26 June 2019

DSM Special Report: Middle East and North Africa- April 2019

Claudiu Nebunu

Summary: I. Syria- Are we facing Islamic State’s comeback? II. Iran- economic relaunch, mission impossible III. Egypt- time for a new pyramid? IV. Libya - fights continue and marshal Haftar is getting ready for the victory parade in Tripoli.

Image source: Mediafax
  1. Are we facing Islamic State’s comeback?

When the  Kurdish militia- supported by US-  eliminated the last cell of “Islamic State from Iraq and Levant” (ISIL) it was a highly significant moment on both a local and global plan. But, was ISIL truly eliminated? YES, in terms of territorial control. NOT, in terms of presence! And actions speak for themselves.

During one of the attacks,  ISIL attackers got the Syrian forces in an ambush, in the desert area, center of province Homs. Then, it was followed by two more days of confrontations, and 27 militaries killed (including four officers), according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR).

Almost 500 militaries were hemmed in Thursday night, in east of Al-Sukhna city, rescued afterwards by a pro-governmental militia, known also as “Liwa al-Quds”.

Amaq, the website controlled by ISIL, has streamed the attack from east Al-Sukhna, announcing that ISIL fighters have killed, in less than 24 hours, around 24 Syrian militaries and have captured weapons, munition and military vehicles.

ISIL, which long time ago was controlling most of Syria and Iraq’s territories, has kept one terrorist cell system, which started to be active again in both countries.

ISIL lost Syria’s last territories in March, after many months of confrontations with the Kurdish fighters, supported by US, in the eastern province, Deir ez Zor, but members of the terrorist organization remained in the desert area, in the western part of the province, wherefrom they started to attack the governmental troops and the allied militias.  

Individually, in North-West of Syria (Idlib), where it has been negotiated a ceasefire agreement, the governmental forces were attacked by Hay’et Tahir al-Sham group’s members, affiliated to Al-Qaeda.

According to OSDO, Saturday morning, members of the group took the governmental positions by storm, which were placed in west of Aleppo, 21 militaries and members of militias allied to the regime being killed.

Last year in September, Russia and Turkey, which are supporting the opposition in this conflicts, but have coordinated their policies in terms of Syria, have negotiated a ceasefire agreement in the area, although it was broken many times.

Russia and Iran want to get rid of terrorists/rebels clustered in this area, meanwhile Turkey hesitates in giving its approval, on one hand due to the possible refugee afflux (three million people are living now in Idlib) and, on the other hand, because it wants to speculate an equilibrium for the Kurdish in North-East of Syria.

  1. Iran- economic relaunch, mission impossible

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) seemed, at that time, to be Iran’s opportunity for an economic relaunch, but economy’s growth was quite modest. The population is far from being enthusiastic about the social-economic progresses promised after signing the JCPOA. The US withdrawal from the treaty and sanctions’ reintroduction have significantly affected the Iranian economy. However, the interdiction of Iranian oil imports seems to be too much to handle… Iran cannot survive without the oil incomes…

The US administration has announced, on Monday (22th of April), that all countries that will import oil to Iran will be sanctioned by the Americans. The American president, Donald Trump, has decided that there will be no more countries to be exempted from sanctions, after the current exceptions will expire in May.

The American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has stated that this measure’s purpose is leaving Iran without the “funds it used to destabilize Middle East for ten years”, and determine Iran to act like a “normal country”. Pompeo added that Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates agreed to ensure the necessary oil so that to make up for the Iranian oil disappearance from the market.

Hence, the Iranian authorities threatened that they may try to block the oil transport that passes through the Hormuz Strait.

“We think Iran will continue to sell its oil we will continue to find buyers for our oil and use the Hormuz Strait as transit for our oil sells”, underlined the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, in New York, while participating at a UN session.

“But the United States should know that when entering the Hormuz Strait, they must talk to those protecting the strait- the Iranian Revolutionary Guard”, added Zarif.

