MAS Special ReportLEVANT: Middle East and North Africa

Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

DMS Special Report. Middle East and North Africa- November 2018 (II)

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Sursă foto: Mediafax


  1. Syria- suspect for using toxic substances on the battlefield.
  2. Israel- diplomatic offensive to improve the relations with the Arab states.
  3. Saudi Arabia- the crown prince touring to correct his image on the foreign plan.
  4. Yemen- a glimmer of hope. A new round of peace negotiations is about to start at the beginning of December, in Sweden.

Syria- suspect for using toxic substances in the battlefield.

According to a report publicized by the Syrian state television, more than one hundred asphyxia cases were registered after a toxic gas attack in Syria, Alep. Quoting medical sources, the Sana agency stated that, Saturday night (24-25 November), were registered 107 asphyxia cases, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported 94 suffocation cases.

The SOHR chief, Rami Abdel Rahmane, stated that 94 people got hospitalized for having respiratory difficulties: “They were nursed and the majority went home. 31 people are still in the hospital, but they are out of danger”, state Abdel Rahmane.

The National Liberation Front (NLF), the most important alliance of the rebels from Alep and Idlib (the umbrella-organization for the rebels supported by Turkey, which includes the Liberal Syrian Army) denied any connection with the attack. “We are denying the false allegations of the regime about the Alep attack which would have been set up by the revolutionaries, using chlorine projectiles”, stated NLF’s spokesperson, Naji Moustapha. Furthermore, an NLF leader, Omar Huthayfa, stated that the alliance does not have toxic gases and they think that regime’s forces set up the attack to motivate the fight actions against the rebels.

On the other hand, the chief of the Alep Police, Essam al-Chili, stated that terrorists’ groups have used toxic gas devices in residential districts from the city, which lead to asphyxia cases.

Sunday morning, the Russian Foreign Minister, Serghei Lavrov, stated that the attacks were launched from Idlib’s de escalation zone, from an area controlled by the Hayet Tahrir al-Sham group (HTS), ex-Al-Qaida ally, which is now controlling more than half of the rebel enclave from Idlib.

It was not identified the specific gas which was used, but the medics think that is was chlorine.

Since the end of 2016, Alep is under the Bashar al-Assad regime control. Certain sectors from the West, from the periphery, are still under the rebel and jihadist groups’ control. The toxic substances attacks were ushered in before, on Syria’s battlefields, the pro-regime and the opposition recriminating one another for using them. Certainly, the suspicion of using them lead to punitive measures from the supporters of both camps.

Things were not different this time either, the Russian forces’ spokesperson, Igor Konasenkov, announcing (Sunday, 25th of November) that the Russian war aircrafts have destroyed the positions of rebels’ artillery from North of Syria, being accused for using toxic gases projectiles.

In September, Russia and Turkey agreed on establishing a demilitarized zone with a 15-20km width in Idlib, to prevent offensive actions of the pro-regime forces over rebels last positions. As part of the deal, the NLF accepted to withdraw its heavy weapons from the area. Also, another aspect of the agreement was HTS’s withdrawal, which did not happen yet. Until now, the situation was quite calm in the area, but such actions can be the reason of another pro-regime forces assault in Idlib.  


Israel- diplomatic offensive to improve the relations with the Arab states.

The Israeli prime-minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced (Sunday, 25th of November, during a press conference, with the occasion of Chad’s president visit, Idriss Deby, in Israel) his will to establish official diplomatic relations with Bahrain. Netanyahu stated that his initiative is part of a strategy to change the attitude of some Arab states against Israel, a first step being made during the recent visit in Oman (October).

“There will be many such visits in Arab states in the near future”, added the Israeli prime-minister.

Netanyahu’s visit in Muscat/Oman was followed by the participation of the Israeli Minister of Transport and Intelligence, Yisrael Katz (at the beginning of November), at an international conference about transports, organized in Oman as well, whereat he launched the idea of a railway project to connect the Gulf countries to the Mediterranean ones, through Israel.

