Strategic Analysis 2019: Mashreq, Greater Maghreb, Egypt and Israel

The full report Strategic Analysis 2019: Mashreq, Gran Maghreb, Egypt and Israel by C. Bertolotti is now available

Introduction: factors and challenges in Maghreb and Mashreq areas

The 2011 Arab uprisings’ represents a breaking point announcing the need for a regime overhaul in the region; the consequences of these strong aftershocks still have the potential to undermine the entire Arab state system.
Dramatic changes in the Maghreb and Mashreq area after 2011 underline the need for external actors to forge a new policy approach to address the region’s long-term challenges. In tackling the region’s increasingly intersecting and conflicting politics, aggravated by external interventions, international policy makers should keep their attention on both old and new conflict drivers, or risk fighting symptoms rather than causes, and thus potentially do more harm.

The Arab uprisings underlined the notion that existing conditions in the Maghreb and Mashreq area had become unmaintainable and announced the region-wide expiry of a socioeconomic order that had underwritten relative stability for decades. Today, the grievances that led to the near collapse of the regional order persist, and economic trends paint a bleak picture of further decline. Within the area, political dynamics will continue to feed frustrations among the mass of the population, fueling unrest and outmigration. At the same time, the 2011 uprisings produced a certain momentum for change, and in some places provided new opportunities.

At social level, the countries within the Maghreb and Mashreq area have significant population growth and concentration in a largely challenging environment both physically and in terms of infrastructure and socio-economic development. This means that in many places there is an excess of water food and energy demand over supply. This is particularly the case in areas of extreme population concentration, along rivers and coasts for example, in otherwise dry and climatically challenging environments. Dense populations in a few areas surrounded by vast expanses of virtually uninhabited land create pressures in the concentrated spaces and challenges in governance over the more remote areas.

At economic level, as reported by the World Bank, growth in the Maghreb and Mashreq area is projected to remain subdued, at 1.3 percent. Activity in oil exporters has slowed due to weak oil sector output and the effects of intensified U.S. sanctions on Iran, despite an easing of fiscal stance and positive prospects in non-oil sectors in some countries. Many oil importers continue to benefit from business climate reforms and resilient tourism activity. Regional growth is projected to pick up to around 3 percent a year in 2020-21, supported by capital investment and policy reforms.

Risks to the outlook are tilted to the downside, including geopolitical tensions, reform setbacks, and a further escalation of global trade tensions.

Download the ITA/ENG full report Strategic Analysis 2019: Mashreq, Greater Maghreb, Egypt and Israel, by C. Bertolotti (pdf version)
Download the ITA/ENG full report Strategic Analysis 2019: Mashreq, Greater Maghreb, Egypt and Israel, by C. Bertolotti (eBook ePubb versio


Introduction: factors and challenges in Maghreb and Mashreq areas

Algeria. Instabilità politica: tra opposizione e repressione

Main events
The political consequences of the mass protests
Who will succeed to Bouteflika?
Analysis, assessments and forecasts

Libya: Turkey’s strategic interest and the military support to Islamists. Russian expansion in Libya

Main events
The siege of Tripoli and the activism of the Libyan “Islamic State”
The political front
The military front
Turkish activism in support to Islamists: between financial interests and military aid
Turkey’s activism in Misurata and the bombing of the airport hosting the Italian contingent
Italian military presence in Misrata
As the competition for the Libyan oil assets becomes harsher, the Italian interests are affected
Russian expansion in Libya

Syria. “Peace spring”: the third Turkish military operation in Syria. The weakening of the Kurdish-Syrian YPG and the death of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

Main events
“Peace spring”, October 9-23
Conflict history: the battlefield moves to the border
The US-Turkey and Russia-Turkey agreements. US flexibility and strengthening of the Moscow-Ankara axis
Analysis, assessments and forecasts

Tunisia. A new political balance after Béji Caïd Essebsi?

