Yemen’s Civil War Continues To Expand Beyond Houthis and Saudi Arabia

Over the past three years, the civil war in Yemen has expanded internationally. Most recently, the Houthis have increased missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, and though Saudi air defenses have neutralized these launches, they propagate further escalation of the conflict in Yemen.

Understanding the war

During the Arab Spring, a political transition was negotiated in Yemen which sought to maintain stability, transferring power away from president Ali Abdullah Saleh to his vice-president Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. Due to this change in leadership, the forces of unrest that had been brewing under Saleh’s long reign could no longer be contained. High levels of food insecurity, unemployment, and corruption all challenged the government’s support, even as the the separatist Houthi movement fought a decade-old insurgency championing the Zaidi Shia Muslim minority.

Previously, this insurgency was largely confined to the northern province of Saadah, but in 2014 an alliance of Houthis and pro-Saleh forces seized the capital of Sanaa and pushed South towards the second largest city of Aden. This prompted Saudi Arabia to form a coalition with several countries in the region to intervene, with allies either sending troops or carrying out airstrikes in Yemen.

While the coalition repelled the Houthis from South Yemen, extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) capitalized on the fighting and launched deadly attacks in Aden. These terrorist factions have blurred the lines between the warring sides. The conflict is among religious and tribal groups, which are primarily backed by Iran or by Saudi Arabia and its allies. But as AQAP and IS try to take advantage of the power vacuum, the situation becomes more complicated – especially in light of Qatari allegations that Saudi Arabia and the UAE back these groups.

As international players have pushed for negotiations, tenuous peace talks have punctuated the war. Saleh made peace overtures to the Saudis last year, but he was killed as he tried to flee Sanaa on December 4 2017.

Yemen civil war

Current areas of control in Yemen. The Houthis are shown in green, the Hadi government’s coalition in red and yellow, and AQAP aligned-groups in white.

A deepening crisis

With regional stability at stake in Yemen, the conflict has escalated with no clear end in sight. The Houthis have attempted to retaliate through missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, which have in turn led to further attacks by the Saudis. The most notable of these was the November 2017 attack when a Houthi missile, which Saudi media reported was neutralized by its defense system, hit King Khalid International Airport near Riyadh.

The Saudis perceived this attack as being orchestrated by Iran and decided to bolster its offensive against the Houthis by initiating a blockade on all Yemeni land crossings, seaports, and airports. While entry points under the control of the Saudi-aligned Yemeni government were quickly reopened, all others were closed for weeks. The Panel of Experts on Yemen mandated by the UN Security Council warned that implementing such a tactic is to use ‘the threat of starvation as an instrument of war.” Notably, Yemen has been 80 to 90% reliant on imported food, medicine, and fuel and all of its ports are key in order to meet the population’s needs.

While the blockade eased up after a few weeks, the needs of the Yemeni population have remained unmet. With aid and port reconstruction mostly in the hands of Saudi and its allies, the ports receiving attention are the ones under their control while imports are being further limited in others.

The civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict as both sides have exacerbated one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world today. Most of the Yemeni population is concentrated in the rebel-controlled areas in North Yemen and is vulnerable to coalition airstrikes. Thus, 22.2 million out of a population of 27.5 million in Yemen need humanitarian assistance. Of these people, 8 million are on the brink of famine and an estimated 1 million are affected by an outbreak of cholera. While the coalition has taken control of key entry points and either blocked or diverted imports such as fuel, the Houthi-aligned forces have also blocked food and medical supplies and restricted aid workers and delivery.

Repercussions of the conflict

With the three-year mark on Saudi intervention in Yemen being punctuated by an increase in attempted Houthi attacks on Saudi cities, the likelihood of a quick end to the conflict is low. The Saudi coalition has only made modest gains of territory, and talks to end the fighting are not going well. The Houthis have shown that they still possess the ability to threaten Riyadh, although the Saudi Patriot missile defense system intercepts almost all of the Houthi rockets. Riyadh views these attacks as acts of war orchestrated by Iran, which further pushes the Saudis to retaliate. Their conditions for peace in Yemen are victory along with the complete disarmament of Houthi rebels, a condition that is unacceptable to the latter.

Given both sides’ refusal to alter their demands, it is unlikely that a compromise can be reached soon. This does not bode well for the humanitarian catastrophe, especially given the heavy toll Saudi tactics have on Yemeni civilians. Amnesty International has documented 3 dozen airstrikes which have led to the death of 513 civilians. This is in addition to the monopolization of crucial entry points by the Saudi-led coalition. The Saudi government has staked its credibility on prevailing in Yemen but its demands are not acceptable for Houthi rebels who have managed to maintain control over a large chunk of the territories they have acquired. More serious blows to Saudi and its citizens may only be a matter of time as tensions increase, peace talks fail, and crisis prevails.

Myriam Maalouf holds an MPhil in International Relations and Politics from the University of Cambridge.

2018 Iranian Protests: A Second Revolution on the Way in Iran?

What started off as protests spurred on by the deteriorating economic conditions in Iran and the inflation in prices of basic necessities, escalated into a rebellion against the Islamic Republic itself. But to what extent are these protests threatening the theocratic regime, and could such an upheaval foreshadow a second Iranian revolution?

The latest protests, which began in Mashhad on 28 December last year as a backlash to the economic climate in Iran, quickly intensified in nature and in geographical reach, spreading to Kashmar, Isfahan and several other places and lasting well into January 2018.

As the Washington Post explained, there are a number of interrelated factors behind the Iranian protests. Protests were incited by the leak of President Hassan Rouhani’s financial budget plan, which indicated higher fuel prices in attempts to lower government debt. This came on top of rising unemployment for young people, currently at 40%. Set against poor domestic economic conditions, there is growing anger at Iran’s foreign policy, defined by billions of dollars of investments in the Middle East. This includes the supply of weapons and fighters to Syria, as well as financial support to Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.

In 2015, President Rouhani signed a deal with world powers which resulted in a reduction of Iran’s nuclear activities in return for lifting the crippling sanctions that were already in place. Despite Rouhani’s promise that signing the deal would bolster economic growth, as previously stated this growth has been far from inclusive. And despite initial optimism around Iran after sanctions were lifted, Tehran is still struggling from a lack of investment.

According to CNN, they are the biggest protests since the Green Movement in 2009. Those demonstrations threatened the political stability and legitimacy of the Iranian regime at that time, held in response to the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Consequently, it is important to assess whether the 2018 protests threatening Rouhani’s regime risk escalating into a second revolution.

Significance of protests as a threat to regime stability

The important point to note is that these protests were substantially economically driven, whereby frustrations with Rouhani’s political regime were a by-product of economic grievances. In this light, scholar Vali Nasr, writing for The Atlantic, stated that these protests ‘were not a repeat of past urban, secular uprising of affluent citizens demanding social and cultural change, freedom of expression, and political participation.’

Essentially, this differentiates them from the Green Movement in 2009, and the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Both of these past movements were de facto socio-political movements with economic components, rather than vice versa. Socio-political protests threaten regime stability and longevity, whereas economically driven protests are more likely to exert pressure for action from the government.

Many Iranians are seeking improved livelihood which can be achieved through the incumbent regime, especially as the economy has come out of recession since 2015. Economic growth in Iran in 2017 was a solid 5.3% for GDP. There are foundations in place for improved employment and living conditions.

