.

 

ISRAEL

B. Netanyahu's Visit to the United States. March 5–8, Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu paid an official visit to the United States, during which he had talks with President D. Trump. This is their fifth meeting within the last year. It should be noted that both leaders are in a difficult situation. There is an investigation into corruption cases under accusations of fraud, bribes and valuable “gifts” against B. Netanyahu and his wife. As for D. Trump, his rating at the end of February 2018 had fallen to record 35 %, and attempts by Democratic congressmen to initiate the procedure for his impeachment never stop.

During the talks, they discussed the situation in the Middle East and clarified the positions of both countries on Syria, Iran and Lebanese “Hezbollah”. B. Netanyahu insisted on cancelling the nuclear deal with Iran by May 12, 2018 — when expires the term of the “last chance”, given by D. Trump to the EU to “fix significant flaws in the nuclear deal”. The interlocutors also exchanged views on the prospects for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict outside the “two peoples — two states” format. They also discussed D. Trump's “cardinal peace plan” for the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which he intends to present in the near future. However, B. Netanyahu recommended D. Trump not to do it, because, in his opinion, the leadership of the PNA would definitely reject it. The state of bilateral relations in the spheres of economy and military-technical cooperation was also discussed. In conclusion of the talks, D. Trump emphasized that relations between the United States and Israel “have become closer than ever”. B. Netanyahu invited D. Trump to take part in the ceremony of raising the flag over the American Embassy in Jerusalem on the day of the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of the State of Israel — May 14, 2018.

After the talks with the US President, B. Netanyahu spoke at the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States, met with leaders of both chambers of Congress, where he discussed the issue of “intensification of Iran's influence in Syria and Iranian aggression in the region”. B. Netanyahu expressed concern that “the United States is not active enough in Syria in preventing the spread of Iranian influence and restricting Russian one”. According to B. Netanyahu, the USA's further military presence to the East of the Euphrates in Syria would be the best guarantee that Iran will not be able to foothold permanently in Syria. It should be noted that many politicians in Israel believe that if Russia were given full freedom of action in Syria, then as a result of this war, Iran would achieve its strategic goals in that country, which would be a great danger to Israel.

B. Netanyahu also traditionally spoke at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference. This year, the representative delegation of Israel, consisting of four ministers and several members of the Knesset, participated in the AIPAC Conference. The main speaker at the Conference was Vice President of the United States Mike Pence.

 

IRAQ

The scheduled for May 12, 2018 parliamentary elections in Iraq are intensifying activeness od Iraqi political forces and interest from Iraqi voters, as the future parliament will determine the country's development in the post-war period. The pre-election struggle in Iraq leads to the emergence of new, sometimes unexpected political unions and the collapse of traditional alliances and coalitions. The large blocs formed by Shiite and Kurdish political parties in the 2005 and 2010 parliamentary elections, today are disintegrating into small groups and factions. Thus, the oldest Shiite Party of the Islamic Democrats called “Dawa” on the eve of the election was divided into two factions: the “Nasr al-Iraq” (“Victory of Iraq”) coalition headed by the current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the “Dawlat al-Qanoon” (“State of Law”) political bloc headed by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The third largest Shiite bloc in the election is the Fatah (“Winner”) Alliance, which unites field commanders of the “al-Hashd al-Shaabi” (“Popular Mobilization Units”) armed formations. The leader of this bloc is Iraqi former minister of transportation Hadi al-Amiri.

Haider al-Abadi Nouri al-Maliki Muqtada al-Sadr
Haider al-Abadi Nouri al-Maliki Muqtada al-Sadr

The well-known Iraqi Shia cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr surprised everyone by creating an electoral bloc with the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). Lately he has been opposing confessionalism and positioning himself as a Shiite national secular leader. On the other hand, he has somehow reached rapprochement with monarchies of the Persian Gulf and at the same time has formally distanced himself from Iran. At present, the faction of supporters of M. al-Sadr in the Iraqi parliament has 34 deputies, and the ICP has 3 deputies as part of the “Civil Democratic Alliance”. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) until recently had 70 deputies, but not long ago this alliance collapsed, as “Democrats” accused the leaders of the “Patriots” of treason, blaming them for surrendering Kirkuk in October 2017. At the same time, the left-wing movement “Gorran” announced the creation of an electoral bloc with the Kurdistan Islamic Union.

The most split before the election was the Sunni community of Iraq. Many Sunni leaders demanded to postpone the parliamentary elections until 2.6 million Sunni refugees and displaced persons from the provinces of Anbar, Nineveh and Salah al-Din have returned. However, the Iraqi Supreme Court rejected this request by offering to arrange voting stations in camps for refugees and displaced persons.

