MAS Special ReportLEVANT: Middle East and North Africa

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D.S.M. Special Report - Middle East and North Africa - August 2020

Claudiu Nebunu

I. Lebanon – the explosion of the explosions…is not over yet!II. Israel- the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – a historical deal…and the “behind the scenes”III. Libya – peace or war? God's will

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. The explosion of the explosions… is not over yet!

The disaster caused by the massive explosion, which took place in the Port of Beirut, on August 4th, is the biggest nightmare Lebanon experienced since winning the independency. The explosion that the officials thought was related to the bad storing of almost 2.750 ammonium nitrate in the Port of Beirut, starting with September 2013, caused the death of 170 people and wounded more than 5000, also provoking shock waves in the entire city, leading to massive damages for a great part of the buildings in the Lebanese capital.

However, it is not clear, yet, what actually provoked the explosion of the extremely dangerous fuel deposited so badly since it was abandoned in the Port of Beirut, seven years ago. However, there is no doubt that what happened on Tuesday, August 4th, was no accident at all. In fact, it seems to be the last (deadly!) consequence of the culture of corruption, incompetence and lack of care established in the Lebanese state system.

Since the 4th of August explosion, there were tens of photos, documents and press releases on many Lebanese government agencies, as well as declarations of some protected people and foreign companies, all the clues indicating that the explosion was caused not by a secrete Hezbollah arsenal, but by 2.750 tons of ammonium nitrate (a strong fuel material used to produce fertilizers and artisanal bombs), which were deposited in the port, in bad conditions, with no expertise surveillance, for more than six years.

In September 2013, a transport ship rented from Russia, full of ammonium nitrate, which was heading to Mozambique, stopped in Beirut, without announcing, due to financial and technical problems. The Lebanese officials, calling on unpaid taxes and safety problems, have stopped the ship from leaving the port, which led to its owner abandoning it. The dangerous cargo from the ship was then discharged in a deposit, in the port. It seems it was left in there, untouched, until the devastating explosion.

Many intergovernmental discussions, which emerged after the explosion in the Lebanese and international mass-media indicate that the Lebanese officials had disputes for days about how this material was being deposited, but could not get to an agreement about who should take responsibility on destroying or selling it. According to a security report of the Lebanese state, quoted by Reuters, in June 2020, a judge was so concerned with the danger of this material and possible thefts that he ordered a team of welders to enter the deposit it was stored.

As it was not monitored, the team has accidentally provoked some sparks which have fired a firework deposit nearby. Eventually, the fire extended to the place the nitrate ammonium was stored, provoking the explosion which destroyed the port and affected most of the city’s population.

The statements in the report quoted by Reuters were confirmed by many security sources in the local mass-media channels. These also stated, for the Wall Street Journal, that a preliminary assessment of the state authorities has concluded that it was “accidental”. The American expert in the explosives’ field, Rachel Lance, stated for the New York Times that the dark and red color of the trimming and the smoke left behind after the explosion looked like the effects of the major incidents from the last century, related to the same compound.

Many of those who rejected the theory of the Hezbollah arsenal seem to be happy with this explanation, not only because it is supported by material proofs, but also because Lebanon is already known for its government’s bad management and incompetence. The wrong maneuver of dangerous substances led to a series of disasters, in the last years, including at least a dozen of other uncontrolled explosions and fires at gas stations and manufacturers. Furthermore, dangerous materials are deposited in unsafe conditions in many houses, office buildings, malls and manufacturers all over the country. These materials are used by companies and natural persons to fuel private generator, because the Lebanon’s electric network can provide only half of the electric energy the country needs.

The daily public health risks do not end here. The large scale and unregulated use of industrial fireworks, at private parties, weddings and even military celebrations are usually provoking devastating fires. The increasingly  big custom of burning the trash, as the government cannot manage to provide a basic service like collecting it, is another cause of the fires and the pollution of the air. There are other abnormal things happening as well for population’s safety: the brash deposits and the raw sewerage directly throwing trash to the sea, the normal discoveries of the rotten foods in deposits, inhuman conditions found in slaughter-houses, deadly highways, with no speed limits or presence of the police, crowded intersections with no traffic signals or even no light on the streets. This situation is actually another reason for many people to believe that the August 4th explosion was caused not by an Israeli air attack over a secrete Hezbollah arsenal, but the incompetence of the local authorities.

Beirut is extremely volatile and dysfunctional, but it is, also, one of the most carefully monitored cities in the world. Where were the intelligence agencies, which are developing extended operations to keep in touch with the development of the internal affairs of the Lebanese capital, when an unsafe ship, charged with thousands of explosives has docked in the main port of the city? Assuming that the local authorities were too incompetent and helpless to notice it, how did the foreign intelligence agencies get away with it?

