February 14, 2017

The Middle East. Analytical Review 01/2017

Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political Situation in January 2017

 

The most important military and political events in the region in January 2017 were observed in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. In Syria, the ceasefire agreement of 30 December 2016 was mainly observed. In Iraq, the government forces began the second phase of the operation to free the city of Mosul from the Islamic State's militants. In Yemen, the United Arab Emirates' troops and their South Yemeni allies seized the port of Mocha on the shores of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. In Libya, there is another round of the civil war, internecine armed “struggle of all against all”.

SYRIA

Peaceful Settlement Attempts. December 29, 2016, with Russia, Turkey and Iran's mediation, the Syrian government and a part of the armed opposition signed an agreement on a cease-fire in Syria. The Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran pledged to monitor and ensure the peaceful settlement in Syria. The cease-fire in the SAR came into force on 30 December 2016. The truce does not extend to the ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist armed groups. The agreement states “armed groups, which do not stop fighting, go to the category of terrorism.”

In mid-January in Astana there continued intensive preparations for negotiations on Syria. The Syrian Government having agreed on the US' participation in the talks was categorically against Saudi Arabia and Qatar's participation in it. January 19, President of the SAR B. Assad said that the talks in Astana would allow factions of the armed opposition “to join the process of national reconciliation in Syria”, but for that purpose the members of armed groups “should lay down their arms and get the government's amnesty”. January 20, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey M. Simsek said that the conflict in Syria could not be resolved without President B. Assad, though according to him “Ankara does not remove from Assad the responsibility for the war in Syria and the continuing deaths of hundreds of thousands of people”. 23-24 January, in Astana there were the first talks between the SAR's government and the Syrian armed opposition. (Detailed information on the negotiations in Astana is in the article “Syria Negotiations in Astana and Moscow: the Old Prescriptions Written Differently?” — http://bintel.com.ua/en/article/01-31-astana/).

Armed Hostilities. In January, the epicenter of the fighting was in the central province of Homs near the T-4 Air Base, where fierce fighting against the ISIS units continued. To the North-East of Aleppo, the Turkish troops and the forces of the Syrian armed opposition waged fierce battles with ISIS' militants in Al-Bab. The Western Coalition's Aviation sharply intensified air strikes on ISIS' militants in the North-East of Syria, particularly near Raqqa. January 21, Pentagon's Spokesman said that as a result of an air strike by US aircraft on militant training camp in the province of Idlib, 100 jihadists associated with Al-Qaeda were killed.

In January, Russian VKS planes struck targets of ISIS' groups and Jabhat al Nusra in the provinces of Homs and Aleppo. On 21, 23, 24 and 25 January, six Russian bombers Tu-22M3 coming from the territory of the Russian Federation and having flown over Iran and Iraq, attacked terrorist targets in the province of Deir ez-Zor.

In the second half of January, Russia's VKS and Turkey's Air Force began the first joint air operation against the ISIS' militants in the suburbs of the city of Al-Bab near the border with Turkey, where the Turkish Army fought heavily militants of ISIS. At the same time, the Syrian Air Force planes for a week had been striking at terrorists' targets in the provinces of Aleppo, Damascus, Deir ez-Zor, Hama and Homs.

January 6, the Russian Northern Fleet’s aircraft carrier “Admiral Kuznetsov” and a group of support after the loss of two MiG-29KR and Su-33 fighters was ordered by the General Staff of the RF Armed Forces to return to the home base in Severomorsk.

In the second half of January, the most difficult situation was in the North-East of the country near the city of Deir ez-Zor, where the ISIS' militants continuously attacked the positions of Syrian troops. January 4, in the administrative center of the province of Deir ez-Zor, the ISIS' formations launched a massive assault on the positions of government forces. By January 16, the militants of ISIS isolated the besieged air base from other quarters of the provincial center, held by the Syrian military. January 8, in the East of the province of Deir ez-Zor, the government forces launched an offensive from the area of ​​the Kuweires Air Base in the direction of the cities of Al-Bab and Dayr Hafir, however, their progress was slowed down by terrorists' numerous counterattacks.

On 26 and 27 January, formations of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), together with Turkish troops fought fierce battles for the city of Al-Bab. During the operation, 50 Turkish soldiers were killed. January 24, in the West of the province of Raqqa, during the renewed offensive, the Kurdish "Syrian Democratic Forces" (SDF)'s formations took by storm the town of Al-Sayede al-Kabir. The ISIS's formations lost 110 people in killed and wounded.