Prime-minister’s spokesperson for the Arab media, Hani Marzouk, stated that “these actions are marking the beginning of new relations and a hint that we [Israel] are on the right pathway to correct history. Israel thinks the Arab world is large, distinct and it has a great human potential and wants to establish excellent relations with it, at a scientific and academic level. The Bahrain Kingdom is the next destination for Netanyahu”, without offering too many details about the visit.

At the same time, the Bahrain authorities invited the Israeli Minister of Economy, Eli Cohen, at a conference in start-up businesses domain, organized by the World Bank, in April, whereat it will be discussed some endorsement methods of the economic increase, wherefore political people, entrepreneurs and investors from 170 countries have announced their participation.

Israel has diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, but Netanyahu proposed to develop the relations with the Gulf states that it thinks are natural allies against Iran.

The attempts to normalize Israel’s relations with the Arab states are not new, the majority thinking that the pathway towards better relations with the US passes through Israel.

Yet, in the past few weeks, the Israeli authorities launched a true offensive for normalization. Netanyahu’s surprise visit in Oman (25th of October) is the first one made in Sultanate, in the last decades, by an Israeli official who did not have diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. In the same day, the Qatari authorities allowed the display of the Israeli flag at the Artistic Gymnastic Championship organized in Doha. Three days later, Miri Regev, the Israeli Minister of Culture and Sports, participated at a judo tour in Abu Dhabi, whereat it was intonated the hymn of Israel. On 28th of October, the Israeli Minister of Communications, Ayoub Kara, participated at a telecommunications’ conference in Dubai, whereat he held a speech.

The novelty of the actual processes is the motivation behind this wave of diplomatic activities, which suggests the increasing American pressures for normalizing the relations between the states in the Gulf and Israel. President Donald Trump’s firm support for Israel, without any compromises, together with his clear interest in mobilizing a large coalition against Iran, gave the Gulf states some maneuver space in accepting a certain level of relation with Israel. The space got even smaller when Saudi Arabia, with the support of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) imposed the blockade (June 2017) against Qatar, dividing the unity of Gulf Cooperation Council.

Any progress in the Gulf-Israel relations cannot be made but in the detriment of the Palestinians. Normalizing the relations means, giving up, for good, at the Arab Peace Initiative (adopted by the Arab League in 2002) which was envisaging the normalization of the relations between the Arab states and Israel, in the exchange of Israel’s total withdrawal from the Occupied Territories (including East of Jerusalem) and solving the Palestinian refugee problem.

Until now, Israel succeeded with this strategy. It convinced Riyadh to support the American peace efforts, the Saudi leader, Mohammed bin Salman, stating, in April, that the Palestinians should “Accept Trump’s proposal or shout their mouths”, which is suggesting that the Israeli occupation is not longer an obstacle for the Saudis in normalizing the relations with Tel Aviv.

There is still one thing to clarify- how far will Oman go to normalize the relations with Israel, given the Sultanate’s ability to take a stand against the Saudi Arabia in different regional disputes.


Saudi Arabia- the crown prince touring to correct his image on the foreign plan.

The Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman/MBS, went in Tunis (27th of November), the penultimate destination of the foreign tour organized after the death of the dissident Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. MBS landed in the airport from Tunis’s capital, having scheduled meetings with Tunis’s prime-minister and president, despite the protests made against his visit.

Two days earlier, in Manama/Bahrain, MBS was being welcomed by the King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Sakhir’s palate.  According to a press release of the court, the two officials have discussed also about the strong “fraternal and historical” relations, which connects the two countries and nations, considering the last regional and international developments.

MBS started his regional tour on Thursday (20th of November) with a visit in Abu Dhabi (UAE), an important ally in the Arab Coalition, consolidated around Saudi Arabia to support the Yemenite pro-governmental forces in the confrontations with the Houthi rebels.

The last visit will be in Argentina, where MBS will participate at the G-20 Summit, organized at the end of this month (30th of November-1st of December) and whereat will have many bilateral meetings, among them also one with the American president, Donald Trump.

