March 8, 2017

The Middle East and North Africa. Analytical Review 02/2017


Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political Situation in February 2017

In February, the situation in a number of countries of the region was complicated and unstable. Armed conflicts continue in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Egypt. It should be noted that in all these countries the “Islamic State” (ISIS) is losing its positions and conducting defensive battles, moving to guerrilla methods of fighting. In February, two cities, El-Bab and Tadmor (Palmyra), were liberated from the ISIS militants in Syria and the liberation of the city of Raqqa is being prepared. The inter-Syrian peace talks that began on 23 February continued until 4 March, but ended without any positive results. In Iraq, fighting continues for the liberation of Western Mosul from the ISIS militants. In Yemen, there is fighting between the troops loyal to Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In Libya, Marshal Kh. Haftar, with the support of Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and some Western countries, is strengthening his positions and is going to become “the second Gaddafi” with time. Tension remains on the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, where the ISIS militants are missiling Israel's territory.



Armed Hostilities. In February, the government army and armed opposition groups in general observed the cease-fire regime, which, however, does not apply to the formations of the “Islamic State” and “Jabhat al-Nusra.” In early February, government forces continued their offensive on the positions of the ISIS militants in the central province of Homs in the direction of Tadmor (Palmyra), freeing the region of the Khayyan gas field from the ISIS militants. Besides, the Syrian troops conducted an offensive on the ISIS' positions northeast of Aleppo towards the city of El-Bab.

Fierce fighting between the Syrian army and the ISIS fighters continued in the area of Deir ez-Zor in the North-East of Syria. On 4 February, armed formations of the opposition coalition “Forces of Democratic Syria” (SDF), with the massive support of the aviation of the International Coalition led by the United States, launched a “new phase” of the offensive against the city of Raqqa, the Syrian “capital” of the ISIS.

February 17, the leadership of the Kurdish-Arab alliance of the SDF, which, with the support of the International Coalition, launched an offensive against Raqqa, warned that it would not allow the Turkish military to intervene in the course of hostilities. Earlier, the Turkish command stated that after the cleansing of El-Bab, formations of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with the support of the Turkish troops would launch an offensive against Raqqa. Thus, a clash between the FDS units on the one hand and the FSA and Turkish forces on the other is not excluded.

February 9, as a result of a Russian aircraft's attack near the city of El-Bab, three Turkish military servicemen were killed and 11 were injured. On 12 February, the forces of the Syrian opposition, with the support of the Turkish army units, entered the center of El-Bab. Taking this city is of great importance for Turkey in its attempts to sever two enclaves of Syrian Kurds — Afrin and Kobane. However, the capture of the city killed about 70 Turkish military. Turkish President R. Erdogan said that after the occupation of El-Bab, the next task of the Turkish armed forces in Syria would be an offensive against Raqqa, the Syrian “capital” of the ISIS.

Strong battles between government forces and terrorists were conducted west of Palmyra, in the city of Deir ez-Zor and in the province of Latakia. In late February and early March, the Syrian army, with the support of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Russian and American aviation, regained control of the city of Tadmor (Palmyra) and its surrounding areas, causing considerable losses of the ISIS terrorists in manpower and technology. The engineering and demining units began demining explosive devices and mines laid by militants in buildings, in the streets and squares. The establishment of control of the Syrian army over Palmyra helps expand military operations against the ISIS in other areas.

Peaceful Settlement Attempts. February 5, President of Syria B. Assad extended until June 30 the force of the law on amnesty adopted in July 2016 for rebel fighters that surrender. On 8 February, B. Assad announced his readiness for direct talks with all opposition groups, including armed groups, and also made it clear that the Syrian authorities are ready for a dialogue with the Kurds on the political system of the country. B. Assad also did not rule out early presidential elections in Syria.

February 15–16, the second round of negotiations on the Syrian settlement was held in Astana with the participation of the delegations of Turkey, Russia, Iran, Jordan, the United Nations and the United States (at the Ambassador level in Astana), representative of the SAR government B. Al-Jaafari, and nine “pro-Turkish” groupings of the Syrian Armed opposition. The issues of observing the ceasefire in the SAR were discussed. At the meeting in Astana, the provision on a joint monitoring group that would monitor compliance with the ceasefire regime in Syria and promote the development of confidence-building measures between the conflicting parties, was finally adopted.