Risk nationally versus internationally

The scale and geographical reach of these protests is actually much smaller than previous uprisings in the country. Consequently they have not engendered an endemic panic across other regions in Iran. The view of Rouhani himself is that the regime is comfortably equipped to deal with incidents like this.

Part of this composure on the part of the regime is also likely due to their relative receptiveness to the pleas of protesters. Iran’s parliament ultimately rejected the 2018 budget plan that proposed an increase in the price of petrol by 50%, and also rejected any calls for increases in the price of water, electricity, and gas. This apparent and genuine responsiveness from the regime should reduce the risk of future violence or the likelihood of protests escalating into a fully-fledged revolution.

Taking the matter more seriously, President Trump denounced the Iranian regime for inflicting repression on the Iranian people for years. Trump tweeted that Iranians ‘are hungry for food & for freedom’ and that ‘[a]long with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted’.  This reaction is typical of Western powers’ perception of the theocratic regime as one that suppresses human rights and civil liberties. This perhaps suggests how western media outlets believed it was in their interest to emphasize the intensity and seriousness of the protests in Iran.

Overall, these demonstrations are best viewed as part of Iran’s socio-economic scene. Although twenty people died in clashes with security forces, the latest demonstrations did not reach the intensity or severity of previous protests in the country. In this case, due to the small scale and specific causation of the protests, the risk of a second revolution is highly unlikely. The government has shown it is at least partially responsive to citizens’ concerns, although ongoing economic and social inequality will help to ensure that common grievances do not disappear any time soon.

Sehr Nawaz works in the Private Equity & Operations team at 3i Group in London.

What’s Behind the Upcoming Western Military Intervention in Syria?

Russia’s weakening diplomatic position and the strategic and political interests of France and the United States point to a military intervention becoming increasingly likely in Syria.

Moscow’s diplomatic weakening

Moscow understood back in 2015 that the Obama administration would not intervene in Syria and hence saw for itself an opportunity to save the regime, while gaining a foothold in the Middle East, from which it had been largely absent since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia’s air support was decisive and very quickly, its presence has become essential in the region because of its close ties to all stakeholders. The announcement of the withdrawal of most Russian troops from Syria in December 2017 was supposed to lead to peace negotiations and to a political compromise that Russia would sponsor – although this has not yet materialised.

Today, Russian diplomacy, driven by its conflicting interests, appears to be seeking a political solution to the crisis irrespective of the will of the Syrians and Iranians, who prefer to maintain the conflict on military grounds. Indeed, the internationalisation of the conflict means that Russia must square its contradictions: the desire to maintain good relations with Israel, concern and mistrust over the growing influence of the Iranians, its strategic partnership with Turkey, and the need to protect Damascus.

Vladimir Putin is trapped between adopting a uniquely military approach, which would result in cutting off Syria from Western and Arab countries to the benefit of Iran’s influence, or choosing to settle the conflict through political and diplomatic routes by involving western countries in the peace process. Doing so would undermine Russia’s interests in the region.

In addition to this diplomatic conflict of interest, the assassination of the ex-Russian spy in London has pushed the United States and the European Union to enforce major diplomatic sanctions. This action has two consequences: the first is that the use of poisoning in broad daylight to assassinate the ex-spy has now served to convince western leaders that after Obama’s leading from behind doctrine, Russia no longer believes that western countries are capable of a hard-power confrontation. Second, the accumulation of the diplomatic sanctions, in addition to the economic sanctions already inflicted following the annexation of Crimea and the bogging down of the Russian army in Syria has weakened Putin, and has created an opportunity for Washington and Paris to restore the balance of power in Syria.

The Turkish military intervention

The recent Turkish military intervention in Syria has weakened the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which were until recently the guarantor of a western presence in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, the YPG was trained and armed by the United States, and many soldiers from the Special Forces were present in Afrin and are now in Manbij.

The recent diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Washington and Erdogan’s objective to pursue the military advance to Manbij revealed the deep strategic disagreement between the two historical allies. The Turkish army is more powerful than the YPG, despite the former’s dysfunctions, which became apparent during Operation Olive Branch – mainly due to the massive purge that Erdogan carried out in the Army following the failed putsch in 2016.

If the YPG is destroyed by Turkey, Washington’s influence will disappear from Syrian territories. As such, a military intervention can bring the United States into the Middle-Eastern power game and uphold its interest in the peace negotiations.

Public opinion after the chemical attack

Public opinion is generally not in favor of a military intervention, especially in the Middle East. The American and British military intervention in Iraq and the French one in Libya and Sub-Saharan Africa has pushed the public against any military involvement in Syria.

However, after 7 years of conflict, the continuous stream of Syrian refugees brought the issue closer to home. Moreover, the images of the Syrian population’s terror after the airstrikes and chemical attacks in the wartorn country appear to have convinced the public that a limited military intervention would be the least bad solution.

In Washington and Paris, strategic interests meet political ones. For Donald Trump, the intervention will allow him to hinder the Iranian influence and for Emmanuel Macron, this completes the return of France in Middle Eastern affairs.

What are the stakes of this military intervention?

For now, no one knows the extent of the upcoming military intervention. It could be a short bombing raid similar to the one carried a year ago against a Syrian military base or it could be a massive destruction of Syrian military forces to avoid any future chemical attack. The options are limited because in all cases, the bombing must avoid killing Russians on the ground. However, Russian military advisers are fully integrated into Syrians troops.

It also remains to solve the crisis between Turkey and the United States. NATO is worried about a rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, and intervention in Syria could bring the Turkish and American positions closer together. Indeed, the Turkish intervention to eliminate the YPGs in a predominantly Kurdish region dismisses the thesis of a short and focused intervention from the Turks. Everything suggests that once the YPG is put out of action, the Turkish forces will remain present to ensure that the Kurdish threat does not resume in another form and to install the buffer zone they have always wanted.

The area controlled by the Turkish army will thus have a direct border with the territory controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Ankara has always supported the FSA, which is based in Istanbul. The new presence of the Turkish army therefore suggests that the transport of military equipment to the rebels by Turkey will be now more important, which means that the rebel group would become the new principal and common partner for the United States, Turkey and France.

 

Anas Abdoun is an analyst at Stratas Advisors, where he analyzes geopolitical, security, economic, policy and regulatory risks impacting energy markets in the Middle-East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Russia’s Diplomatic Weakening And Its Role In Upcoming Western Military Intervention in Syria

Russia’s weakening diplomatic position and the strategic and political interests of France and the United States point to a military intervention becoming increasingly likely in Syria.

Moscow’s diplomatic weakening

Moscow understood back in 2015 that the Obama administration would not intervene in Syria and hence saw for itself an opportunity to save the regime, while gaining a foothold in the Middle East, from which it had been largely absent since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia’s air support was decisive and very quickly, its presence has become essential in the region because of its close ties to all stakeholders. The announcement of the withdrawal of most Russian troops from Syria in December 2017 was supposed to lead to peace negotiations and to a political compromise that Russia would sponsor – although this has not yet materialised.

Today, Russian diplomacy, driven by its conflicting interests, appears to be seeking a political solution to the crisis irrespective of the will of the Syrians and Iranians, who prefer to maintain the conflict on military grounds. Indeed, the internationalisation of the conflict means that Russia must square its contradictions: the desire to maintain good relations with Israel, concern and mistrust over the growing influence of the Iranians, its strategic partnership with Turkey, and the need to protect Damascus.