MBS asked for the arrangement of a bilateral meeting also with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during the same reunion. Erdogan did not offer a firm answer; yet, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, responded that “for now, there is no reason not to meet the president”, adding that the request was made through the phone.

The aim of MBS foreign tour is to improve his image on a foreign plan, after the scandal provoked by Khashoggi’s death. Another reason of these visits could be the consolidation of his internal position, given the will of a part of the royal family to avoid MBS’s enthrone.

On the other hand, media reports are suggesting that, during the meetings, the Crown Prince is promoting the so-called “Deal of the century”, a catch-phrase used for Trump’s programme to bring the Israeli-Palestinian peace. Details of this plan were not announced yet (according to the Israeli ambassador to UN, Danny Danon, the Trump administration will present its peace plan for the Middle East at the beginning of 2019), but in the media it is also speculated that the US would have offered the National Palestinian Authority a suburb of Jerusalem, in the exchange of East Jerusalem, to establish the capital of the future Palestinian state.

The Saudi Arabia and MBS, in particular, have faced intense critics, at an international level, for the death of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate from Istanbul, an incident which pushed the Kingdom in one of the most serious crises in its history. After a series of contradictory explicative answers, Riyadh finally admitted that Khashoggi was killed and his body was dismembered in a “thievish” action, but it decided that any possible interference of MBS in this action will not be tolerated.

Besides the serious protests on the international plan against the death of the Saudi journalist, tens of royal family’s members (princes, cousins) want to change the succession course, but they will not tolerate it as long as Salman King is still alive; they are trying to avoid MBS’s enthrone. At the same time, the American officials have told the Saudis that that they would support prince Ahmed Abdelaziz, the ex-deputy of Home Affairs Minister for almost 40 years, as a possible successor of King Salman. Ahmed Prince, the only alive brother of the king, would have the support of some members of the royal family, of the security structures and some of the Western powers. Yet, everyone admits that it is less possible for the king to turn against his own son.

Since his ascension, MBS gained popular support by adopting a series of economic and social reforms, including by allowing women to have a driving license and by opening theaters in the conservative kingdom. Furthermore, MBS isolated Royal House’s senior members and consolidated his control over the Saudi intelligence and security agencies.

All of this aside, the reforms were accompanied by dissidence’s repression policy, by removing some representatives of the Royal House and some business people, accusing them for corruption, as well as by an expensive war in Yemen. Other examples of MBS’s actions are the failed blockade from Qatar, the home arrest of the Lebanese prime-minister, Saad al-Hariri, the diplomatic conflict with Canada on respecting the human rights and, finally, the death of Khashoggi. This led to Saudi Royal House’s decline.

MBS’s decision on the foreign policy and the wrong estimations of their results, not only that were out of Saudi Arabia’s traditional tactical diplomacy, but it pushed the country towards political instability. Instead of trying to build a united front against its traditional enemy, Iran, and to orient the Saudi resources to this end, MBS tried to fight on almost any front possible. Now he has an opened conflict with Tukey and their Sunni allies, including Qatar, as well as with Iran and its Shiite allies from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

On the other hand, through his decision to normalize the relations with Israel, MBS is risking to lose all the support of the Arab nations, which are not giving up the Palestinian cause.

Additionally, MBS is risking to lose the internal support and the emergence of some radical forces, as part of the Saudis are starting to realize that their country was wrong on choosing their allies and enemies as well.


Yemen- a glimmer of hope. A new round of peace negotiations is about to start at the beginning of December, in Sweden.

Washington announced (Wednesday, 21th of November, the American Secretary of Defence, Jim Mattis) the organization of a new round of negotiations to stop the war from Yemen, at the beginning of December, in Sweden (Stockholm). In the same day, the UN representative for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, was in the Yemenite capital, Sana’a, which is under Houthi rebels’ control, in an attempt to convince the belligerents to accept some renegotiations to end the conflict. The UN official discussed with the rebels’ leaders aspects about the conditions to cease the fire and the offering of humanitarian goods.

