MAS Special ReportWeekly review

Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

24 septembrie 2019 - Special reports - Weekly review

D.S.M. WEEKLY REPORT Main Political and Military Developments (WEEK 38 of 2019)

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

I. IRAN – UNITED STATES. The hybrid war is spiraling up. II. ISRAEL. Parliamentary elections produced tight results. III. FRANCE - ITALY. President Emmanuel Macron visits Rome. IV. RUSSIA. Military activities. V. Developments to track this Week 39 of 2019.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. IRAN – UNITED STATES. The hybrid war is spiraling up.

Two important developments point to a decisive increase of tensions in the Persian Gulf: the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s main oil production centers with drones and cruise missiles, and the accusations brought by the United States to Iran for having committed these aggressions. Since this massive kinetic attack on Saudi strategic infrastructure, Washington will find it difficult to avoid responding manu militari. In absence of a military response, the United States risks losing deterrence capability as well as credibility in the eyes of its fresh Sunni alliance in the region. However, current picture shows both parties making steps towards… avoiding a conflict, although they still stretch their rhetoric. Anyway, a meeting between the two presidents is now out of the question.

On September 14th, Saudi Arabia’s most important oil production installations in Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked with drones and cruise missiles and suffered significant damages. The attacks were claimed by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are at war with Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s oil production was seriously afflicted, and the attacks diminished even the world oil production by 5%. Crude price spiked quickly, and it was limited only by the United States’ announcement of opening its strategic oil reserves. Economic consequences of these attacks will be relatively quickly overcome, as the oil production installations are to be repaired in a few weeks. However, the effects upon the market show that a point was proven: the world oil market is fragile, since Saudi Arabia proved unable to protect its strategic energy infrastructure.

Right away, the United States accused Iran for this attack, and gradually clarified and documented the accusations by hard evidence. Washington presented imagery showing that cruise missiles and drones stroke the north-western side of the targets. State Secretary Mike Pompeo already presented the conclusions in Riyadh, where he described the attack as an act of war by Iran against Saudi Arabia (authorities in Riyadh immediately embraced this conclusion). However, the United States waits for the Saudi investigation results; so far, the Saudis only proved that cruise missiles and drones were manufactured by Iran.

The United States announced the establishment of a coalition aimed at maintaining peace in the Persian Gulf, as well as measures to consolidate its ally defense, including by deploying American troops and military equipment. Also, Washington made clear its support to Saudi Arabia for any response measures Riyadh would decide. The U.S. will likely seek to make Saudi Arabia and its allies respond but Washington will not take the lead (Obama’s “leading from behind” pattern!). Worst for Iran, the United States extended the sanctions to the maximum, by including Iran’s National Bank as well as other currency resources which were still accessible to Tehran.

Iran rejected and mocked the accusations, but also warned about the consequences of a military attack against it (they would lead to a wider “all-out war”). Tehran combined these warnings with a show of force (a naval parade), but also with apparently appeasing measures: Iran announced a plan to increase security in the Gulf, document to be presented to the United Nations General Assembly. Interestingly, the Houthi rebels announced their intention to cease fire and initiate peace negotiations. It seems that Iran is inviting to a resumption of diplomatic dialogue, probably being worried it jumped the gun, and a military response is possible. Iran also victimized itself by warning about consequences of uncalled for U.S. sanctions on the Iranian population[1].  

In fact, both sides escalated the tensions: Iran dared to commit such attack, although it did not admit it, and the United States imposed dreadful economic sanctions in response. Only fear of a real conflict with disastrous outcome forestalls the beginning of war, considering that U.S. deploys new forces to Saudi Arabia, consolidates Saudi air and missile defense, and build a coalition meant to preserve peace in the Gulf, while Iran, subjected to tough economic sanctions, deems that aggressive military actions, by proxies or directly, are the solution to this situation. Remarkably, both sides conducted attacks which did not cause casualties, just damages, by using autonomous combat  systems (Unmanned Aerial Systems and cruise missiles). In addition, learning from Russia, Iran did not admit committing attacks breaching international laws.

