December 12, 2017

Middle East – whereto?

Corneliu Pivariu. Photographer: Ionus Paraschiv.

By Corneliu Pivariu.

That question comes again and again for those interested in the developments of the Middle East and more often when the situation is complicated and, really, when was the situation simple in this area? There is one single constant since more than half a century in the complex equation with many unknowns of the Middle East: the yet unsolved Palestinian issue. A constant that will further persist.

Given that so far we know something for sure about the Middle East, let us see what are some of the main developments in the region and their possible evolutions:

Daesh – is constantly losing territories after Mosul passed entirely, on 7th of July, under the Iraqi government forces control, the old city included, with its Grand Mosque of al-Nouri (where Al-Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate in 2014) and which leaning minaret was destroyed by Daesh shortly before the city was liberated. Although mention was made of Daesh’s losing 30,000 fighters in Mosul, the figure seems exaggerated to us and most probably the truth is somewhere around its half having in mind the organization’s total military forces and the areas it still controls. Daesh still holds Kirkuk and Nineveh towns and Anbar province in Iraq.

In Syria, the offensive for liberating Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up mostly of Kurdish fighters and strongly backed by the aviation and other means by the Western coalition entered its final stage after the town was completely surrounded on 30th of June in spite of Daesh’s counterattacks.

At the beginning of the last decade of July, Daesh forces lost part of the town, the old city included, yet it still has the capacity of launching counterattacks trying to recover lost positions. According to American estimates, there are some 3,500 foreign fighters in Raqqa plus an unspecified number of other Daesh fighters. Trying to motivate more its fighters, Daesh leadership offered a reward of around 4,000 dollars for any American or SDF military killed.

In a press conference in Amman, Jordan, Brett McGurk, the spokesman for the American troops declared: “Our mission is to get sure that … any foreign fighter here (in Raqqa, o.n.), who joined Daesh in Syria coming from a foreign country, will die in Syria”. As a result of strong fighting in Raqqa, before the its complete surrounding, Daesh withdrew from all the localities it controled in Aleppo district. Under the circumstances, the complete liberation of the town is a matter of time, probably within 4-6 weeks, even if some disputes arised among the elements of the forces fighting for liberating the town.

We estimate that after it loses Raqqa, Daesh will direct its forces towards other areas it controls in Syria and Iraq and in other states, as well, such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Egypt while terrorist attacks in Europe may multiply in the coming period. Even if the self-titled Caliph – Al Baghdadi will be killed (news concerning his death are not certain), the organization will survive and most likely will seek a closer cooperation with al Qaida.

Syria – the situation there is of a maximum complexity and difficult to be synthesized in a few lines. The interests concentrating and confronting there belong both to the states in the area and to the great foreign powers: the USA, Russia, France, Great Britain and others.

Iran seeks to preserve its interests and to ensure it will control what King Abdullah of Jordan in an inspired moment in 2004 called the Shiite crescent, a project in which Syria has a prominent place. We notice Israel’s strong artillery responses against mortar fire coming from Syria, on Quneitra area, south of Syria. According to some unofficial Israeli sources, there is a serious discontent in Tel Aviv vis-a-vis Trump-Putin understandings at G20 Summit in Hamburg on Syria, considering that Israel’s security needs were ”completely overlooked” on that occasion. A high Israeli military source, who insisted on anonymity, declared that ”the two sides (the USA and Russia, o.n.) partitioned Syria – the Americans north of Euphrates River, the Russians south of it”. Even if the situation on the ground looks like that, we do not think the USA definitely accepted such a situation.

Israel is further concerned about the possibility of Iranian missiles launching bases being built in Syria. The possibility of Hezbollah building, in a unspecified yet area in Lebanon, with Iranian assistance, of a deep underground performing missile manufacturing facility (Iran has experience in this field, see the components of its nuclear programme) is being circulated as well.

Russia further acts for securing and possibly expanding its influence gained after its direct military intervention in 2015. The most optimistic forecasts show that a possible solution will emerge in 2018, followed by a transition period of at least two years and then Syria’s reconstruction begins. It is indeed a business only the great ones will get access to.

Qatar – the situation remains tense yet and the USA’s intentions of mediating are noticeable, as well as the usual inaction of the Arab League. Turkey insists on observing Qatar’s sovereignity (see the 13-point Saudi demands) and president Erdogan had, on 30th of June, a phone talk with president Donald Trump mainly on this issue. We notice also the Turkish president’s visit to Kuwait on 23rd of July, after his visit and talks on the same day in Riyadh with the Saudi King Salman. The discussions with the Kuwaiti emir Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah lasted more than a hour.

Iraq – after Mosul’s liberation is not going yet towards a stable situation. It is for the first time the city is controlled by the Iraqi army (Shia in its majority) and it will still take time untill the situation in this city will come back to reasonable confines. It is likely that a compromise solution will be found with the Sunni opposition coming back to the city. Besides, the 15th of July Baghdad conference of the Sunni leaders proved their divisions and their lack of a coherent action, and that is something quite usual at the level of the entire Sunni community of the Middle East.

The referendum for the Kurdish independence, announced for September 25th, 2017, is an attempt of the leadership of the Iraqi Kurdistan – of the president Massoud Barzani, towards creating a Kurdish independent state, a project opposed by Turkey, Iran and the USA as well. As we said some time ago, the time for solving the Kurdish issue has not come yet.

The Middle East, a region considered, in a way, stable before 2010, as a result of the balance created by the existence of some authoritarian regimes, is now extremely volatile and presents great risks for the expansion of terrorism. Iran’s and Russia’s intervention in Syria greatly complicated the civil war in this country. Egypt, in its turn, goes over a difficult period economically and the Saudi and other Gulf countries’ assistance is not enough for surpassing it.

The Sunni-Shia sectarian divisions, the expansion of the influence of the Iranian revolution, the proliferation of the Islamist Sunni groups and last, but not least, the Arab-Israeli conflict are the biggest challenges of the region on the background of an explosive demographic and social and economic situation.

Therefore, Middle East – whereto? A question that will continue to arise.

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About the author:

Corneliu Pivariu, former first deputy for military intelligence (two stars general) in the Romanian MoD, retired 2003. Member of IISS – London, alumni of Harvard – Kennedy School Executive Education and others international organizations. Founder of INGEPO Consulting, and bimonthly Bulletin, Geostrategic Pulse”. Main areas of expertise – geopolitics, intelligence and security.

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