MAS Special ReportLEVANT: Middle East and North Africa

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DMS Special Report. Middle East and North Africa-December 2018

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

The G20 Summit from Buenos Aires was the perfect occasion for a new meeting between the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the Turkish one, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wherein the main topic was, again, Syria; The diplomatists teams started to find solutions to end the conflict and to ease the humanitarian burden of the 12 million Yemeni; Hinting at it some weeks before, by the prime-minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the “Northern Shield” operation have started in the morning of 4th of December; A court from Cairo will analyze the petition for changing the constitutional provision which restraints the number of presidential mandates; At the GCC reunion from Riyadh, nothing was said about Qatar and the internal crisis of the organization.

Sursă foto: Mediafax


  1. Russia and the US are trying to diplomatically cut the Gordian Knot from the Idlib enclave. Damask is still considering the military solution;
  2. Negotiations at the castle. The Yemeni delegations are negotiating in Sweden, pressured by the humanitarian crisis threat;
  3. The Israeli “Northern Shield” in the pursuit of the Hezbollah “grasses”;
  4. A small petition for a bigger mandate for the leader;
  5. Qatar says “pass” to Riyadh’s reconciliation attempt.


Russia and the US are trying to diplomatically cut the Gordian Knot from the Idlib enclave. Damask is still considering the military solution;

The G20 Summit from Buenos Aires was the perfect occasion for a new meeting between the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the Turkish one, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wherein the main topic was, again, Syria and the rebellious enclave from the North, Idlib. On 2th of December, after this meeting, the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, Serghei Lavrov, was stating that the two leaders agreed on the next steps, necessary for enclave’s demilitarization. The Sochi Treaty, from 17th Of September, was envisaging quite clear which are the phases to be followed in pacifying this Syrian province, but the field realities, as well as the foreign pressures lead to surpass treaty’s deadline.

The discussions between the Defence Ministries from Russia and Turkey, Sergei Shoigu and Hulusi Akar, held at the end of November, brought more clarity[1] regarding the threats against the implementation process of the Sochi Treaty, but could not identify also an immediate solution for the issue.

Probably, the foreseen deadlines will be extended for a few more months, meanwhile:

  • Turkey will continue to consolidate the military and administrative infrastructure dislocated in the province, to prevent a possible attack of regime’s forces, but also to discourage a similar action against the pro-Turkish rebellious forces, the so-called National Liberation Front, from the radical Islamic group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham;
  • Russia will continue to supervise the situation, using the air forces when the attacks of the Islamic extremists are escalating, aiming for a political and diplomatic solution of the crisis, with less military intervention, following the model used in South of Syria whereat the disarmament of the rebellious groups allowed them to recover the territory which was under their control almost by using no force;
  • The Damask regime will continue to place forces at the demarcation line, waiting for a massive challenge from the rebels to use the military force. For president Assad, the march of time has negative consequences, especially after the US imposed sanctions against Iran. No one knows if their impact over the Iranian economy will allows Teheran to military, but also economically support its Mediterranean Sea ally. Hence, the Idlib enclave issue must be resolves as soon as possible, including using the military force;
  • Time’s working against the radical Islamic group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/ HTS, all isolated, hated by the other rebellious groups, having no financial options from the foreign sponsors. In order to survive, they imposed taxes to the population from the controlled territories, they seized refugees’ belongings, they had deployed military operations against the rival Islamic groups. The increasing tensions among the population is about to flare up, which would lead HTS to deploy a military intervention to break the encirclement, or for an offensive of regime’s forces over half of the enclave which is under this group’s control.

The meeting from the beginning of December, between the Russian and the Turkish presidents was focused on these realities, known by both parts, but whose solutions are different for each of them, but who also have different restraints created by the distinct regional agenda.

President Erdogan’s proposal is to organize a new summit, probably in a quadripartite format, like the summit from Istanbul, whereat have participated the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the president of France, Emmanuel Macron. The objective would be the prevention of regime’s military action against the Idlib enclave and the creation of the proper conditions for the forces supported by Turkey in this enclave to be dominant, allowing Ankara to negotiate from a consolidated position in Moscow and Damask’s relations.

For now, the agendas of the European leaders are full of internal topics, which are more urgent, so Syria and its long-lasting conflict are frozen and only presented in Russia and Turkey’s strategic variables which are hoping, both of them, for the winter to be a good “adviser” in the non-violent management of the Idlib enclave control. Damask could, though, have another perspective…


Negotiations as the castle. The Yemeni delegations are negotiating in Sweden, pressured by the humanitarian crisis threat

At the Johannesburg castle, from Rimbo, Sweden, 60km North away from Stockholm, were held, starting with Thursday, 6th of December, the first negotiations, after many failed attempts, between the Yemeni government’s representatives, supported by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and Houthi’s rebels, who are under Iran’s influence. These discussions started after the lately pressures which came from the US, but also after the humanitarian situation from this country got worse.

