MAS Special ReportLEVANT: Middle East and North Africa

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MAS Special Report – The Middle East and North Africa / June 2019

Claudiu Nebunu

I. Turkey – Istanbul elections. The beginning of the end for Erdogan? II. Iran – Nuclear agreement withdrawal. The reason awaited by Trump? III. Libya – War becomes normality. Is the military option the only one?

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. Turkey – Istanbul elections. The beginning of the end for Erdogan?

Elections are always a moment of political emotion… both for citizens, which finally have the occasion to materialize the options they hav supported during numerous talks with their friends, as is for politicians, who hope for a period of reaping the advantages power brings… “Unfortunately”, elections are only held once every 4-5 years. What is different in Turkey?... an expression circulating in the virtual space claims that elections in this country are democratic, but they are repeated until the one who needs to win actually wins! In Istanbul, the result preferred by those in power was not obtained even at the re-do. When will the next election be scheduled?

The Justice and Development Party (AKP), currently in power, lost (Sunday. June 23) the local election in Istanbul for the second consecutive time this year. The candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP – opposition), Ekrem Imamoglu, obtained 54% of the votes, while Binali Yildirim, the AKP candidate (the party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan), gained 45%.

There were 32 candidates on the electoral lists (17 of which were independent), but only these two candidates had any real chance at a victory.

Sunday’s election was, actually, a repeat of local elections held in the city on March 31, after Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) decided to nullify the results. In the March vote, it was also Ekrem Imamoglu and Binali Yildirim who faced each other: the opposition’s candidate won with 48.8% of the votes, while the AKP candidates gained 48.55%.

Following the defeat, AKP made accusation of “fraud” and contested the vote’s result at the Supreme Electoral Council, which decided to nullify them and reorganize the elections on June 23. The Turkish president did not offer a plausible reason for repeating the elections, with the only justification being that the result was very close. The opposition accused that the Supreme Electoral Council was politically influenced and labelled the decision as a sign of a “dictatorship”.

The defeat in Istanbul (first in the last 17 years) was not the only one suffered by Erdogan’s party. It also lost elections in two other major cities, Izmir and the capital Ankara. However, out of the three, Istanbul weighs the most because it is Turkey’s most populated city (with approximately 16 million residents) and is the country’s most important economic centre.

It is said that whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey, an expression which fuels the idea that election’s result is not only a great victory for Imamoglu, but also a warning for the country’s leader: Erdogan is not invincible anymore. The Turkish president began his political ascension in 1994, when he became mayor of Istanbul. After 25 years, could these local elections mark the beginning of his political end?

Erdogan is not exactly a popular political character in Istanbul. He systematically limited rights, undermined the separation of powers in the state and intimidated his political opponents. After the coup d’état attempt three years ago, he pursued his opponents in a wave of unprecedented purges. Half a million people were arrested, tens of thousands were imprisoned, of which a lot were held without being sentenced, and some even without charges.

In the last year, Turkey suffered a lot following the economic policies promoted by the Turkish president and because of his aggressive foreign policy rhetoric (which also had implications on the economy). Turkey had frictions both with the European Union and, especially, the United States, with Washington imposing it a series of tariffs. These measures, combined with Turkey’s monetary policies, led to the devaluation of the Turkish lira. Inflation reached approximately 20%, while unemployment is up at 15%, with Istanbul’s population blaming Erdogan for these problems.

However, it is less probable that the local elections defeat in Istanbul will be a serious blow to Erdogan’s power. In 2017, following a constitutional referendum, the Turkish president received a series of new attributions which considerably increased his power. Erdogan now has the right to appoint ministers without the Parliament’s approval, to fire clerks, to name prosecutors and judges, to draft the country’s budget, to declare a state of emergency for six months or to dissolve the Parliament. Among others.


II. Iran – Nuclear agreement withdrawal. The reason awaited by Trump?

Tensions continue to grow in the Middle East… Following the attacks on oil rigs transiting the Strait of Hormuz, attacks on the Saudi oil infrastructure, the shooting down of an American military drone by the Iranians, cyberattacks against some of the Revolutionary Guard’s command centres and the resumption of activities to enrich uranium… Could this be the reason the American president waited for? Trump firmly stated that he will not accept a nuclear Iran...

