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06 ianuarie 2020 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT - Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 1 of 2020)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. UNITED STATES - IRAN. The commander of Quds Force – the elite of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, General Qassem Suleimani, was killed by the United States. II. UKRAINE - RUSSIA. Prisoner exchange. III. RUSSIA – BELARUS. The crisis between the two “State Union” countries continues. IV. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA’s electorate social – political orientations. V. Developments to track this Week 2 of 2020.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. UNITED STATES - IRAN. The commander of Quds Force – the elite of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, General Qassem Suleimani, was killed by the United States.

Al Quds, the elite forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are often involved in foreign operations. On January 1st, its commander, General Qassem Suleimani was killed by an American drone which fired upon the convoy transporting him near Baghdad International Airport. General Suleimani had arrived from Syria to Baghdad for discussions with Iraqi pro-Iranian Shia militias and with pro-Iranian Iraqi officials. Suleimani’s influence in Iraq is quite important, since he decided, in fact, the latest Iraqi government and the onset of reprisals against recent anti-government, respectively anti-Iranian protests by Iraqi population.

The attack[1] was conducted with an American MQ-9 Reaper drone / Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) assisted by an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. The drone launched four missiles, likely Hellfire, on the two-car convoy transporting General Suleimani and a couple of pro-Iranian Iraqi militia leaders. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of Mobilization Front pro-Iranian militia was also killed in this attack. The action was conducted in the context of recent Iranian attacks against United States on Iraqi territory. It also appears as response to the January 2nd pro-Iranian militia assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. That assault took place after the American forces in Iraq had conducted an air attack against a pro-Iranian Shia militia base and killed 25 combatants. That militia is responsible for the December 29th missile attack against an American base, where a contractor was killed, and four GIs were wounded.   

The United States claimed the attack and explained that the action stopped Suleimani from coordinating further Iranian attacks endangering American lives[2]. The explanation is arguable, considering that not everything can be proved publicly. The Pentagon was the first to justify the action by the need to prevent other Iranian attacks on American targets in Iraq and in the region. Then, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented political reasons (IRGC is declared as terrorist organization by the U.S.) and the message that “de-escalation is the United States' principal goal”. This message is supplemented by President Donald Trump’s threats that Iran would pay for any attack against the United States, and 52 targets in Iran have already been selected, including High Value Targets, read Iranian political and religious leaders![3]

Partly for good reason, Iranian leaders described this attack as an act of war. Threats from Tehran poured continuously. For example,  Maj. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, military adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader, told CNN on January 4th: "If he says 52 we say 300... No American military staff, no American political center, no American military base, no American vessel will be safe”.

However, Tehran is cautiously calculating its moves, as the Unites States is determined to respond as advertised. For the moment, the only response was the ongoing missile attacks by Shia militias against American targets, without casualties, and a diplomatic offensive aimed at portraying the United States as the perpetrator of an action equivalent to an act of war (well, Iran did the same in many occasions, the only difference is that United States admitted its action). Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif called the attack “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation. The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism” (rather tough language by the representative of a regime which did not come shy of any “rogue adventurism” cunningly protected by Zarif’s pragmatic diplomacy).

This attack marks an important change in Trump Administration’s strategy toward Iran, as hitherto economic pressure was preferred (the sanctions introduced after the U.S. had withdrawn from the nuclear deal) and military actions were avoided. The United States change to military means represents a major escalation in the conflict opposing the two nations: it is the first time when the United States conducts a kinetic attack resulting in human victims, the elimination of the most important Iranian military leader. The consequences are significant, and the shock wave threatens the whole region and beyond. Trump Administration took decisive measures by starting to deploy troops of the 82 Airborne Division in the region (likely mostly to Kuwait) and, perhaps, other naval and air assets, such as the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD-5), and embarked 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The 82 Airborne paratroopers will apply the new deployment model, called the Immediate Response Force, which emphasizes joint operations and brings more air assets, cyber capabilities and logistical support.