Vladimir Putin is trapped between adopting a uniquely military approach, which would result in cutting off Syria from Western and Arab countries to the benefit of Iran’s influence, or choosing to settle the conflict through political and diplomatic routes by involving western countries in the peace process. Doing so would undermine Russia’s interests in the region.

In addition to this diplomatic conflict of interest, the assassination of the ex-Russian spy in London has pushed the United States and the European Union to enforce major diplomatic sanctions. This action has two consequences: the first is that the use of poisoning in broad daylight to assassinate the ex-spy has now served to convince western leaders that after Obama’s leading from behind doctrine, Russia no longer believes that western countries are capable of a hard-power confrontation. Second, the accumulation of the diplomatic sanctions, in addition to the economic sanctions already inflicted following the annexation of Crimea and the bogging down of the Russian army in Syria has weakened Putin, and has created an opportunity for Washington and Paris to restore the balance of power in Syria.

The Turkish military intervention

The recent Turkish military intervention in Syria has weakened the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which were until recently the guarantor of a western presence in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, the YPG was trained and armed by the United States, and many soldiers from the Special Forces were present in Afrin and are now in Manbij.

The recent diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Washington and Erdogan’s objective to pursue the military advance to Manbij revealed the deep strategic disagreement between the two historical allies. The Turkish army is more powerful than the YPG, despite the former’s dysfunctions, which became apparent during Operation Olive Branch – mainly due to the massive purge that Erdogan carried out in the Army following the failed putsch in 2016.

If the YPG is destroyed by Turkey, Washington’s influence will disappear from Syrian territories. As such, a military intervention can bring the United States into the Middle-Eastern power game and uphold its interest in the peace negotiations.

Public opinion after the chemical attack

Public opinion is generally not in favor of a military intervention, especially in the Middle East. The American and British military intervention in Iraq and the French one in Libya and Sub-Saharan Africa has pushed the public against any military involvement in Syria.

However, after 7 years of conflict, the continuous stream of Syrian refugees brought the issue closer to home. Moreover, the images of the Syrian population’s terror after the airstrikes and chemical attacks in the wartorn country appear to have convinced the public that a limited military intervention would be the least bad solution.

In Washington and Paris, strategic interests meet political ones. For Donald Trump, the intervention will allow him to hinder the Iranian influence and for Emmanuel Macron, this completes the return of France in Middle Eastern affairs.

What are the stakes of this military intervention?

For now, no one knows the extent of the upcoming military intervention. It could be a short bombing raid similar to the one carried a year ago against a Syrian military base or it could be a massive destruction of Syrian military forces to avoid any future chemical attack. The options are limited because in all cases, the bombing must avoid killing Russians on the ground. However, Russian military advisers are fully integrated into Syrians troops.

It also remains to solve the crisis between Turkey and the United States. NATO is worried about a rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, and intervention in Syria could bring the Turkish and American positions closer together. Indeed, the Turkish intervention to eliminate the YPGs in a predominantly Kurdish region dismisses the thesis of a short and focused intervention from the Turks. Everything suggests that once the YPG is put out of action, the Turkish forces will remain present to ensure that the Kurdish threat does not resume in another form and to install the buffer zone they have always wanted.

The area controlled by the Turkish army will thus have a direct border with the territory controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Ankara has always supported the FSA, which is based in Istanbul. The new presence of the Turkish army therefore suggests that the transport of military equipment to the rebels by Turkey will be now more important, which means that the rebel group would become the new principal and common partner for the United States, Turkey and France.

Anas speaks is an analyst at Stratas Advisors, where he analyzes geopolitical, security, economic, policy and regulatory risks impacting energy markets in the Middle-East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

North Africa-Based Al-Qaeda Affiliate AQIM Remerges As Security Threat

The North Africa-based al-Qaeda affiliate AQIM has recently undertaken a variety of organizational reforms apparently aimed at centralizing the group’s decision-making and control. These reforms will likely help make it a significant threat in coming years.

In March 2018, Mali-based al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) claimed responsibility for an attack that killed 16 people in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The attack showed that although the Islamic State has lost large swathes of territory, the threat of global jihadism more broadly is far from over. In particular, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – JNIM’s sister organization – is currently undergoing substantial changes and is likely to eventually re-emerge as the number one regional security threat from West Africa to Egypt.

History of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb

AQIM has its roots in the Algerian Civil War. In 1998, the increasing number of civilian casualties alienated many members of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), which lead more moderate members to break away and form the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), which pledged to only attack government targets. Algerian counter-terrorism measures subsequently drove both groups into disarray, however, parts of the GSPC remained intact. In 2004, Abdelmalek Droukdel became the group’s leader and on 11th September 2006, he pledged allegiance to bin Laden and rechristened the group as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The rebranded AQIM enjoyed a brief success in 2007 until the Algerian state responded with a renewed holistic counter-campaign that included tightened controls of mosques, wide-scale police operations, and amnesty initiatives for defectors. As a result, the group went through several fragmentations and changes, the most noteworthy of which was the the separation of Sahelian brigades who formed the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) in 2011.

In December 2012, AQIM senior leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar departed from AQIM and to form the al-Mulathamun Battalion, who then cooperated with local Malian jihadi-group Ansar al-Dine and MUJWA to support the Tuareg uprising in Mali. After a string of victories in Northern Mali, the Islamist allies Ansar al-Dine and MUJWA drove out Tuareg separatists and committed an irreversible mistake. At the prompting of Ansar al-Dine, Islamists launched an attack against Southern Mali, which prompted a military coup in Bako and a subsequent call for military help from France. The subsequent French intervention quickly defeated MUJWA and forced the group to retreat to rural areas in northern Mali and Mauretania. In May 2013, MUJSA merged with Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathamun Battalion to form al-Murabitoun.

Mali, AQIM, Terrorism, Intervention

Mali in 2013 prior to the French intervention (source: Wikimedia).

The centralization of AQIM

The ever-evolving nature of AQIM proves that it has rather operated as a syndicate organisation, uniting different autonomously working cells under one overarching brand. Its members cooperate on varying topics such as terrorism, recruitment, drug-smuggling or arms trafficking.

The creation of al-Murabitoun in May 2013 marked the beginning of the centralisation process of this syndicate, which was furthered in 2015 when AQIM linked up with its former offshoot al-Mourabitoun. That same al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri allegedly ordered a regional division among his commanders, thought both were to remain under an indivisible al-Qaeda lead. Droukdel was placed in charge of Algeria, al-Mourabitoun leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar of Libya, and Djame Okacha of West Africa. More recently, the centralization continued on 2nd March 2017, when al-Qaeda’s Sahel brigades merged with Ansar al-Dine and al-Mourabitoun to form JNIM, led by former Ansar al-Dine Emir Iyad Ag Ghali. Iyad Ag Ghali pledged allegiance to al-Zawahiri and completed the integration process.

Finance and survival

AQIM has shown a remarkable adaptability throughout the past 20 years. While it has kept a low profile in Algeria and retreated to the mountainous Kabyle region, it has staged several attacks in Libya and tried to link up to Ansar al-Islam Egypt. In the uninhabitable desert regions AQIM cooperates with local tribes. Personal ties between a brigade’s commander and the central leadership help assure loyalty to the overall organisation.

