June 9, 2017

The Middle East and North Africa. Analytical Review 05/2017

 

Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political Situation in May 2017

 

In May, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa remained tense and unstable. Armed conflicts continued in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and other countries in the region. The main event in Turkey was President R.T. Erdogan's visit to Washington, where he for the first time met and had talks with US President D. Trump. In the third decade of May, US President D. Trump made his first foreign visit as head of state to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the State of Israel. In Syria, fighting between government forces and terrorists in the provinces of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Hama, Essaouida, Homs and Aleppo continued throughout May. In Iraq, Mosul is being liberated from the remnants of the terrorist group “Islamic State” and the operation may be completed in the first half of June. On 19 May, in Iran, the current President of the country, moderate reformer Hassan Rouhani was re-elected for a second term. In Yemen, contradictions and disagreements are growing both, between insurgents — Houthis and their allies, led by former President A. Saleh, and within the Arabian Coalition between the KSA and the UAE. May 2, in Abu Dhabi were held direct talks between the head of the Government of National Consent (PNC) of Libya F. Sarraj and the Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Marshal Kh. Haftar, but those negotiations did not put an end to armed clashes between the warring groups in the south of Libya, Benghazi and Tripoli. On 26 May in Egypt, in the province of al-Minya, unknown terrorists opened fire on a bus with children, of whom 35 were killed and 25 injured. Assuming that the terrorists arrived in Egypt from the Libyan city of Derna, the Egyptian leadership decided to sweep this city from terrorists with the help of Libyan troops under the command of Marshal Kh. Haftar.

 

TURKEY

Visit of the President of the TR to the USA. May 16, Turkey's President R. Erdogan (who paid a two-day official visit to the USA) had his first meeting with President D. Trump. Turkish observers point out the fact that R. Erdogan arrived in Washington from Beijing, where he had expressed a number of wishes for the USA within the framework of his participation in the Chinese forum dedicated to the new silk road project — “One Belt — One Road”.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President D. Trump, Washington, May 16
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President D. Trump, Washington, May 16

During the visit, R. Erdogan held talks with US President D. Trump, spoke to the representatives of American political science centers, and met with the leaders of the largest American companies. In the Turkish media, R. Erdogan's meeting with D. Trump in the White House was characterized as a “turning point” in US-Turkish relations. During the talks, issues of bilateral cooperation were discussed, in particular, in the sphere of economy, trade and defense, as well as the struggle against terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq. During the press briefing after the talks, D. Trump said that the USA had always had good relations with Turkey and now they would be much better.

In Washington, President R. Erdogan met with 40 leading American investors representing companies in various spheres, including defense industry, aviation, chemical industry, healthcare and information technology. Such meetings of the Turkish President with representatives of American businesses are quite regular. The USA is the second largest investor in the Turkish economy with a total accumulated investment of 17.5 billion US dollars (as of the end of 2016). According to the US Embassy in Ankara, about 60 American companies are working from Turkey and in 2016 more than 1,400 American companies paid in Turkey the taxes worth about 2 billion US dollars.

R. Erdogan's visit to Washington took place two weeks after the administration of D. Trump had announced the intention to transfer to Syrian Kurdish units heavy weapons for an attack on Raqqa, captured by the ISIS' militants. This caused outright outrage in Ankara and Erdogan's visit to the USA was nearly derailed. On the eve of this visit, the Turkish President expressed extreme concern over such a decision by the US and said he would try to convince D. Trump to abandon that decision. R. Erdogan also announced that Turkish troops would not participate in liberation of Raqqa due to the fact that the USA is trying to involve Kurds from the YPG in this operation. However, in our opinion, understanding that taking the “capital” of the ISIS (Raqqa) can cost lives of many hundreds of Turkish soldiers, R. Erdogan decided that the participation of Syrian Kurds in taking Raqqa is not so bad, since his enemies (Kurds and ISIS' militants) will destroy each other...

R. Erdogan has not yet been able to talk the USA into extraditing the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of organizing a coup in Turkey in July 2016. In our opinion, Ankara will not dare to spoil relations with Washington because of the Syrian Kurds and F. Gulen. According to the former Ukrainian Ambassador to Turkey S. Korsunskyi, “...it is perfectly understood in Ankara that their quarelling with the USA has certain limits, as well as statements about the existence of an alternative to cooperation with Washington — therefore R. Erdogan refrained from sharp rhetoric against Trump, understanding that without the United States the Syrian problem can not be resolved, despite all the agreements with Russia and Iran”.

 

SAUDI ARABIA

May 20–21, US President D. Trump made his first foreign visit as head of state to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). D. Trump also held a meeting in Riyadh with the heads of the Arabian monarchies and delivered a speech at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit with the participation of 55 heads of state and government. D. Trump's speech had a pronounced anti-Iranian orientation. Moreover, D. Trump described Saudia's military operations in Yemen as part of the “war against terrorism”, behind which Iran stands. At the same time, some observers point out that D. Trump “forgot” to mention those countries that support the aggressive Salafi and Wahhabi varieties of Islam and are sponsors of “Islamic extremism”. It seems that D. Trump decided to open a new page in relations between the USA and KSA and to put an end to Washington's critical attitude to Riyadh that took place under B. Obama's administration.

Participants of the Arab-Islamic-American summit, Riyadh, May 21
Participants of the Arab-Islamic-American summit, Riyadh, May 21

During D. Trump's talks with the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud, they discussed bilateral cooperation, particularly in the energy, trade, economic and military-technical spheres. Riyadh also hosted the Saudi-U.S. economic summit. On 20 May, the parties signed a number of agreements totaling 280 billion US dollars. In particular, the largest defense deal in the history of the United States was signed to supply Saudi Arabia with arms and military equipment worth 109.7 billion US dollars. Besides, a memorandum was signed on the United States' intention to supply the Saudi Arabia with US arms worth 350 billion US dollars in the nearest 10 years. Saudi Arabia will buy from the USA tanks, pieces of artillery, armored vehicles, coast defense ships, anti-missile systems Patriot and THAAD.