Main events
The legacy of Béji Caïd Essebsi
Political dynamics
Security concerns
Analysis, assessment and forecasts

Israel. Political uncertainty and attacks by the “Palestinian Islamic Jihad” group

Main events
The terrorist “Palestinian Islamic Jihad” group attacked Israel after the death of one of its leaders

Egypt. Popular protests do not weaken the government
Main events

Lebanon. Popular protests force the prime minister to resign

Main events

Morocco: new approach to combating terrorism and greater security efforts

Main events
The strategic priorities and the pillars
Fighting regional terrorism
Broadening the scope of defense to include security challenges
Morocco wants women, minors held in Iraq, Syria to come home
BCIJ Discovers Hideout of Dismantled, IS-linked Terror Cell

Consequences, risks and opportunities of oil price changes in the Maghreb and Mashreq countries

Impact on major North African oil producers

Impact on Morocco, the major North African fuel importer

Military expenditure in the Maghreb and Mashreq areas: different trends


Download the ITA/ENG full report Strategic Analysis 2019: Mashreq, Gran Maghreb, Egypt and Israel, by C. Bertolotti, (pdf version)
Download the ITA/ENG full report Strategic Analysis 2019: Mashreq, Gran Maghreb, Egypt and Israel, by C. Bertolotti (eBook ePubb version)

Tunisia: a new political balance after Béji Caïd Essebsi?

by Claudio Bertolotti

The legacy of Béji Caïd Essebsi

President Béji Caïd Essebsi, the oldest sitting president in the world, died the 25th of July at the age of 92.  Essebsi served as Tunisia’s transitional leader after the 2011 popular uprising that drove out long-time ruler Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, and then was elected president in 2014 elections. He was the only senior politician in Tunisia to hold political office in the new democracy as well as under the previous regime of Habib Bourguiba – who became president after the country gained independence from France and who was among the most important, and most stridently secular, nationalists in the Arabic-speaking world – and Ben Ali, who was ultimately ousted.
Essebsi fought for Tunisian democracy, but also served the regimes of the 1960s and 1980s, and served as a vehicle for the reemergence of the old guard after the country’s 2011 democratic upheaval.   He came out of retirement in 2011 to be interim prime minister after the uprising that of Ben Ali. The revolt in Tunisia ignited antigovernment protests across North Africa and the Middle East, starting the turmoil in the entire MENA area known as the Arab Spring. When Ben Ali was overthrown in January 2011 and fled to Saudi Arabia, Essebsi was chosen as interim prime minister because of his government experience and his relatively untainted reputation.
Essebsi helped found a secular political party, Nidaa Tounis (Call for Tunisia), leading a movement to oust the increasingly unpopular Islamist government. In contrast to Egypt, where Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi operated directly against the Muslim Brotherhood – and where the military seized power and cracked down violently on the country’s elected Islamists – Tunisia managed in 2013-2014 a negotiated with Ennahdha in attempting to stabilise the country, fight outbreaks of terrorism, and improve a struggling economy. A national dialogue which reached a compromise with the Islamists and recognized their role as a legitimate political actor. An approach that  helped to preserve the Tunisian democratic experiment by forming a coalition with Ennahda after the 2014 elections, despite resistance to such a decision from within the secularist camp.
On the political and social front, Regarding, according to Youssef Cherif, a political analyst at the Columbia Global Center in Tunis, Essebsi “tried to foster education and progressive values, but he also encouraged nepotism through offering his son the leadership of his party and by nominating a lot of people in high positions by their degree of allegiance not their competency”.  Today, because 60 years of regimes, Tunisian society remains fractured. Politically, secularists, including local leftists and Arab nationalists, contend with Islamists. Socially, a rich elite lives in the coastal cities at a far remove from the poor, underdeveloped inland regions, where the revolution began and where popular unrest continues.

Political dynamics

Tunisia’s president — who is elected by the people for a once-renewable five-year term — mainly has authority over foreign and defence policy, governing alongside a prime minister chosen by parliament who has authority over domestic affairs. The interim, the president of the Parliament, Mohamed Ennaceur (85 years old), took over the position of head of state. According to the country’s constitution, the president of the parliament assumed the presidency for 45 to 90 days while elections are organised: Originally scheduled for November, the elections will take place on September 15, as confirmed by Nabil Baffoun, the head of the Independent Higher Authority for Elections; the campaigns are scheduled to run from September 2 to September 13, with the results announced two days after the polls. A date for the second round of presidential elections has not yet been decided but, according to officials, it would be held no later than November 3.  This means that Tunisia may vote in September and November for the early presidential elections and in October for the parliamentary elections.
Nidaa Tounes is splintered and recently collapsed; Essebsi became embroiled in a long-running series of political battles with his own prime minister, Youssef Chahed, and Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist party Ennahda. Essebsi’s passing will likely prompt for influence within the party Nidaa Tounis between his son, Hafedh Caïd Essebsi – who assumed the leadership of the political party – and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who leads the breakaway faction Tahya Tounis.
Slim Azzabi, secretary-general of the Tahya Tounis party stated that Tunisia’s liberal prime minister, Youssef Chahed, will run for president in an early election, making him one of the likely frontrunners to succeed Beji Caid Essebsi.  The Tahaya Tounis party, which split off from Essebsi’s party this year, is now the biggest liberal group in Tunisia’s parliament and governs in coalition with the Islamist Ennahda Party and a smaller liberal group.
Other candidates who have announced their intention to stand include liberal former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, and Moncef Marzouki, who served as interim president for three years after autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled, until Essebsi was chosen in the first democratic presidential election in 2014.
Ennahda, which has not yet named its candidate for the presidency, in 2016 decided to downplay its origins in political Islam declaring to distance itself from its Islamist origins and recast itself as a political vehicle for Muslim democrats; but the political movement remains a conservative Islamic party. What Ennahda’s carefully orchestrated rebranding demonstrates is just how skillfully its leaders continue to adapt to the changing landscape of Tunisian electoral politics. When the president of  Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, announced the move away from traditional Islamism, he also proclaimed a separation of the party’s political and religious activities: a way to allows party leaders to focus on politics in the capital while other members in the provinces – where there is more popular support because there are as many people whose vision of society, whose way of life is more conservative, less liberal, less Western to the party – continue to engage in the civic and religious spheres.