Iran warned the UN Security Council on Wednesday (June 26) that it is not Tehran’s duty to maintain the Nuclear Agreement (JPCOA) signed in 2015 with the world powers. “The US withdrawal from the agreement and its reinstatement of sanctions made the agreement become inefficient. […] Iran cannot be and will not be responsible for maintaining the agreement,” said Iran’s Ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht Ravanchi.

European countries are trying to save the agreement.  “JCPOA is a nuclear agreement which worked and accomplished its objectives. There is no plausible and peaceful alternative,” said the EU’s Ambassador to the UN, Joao Vale de Almeida. The interim US Ambassador to the UN, Jonathan Cohen, described Iran’s actions as being “totally counterproductive”. “A behaviour which threatens global peace and security must not be ignored in order to preserve an agreement which does not bar Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon,” said the American diplomat.

According to the spokesman of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Behrouz Kamalvandi, after the deadline granted by Iranian authorities to European countries still part of the agreement – to act towards implementing the assumed commitments – expires (Thursday, June 28), Iran will accelerate its uranium enrichment program.

This decision represents only a first step in abandoning the commitments assumed through the agreement. Beginning with July 7, Iran could “definitely” stop respecting two other commitments it assumed within the agreement, according to Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the general secretary of the Iranian National Security Supreme Council (CSSN). Tehran will ignore the uranium enrichment threshold (limited to 3.67% through the agreement) and will relaunch a project to build a hard water reactor in Arak (in the centre of the country).

Shamkhani said that European signatories of the Nuclear Agreement did not make sufficient efforts to save it.

The 2015 Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) essentially stipulated that Iran will reduce its nuclear program in the exchange for the West lifting international sanctions imposed on the country. US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the agreement last year and reinstated sanctions targeting Iran. In April 2019, Washington enhanced its pressure on Tehran by announcing that every country importing oil from Iran will be targeted by US sanctions. Donald Trump decided that, starting with June, no countries will be exempted from these sanctions.

The measures adopted by Washington affected Iranian economy, causing the withdrawal of foreign companies which had signed or were preparing to sign contracts with Iranian partners, a decrease in trade, the devaluation of the national currency, the rial, and a fast rise in prices.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a powerful supporter of the Nuclear Agreement, repeatedly stated that Iran will remain engaged in the JCPOA if its “interests are protected”, and the other signatory states will continue to respect its provisions. Despite this, Rouhani warned, also, that Iran is ready to resume it uranium enrichment program immediately if the agreement falls.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vehemently criticized the US for its unilateral withdrawal from the agreement, but specified that Iran will continue to respect it only if its EU partners will resist US pressures and will offer Iran “practical guarantees”. Iranian hopes were based on measures to firmly protect the EU from the effects of US sanctions, as the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran were essential parts of the agreement.

The announcement that European companies will not continue to invest in Iran was interpreted by Tehran as the EU failing to respect its commitment to continue implementing the JCPOA. Tehran made several impossible demands in order to stay in the agreement: an EU commitment to maintain crude oil trade with Iran and guarantees that Iran will be able to sell whatever quantity it wants on the global market, practical measures to circumvent the American financial system by making direct oil payments in euro to the Iranian Central Bank, growing investments into the Iranian economy to compensate for US withdrawal from the agreement and restraint with regards to Iranian ballistic program and Iran’s actions in the Middle East.


III. Libya – War becomes normality. Is the military option the only one?

The two sides will not give up the fight… Haftar’s forces are unable to conquer Tripoli, but neither can the troops supporting the internationally-recognized government push them away from the capital’s outskirts… Fighting, bombings, tens of deaths, hundreds of injured, several thousand refugees… And none of the sides is willing to consider a peaceful solution… Not even the great

A spokesman for the forces supporting the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli announced that they have taken control over the city of Gharyan, which is situated in a strategic position south of the capital. Gharyan was the main forward base of the forces loyal to Marshal Haftar (the Libyan National Army / LNA). The operation, organized with the help of some of the city’s residents, supporters of the government, ended with the death of tens of fighters from Haftar’s forces and the capturing of 18 prisoners.