The group reportedly raises funds through protection rackets, robbery, arms trafficking, money laundering and reportedly facilitating drug trafficking from South America into Europe – though it is worth remembering that previous reports of al-Qaeda’s involvement in drug smuggling have often been exaggerated. While it is undisputed that al-Qaeda benefits from the drug routes through the ungoverned Sahara territories, the corrupt Malian state is by far more engaged in the business than AQIM. Monikers such as “Mr. Marlboro” for Belmokhtar are likely attempts of the Malian government to downplay the al-Qaeda threat and label it as a gang of criminals.

That said, while the exact degree involvement of al-Qaeda in smuggling and trafficking is hard to measure, it is increasing and likely to become a more important source of income than kidnapping in the future.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, AQIM

AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Recent developments

While the group heavily relied on kidnapping for ransom as a source of income in the past, it has become an established local actor in Northern Mali, Niger and Libya that levies taxes and reaps great profits from smuggling networks. AQIM increasingly resembles a mafia-like entity with a growing influence on local communities, a steady cash flow and the ability to plan.

This development is likely linked to the ongoing centralisation process. Following the return of Mokhtader, a senior leader in the organization, AQIM leadership began to centralise the group’s command structures. This was largely in reaction to an influx of well-trained foreign fighters from the Levant, which represented a major opportunity for the group even while posing a potential danger to the group’s coherency. This assumption was confirmed when on 20th January 2018 Tunisian special forces killed Bilel Kobi, the right hand of current AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel. It seems Kobi had been sent to reunite the splinter groups of AQIM in Tunisia and capitalise on the return of jihadists.

While a senior leader remained in Algeria to organise the group’s activities there, the Algerian police state with its experienced military is a far more difficult place in which to operate than post-revolutionary Tunisia with its open borders to Libya. In 2017, Tunisian police detained 1,456 suspects with links to al-Qaeda, confirming the re-emerging presence of AQIM in North Africa and in particular in Tunisia and Libya.

AQIM is unlikely to target Tunisia for attacks, and it is more likely that it will use it as a refuge from which to plan and operate. This means that the group is likely to strike more frequently in the Sahel as well as in Libya and even as far as Egypt. Increasingly centralised command structures and a steady cash flow will add to the group’s operational capacities and render it the biggest security threat in North and West Africa.

Hauke holds a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Hamburg and an MA in Diplomacy from SOAS, University of London.

When Diplomacy Loses: Are Israel and Iran On The Path to Escalation?

Iran has been ratcheting up the rhetoric while Haaretz warns of the consequences of Iran’s ambitions in Syria. It all started back in February, when an Iranian drone and an Israeli F-16 were shot down at the Syria-Israel border. More incidents and additional quarrels over the Iran Nuclear Deal could lead to more grievous confrontations between the parties involved.

The drone and the F-16: the incident

On 10 February, the Israeli Air Force (IAF – Heyl Ha’Avir) intercepted and shot down an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was flying within its borders. Soon after, the IAF dispatched its F-16I jetfighters in order to destroy the UAV control vehicle in Syrian territory. However, as the F-16Is engaged their targets, an intense barrage of anti-aircraft fire welcomed them. One F-16I was eventually shot down, while the two pilots managed to eject and landed on Israeli territory. In retaliation, Israel conducted surgical strikes against at least twelve Iranian targets within Syria.

A series of new developments

The events of 10 February represented a number of unprecedented developments. First, this was the first time that an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace. Previously, Iran’s proxies – such as e.g. Hezbollah – usually carried out these tasks. This marks an upgrade in Tehran’s presence and involvement in operations against Israel. Also, the retaliation unleashed by the downing of the F-16 represented the first Israeli strike against manned Iranian bases. Hence, similarly to the Iranian counterpart, Israeli forces are not steering clear of a direct confrontation with their regional competitor.

Moreover, the IAF losing an aircraft is news in itself. Indeed, Israel had not lost a single jetfighter in a combat operation since the time of the Lebanon War at the beginning of the ‘80s. It is not clear what anti-aircraft weapon system brought the jetfighter down. IAF F-16Is are equipped with electronic countermeasures that give them an advantage against many anti-aircraft systems. There are, however, sophisticated systems in Syria – such as the Russian-made Buk-M1-2 or S-400 – that could successfully engage advanced jetfighters like the IAF F-16Is.

The loss of the jetfighter is noteworthy in another regard as well, as it could change Israel’s course of action. Indeed, Israel has been ceaselessly conducting airstrike in Syria throughout the Civil War, targeting Hezbollah’s supply chain as well as Syrian and Iranian strategic military facilities and bases. This line of conduct might be subject to change in light of these recent events; as an Iranian official commented, “the era of hit and run is over” and his words might ring partially or entirely true.

Leaders send warning from Munich

Displaying a piece of the UAV downed over the skies of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Iran from the stage of the Munich Security Conference to not “test Israel’s resolve”. Netanyahu asserted that Israel would not let Tehran proceed with their plans against Tel Aviv, stating that his country is ready to wage war against Iran or its proxies to defend itself.

While Iran rejected all accusations brought forth by Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister might find additional reasons to reinforce his anti-Iranian foreign policies in recent domestic developments. The Israeli police recently claimed to have enough evidence to charge Netanyahu with corruption. Faced with this accusation, the Prime Minister might be strongly motivated to show resolve against Israel’s arch-enemy in order to deflect attention from himself – more so as if he can count on the Trump administration’s unconditional support and even on the assistance of countries equally worried about Iran’s rise, like Saudi Arabia.

Also in Munich, Lebanon’s Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf reacted to Netanyahu’s words. Commenting on the Israeli Prime Minister’s promise to go after Iran’s proxies, Sarraf asserted that the government in Beirut is ready and willing to defend its territory against external aggression. Any Israeli operations taking place on Lebanese soil would, therefore, prompt an armed reaction against it. Sarraf’s pledge may well prove empty, as it is hard to imagine Beirut conducting military operations against Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, Israel will feel forced to gauge potential reactions from other neighbouring countries besides Syria. Meanwhile, there have been further revelations about Iran allegedly having up to 10 military bases in Syria, two of them near Israel’s border.

The Nuclear Deal as the final straw?

The year 2018 will see an increase in tension between Iran and Israel. This could potentially lead to a limited, regional conflict between Tel Aviv and Tehran’s proxies. Yet, while the anti-Iranian front tightens, a more direct confrontation might arise from the Nuclear Deal. Indeed, the dissatisfaction of Israel and the USA grows, since they believethe Deal is incapable of preventing Iran from getting nuclear capabilities.

At the same time, Iran’s resentment towards the US is increasing. In particular, Iran accuses the Trump administration of meddling in its business with other countries in order to counter the positive effects that the lifting of the sanctions ensued. Under such circumstances, the Nuclear Deal does not pay off and Iran would benefit from withdrawing. In this regard, Tehran warned its competitors that the world “would face another nuclear crisis, which would be very difficult to be resolved”, if the Nuclear Deal was to be scrapped.

If this is going to be the case, Iran will surely re-embark on its nuclear endeavour with renewed vigour. Simultaneously, Israel, the US, and the rest of the regional powers worried about Iran’s rise, might push for more aggressive solutions in order to deal with the prospects of a nuclear Iran once and for all. If diplomacy loses this round, the probability of a direct confrontation between these parties will increase dramatically.

Mauro Lubrano is an Analyst at Global Risk Insights. He holds a Master in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, a M.A. in Peace and Conflict Research from the University of Frankfurt am Main (Germany) and a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Perugia (Italy).