Trump’s Administration recently put the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, responsible for strait’s naval defence, on terrorist groups’ list. The US decision to name one country’s armed forces a terrorist group is something unpreceded throughout world and it was followed by a remark made by the Chief of Iranian diplomacy, who asked for the dislocation of American forces operating in Middle East, Central Asia and Horn of Africa on Iran’s list of terrorist groups.

China, which imports 40% of the Iranian oil, expressed its opposition against US’s unilateral sanctions over the countries that continue to make oil deals with Iran, stating that “cooperation relations in energy between Iran and other members of the international community are legitimate and fair, according with the international law” and asked US to respect its economic and commercial interest and concerns, “act responsible and play a constructive role”, along with protecting the global energy market stability.

On the other hand, US Navy informed, Tuesday, that USS Abraham Lincoln and USS John C. Stennis aircraft carriers, as well as their escort ships have started naval operations in the Mediterranean Sea. Both aircraft carriers’ fight groups, the Nimitz class, are part of the exercises which include many warfare scenarios, whereat are participating air units, but also warships, among them ships from Spain, France and Denmark.

The US-Iran relations are marked by tensions since the Cold War started, getting even worse at the end of the 70’s, when Iran’s shah was overthrown after the 1979 revolution, when the supreme leader, Ayatollah Knomeini, took the power, the one who was describing US as “Satan”, but also since the “hostages’ crisis”, when American diplomats from the Teheran Embassy were taken prisoners.

The imposed American sanctions were somehow eased by the 2015 Nuclear Agreement, negotiated with US, Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia, China, EU and Iran, but denounced by the effective American president in 2018.

Donald Trump revealed an intransigent approach against Iran since the beginning of his mandate, including by criticizing Teheran from UN’s tribune, with US’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Agreement with Iran and the re-imposition of sanctions which were targeting both Iran and the countries to have commercial relations with this country, as well as through the distanced violent dialogue with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani.

Trump’s strategy on Iran seems particularly focused on two directions:

-coercive diplomacy, through re-imposing the economic embargo, and

- increased social pressure on Teheran’s regime and the commitment against a force position in possible negotiations with Iran.

Although it can hardly be implemented and it is dangerous in terms of consequences, Hormuz Strait’s closure is one of the strongest leverages that Teheran’s regime has (it transits from 20 up to 40% of world’s oil through the Hormuz Strait, according to different statistics).

The situation is extremely tense and can escalate at any time… the prohibition of Iranian oil export, vital for Iran, it could be a red line for Teheran’s regime…

 

  1. Egypt- time for new pyramid?

Egypt’s old leaders’ common purpose was building a pyramid to eternize the presence or memory of the one who was, for a long time, the leader of the country. Some succeeded, other did not, some pyramids were bigger, others smaller (“depending on the budget”. It seems that it is time for another one…the first condition, however, is to have the necessary power…

The Egyptian parliament has adopted (16th of April) the development of a referendum on some constitutional changes to include mandate’s extension of the effective Egyptian president, for more two years and the possibility to run for another six years mandate for Egypt’s presidency.

The referendum took place between 20-23th of April. Almost 90% of the Egyptians who came to vote supported the Constitutional changes, stated the Electoral Commission on Tuesday (24th of April).

“Come, say …YES to the constitutional amendments” reads one of the banners displayed close to the headquarter of Nation’s Future Party, a political governmental group. A campaign for the revision of the Constitution supported, apparently, by the governing groups and many other businesses people. More than 120 people who were promoting messages against voting were arrested.

“The participation at the polls was 44,3%”, stated the president of the Electoral Commission, Lachine Ibrahim, adding that “88,83% of the voters approved the amendments, meanwhile 11,70% voted against”.

The main changes were about the extension of president’s mandate from 4 to 6 years and restraining the number of mandates to only two.

However, an article about al-Sissi foresees also the extension of the current mandate (his second one) to six years and the permission for him to run one more time (the third time).

Trying to explain this provision, Parliament’s president, Ali Abdel-Aal, stated that its purpose is to ensure the “political justice and… the necessary stability”.

The amendments are introducing also the possibility to name one or many vice-presidents and a minimum of 25% rate for women’s participation in Parliament’s inferior chamber.

