MAS Special ReportLEVANT: Middle East and North Africa

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D.S.M. Special Report- Middle East and North Africa (January 2020)

Claudiu Nebunu

I. Oman. New sultan to old problems! II. Libya. Maximum interest, minimum action! III. Syria. The challenge stays in Idlib!

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. Oman. New sultan to old problems!

Oman’s sultan, Qaboos bin aid Al Said, the monarch to have the longest leadership in the Arab world, best known for promoting peace, has died Friday, January 10th, at the age of 79. A day later, Saturday, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, Qaboos’s cousin and minister of culture as well, age 65, has been designated country’s new leader, in a peaceful transition process, after opening a letter of the old sultan who was claiming this man’s designation as his successor.

Qaboos stand out for this firmness in keeping his country oriented to the West, following moderation and the peaceful coexistence with his neighbours. Oman praised the Camp David Agreements, which ended the Egyptian-Israeli conflict and it was also one of the first countries in the Arabian Peninsula to open communication lines with Israel’s government, still supporting and independent Palestinian state. Furthermore, Oman assumed the intermediary role between Iran and the international community. The former sultan was also one of the Gulf Cooperation Council founders, established in 1981, the peak period of the Iran-Iraq conflict, and he was the leader of the promotion efforts of integrated military structures for the six GCC states, which resulted the establishment of the “Peninsula Shield” force, in 1984.

Will the new sultan manage to continue what his predecessor started? What’s Oman’s role in Middle East and which are the challenges the new monarch will experience?

The death of sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said marked the end of an era. The Arab world lost the most longevous leader (he got the power after the 1970 coup d’état, overthrowing his father), no other Gulf state having a leader when GCC was created. Most of Omani people did not meet any other leader, therefore, this transition period is extremely sensitive. Members of al-Said family have followed Qaboos sultan’s will expressed in the letter opened after his death and agreed with Haitham being his successor.

It was important for Oman to get through this quick and firm process, to stop any rumours about any fight over succession in this sensitive transition. For the past years, while sultan Qaboos was fighting against the disease (colon cancer), he did not publicly designated any successor for the helm of the state. Different journalists, analysts and intelligence services have thought, for years, at the possibility of a turbulent transition process, with confrontations about succession. Waiting for a new sultan, Oman was full of anxiety, and some regional experts have raised questions sultanate’s political cohesion and national unity. However, the transition was quick and lacked of problems.

At the “inauguration” of the post-Qaboos period, sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said sent the world and the region an important message on unity, cohesion and continuity. In the first statements as chief of state, Haitham pledged to support the principles which guided the foreign policy agenda of his predecessor during almost five decades of power: “We will continue to follow in the same course the late sultan adopted … embracing foreign policies based on peaceful coexistence among peoples and countries without any interference in the domestic affairs of other states”.

Since Sultan Qaboos ascended the throne, in 1970, he has never interrupted diplomatic relations with any government, considering that is useful to have a constructive engagement with all regional actors. The former Sultan has endeavoured to maintain relative neutrality in regional conflicts, avoiding pressures to join a bloc that would require the Sultanate to align or act against any state. When Egypt and Israel signed the Peace Treaty, in 1979, Oman was one of three members of the Arab League that opposed Cairo's isolation. Unlike other GCC capitals, Muscat remained neutral in the Iran-Iraq war, and its diplomats worked to cease fire between Baghdad and Tehran. Following Syrian conflict’s outbreak in 2011, Oman was the only GCC member that did not interrupt official relations with Damascus. In the same year, as the Arab Spring expanded in Libya, Oman (unlike Qatar and the United Arab Emirates / UAE) he did not militarily intervene in the crisis. In 2015, Muscat did not align with the other five GCC capitals and remained outside the anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen. Against the Saudi-Iranian crisis background in early 2016, Muscat was the only Gulf capital that has not taken any diplomatic action against Tehran. The following year, when three of the GCC member states (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE) and Egypt instituted the blockade on Qatar, Oman refused to join this group.   

The strategy of pursuing coexistence and positive relations with all the neighbours allowed Muscat to stand out as a diplomatic bridge in the region. Under Sultan Qaboos leadership, Oman was often a neutral dialogue platform between opponents that would normally never have communicated directly. In recent years, Oman has facilitated peace talks for Yemen and negotiations that led to the Joint Action Plan signing (JCPOA). In 2018, Oman became the first GCC member to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but in 2019, Muscat announced that it plans to open an embassy in the Palestinian Territories.  

Indeed, amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran, this is not a good time for Oman’s leadership transition, as Middle East lost a respected chief of state, who was consistently advocating peace in the region. Undoubtedly, Oman’s equilibrium position has become increasingly difficult to be followed during Donald Trump's presidency. Washington's JCPOA withdrawal and, in addition, the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen and Qatar’s blockade, can involve Oman in forced campaigns to reshape regional order, although Muscat's vision is based on resolving conflicts diplomatically and advancing economic integration, including with Iran and Qatar.

