MAS Special ReportLEVANT: Middle East and North Africa

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

Claudiu Nebunu

I. Iran – the explosions’ months. Simple accidents or cyber attacks? II. Libya - Cairo approves the military intervention. Are they also going to implement it?III. Syria – parliamentary elections with reduced presence. Are the Syrians done with Bashar’s regime?

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. Iran – the explosions’ months. Simple accidents or cyber attacks?

Since the end of the last month, there were many explosions and fires in the Iranian military, nuclear and industrial installations. From the military and nuclear installations from Parchin and Natanz to the major fire in the Southwestern port Busher, explosions to a Tehran Clinique and to a series of industrial facilities from the entire country, the sudden emergence of these incidents has led to confusion among the Iranian public who have no clue about what is happening…

Some of these events were, most likely, accidents, but have emerged also some suspicions on the interference of some foreign intelligence services (CIA and Mossad) and the possibility of cyber-war actions is not ignored by the Iranian authorities. If the incidents were caused by such actions, they were, most likely, following two objectives: to stop Iran’s nuclear program development and to pressure the Tehran authorities to reconsider their military, nuclear and regional policies. For now, Tehran only seems surprised by the timeline.

On June 26th, an explosion took place in East of Tehran, close to the Parchin weapons development military base that the authorities said it was caused by a gases leak from an installation which was outside the base.

On June 30th, 19 people lost their lives in an explosion at a medical centre in North of the capital Tehran. An official said the explosion was caused also by a gas leak. On July 2nd, a fire burst forth at the underground nuclear facility from Natanz, the central piece of the Iranian uranium enrichment program. A day later, the Iranian security officials have confirmed that it was identified the source of the fire, but the information will later on be published.

On July 3rd, a major fire burst forth in Shiraz, a Southwest region in Iran. On July4th, an explosion and a fire took place at the power plant in the Southwestern Iranian city Ahwaz, and the chlorine leaks from the petrochemical manufacture Karun, from Mahshadr (Southwest of the Khuzestan province) contracted 70 workers. On July 7th, the explosion of the oxygen reserves at the Sepahan Barish manufacture from Bagershahr has provoked a lot of damages at the Saipa Press building, the second biggest car produces in Iran. On July 15th, a fire burst forth at the Southwestern port Bushehr, damaging seven ships, leaving no victims behind.

Despite considering these were simple incidents, many Iranian officials have called also on the possibility of cyber war actions, conducted by foreign forces. However, ten years since discovering the Stuxnet computer virus, elaborated by the US and Israel to affect Iran’s nuclear program, they can hardly make scenarios on actors and methods behind possible “sabotage actions”.  Without even considering how hard would be to prove that, a new penetration case of the Iranian critical infrastructure by foreign intelligence services would be humiliating for Tehran.

However, it is still premature to state that any of the Iran incidents was caused by cyber attacks. Even if for Natanz’s case, the main target of the Stuxnet virus, it is somehow natural the suspicion of such an attack to happen again, it is technically harder. If someone wants to repeat a missile attack over a target, they simply make a second launch. But a cyber attack is firstly based on discovering and exploiting the vulnerabilities of a system, which means that, once produced and when the vulnerabilities are exploited, it is necessary, for a second attack to take place, to discover some completely new system shortcomings.

Furthermore, Stuxnet was conceived so that to act undetectably to disturb the uranium’s enrichment process, without provoking explosions or other important disruptions to alert the personnel. So it would ask for a radical change of the initial operation model. And, not least, there are the afterwards explosions as well. They would have to develop new methods for each targeted system, which is not simple and out of hand. Therefore, only Iran can make a detailed examination of the explosions places to determine if it was or not a cyber attack.

But the biggest concern Iran has is infiltration… Obviously, meanwhile Iran wants to reduce as much as possible the importance of these incidents, the US and the Israelis want to increase it. For example, through the mass media information operations, the Israelis launched two scenarios which aimed at provoking panic in the Iranian system. The possibility of a cyber attack from Israel is one of them. The second is that the explosions were the result of sabotage actions made by Iranians recruited by the Israeli intelligence services.