Security concerns

Institutional and economic crisis and jihadist threat: Essebsi’s death occurs in a period of potential destabilization for the North African country.
Tunisia is the only country to have emerged from the so-called Arab Spring with a full-blooded if somewhat wobbly democracy. The country has managed to survive a wave of political assassinations and deadly terrorist attacks targeting its security forces and productive tourism industry amid rising joblessness and inflation. But it remains under a state of emergency.
The Mediterranean haven was beginning to recover from the attacks mainly claimed by the Islamic State terror group (IS) as Western tourists slowly started to file back. Today’s news at the peak of the holiday season will likely put a big damper on that. On the one hand, there is the risk about the country’s low ability to cope with returning IS fighters veterans; between 5000 and 8000 of Tunisians joined the Islamic state group: some are thought to be redeploying to violence-wracked, neighboring Libya, while others have returned home.  On the other hand, armed opposition groups operate in mountain areas on the border with Algeria. Both the

Analysis, assessment, forecasts

The departure of Essebsi  is important not only because of what he did for democracy, but also with regard to the ambiguous situation through which Tunisia is currently passing. In general, it will not seriously impact Tunisia’s stability, because the country has a clear process in place that’s widely accepted as legitimate .
But regarding the implications for the future, the death of the old president, on the one hand, puts in evidence the absence of a prominent leader and open to a risk of greater divisions and fragmentation within the secularist political front – with all the consequences for how this might affect Tunisia’s consensus-based democracy.
On the other hand, we must consider two main factors: the first is the political disaffection and the distrust in democracy which open to a growing discontent among the people – characterized by numerous protests – often contrasted with repressive security measures; the second factor is the competition among the power-groups, which coincide with the fault line between the political parties Ennahda and Nidaa (and within Nidaa).
Because of the political stalemate and the ideological differences that led to the division of the secular front, Ennahda appears to be the only cohesive and stable party.
In conclusion, the general unstable situation may affect the electoral process, which could shift the votes of a large disappointed electorate in favor of some independent candidates.

Main events in Maghreb and Mashreq – July

by Claudio Bertolotti

original article in “Osservatorio Strategico” – Ce.Mi.S.S.: english versionitalian version

Israel and Egypt

Israel will begin exporting natural gas to Egypt in November, with volumes eventually set to reach seven billion cubic metres a year. The supplies will mark the start of a $15bn export agreement between Israel’s Delek Drilling and US-based partner Noble Energy with an Egyptian counterpart in what Israeli officials called the most significant deal to emerge since the neighbours made peace in 1979. The deal signed early last year will bring natural gas from Israeli offshore fields Tamar and Leviathan into the Egyptian gas grid.


Possible dispute between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri over referring the shooting of two members of the Lebanese Democratic Party in the Druze area of Aley to a senior Judicial Council. The political repercussions of the deadly event have paralyzed government at a critical moment and risk complicating efforts to enact reforms needed to steer the heavily indebted state away from financial crisis.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country is determined to destroy “to pieces” what he called a “terror corridor” in northern Syria – regardless of whether or not Turkey and the United States agree on the establishment of a safe zone. Ankara wants a zone along the border with Syria that would be cleared of the Kurdish fighters. It also says such a zone would be safe for Syrians and allow some of the country’s refugees to return. Turkey has warned of a possible new offensive into Syria if an agreement on a safe zone is not reached, and has recently been sending reinforcements to its border area.