On 23 February, in Geneva, with the mediation of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Syria S. de Mistura (with whom the author of these lines met in Lebanon in 2000–2001), began the fourth round of negotiations between representatives of the official Damascus and the opposition on the settlement of the Syrian conflict. The opposition is represented in Geneva by the “Er-Riyadh”, “Moscow”, “Turkish” and “Cairo” groups. At Turkey's insistence, representatives of Syrian Kurds were not invited to the talks.

The agenda of the talks included formation of a new Syrian government, drafting a constitution and holding elections on its basis. The stumbling block was the question of adding to these three points one more issue — a struggle against terrorism. The delegation of the government of Syria insisted on this. At the very beginning of the talks, there were fundamental disagreements on a number of issues between the delegation of the Government of the SAR and the opposition's Supreme Commission for Negotiations (SCN, the “Er-Riyadh group”), which insists on President of the Syrian Arab Republic B. Assad's immediate resignation. The “Cairo” and “Moscow” groups occupy more moderate positions on the transfer of power.

The delegation of Damascus said that it would only discuss the struggle against terrorism and was ready to conduct direct negotiations only with a single opposition delegation that would condemn terrorism. The delegations of the government and the SCN made sharp accusations. Representatives of the SCN repeatedly accused the government forces of the SAR of violating the ceasefire. In the ranks of the SCN, the contradictions between the moderate wing willing to negotiate and the more radical representatives of the delegation have once again become more acute. The opposition demands that Russia exert pressure on B. Assad and be the guarantor of the process of transferring power in Syria.

On 4 March, the fourth round of the inter-Syrian talks in Geneva ended in vain. According to S. de Mistura, “some progress has been made towards the creation of a unified delegation from the opposition”. He also believes that at this stage of resolving the Syrian crisis, it is preferable to negotiate through an intermediary. The fifth round of inter-Syrian talks is planned to be held at the end of March. Before the new round in Geneva, there will be another meeting in Astana, where the issue of securing a truce in Syria will again be discussed.

Security Zones. Referring to US President D. Trump's proposal on creation of security zones in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov has pointed out that all this requires “practical coordination of details and the very principle of creating such territories, with the government of the SAR included”. President B. Assad has said that the government of the SAR is against creation of security zones on the territory of the country. According to him, the government of Syria could agree to the presence of US troops on its territory in order to fight the ISIS if “Washington honestly and sincerely builds its relations with Damascus”.

Military Cooperation. February 21, in response to Russian Defense Minister S. Shoigu's proposal to cooperate in conducting operations against terrorists in Syria, Pentagon's Spokesman Michelle Baldanza stated that military cooperation between the USA and Russia was terminated by the National Defense Authorization Act, adopted by the US Congress after Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea. According to the US Special Presidential Envoy for interaction with other countries in the fight against ISIS B. McGurk, the administration of D. Trump does not yet see an opportunity for cooperation with Russia in Syria.

February 17, at the Air Force Base of Turkey, Injirlik, there were negotiations between the Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, General H. Akar, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, General J. Dunford. Upon their completion, it was reported that the parties are coming out with a unified position in the fight against terrorism in Syria and Iraq. Turkey proposed to deploy a limited contingent of US special forces in Syria to support the “moderate opposition”'s formations. The CIA suspended the implementation of the support program for militants of the pro-Turkish FSA. It is alleged that such a decision was made under the former administration of B. Obama.

February 25, the head of the US Central Command Joseph Votel visited the Kurdish leadership in Kobane in northern Syria to discuss the final stage of the operation for the liberation of Raqqa. The General's visit took place a few days after Republican Senator John McCain visited Kobane to discuss the USA's strategy and plans in the war with the ISIS. All this testifies to the strengthening of the partnership between the United States and the Syrian Kurds, which invariably causes irritation in Ankara.

The Pentagon's Plans. In accordance with US President D. Trump's order, the Pentagon has provided him with several scenarios for the actions of the US special forces against the ISIS fighters in Syria. The main tasks of the operation under any scenario are their expulsion from the cities of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. The attack on Raqqa poses the following dilemma for the Pentagon: if acting together with the Turkish troops, it would be necessary to abandon the interaction with the Syrian Kurds, which would lead to complications in relations with them. With the option of interaction with Turkey, Ankara insists on using special forces from Saudi and Qatar, but this would be unacceptable for Moscow, Tehran and Damascus. If the Pentagon decides to attack Raqqa independently in cooperation with its NATO allies and the Kurds, then this is fraught with a serious complication of relations with Ankara.