Friday (23th of November), Griffiths went in the port-city Hodeida to ask the parts which are in conflict to keep the calm in the area, to allow the organization of a new round of negotiations. Griffiths stated that he asked the parts to “keep the peace in Hodeida”, underlining that “everyone is focused now on the situation from this port-city”. Moreover, Griffiths discussed with the Houthi rebels about the possibility of the international organ to take over the control in Hodeida. UN’s spokesperson, Rheal LeBlanc, detailed the initiative, underlining that the UN is ready to be the supervisor in port’s activities management.

At the beginning of this year, Houthi rebels’ leader, Abdel-Malik al-Houthi was announcing his availability to give up the control of Hodeida to UN, if Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will stop the offensive actions over the port-city (Riyadh and Abu Dhabi think that Hodeida is the main way in for weaponry and goods, dedicated to rebels and for the trade exchanges between them).

Even if the rebels, and also the pro-governmental forces, have expressed their availability to accept UN’s mediation plan to stop the war, the confrontations from Hodeida’s area rarely have quite periods, as these are also interrupted by intensifications of the fights.

It was not established yet a specific date to retake the negotiations, but we expect the belligerent parts to meet in Sweden, in the first part of December.

At the moment, Yemen is divided between the pro-governmental forces which are controlling the South and a good part of the Center of the country, and the rebel forces which have the capital, Sana’a, the North and a good part of the West of the country (whereat is also the port-city Hodeida).

The war in Yemen, the poorest Arab country, have started in 2015, when the Houthi rebels took over the control of the capital Sana’a and have developed offensive actions in South of the country, in their attempt to take the control over  Aden also, the city wherein the Yemenite authorities took refuge. Concerned about conflict’s ascension, Saudi Arabia made an Arab alliance, which created an air campaign to support the governmental forces and the reinstatement of the regime led by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi president.

The Arab coalition have executed over 18.000 air raids over the areas controlled by the Houthi rebels, in their attempt to recover the territory lost by the pro-governmental forces. The attacks targeted including some religious ceremonies and hospitals, infrastructure elements which were producing water and electric energy, causing thousands of civil victims.

Economy’s collapse due to the war and, implicitly, the accentuated devaluation of the currency (Yemenite rial) have contributed to pushing the population to starvation and poverty. The food prices have increased with 68% since 2015, and the rial devaluated with 180% (the official rate-250 rials for one American dollar; on the black market, 600 rials for one American dollar). The fuel prices increased with 25% from November last year, and in some areas got doubled. Many people left their homes and are now living in precarious conditions, taking shelter in improvised tents, having no access to drinking water and there is also an increased risk for cholera to re-burst.

Furthermore, getting food became a daily challenge; more than three years of serious fights, of using weapons in populated areas and the blockade made by the Arab Coalition pushed the population to starvation. And those who are suffering the most are the children.

UN’s efforts to mediate the negotiation of an agreement between the two parts have repeatedly failed. The last round of negotiations, organized under UN’s aegis (September, Geneva) had the same result, the rebel’s representatives refusing to dislocate because of their physical security.

We will see if these new political and diplomatic processes will succeed. An advantaging factor would be the international increased pressure over the US and the Saudi Arabia to solve the conflict, after the death of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Additionally, the offensive started by the pro-governmental forces, supported by the Arab Coalition raids, over Hodeida, worsen the humanitarian situation, bringing the conflict back in the international attention. The humanitarian agencies involved in Yemen warned that a Hodeida assault could destroy the last procurements for million of people (from a population of 28 million people, eight million are in starvation’s extremis; the British humanitarian organization “Save the Children” is estimating that at least 85.000 children, under 5 years old, have died due to starvation since the beginning of the war).

On the other hand, the failure of the previous series seems to indicate that the parts are imposing pre-conditions which are not allowing the establishment of a common negotiation basis.