At home, Trump faced a negative reaction from the Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says in a letter to colleagues that the House will vote this week on a War Powers Resolution to limit President Trump’s military actions regarding Iran. He can easily overcome such reactions though, considering that most Americans will support his decision. International first reactions reflected the relations of respective countries with the United States led by Donald Trump: Israel celebrated… but also raised the readiness of its military, expecting an Iranian attack; the European heavyweights (UK, France), led by… Germany requested restraint and warned about the negative consequences at regional level, without condemning the attack; Russia and China condemned the attack and called for restraint. The Arab nations adversary to Iran issued declarations dressed to conceal their satisfaction that Suleimani was killed. In a difficult position, Iraq is both object of influence and place of confrontation between the two sides and offered reactions across the board, from indignation and threats by Iran’s allies to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s restraint, and satisfaction by part of the population (Shia!), whose protests were recently repressed (under Suleimani’s coordination).

Most likely, Iran will respond by military actions of pro-Iranian Shia militia in Iraq and in other parts of the Middle East. However, a kinetic attack against American assets and interests wherever in the world cannot be ruled out, for as long as Tehran is able to conduct such response. We will likely witness low key actions of feeling the adversary by Iran, and possibly by cyber-attacks, in cautiously planned actions, with a strong plausible deniability in order to preclude a direct open conflict with the United States (despite Tehran rhetoric, Iran is not prepared for an open confrontation, let alone an all-out war).

Bottom line, the first who cynically applied the “go-ahead-no-matter-what” tactic, Suleimani, found his nemesis in Donald Trump, who proved to be equally determined and cynical, to the relief of Iran adversaries[4]. We are to see now what move Iran will do: when, how, and where Tehran will strike. The United States is awaiting and will respond adequately. One way or another, (kinetic, hybrid, cyber – any Greek word), the escalation to de-escalation will take place, and Iran takes the “main credit” for that, while President Trump decided to “bring his contribution” by eliminating Suleimani. Mediation efforts, such as by Germany, cannot be ruled out, but they will only delay further developments. Iranian Foreign Ministry communicated that “Iran does not want war”. True, but the same Iran wants to attack the United States (and not admitting to), and it openly wants to destroy Israel. Baghdad already made a political move, with Iraqi Parliament passing a resolution calling for withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country. How about the Iraqi pro-Iranian militias, which, although Iraqi, get orders from Tehran?


II. UKRAINE - RUSSIA. Prisoner exchange.

On December 29th, Ukraine and Russia conducted an important prisoner exchange. Officially, the exchange occurred between Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists. Ukraine released 124 individuals in exchange for 76 Ukrainians (Ukrainian Presidency issued a list of 12 soldiers and 64 civilians). This exchange marks an important step toward increasing mutual trust between the two sides, Ukraine and Russia, but not an element of essence in solving the conflict.

Negative reactions appeared in Ukraine, not regarding the exchange per se, but regarding the persons released by Ukraine. At Moscow request, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy agreed to set free five members of Berkut troops, involved in shooting protesters in the 2014 Maidan Square protests, and several pro-Russian individuals accused of having committed criminal and terrorist acts. Zelenskiy was criticized by his countrymen for releasing these individuals and was accused of disparaging valid laws by letting criminals and terrorists escape punishment by Ukrainian justice. A large part of Ukrainian public saw Zelenskiy’s decision to yield to Russian request as an unacceptable concession by President Zelenskiy. The deal was also considered a proof of Russia’s meddling in terrorist acts committed on Ukrainian territory, respectively in repressing the Maidan Square protests. Otherwise, why would Moscow be interested in having such individuals freed by Kyiv? Of course, as soon as they reached Russia, they claimed their… innocence.  

As mentioned in our December 31st issue, on December 30th, Ukraine and Russia signed a gas transit agreement for five years. The contract says that Ukraine is to get about $7 billion for transit services and receive 65 billion cubic meters of gas in 2020, then 40 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year between 2021 and 2024. The contract also stipulates Russia’s payment of $2.918 billion representing the compensation which Ukrainian Neftogaz was entitled to receive, as ruled by the Arbitration Court in Stockholm. Later, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy congratulated each other by telephone for the prisoner exchange and the gas contract.

Both the prisoner exchange and signing the gas transit contract represent important steps towards establishing a minimal level of trust between Russia and Ukraine, respectively between Putin and Zelenskiy. However, circumstantial elements cannot be ignored: Moscow needs to show openness (without yielding anything in fact) after the Paris meeting in Normandy Format, and to accept the gas transit arrangement not as much for European purely political pressure, but for softening the… American pressure, as Washington is blocking, for the moment, Nord Stream 2 pipeline, as well as the Bulgarian segment of TurkStream pipeline. Zelenskiy yielded by releasing individuals accused for serious felonies but obtained what was necessary, he demonstrated openness to the French and the Germans, but especially to Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, the crucial element, a cease-fire agreement for the contact line in Donbass was not achieved, and there are slim chances to be achieved, as Russia intends to keep its main tool working, and this is its military pressure. 