According to witnesses, Gharyan was the main LNA command centre and an important logistical base, in which field hospitals and equipment and munitions deposits were set up to ensure supply for all of Haftar’s forces involved in the offensive on the capital. Although this is an important victory for pro-government troops, it is still unclear if it will be enough to cause Haftar’s retreat.

The fighting between the two sides disputing the authority in Libya (West – The Government of National Accord / GNA, internationally recognized, seated in Tripoli, and the East – the House of Representatives / Tobruk Parliament) rages on fiercely. On April 4, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the LNA commander – the Eastern side’s armed force – launched a military campaign to take control over the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Haftar’s forces reached the Libyan capital’s suburbs and took control of the Tripoli International Airport (infrastructure decommissioned following damage from the 2014 fighting).

GNA mobilized various Tripoli militias and redeployed troops and equipment from the Misrata and Zawiya regions (Islamist militias) in order to defend the capital, managing to stop the advance of Haftar’s troops. Intense fighting has been taking place for almost three months, without the balance of power decisively shifting in favour of one side or another, and also without the sides accepting a negotiated solution.

What the Eastern side presumed was just a rapid offensive to take control of the capital transformed into a war of attrition. Over 650 dead, more than 3,000 wounded and 94,000 refugees, thousands of damaged or destroyed building because of constant bombing, nearly three million residents under siege – these are the characteristics of the current situation in Tripoli.

None of the sides stand out as a possible winner, until now. GNA allied militias managed to stop Haftar’s offensive and carried out counterattack actions, ending his hopes of a quick victory.

The UN issued several statements urging the two side to cease hostilities, but none of them have followed the request. Neither the GNA, nor Haftar want to take a step back or convene a cease-fire. The UN’s Security Council did not manage to reach consensus on any resolution which would lead to an end of the fighting and the resumption of negotiations. This situation is generated by the international community’s division, with regional or global actors supporting one side or the other and fuelling the conflict.

Is a political solution still possible?

In the past four years, the UN made consistent efforts in attempting to end the Libyan Civil War with a peaceful solution. Even while Haftar’s forces were marching towards Tripoli, UN representatives were still insisting on a political solution. Haftar launched his offensive only a couple of days before the National Conference scheduled in the Libyan city of Ghadames. Following the attack, the conference, which had been planned months in advance, was cancelled, and the UN’s mediation efforts were undermined.

Now, nearly three months later, it is clear that the UN’s attempted peace process is dead. Both sides’ stances have significantly antagonized. GNA Prime Minister Fayez Serraj said that he was “stabbed in the back”, and also that trusting Haftar’s intentions during their meetings was a mistake. Serraj insists that the marshal cannot be a partner in any type of future peace talks.

Haftar, on the other hand, is also adamant in his stance and says that he is not ready to commit to any type of cease-fire or political process, be it supported by the UN or by any other political player. It seems that the reason is related to the continuation of his offensive on Tripoli. “Of course, the political solution is still the objective. But, to return to politics, we must first end the militias,” he said at the beginning of May.

What does a military solution mean?

Not only the two sides are seemingly betting on a military solution. Various regional and international players are meddling in Libya in the hopes of obtaining a victory for the side they support. New arms and advanced munitions shipments were made towards both sides, which actually prolongs the war. Despite the fact that arms shipments are breaking the UN embargo, no consistent public condemnation of these actions were made.

There are two possible solutions to the war: either Haftar will succeed in taking over Tripoli and toppling the GNA from power, or the GNA will be able to launch a counteroffensive and force Haftar to retreat.

In the first case, Libya would be sentenced to a military dictatorship. If Haftar conquers the capital, he will effectively control the three most important strategical points of Libya: the country’s political centre, its key institutions and most of its oil. This would help him consolidate his power and impose a Ghaddafi-like regime, supported by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In the second case, the country would still have a chance to follow a democratic solution. If the forces loyal to the GNA will be able to overrun Haftar’s positions in the west and the south, this will weaken him significantly, both from a political and military standpoint. A defeat would most probably mean the marshal’s exclusion from any future political dialogue. The problem with a military solution for the Libyan conflict is that the country and its population will pay a high price. Fighting around Tripoli is just “the being of a long and bloody war” …

Translated by Ionut Preda