It is noteworthy to see how other members of GCC, namely Saudi Arabia and UAE, will react to this transition and if they seek to pressure new Haitham Sultan to align Muscat against Iran and, perhaps, the Qatar - Turkey alliance.

Beyond former sultan’s prestige and his diplomatic role in the region, Oman still has an advantage- the Musandam Peninsula, a strip of land separated from the rest of Oman's territory, which forms the Southern coast of Hormuz Strait. Until the 1990’s, it was a closed military area. Musandam is a sparsely populated area, largely undeveloped, difficult to access because to get there, from Oman, one has to travel approx. 80 km in UAE. But this areas’ position is extremely important strategically thanks to the control of the Strait of Hormuz. Its control has enabled, in part, Sultan Qaboos to adopt a largely independent foreign policy, while maintaining links with Gulf states, Iran and the Western states, and will most likely stay a priority for the new Sultan and his government.

Last but not least, Muscat's neutral stances on regional geopolitical crises are determined by their own national and economic security interests, which are closely linked. Internally, Oman’s government has to cope with high youth unemployment and slow economic growth. Country's budget deficit has grown quickly after the 2014 oil prices decline and, despite efforts to diversify the economy, oil and related industries represents nearly three quarters of the humanitarian government revenues.

During the last years of Sultan Qaboos leadership, these problems were the main internal difficulties Oman faced, and the new Sultan Haitham will have to also manage them. The Omani authorities are aware that more and more investments from increasingly diverse sources are essential for its long-term development interests, especially in relation to Sultanate’s ports and infrastructure, a concern expressed in the 2020-2040 development vision. And good relations with as many countries as possible are essential for Oman to achieve economic diversification and continue its successful diplomacy history.  

But Sultan Qaboos did not promote modernization at any cost. Rather, it was determined to preserve all that was best in Oman’s traditional society, while integrating it into a modern framework. He insisted that Muscat, Sultanate’s capital, should keep its historical roots and oversee all city’s design features, up to the style of street lamps. In terms of the economic development, the Sultan insisted that Oman follow a measured pace and resisted tempting developments such as opening the country to mass tourism, which he believed it would undermine the Omani social and cultural traditions. Only relatively recently, Oman's economy has been open to greater diversification and development.

Hence, is becoming very important how the new Sultan will choose to run his government. Some said about the Qaboos leadership that was very personal, as the Sultan got involved in issues that most heads of state hardly notice. How will Haitham act? ... An international situation that is not calm at all, an internal development more concerned economically and  the pressure of predecessor's legacy aura are just three major test stones for the new sultan! Will he manage to get over them?

II. Libya. Maximum interest, minimum action!

At the Berlin summit (Sunday, January 19th), which brought together supporters of the main factions at war in Libya, world leaders have pledged to end foreign interference and take action to end clashes. The participation of so many major actors involved in the conflict revealed a renewed interest in urgently stopping violence, but the future of what was agreed depends largely on signatories' good faith and their ability to pressure the Libyans, something that remains uncertain.

Has the Libyan problem become a major and urgent interest for international actors? Was the Berlin meeting enough to find a way forward?

January this year witnessed foreign powers’ several unsuccessful attempts to mediate a ceasefire in Libya. First, Fayez al-Sarraj, who leads the UN-backed internationally-supported Government of National Accord (GNA), refused to move to Rome when he learned that his opponent, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (ANL) , will be present at the meeting convened by Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte. A week later, in Moscow, al-Sarraj agreed to a ceasefire agreement under Russian intermediation, but Haftar left without signing.

Then, leaders from Germany, France, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and several other countries met in Berlin to support a peace process in Libya. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) attended the Berlin meeting, but also did representatives from the United States, Great Britain, Congo, Algeria, the UN and the African Union. Fayez al-Sarraj and his rival, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, participated, but did not get involved in the talks. The participating parties signed a 55 points statement, mainly committing to respect arms’ embargo imposed by UN, which has so far failed to stop the influx of troops, financial support and weapons in North African state. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who convened the summit, said that al-Sarraj and Haftar were informed of the talks, but did not take part and did not meet.

Berlin summit’s message is that it was useful to show that Europe and European states are more involved in Libya's case and are more willing to engage with regional powers directly involved in the conflict, to push Libyan factions toward conflict’s escalation. But the key question stays: will it be enough or not? A UN embargo on the weapons supply to Libya has been in place since 2011, but enforcement was low, and foreign actors have continued to provide support to both sides. While Turkey has increased its support for troops and weapons for the GNA in recent months, Haftar's camp has been strengthened by Russia, Egypt and the UAE. The conclusions of the Berlin summit will be forwarded to the UN Security Council to approve and adopt the promise to end foreign interference in Libya. Lacking of a resolution on this commitment, the situation returns to the old one...  