President Trump reached the moment of deciding a military response: exactly where he did not want to go. Meanwhile, the Ayatollah regime in Tehran reached the point where it must admit what it systematically avoided, the war it is waging for decades, in the whole Middle East, either as hybrid warfare or by proxies. President Donald Trump will either postpone a decision, or he will dilute the response. However, a decision regarding a military response, larger or smaller, cannot be easily avoided, because the implications of current developments are too large.

We are getting near the failure of two risky strategies, because both sides have ignored or underestimated the adversary response: the Trump Administration strategy of exerting economic and political pressure on Iran, considering that Tehran would yield without committing military actions against America’s allies in the region; Iran’s strategy of considering it can act unhampered, by using all means at its disposal, in order to promote the Islamic Republic’s agenda in the Middle East. Tehran even pursues the nuclear weapon without facing any military opposition, counting too much on President Trump’s reticence to wage war.

Because both sides are on the brink of beginning a direct military confrontation, although having not intended that, they will likely reconsider their respective strategies. A diplomatic ballet is to follow now, probably including in the U.N. Security Council, but this is just the prelude of an inevitable conflict, although not wanted by either side. Stunningly, Iran must move first, because the United States is not under time pressure: the sanctions work for Washington, and President Trump avoids taking “Obama in Syria”- type decisions. However, both options, peace and war, are bad for Iran.

As a consequence of Trump Administration policy (it behaved as if not needing allies), Washington will likely find out it has not too many allies at its side. Iran will also find out that Russia and China are not ready to touch the hot potato. Therefore, Tehran will find itself isolated and about to take the heat alone for its actions.

Anyway, the next step is the Saudi investigation, with international participation (France sent experts and U.N. representatives will assist). This indicates the American – Saudi strategy of going international, in order to get the necessary diplomatic support, including at the United Nations, to later apply a coercion strategy against Iran. This is Washington’s likely goal. The question is whether Washington’s response will include military actions or not: the chances of direct strikes, with autonomous means (cruise missiles or drones) are slim, but such attack cannot be ruled out, though. The key factor to be considered by the United States in deciding on such attack is to avoid causing human casualties.


II. ISRAEL. Parliamentary elections produced tight results.

The parliamentary elections in Israel, on September 17th, had no clear winner, and the stalemate continues. “King” Benjamin Netanyahu gambles his fate by navigating the best he can, but his situation is worse than after the previous elections. He is not yet defeated, but he lost control of the developments. Both center-left opposition leader, Benny Gantz, and the kingmaker, Avigdor Liberman, made clear their sturdy positions. However, finding a governing solution cannot be ruled out, and chances of repeated elections are low, because new elections would very likely produce the same results.

Behind decisions on Netanyahu’s political (and penal!) future, there is a larger struggle, that of Israel’s future: a secular state or a state where the religious component advances into political territory. In other terms, it will be either a state choosing a radical solution (annexing territories and rejecting the two-state solution), or a state which still offers chances of peace with the Palestinians.

The turnout was high, almost 70%, and the main theme of the campaign was national security, not the economy (which performs very well, although, due to the budgetary deficit, certain taxes might increase).

The results were a bad surprise for Benjamin Netanyahu, as the center-left group “Blue and White”, led by his rival Benny Gantz, ranked first, with 33 seats in the Parliament (Knesset), followed by Netanyahu’s Likud, with 31 seats. Ultranationalist and secularist Avigdor Liberman’s party, Israel Beytenu gained eight seats and consolidated its kingmaking position. Meanwhile, the Arabs were enough united on the “Common List” to obtain 13 seats[2]. Netanyahu’s strategy produced a counterproductive effect on these two last mentioned political groups, because the measures Netanyahu took[3] led to their gains. The second place that Likud got is more worrisome because Netanyahu brought some right-wing parties along his Likud, and the electorate did not react positively.

However, Netanyahu can rally the religious right-wing parties to form a center-right coalition of 57 seats, while Benny Gantz can form a center-left coalition of 55 seats (which the Arabs might support, but not be accepted in the government). Avigdor Liberman described the hypothesis of being part of a government supported by the Arabs as absurd. Although this statement only reiterates Israel Beytenu’s traditional ultranationalist policy, it comes as bad as possible to Benny Gantz.