The Russian Factor. In February, TU-95MS strategic bombers of the RF VKS inflicted several strikes with cruise missiles X-101 on ISIS' facilities near the city of Raqqa. Russian planes and helicopters also used the latest anti-tank guided missiles “Vikhr”. February 14, the battalions of the military police were rotated as part of the Russian grouping in Syria. The battalion from Chechnya was replaced by a battalion from Ingushetia. In the province of Damascus in the mountains of Kalamun is functioning Russian training center for the preparation of ground and engineering units of the Syrian army. On 22 February, Russian Defense Minister S. Shoigu said that in Syria, up to 90 % of the pilots of the Air Force and army aviation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation received combat experience. In combat conditions, 162 samples of the latest weapons were tested. According to official figures, during the military operations of the Russian military group in Syria from October 2015 to February 2017, 27 Russian servicemen were killed.



Armed Hostilities. February 19, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the beginning of an offensive against the positions of the ISIS militants in Western Mosul. It is reported that in the offensive are engaged the rapid reaction forces of Iraq, federal police units, the 9th Armoured Division, as well as pro-Iranian Shiite formations, Kurdish detachments of Peshmerga and US special forces. They are moving to the borders of the western part of the city from the South and from the South-West. Ground units are supported by artillery and aircraft of the Iraqi Armed Forces and the International Coalition led by the United States.

The American special forces are directly involved in the fighting in Mosul. Their command informs the Pentagon that forcing an offensive in Mosul would result in large losses among Iraqi military personnel and civilians. The Americans also report regular cases of extrajudicial killings against the local Sunni population in the liberated eastern part of Mosul, which Kurds and Iraqi police are committing.

The eastern part of the city was liberated at the end of January. At least 750,000 people live in Western Mosul. In October 2016, the Commander of the Coalition Forces in Iraq, American General Steven Townsend predicted that the entire Mosul would be liberated within a few weeks, a maximum of two months. Now he talks about six months. According to US intelligence, the number of ISIS militants in Western Mosul is only about 2 thousand people. A large part of the ISIS militants went with the refugees and dispersed in the villages of the Sunni provinces of Nineveh and Anbar with the goal of further guerrilla warfare.

At the end of February, the government troops of Iraq, with the support of the International Coalition's aviation, freed the Mosul airport from terrorists, and also entered the city quarters from the South. The fighting is fierce, Iraqi forces are advancing slowly. The ISIS militants show stubborn resistance, actively using mined cars and drones. According to the United Nations Mission in Iraq, in February, as a result of acts of violence, terrorism and clashes in the course of the conflict, about 400 civilians were killed in Iraq and about 600 others were injured.


The situation is complicated by the fact that a significant part of the city's population sympathizes with the ISIS and informs the militants about everything that the advancing Iraqi troops are undertaking. There are reports on the massive use of UAVs and quadrocopters by both sides, at this, the ISIS fighters have learned how to use drones to bomb the government troops. Both sides are actively conducting an information war, regularly posting on their resources victorious communications.

Supreme Leader of the Caliphate of the ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi published a statement in which he acknowledged the defeat of the group in Iraq, urged his Iraqi supporters to hide and advised non-Arab jihadists to return to their countries. Many ISIS fighters, taking advantage of the leader's advice, are fleeing towards areas controlled by an Islamist group in neighboring Syria.

Military Cooperation. February 2, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with US Ambassador Douglas Silliman and Commander of the Coalition Forces, General Stephen Townsend. During the meeting, the situation in the area of Mosul and in the whole country was discussed. Ambassador D. Silliman assured the Iraqi Prime Minister that the administration of President D. Trump would continue to provide Iraq with “strong and constant support”. February 22, the head of the Pentagon, J. Mattis, held talks in Baghdad, during which he discussed with the Iraqi military command a military operation to free Mosul from the ISIS militants. J. Mattis assured the Iraqi leadership that the USA would continue long-term cooperation with Iraq and would assist in the reconstruction of this country after its liberation from the terrorists of the ISIS. It should be noted that in 2004 J. Mattis led the operation in Iraq to suppress the Sunni resistance in El Fallujah. Now he believes that the US military invasion of Iraq was a mistake.