Not being able to nominate a single charismatic leader, the Sunni “Al-Arabia” Coalition (leader Saleh al-Mutlaq) and the Iraqi Islamic Party (leader — Speaker of the Council of Representatives of Iraq Salim al-Jabouri) decided to run for the “al-Wataniya” (National Coalition) led by the current Vice President of the country, secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, who led the interim government of Iraq in 2004–2005 and previously collaborated with the CIA of the United States and MI-6 of Great Britain. According to some reports, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have promised to support the bloc in the elections if he and his coalition go to anti-Iranian positions.

Another Sunni coalition, called “Iraqi Decision Alliance), forms the “Muttahidoon” (“Uniters for Reform”) coalition, headed by another Vice President, Usama al-Nujayfi, and the “Arab project” party by multimillionaire Khamis al-Khanjar. The program for this coalition includes a demand for the creation of a new autonomous region from the three northwest Sunni provinces of Iraq (Anbar, Nineveh and Salah al-Din), like the Iraqi Kurdistan, which is unlikely to be supported by the majority of Iraqi political forces, including some Sunnis.

According to most observers, the current election campaign is different from the previous in several new trends. First of all, we should point out the fragmentation of the Iraqi political forces, as well as the reduction of the political role of the army and the growing role of civilian political institutions. The second most prominent trend of the current election campaign is the most political parties' giving up confessionalism, intensification of the process of secularization and the transition to secular and national positions in their activities, which in the future may contribute to the formation of broad political coalitions involving representatives of different confessions. The third distinctive feature of the current election campaign is its being significantly influenced by the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, which is a matter of extreme concern on the part of Tehran. So, future parliamentary elections in Iraq are likely to form an entirely new political mosaic in the country, which will largely determine the character of the development of the Iraqi society in the medium term.

 

IRAN

With perseverance worthy of better use, US President D. Trump continues his anti-Iranian campaign, with an effort to involve NATO allies. For example, on March 13, he decided to extend for another year the sanctions against Iran, imposed over the development of ballistic missiles in that country and for the “support for international terrorism and human rights violations”.

March 16, following the meeting of the Joint Commission with Iran, the six countries (five permanent members of the UN Security Council + Germany) and the European Union reaffirmed Tehran's continued compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with regard to Iran's nuclear program. March 19, head of EU diplomacy Federica Mogherini stated that “the European Union intends to do its best to maintain a nuclear deal with Iran and the meeting of EU Foreign Ministers demonstrated the unity of this position”. However, it looks like the US President D. Trump has not given up his attempts to shake this unity, despite the fact that even some representatives of the American military establishment are solidariating with the Europeans over the Iranian nuclear program. Thus, March 20, General John Hyten, Commander of the US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), said that “the Iranian government continues to comply with the provisions of the JCPOA on nuclear program”.

According to some reports, the resignations of R. Tillerson and H. McMaster were not least caused by their “inability” or reluctance to persuade European leaders to join the White House's anti-Iranian campaign. Obviously, this task rests on the new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and partly on new National Security Adviser, “hawk” John Bolton. Thus, at the propose of Washington, tentatively for mid-April is scheduled a meeting in Berlin of representatives of the American administration and leading Western European powers in order to coordinate positions on the amendments that the US President D. Trump proposes to make in the nuclear deal with Iran. According to some reports, in early March 2018, French President E. Macron tried to persuade the Iranian leadership to agree with limiting their programs for the development and production of ballistic missiles, as well as limiting military activity in Syria and Yemen, as demanded by the White House. Exactly with this mission, on March 5, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of France, Jean-Yves Le Drian, visited Tehran. In our opinion, it is unlikely that Tehran will agree to the proposed actions, even if the European allies do support the above-mentioned demands of the American administration. At this, we should not forget that there are also the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China, which undoubtedly will support the IRI.

 

SAUDI ARABIA

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman's first overseas tour which took nearly a month, covered three countries — Egypt, Great Britain and the United States.

Egypt. Crown Prince Mohammed visited Cairo March 4–7, 2018. Prince Mohammed had talks with President of the Arab Republic of Egypt Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, during which “full understanding of the regional issues” was demonstrated, and it was decided to continue joint efforts to find a political solution to the existing crises in a number of countries in the region, in particular in Syria, Yemen and Libya. President A. F. al-Sisi said that the security of the Arab states “is an integral part of Egypt's national security”.