III. RUSSIA – BELARUS. The crisis between the two “State Union” countries  continues.

On January 4th, oil industry representatives of the two countries announced that Russian oil delivery to Belorussian refineries was resumed following Belarus’s decision to eliminate a transit tax beginning with January 1st, 2020. Belarus agreed to renounce a premium tax applied to Russian oil. The agreement should allow continued operation of Belarussian refineries only during January. Belarussian state company Belneftekhim announced that "documents are being drawn up... together with a Russian company to pump the first batch of oil, purchased at a price without premium".

The deadlock was overcome after a phone conversation on January 4th, between the two prime ministers, Dmitry Medvedev and Siarhei Rumas. On December 31st, Minsk and Moscow also agreed a price for Russian natural gas, yet only for two months, January and February.

Dependency of these two nations works two ways: the same as Ukraine, Belarus is dependent on Russian gas, while Russia depends on transiting its gas through Belarus. However, in case of Belarus, the problem is valid for Russian oil too. A halt in Russian oil delivery would afflict both Western Europe and especially Belarussian refineries, which depend on Russian deliveries in proportion of 80%.

Thus, at least temporarily, a thrilling saga ended, after lasting since the last days of 2019 with announcements by Moscow of stopping then allowing oil delivery, mirrored by whining and threats of blocking transit to Western Europe, from Minsk. At least for one month for oil, respectively two months for gas, Belarus has its deliveries from Russia secured. Practically, the Kremlin keeps Minsk on a short leash, Belarus needing to negotiate again for further deliveries, under the spectrum of current deadline.

In fact, the problem is political, of course. Russia wants the two countries integration accepted by Minsk and is no longer ready to deliver cheap energy to Belarus while President Lukashenka keeps opposing integration. Belarussian president attempted to blackmail Moscow with blocking the transit and to seek political alternatives, even opening a bit to the West. In fact, his options are limited, so he will have to yield, more or less. Should he not make concessions, we will witness a Belarussian crisis firmly managed by the Kremlin. Although less visibly, Moscow will not accept to lose Belarus as it happened with Ukraine. In this case, Russia has better chances because Belarus is weaker, and is frozen by Lukashenka in the stage of isolated dictatorship. If Lukashenka sees that, he will try to escape isolation and look for support while bracing himself up to face Russia.


IV. REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA’s electorate social – political orientations.

The Institute for Public Policies of Republic of Moldova (RM) produces one of the most precise and relevant polls in the country, both for political and social issues. Its “Public Opinon Barometer” published on December 31st, 2019, has a peculiar significance for being relevant in describing the grey period since this country entered under Igor Dodon’s leadership.

Regarding the direction RM is going, the verdict is clear: almost two thirds of inhabitants (65.9%) think that the country steers toward a wrong direction, and only 23.9% consider the direction is appropriate. Social problems that mostly concern the Moldovans are, in this order: poverty, prices, children’s future, corruption, and unemployment. It is interesting that people identify not only the problem, but also its cause (corruption). As actions meant to fix the situation, RM population proposes political and economic measures: fight corruption, attract foreign investments, improve law implementation, as well as industrial and agricultural development. Only 28% of RM inhabitants are content with their living standard. The image outlined by these polls shows a society deeply discontent of its current and future situation, as the Moldovan society is overwhelmed by basic shortcomings.

RM population gets information through TV channels Moldova 1 (RM), Pervyi Kanal (Russia), Jurnal TV (RM), PROTV (RM) and Publika TV (RM), and on-line from RM sites in Russian language (KP), Romanian language (Unimedia, Protv), and from Russian sites ( Although relying minly on national sources, public information reamins rather largely under the influence of Russian or Russian language information providers.

Population confidence lies in order with the church, city hall, mass-media, military, the president, police, banks, and the intelliegence agency SIS, while the political parties hold the caboose position. Population trust in political institutions is limited: for the president, confidence rises to only 26.7%, with 69% offering only little or no trust at all; for the Parliament, only 14.3% offer confidence, while 77.2% have only limited or no confidence at all. Overall, there is little confidence in the main state institutions, and the least goes to the political parties.