Protesters remain in Algeria’s streets, having forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation in April. In this uncertain transition period, important questions face two groups key to Algeria’s political future: protesters and military personnel. According to a new Brookings institute report – titled “Algeria’s uprising: A survey of protesters and the military” – the results show a wide support for change among protesters, while illustrating a divide between the upper and lower ranks of the Algerian military in support for the protest movement. While 80% of the lower ranks support the goals and continuation of the protests, “the senior officers, by contrast, are a bit more hesitant, [as] only 60% are saying that they support the protests”.


In his speech for this year’s Throne Day on 30th of July, Moroccan king Mohammed VI announced new development programs and a government reshuffle for domestic policy. For foreign policy, he called again for dialogue with Algeria and for ”unity among North African populations”. As concerns the Western Sahara, Morocco’s position remains ”firmly anchored to territorial integrity”. To celebrate his 20 years as king, Mohammed VI pardoned 4,764 detainees, including some detainees for terrorism.


Libya’s national oil company has suspended operations at the country’s largest oil field over the “unlawful” closure of a pipeline valve. The National Oil Corporation announced the move without saying who was behind the closure of the pipeline linking the Sharara oilfield to the port of Zawiya, on the Mediterranean coast. The Sharara oil field, which produces around 290,000 barrels a day worth $19 million, is controlled by forces loyal to Khalifa Hifter, head of the so-called Libyan National Army which launched an offensive in April to capture the capital.


President Béji Caïd Essebsi died the 25th of July at the age of 92. The interim, the president of the Parliament, Mohamed Ennaceur (85 years old), took over the position of head of state. The elections will take place on September 15. Institutional and economic crisis and jihadist threat: Essebsi’s death occurs in a period of potential destabilization for the North African country.

Islamic State beyond its territorial component

by Francesca Citossi

Original article available on Ce.Mi.S.S. Osservatorio Strategico 1/2018

We don’t see things as they are. Each of us see things as we are. We are captive of our own particular experience. Therefore, when you deal with people there is not one reality. What seems obvious to you is not obvious to the other party. If you get into the other persons world it makes you so much more effective. You are able to virtually predict their behavior… power is based upon perception.

Herb Cohen in Ep. 33 Negotiations Ninja Podcast May 28, 2018.

The Islamic State has never been a state and this is its strength. Terrorism expands until filling all the room available: it flourishes because the territory is uncontrolled, sometimes uncontrollable, until when the conditions that allowed its surge change the cycle will repeat itself. Military victories are temporary and offhand. The group narrative is based on the 1919 “betrayal” by the western powers that had promised a great Arab state. The world order that was established is then illegitimate and it must be destroyed: this is a long-term objective, which will not be compromised for a mere territory loss. Many states in this area are legitimacy deficient and deeply weak.
Weakened but not defeated, the Caliphate claimed the grounds illegally taken from the Muslims by the Crusaders, it declares itself the unique legitimate government on earth and the believers have the divine duty to live in the reconquered territory.
The community is ideal and idealistic; it shares an even historical ground instead of a real one, myths, an inescapable ancestral memory, a public mass culture that inspires awareness and collective action.

Islamic State: vindication and revenge for the humiliations suffered by the Sykes-Picot agreement and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire

Belonging to this entity goes far beyond the classical and western concepts of a nation-state, it provides to the individuals redemption from the individual’ oblivion, hope for regeneration, salvation from alienation, loneliness and anonymity. It is a source of personal and collective pride, vindication and revenge for the humiliations suffered by the Sykes-Picot agreement and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The narrative is based on the rejection of the nation-state world order invented and imposed by the West. It aims to Muslim dominance in Asia and the Middle East: personal frustrations converge into the universal persecution of all Muslims that must be avenged and rectified in the future permanent, regardless of temporary defeats; it is a mission, which will change and save the world.
Prime Minister at Abadi in December 2017, as well as President Trump in January 2018, had declared the final victory: the group had lost 96% of its territory- but the road between Baghdad and Kirkuk during the summer was impassable because of the attacks. IS is withdrawing towards the Anbar desert – inhiyaz ila al-sahra as spokesman Abu Mohammad al Adnani said- to reorganize: the defeat is only military, the organization is being reshaped to adapt to the context and continue to promote the final goal, the realization of the Caliphate.
In August 2018 in Iraq, the Islamic State resumed attacks, killings, kidnappings, fake check-points to seize materials, sabotaging power lines and pipelines, especially in the areas of Diyala, Kirkuk and Salahuddin, accomplice, or because of, the lack of effective control by the central government which, after the May elections, has yet to complete and to stabilize institutional appointments. The parties are still negotiating to form the new government and are seeking for an agreement on power sharing after the heavy accusations of fraud and the outbreak of anti-government protests in the southern provinces, in particular in Basra.