All parts are interested in ending this conflict, but none is making any progresses towards it, which would actually mean the admission of a symbolic defeat. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) started together this military campaign against the Houthi rebels but, now, they are on different sides in supporting the internal groups; furthermore, there are already some clashed between the separatists from Aden, supported by the UAE, and the Yemeni governmental forces, sponsored by Riyadh. The Yemeni exiled government have showed that they cannot bind, military and politically speaking, in the central and northern area of the country, and the Houthi rebels do not have the military force, neither the political possibility, to surpass the mountainy territory wherein they are ethnically dominated.

Hence, the US clear message, transmitted by the Secretary of Defence, Jim Mattis[2], and the tenacity of Martin Griffiths, the Social Representative of the UN General Secretary for Yemen, was a must for both parts to get to an agreement on starting the negotiations. Some may say that the “Khashoggi business” played an important role in Riyadh’s option for the negotiations and in harshening Washington’s voice against its regional ally.

Certainly, far from fights’ hot ambiance, these two diplomatists’ teams, without actually being face to face, have started to find solutions to end the conflict and to ease the humanitarian burden over the 12 million Yemeni (almost half of the country), which according to the estimations, will need food supplies in the following months.

The first step to that end was agreeing on a treaty for the prisoners’ exchange, people detained by the rival groups or the ones which are currently under house arrest (thousands of people), which is creating the necessary conditions to pass, in the following period, to approaching other negotiation domains also. Martin Griffiths listed some of these: reopening the Sanaa airport, an armistice regarding the military operations from the Hodeida port, West of the country, the main focal point of the last confrontations, a general armistice to be extended also to other regions in the country.

The negotiations from Sweden are seen as a step to increase the trust in conflict’s negotiated formula, this being the reason why they are focused on aspects related to the serious humanitarian situation from this country. Therefor, the success of these negotiations is firstly a signal for the possible series of parleys. There is also the pessimist option: “if these consultations will fail, so it will happen with the hopes to stop Yemen’s collapse”, stated Mohamed Abdi, the director for Yemen of the Refugees Norwegian Council.

At the negotiations opening, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallstrom, transmitted the participants to find the power to get to a compromise: “Now is Yemenis representatives time, you are leading your country’s future”. It is possible for the two parts which are in conflict, but also negotiating, to have never thought on:

  • The pro-Saudi Arabia governmental representatives- how to convince the Americans to re-feed the Saudi bomb aircrafts;
  • Houthi rebels- how many Iranian missiles were left in the mountain barracks;

but to have been interested in finding a solution to end the conflict.

The recommencement of the fights around Taiz city, center of the country, exactly when the negotiations were starting in Sweden, seems to show that it is necessary to be careful with being too optimistic about these negotiations.  Even the UN representatives have underlined that agreeing over some minor aspects could help the ulterior negotiation process. The meeting of the two delegations is actually a step forward in this direction.


The Israeli “Northern Shield” in the pursuit of the Hezbollah “grasses”

After Israel was for many months concerned with the security situation from the South-West border with the Gaza Strip and with the negotiation of a treaty with Hamas, its Northern border’s turn for a large-scale military operation.

Hinting at it some weeks before by the prime-minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, the “Northern Shield” operation have started on the morning of 4th of December[3]. Called the “Northern Shield”, the operation aims, during the two weeks which they estimated to last (Netanyahu though said that the operation will last “for as long as it is necessary”) to identify the tunnels which were dug under the border by the Hezbollah militants and to destroy them. Besides the elimination of the military threats (the tunnels), Israel is trying to convince the allied states, firstly the US, to increase the number and the intensity of the sanctions against Hezbollah, to initiate a new UN resolution against the groups, as well as to highlight the terrorist character of their actions. This is why, they were clear about the operation being deployed exclusively on Israel’s territory and having a defensive character, “defending the state” without crossing the border.

An important element of the operation was the imagological one, the Israeli forces discovering  these tunnels live on the media, in indirect locations, but suggesting to be near some border villages, like Metulla, by using modern equipment and technologies.

The information transmitted live is suggesting that the operation had some targets which were already identifies, existing the possibility for other discoveries to be made. The first discovered tunnel since the very beginning of the operation, as well as the second one, identified Saturday, 8th of December, were not completed and operationalized, which is consolidating the prevention  of this action, something that the Israeli officials underlined too.

Paradoxically, the ex-Israeli prime-minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was the one who criticized the operation, sating that the military reaction from the Northern border should not justify the “lack of action from the South, where, says the Israeli politician, Israel “surrendered against Hamas”, by allowing Qatar to pay the debts of the Palestinians entity. In fact, he thinks that the operation in the North is not an actual military operation, but more like a digging activity.