The talks in Cairo also discussed the development of bilateral relations. It was reported that the volume of trade between the two countries in 2017 amounted to 2.1 billion US dollars, and Saudi investments in Egypt reached 6 billion US dollars (11 % of all foreign investments). As a result of the negotiations, two documents were signed: an agreement on activating the work of a joint investment fund with a capital of 16 billion US dollars and a memorandum on launching a cooperation program to encourage investments between the KSA and the ARE. As it was reported, the first joint investment project of the two countries will be the creation of a resort “mega-city” in the territory of 1000 square kilometres in the South of the Sinai Peninsula. It is also planned to build a gigantic “King Salman's Bridge”, which will connect Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt with the Tabuk region in northern Saudi Arabia. The condition for the creation of an investment fund is the agreement on the transfer to Saudi Arabia of two until recently disputable islands in the Red Sea — Tiran and Sanafir Islands. By providing loans to Cairo, Riyadh also hopes for Egyptian troops's more active participation in Yemen on the side of the “Arab Coalition”, and especially on the side of the KSA. However, in our opinion, it is unlikely that Cairo will go to this deal because it has its own problems in the struggle against terrorists in Sinai and on the border with Libya. Besides, in addition to the Saudi loans, Egypt can receive loans from the IMF on similar terms.

Another important theme of the Saudi Crown Prince's visit to Egypt was his attempt to form an “anti-Iranian front”, although neither Cairo nor Abu Dhabi sees Tehran as its main regional enemy. More serious adversaries for them are Qatar and Turkey, supported by the “Muslim Brotherhood”. There are other, to put it mildly, differences in Cairo and Riyadh's assessments of some regional problems, in particular the situation in Syria. In Cairo, they clearly do not perceive Saudi Arabia's support for radical Islamists in the civil war in Syria and maintain normal relations with the regime of B. Assad. Having come to power, President A. F. al-Sisi has repeatedly stated that he supported Damascus in the struggle against the armed opposition. Egypt, like Iran and Russia, stands for a format for resolving the Syrian crisis, which involves leaving B. Assad in power.

According to some reports, Egyptian military pilots carry out combat missions with the Syrian Air Force. Despite the limited participation of the Egyptian military contingent in Yemen on the side of the “Arab Coalition” for the sake of Saudi investments and loans, the Iranian-Egyptian relations since their restoration in February 2011 and ex-President M. Mursi's visit to Tehran in August 2012 have been stable and further improving. Thus, the Saudi Crown Prince's visit can hardly change the established position of Cairo in relation to Damascus and Tehran, even with all the pressure from Washington.

The United Kingdom. The greatest importance during the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia's official visit to Great Britain was attached to his talks with Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Teresa May, during which they discussed the main directions of development of strategic partnership between the two monarchies.

Mohammed bin Salman and Theresa May jointly hosted the inaugural meeting of the UK-Saudi Arabia Strategic Partnership Council which will be the main instrument for the development of bilateral cooperation, including economics, defense, security, humanitarian, regional and multilateral international relations. According to Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia considers the United Kingdom a strategic partner in implementing the Saudi “Vision 2030” program. The parties set an ambitious goal — to bring the volume of mutual trade and investments in the coming years to 65 billion pounds sterling (90 billion US dollars). The parties also exchanged views on how to resolve local conflicts in the Middle East. In particular, the Crown Prince and the UK Prime Minister agreed that only a political settlement could put an end to the civil war in Yemen. The parties agreed to facilitate the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen and the opening of seaports for the delivery of humanitarian goods to the country. During the Crown Prince's negotiations with British Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson, an agreement was reached on a multibillion-dollar deal on supplying 48 Typhoon fighters made by the UK company BAE Systems.

March 20, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia's almost three-week visit to the United States began, but given that it will end only on April 7, we intend to highlight this large-scale visit in a separate publication.

 

KUWAIT and KATAR

The President of Ukraine's Visits to Kuwait and Qatar. March 18–20, the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko paid a state visit to Kuwait and an official one to Qatar. Within the past 5 months, this is the second visit of Ukrainian President to that region. From October 31 to November 2, 2017, he paid an official visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and was on a working visit in the United Arab Emirates. According to Ukrainian experts, like the previous two visits, today's visits to the Middle East were also quite successful.

The first country visited by P. Poroshenko was the State of Kuwait. Emir of Kuwait Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah and the President of Ukraine had talks in Kuwait City, during which the sides discussed the possibility of cooperation between the two countries within the framework of international organizations. In particular, they discussed the prospects of cooperation in the UN Security Council on the issue of the UN peacekeeping mission in the occupied part of the Donbas. Emir of Kuwait said that his country would firmly support Ukraine's initiative to mandate peacekeepers to restore peace, sovereignty and territorial integrity in the Donbas.