 

Can Sisi Preserve Stability In Egypt As Warning Signs of Mistrust Rise?

With major increases in potential instability and unrest in Egypt, and presidential elections due on 26-28 March, conditions are ripe for another wave of protest. 

It’s not uncommon to hear Egyptians saying that the revolution failed – that it was hijacked by opportunists, while the true revolutionaries were left hopeless, without a unified leadership. The political transition after the June 30 Revolution has been unsuccessful in giving the people the one thing they have demanded since 2011: a voice. A successful democratic transition demands that the people rule the government and the people control the public sphere, not vice-versa.

There has been no effective transformation or distribution of power among the state’s ruling institutions in Egypt, and therefore no tangible break from the ingrained authoritarianism of the past. The military continues to control the state. An absence of effective checks and balances has facilitated a clampdown on free speech and civil society, all under the guise of “national security.” The result is a society in quiet revolt against the same kind of repression that led to the 2011 revolution and the wider Arab Spring – and survey data supports this view.

The context: closing public spaces and obstructing freedom of speech

Islamist militant attacks against security forces and civilians surged in the Sinai Peninsula immediately following the removal of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) elements from government, and pro-Morsi demonstrators faced the heavy hand of the armed forces. Associations were drawn between certain elements of the MB and the militant groups in the Sinai, and the MB quickly became synonymous with terrorism in government discourse.

When the opposition is labeled a threat to national security, the road ahead is very slippery. The oppressive measures that have resulted from this designation are increasingly used to suppress those who challenge the government. Thousands of opposition figures now allegedly sit in prison. A report released in September 2016 asserts that Egypt’s prisons hold around 60,000 political prisoners – 57% of the incarcerated population.

Suppression of the opposition has taken over many facets of Egyptian society. Outspoken newspapers have been outlawed while draconian anti-protest and NGO laws have crippled the public sphere. All genuine opposition candidates to current President Abdel Fatteh Al-Sisi have withdrawn from the forthcoming presidential election, and their supporters have been unable to speak out, for fear of reprisals.

Crushing opposition and disallowing genuine political dissent in the name of stability, can cause just the opposite. Partly in response to Sisi’s authoritarian rule, the insurgency in northern Sinai is unrelenting and Egypt has become an important battleground in the struggle against ISIS and its affiliates. In addition, the repressive measures threaten to provoke public discontent.

The data: rapid rise in discontent and mistrust of institutions

Data collected by Dalia Research between November 2017 and January 2018 as part of the Risk Pulse project – a new way of measuring political instability risks – shows a stark trend. Egyptians’ trust in their institutions is falling rapidly: trust in the police went from 65% in November to 62% in December, and 56% in January; similarly, trust in the courts declined from 64%, to 57%, and hit a low of 54% in January.

Egyptians are also reporting a perceived increase in corruption over the past 12 months, from 47% in November to 55% in January, and they are feeling more unhappy about it: 57% said they were angry about corruption levels, up from 50% in November.

Perhaps most importantly, the largest changes in the survey data showed a 13% rise in the proportion of the population inclined to take part in protests, from 11% in December to 24% in January. Egyptians’ perception of the level of instability in the country likewise jumped by 12%: while 29% said the situation looked unstable in November, this rose to 35% in December, and 41% in January. These are much bigger changes than are currently being observed in other countries monitored by Risk Pulse.

The outlook: implications for political stability in Egypt

Sisi recently gave a firm warning to the opposition: during the inauguration ceremony of the Zohr gas field on 31 January, he gave an impromptu speech in which he stated that he is “not a man of politics” when it comes to “anyone trying to manipulate the state’s stability.” Coming from an ex-military man, the promise that he would do everything he can – including give his own life – to preserve the country’s stability and security sounded more like a threat.

In the short term, two factors – alongside Sisi’s tightening control of state institutions such as the military and intelligence services – may help Sisi preserve political stability for the time being.

Firstly, the police and intelligence services have become even more diligent at sniffing out dissent. The large number of political prisoners who sit in prison, the lack of press freedom and the tightening of the public sphere exemplify their success in helping to suppress opposition.

Secondly, as a result of the deterioration of personal freedoms and the lack of political pluralism, and in view of calls to boycott the elections, Sisi is on track to win the presidential mandate again in March. Although the Dalia data suggest that protests are increasingly likely to follow such a result, it is not yet clear whether they will be large and durable enough to lead to regime change. Street protests have effectively been banned since 2013 and when they do occur, tear gas, rubber bullets and arbitrary arrests are used in response.

Medium to long-term political stability is less certain, however, given the indications that Sisi’s tactics are reducing public trust in the state. In particular, should he attempt to amend the constitution to extend his tenure, either extending the term limit to 6 years or removing term limits altogether (like former presidents Sadat and Mubarak) – he would likely face combined resistance from the parliament and the population.

Unless Sisi makes allowances for political plurality during his second term in office, the risk of political instability will continue to increase. His failure to introduce effective checks and balances and uphold the right to personal freedoms will see his position come under intense pressure in the long run from politicians and the public, who still cherish the desire for the same freedoms they called for in 2011.

Joseph Colonna is a Cairo-based political analyst. He is also a research fellow with Freedom Forward.

Lebanon’s Enforcement of US Hezbollah Sanctions Leaves Salameh With Tough Balancing Act

“The money comes through the Syrian border in suitcases from Damascus. The source? Tehran. The Iranians send it (there) every week using their own military aircraft. That is where most of Hezbollah’s money is coming from at the moment,” said a veteran Beirut journalist, who has covered the Syrian conflict since it broke out seven years ago.

Iran’s funding of the powerful Shia group, which the US regards as a terrorist organisation, is well known. Less so is the manner and frequency of the flows – a subject that has increasingly occupied the minds of top Washington officials in recent years, as they have sought to weaken the ‘Party of God’ by cutting it off from its principal financial backer.

The main reason for the Trump administration putting such an emphasis on squeezing Hezbollah funding is tactical, with the US and its Arab allies, principally Saudi Arabia, attempting to curb Iranian influence over the Middle East.

Ever since the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act was signed into US law by Barack Obama in December 2015 Lebanon, keen to support its key western ally, has sought to ensure that the country’s major financial institutions – the cornerstone of a fragile economy strained by over 1.5 million Syrian refugees – are complying with US anti-money laundering regulation. No one has worked harder to do so than the Central Bank’s long-serving governor Riad Salameh. He sees the task as critical to keeping the country’s debt-ridden economy afloat, something he has wrestled with since his appointment in the early Nineties.

In enforcing the US legislation, Salameh is faced with a delicate balancing act. Making sure Lebanese banks are compliant with US anti-money laundering measures is central to continued American support – it has provided more than $1.5 billion of humanitarian assistance alone since the start of the Syrian conflict – and maintaining ties with US correspondent banks, who would be severely penalised if found to be dealing with sanctioned Lebanese. But at the same time, he must guard against the banks closing accounts of ordinary Shia who have connections with Hezbollah, but are not themselves members. Many support the group, represented in the country’s national unity government, and work for – or otherwise rely on – the schools, hospitals and charitable organisations it operates.

It was initially feared that Shia banking activities would be significantly disrupted undermining stability, but that has not proved to be the case. And according to a Lebanese source familiar with the local financial sector, Hezbollah can no longer expect local banks to turn a blind eye to money laundering. A lot of that is down to Salameh, who is very much in the public eye.