Both scenarios would be embarrassing for Tehran; hereof the Iranian officials continue to refuse to admit any foreign interference. The Iranian denials were, however, less convincing. In fact, they did not but strengthen the public’s opinion that foreign actors were actually behind the explosions or at least some of them. The psychological pressures that such popular beliefs put over the authorities are significant. The worst scenario, the large-scale infiltration, leads to the idea that the Iranian regime is near to an end and is stimulating desertions of those working for the state.

Which could be the consequences of these incidents?

Firstly, if what happened would be an American-Israeli coordinated sabotage campaign, that would mean that the Trump Administration and the Israelis got to the conclusion that Tehran will not change any of its policies while Donald Trump is still running the White House and have launched these actions to force Iran to bring back to normal the nuclear and missiles programs before Trump leaves his position.

Secondly, to force the Iranians to expel the international nuclear inspectors, accusing them for sending sensitive information to the US and Israel intelligence services, which would be the reason behind these sabotage attacks. If Iran would expel the inspectors, that would be the end of the 2015 Nuclear Treaty, something the Trump Administration and the Israelis want so eagerly.

Thirdly, such sabotage acts would aim at forcing Iran to fight back, a development that would escalate easily and turn into a larger military conflict. It is less likely for the Iranians to fight back in a major way. This happened 10 years ago as well, when the Americans and the Israelis have used the Stuxnet virus to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. Basically, Tehran accepted the losses and continued its Iranian nuclear program. However, the idea that CIA and Mossad agents act on the country’s territory is seriously undermining the current regime. That’s why the Iranian authorities decided to suddenly execute the former defence official, Reza Aksari, who was accused of providing information to the CIA, thus hoping to prevent anyone from collaborating with the foreign intelligence services… a decision that could also provoke even more frustration among the Iranians and lead to protests against the regime.

It seems likely for some of the sabotage acts that took place so far to have been made through cyber attacks. This means that there are Iranians in the country who are involved in organizing these attacks and in physically planning and placing the explosives in certain places. Is not just that such a situation signals resources, but it is also suggesting the unprecedented risks the US and Israel took. And this is where the biggest challenge for the Tehran authorities emerge: if the CIA and Mossad were behind some of the incidents, what’s the proper retaliation strategy?

 II. Libya - Cairo approves the military intervention. Are they also going to implement it?

The Egyptian parliament has authorized, last week, the troops’ intervention outside the country, after country’s president, Abdel el-Sisi, has threatened the Turkey’s forces from Libya with military actions.

According to an official press release, it was unanimously approved “deploying members of the Egyptian armed forces on combat missions outside the country's borders to protect Egyptian national security (…) against criminal armed militias and foreign terrorist elements”. The deployments will be done on a “Western front” – a reference to Egypt’s Western neighbor, Libya. This move could bring Egypt and Turkey, which support rival camps in the civil war from Libya, to a direct confrontation.

Egypt, along with the United Arab Emirates and Russia, is supporting the Eastern camp, militarily represented by the National Libyan Army, led by the controversial Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who, last month, abandoned an offensive over the Libyan capital after Turkey intensified its support for Tripoli. Cairo executed air attacks over the armed groups from Libya since the revolt in the Libyan country started, in 2011, and supported Haftar since 2014, when he created a military force in the East, aiming at fighting against Islamists and taking over the control of the country. But sending the fight troops on land would be a major escalation…

On July 18th, the National Agreement Government’s forces, which is internationally recognized and led by prime-minister Fayez al-Sarraj, went to Sirte city, when most of the Libyan oil terminal are, to take the control of this strategic city the Libyan National Army’s forces controls.

Egypt’s president warned since June that any attack over Sirte or the al-Jufra military air base would push Cairo to interfere militarily to protect its Western border with Libya.

In a resolution adopted on July 13th, the Representatives Chamber (the Libyan parliament from Tobruk, which supports the LNA forces) has asked the Libyan and Egyptian armed forces to “work together to guarantee the defeat of the invader and keep the common national security against the dangers the Turkish occupation represents”. At a Cairo meeting, on July 16th, with the Egyptian president, the leaders of the Libyan tribes asked Sisi to authorize Egypt’s armed forces to “interfere to protect the national security of Libya and Egypt”. Sisi showed his support to this matter, saying that Sirte and the Al-Jufra military base are a red line for Egypt.