There are also some judicial changes, as the president will have the right to name judges for different top positions and ignore the juridical approval when implementing law projects. Also, the Army is seen as the “guardian and protector” of the Egyptian state, the democracy and Constitution, and the military justice courts are extending their jurisdiction over the civils as well.

Constitution’s revision allows the extension of president Al-Sissi’s mandate from four to six years, until 2024. He can run again in 2024, for a third mandate and keep the power until 2030.

This project had another version in February, proposing to allow al-Sissi to have two more six-years-mandates, after this one would end, in 2022, hence the possibility to run Egypt until 2034. They did not offer any explanation for the change of that version, but, most likely, they wanted to reduce the image damage that may have occurred with the extension of president’s mandate (two more mandates was, probably, too much).

Al-Sissi, the former marshal, was elected president in 2016, with 96, 9% of the votes, a year after he overthrown, supported by the army, due to a popular revolt, the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, He was reelected in 2018, with 97. 08%.

Besides extending the number of mandates, the constitutional revision increases his control over the judicial system. Since Al-Sissi came to power, in 2014, ONGs have frequently denounced the many arrests, mass processes, as well as press and opposition’s constraints. During the last three years, more than 15.000 people, including children, were submitted to the military justice, according to Human Rights Watch. The power denies these allegations, insisting over “stability” and “antiterrorist fight”.

 

  1. Libya - fights continue and marshal Haftar is getting ready for the victory parade in Tripoli.

The confrontations between the two Libyan camps (West- Government of National Accord / NAG, internationally recognized, installed in Tripoli, and the East- Representatives’ House- Tobruk’s Parliament) continues. GNA started the counteroffensive and victims’ number increases…

At the beginning of June (Thursday, 4th of April), marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army, Eastern camp’s armed force, launched a military campaign to take over the control of Tripoli.

The Western camp seemed surprised, but it managed to mobilize different militias to defend the capital by dislocating troops and technique from Misrata and Zawiya (Islamic militias) to the capital and it announced the start of counteroffensive (operation “Anger Volcano”).

The loyal GNA troops took back the control of district close to capital’s Southern periphery, getting in Aziziya (60 km South of Tripoli’s center). However, the situation is ambiguous, both camps repeatedly winning and losing territories in the past few days.

According to the Global Health Organization, more than 271 people (including 21 civils) lost their lives since the fights for capital’s control started, and more than 1.300 (69 civils) were injured.

The UN Security Council reunited last week (Thursday, 18th of April) to analyze Libya’s situation, without actually establishing a clear strategy to implement a ceasefire agreement between both camps. US and Russia continue to oppose a British resolution process to that end.

Libya enters in a serious crisis… For more than three weeks, the “strong” man in East of Libya, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, develops a military offensive over the capital, where it is placed Fayez al-Sarraj’s government headquarter, recognized by UN. The foreign powers are supporting the belligerent camps depending on their own interests; Khalifa Haftar takes advantage on Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates’ direct support, and Fayez al- Sarraj on Qatar and Turkey’s one.

The main stake the regional actors like Saudi Arabia, Egypt of UAE are supporting the events in Libya is the eradication of Islamist movements. We must notice the similar interference in supporting the coup d’état and the Military Transition Council from Sudan.

Egypt, which has a common border with Libya (and with Sudan also) is concerned with any Islamist influence increase in the region, all the more so the Al-Sissi regime took the power after a coup d’état against the Muslim Brotherhood.

 In Libya, Haftar is now the only guarantor of the Islamist militias eradication, most of them included in Tripoli’s leadership structures. Moreover, Saudis and Egyptians see it as a chance for a failed state like Libya to stay away from ISIL’s control.

Haftar’s success in Libya can still be questioned, all the more so the supply chains are large and quite vulnerable, and the escalation of a military conflict will lead to a humanitarian crisis, this way increasing the migration process towards European states, mostly to Italy or Greece. However, now, Haftar is winning thanks to the already conquered territories.

Translated by Andreea Soare