“He is certainly under the spotlight at the moment and everyone is looking to see what he is going to do next. Many disagree with his strict regulations but we simply cannot afford to risk losing American support,” said the source, pointing out that economic situation is so precarious that people are already exchanging their Lebanese pounds for US dollars in anticipation of a recession – despite Salameh’s best efforts to maintain public confidence in the local currency.

In January the Central Bank governor reportedly threatened to prohibit US dollar withdrawals from Lebanese banks to ease demand for the Lebanese pound. Officials later denied that this was the case, but in early February the government raised interest rates on bank housing loans by 0.5% to try to prop up the weakening currency.

Lebanon’s reliance on US assistance has become even greater since Prime Minister Saad Hariri was practically abducted by the Saudis in November 2017, leading to his immediate resignation and fears over a collapse in the pound. Although he returned to Beirut three weeks later, he explained in an interview on national television that the Saudis were prepared to impose sanctions on Lebanon if Hezbollah continued to involve itself in regional conflicts, particularly in Yemen.

Rumours circulated of a Saudi threat to cut the remittance transfers of some 200,000 Lebanese working in the Kingdom, an important source of revenue. While a Qatar-style blockade seems unlikely, the flow of expat money has nonetheless slowed because of downturn in the Saudi economy. According to a Lebanese banker, “There is a backlog of payments to Lebanese workers, who are sending over less and less. We are, therefore, having to rely more on US support. So you can see why Salameh is under pressure to obey (Washington’s) orders.”

And it looks as though he will have to maintain his strict oversight of the Lebanese banking sector for some time to come as there is no sign of Tehran reducing its backing for Hezbollah, despite Iran’s stuttering economy, little improved since the removal of international sanctions two years ago. Iranians who recently protested over their country’s economic ills railed against their government’s financial support for proxies across the Middle East, seemingly to no avail. At the end of January, it was reported that Iran’s military budget would see a substantial increase, which some analysts suggest means more funds available to Hezbollah.

Oliver Radway is an analyst at Alaco, a London-based business intelligence consultancy.

Qatar: Battle Against Economic Embargo Will Cause Gulf Crisis to Echo in Africa

Between the 20-24 of December 2017, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani travelled to Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. Since Sheikh Al-Thani became Emir in 2013, Qatar’s African policy has been primarily focused on East Africa, where the emirate has established significant diplomatic relations with countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Kenya. However, the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led diplomatic and economic embargo of Qatar could force the Emirate to rethink its policy toward the continent. The Emir’s visit underlines the strategic importance of Africa in the ongoing Gulf crisis.

The shadow of the ongoing blockade of Qatar was ever-present in the lead up to this six-nation tour. Although subjected to intense pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the only country that the Emir visited on this to have taken a position on the blockade was Senegal, which recalled its ambassador to Doha this past June. In contrast, President Alpha Condé of Guinea – who also serves as Head of the African Union – called for dialogue and the pursuit of the Kuwaiti mediation, while Ghana surprised many observers by announcing that the country would open an embassy in Doha, even as the crisis was in full swing in November.

That said, it is still too early to point to a clear Qatari strategy in sub-Saharan West Africa, a region which lacks a dedicated department at the emirate’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Historically, Doha has shown little interest for the western part of the continent. While Qatar does have investments in sub-Saharan Africa, these were primarily made through partners already active in the emirate (such as Qatar’s partnership with French oil company Total in the Congo), or targeted banking institutions, such as Qatar National Bank’s acquisition of a 12.5 percent stake in Ecobank, a regional commercial bank operating in many African countries.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Africa Impact of the Saudi embargo of Qatar – Qatar is shown in green, countries or territories that have cut ties with Qatar in red, and countries or territories that have downgraded ties in pink.

A tour without fanfare

Notably, there was no announcement during the tour that Doha would significantly invest in the region. Although a series of commercial contracts was signed (especially in the aviation, infrastructure development, education and health sectors), for the time being cooperation has been confined to provision of grants, financial assistance or concessional loans. As for a potential security partnership, it is most likely that Qatar will be lagging even further behind, given the controversy that resulted from its decision to send hundreds of troops to support the Libyan rebels who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

Nevertheless, the absence of spectacular announcements or major trade deals should not overshadow the symbolic force of the Emir’s trip, especially within the broader context of the Gulf crisis. The embargo has not hurt Qatar’s oil and gas industry – the emirate’s main source of funding for diversification projects – and the Qatar Investment Authority sufficent reserves to allow Doha to face the embargo for many years. However, the blockade has undoubtedly diminished Qatar’s regional influence and soft power. This creates a de facto threat to the monarchy’s internal stability, as it views its foreign policyas a means of survival in a region riven by rivalries.

This threat is exacerbated by the fact that Doha’s Emir-centric remains excessively personalized and is not solidly anchored in institutions. In this context, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani’s tour is part of a drive to shore up support for his country across West Africa, a region that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also courting. In mid-December, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi announced that they were respectively releasing $100 million and $30 million in support of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, clearly indicating their willingness to be more involved in the implementation of the peacekeeping operations in the Sahelian strip.

Gulf crisis drags on in Africa

Since the outbreak of the Gulf crisis, the lobbying dynamics at work toward the G5 Sahel Member States show the strategic importance of West Africa for the involved parties. The security alliance includes Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mauritania. Although the last three have sided with the Saudi-Emirati coalition, Mali and Burkina Faso have not bowed to pressure from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly called on the countries in the Sahel zone to make their position clear, but it is very unlikely that Bamako and Ouagadougou will turn their back on Qatar, as these two states have just established diplomatic relations with Doha and have an eye on the emirate’s capital flows. In August 2015, state-run company Qatar Mining obtained its first African permits in Mali, and is now operating on four sites across the country.

Renewed tensions in the Horn of Africa

Even as it increases tensions in the Sahel, the Gulf crisis also raises serious concerns for the stability of the Horn of Africa due to a long-standing border conflict between Eritrea and Djibouti. Territorial tensions between the two countries arose in 1996 and 1999, but the current crisis dates back to 2008, when Eritrea sent its troops to the disputed zones, which include the Gabla hill (or Ras Doumeira) and a small island called Doumeira. Qatar successfully mediated between the two countries and prevented any further military confrontation. Eritrean troops left and 400 Qatari military observers were deployed in the area until a peaceful settlement to the conflict could be found. However, when the Gulf crisis began, Qatar withdrew its peacekeeping contingent due to Eritrea and Djibouti’s decision to downgrade relations with the emirate. Eritrea jumped on the occasion and seized the disputed island, a move that has revived territorial tensions in the region.

 Disputed territory between Eritrea and Djibouti.

Diplomatic games

Two other countries have also been impacted by the Gulf crisis. The first is Qatar’s longtime ally Sudan, which recently signed a deal with Turkey to increase trade ties and establish a strategic cooperation agreement. As Turkey provided aid to Qatar at the onset of the crisis, the Sudanese-Turkish agreement likely raised anxiety in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Turkey has a military base in Qatar and said it would increase its presence to 3,000 troops in the coming months, fueling the fear of a Turkish military expansion in the Gulf region.