At the insistence of the Americans, a senior officer of S. Hussein's Army, Sunnite Arfan al-Hayali was appointed recently by the new Iraqi Defense Minister, instead of the accused of corruption Khaled al-Obeidi. The main task of the new Defense Minister is not so much strengthening of the combat capabilities of the Iraqi armed forces proper, as talking the leaders of the Sunni tribes of the provinces of Nineveh and Anbar into giving up the support for the “Islamic State”.



Armed Hostilities. On 10 February, the troops loyal to the President of Yemen Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, with the support of the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, established control over the port of Mocha on the Red Sea, having forced out the Shiite rebel — Houthis formations. In the fierce battles for this port, which lasted from January, both sides suffered heavy losses. February 22, on the outskirts of the town of Mocha, as a result of the missile fire of Shiite rebels, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the government troops of Yemen, General Ahmed Seif al-Yafi, and seven senior officers were killed. February 26, government forces in Yemen, with the support of the Arab Coalition's aircraft, launched an operation to regain control of the province of Al Hudaydah in the West of the country.

According to Al-Masdar News, on 6 February, supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh missiled the Mazahimiya military base west of Riyadh. (The “Burkan-2” ballistic ground-to-ground missile is a modification of the old Soviet “Skad”, modernized with the help of Iranian specialists). A volley of missiles was held exactly when Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman was meeting in Riyadh with Yemeni President Mansour Hadi.

This is not the first Shiite insurgents — Houthis' missile strike on the territory of Saudi Arabia. According to some sources, Saudi Arabia has appealed for help to... Israel with the request to install the well-proven Israeli missile defense complex “Iron Dome” instead of the not very effective American missile defense complex “Patriot”. Apart from “Burkan-2” missiles, Iran supplies Houthis with UAVs, anti-tank weapons, and strike boats.

February 8, Yemen withdrew from the USA the permission to conduct ground-based special operations in the country against terrorist groups. This decision was made after the January 29's large-scale operation of the American special forces in the province of Al-Baida, which killed 16 civilians and 40 militants. Attacks of unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as American military advisers providing intelligence support to Yemen and the forces of the Arabian Coalition do not fall under the Yemeni authorities' prohibition.

Humanitarian Disaster. According to the Yemen Center for Human Rights and Development, since the spring of 2015, more than 10,000 civilians have been killed in the country, including almost 2,400 children and about 2,000 women. During the same period, 18.5 thousand Yemenis have been injured. According to the UN Secretary General A. Guterres, a humanitarian catastrophe threatens the population of Yemen if next month does the necessary funds are not provided to purchase food for this country. According to the UN, 2.1 billion US dollars is needed to supply with food 12 million people (almost half of the country's population) in Yemen who are threatened by hunger after two years of war. Until now, once every two months, the UN has been delivering food rations to 3–4 million Yemenis, and this allowed to save Yemen from famine.



Marshal Kh. Haftar's Factor. Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who about a year ago did not enjoy the support of the United States and most of the EU countries, is now, perhaps, the main contender for leadership in Libya. While earlier, Brussels and Washington sought to interact with the Islamists of Tripoli and Misurata, then after Kh. Haftar's troops with the help of the French special forces established control over Benghazi with its oil terminals and deposits of the entire “Libyan Oil Crescent”, they increasingly support Marshal Kh. Haftar, which makes him the main contender for becoming one day “a second Gaddafi”. However, this does not mean that Kh. Haftar is a supporter of M. Gaddafi. He broke up with Gaddafi's regime in 1987, when Libya lost in the war with Chad, in which he took part. Then Kh. Haftar was captured prisoner of war, but managed to escape with the help of the CIA. Then he settled in the USA, in Vienna, Virginia, where he had lived for 20 years.

On 6 February, the EU Council for International Affairs, during its meeting in Malta, decided to lift all restrictions on contacts between the EU countries and its bodies with the government in Tobruk and personally with Marshal Kh. Haftar. It should be noted that this decision of the EU Foreign Ministers was made after the head of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli F. Sarraj's unsuccessful visit to Brussels (February 1–3), where he failed to prove to the leadership of the EU and NATO his ability to control the situation in the country, to effectively counteract illegal migration and Islamists. In addition, it seems that Brussels realized that further ignoring Kh. Haftar weakens the EU's position on the Libyan issue against the backdrop of increased support to the Libyan Marshal from Moscow, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Paris and Washington.