On Monday, July 20, in Cairo, Egyptian parliamentarians unanimously approved a military intervention in Libya, following the Article 152 of the Constitution, which states that "the supreme leader of the armed forces will not declare war or send troops abroad to undertake combat missions but only with the approval of the National Defense Council and the approval of a two-thirds majority of parliamentarians”.

It is true that Egypt is going through a number of military options to counter the advance of the forces loyal to National Agreement Government and the Turkish ally, but what is the probability of implementing such an option? Turkey has openly announced its intention to intervene militarily and deployed troops, in December, last year. During this period, for almost eight months, Egypt has not intervened to block Ankara's actions.

The deployment of Egyptian ground troops would lead to an endless war. The human and financial costs of such a war could destabilize a regime that is already facing other major problems, such as the Nile dam on Ethiopia, the coronavirus pandemic, the economic crisis and the deteriorating situation in Sinai. On the other hand, Turkey is a NATO member, which could prevent Egypt from taking decisive action.

But if, however, the two countries with comparable military powers engage in a direct, long-running conflict, the winners will be completely different: arms exporters, insurgent groups in Egypt and Turkey, and regional powers. from the Middle East.

III. Syria – parliamentary elections with reduced presence. Are the Syrians done with Bashar’s regime?

The Ba'ath party of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies won an expected majority of positions in the July 19 parliamentary elections. These elections were initially scheduled for April, but have been postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The turnout was reduced, 33% comparing to 57% in 2016, despite allowing voting for members of the army and police. The election of candidates was made under the control of the Ba'ath party, the election exercise becoming more than just a process controlled by the regime to represent itself as a legitimate authority. However, there are some changes compared to the previous elections ...

Unlike the previous elections (2016), the 2020 elections were conducted after a two-round electoral system. Initially, the Ba'ath Party and the other parties that make up the National Progressive Front (NPF) nominated their own candidates, each branch presenting a list of names, wherefrom the Ba'athist central leadership selected candidates for the "National Unity" list, which participated in the general elections. The idea of ​​this initial selection was to test the popularity and support of each candidate in the Ba'ath Party.

After using the first round to draw the political landscape, Assad canceled these initial elections, saying they would be used only as an indicator. The first tour organized at the end of June was canceled on July 2. On July 4, the Ba'ath Party announced the list of candidates for various governorates, presenting names of people who had not even run before.

The places in Parliament are divided between the Ba'ath Party, other parties and independents. Initially, 181 NPF seats were reserved, but later two more were added, for a total of 183, with 166 for the Ba'ath Party and 17 for other parties, while the remaining 67 seats were for independents. However, many candidates from the Syrian Socialist Party (SSNP), which is part of the NPF, ran as independents.

For the first time, the army and police were allowed to vote, according to a 2016 law. But despite the mandatory vote for members of the army, police and government in the workplace, the official turnout announced by the justice minister was 33%. At some polling stations, especially those in schools, for ordinary citizens (as opposed to state employees), no voters showed up. Such low participation, despite coercive measures, even in Christian and Alawite areas, may indicate growing dissatisfaction with the regime.

It is worth mentioning the larger Armenian representation (three seats), with an Armenian candidate right on the list of the Ba'ath party, despite the fact that it is an Arab nationalist party. This may indicate that Bashar seeks to build better relations with Armenia in opposition to Turkey, purchase old Soviet military equipment still in Armenia's possession and, last but not least, reward the Armenian community for its contribution to defending the regime. On the other hand, the regime removed the influential leaders of the Kurdish community, replacing them with insignificant people.

It is important to mention that the electoral process was structured in such a way that would allow regime’s manipulation. First of all, anyone can vote anywhere. There is no list of registered voters at each polling station. Therefore, anyone can vote more than once and there is no name verification mechanism. In addition, any party or candidate wishing to run must list the names of its candidates after those of the Ba'ath party, for example, any candidate will automatically promote the names of Ba'ath members from their governorate to their own list.

Thus, we cannot talk about a democratic representation in the parliament… and it seems that not even the sympathizers of the regime trust it anymore!

Translated by Andreea Soare