Defense Minister of the KSA, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US Secretary of State R. Tillerson signed an agreement on development and modernization of the Armed Forces of the KSA. Agreements were also signed in the oil and gas industry, electricity, healthcare and air transportation. Besides, Saudi Arabia pledged to make commercial investments of 250 billion US dollars into the US economy. On 21 May, the leaders of the United States and KSA signed an agreement to create a Terrorist Financing Targeting Center and opened a Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh. In our opinion, taking into account the astronomical amounts of the signed agreements, it was not accidentally that Saudi Arabia was the first country visited by US President D. Trump. There are few countries in the world with which the USA could conclude commercial agreements for such huge sums.

The ceremony of signing the US-Saudi agreements, Riyadh, May 20

While in Riyadh, US President D. Trump officially put forward the idea of creating an “Arab NATO”, whose main objectives are to fight the ISIS terrorist group and to “deter Iran”. The idea of creating an “Arab NATO” was previously discussed on May 17 during the talks between Senior Advisor to the US President Jared Kushner and Deputy Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It is assumed that initially the basis of the “Arab NATO” could become countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Kuwait and Jordan. In the future, other Arab countries would join them.

In principle, the idea of creating an “Arab NATO” is not new. Similar ideas were put forward at different levels. Frankly speaking, I'm not very optimistic about the possible success of this project, based on the following considerations:

Firstly, more than 20 Arab countries, with the population of 450 million people, in several wars over the past 70 years, with a small Israel, whose population is 8.3 million today, have proved inconsistent despite the mountains of weapons that were at their disposal. (It seems that the level of the combat potential of the Arab armies does not depend on the quality and quantity of weapons at all, given the poor professional level of the majority of Arab servicemen, both command and rank-and-file). Secondly, the existing “Arabian Coalition” of the KSA, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain (and until recently Qatar) in Yemen, has also proved its failure by fighting against the Houthis rebels and their allies using ultra-modern weapons. To date, disagreements between the KSA and the UAE have in fact disorganized this Coalition. Thirdly, the League of Arab States showed its utter helplessness both in the settlement of the situation that arose after a series of so-called “Arab revolutions” in 2011, and in the fight against Islamic terrorism, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Fourthly, between Arab countries, including the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, there are quite deep contradictions and disagreements, which prevent them from acting in concert. Fifthly, since some Arab countries (Saudi, Qatar, Emirates) are sponsors of the so-called “Radical Islamists” of different ideological trends in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and other countries, how can they effectively resist terrorists? Sixthly, on 15 December 2015, Saudi Arabia announced the creation of an “Islamic Coalition” of 34 Islamic countries to fight terrorism. But the matter did not go further than this announcement and few people today remember that Coalition...

I believe that “Arab NATO” can realize its potential only under at least two conditions. First, if it works under the patronage of the existing North Atlantic alliance within the framework of the revitalization of NATO's programs — the Mediterranean Dialogue (founded in 1994) for the countries of the Arab Maghreb and the Istanbul Initiative (founded in 2004) for some countries of the Arab Mashreq. Second, if money and weapons coming from Arab countries (mainly those of the Persian Gulf, Turkey and Iran) to all sorts of groups of “radical Islam” are blocked.

Tehran sharply negatively reacted to D. Trump's visit to the KSA, stating that the US President, positioning himself as the main human rights defender, paid a visit to the country that violates these rights most of all and is leading a war in Yemen and Syria. To D. Trump's appeal during the Islamic forum in Riyadh to isolate Iran, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, M.J. Zarif said that “Iran, which has just held democratic elections, is being attacked by the USA, which is considered a “cradle of democracy”. According to M. Zarif, the main aim of D. Trump's visit to the KSA was to “intimidate the Saudis with a contrived Iranian threat and to draw 480 billion US dollars from Saudi Arabia”. In his speech at the press conference, newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, commenting on the Saudi-American military deal, said that “Saudi Arabia has decided to transfer its funds to the USA's pocket to purchase weapons, while we will produce them ourselves”.

Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman's meeting with Russian President V. Putin, Moscow, May 30
Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman's meeting with Russian President V. Putin, Moscow, May 30

May 30, Moscow hosted talks between Russian President V. Putin and Deputy Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia's Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, during which issues of cooperation between the Russian Federation and the KSA were discussed in order to stabilize the world oil market, as well as the situation in Syria. V. Putin pointed out the significant increase in trade between Russia and the KSA. For his part, Mohammed bin Salman said that at present the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Russia “is experiencing one of the best stages”.

 

THE STATE OF ISRAEL

US President D. Trump's visit to Israel. During D. Trump's visit to Israel, the Israelis most of all expected to hear about his position on the peaceful settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. However, instead they heard D. Trump's lengthy assurances about the strong American-Israeli friendship. In fact, at the talks of D. Trump and B. Netanyahu, the priorities of the Middle East policy were aligned in the following sequence: first, Iran, then Syria and only then Palestine. Representatives of the US administration stressed that the President preferred to avoid voicing the problems of the Palestinian-Israeli settlement before the television cameras, since soon the region will be visited again by the special representative of the White House, J. Greenblatt, who will discuss in detail with the Israeli and Palestinian parties the resumption of the Palestinian-Israeli talks. According to some reports, during J. Greenblatt's visit to the Middle East, it is planned to hold a conference with the participation of representatives of Israel, Palestine, the United States, Egypt, Jordan and possibly Saudi Arabia to discuss the problem of the Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President D. Trump, Jerusalem, May 22 Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and US President D. Trump, Bethlehem, May 23
Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu and US President D. Trump, Jerusalem, May 22 Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and US President D. Trump, Bethlehem, May 23

During the meeting with D. Trump in Bethlehem, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas assured the US President of his readiness to immediately begin a dialogue with Israel. In response, D. Trump pointed out that the time had not come to negotiate and limited himself to reasserting his commitment to “achieving a true long-term peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis” without specifying how this could be realized. In response to M. Abbas's statements about Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and the need to return to the 1967 borders, Trump never uttered the phrase about creation of “two states for two peoples”, confining himself to a declaration of readiness “to do everything possible to achieve peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians”.

Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu throwing the new Hamas Charter into the trash
Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu throwing
the new Hamas Charter into the trash

Hamas' new political doctrine. The radical Palestinian movement Hamas (which is recognized in a number of countries as terrorist), which controls the Gaza Strip, on 1 May promulgated a new political doctrine (Hamas Charter) from which the point calling for the destruction of Israel had been excluded. In the new doctrine, Hamas supports the “idea of creating a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders”. Besides, Hamas has dissociated itself from the Egyptian organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. The document points out that Hamas does not seek war, but seeks liberation of Palestinian lands and cessation of their occupation by peaceful means. The Israeli government is skeptical of the new doctrine, saying that “Palestinian radicals are trying to deceive the world, but will not achieve this goal”. May 6, Ismail Haniyeh, the former head of government in the Gaza Strip, was elected the leader of the Hamas' political bureau, succeeding Khaled Meshaal.

Saeb Erekat, Secretary-General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), made a document in which he expressed his deep disappointment with the position of the new American administration regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In particular, he points out that the administration of D. Trump has not publicly supported the idea of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the basis of the principle of two states within the 1967 borders, have not recognized illegal the settlements in the West Bank, as the B. Obama administration did, has not abandoned the idea of transferring the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Saeb Erekat's declaration also contains an absolutely unacceptable for any Israeli government demand about a return to Israel's territory of the Palestinian refugees who left Palestine during the first Arab-Israeli war of 1947–1948. In fact, this demand can not be realized, if only because several millions of Palestinian refugees, or rather their descendants, simply have nowhere to return because of the very high population density in the Palestinian territories, reaching several thousand people per 1 square kilometer.

 

SYRIA

Zones of de-escalation. On 6 May, into force came the Memorandum on the establishment of de-escalation zones in Syria, signed by Russia, Turkey and Iran on 4 May in Astana within the framework of the next round of inter-Syrian talks, in which, apart from representatives of the above-mentioned countries, the delegations of the Syrian government and the Syrian armed opposition took part. As observers there were a special representative of the UN Secretary General for Syria S. De Mistura and a US delegation headed by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs S. Jones. The signing of the Memorandum was supported by the UN, USA, KSA and other countries. At present, four zones of de-escalation are being formed in the western part of Syria, which include the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo, Latakia and Hama, the suburb of Damascus — East Guta and the territories in the southern provinces of Deraa and al-Quneitra. The use of combat aviation is prohibited in de-escalation zones. Security zones and monitoring points for the ceasefire regime are organized on their borders. The zones of de-escalation are set for six months with the possibility of prolongation. The Armistice Guarantors will create a Joint Working Group on De-escalation. Syrian President B. Assad believes that creation of zones of de-escalation will allow the Syrian opposition to lay down their arms and conclude a truce with the government, but this takes time.

Syria's “de-escalation zones”
Syria's “de-escalation zones”

Fighting. During the three spring months, Damascus managed to expand by about a quarter the area of the country's areas it controls, mainly in the provinces of Aleppo and Homs. According to expert estimates, as of May 26, Damascus controlled 46 % of the country's territory, Kurds — 21 %, rebels — 12 %, the remaining 21 % — were controlled by ISIS. Combat operations with government troops continued throughout May in Homs province east of Palmyra, in the mountainous area of Qalamoun on the border with Lebanon. In the north-east of the country, the Kurdish forces of the “Forces of Democratic Syria” (FDS) fought to conquer the city of Tabqa. The FDS groups' offensive on Tabqa was conducted with a massive support by the Western Coalition's aviation. The FDS transferred its control over Tabqa to the city council. In early summer, the FDS plans to resume the storm of the city of Raqqa, occupied by the ISIS' militants.

In May, Russian VKS aircraft conducted strikes on the positions of the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra groups in the province of Raqqa in order to prevent the rebels' withdrawal from the center of the province and moving southward. According to the Arab media, at the end of May, Russian servicemen from the Special Operations Forces appeared in the provinces of Deraa and Essaouida, on the border between Syria and Jordan. On 22 May, the Arab media reported on the deaths in Syria of two Russian officers serving as military advisers in parts of the Syrian army.

Battle to liberate Raqqa, late May 2017
Battle to liberate Raqqa, late May 2017

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, an agreement was reached between the command of Kurdish detachments from the FDS and the leaders of the ISIS groups operating in the region to open a safe “southern corridor” for the militants to leave without a fight in the direction of Palmyra. Russian observers state in their comments that Kurdish militia corridors were allegedly opened at the advice of the US Command, which “thus is fulfilling the task assigned to it by the US administration to liberate Raqqa in a short time and with minimal losses”. At this, it is stated that “the Pentagon does not care about where the supporters of the ISIS go, it is important for them to hoist the flag and make loud statements about the victory over the ISIS”.