It is impossible to find out if this last Beirut explosion will be different to other thousands of bombings and attacks this country faced over the years and that are still surrounded by mystery and allow each part to promote its own convenient and profitable explanation, politically speaking. What must be now revealed is what stopped so many people to take a stance. If they truly want to avoid a possible disaster in the future…

II. Israel-the United Arab Emirates – a historical deal… and the “behind the scenes”

After years of informal normalization efforts, the UAE finally decided to get to a “peace agreement” with Israel, which opens the path towards a strategic relation between the two countries, under the auspices of the Trump Administration. The Western media appreciated the “peace agreement” as a “historical” discovery. And the UAE leaders justified their relation with Israel by stopping the Israeli annexation of the Arab territories, helping the Palestinians to reach their independency objectives and promoting the peace in the Middle East.

Was the annexation cancelled? Or just postponed by a new agreement? As the UAE becomes the third country, after Egypt, in 1979, and West Bank, in 1994, to officially make peace with Israel, how closely are the other Arab states in the Gulf to do it as well?

The agreement rewards the American president, Donald Trump, and the Israeli prime-minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for their long efforts, in the last four years, on finding a solution for the Palestinians… or, more precisely, in terms of the Palestinian issue, not necessarily favoring it! Is this going to be a long-lasting deal or just a circumstantial move?

After years of taking small steps towards an informal normalization, which did not get dissociate from the long-lasting Arab position and to allow an official peace agreement with this country, the UAE eventually announced (August 13th) the decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

The planning lasted. In the last years, the Emirates hosted Israeli ministers and sportsmen, joined maritime security conferences together with Israeli officials, supported technological cooperation agreements between the Emirates and the Israeli companies and have even invited Israel to join the Dubai Expo. These, together with other actions as well, have made clear Abu Dhabi’s intention to normalize its relations with Israel. The only things standing in this deal’s way was the Israeli government’s plan to annex around 30% of the occupied West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, which would have provoked an official relation with Israel, with huge political costs for Emirates’ leadership.

But, on June 12th, the UAE ambassador to US, Yousef al-Otaiba, offered Israel a compromise. In an article published in the biggest newspaper in the Jewish language from Israel, Yedioth Ahronoth, al-Otaiba was warning the Israeli leaders against the annexation, saying that such a move would “invert all the Israeli ambitions to improve the security, economic and cultural connections with the Arab world and the UAE”. Basically, the Emirates’ ambassador announced the entire world that Abu Dhabi was ready to sign a peace agreement with Israel, in the exchange of giving up the annexation plan, even for only a short period of time. The Israeli government got the right message and, a day later, announced that it will accept suspending the “sovereignty declaration” over the occupied West Bank, as part of an agreement to normalize the relations with UAE.

The UAE has taken advantage of Israel's decision to put its annexation plans on hold to justify its move and protect itself from allegations that it betrayed the Palestinians by establishing relations with the Zionist state and strengthening its relations with US and better position itself against regional rivals. However, given how Netanyahu has previously given up agreements with Palestinians and Arab leaders, this so-called suspension can hardly last. There is a good chance that, once diplomatic relations are formally established between the two countries, Netanyahu will return to the suspension promise. After all, he needs the support of Israeli settlers to stay in power, and they want the process of colonizing the West Bank to continue.

In fact, the annexation, on which Netanyahu agreed, has already taken place. About 600,000 Israeli settlers live in settlements, illegal under international law, spread across the same territory of 30% of the occupied West Bank, and no agreement with the Palestinians, the UAE or any other Arab state can relocate them.

Today, settlers are attacking the Palestinians, burning their crops and undermining their livelihood on a regular basis, unhindered by the Israeli Army, even in areas allegedly protected by the Oslo Agreements. A promise to suspend an annexation that has already taken place has no other purpose than to allow the UAE to save appearances, and to give Netanyahu a peace deal that could help save his political future.

 Netanyahu is facing protests because he has not effectively managed the coronavirus pandemic and the slowdown in the Israeli economy. An investigation into corruption, which will take place early next year, also hangs over his head like the sword of Damocles. With this alleged diplomatic victory, the Israeli prime minister was able to announce that a new round of parliamentary elections could bring him more support in the Knesset, which would give him a significant increase in influence in his legal and political struggles.

Like Netanyahu, Trump relies on the normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel to preserve his political capital. The enthusiastic announcement from the Oval Office indicates that the US president is considering that the UAE decision will help him seek the support of the pro-Israel sectors of the US electorate in the upcoming presidential election. Indeed, declaring a foreign policy victory, especially in favor of Israel, may help Trump at a time when he appears to be behind Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the polls.

However, in a realistic analytical approach, one can say that the additional support that the agreement would offer to Trump will not be of particular importance in the election results, given his significant failures on the domestic stage. Foreign policy has never been a major concern for the American electorate, even in good times. Today, what is on the agenda of most Americans are the coronavirus pandemic and its detrimental effects on the economy, high unemployment and Trump's attempts to interfere in American democracy, and the integrity of the election.

Time will prove us if Israel's efforts to support relations with the Arab world are perceived by the US electorate as a decisive factor in their election as president. And, moreover, to see if a single agreement between the Arab leaders and Israel will be accepted by the people in the region without rehabilitating the rights of the Palestinians.