To avoid new elections, a minimum 61 seat support is needed in the Knesset. Therefore, the are only three solutions: national unity government; Liberman joins the center-right coalition; Liberman joins the center-left coalition. As explained above, having Liberman joining the center-left coalition is very little likely, because of the Arab leaning. On the other hand, Liberman, who previously partnered with Netanyahu in the govern, now put a set of conditions which require not only maintaining the secular state but deepening this feature for Israel. This is, of course, in contradiction with the religious right-wing parties in coalition with Likud. The chances of having a Liberman – Likud coalition are very slim, because, in order to secure the invitation to form a government, Netanyahu already established a coalition with the religious parties.

The problem of a would-be national unity government is… Netanyahu himself. Both parties, the “Blue and White” and Likud, would not oppose such arrangement, but would lead it? Netanyahu cannot think of missing the position of prime minister, because he can dodge the danger of being indicted only as long as he is prime minister. This comes together with his intention to pass a law granting him immunity, but the chances of such trick diminished considerably. This is the reason for which his proposal to Benny Gantz about forming a national unity government was rejected, on solid grounds, it was a “poisonous apple”.

Although  he remains a key political player, Netanyahu became a problem both for the Israeli political stage, in general, and for his party in particular, by linking the political decisions to his personal fate, not only his political fate, but also the penal future. This became more obvious when Netanyahu took measures to secure the loyalty of his party’s members of Knesset, as well as the support of religious right-wing parties (written commitments regarding measures to be taken to protect him through an adequate future law). Of course, there is a price, concessions to religious parties, but these alienated him from a secularist leader, albeit right-wing, Avigdor Liberman.

Of course, there is a deadlock, but one never knows where a solution can surface. In this regard, rumors have their value: Bibi Netanyahu is said he would suggest being ready to quit the competition if he receives a guarantee that no criminal prosecution will commence against him; although he denied, Liberman would have suggested he preferred Gantz as prime minister; President Reuven Rivlin would propose original ways out; Likud would have changed its strategy to preferring first to see Gantz unable to form a governing coalition.

For the first time in decades, “King Bibi” is not in control of the situation. Even Netanyahu’s label of being “the man who secures the country’s safety” is fading now, after information has surfaced that he would have intended to trigger a conflict in Gaza just for postponing the elections (it seems that the military leaders were those who opposed such course of action). Netanyahu’s image of great friend with the world’s top leaders is no longer holding water either: from his meeting with Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu did not achieve much; much worse, Trump tried to put distance to Netanyahu (allegedly Donald Trump suggested he was talking to “Israel’s prime minister”, not necessarily to Netanyahu)[4].

Despite these snags, Netanyahu has shaped Israel’s political life so deeply, even the society and the state, in its entirety, that he cannot be easily shed, even if that would be the only way to unlock the situation. He might preserve his ability to negotiate a solution, but his chances to succeed are very slim. And without a solution, snap elections are to be expected again. Although the moment to leave has not yet arrived, Netanyahu’s fall already began, and this matters when seeking a solution.


III. FRANCE - ITALY. President Emmanuel Macron visits Rome.

After a period of political tensions between the two countries, Paris considered that the time for relaunching bilateral relations has arrived. Meanwhile, Rome has a new government, with a different attitude towards the European Union and regarding current problems (migration). The bilateral relations were relaunched towards the traditional high level, which lasted for decades between the two nations. Thus, France opens Italy’s path to resume its proper place – the third European power (considering UK out). Of course, the problems persist, but the very rapprochement between the two nations opens the way to solve these problems. Thus, solutions for migration and Libya were put on the table, although it is little likely these solutions will be easily implemented. More important, although they did not insist upon it, the ground was established for identifying solutions to Italy’s financial problems, with EU support. 

Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Rome, on September 18th, focused on the meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. They talked about the issues mentioned above, and Macron declared that “the Franco-Italian friendship is indestructible. We do not always agree with each other. We might quarrel or fail to see eye-to-eye. But we always get back together”.