According to Russian sources, the Russian VKS' Command in Syria took measures to prevent the militants from escaping to the south. As a result of the attacks of Russian aviation on 26 May, a large convoy of ISIS fighters heading from Raqqa to Palmyra was destroyed. At the same time, the Russian frigate “Admiral Essen” and the “Krasnodar” submarine from the Mediterranean Sea launched four “Kalibr” cruise missiles on the ISIS' terrorists' cluster in the area east of Palmyra. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that “the Commands of the USA, Turkey and Israel were timely informed of the launches of cruise missiles”.

In the second half of May, the Syrian Air Force planes attacked jihadist targets in the provinces of Deir ez-Zor, Hama, Essaouida and Aleppo. According to US sources, on 24 May, the Syrian Air Force aircraft, mostly MiG-23 fighters and Su-22 bombers, returned to the Shayrat airbase in Homs province, which was subject to a massive missile strike a month before. At the end of May in the east of the province of Aleppo, the offensive of the Syrian troops continued to dislodge the ISIS militants from the Maskanah valley. During the offensive, about 10 villages were liberated from terrorists. By May 21, government forces had completely freed from the terrorists the administrative center of the province of Homs. May 29, the withdrawal of militants' groups from the Barze quarter in Damascus was completed. Having liberated this quarter, Syrian authorities now control the whole of northern Damascus.

May 18, the FDS announced the formation of a civil administration in the province of Raqqa with the task of governing the province after its liberation from the ISIS militants. On 24 May, another batch of US weapons and military equipment was delivered from Iraqi Kurdistan to Al-Hasakah province to develop the FDS units' offensive on Raqqa. On the same day, it became known about Turkey's plans to put forward the 10,000-strong force of the Free Syrian Army with the task to prevent the offensive of the FDS formations in the north of Syria.

Commenting on the issue of deliveries of American heavy weapons to Syrian Kurdish units, the President of the TR stated that this would damage the strategic partnership of Ankara and Washington. Trying to persuade R. Erdogan, the Pentagon's Chief J. Mattis assured that the formation of the Syrian FDS will not remain in Raqqa after its liberation and the USA will ensure the security of Turkey's southern borders in any development of the situation in Syria. However, the Turkish leadership does not trust Washington and does not believe that the Kurds will leave the city immediately after its liberation.

 

IRAQ

Battle of Mosul, late May 2017
Battle of Mosul, late May 2017

Fighting. Liberation of Mosul from the remnants of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) terrorist group is approaching and may be completed in the first half of June. As of May 15, government forces, with the help of American special forces, had driven out ISIS militants from 60 blocks of the western part of the city on the right bank of the Tigris River and terrorists continued to control only 10 quarters. In street battles with terrorists, police units, rapid reaction forces and army special forces are involved. Air support is provided by the Iraqi Air Force and Western Coalition's aircrafts. According to the Iraqi media, in the combat actions for the western districts of Mosul, the ISIS lost over a thousand militants in killed and several thousands in injured. On 24 May it became known that as losing Mosul is inevitable, the leader of the ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had moved to Syria and is in the province of Deir ez-Zor near the border with Iraq. The ISIS' headquarters had moved from Mosul to the Iraqi city of al-Hawija in the province of Kirkuk.

May 27, Iraqi troops, with the support of the Western Coalition led by the United States, stormed the last fortifications of the ISIS in the western part of Mosul, which occupy about 5 % of the city's territory. At the same time, on 30 May, Shiite armed groups of al-Hashd al-Sha'bi began a sweep of terrorists from the Iraqi-Syrian border. Shiite fighters are also ready to participate in operations against the ISIS and in Syria in coordination with Damascus.

The number of refugees from the city's population has exceeded 400 thousand people and about the same number remains in the western part of Mosul. A significant number of ISIS fighters and their supporters from among the city's residents managed to leave the city without any special obstacles and to create centers of resistance in other parts of the country. This happened due to the lack of effective interaction between different parts of the Iraqi government forces, mainly because of the strained relations between the Kurdish and Arab divisions, and between the Sunni and Shiite forces. According to the US intelligence, the command of the ISIS left a garrison of terrorists in Mosul with the task to detain Iraqi troops and US special forces in it in order to gain time to create new rear bases, reserve command posts and centers of resistance for their main forces in the Iraqi “Sunni triangle”, Northwest of Baghdad. Thus, after the liberation of Mosul, the struggle against the ISIS will not end, as evidenced by the noticeable intensification of the ISIS militants' activity in the Anbar province.

An important role in operations against terrorists in Iraq is played by units of the US Special Operations Forces. In total, about 5,000 US military personnel and 3,000 military personnel from other NATO member countries operate in Iraq. Besides, about 450 US military advisers serve in units of the Iraqi government troops. Units of the US Navy Special Forces (”Seals”) have been involved in the operation to free Mosul from the very beginning.

The threat of Iraq's disintegration
The threat of Iraq's disintegration

The prospect of a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. According to the forecasts of many political observers, Iraq is up to another dramatic test — it is a question of preserving the integrity of the country. The single Iraq can follow the path of disintegration into three ethno-religious independent state entities — Kurdistan, Sunni Iraq and Shiite Iraq. After the liberation of Mosul and the complete destruction of the ISIS, the main task for the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, dominated by Shiites, will be to heal differences with Sunnis in the northwest and Kurds in the north. If this can not be achieved, a new round of civil war may begin. Today, Iraqi Kurdistan has moved towards full independence beyond other regions of Iraq. According to some information, a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan can be held already in the autumn of this year. The idea of a referendum on independence has long been borne by the current President of the Kurdish Autonomy, Massoud Barzani.