Despite the denials, the UAE violated the "land for peace" consensus, which pledged Arab states to continue peace and normalization efforts, but only after Israel withdrew from the occupied Palestinian and Arab territories.among the few consensual solutions agreed by Arab leaders and their populations, most of whom oppose the normalization of relations with Israel before Palestinian rights are fully restored.

So, for what...?

III. Libya-peace or war? God's will

The UN-recognized Libyan government (Government of the National Accord/ GAN) announced on Friday (August 20, 2020) a ceasefire across the country and called for the demilitarization of the strategic city of Sirte, raising hopes for peace in the nine-year conflict. GAN also called for parliamentary and presidential elections in March next year and an end to the oil blockade imposed by rival forces as early as this year.

Had the Libyans reached a compromise between the two camps?

According to an official statement, GAN Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj called on all military forces to immediately cease fire and all combat operations throughout Libya. AL-Sarraj added, however, that the ultimate goal of the armistice is to impose "full sovereignty over Libyan territory and the withdrawal of foreign forces and mercenaries".

Aguila Saleh, chairman of the House of Representatives (pro-Haftar rival Eastern camp), backed the move, saying "a ceasefire is blocking the path of foreign military intervention and will lead to the expulsion of mercenaries and the disbandment of militias to achieve comprehensive national sovereignty". Saleh called on all Libyan formations to join the armistice, which would lead to the security of the strategic city of Sirte by forces from different regions of the country.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed calls for a ceasefire, hoping that "they will be respected immediately by the armed forces on both sides", according to UN spokesman, Stephane Dujarric.

The European Union also welcomed the announcement, High Representative Josep Borrell said it was "positive news from Libya" and that "it is crucial now for all parties to support and implement their statements".

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a supporter of Marshal Kalifa Haftar and the idea of ​​deploying troops to Libya in support of him, also welcomed the ceasefire statements.

The statements revived the perspective of peace in the North African nation after a series of failed ceasefires. Has the necessary agreement of peace been reached by now?

Libya has plunged into chaos after the popular uprising, backed by NATO in 2011, led to the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, the country has been embroiled in rival administrations in the East and West, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments. Haftar launched an offensive, in April 2019, trying to take control of the capital Tripoli. But his campaign collapsed in June 2020, when Turkish-backed allied fighters in the Tripoli government took the initiative, forcing Haftar's troops to withdraw from the outskirts of Tripoli and other cities in western Libya.

GAN was founded in 2015 on the basis of a UN-mediated agreement, but efforts for a long-term political solution failed after a series of military offensives by forces loyal to Haftar. The chaos in the oil-rich country has intensified in recent months as foreign sponsors stepped up their interventions, despite promises to the contrary at the Berlin Summit earlier this year. Haftar gets support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia. Turkey, a rival of Egypt and the UAE, in a wider regional confrontation against political Islam, is the main supporter of the Tripoli forces, which are also backed by Qatar.

This ceasefire seemed to have a very good chance of lasting, as the cost of continued potential clashes would be very high, and negotiations between Turkey and other foreign powers suggest that all actors prefer a sort of peace, at least for the near future. But Haftar rejected the peace agreement proposal, calling it a "marketing" action.

Ahmed Mismari, spokesman for the Libyan National Army (LNA, generic name for forces loyal to Haftar), announced on Sunday (August 23rd) that rival forces in the west of the country were mobilizing in the front lines area, in the center of the country, saying that they are ready to defend their positions around the coastal city of Sirte and the Jufra military air base, in the center of the country (the main targets now in dispute, the loss of which could tip the balance to the west).

It is not the first time Haftar refuses a peace agreement. The question here is if Haftar’s foreign supporters stop supporting him is GNA going to make any progresses? And is such a development means that Saleh and al-Sarraj will get to a peaceful agreement to bring a long-lasting peace in Libya? We will see…

In the meantime, on Sunday (August 21), the High State Council in  Libya, a consultative council for the GNA, has firmly rejected any dialogue wit hHaftar. As Haftar’s loyalists have blocked the oil installations in the country, in the last months, the Council has asked the restart of the production and the oil export (the main income source for Libya) and the punishment of all responsible for closing the installations.

In Sirte’s offices, walls are decorated with images of the military commander Khalifa Haftar, the LNA commander. Out in the desert, the troops are monitoring from the sand. Since the Turkish intervention helped fighting back the 14 months long offensive of LNA against Tripoli, the frontlines established around Sirte, in the middle of the Mediterranean coast of Libya and close to major oil terminals.

As GNA and Turkey were ready to make supplementary progresses, Egypt has turned Sirte into a red line and has the parliamentary approval to militarily intervene. In the last weeks, Libyan factions and foreign supporters have mobilized, meanwhile diplomats are trying to avoid a military escalation and get to a ceasefire.

Sirte is partially ruined since the 2016 fights, when the GNA force fought against the Islamic State fighters from the city where the terrorist group chose its North-African capital.

More attacks in Sirte? God's will…

Translated by Andreea Soare