Security Zones. January 25, US President D. Trump announced his intention to create security zones in Syria to protect civilians and prevent the use of those areas by insurgents or terrorist groups. Besides, in these zones Syrian refugees could wait for repatriation or resettlement into third countries. At this, it is not excluded that these security zones will at the same time be no-fly zones. Given that the Kremlin is strongly opposed to the creation of such zones, seeing them as illegal occupation of Syria, D. Trump's initiative can be considered as an element of the USA's confrontation with Russia. Former Chief of Staff of the US Army Martin Dempsey already in 2013 estimated the cost of creating a no-fly zone in Syria at 1 billion US dollars a month. Obviously, creation of security zones will be not much cheaper. The plan for creation of security zones must be prepared by the Pentagon within 90 days from the date of D. Trump's signing the order.

Turkey, which from the very beginning of the Syrian crisis kept calling for the establishment of security zones, and which began to create such a zone along the Turkish-Syrian border in August 2016, welcomed D. Trump's initiative. So, Washington and Ankara intend to act in Syria contrary to Moscow's plans, which greatly reduces the chances of Russia's cooperation with the United States and Turkey in Syria.

Military Cooperation. January 12, representatives of the Russian Federation's VKS and Turkey's Air Force signed a memorandum on the prevention of incidents and ensuring safety of flights during operations in Syria. January 18, the Russian Armed Forces' General Staff announced the launch of the first joint air operation of the Russian VKS and Turkish Air Force near the village of Al-Bab in the North-East of the province of Aleppo. According to the General Staff of the Russian Federation, the operation has been coordinated with the Syrian side. Russian and 8 Turkish attack aircraft participated in it.

January 18, Russia and Syria signed an agreement to expand the territory of the Russian Navy's logistics centre in the Syrian port of Tartus for 49 years, with possible extension to another 25 years. According to the document, in the naval facility at the same time have the right to be up to 11 Russian warships, including nuclear submarines. The Tartus Naval facility is transferred into Russia's free use and on the condition of immunity from the jurisdiction of Syria. A similar agreement was signed by Russia and Syria to deploy the Russian air group of VKS at Khmeymim airport.

IRAQ

Armed Hostilities. December 29, 2016, units of the Armed Forces of Iraq began the second phase of the offensive on Mosul from the North, East and South with a view to its liberation from the ISIS' militants. As of January 14, about 90 % of the eastern part of Mosul were freed from the ISIS' militants. According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iraq I. Al-Jaafari, Iraq's Armed Forces freed from the ISIS' terrorists most of Mosul and its surroundings — 40 districts out of 56. In late January, the government forces of Iraq completely squeezed the ISIS' militants out of the Eastern part of Mosul and began preparations for freeing from terrorists the Western part of the city.

At the end of December 2016, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that within three months the Iraqi Army would crush the formations of the Islamic State terrorist group. But unlike the Iraqi leadership, the Commander of the stationed in Iraq 1st Infantry Division of the US Army, Major-General Joseph Martin has stated that, taking into consideration the complexity of fighting in the city with a half million inhabitants, he does not know so far how much time it will take to liberate Mosul from the ISIS' militants.

Aviation of the International Coalition, led by the United States continued to strike mainly on militants' manpower, their training camps, artillery positions, command posts, logistic and infrastructure facilities. All in all, from August 8, 2014 to December 31, 2016, the US Air Force and their allies had made 9755 attacks on the positions and locations of the ISIS' militants in Iraq. Earlier, the US Air Force destroyed the spans of all the five bridges on the Tigris River between the Eastern and Western parts of Mosul in order to prevent the ISIS' militants' maneuvering forces and means, as well as the transfer of reinforcements. One span of each bridge was destroyed, in order to eventually ensure their rapid restoration.

According to Pentagon Spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, “the ISIS' militants continue to show signs of demoralization and loss of morale, many of them are not paid for months”. According to him, in the East of Mosul the number of extremists not obeying the ringleaders and leaving their positions has grown. In Mosul, the ISIS' militants are surrounded on all sides by superior forces. The US-led international antiterrorist coalition continues airstrikes on their positions. The ISIS' militants are not able to receive support or to replenish supplies.