On migration, the two countries consider that EU should adopt a new transfer system to automatically send the migrants rescued from the Mediterranean Sea to EU member countries[5]. Prime minister Conte declared he had French support for this system, which is supposed to automatically redistribute among the 28 EU member nations the migrants arriving in Italy and rescued in the Mediterranean Sea. Macron declared that European countries which refuse to take part in this system should be seriously fined. Italy permanently complained it was left to face the Mediterranean migration wave alone and, for the first time, France shares this concern. Macron showed sympathy to Italy: “I do not underestimate what Italy has been experiencing since 2015. It has also suffered many misunderstandings and injustices”.  In exchange, Conte has declared what Macron likes to hear, i.e. that the migration problem should stop feeding the anti-European propaganda.

Even the way the previous Italian government, also led by Conte, responded to the migration problem generated the negative reaction by France (and Germany), which led to serious tensions in bilateral relations. In fact, Macron was the target of Matteo Salvini, the leader of La Liga, but also of DI Maio, the leader of Cinque Stelle. Now in opposition, Matteo Salvini accused France for failing to observe previous commitments. Salvini will likely continue this course of manipulating a naïve Conte, whom he even accused of… treason.

Libya was another issue the two leaders discussed. France and Italy announced a “common initiative” meant to reunite the leaders of warrying parties at the negotiation table. Macron declared that France and Italy closely cooperate in this issue, and there is a “real convergence” between the two countries in this matter. This marks a radical change, considering that Italy had previously accused France for undermining the efforts to find a solution to the civil war in Libya (Italy supports the Islamist power, legally elected in Tripoli, while France supports general Haftar).

The traditionally very good Franco–Italian relations collapsed during the previous Salvini government in Rome, but also Di Maio systematically attacked Macron. Tensions peaked in February, when Paris withdrew its ambassador to Rome (unprecedented event since World War II), after DI Maio met leaders of the “Yellow vests” protest movement. Meanwhile, Di Maio changed his mind and avoided to attack Macron. Now, Emmanuel Macron reacted promptly to the change of government in Rome. Although the new government has common elements with the previous one (same prime minister Conte and support of the Cinque Stelle populist party), the new Cabinet shows a radically changed attitude towards the EU, is pro-European, sheds isolation and cooperates with Brussels and main European nations, counting on them to solve the problems Italy faces. Macron found the perfect opportunity to bring the bilateral relations back to where they always were, at a high level of cooperation.

Nevertheless, the system France and Italy put together for solving migration will be difficult to accept by all European nations. Information circulated about discussions to begin among some European countries, Romania included, but we are still far from having a solution accepted by the majority of European nations. Of course, Visegrad Group nations will oppose, spearheaded by Hungary[6], as well as countries which already host numerous immigrants. Even on Libya, the chances to see the problem solved quickly are quite slim.

France sees the meeting in Rome as a phase in rebuilding the European unity, and Italy as a phase in its effort to escape isolation and return to where it belongs (the circle of the three largest European nations, since UK is leaving). Although important steps towards reconciliation were made, the main problems remain, from migration to Libya and Italy’s poor financial situation. Anyway, this is an important step in finding a balanced solution within the EU, a solution beneficial not only for France and Italy, but for the Union as a whole.


IV. RUSSIA. Military activities. 

While everybody pays attention to “Center 2019” exercise, Russia conducted two other military actions. One of them, the most significant, is the flight of Tu 160 strategic bombers over the Baltic Sea, and the second, already routine, is the close monitoring of an American warship by two Russian warships in the Black Sea.

On September 17th, two Tu 160 strategic bombers flew for about seven hours over the Baltic Sea. At least IVO the Baltic States, they were escorted by Su 27 fighters. The two strategic bombers were intercepted by Belgian F-16 fighters (OPCON NATO mission in the Baltic States), by Polish F-16s, Danish F-16s, Finnish F/A-18s and Swedish Jas-39 Gripen.

The two strategic bomber flight itinerary shows a foray into NATO Area of Responsibility, starting from the Baltic States air space to close to Denmark, and along Finnish, Swedish and Polish coasts.  Very likely, this mission tested the reaction of NATO and non-NATO nations and the way they cooperate in intercepting Russian strategic bombers.

