MAS Special ReportLEVANT: Middle East and North Africa

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2019 Retrospective- Middle East and North of Africa (MENA)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

Sursă foto: Mediafax

At the end of 2018, seven years after the historical changes which have vanished the old order in the Middle East and North Africa, the states in the region are still facing serious political, security and economic issues. The tensions breaches between states and political/military actors from the region are still in place, including substantial military demands. In most of the countries which have experienced a transition, the situation got even worse: an extended civil war and a humanitarian crisis in Syria, a divided Yemen hosting a confrontation as proxy for Saudi Arabia and Iran, the breach of human’s rights in Egypt, the pending challenges for the transition in Tunis etc. North of Africa continued to face many protests episodes provoked by social complaints, especially in Tunisia. The stabilization in Libya has started to make some steps forwards. In Algeria, the public opinion was directed towards the 2019 elections in regime’s attempts to inflict Abdelaziz Bouteflika for his fifth presidential mandate.

By the option for a long-term strategic partnership with Moscow, Syria has assumed a political, economic, military and even educational authoritative model, which follows the same direction that Havez Al-Assad has started. 2018 marked the intensification of the Russian presence in Syria, in the fields previously mentioned. Damascus’ dependence on Moscow continued to increase, because it is difficult to find new partners even for country’s reconstruction program.

The Teheran Summit opened the pathway for Idlib’s enclave recovery, even if, apparently, it was marked by perspective’s differences between Russia and Iran’s on one hand, and Turkey on the other. The meeting from 7th of September, whereat have participated the leaders of the three co-sponsors states in the Astana Peace process (Iran, Russia and Turley), marked the end of a long series of meetings and negotiations inside this group, as well as outside of this, with other states involved in Syrian conflict: US, Israel, Saudi Arabia etc.

The problem related to the presence of foreign forces that Damascus’ regime does not want on Syria’s territory seem to be heading in the right direction, through American president’s decision, Donald Trump, to withdraw the American forces from the rebellious or Kurdish enclaves in North and East of Syria, as well as from near the border with Jordan and Israel. The Syrian regime was always against this presence, but the lack of military and diplomatic resources deprived it from the proper pressure methods to impose the withdrawal of foreign military detachments.

Formally, the Iraqi political crisis ended after president Barham Saleh and prime-minister’s Abdul Mahdi’s appointments, half year after the elections. Mahdi was nominated by the main rival Shiite political blocs (one led by the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the other by the leader of the militias supported by Iran, Hadi al-Ameri).

The cooperation did not last too long, because the competition between the two political blocs started again due to the issue of government’s members nomination (particularly defence and home affairs’ portfolios), blocking in this way the establishment of the new cabinet. The demands of both political blocs regarding the parliamentary majority and the uncertainties about the constituents of the new government determined tensions’ increase across the population, in times when the Iraqi are not pleased with the lack of basic services, the increased rates of unemployment and country’s slow reconstruction process.

At the same time, electing Barham Saleh as president has increased the intra-Kurdish tensions.  Presidency has been strongly contested by the two Kurdish parties (the Kurdistan Democratic Party/ KDP and the Kurdistan Patriotic Union/ KPU), being unable to agree over a common representative, as usually.

The main challenges that the new prime-minister will face, despite the establishment of the government, are country’s reconstruction after four years of war with Islamic State’s militants, taking down the internal ethnical and religious tensions and balancing the external relations between Iraq’s two major allies, Iran and the US, committed in a conflictual relation, which is becoming more and more complicated.

The Israeli-Palestinian file continued to get the international attention. From March 2018, the tensions have increased, as Hamas is organizing, weekly, violent demonstration, trying also incursions along the border, launching missiles and fire balloons towards the Israeli territory. There were launched more than 200 missiles, provoking concerns regarding the start of a major conflict. The tensions between Hamas and Israel have escalated, reaching the highest level since the end of the Protective Edge Operation (the summer of 2014).

When the Egyptian and the UN special coordinator, the Bulgarian Nikolai Mladenov, mediation for the Peace Process in the Middle East seemed to work, an unexpected meeting, in South of Gaza Strip, between a Hamas patrol and an infiltrated Israeli unit almost started a new Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the event, Hamas has launched 470 missiles in only 48 hours. Israeli prime-minister’s decision to continue negotiating with Hamas and to end an armistice, in order to start a discussion over a possible peace agreement between Israel and Hamas, was no shared by the minister of defence, Avigdor Lieberman, who chose to resign. Hamas chose to wait for better times for a confrontation.

Recent evolutions are showing that, although Hamas is not looking for a new large-scale conflict, it started to assume some risks, due to many factors: the necessity to win concessions from Israel to take down Strip’s blockade, the necessity to let go the frustration provoked by Israeli forces’ raids, as well as the will to consolidate Strip’s defender statute, especially given the loses among the participants at the “Grand March of Return” protest (started on 30th of March, in a Friday).

At the same time, Israel is looking to combat Hamas’s actions and it seems that it is too concerned with the situation at the Southern border and it does not want the situation to escalate in Gaza, hence it is offering the Islamic group too much maneuver space.