Finally, Somalia’s refusal to break diplomatic relations with Qatar is particularly important. The internationally-recognized government in Mogadishu has long enjoyed positive relations with Saudi Arabia, its biggest trade partner in the Gulf region. Somalia has even provided tactical support to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s war in Yemen. Nonetheless, Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, has sided with Qatar and called for dialogue between all parties. According to rumors, Mohamed’s support for Qatar is a return of favor for Doha’s financial support during the 2017 Somali presidential election. Whether or not this is true, Somalia’s desire to stay neutral will likely be tested, as it recently received $50 million in new aid from Saudi Arabia in a clear attempt to test Somalia’s neutrality.

Among the numerous risks and uncertainties concerning the outcome of the Gulf crisis, one thing is certain: it will continue to have an impact and spread across Africa, in both eastern and western parts of the continent.

Leo Kabouche is a Toronto-based analyst who has worked for several consulting firms in Canada & France. He holds a MSc in International Affairs from the University of Montreal and a double BA in Political Science & International Affairs from HEIP. As originally appears https://globalriskinsights.com/2018/01/gulf-crisis-qatar-african-echoes/

Why Iraq’s Prime Minister Needs To Win The War on Graft Before Reconstruction Begins

Having put Islamic State to the sword, Iraq’s premier Haider al-Abadi has now set his sights on a new challenge – curbing the country’s endemic corruption, a struggle that must be won if his ambitious plans to revive regions devastated in the war against the insurgents are to be achieved.

The government has estimated that it needs $100 billion in reconstruction funds over the next ten years to restore Sunni cities and regions that bore the brunt of the conflict. Abadi is widely respected across Iraq’s highly sectarian political landscape, but in order to win the support of Sunni voters in elections next year he will need to demonstrate substantial progress on pledges to rebuild their heartlands.

The international community appears ready in principle to back Abadi’s rebuilding efforts though the scale of its support will likely be predicated on whether the country has the systems in place to ensure that funds are used effectively. So far, about half a billion dollars of assistance has been pledged. A donors’ conference in Kuwait early in 2018 is expected to secure more finance – however, Iraqi hopes of a Marshall Plan-like settlement for their country currently seem unrealistic.

While there is no shortage of goodwill towards Iraq, with world and regional powers acutely aware of the need to stabilise the country to avert an IS resurgence and stave off Iranian influence, there are real concerns that funds will be misspent or lost to corruption, as they were following the toppling of Saddam Hussein. A 2013 US government audit of its financing of Iraqi reconstruction over the previous decade, which came in at around $60 billion, found that nearly 15 per cent of  money had been wasted, with American military oversight of projects sharply criticised.

Iraqi leaders will be conscious that donors’ concerns over the distribution of funds may limit contributions, which is why they aim to supplement the latter with private investment. Already, Britain has earmarked $12 billion in loans available to UK companies engaged in Iraqi infrastructure projects. Baghdad is hoping that investment is directed towards public/private partnerships and the nascent small-to-medium-sized business sector, which could play a critical role in helping Iraq diversify its oil-dependent economy.

In the wake of IS’s defeat, Abadi launched what he described as a war on corruption. This has resonated strongly with many fellow Shia leaders – notably the hugely influential Muqtada al-Sadr – and Sunni politicians, whose constituencies want an end to a scourge that has blighted the country. The premier has been under pressure to act for some time. Last year Sadr supporters twice stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and embassies, in protest over perceived government foot-dragging.  But fraud is so endemic that Abadi may struggle to make any headway. Some critics suggest that his combative pledges are little more than rhetoric aimed at boosting his electoral prospects or just a ploy to neuter political rivals.

Yet there are tangible signs that Iraq is committed to tackling fraud. In August a court jailed 26 high-ranking officials for up to 15 years after they were convicted of corruption. They included former ministers of defence, electricity and agriculture. It was a ground-breaking development as political interference in the judiciary has undermined efforts to prosecute and convict those suspected of graft.

The likes of the IMF will probably be looking for concrete state sector reforms which, even if Abadi is minded to introduce them, would meet considerable political resistance, possibly even from his own ruling Dawa Party. Cutting civil service jobs and salaries would undermine a deep-seated system of cronyism and patronage. It enables many parties to fund themselves and keep their constituencies onside – the former from kickbacks and the awarding of contracts to party-affiliated companies, the latter through the provision of public sector posts, which often furnish the incumbent with significant money-making opportunities.

Little wonder then that Abadi has warned that his battle against corruption may be more difficult than the one against IS. It might also explain why he is encouraging more private sector involvement in Iraq’s reconstruction, although overseas investors, like international lenders and foreign governments, will want to be reassured that they will not be channelling money into black holes.

So far, Abadi has been saying and doing the right things, albeit without really addressing government rent-seeking. Among headline anti-corruption measures, the courts will issue warrants against those who have allegedly smuggled money out of the country while contracts for past projects or investments that have failed will come under scrutiny. Sadr has been setting the pace by expelling dozens of people suspected of graft from his political movement.

Abadi has some time to formulate a more thoroughgoing anti-corruption strategy. His defeat of IS and retaking of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from the Kurds has raised his stock among Iraqi Shia and Sunni communities who, for now, may feel that the jailing of officials for graft and robust pledges to tackle the latter are sufficient sign of progress. But international donors will likely want to see, at the very least, plans for substantial anti-corruption reforms as they assess how much they are prepared to commit to Iraq’s reconstruction efforts.

 

Ambrose Carey is a director at Alaco, a London-based business intelligence consultancy. He has particular experience in the Middle East, and has been involved in some of the most high profile asset-tracing cases of the past few decades.

‘Blue Gold’ Will Be Turkey’s Key To The ‘Dry Crescent’

Next year will mark a full century since the Ottoman Empire lost control of the areas now known as Syria and Iraq. Now Turkey is pursuing an increasingly nationalistic and assertive foreign policy that’s being called ‘Neo-Ottomanism’. Ironically, water is the geopolitical asset that gives Turkey influence over the area historically referred to as the Fertile Crescent.

The Tigris and Euphrates rise in the Anti-Taurus mountains of Eastern Turkey, giving Turkey effective control of the water resources of Syria and Iraq. In an age of growing population and climate change, water is truly becoming ‘blue gold’.

Contentious dam construction

Turkish dam construction has long been contentious.  Since 1975, Turkish dams have cut the volume of water reaching Iraq by 80% and Syria by 40%. Conflict has almost spilled over on many occasions. In 1990, conflict brewed when both Syria and Iraq believed that Turkey had deliberately cut off their water supplies as both noted a simultaneous, serious decline in water flow. The situation was only diverted by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. NATO has a conflict scenario in which Iraq and Syria simultaneously attack Turkey, while the UN ‘Uppsala Model’ includes a scenario in which Iraq and Turkey are brought to the brink of war over water.

Political instability, foreign interference and the Kurdish independence movement in Syria and Iraq present challenges and opportunities which are likely to drive Turkey to weaponize water to extend its political influence. In the summer of 2014, Erdoğan ordered the water in the Euphrates to be held back, reducing water levels in Lake Assad, which supplied IS-held Raqqa. The disappearance of credible opposition in Iraq and Syria with the appearance of IS has given Erdogan greater freedom to extend control of water through the South-Eastern Anatolia dam project (GAP).  While GAP’s main purpose is hydroelectric power and economic growth, Turkey is aware of its geopolitical value. TheIlisu hydro-dam, the latest of the 22 planned dams in GAP, will straddle the Tigris just 30 miles north of the Syrian border. The water from these rivers is not just vital for Iraq and Syria’s food and water, it is also important for their economies. Prior to the rise of ISIS, Iraq’s oil industry required 1.8 billion cubic metres of water to function. Once GAP is completed, it is estimated that half the water from the Tigris and Euphrates may never leave Turkey.