Usually, Tu 22 M3, and more seldom Tu 95 / Tu 142 aircraft were sent into the European Theater of Operations, over the Black Sea or the Baltic Sea. Why did Moscow send now two TU-160 bombers, since they have features recommending their use in other theaters, especially to threaten the United States? Is it an exception (to supplant the lack of Tu 22M3 and Tu 95 bombers), or a new rule, considering their flight autonomy, speed, and the missiles they can fire? We will have more information, considering the number of fighters having intercepted the Russian bombers.

These questions should be considered by the NATO Black Sea littoral nations too. The detail that Russian strategic bombers do not fly over the Black Sea should not comfort the Black Sea countries, for two reasons: 1) this means that Russia considers no threat in this area, although it has declared strategic targets here (Ballistic Missile Defense installations at Deveselu); 2) Russia might have the answer already to the question “Who would intercept our strategic bombers over the Black Sea, and using what?”.

On September 16th, Russian Ministry of Defense announced that frigate Admiral Essen and small missile ship Miraj “conducted an exercise in the Black Sea, where the U.S. rapid transport ship USS Yuma entered on September 15th. The warships practiced alarm, rapid deployment to the target waters and defense of vessels anchored in unprotected areas”. The Russian exercise also included three minesweepers. Previously, the Russian Ministry of Defense had announced that USS Yuma had been closely monitored.

It is interesting to notice that Russian Black Sea Fleet warships do not settle for closely monitoring American warships entering the Black Sea anymore, but they conduct exercises where the Russian warships have a role (this is the message sent in a communiqué covering both events). The USS Yuma is just a rapid transport vessel with no capacity to fire anti-ship missiles. Hence the question why does Russia suggest this would have played the role of aggressor in Moscow’s exercise scenario? Very likely, the communiqué indicates a mission which became routine (we do not only monitor, but also simulate attacks against such warship). It would be interesting to know whether the Black Sea Fleet attributed a significant role to USS Yuma.

The “Center 2019” strategic exercise, far from Romania, unfolded in another theater of operations and in a different strategic context (while Chinese troops were participating in the exercise along the Russian troops, anti-Chinese protests occurred in Kazakhstan). However, some military activities during this exercise are worth noticing, because the Russian troop improved strategic mobility (especially the airborne) are of interest for Romania. So, remarkably, a whole airborne regiment was parachuted (about 2000 soldiers and 200 vehicles) and Iskander systems launched missiles.

For the moment, the tensions in the Black Sea region are low, because Moscow considers that such behavior serves best its political and military actions. However, there is no guarantee that tensions will not increase again, when Moscow deems necessary. Let’s notice that Russia systematically monitors NATO warships entering the Black Sea. The fact that we got used to that does not mean that such behavior is normal. The fact that Russia considers no threats in the Black Sea, although it persists with an aggressive attitude, is proved by the permanent deployment of at least two submarines and two surface warships (corvette and frigate) of the Black Sea Fleet to the Syrian port of Tartous. 


V. Developments to track this Week 39 of 2019.

► TURKEY. The Turco-Russo-Iranian meeting in Ankara did not produce substantial results: Turkey obtained a vague promise of Bashar al-Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, that the offensive in Idlib will be stopped, at least temporarily. In exchange, Ankara was encouraged in its plan to move Syrian migrants from Turkey into the Security Zone established with the United States, although there are still many unknowns regarding the implementation of this solution. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategy to act against the agreements Ankara signed with Washington, but having the support of Washington’s adversaries, Russia and Iran, might produce adverse effects, not only in Turkey’s relations with the United States. Even in Idlib, President Erdoğan will find out how and how much these countries live up to their commitments. The establishment of a council guaranteeing a new Constitution for Syria was discussed as well, but, of course, progress will not be easy, since Bashar al-Assad and his allies cannot yield politically what they so fiercely gained militarily. 