During the negotiations, the issues of development of Ukrainian-Kuwaiti cooperation in trade-economic, investment, energy, military-technical and other spheres were considered. The parties agreed to mutually simplify the visa regime, which should facilitate the intensification of contacts between business structures and open up additional opportunities for the development of tourism between the two countries. Following the negotiations, a number of Ukrainian-Kuwaiti documents on cooperation in the military-technical and scientific spheres, as well as in the field of education, physical culture and sports, were signed. President P. Poroshenko also negotiated with other high-ranking Kuwaiti officials.

March 19–20, President of Ukraine paid an official visit to Qatar. March 20, the President of Ukraine held talks with Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, during which he informed the interlocutor about the situation in the Donbas, which arose due to the RF aggression against Ukraine, and thanked him for the consistent support of all UN resolutions on the protection of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The parties expressed mutual interest in further development of cooperation in the trade-economic, investment, agricultural and defense spheres, as well as in the sectors of energy, agro-industrial complex, transport infrastructure, medicine, education and tourism. During the talks between the President of Ukraine and the Emir of Qatar, special attention was paid to possible supply of Qatar liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the Ukrainian market.

Following the talks between the President of Ukraine and the Emir of Qatar, a number of bilateral documents were signed: on military-technical cooperation; on avoidance of double taxation; on a Joint Commission on Economic, Trade and Technical Cooperation; on promotion and mutual protection of investments; on mutual cancelling visa requirements; on cooperation between the T. Shevchenko National University and the University of Qatar. President P. Poroshenko also had talks with several high officials of Qatar. In addition, in the capital of Qatar, in the city of Doha, the Ukrainian President visited AgriteQ-2018 (Qatar International Agricultural Exhibition), where he observed stands of different states, including the stands of Ukrainian manufacturers.

At all meetings with the Kuwaiti and Qatari leaderships, President P. Poroshenko draw attention of his interlocutors to the repression of Russian occupation authorities against the Muslim population in the Ukrainian Crimea and appealed to them to help ease the fate of the Crimean Tatars of Ukraine and protect their rights.

 

YEMEN

The most resonant event in March in Yemen was the Houthis' shelling of the capital of Saudi Arabia — Riyadh. March 25, on the 3rd anniversary of the beginning of combat actions by the “Arab Coalition” led by the KSA, the Houthis (supporters of the “Ansar Allah” insurgency movement) launched seven rockets against Riyadh. And although all the missiles were intercepted by the American “Patriot” missile defense system with US military operators, the overall result of the attack was negative, since the interception and destruction of missiles was already in the airspace over Riyadh, which led to destruction, fires and victims (an Egyptian citizen was killed). Judging by the reaction in social networks, the consequences of the missile strike raised doubts among Saudi citizens about the country's air defense capability to provide reliably protection against Houthis' missile shelling. At this, according to some reports, all the missiles launched were by no means Iranian, they were old Soviet missiles R-17 or P-11MU (SS-1 Scud-A or SS-1C Scud-B by NATO classification). Obviously, these missiles remained in the military warehouses in North Yemen from the Soviet era and were somewhat modernized with the help of Iranian specialists. All this suggests that well into the fourth year of the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has not managed to neutralize the Houthis rebels and eliminate their ability to carry out rocket attacks on the territory of the KSA, which makes even American allies doubt about the combat capability of both the armed forces of the KSA and of the “Arab Coalition” as a whole.

In our view, quite frequent rocket shelling of the territory of the KSA are carried out by the Houthis in order to make the Saudi leadership seek political ways to resolve the Yemeni crisis through negotiations with the leaders of the Houthis. To some extent, the Houthis succeeded. For example, according to some data, in early March 2018, in Oman, talks were held between representatives of the Houthis and Saudi intelligence services headed the deputy head of the General Intelligence Directorate of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Major General Ahmad al-Asiri, who is considered to be the main adviser on the Yemeni issue to Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman. Apart from Oman, Paris and Cairo are also acting as intermediaries in the negotiations between the Houthis and Saudis. It should be noted that Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan has recently stated that the UAE army was not ready to conduct an attack on the North of Yemen, in particular on Sana'a and Hodeida. This position of the Emirates is explained by the fact that their main goal is separation of South Yemen, where they intend to preserve their influence, or rather to turn it into their protectorate.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed is determined to fight against the Houthis “till final victory”. However, at the end of March, at the Washington talks, Pentagon officials tried to persuade him of the need to seek a peaceful compromise with the Houthis, in view of the mounting humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, where hundreds of thousands of Yemenis are dying from hunger and the epidemic of cholera. The world community, including American democratic non-governmental organizations, charges the fault partly on the USA as the KSA's strategic ally. In addition, a month earlier, the US State Department agreed to the proposal of the UAE — the main ally of the KSA in the “Arab Coalition” — about direct talks between Riyadh and the leaders of the Houthis. It should also be recalled that the “legitimate” President of Yemen Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has actually no influence in Yemen and is constantly staying in Riyadh. Neither Abu Dhabi nor Washington recognizes him as a serious political figure. And even the Saudis get more and more frustrated because of his inability to raise local tribes loyal to him to fight the Houthis.