The main problem between the government of M. Barzani in Erbil and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad is the question of the division of oil fields in the Kirkuk region. However, even if a referendum is held, the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will still have to be recognized by the international community, and this is a rather problematic question and in many respects it depends on Washington's position. The UN has already stated that it recognizes the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan only after Baghdad has done so. And Baghdad certainly will never do that. The lack of international recognition will put Erbil in the position of an outcast. No internationally recognized status of Iraqi Kurdistan — no foreign investments into its oil industry. We should borne in mind the position of Iran, which strengthens its presence and influence in the Iraqi Kurdistan through M. Barzani's main political opponents. Besides, Tehran's attitude to the split of Iraq is definitely negative. Independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan can become an example for Turkish, Syrian and Iranian Kurds, which would be very negatively perceived by Ankara, Tehran and Damascus.

 

IRAN

May 19, presidential elections were held in Iran. Four candidates claimed to the post of President of Iran. The current President of the country, moderate reformer Hassan Rouhani was re-elected for a second term. About 57 % of voters voted for him. The second place (38.5 % of votes) was taken by the former Prosecutor General of the country Ebrahim Raisi, who represented the conservative forces. Voter turnout exceeded 70 %.

The results of the presidential elections in Iran
The results of the presidential elections in Iran

The presidential elections of 2017 were held in Iran in a calm atmosphere, without mass protests, typical for the 2009 elections. Apparently, the calm of the Iranians was explained by the fact that H. Rouhani had no worthy opponent from the conservative camp, which was the result of its disunity and inability to nominate a single candidate in the elections. Besides, Rouhani's rivals did not offer voters a more attractive alternative to his rather successful economic policy. Thus, Iran's GDP growth in 2016 was about 7 %, inflation fell from 40 % in 2013 to 7.8 % in 2016. Exports of oil increased from 1.5 million barrels a day in 2013 to 2.8 million barrels in 2016. Each member of the Iranian family receives a monthly payment of 14 dollars. From March 2016 to March 2017, about 200,000 small and medium-sized enterprises were created in Iran, which provide about 25 % of all jobs in Iran. They account for 17.5 % of Iran's gross domestic product (GDP). All in all, there are over 3 million such enterprises in the production, trade, services and maintenance sectors for 80 million people throughout the country.

H. Rouhani's victory means the choice of the majority of Iranians in favor of the evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, way of Iran's development. According to experts, the re-election of H. Rouhani ensures predictability of Tehran's actions in matters of international cooperation. Undoubtedly, during the second cadenza, President H. Rouhani will continue his activities aimed at strengthening Iran's position in the international arena, its role in the processes of political and economic globalization and the relaxation of international tension, provided that Iran is recognized as an equal partner by great powers. In his first televised address to fellow citizens after the re-election, H. Rouhani said he would strive to expand the country's ties with the world, but stressed that Tehran is also ready to defend its interests in the world arena.

May 20, US Secretary of State R. Tillerson stated that the USA expects that H. Rouhani “will put an end to the testing of ballistic missiles and stop financing the Iranian terrorist network”. In our opinion, it is unlikely that D. Trump will be able to convince the Europeans of the need to isolate Iran, especially since for the next 4 years was reelected the moderate reformer H. Rouhani, who has established a normal dialogue with Europeans who hope in 2–3 years to be receiving oil and gas from Iran through pipelines, possibly even through the territory of Ukraine. The priority way to export natural gas to Europe most likely will be LNG. In late April 2017, on the results of the negotiations of the European Commissioner for Energy and Climate Miguel Arias Cañete and Iranian Minister of Oil Bijan Namdar Zangeneh signed a Joint Statement on Energy on the need for a dialogue between the IRI and the EU in the energy sector.

 

YEMEN

Intrigues and contradictions in the ranks of warring parties. Since the balance of powers of the Arabian Coalition and the Houthis insurgents from the Shiite movement “Ansar Alla” is in a state that can be conditionally called a “balance of powerlessness”, it is not accidentally that this condition has led to the situation that can again be called “confusion and vacillation”, or rather the emergence of contradictions between both — Houthis insurgents and their allies led by ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and inside the Arabian Coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and Ali Abdullah Saleh
Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and Ali Abdullah Saleh

According to some observers, the rather shaky alliance between the Shiite Houthis rebels and the ex-president of Yemen, A. Saleh, is once again being tested for strength. This alliance is situational and is conditioned by the need for joint fighting the forces of the Arabian Coalition. However, taking into account that, being the President of the country, A. Saleh has (unsuccessfully) fought against the Houthis many times, the old enmity is manifested from time to time. A number of analysts directly call this alliance “unnatural”, and Saudi Arabian newspapers write about a split maturing between A. Saleh and the leader of the Houthis Abdul Malik al-Houthi.

At least, the forced allies do not trust each other too much. Thus, the recent public conciliatory statements by A. Saleh about Riyadh and Washington have triggered a new spiral of tension in his relations with the Houthis. According to the newspaper “Al-Quds”, A. Saleh called on Saudi Arabia to lead a direct dialogue. At this, he expressed his readiness to come to Riyadh to discuss the issue of “the conditions for the removal of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi from the post of the President of Yemen”. Indeed, the legitimacy of A.M. Hadi, who is the creature of the KSA, is under big question. He became a technical President for a transitional period after A. Saleh's removal from power. After that, A.M. Hadi's powers, under the pressure from the KSA were prolonged for another two years, but they have already expired and there is no legislative body in Yemen, which could extend them again. The Saudis need legitimization of A.M. Hadi as the President of Yemen only in order to have some legal basis for their military intervention in Yemen. At this, A. Saleh has excluded the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed's participation in the negotiations. A. Saleh has also invited the Arabian Coalition to stop air raids on the positions of the Houthis, as the victims of the air raids are often civilians. If the Saudis stick to his idea, A. Saleh promised to block the Houthis' missile attacks on the territory of Saudi Arabia.