Marshal Khaliha Haftar controls much of Libya's oil-producing regions, something he used during the Berlin summit: even on the eve of the meeting, Libyan oil production was cut from 1.2 million at only 72,000 barrels per day. And, probably because the Berlin meeting did not reach its goal, Thursday (January 23rd), foreign ministers from neighbouring countries with Libya met in Algeria to discuss ways to stop battles between the two camps. The meeting was attended by foreign ministers from Tunisia, Egypt and Chad, as well as diplomats from Sudan and Niger. Mali sent a representative, while Morocco was absent.

The Berlin summit final press release calls on all parties to abide the UN arms embargo imposed on Libya for nearly ten years, an embargo repeatedly broke, and reaffirmed the need for a political, rather than military, solution for this conflict. However, the renewed call to respect the arms embargo lacks a plan to sanction countries that continue to break it. Recently, Turkey announced the deployment of troops to Libya to support GNA. Moreover, mercenaries from several countries are already operating in Libya, including Chad, Sudan, Syria and Russia.

Hereof, European and Middle Eastern actors’ failure to stabilize the situation in Libya would not be a surprise, especially since many of the so-called peace brokers have actually increased violence through, for example, repeated violations of arms embargo. In their interventions in the Libyan conflict, some foreign actors had opposite visions for region’s future. Others, especially Europeans, have interfered, hoping to make economic gains and support to keep African migrants (and beyond) away from European borders. Much of the current confrontation has more to do with resources and power distribution, indeed a central reason why many foreign governments in Europe and Middle East are struggling to maintain influence and control in Libya.   

But as Libya's future continues to be negotiated in various European and Arab cities, Libyan aspirations continue to be set aside. How long and which are the effects?

III. Syria. The challenge stays in Idlib!

On Tuesday (January 20th), members of a family of eight, including six children, were killed in the government-controlled Kfar Taal village, West of Aleppo, while four more civilians lost their lives in Maardabseh, in South - East of Idlib province, during Syrian forces air raids. It is not breaking news, but just a routine account of what is happening in areas Damascus is trying to take control of. Such news comes almost daily, but the question is: for how long and with which will be the consequences?  

The violence in Aleppo and Idlib provinces has reached a new peak, following the unsuccessful diplomatic attempts so far to reduce hostilities. Most of Idlib and parts of Aleppo are still controlled by factions opposed to Syrian President’ government, Bashar al-Assad. The Damascus government, which controls about 70 percent of the national territory after nearly nine years of war, has repeatedly said it will regain control over this region. According to the UN Agency for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), almost 350,000 people have fled the area since December 1st, last year, mainly heading North. According to estimates, another 650,000 people could be forced to leave their homes if violence continues. Truces appear and disappear like falling...

But the strategy is well developed: the attacks mainly target civilian infrastructure, without evidence of real military targets. Many cities and villages in the Southern region of Idlib province are now empty, after Syrian government's offensive backed by the Russian armed forces. The government forces’ attacks mainly targeted areas adjacent to M5 motorway, strategically important, one of the most important arteries in the Syrian transport network. The Syrian government is struggling to take control of this communications route, linking the Damascus capital with the northern city of Aleppo, a move that would allow it to more quickly connect the controlled cities and boost trade.

Currently, 3.5 million civilians (about 20% of Syria's population) live in Idlib, which represents about 3% of Syria's territory. And they are easy targets for Syrian and Russian aircraft, which have developed an art in distinguishing civilian communities and their related infrastructure, whether there are schools, hospitals or markets. But the consequences of what is happening in Idlib could define Syria's future. The Syrian regime and its Russian partners are conducting the most brutal war campaign: unlike all regime’s previous operations, the Idlib communities have no way of escape. In this environment, the anti-Assad democratic resistance remains undefeated, but it has changed. Its erosion which almost reaches irrelevance has provided opportunities for extremists, including Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIAL) and al-Qaeda (AQ). The biggest potential beneficiary is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former AQ affiliate, which now dominates much of Idlib. But while ISIl and AQ maintain a clear and public global agenda, HTS remains focused only on Syrian theater.
Bashar al-Assad did not win the war in Syria, but only survived. Country’s geographical territory, the state and the nation are not united at this time. And the prospects of a significant reconstruction and Moscow's attempts to instill "reconciliation" have so far failed. As of the beginning of 2020, Idlib seems to stay the most intense conflict zone in Syria. In addition to ongoing Turkish-Kurdish, Arab-Kurdish and Israeli-Iranian hostilities, ISIL is also likely to support a slow and steady resurgence, especially in desert areas in Centre of the country. But most significantly, 2020 is likely to be the year when the armed forces revive in several Syrian areas... Brutality does not bring peace!

Translated by Andreea Soare