Concluding, is seems that none of the parts want this conflict to increase, yet both are hoping to change the current situation: Hamas wants to raise the blockade from the Gaza Strip and stop the raids, and Israel wants to stop the attacks and the incursions along the border. Though, accomplishing these objectives led to actions which could have provoked the exact results they want to avoid.

Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), in particular, are facing intense critics at international level, after the death of the dissident Saudi journalist, Khashoggi, inside the Saudi Consulate from Istanbul, which pushed the Kingdom to one of the most serious crises they have ever met.

Some of the other actions that MBS did to lead this country in such a direction are: the failed blockade over Qatar, the home arrest of the Lebanese prime-minister, Saad al Hariri, and the diplomatic scandal with Canada on respecting human’s rights, which weakened the entire Saudi Royal House.

MBS’s decisions in foreign policy and the wrong estimations of their results not only that were totally distinct from Saudi Arabia’s traditional diplomacy tactic, but they actually led the country to political instability. At the moment, Saudi Arabia is in conflict with Turkey and its Sunni allies, including Qatar, as well as with Iran and its Shiite allies from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. On the other hand, after deciding to normalize the relations with Israel[1], MBS is about to lose the support of the other Arab communities, who support the Palestinian cause. On an internal plan, although, from the very beginning of his political start, MBS won the popular support by adopting a series of economic and social reforms, in the actual circumstances he is liable to lose the support and the emergence of some radical forces, as some of the Saudis are starting to realize that their country was wrong on choosing its enemies and allies. Furthermore, tens of royal family’s members (princes, cousins) are trying to avoid enthroning MBS and they want to change the succession, but they also stated that they will not make a move while King Salman is still alive.

No one wants (excepts for Iran, maybe) Saudi Arabia to face instability and to be threatened by an internal collapse. Hence, the Royal Court should act immediately to solve this situation. Consequently, there are small chances for the King to turn against his own son.

Despite US’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Agreement (JCPOA) with Iran and the instauration of American sanctions against Teheran in major fields like banks, energy, commerce, oil export, the political and economic efforts of JCPOA’s other signatories and Iran’s surprising calm are showing some optimism regarding the maintenance of the Treaty and the hope for Washington to reconsider their attitude.

The Europeans started to adopt a series of measures to combat sanctions’ effects, clearly reiterating that any JCPOA break will lead to re-imposing their own sanctions.

Despite imposing new constraints over teh Iranian nuclear program, Trump’s Administration wanted to restraint Teheran’s regional position and its intervention in Syria and Yemen conflicts.

Iran is facing, at the moment, bigger sanctions than it ever had, but the tolerance is still high. Even if the final result will be to force Teheran to renegotiate with Washington, there are small chances for this to happen in 2019.

In order to face the new restrictions, Teheran chosed to give up some long-term economic reforms, focusing instead on remaking some strict structural deficiencies. The government will face some serious economic issues, like the increase of unemployed people, especially the young ones, the lack of food and medicines and, of course, inflation. But Teheran has a series of political and social methods to keep in check these phenomena.

There may be protests, but the Iranian security device is capable to face them, as long as the leaders of the ruling class will join forces to defence the system. On the other hand, the Iranian population is used to poorness, hence the pressure over the politicians for worsening the economic situation will be reduced.

Hence, only a serious and long economic decline will lead to the fragmentation of the political and security devices cohesion and to a substantial change in Iran.

Yemen is still divided up between the pro-governmental forces who are controlling South and a good part of the center of the country, and the rebellious forces who are controlling capital Sana’a, North and part of the West of the country (where there is also the port-city Hodeida). Regional powers’ intervention (Saudi Arabia, Iran) which are in conflict could drag the country to a larger Sunni-Shiite division. At the same time, the fights and lack of food are continuing to lead to human loses, transforming Yemen in one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world.

Economy’s collapse after the war and, implicitly, the inflation led the population to poorness and starvation, the most affected category being the young one. The offensive started by the pro-governmental forces supported by Arab Coalition’s raids over Hodeida complicated even more the humanitarian situation, bringing the conflict back in the international attention.

UN’s efforts to mediate the negotiation of an agreement between both parts failed repeatedly. But, at the end of the year, for the second time since the war have started (2014) and for the first time in the last two years, the representatives of both camps agreed to meet in Sweden, under UN’s mediation, to negotiate a peace treaty.

But the rebels, as well as the pro-governmental forces expressed their availability to accept UN’s plan to mediate the end of the war, as the confrontations were quiet, yet interrupted by fights’ intensification.

The failure of the previous negotiation rounds seems to show that both parts are imposing some conditions which are not allowing the establishment of a common negotiation base. It is hard to comply with discussions’ framework established through UN’s 2216 Resolution, because it asks for the unilateral disarmament of the Houthi rebels and their withdrawal from the conquered territories. 

Also, it does not show the battlefield dynamic of the conflict and it imposes conditions to the involved foreign actors, hence they could, at any time, break the treaty.