In April, A. Saleh secretly sent his son Ahmed to Abu Dhabi for consultations “on ways out from the Yemen crisis”. The Houthis' leadership demanded explanations from A. Saleh for his attempts to organize separate negotiations with the KSA and the UAE, and reminded him that by agreement, the Head of the Supreme Political Council of the Houthis Saleh Al-Sammad alone is officially authorized to conduct any negotiations both, with A.M. Hadi, and with members of the Arabian Coalition. It should be noted that in both, Riyadh and Washington, A. Saleh has long been considered a leader belonging to yesterday and are not going to negotiate with him. Perhaps only in Moscow, A. Saleh is still considered a promising political figure in the future state model of Yemen. This is due to the fact that A. Saleh has had stable and strong ties with Moscow for 30 years of his Presidency in Yemen.

On the other hand, disputes arose between the Houthis and supporters of A. Saleh because of the structure of the Supreme Political Council of the “Ansar Alla” movement, as well as the candidatures of the new Prime Minister of the temporary Houthis government. A. Saleh would like to see on this post a loyal person to him. According to some observers, the supporters of A. Saleh and the Houthis will be forced to “tolerate each other” as long as the Arabian Coalition's forces are in Yemen and as long as Tehran provides assistance to A. Saleh and the Houthis and mediates between them.

It should be noted that between the “legitimate” President A.M. Hadi and his Saudi and Emirate patrons from time to time also there are contradictions and misunderstandings, which could be explained by different interests and inconsistencies in Yemen between the KSA and the UAE. Thus, under the Saudis' pressure, A.M. Hadi has recently dismissed Emirate creatures — a General of the “Yemeni Army” Hani bin Braik and the Governor of the province of Aden, Aidarous al-Zubaidi. This caused the UAE leadership's great dissatisfaction and the Emirates were not slow to respond. Immediately after Braik and al-Zubaidi's resignation, pro-UAE South Yemeni detachments preparing to attack the last major port of the country, Hodeida, under the control of the Houthis, left the “front” and began returning to Aden, where they joined the protesters against A.M. Hadi's latest personnel decisions. That way the operation to capture Hodeida was foiled.

Aden's former governor Aidarous al-Zubaidi’s supporters are protesting in Aden, May 13
Aden's former governor Aidarous al-Zubaidi’s supporters
are protesting in Aden, May 13

This yet again confirms the forecasts of those observers who believe that the UAE will in every possible way steer away from participating in the seizure of Hodeida, since their main task in Yemen is not so much to defeat of the Houthis and Saleh's detachments as to establish control over the southern part of the country within the boundaries of the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen with further state isolation of this region. This does not suit Saudi Arabia, which seeks to prevent broad autonomy or separation of South Yemen as an independent state. At this, it should be noted that the position of the UAE in this respect, oddly enough, coincides with the position of Tehran, which also tends to create an autonomous Shiite state formation in the South of Yemen. Thus, taking into consideration the differences in the positions of the KSA and the UAE on the future status of Yemen, it seems that in the near future the Yemeni crisis can not be resolved by military or diplomatic means, which imposes on the USA yet another difficult problem.

On 16 May, the representative of the Political Council of South Yemen (PCSY) Abd Al-Rahman Al-Jifri stated that “The South is no longer part of Yemen”. According to him, the South is historically not connected with Yemen and it should be called “South Arabia” rather than “South Yemen”. At this, he pointed out that the PCSY is ready to participate in negotiations as an intermediary to resolve the Yemen crisis as an independent party that has no relation either to the central authorities or to the Shiite Houthis rebels. It can be argued that the formation of PCSY is a project of the UAE.

Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Deputy Crown Prince, Minister of Defence of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman
Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Deputy Crown Prince, Minister of Defence of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman

On the eve of US President D. Trump's visit to Riyadh, the Saudi leadership tried at all costs to resolve the crisis in relations with Abu Dhabi on the Yemeni conflict, but without success. May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Deputy Crown Prince, Minister of Defence of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman held tense negotiations with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. However, the parties could not reach an understanding on the functioning in Aden of the proclaimed on May 11 PCSY, which was headed by the former governor of the province of Aden, Aidarous al-Zubaidi. Mohammed bin Salman was not able to convince the Emirate Crown Prince to stop supporting PCSY as a parallel power structure in Yemen. The Crown Prince of the UAE firmly stated during the meeting that the PCSY, which includes 26 representatives from the five southern provinces, must work on a permanent basis as a regional legislative body. Supporting the functioning of the PCSY, Abu Dhabi thus resolves its main task — to create conditions for the separation of South Yemen. On the other hand, Abu Dhabi also made an important step to remove A.M. Hadi as “the legitimate president of Yemen.” Moreover, on 26 May, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, already demanded A.M. Had's immediate resigning. Fulfillment of this demand will completely undermine the position of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, finally destroy the Arabian Coalition and if it does not bury the project of the “Arab NATO”, it will postpone its implementation for a long time.

Humanitarian aspects. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 400 thousand Yemeni citizens became refugees as a result of hostilities around the port of Hodeida. At this, it should be noted that the UN has called on the Arabian Coalition operating in Yemen not to attack the vital port of Hodeida, through which about 80 % of food passes, because this could lead to massive famines. To this, the representatives of the KSA responded that the Arabian Coalition is ready to provide alternative routes for the supply of food and medicine to Yemen, a large part of whose population, in addition to all its troubles, has suffered from the cholera epidemic lately. According to the World Health Organization, more than 65 thousand people in 253 districts of the country have cholera. Only in the last month about 600 people died from the cholera epidemic.