February 15, the head of the Libyan Government of National Unity, F. Sarraj, and the Commander of the LNA, Kh. Haftar, agreed to hold parliamentary and presidential elections no later than 2018. Negotiations of the warring sides took place within two days with the mediation of Egypt. Besides, the parties agreed on the establishing a joint commission for the development of legislative acts, on the necessary amendments to the constitutional declaration.

Overcoming the Embargo. Currently, Kh. Haftar's representatives in Moscow are negotiating the purchase of Russian arms worth about 1.5 billion Euros (combat aircraft, tanks, air defense systems) after the lifting of the UN embargo. They are also considering the possibility of the Russian Federation's getting a naval base in Libya in Tobruk. (In 1980, the author of these lines had to work as a military interpreter in a group of Soviet military specialists at the construction of the naval base of the Libyan Navy in Tobruk). Most likely, it is hardly a question of a full naval base. Due to a lack of financial resources, Russia can confine itself to places for anchorage, repair of ships and replenishment of supplies.

January 26, the Italian La Stampa reported that Russia allegedly agreed with Kh. Haftar to supply arms with participation of Algeria to circumvent the UN's arms embargo on arms sales to Libya. However, Russia can supply military equipment, violating the embargo regime, through Egypt as well, which was done when Russia delivered three MI-8T transport helicopters and several MiG-21MFs via Egypt to Tobruk.

The embargo also did not stop the UAE from purchasing four Mi-24Ps in Belarus in 2014 and handing them over to the Libyan forces in Tobruk in April 2015. The UAE is actively expanding its military presence in Libya, in particular, at the Al-Qadim Air Force Base, which has become the main base for the deployment of the Emirates' aviation and the Libyan Air Force. This will allow Kh. Haftar to confidently control the zone of the “oil crescent” and to continue his expansion to the South in the fight against the “Misuratists”. If successful, the government in Tobruk will actually monopolize the export of oil and will concentrate in its hands the main financial flows.



The Situation in Sinai. In February, the situation in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt remained tense. Under the pressure from the Islamists, Egypt is losing control over the Peninsula. February 8, the ISIS gunmen fired seven missiles from Sinai against the Israeli city of Eilat, located on the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. Three of these missiles were intercepted by the Israeli missile defense system “Iron Dome”. Four other missiles exploded outside the city boundaries. It is reported that as a result of the attack no one was hurt. The ISIS' missile attacks on Israeli territory were condemned by the UN. February 12, south of the city of El-Arish, Egyptian servicemen destroyed five members of a terrorist group. February 17, five Egyptian soldiers were killed in the blast of a land mine in the North of the Sinai Peninsula and two were injured. The explosive device detonated on the road along which the army BTR was moving.

In recent years, the Sinai Peninsula from a kind of buffer zone between Israel and Egypt has turned into a hotbed of instability. According to the agreement signed in 1979 between Egypt and Israel, the Egyptian military presence in the Eastern part of the Peninsula is prohibited. The order in this area of the Peninsula is monitored by an international military contingent, consisting of representatives of 12 countries. The most problematic area today is the zone in the Northern Sinai, around the cities of Er-Arish, Rafah and Sheikh-Zuveid on the border with Israel, which the Egyptian authorities practically do not control. This part of the Peninsula is inhabited by Egyptian Bedouins, among whom the most active are pro-Palestinian groups, whose main activity is smuggling goods, weapons and ammunition into the Gaza Strip through tunnels dug under the border. To a large extent, these groups are under the influence of the radical ideology of the Palestinian organization Hamas.

In the North-Eastern part of the Peninsula, Salafi jihadist groups are also based, professing the ideology of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The most active among them are the Islamic groups of the Muslim Brotherhood, Vilayat Sinai, the Council of the Mujahideen of Jerusalem, and the Network of Mohammed Jamal. Members of these groups still cannot accept the removal of Mohammed Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, from the post of Egyptian President on July 3, 2013 during a military coup led by former Defense Minister and current Egyptian President Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.