International reactions to counter violent extremism are usually reactive rather than preventive

The attack on Iran in Ahvaz on 22 September was claimed – although it leaves some doubts – even from IS. The Revolutionary Guard responded on October 1st with a launch of missiles in Syria. As early as June 2017, a group of Iranian Jihadist Kurds attacked the parliament and the Ayatollah Khomeini mausoleum: retaliation followed with a launch of six missiles in Syrian territory and in July 2018 with eight executions. Iran refuses to cooperate with Washington in this area because it believes it is a pretext to intervene in the region. Instead, it preferred to provide support to Iraq since 2014 in an anti-IS function: military advisors in Baghdad and weapons were sent to the Peshmerga, taking care not to polarize the differences with the Sunni minority, to provoke protests by the Iraqis or exacerbate sectarian tensions. It favored a strategy of inclusiveness: both Prime Minister al-Abadi and al-Amiri recognized the importance of Iranian support with a view to uniting the country, until a special agreement was signed.
Saudi Arabia has suffered several attacks on its territory in 2015 (Qatife and Dammam mosques, Asir area and a bomb car in Riyadh). The Saudi response has taken different forms: the training and equipment of fighters in Syria (but it is estimated that about 2,500 Saudis have joined the Islamic State). Riyadh has also produced a television series (“Security for the Kingdom”) to fight the propaganda of the group and is active in the control of funds as co-chair of the CIFG, Counter-ISIL Finance Group, the mechanism of the Coalition to monitor loans to IS. It also cut the group out of the international financial system by applying UNSCRs 2253/2015 and 1267/1999 on individuals and entities associated with ISIL and Al-Qaeda and therefore on the sanctions list. The Saudis have increased their contributions to humanitarian agencies operating in Iraq.

the answer to IS has been mainly of a military-security nature

So far, the answer to IS has been mainly of a military-security nature: the Peshmerga and the forces led by Shiite groups supported by Iran in Iraq have direct experience with the United States and France support.
International reactions to counter violent extremism are usually reactive rather than preventive: these short-term strategies have limited scope because they do not imply ideological eradication.
The current territorial defeat of the group does not affect the potential of this phenomenon, since the assessment only of the physical dimension is limited, insufficient to measure a media revolution, a communicative, religious and social innovation. The map is not the territory; a military defeat is marginal if the idea, a dream of a Caliphate, persists.
Military defeat is only one aspect of the matter, and not even the most important. When instability persists, the soil is fertile. The fighters have not disappeared, and even if so, there would be many ready to replace them. The Caliphate is not defeated because the aspirations and conditions that led to the project formulation persist; they are impermeable and superior to temporary assessments. The complete disappearance is far away, since the organization has simply become clandestine: it is a cyclical process, not a linear one. From the mode of “government” of the territory it has moved to insurgency. There is no direct link between the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq and its ability to continue recruiting followers by cultivating divisions of various kinds among the populations of this area. The territorial collapse has created a diaspora that now escapes any territorial measurement – as happened to Al Qaeda who survived in Iraq, withdrawing and then re-appearing in Syria in 2011.