Fighting. In May, the fighting between the warring groups was rather sluggish, positional and sporadic, which is due to a certain inconsistency of actions and contradictions both between the Houthis and the detachments of A. Saleh, and in the ranks of the Arabian Coalition. In the face of fundamental differences between the UAE and the KSA over the future state-administrative structure of Yemen, any previously announced offensive by the weakened Arabian Coalition on Sana'a and Hodeida is out of the question for the nearest future.

Fighting in Yemen, May 2017
Fighting in Yemen, May 2017

All May, fighting with varying success continued in the city of Taiz, the center of the same governorate (region) in the southeast of the country, capturing which would allow one to establish control over the main mountain passes, which in turn would allow an offensive against the capital of the country, Sana'a. Houthis groups and the loyal to A.M. Hadi Yemen's Southern Movement “Harakat” occupy different quarters of Taiz. Ex-president of the country A. Saleh, whose troops hold the dominant heights in the province, for a long time had been the governor of the province of Taiz and knows all the local specifics. After the crisis in the Saudi-Emirate relations, the militia of the South Yemen and the Emirate's troops withdrew from Taiz, leaving its liberation from the Houthis to the Saudis and President A.M. Hadi's units.

May 19, the day before US President D. Trump visited the KSA, the Houthis insurgents fired a Burkan-1 ballistic missile against Riyadh, which was intercepted by Saudi air defenses about 200 km west of the city. The missile was destroyed in a desert area and caused no human casualties. On 20 May, the Houthis declared that their air defense had shot down a Saudi Arabian F-15 fighter. May 24, the Houthis defeated a unit of Sudanese mercenaries, destroying a large number of military equipment and soldiers. During the special operation, the Sudanese T-72 tank was destroyed and the Oshkosh M-ATV armored vehicle was hit.

According to the US Central Command, on 23 May, during a special operation of US Special Task Forces in the Al-Jubah, with the support of several helicopters and aircrafts, seven insurgents of the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda were killed. At this, according to the publication of “The Intercept”, five civilians were killed and five others were injured. However, according to Pentagon's Spokesman J. Davis, there were “no reliable signs of the death of civilians”.

 

LIBYA

Political contacts. May 2, Abu Dhabi hosted direct talks between the head of the Government of National Accord of Libya, F. Sarraj, and the Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Marshal Kh. Haftar. During the talks, an agreement was reached to create a single cabinet of ministers, to hold elections of the head of state and a new parliament, and to form unified armed forces. On 13 May in Cairo, Egyptian President A.F. al-Sisi, at the meeting with Marshal Kh. Haftar, said that Egypt was in favor of lifting the UN's restrictions on arms deliveries to the Libyan army. Besides, according to A.F. As-Sisi, it is necessary to stop the military and financial support of radical Islamist groups, as well as to prevent interference with the internal affairs of Libya “by various foreign forces that seek to achieve their own mercenary goals at the expense of the Libyan people”. Well said, but do not forget that Egypt is one of the “foreign forces” supporting the House of Representatives in Tobruk and Marshal Kh. Haftar.

Talks between F. Sarraj and Kh. Haftar, Abu Dhabi, May 2 Meeting of the President of Egypt A.F. al-Sisi with Marshal Kh. Haftar, Cairo, May 13
Talks between F. Sarraj and Kh. Haftar, Abu Dhabi, May 2 Meeting of the President of Egypt A.F. al-Sisi with Marshal Kh. Haftar,
Cairo, May 13

Fighting. On 8 May, units of the LNA, under the command of Marshal Kh. Haftar, liberated the seaport in Benghazi from the Al-Qaeda militants. On 18 May, armed formations from Misurata, loyal to the Government of National Accord led by F. Sarraj, attacked the LNA's Birak al-Shati airbase in southern Libya. As a result of this attack, more than 140 people, guarding the airfield, were killed. In the attack on the airfield participate the “Brigades of Defense of Benghazi”, also linked with Al-Qaeda. To help the defenders, Marshal Kh. Haftar called combat aircraft and the attack was repulsed. F. Sarraj stated that he did not give orders for an attack on the Birak al-Shati airbase and dismissed the Minister of Defense M. Bargasi. It should be noted that Kh. Haftar claims to be the Minister of Defense in the new unified government of Libya.

From 26 to 29 May in Tripoli, there were fierce clashes between the warring parties, during which about 30 people were killed and more than 100 people were injured. Fighting with the use of artillery and heavy machine guns took place between the groups supporting the Government of National Accord of F. Sarraj and his opponents, represented by the Tripolitan and Misurata clans, led by ex-Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghawil and ex-Speaker of the General National Congress Nouri Abusahmain, who are against an alliance between Prime Minister F. Sarraj and Marshal Kh. Haftar and who do not want to see him as Minister of Defense.

The military-political situation in Libya, May 2017
The military-political situation in Libya,
May 2017

So far, the weak side of F. Sarraj's government was the lack of a serious military force, which would certainly support him. However, as a result of the four-day fighting, the supporters of F. Sarraj managed to capture actually all the key objects of the capital, and the opposing units of several Misurata field commanders were driven out of Tripoli. This time the Salafi militia, supported by Saudi Arabia, first of all, aspiring to weaken influence of Qatar in Libya, has acted on F. Sarraj's side. And it should be noted that Riyadh succeeded in this, as many pro-Qatar creatures have fled Tripoli.