Individual units of the ISIS' militants continue to operate in different areas of the Anbar province, where the Iraqi aviation strikes, though not always successfully. Thus, the statement of the Provincial Council of the Anbar province reported, “the Army aviation mistakenly struck the market town of Al-Qaim, killing 130 and injuring 100 people.”

International Contacts. January 7, Prime Minister of Turkey B. Yildirim arrived in Iraq on an official visit. Following the visit, an agreement was reached on the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the military base in Ba`shiqah area near Mosul. December 8, B. Yildirim held talks in Erbil with the President of the Iraqi Kurdish Autonomy M. Barzani.

According to some information, the leaders of the Iraqi Shiite militia “Al Hashd Al Shaabi” visited the province of Hasakah in North-Eastern Syria for talks with Syrian officials on the issue of the deployment of militia forces in Syria “in order to strengthen the Armed Forces of the Syrian regime in their struggle against ISIS.” It was also reported that about 2000 Iraqi militias had arrived in Syria. Earlier, Commander of the militia H. Amiri announced about having received a request from the President of Syria B. Assad for the Shiite militias' joining the Syrian Army after the liberation of Mosul.

Iraq the USA. January 25, Iraqi President Fuad Masum called on US President D. Trump to extend the cooperation between Iraq and the United States within the framework of the strategic partnership agreement in force since the days of President George W. Bush and supported by President Barack Obama's Administration. At the same time, in Baghdad, Washington is constantly criticized. Thus, according to the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, it is the United States, supporting Kurdish separatism, who “gave the destructive impulse” to the unity of the country. Pointing out the USA's positive contribution to the elimination of the previous dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, H. al-Abadi at the same time reminded that as a result of the USA and its allies' actions, Iraq suffered material losses: the armed forces of the country were destroyed, all its infrastructure was damaged, hundreds of thousands of people were killed and injured. According to the Premier, all this should be subject to “the most thorough investigation” and possibly give rise to reclaiming compensation from the United States. However, H. al-Abadi praised highly the “International Coalition's led by the United States great contribution into the struggle against the ISIS and ensuring the combat readiness of the Iraqi Armed Forces.”

Nevertheless, political cooperation and mutual understanding between Baghdad and Washington keeps getting more and more complicated. Many leading Iraqi political forces accuse the USA that they have contributed to the formation of the ISIS. At the same time, without the USA's political, military and economic support, Iraq's current regime could not last. Thus, in January 2017, the United States once again became the guarantor of new external loans to Baghdad for 1 billion US dollars.

Obviously, the further state of the US-Iraqi relations will largely be determined by how effective would be the United States' help in the liberation of the remaining under the control of the ISIS Western part of Mosul. It must be assumed that in the next 2-3 months the new US Administration will reconsider the old scheme of cooperation between Washington and Baghdad and will offer long-overdue new approaches and forms of cooperation.

YEMEN

Armed Hostilities. January 7, the UAE's troops and their South-Yemeni allies launched an offensive on Zabab to capture the small but key port of Mocha on the banks of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Weapons and ammunition for the rebels-Houthis from Somalia and Eritrea are mainly moved through this port. This is the first independent operation of the troops from the United Arab Emirates without participation of Saudi troops. The aim of this operation is to free from the Houthis the coast of the Red Sea, including the port of Al Hudaydah on the Red Sea and the road from the west to the country's capital city of Sana.

Just a few days before the operation, the UAE's Air Force had carried out several raids on Houthis' positions in the area, trying to destroy their defensive infrastructure. Despite the triumphant statements from Abu Dhabi, the operation seems to have failed. In the first two days of fighting, the Emirati troops lost 15 tanks and armored vehicles, and about a hundred military servicemen were killed. South Yemeni militia also suffered heavy losses.

In our opinion, today Abu Dhabi's main task in Yemen is to establish control over the Yemeni coast in the area of ​​Bab-el-Mandeb Strait for navigation through the Strait, and to divide the country while maintaining its control over the South. It seems that taking Sana in the North of the country is being postponed by the Command of the UAE Armed Forces for later.