Egypt has made serious economic progresses, reaching the level it had before the 2011 revolution, but human’s rights are less and less respected. 2018 could be called the year of convictions: thousands of people have been convicted to many years of prison or even life sentenced for being involved in violent actions against the police forces during the mass manifestations which followed the military coup d’état (July 2013), that led to changing the ex-Egyptian president and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi.

The international organizations for humans’ rights have accused Cairo’s regime for being ultra-repressive and for using justice to repress any kind of dissidence. Hundreds of Islamists have been convicted across mass processes, denounced by UN.

And breaching human’s rights continues to worsen, the Cairo regime imposing more and more restrictions, by implementing some laws for punishing any critical opinion or the consolidation of any dissident direction.

President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi strengthened his position, starting to have a dictatorial behaviour: he appointed the prime-minister without Parliament’s confidence vote and also removed the Minister of Defence without the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). From the moment he took power (in 2013), Al-Sissi systematically eliminated any obstacle which was going against him having all the power. By ignoring Parliament and SCAF’s decisions, the Egyptian leader has eliminated also president’s two most important control tools, and the Constitution became a dead print.

Libya remains a society characterized by strong clan and tribal connections, with two rival authorities (in West- the National Agreement Govern/ NAG, installed in Tripoli, and in East- the Representative Chamber/ Tobruk’s Parliament) which are trying to impose their authority across the territory and armed groups/ militias established during the revolution, each following their own interests, remaining the main obstacles against the stabilization.

There were confrontations between different militias on Libya’s entire territory, due to supporting one of the camps (East-West), for influence areas and financing sources, particular interests prevailing over the national ones. Tripoli’s militias selected to cooperate with the Home Affairs Ministry have contributed at the improvement of the security situation in the capital, but they have entered in conflict with other armed groups, in their attempt to protect the influence areas and interests. The rival militia outside the capital are feeling excluded, being aware of the risk to lose the access to state’s funds, and are trying to take the control over Tripoli.

An international conference, which brought a glimmer of hope, was recently held in Italy (Palermo). The political key-leaders have committed to start a political reconciliation and stabilization process, proposed and supported by UN. One of conference’s success was bringing together at the negotiations table general Khalifa Haftar, commander of the National Libyan Army (NLA), which acts to support the Eastern camp, and prime-minister Fayez al-Sarraj, the leader of Tripoli’s cabinet (GAN). Both parts, which have major interests’ conflicts agreed, though, to support UN’s new plan which envisages the organization of parliamentary and presidential elections in June 2019.  

The political scene and mass media from Algeria, pro-governmental or opposition, brought on the public agenda the presidential elections from April 2019 and Bouteflika’s future as leader. After his stroke in 2013, the Algerian president passed through a series of relapses, being confined to a wheelchair, appearing less and less in the public (only in official photos with dignitaries visiting Algeria). Though, in 2014, Bouteflika won a new mandate, even he was not present during his entire electoral campaign (the ex-prime minister, Abdelmalek Salal, has coordinated the entire campaign).

The major political groups from the governmental coalition (the National Liberation Front, led by Bouteflika himself, the Democratic National Rally, led by the current prime-minister, Ahmed Ouyahia) insists that the current president is doing great in upkeeping the country on the right pathway, no one else being able to lead Algeria in the years to come.

Bouteflika did not respond, yet he took some unseen level measures by changing some high-rank officials from the army and other force institutions, raising speculations regarding the confrontation between the Algerian elites at the presidential elections from April 2019.

Bouteflika (his close friends) are aiming to prove that he can still firmly lead the country and eliminate any individual, outside regime’s control, who has a word to say.

Despite the punctual approach regarding what happened in the region in 2018, it should highlight the change of the regional or external involvement. Trump’s Administration decided to restart the alliances with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, in its attempt to combat Iran, seen as a major threat and a great destabilizing actor. Russia seems to be more interested in becoming a mediator in regional disputes. In order to win a privileged geopolitical position in the area, especially Syria, Moscow upkept better relations with many of the regional actors. Not coincidentally, Russia has different kinds of connections from Israel to Iran, from Syria to Saudi Arabia, from Turkey to Lebanon, Egypt to Algeria. These have allowed Moscow to consolidate a phase of its foreign interventionist policy, useful at the same time for the confrontation with US.

The foreign environment has affected MENA’s security, political, economic and social evolutions but, at the same time, have determined the international agenda, have demanded global international actions and provoked the current norms and orders. The old solutions and methods the foreign actors were interfering in the region are old-fashioned or, at least, in a full changing process. There are new approaching forms and new actors, and their influences are increasing, provoking even the existence of the global order, the state being the main factor of the political relations. Relevant issues like the migration or the internal mobility, foreign interferences, the possession and even usage of mass destruction weaponries in the area are really conspicuous and in need of global attention and actions. However, these are provoking changes in the regional order. This tendency is not reducing rivalries, whose causes are more like geopolitical, than religious and/ or sectarians, but favoring US’s enemies determination increase, like Russia.