F. Sarraj's forces managed to seize the Al-Habda prison in the capital, which contained former high-ranking functionaries of M. Gaddafi's regime, including his son Saadi. Currently, they have been transferred to house arrest, because F. Sarraj plans to use them to establish a dialogue with former leaders of M. Gaddafi's regime in the so-called “national reconciliation”. However, this does not mean that F. Sarraj has won a final victory in Tripoli, since he still remains a hostage to field commanders who, in case the situation changes, can move to the side of his opponents, depending on the size of their financing by external forces. However, if F. Sarraj and Kh. Haftar reach a final agreement on formation of an alliance and a unified regular army will is created, all small armed groups will inevitably lose their power and influence or may be incorporated into the national armed forces.

The reason for the ongoing internecine clashes between different military and political groups is interference by the external forces, in particular Russia, Egypt and the UAE on the side of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, and Saudi, Algeria, Italy and France on the side of the government in Tripoli, although France at the same time supports Kh. Haftar’s LNA. Qatar and Turkey act against both, Kh. Haftar and F. Sarraj and support the “third force”, represented mainly by the Misurata groups.

Remember that F. Sarraj's government is officially recognized by the UN and the EU. At the recent NATO summit, the Alliance reconfirmed its readiness to participate in the preparation of F. Sarraj's Government of National Accord's armed forces. NATO Secretary General J. Stoltenberg confirmed this also during the meeting with F. Sarraj on 30 May, 2017. Earlier, a similar proposal was made to F. Sarraj by the US AFRICOM Commander, General Thomas Waldhauser.

According to some reports, US President D. Trump suggested that F. Sarraj and Kh. Haftar should conclude a truce and agree on creation of a compromise cabinet of ministers. It is reported that both Libyan leaders were invited in June to Washington to meet with D. Trump. In our opinion, if this meeting takes place, it can be the beginning of a radical change in the situation in Libya in the direction of stabilization, if Washington provides the subsequent large-scale political, military and economic support to Libya. In this case, all of the above-mentioned countries, except Russia, would have to coordinate their actions in Libya with the United States. Russia's positions in Libya would obviously be significantly weakened.

 

EGYPT

Recent attacks on the Egyptian Copts
Recent attacks on the Egyptian Copts

The shooting of the Copts. May 26, in the area of the Coptic monastery of St. Samuel near the village of al-Adwa in the province of al-Minya, 100 kilometers south of Cairo, 10 masked and camouflaged Egyptian servicemen arrived in 3 4-wheel-drive vehicles and shot from guns a bus with 60 children traveling from Beni Suef on an excursion to the said monastery. Almost all the children suffered — 35 were killed and 25 wounded. In the column with the bus there were a minibus and a jeep, in which there were also pilgrims-Copts. The column was heading to the monastery unescorted by Police, so the attackers managed to escape. In recent years, the Copts, accounting for about 10 % of the population of 90 million Egypt, have been subject to armed attacks by Islamists many times. On 9 April, 2016, as a result of the terrorist attacks in churches in Tanta and Alexandria, 47 people were killed and 120 wounded, and in December of the same year, at the divine service in the Coptic Cathedral of Peter and Paul in the center of Cairo, 25 people were killed and 100 injured. According to the Egyptian Police, the attack on the bus with children was a planned action. In the evening of May 26, Egyptian aviation struck six blows at the camps of militants of the terrorist group “Majlis al-Shura of Derna” in Eastern Libya, where, according to Egyptian President A.F. al-Sisi, the militants who shot the bus were trained.

The Clean-up of Derna. According to the Arabic-language edition “Al-Araby Al-Jadeed”, Egypt is preparing an operation to clear Derna from militants linked to Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, the “Majlis al-Shura of Derna”. In this operation, units of the Libyan National Army under the command of Marshal Kh. Haftar will be involved. It is reported that units of Egyptian special forces are currently preparing the Libyan troops for storming Derna. It is expected that the operation will begin in the coming days, and Egyptian aviation will cover the advancing Libyan troops from the air. However, preparations for this operation began in Egypt last year, and, according to some reports, Russian Special Forces servicemen took part in them, from the territory of Egypt conducting reconnaissance of Derna with the help of UAV’s.

According to “Al-Araby Al-Jadeed”, in case of the beginning of the assault on Derna, Egyptian aviation will strike at all the militants without exception, regardless of their belonging to any groups of radical Islamists. According to other sources, Derna is today the most important bulwark of radical Islamists in the East of Libya. Here is one of the centers of smuggling from Africa to Europe, as well as the center of operations for the kidnapping of hostages for ransom. In the opinion of the Russian analyst A. Bystrov, the mere fact of cleaning up Derna, together with the establishment of control over the main objects of the oil infrastructure in Cyrenaica with the help of Marshal Kh. Haftar's army, indicates that Egypt and the UAE have made a principled decision to create an autonomous state, obviously losing the hope to unite “under their patronage” all Libyan territories within the framework of a single country.

Terrorists’ positions (in Derna) relative to Tobruk and Benghazi
Terrorists’ positions (in Derna) relative to Tobruk and Benghazi

In this whole story, surprising is the fact that Marshal Kh. Haftar is “sorting out things” at 1,500 kilometers south of Libya in Fezzan and at 500 kilometers from Tobruk in Benghazi, but so far he has been tolerating “radical Islamists”, so to speak, under his very nose. After all, the distance from Tobruk (Kh. Haftar's citadel on the border with Egypt) to Derna is only about 150 kilometers. All this suggests that Kh. Haftar and members of the House of Representatives in Tobruk pretty peacefully, and maybe mutually beneficially, had been co-existing with the Islamists of Derna until Egypt decided to stir up their “hornets' nest”.

P.S. In the early 80s of the last century, the author of these lines as a military interpreter with a group of Soviet military specialists had several times to visit Tobruk and Derna, which at that time were completely peaceful and safe cities, and their inhabitants — hospitable and friendly. Unfortunately, everything in Libya, like in the whole Arab world, has changed and not for the better...