One of the obstacles to reaching a compromise between the Houthis and the “Arab Coalition” is that the Houthis supported by Tehran are categorically against Abu Dhabi's plans to return to power in North Yemen representatives of the clan of the killed in late 2017 ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Houthis claim absolute power in North Yemen, which absolutely does not suit Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. Another obstacle on the way to the peaceful settlement of the Yemeni crisis is the disagreements between the KSA and the UAE over the future state of Yemen and the Yemeni political forces and tribal clans, whom they want to formally put in power in the country, using them as their own puppets. While Riyadh seeks to preserve the unitary state of Yemen in the future, Abu Dhabi sees it divided into two states — North Yemen and South Yemen. While Riyadh relies on the conditionally “legitimate” President of Yemen Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Yemeni counterpart to the “Muslim Brotherhood: movement, “al Islah Party”, Abu Dhabi is pushing to power (both in the North and in the South of Yemen) the clan of the former President A. A. Saleh. At this, both, the KSA and the UAE, during the secret negotiations, are trying to drag to their side the Houthis, as it is impossible to completely ignore them, since today they control most of the territory of Yemen and its capital, Sanaa.

 

 

EGYPT

March 26–28, presidential elections were held in Egypt. Since 1952, within the 66 years of existence of republican Egypt, the country has had only 6 Presidents. Three of them — Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak had ruled the country all in all for 54 years. H. Mubarak, who had served as President for 30 years from 1981 to 2011, became the “record holder”.

According to preliminary data from the Central Election Commission of Egypt, the current head of state, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (63 years old), won a convincing victory in the elections and is becoming or, to be exact, remains the head of Egypt for another 4 years — until March 2022. He won more than 97 % votes of those who took part in the elections. The turnout was about 40 %, that is, less than 30 million voters out of 60 million registered. And this despite the fact that the election law provides for a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds (28.5 US dollars) for each voter who was on the list but did not arrive at the polling station without a serious reason. The activity of voters was not even influenced by the decision of “Dar al-Ifta” — the highest body of scholars-religious leaders who gave fatwa (religious order) under which citizens who refuse to vote in the elections are considered sinners. In our opinion, the relatively weak activity, or rather, the passivity of the majority of voters can be explained by the fact that in that way they just protest against the military coup of July 2013, which resulted in the removal and condemnation of lawfully elected President Mohammed Mursi, the informal leader of the “Muslim Brotherhood” party.

 

Note:

In August 2012, the fifth Egyptian President, Mohammed Mursi, who assumed office on June 30, 2012, appointed General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, the Minister of Defense and Military Production of the country. However, this did not prevent A. F. al-Sisi from launching a coup d'état on 3 July 2013 and removing M. Mursi, who was soon sentenced to death, later substituted by life imprisonment. A. F. al-Sisi argued that he was forced to remove M. Mursi from the post of President in order to prevent a devastating civil war. In January 2014, A. F. al-Sisi was awarded the highest military rank of Field Marshal. On May 28, 2014, he won the presidential election and officially assumed office of Egyptian President on June 8, 2014.

Some observers find much in common in the recent presidential elections in Egypt and Russia, however, without specifying — whether Egypt has risen to the level of Russia, or whether Russia has fallen to the level of Egypt. According to the law, elections in Egypt can be held even with one candidate who has all chances to win if he receives more than 5 % of votes… Within the 4 years of A. F. al-Sisi's being President, the political situation in the country as a whole has stabilized, the standard of living of the population has slightly increased compared to what was in 2011–2013. At the same time, according to assessments by many observers and international non-governmental organizations, the current ruling regime in Egypt is anti-democratic. The almost complete absence of public manifestations of the population's dissatisfaction is explained by observers by large-scale repressions against dissidents and members of the “Muslim Brotherhood”.