The issue of the tunnels which were dug under the Israeli border or in territories controlled by Haman and Hezbollah is quite important for the national security establishment, being able to provoke, as previously happened in the conflict with Hamas from 2014, many problems for the military operations.

As for “Northern Shield” operation, it probably has a political constituent too, starting when the prime-minster was charged with a justice file. There is also a continuity of the “anti-Hezbollah file”, by which Netanyahu repeatedly showed for the international public opinion, breaks of the international sanctions made by the Shia Lebanese group, against him and Iran also, as well as proofs of the accelerated increase of the military and technological arsenal that those have.

As for Israel, the Hezbollah threat is, likely, bigger than the ones from the border with the Gaza Strip, this being also the reason why the Israeli prime-minister said that a potential conflict in this area will come with “sacrifices”. To minimalize this perspective which, at some point, is seem to be inevitable, the Israeli Defence Forces are acting to avoid the repetition of the painful military experience from 2014, by blocking from the initial phase any possibility to get infilitrated above or under the border with their unpredictable and pretty imaginative neighbors.


A small petition for a bigger mandate for the leader

Started in the summer of 2018, by a group of Egyptian citizens worried about the future of the country, the petition to get the signatures to bring in front of the court constitution’s modification proposal, have ended. Hence, in 23th of December, a court from Cairo will analyze[4] this petition and the afferent proposals. Among these, we have a really special one: changing the constitutional provision which restrains the number of the Egyptian presidency mandate from two to… we will see. The civil proposal is referring to art. 140 from the Egyptian constitution, proposing a reformulation to allow the reelection also after the two mandates, for as many times as the population will allow it, in all its sectors, through a referendum.

The discussion and the modification of this article was a topic presented in loyalists’ speech of the actual Egyptian president, who proposed the presidential mandate to be increased to 6 years, or to be extended to life.

The coincidence here is that this public discussion about such a process- a public petition- appeared after the reelection of the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, in March 2018, for the second presidential mandate. The initiators of the petition think that the article 140 from the Constitution is “unfair for the great Egyptian nation” and that 8 year are not enough for an elected president to develop great economic and security projects for the country.

The Egyptian judge who will analyze this process will certainly consider these arguments and will offer a wise solution for the initiators of the petition.


Qatar says “pass” to Riyadh’s reconciliation attempt

The 39th Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was held in the absence of Qatar’s Emir, who send the Minister of Foreign Affairs as his representative, the Sultan bin Saad Al Muraikhi. Of course, the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, together with Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, in June 2017, which is still on, but also the place the summit was held in, the Saudi capital, Riyadh, had a thing to say in Doha’s leader decision. The other Arab leaders who were there, especially the Bahrain Sheik, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, who is also the Foreign Affairs Minister, said that the Qatari Emir should have accepted “our fair demands” and be present at the reunion. Qatar responded that they can take decisions by themselves and that he was at the last reunion, from Kuwait, wherein the states which have boycotted him, were not present. The answer was offered by the cabinet director of the Foreign Ministry. And this is how reunion’s agenda ended.

In the final pledge presented to the press in 9th of December, it is said that the GCC will continue to support the Palestinian cause, as well as a political solution for the conflict in Yemen. Concretely, they are thinking about unifying the financial systems until 2025 (a unitary VTA, to avoid part of the current issues in trade exchanges and budgetary deficits), but also about measures to create a unified military command. Nothing on Qatar and the internal crisis of the organization.

The GCC reunions were important in the last period not only for the meetings agenda, but also for positioning Saudi Arabia in the region. Founded in 1981, as an economic and political alliance, dedicated to consolidate the cooperation relations in the security, economy and culture domains, GCC became Saudi Arabia’s tool to promote its role as regional power. The organization was used by Riyadh for an extended projection of its national capabilities, GCC being often incorporated in a necessary annex for Saudi decisions.

This year’s reunion was questioned until the last moment due to the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but also the ad-hoc partnership, economic and military, created between Riyadh and Qatar.

The need to prove that it remains region’s power, as well as the pressure to present an anti-Iran united front, forced Riyadh to send an invitation to Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Khalifa Al Thani, to participate at the reunion. As the internal dispute between the two countries was not, according to media, on reunion’s priorities agenda, the Emir thought that it was not the case to respond them.

There is a common denominator which connects the states which are part of the GCC: the US. All organization’s members are Washington’s allies, this is why the Trump administration tried to mediate the rival groups, failing to hide the asperities between Gulf’s proud leaders. And the result is quite unexpected, even by the US: its NATO ally, Turkey, takes advantage of this internal conflict from GCC to consolidate its connections with Qatar[5]. Qatar leaves the OPEC, stating that it is all for “businesses reasons”, but is actually leaving an organization which is also seen as Riyadh’s economic tool. And Iran made a malicious comment after the GCC summit, through the Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, on Twitter: “The region had already too many strong leaders who started wars and produced misery. We need a stronger region more than we need stronger allies”.