the Islamic State has evolved into a global clandestine network

According to the latest report presented to the UN Security Council, the Islamic State is still strong of around 30,000 fighters divided between Iraq and Syria, but above all it has evolved, especially on the Iraqi territory, into a global clandestine network. The discipline, finances and security are intact, the coordination office for logistics and immigration work, the exploitation of oil resources continues, the survivors follow the indications of the spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir and Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi remains at the helm. Command and control have been damaged, many planners and leaders have been killed, the flow of foreign fighters has stopped, but the General of the US Army Paul Funk believes that the conditions for the return of the group persist, they are sharpened indeed: the reduction of terrorist attacks is temporary, a pause for reorganization.
Furthermore, the unresolved issue of the families of the combatants that survive in refugee camps in Syria and Iraq is not to be underestimated. This is a very favorable situation to lead to the creation in a few years of new cells, a generation fueled by the resentment, ostracism and marginalization they are undergoing. They are thousands of women and children rejected by their national states, or stateless, detested by the communities who want to take revenge on them or, simply, they do not want to deal with them, and embassies resist their requests for return.
IS has, since its inception, specifically orchestrated propaganda to attract young people, exploiting the natural search for identity, the recurrent rebellion against families and the frustration among the most disadvantaged social classes. Despite reports and information sent to Baghdad on thousands of families in serious trouble, the central government has not responded, leaving the local authorities to deal with them.
The fight against IS is effective through a better coordination of intelligence between the various systems at national and international level, political stabilization, the fight against extremist ideology and with a clear cut to financial support and supply of arms.
A real political stabilization of Syria and Iraq is necessary, and in particular an agreement with the Sunni populations. The new Iraqi government, dominated by Al Sadr even if he has not obtained a full victory in terms of parliamentary seats, if it does not make progress in the power sharing with respect to Maliki’ sectarian policy will face the same problems. Re-establishing effective security for all populations, beyond sectarian divisions, requires a strong commitment to security while respecting ethnic groups.
The ideological battle can only be victorious if it invests directly in the young generations of extremists, through a long-term educational strategy that attacks the radical ideology at its roots, with programs for recovery and reintegration within the communities: eradicating toxic ideologies in a society can require much time, as the German case proved after the Second World War, but it is the only lasting strategy. The fight against IS is essentially a battle for minds, not a clash of civilizations or a territorial contest.

The current threat and evolution of jihadist groups in the Sahel

by Marco Cochi

The war in the north of Mali has turned into a low-intensity asymmetric conflict while a new, dangerous insurgency has further developed along the Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso border

Instability and insecurity in the border regions of the Sahel are a long-standing phenomenon. They originate from a series of issues, namely the still uncertain consolidation of the security forces belonging to different states of the region; the porosity of borders; ethnic-driven territorial claims  and the presence of active Islamist extremist groups. The crisis in this area worsened at the end of 2011 following the fall of Muammar al-Ghaddafi and resulted in a huge, illegal flow of weapons through the Sahel, which has fuelled insurrections and conflicts in the region.

A progression of events, which erupted in April 2012 under the leadership of the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) and culminated in the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. A few months later, MNLA secured the support of three fearful jihadist groups: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), Ansar Eddine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Later, these jihadist movements came into conflict with MNLA due to strong disagreements between the Tuareg and Islamist radicals, after the latter succeeded in imposing their fundamentalist religious connotation over the armed uprising.

After taking over military operations, the extremists began invading Southern Mali up to the point of threatening its capital Bamako. In January 2013, the revolt spree prompted Operation Serval, which was conducted by a French-led multinational force in accordance to Security Council resolutions 2071 of 12th October and 2085 of 20th December 2012.

This action prevented the former French colony from falling under an Islamist yoke and put an end to the jihadists’ offensive, but failed to eradicate the contagion of violent extremism from the area. With state authority restored in Northern Mali, as of 1st August 2014 Paris entrusted the fight against Sahelian jihadist groups to the Operation Barkhane, comprising Serval and Epervier.

Six and a half years later, the war in the north of Mali has turned into a low-intensity asymmetric conflict and a new, dangerous insurgency has further developed along the Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso border. Some jihadist groups, exploiting the insecurity that characterized it for decades, have made this area their stronghold.

JNIM was established in early March 2017 under the aegis of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to gather the main groups linked to al-Qaeda under a single umbrella organisation 

One of the most dangerous and dynamic Islamist extremist formations in the area is Jama’ah Nusrah al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims – JNIM/GSIM). The JNIM was established in early March 2017, under the aegis of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to gather the main al-Qaida linked groups active in Mali and the Sahel desert areas under a single umbrella organisation. Specifically, the merger involved al-Murabitun, Ansar Eddine and its affiliates from the Macina Brigade, later renamed as Macina Liberation Front.

Al-Qaeda’s Sahelian cell is led by a prominent figure of the Malian jihadist network: Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghaly – nicknamed “the strategist” –  who, besides leading Ansar Eddine during the war in the north of Mali, also fought in the ranks of Ghaddafi’s Islamist Legion and in Lebanon alongside PLO militants; in addition to negotiating the release of hostages for the Bamako government and being one of the main actors in the second Tuareg uprising between 1990 and 1995.

The alliance of the main Qaedist groups active throughout the region had been anticipated by some observers; a study carried out by the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) two months prior to the merger testifies to that, as it examines such possibility in detail.

Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel fostered the merger in response to the progressive strengthening of the Islamic State’s influence in the region

After all, AQMI leader Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel had long been pursuing the objective of binding together all militant groups in the Sahel to fulfill his ambitions of increasing AQMI’s then limited influence on the region. But the jihadist leader’s motivation also stemmed from the a need to formalize ties and relations between various armed formations, dating back to the occupation of Northern Mali. Furthermore, it is manifest that Droukdel fostered the merger in response to the progressive strengthening of the Islamic State’s influence in the region which, despite its territorial losses, still remains a pole of attraction for international jihadism.

Download the full article – Ce.Mi.S.S – Military Centre for Strategic Studies

Marco Cochi is a professional journalist, expert in security and development for Sub-Saharian Africa and Lecturer at Link Campus University, Rome.

Libya: the opportunities

The Libyan frailty

On August 26, in the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, violent clashes took place as consequence of an attack conducted by the militias of the Tarhuna Seventh Brigade (originally from a town 60 km south of Tripoli and linked to Salah Badi, former chief of Libya Dawn) against the militias loyal to the Government of national accord (Gna), in place since 2016, under Fayez al-Sarraj. Thanks to the UN mediation, the parties agreed to a truce on September 4, but the subsequent missiles attack on Tripoli airport on September 12 broke the truce and imposed the closure of the capital’s air traffic. In a month’s time, because of the hostilities 117 people died, 560 were injured and 5000 families were displaced.

This situation, while confirming the failure of the international negotiation process, significantly affected the internal political scene, characterized by chronic instability and very difficult to put back together. Despite international recognition and support, the Government of national accord is being de-legitimized by some very dynamic competitors, like militias, sub-national, local and tribal groups. It is weak, lacks the necessary monopoly of force and therefore is unable to impose its power beyond the sole Tripoli area.

The UN rejects the French early elections project

In mid-September, the UN Security Council (under rotational US presidency) made two important decisions: in the first place it adopted a resolution authorizing an extension into 2019 of UNSMIL mandate -the United Nations Support Mission in Libya is the UN body in charge of relations with Tripoli, under the responsibility of Lebanese national Mr. Ghassan Salamè. Secondly, due to persisting instability, the idea of holding presidential elections before the end of the year, put forward by France, was abandoned. This latter choice was in line with the Italian and US views.

The UN Security Council decision thus reinforced the key role of the UNSMIL mission, while it weakened Mr. Ghassan Salamè’s (apparently not very incisive) who is to be flanked by US national Ms. Stephanie Williams as Vice-representative for political affairs in Libya. On the other hand, Paris has not given up its plans.

Around the two competing fronts gather, in a peculiar collaboration-competition relationship, hundreds of groups, militias and brigades.

The overall situation pays the price of strong external interferences making a solution to the conflict unlikely in the mid-term. The Libyan government under Fayez al-Sarraj is busy maintaining a safe and secure environment in the Tripoli urban area, the Tobruk Parliament – loyal to General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar and with the support of France, Russia and Egypt – is promoting a constitutional referendum, urged by the French, with the aim of facilitating elections. Around the two competing fronts gather, in a peculiar relationship of collaboration on the one hand and competition on the other, hundreds of groups, militias and brigades who are busy imposing their own priorities on both Tripoli’s and Tobruk’s governments thanks to their respective territorial and social control, whose characteristics have been compared to the mafia’s. A thriving parallel economy based on international illegal trade in smuggled goods, consisting mainly in oil, drugs and weapons, as well as human beings, allows self-sustenance. 

Within this scenario, signs are starting to emerge of an improved cooperation between Italy and the US. Washington could take a more direct involvement in Libya into consideration, while the US administration also views the 12-13 November international conference on Libya organized by Italy with favour. It is not to be excluded that the US will advance its own strategy for Libya with an eye to security. Should the strategy be designed in accordance with Stephanie Williams’s vision, resulting from her 24 years’ experience in the Middle East and North Africa, specifically in Libya where she previously held the position of «chargé d’affaires», it might include the creation of a selected military corps to also include Gadhafi’s special troops currently scattered among countless armed groups.

Syria: the Russian-Turkish competition

The Russian commitment in post-conflict reconstruction: Moscow will be in charge of reactivating roads, rebuilding strategic pipes and infrastructures.