In mid-January there began the second phase of the offensive of the UAE's Armed Forces and South Yemeni Army on the port of Mocha. Despite the superiority of the attacking in firepower and heavy military equipment, President A. M. Hadi's supporters moved slowly because of the Houthis' extensive system of underground tunnels where they are maneuvering and hiding from shelling. However, on 23 January, Yemen's government reported that the troops loyal to President A. M. Hadi liberated the port city of Mocha from formations of Houthis rebels. However, fierce fighting in Mocha between government forces and the Houthis continues. The capture of port of Mocha allows to lead an offensive on a larger port of the country — Al Hudaydah.

In mid-January in the area of ​​the village of Al-Nahda a large group of the Republican Guard, loyal to the former President of Yemen A. Saleh, surrendered. On the other hand, among the close associates and supporters of A. Saleh, recently have been exposed several conspirators and traitors, bribed, according to some sources, by the Saudi intelligence services.

The circle around Sana is gradually shrinking, but further progress is slowed down because further the United Arab Emirates' troops and their Yemeni allies will have to go along narrow and dangerous mountain roads that are well exposed to fire. According to data from Saudi sources, due to the sharp deterioration of the situation of its allies-Houthis, Iran is allegedly preparing transfer to Yemen of units of the Iraqi Shiite militias “Popular Mobilization Forces”. However, this transfer, in our view, would be very difficult because of the Arabian Coalition Forces' control of land and sea borders. On the other hand, the transfer of the Shiite militias from Iraq could happen no earlier than after the liberation of Mosul. And this is likely to happen not very soon.

The US Special Task Forces' Actions. January 14, during the US aircraft attack was killed Abdel-Ghani Razas, who led Al-Qaeda's militants in the region. January 29, the US Special Task Forces attacked the headquarters of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. According to the Pentagon, as a result of the operation, one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Abdel Raouf al-Dhahab, his two brothers and 14 militants were killed. During the operation, agreed upon by President D. Trump, one special operations soldier was killed and three were wounded. During the evacuation of the American Special Forces Group, a tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey of the US Special Operation Forces was severely damaged, and thus could not return to the base. This is the first operation of special units of the US Army in Yemen since 2014. US President D. Trump arrived at the air base to meet the plane with the body of the deceased in Yemen, the US military serviceman William Owens.

At the end of January, the USS Cole destroyer arrived at the coasts of Yemen to protect the sea routes from the Houthis against the background of the increased tensions with Iran. The destroyer will escort vessels in the waters of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in the South-West of Yemen.

Peaceful Settlement Attempts. January 9, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, arrived in Riyadh to discuss with the Saudi and Yemeni officials the plan to resolve the conflict. The “Road Map” was drawn up with the participation of representatives of the USA, UK, KSA, UAE and the United Nations. The plan commits Houthis rebels to leave the occupied by them villages and to lay down their arms, and then the political process will start. However, there is serious doubt that Houthis will lay down the arms and leave Sana. During the six years of war, the rebels have never suffered major defeats, so they do not see the need to surrender.

LIBYA

Fayez al-Sarra and Khalifa HaftarDuality of Power. Libya's greatest political problem is the duality of power with the centers of power in the East — in Tobruk and in the West — in Tripoli. In Tobruk there is the House of Representatives — the highest legislative body of Libya, elected June 25, 2014. President of the House is Aguila Saleh Issa el-Obeidi. In August 2015, representatives of Islamist parties lost the election to the House of Representatives, formed a parallel legislative body called the New General National Congress, led by Nouri Abusahmain. Since December 2015, in Tripoli there is the Government of National Accord — a legitimate interim government of Libya, enjoying the support of the UN Security Council and the international community. The head of the government is Fayez al-Sarraj. Besides, in Tripoli there acts Presidential Council, a collective body of 9 members, with the authority of the President. Chairman of the Presidential Council is Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. In February 2015, the House of Representatives appointed Khalifa Haftar Supreme Commander of the Libyan National Army and in September 2016 promoted him Field Marshall.

Armed Hostilities. In early 2017 combat actions between the forces of Marshal Kh. Haftar and the militia of the city of Misrata intensified, although in late 2016 they negotiated on cooperation and even discussed plans for joint actions against the “Tripoli Islamists”. The parties were also developing the plans for their joint participation in the Government of National Accord and were dividing ministerial portfolios.