37.3% of Moldovans trust Igor Dodon, and 53.9% mistrust him, while Maia Sandu gets confidence from 30.3% of the population, with 60.1% mistrusting her. In the head to head race between them, Igor Dodon has a significant advantage, but shy from guaranteeing victory. An important percentage, 40% of the population, are not decided either to whom they would cast their ballots, or whether to vote at all. Having to choose from a list of seven important political parties, RM electorate would now vote: 43% with the governing Socialists (PSRM); 27% with the democratic opposition PAS; 12% with the opposition... supporting the power, the Democrats (PDM); 5% with another party of the democratic opposition, PPDA; 5% with Shor Party allied with the PDM; 5% with the Communists (PCRM); and 5% with a unionist party, PN. Thus, the Socialists seem to reach a remarkable level of confidence, but the parliamentary elections are far away.


V. Developments to track this Week 2 of 2020.

► LIBYA. Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Ankara (January 8th) is decisive for Recep Erdoğan’s decision regarding the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya.

CHINA - UNITED STATES. On January 15th, the two countries will sign of the first phase of their bilateral trade agreement, which marks a small but important step. The bilateral relations are worth watching also on the backdrop of presidential elections in Taiwan.

► UNITED STATES - EURASIA. If it is not postponed again, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tour Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Cyprus will be relevant for United States policy in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

► ARMENIA. The head of Armenia’s Constitutional Court has been arrested, and this marks another step in the fight between current and previous power. It is interesting to watch for how long Moscow can be patient.

► BOSNIA - HERZEGOVINA. By arresting the former minister of security, for embezzlement, Milorad Dodik just took revenge on his rivals, and a row among Serbian Bosnians is announced. Or is it just a one-off case?

► SPAIN. The Socialists, supported by left-wing populists, Podemos, will likely achieve to get their government voted on January 7th, considering that Catalan separatist representatives (ERC) will forfeit the voting session. What did the Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, promise in exchange? 

► ISRAEL. Will Benjamin Netanyahu obtain the immunity he requested to a parliament where he does not hold the necessary majority? Anyway, by asking such decision, he got an important postponement of his trial.

[1] Very likely, the operation was complex, with redundant components, in order to maximize the chances to eliminate the target. It certainly included complex C4ISR elements, probably with ground support for identifying and lighting the target. The Apache helicopter increased both identification probability and target impact: the human element remains decisive for success of such actions, and the Apache was instrumental for a successful operation, especially in a “busy radio-electronic environment” such as Baghdad is. As per available public information, a direct hit from the Apache AH-64 crew cannot be ruled out. However, even only close surveillance by the Apache crew diminished the danger of  hostile interference with drone signals. Before being a precise attack with Hellfire missiles, the action reveals a longer perfect tactical intelligence operation, a successful Electronic Warfare action, as well as a perfect synchronization in network centric warfare, from sensors (including human) to the platform whence the missiles were fired.  As for electronic protection, only amateurs would ignore such measures for such important asset, and Iranians are anything but amateurs!

[2] Washington declared Suleimani accountable for the death of hundreds of American soldiers killed in Iraq by pro-Iranian militias, as well as in other anti-American operations conducted across the Middle East. The Pentagon singled out Suleimani as the individual accountable for having “orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months”, including the attack where the American contractor was killed, and also the one who “approved the attacks” on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. During this latter attack, hostile protesters penetrated the security perimeter and started fires, later withdrawing as result of orders from pro-Iranian militia leaders, the same who had ordered the assault. However, the other side of the coin shows that Suleimani also coordinated the fight against ISIS, especially in Iraq, but also in Syria (it is true, the enemy was then everything Sunni, not only the Sunni terrorists).

[3] The United States is a quick learner, and Russian tactic of escalating to de-escalate was adopted by Washington: the American threat to use force in order to prevent the use of force by Iran. The United States killed not only the most effective Iranian leader, but also the myth of the Shia leader who can do anything and get away with it, when acting in the name of the country and simply denying any action in opposition to international laws.

[4] In fact, to the relief of the free world who, short of openly recognizing it, is content of Trump’s decision: “albeit cynic, he is our cynic”.