Weaponising water

Turkey’s control of water resources can be instrumentalised to thwart or hinder Kurdish independence.  Iraq Kurdistan relies on 6 major rivers for over 75% of its water, three of which originate in Turkey, and the other two which flow from Iran; also hostile to a Kurdish state.  If Turkey were to limit water supplies to Iraqi Kurdistan, it would hamstring the Kurdish oil industry, central to Kurdish politico-economic autonomy.  It would also generate food and water shortages.  The water dynamics in the region provide a new perspective on the hardline attitude Turkey has taken towards domestic Kurds.  Eastern Turkey holds many of Turkey’s 15 million Kurds, but controlling the region’s watershed is crucial to maintain Turkish territorial integrity and generate influence in the region.

In the future, Turkey’s control of water will become an increasingly potent lever.  Population growth, climate change, and poor management are making water a scarce resource.  According to the UN, by 2050, Iraq’s, Syria’s, and Turkey’s populations are expected to grow by 130%, 89%, and 22% respectively.  A conservative estimate is that over the coming years climate change will reduce rainfall by 20% and massively increase evaporation, halving the amount of water available per person in the Middle East.  Of course, the effects of climate change will be greater in some places; predicted weather patterns could result in the desertification of over half of Syria.  Unsustainable water management, particularly digging illegal wells in Syria, have also decreased groundwater resources in the region, adding unnecessary strain.

A need for sustainable management

The growing centrality of water and the political fragility of Iraq and Syria have given Turkey the agency to expand its influence in the region.  It is certainly exploiting this opportunity. Yet, this combination of factors also means Turkey’s influence is likely to sustain if peace returns. This could generate political friction and spark further economic and political instability, something the region certainly does not need. A lasting political resolution to the instability in Iraq and Syria should incorporate sustainable management of the region’s water economy.

 

Ben Abbs is an Analyst at Global Risk Insights. As originally appears at: https://globalriskinsights.com/2017/12/turkey-water-influence/

 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Frontera and its owners.

What Would An Israel-Hezbollah Confrontation Look Like?

All eyes are on Israel after President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. But the most immediate risks have deeper origins. Despite heavy losses in the Syrian Civil War, Hezbollah still stands as a formidable military force equipped with an impressive arsenal and hardened by years of fighting. Now that its militants are returning to Southern Lebanon, the probability of a military confrontation with Israel will escalate.

From the ruins of the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah has emerged a victor. The Shia militia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War dates back to its start; though its involvement escalated sharply after 2013. As a member of the Axis of Resistance along with Iran and Syria, Hezbollah intervened not only to aid its Syrian ally but also – and perhaps more importantly – to secure its interests. Syria is one of Hezbollah’s main suppliers of weapons, funds, and safe havens. The fall of Assad and subsequent rise of a Sunni-dominated regime in Damascus would have seriously threatened Hezbollah’s regional operations.

A Costly Victory?

The six years long war has been quite costly for the Party of God. The war in Syria has claimed between 1700 and 1800 Hezbollah fighters according to an estimate – more than the organization lost in the 18 year-long Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Many of those killed were seasoned fighters and veterans of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict. This level of loss is unprecedented for Hezbollah. The organization has historically been successful in avoiding loss of life, in large part due to the level of specialization of its fighters. The survival of its soldiers has always been a cornerstone of its operations.

Still, the benefits that Hezbollah has gained from the conflict outweigh the losses. Hezbollah’s recruiting machinery has not “run out” of recruits, as a study of the Institute for the Study of War highlighted. Moreover, the frequent rotations have ensured that a large number of fighters ,up to 20.000,have gained considerable fighting experience. Though a generation of fighters was lost, younger, experienced recruits may have already replaced those killed in action.

Regardless of casualties, the intervention’s overall success has significantly boosted the group’s morale. In addition, Hezbollah and the Syrian army have become quite proficient in joint operations, as well as in operational planning and training, making it capable of carrying out sophisticated ground operations alongside allies. This coordination would definitely prove useful in the event of a new regional conflict.

Hezbollah gets an upgrade

Over time, Hezbollah’s alliance with Iran and Syria has given it a steady flow of sophisticated weaponry and technology. Most likely, there is no other non-state actor that is currently able to match the Party of God in this regard. Throughout the Syrian Civil War, Hezbollah has further increased its capabilities despite Israel’s frequent strikes on its supply chain. On top of the hundreds of thousands of missiles that Hezbollah owns, the acquisition of the anti-ship Yakhont missiles and the Russian anti-aircraft system SA-17has been game-changing. These weapon systems give Hezbollah the capability to challenge Israel air and naval superiority, which is something that – with the exception of the attack on the INS Hanit in 2006 – Hezbollah has never been able to do. Being able to compete with Israel in these domains represents a shift in the balance of power with Tel Aviv.

Additionally, the Party of God has been experimenting with new tactics in Syria, such as drone strikes. Weaponizing drones represents a further technological leap for Hezbollah, whose use of drones in the past was confined to reconnaissance.

Hezbollah’s homecoming

The return of Hezbollah fighters en masse will coincide with a strengthened presence of Iran along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Iranian presence among Hezbollah is nothing new, but Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has only  reinforced Iran’s influence in the organization.

For Israel’s part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already warned that he will not allow Tehran to establish a military presence on Israel’s borders. As such, any potential conflict between Israel and Hezbollah should be seen as an Israeli attempt to counter Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East. Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister is a clear indication that Israel is preparing for war, as some analysts believe. In addition, the Trump administration’s hostile stance towards Iran could embolden Israel to embark on an offensive sooner rather than later, as it would likely enjoy unconditional support from the United States.

What would a conflict look like?

Yet, a military confrontation envisaging a ground invasion of Southern Lebanon would be far more complicated than the  2006 July War. Israel would face a barrage of missiles aimed at their urban centers. Despite their efficacy, Israel’s missile defense systems ‘Iron Dome’, ‘David’s Sling’ and ‘Arrow’ would most likely be unable to withstand the number of rockets that Hezbollah would launch. The economic, political and humanitarian loss Israel would suffer would be immense.

Tel Aviv has stated it will deploy all of its strength from the very beginning if war was to break out on Israel’s northern border. The likely objective of such an offensive would be to wipe out Hezbollah’s missile capabilities before they could be fully deployed. Alternatively, Israel might be tempted to launch a preventive strike in Southern Lebanon. As Major General Amir Eshel claimed, Israel certainly does not lack the capability to do so.

The likelihood of a military confrontation between Tel Aviv and the Shia militia has not been this high since 2006. Whether or not a conflict will break out, 2018 will see tensions rise between Israel on one side, and Hezbollah and Iran on the other. This regional instability is largely due to the growing influence of Iran. Tehran’s desire to emerge as a regional leading power of the Middle East has placed it in a direct confrontation with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The worries about Iran’s regional influence have led to a paradoxical Tel Aviv-Riyadh alliance, which is supported by the new US administration. With the region being pulled into the fold, any potential military confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah could have greater repercussions, depending on Iran and Saudi Arabia’s level of involvement.

 

As originally appears at: https://globalriskinsights.com/2017/12/israel-hezbollah-war-jerusalem/