The idea of an alliance with Kh. Haftar and the House of Representatives in Tobruk was supported by influential field commanders from Misrata. However, a compromise has never been reached, and January 3, Kh. Haftar's combat aviation was already bombing Misrata's transport planes at the Jufrah military air base. The reason for the feud was the question of control over the city of Sabha — the administrative center of the southern region of Fezzan, which, in turn, allows to control the local oil fields. At the same time, fighting broke out between Kh. Haftar's and Misrata's forces for the Tamnhini military airfield 30 kilometers off Sabha.

These clashes show that Libya is beginning another round of civil war, internecine-armed “struggle of all against all”. Tripoli is fighting against Marshal Kh. Haftar; Misrata — against the ISIS and Kh. Haftar's forces; Kh. Haftar is fighting against all of these plus Benghazi and Tuaregs. In this situation, the attempts to create a single government of representatives of three provinces — Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan, which would represent Libya as a subject of international law — are doomed to failure.

It seems that a compromise between the clans of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan will not be achieved in the near future. In this situation, a dilemma arises — to divide Libya into three parts, or to return to the military dictatorship that existed under Gaddafi. The role of the dictator today is claimed by Marshal Kh. Haftar, supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France, Italy and Russia. In this situation, the question to Western leaders arises: why did you removed Gaddafi's regime in Libya, which used to ensure the highest level of life of the people in Africa? Only to create a new dictatorship on the ruins of Libya?

Kh. Haftar's armed forces are the only ones in Libya that have at their disposal a combat aviation, served mainly by foreigners. In Belarus for the UAE money through shell companies were purchased several Mi-8 helicopters and Su-27 planes. The crews of the squadron of aircrafts Air Tractor AT-802, equipped with air to surface missiles, consist of retired US pilots. This squadron, as well as some Wing Loong drones of Chinese make and Blackhawk attack helicopters are stationed at the air base of Al-Khadim in the province of Al-Marj. The base is commanded by the former head of a private US company Blackwater, Erik Prince. Recently, the US Department of Justice started an investigation against E. Prince, accusing him of selling weapons to the Libyan groupings in violation of the UN embargo. CIA is also investigating E. Prince's ties to the Chinese secret services in joint operations in Africa.

Political Settlement Attempts. January 21, in Cairo there was a next (tenth) meeting of Foreign Ministers of Libya's neighboring countries. The final communiqué points out the “importance of preserving the unity and sovereignty of Libya, lawful state institutions, not interfering in its internal affairs,” points to the need for “a comprehensive political dialogue between the opposing sides, which is the only way to find a way out of the crisis.” The participants of the meeting expressed support for the Presidential Council and the Government of the National Accord, headed by F. al-Sarraj. The meeting in Cairo was attended by the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Chad, Niger and Libya. The meeting was also attended by special representatives of the United Nations and the African Union for Libya M. Kobler and J. Kikwete, as well as the Secretary General of the Arab League A. A Gheit.

As for the inter-Libyan negotiations to resolve the crisis in the country, it should be noted that the Prime Minister of the Government of the National Accord F. al-Sarraj on 25 January 2017 said that he was ready to negotiate with Kh. Haftar and the House of Representatives in Tobruk. He also expressed his willingness, together with the Commander of the Libyan National Army Kh. Haftar to seek ways to resolve the crisis in the country. According to F. al-Sarraj, in the near future in Cairo there will be their meeting with the assistance of the Egyptian authorities. The supervision of the negotiations between the Libyan government in Tripoli and Tobruk has been taken over by Tunisia and Algeria, having pushed away the UN Special Representative M. Kobler, who opposes the talks between the authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk.

The Russian Factor. January 11, Russian Defence Minister S. Shoigu during a video conference with the Commander of the Libyan National Army Marshal Kh. Haftar discussed the struggle against terrorism in the Middle East. The conversation took place during Kh. Haftar's visiting the Russian aircraft carrier “Admiral Kuznetsov”, which entered the territorial waters of Libya near Tobruk. Demonstrating its support for Marshal Kh. Haftar, Moscow obviously intends to be directly involved in the Libyan settlement, as evidenced by this man's active negotiations with the Russian Federation. In 2016, he had visited Moscow three times (in June, November and December) and met with Russian Defence Minister S. Shoigu, Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov and Secretary of the Russian Security Council N. Patrushev. It seems that in Moscow, as well as in the West, Kh. Haftar is seen as “new Gaddafi”. But the problem is that Captain Gaddafi came to power at the age of 27, while Marshal Kh. Haftar is already 73...