► UNITED STATES. Trump Administration is marked by the appointment of a new national security advisor and by a new scandal. Robert O’Brien comes in the good tradition of conservative Republicans, his book indicates a realistic approach of the international environment, without President Trump’s “exotic” approaches. However, the question pops up whether he will be able to shape Donald Trump’s foreign policy. In the context, this is what America’s adversaries see: Iran executes the attack on Saudi Arabia immediately after John Bolton was dismissed – it is not by chance. The biggest concern in Washington is that President Trump really succeeded what he heralded: to destroy the establishment, in fact the functional mechanism of American institutions. Anyway, the president has no time to notice that, because he is caught in a new scandal for having asked Ukrainian president Zelenskiy to speed up the investigation regarding Joe Biden’s son (in the attempt to use the results against the likely opposing Democrat candidate in the upcoming presidential elections). Although it is not clear how much the president was wrong and how much it is just simply politics, the story itself is a lesson to remember, especially for those who enjoy the confidence that “we can see about our own personal interests, it’s the Americans to defend our country”: although America will remain what it has always been, a nation which guarantees the fundamental security interests of its allies, one should notice that, at least during Trump Administration, there are signs that the sovereignty of a close partner, if not an ally, Ukraine, can be afflicted by a president concerned of his personal interests. On this backdrop, the Zelenskiy – Trump meeting is coming up soon.  

► UNITED KINGDOM. Boris Johnson will come to Brussels to present his proposal to replace backstop. He must negotiate this solution until the October 17th EU Summit, when it needs to be approved (unless he will show up exactly at the Summit to present his proposal like an ultimatum!). At home, his decision to suspend the Parliament sessions is brought to court. October 31st is coming closer, alternative solutions are almost absent, and Boris Johnson’s threat that he will take the country out of the EU resembles a poker game.

[1] Tehran is right, the sanctions have important impact on the Iranian population. However, Iran should have expected such outcome, it knew very well what it was doing. And Iran knew it not recently, but ever since it had no scruples regarding the civilians, from Syrian Arab Sunnis, simply exterminated, to civilian fatalities caused by its wars conducted through proxies. Sad, but Trump Administration strategy to kneel the Tehran regime includes a reaction from the Iranian population against the Ayatollah regime, for being overwhelmed by these hardships. On the other hand, the Ayatollah and Islamic Revolution Guard political regime have a mentality typical for a totalitarian ideological system and its political police: they are the state, and the population is just a decorative element of this power, supposed to obey and suffer.

[2] The other parties obtained: Shas – 9 seats, UTJ – 8 seats, Yamina – 7 seats, Labor Party Gesher – 6 seats, and the Democratic Union – 5 seats. Their positions, both that of right-wing religious parties, and that of left-wing parties leave no doubt which coalition they will join: the former will join Likud, and the latter will join the “Blue and White”.

[3] Netanyahu played the card of vilifying the Arabs and insisted on installing video cameras in the polling stations where the Arabs are in majority. He also met Vladimir Putin and visited Ukraine in order to attract Russian--speaking voters from Liberman. Thus, he ended up uniting the Arabs and alienating the Russian-speaking electorate, who is concerned about the concessions Netanyahu made to the religious parties, respectively to the ultraorthodox.

[4] This stance appears on the background of declarations by a former high official who had accused Netanyahu for manipulating Trump by using segments of truth. If Netanyahu used such means with the leader of United States, what might he have done with other “innocent partners”?

[5] There are disagreements between the two nations, Italy promotes the solution of automatically denying the “economic-based” migrants.

[6] Bad luck for Viktor Orbán: his problems started to pile up exactly when he announced the finalization of his “Christian-Democrat state”. He completely failed his plan to hamper the large European nations by a victory of the far right and the populists in Brussels. The hope called Matteo Salvini lost power and his dialogue with Rome for establishing an anti-Brussels alliance went South. More, Finland insists with the idea to hinge granting European funds on the status of rule pf law, which is a disaster for Budapest. Although Hungary threatens, it cannot resort to a veto to block the European budget, because the very founding act of the EU stipulates that member states must abide by the rule of law. The Europeans have already begun to investigate Orbán’s breaching of rule of law. Of course, a compromise will be reached, and Orbán will present it as a success. Viktor Orbán will see his game working for a while, considering Hungary’s economic and social achievements, as well as the friendship he enjoys from many top political leaders, but Hungary already embarked on the boat called “problem country”.