Syria: Russia gets the upper hand over Turkey

On September 17, Russia and Turkey agreed on the institution of a demilitarized area in the Syrian region of Idlib, the last fortress of the about 60.000 members of the armed opposition groups and anti-government rebels including Jihadist and former Qaedist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Committee) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The demilitarized area is about 15-20 km wide. Inside the area, Russian, Turkish and NATO units will perform coordinated patrol activities; radical groups shall leave the area while rebel groups shall surrender heavy weapons to Syrian governmental forces. This agreement was the outcome of the Sochi meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish equivalent Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Apparently, this agreement managed to prevent a serious humanitarian crisis that could have affected about 3 million people, if the announced military offensive had actually taken place.

The terms of the Russian-Turkish agreement reinforce the idea that the Idlib campaign will follow the path traced for the previous campaigns, like the one for Daraa. This approach confirms the strategic vision of the Syrian regime and its allies, who systematically induced hesitant armed opposition groups to scatter on the territory, so that they could be fought without great effort and with limited collateral effects on the civilian population.

Ankara will have to maintain a sort of Turkish protectorate on rebel troops

The main advantage for Turkey is to avoid the concentration of Syrian governmental troops in that area. The downside is that Ankara will have to maintain a sort of Turkish protectorate on rebel troops in evident distress and, should the campaign against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other Jihadist groups be successful, Turkey will have the further burden of guaranteeing them a way out of Syria.

On the other hand, the agreement gives Russia and Syria the opportunity to secure the strategic line of communication that cuts across Idlib and connects the North of Syria to other cities. Transit along the Aleppo-Latakia and Aleppo-Hama motorways is expected to resume by the end of 2018. Russia also obtains another advantage from the agreement, in particular on the operational level. As its forces cannot keep fighting the Jihadist and other rebel groups, it is going to deploy its troops along with Turkish troops in the demilitarized area in order to reduce the presence and arsenals of those rebels which were until now supported by Ankara.

The US, in turn, stays out of the conflict and its solution. Similarly to what happened in the South (Daraa), US support to opposition groups in the province of Idlib seems to be limited to deterrence from the hypothetical use of chemical weapons, to which the US administration could nevertheless and in a limited, tactlcal manner respond. In brief, a merely symbolic help to the rebels that Ankara would like to keep supporting.

So the war in Syria essentially continues but with the Putin-Erdogan agreement the trend appears to consolidate Russians’ influence in the area, to the benefit of Damascus and Teheran.

Analysis, assessments and previsions

Russia wants a new security order in the Middle East. Whatever happens to the rebels in Idlib province, Russia is determined to keep Syria firmly inside its area of influence – both as its stronghold in the Middle East and to help contain the US and its allies.

the presence of 38 Russian companies at the Damascus International Fair, last September, proved that the economic and trade activities will be the main enablers of the Russian strategic influence

The contribution of the Russian armed forces was decisive in the fight against the opponents to Bashar al-Assad’s government and against the Islamic State, and it granted Moscow a more influential position compared to Western powers’. Russia was able to take the upper hand in diplomacy and international relations as well as on military ground, as the recent sales’ agreement for S-300 missile systems to Syria seems to confirm. The agreement is causing concern to another big regional player, Israel, who has long been carrying out bombing actions on Syrian territory with the aim of containing Iran and countering Lebanese Hezbollah.

The Russian role on the military front was paramount, but also its commitment in post-conflict reconstruction cannot be underestimated. Moscow will be in charge of reactivating roads, rebuilding strategic pipes and properties destroyed during these last seven years of war. The participation of 38 Russian companies to the Damascus International Fair, last September, proved that the economic and trade activities will be the main enablers of the Russian strategic influence in the Middle East.

Latest from the ‘5+5 Defence Initiative’


Tunis, 5th October

The ‘5+5 Defence Initiative’ wrapped up their latest 2018 research meeting in Tunis on 5th October.

The international study group, bent on identifying shared security preoccupations, focused their work on the threat posed by illegal immigration, organised crime and terrorist groups in the Mediterranean. A year-long, in-depth analysis resulted in an internal research document suggesting approaches and solutions to try and contain criminal networks. Libya and the consequences of domestic instability gained specific attention.
The ‘5+5 Defence Initiative’ regroups appointed researchers from Algeria, France, Italy, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Mauritania, Portugal, Spain and Tunisia which in 2018 were coordinated by Dr. Andrea Carteny from CEMAS -Università la Sapienza – Roma.
Italy was represented by CeMiSS’ Strategic analyst Dr. Claudio Bertolotti, who is also START InSight’s Executive Director.
Official research documents emerging from these regular, joint meetings pave the way for discussions among Defence Ministers. The latest paper is being delivered next December.