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Main events in Maghreb and Mashreq – August

Algeria: beyond the crisis, Algeria allows private banks, airlines, sea transport firms

Algeria will allow its private sector to set up banks as well as air and sea transport companies for goods and passengers to reduce spending, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said on 18th August. The move is part of wider reforms by the OPEC member to cope with financial problems caused by a sharp fall in energy export revenues, the main source of state funding for the North African country. Elected in December 2019, Tebboune wants to encourage private investors and improve the investment climate in an effort to develop the non-energy sector and reduce reliance on oil and gas.

Algeria’s foreign exchange reserves have fallen to $57 billion from $62 billion in January, while energy export revenues are expected to reach $24 billion this year compared with $33 billion in 2019, Tebboune said. Energy earnings currently account for 94% of total exports and the government aims to bring that figure to 80% from next year, while increasing the value of exports of non-energy products to $5 billion from $2 billion now, he added. To achieve that goal, the authorities will allocate $14.84 billion to help finance investment projects for the coming months (MEMO – Middle East Monitor, 2020).

Egypt: Greek deals with Egypt, Italy

The agreement for the partial designation of an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between Greece and Egypt in the eastern Mediterranean was signed on August 6 in Cairo. For Athens, the deal effectively nullified a maritime accord between Turkey and the internationally recognized government of Libya signed last year. This agreement is part of a broader strategy of settling bilateral issues, building alliances with third parties in a way that promotes national interests, based on respect for international law. It is also a balanced agreement that is fully in line with the United Nations Law of the Sea, a piece of international law in which Turkey is one of only 15 countries in the whole world to not sign or ratify. The agreement with Egypt came after Greece signed a deal with Italy on June 9 which effectively extended a 1977 agreement between the two states on continental shelves in the Ionian Sea.

Israele: a new peace deal with the United Arab Emirates

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed had agreed to a peace agreement: Israel it will ​temporarily “suspend​” plans to annex the West Bank, as part of a new peace deal. The deal was announced by US President Donald Trump.

The UAE and Israel plan to exchange embassies and ambassadors, according to the statement. It will be the third Arab country to open relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. Netanyahu formally thanked Egyptian President Adel-Fattah el-Sisi and the governments of Oman and Bahrain for their support to the normalization of relations between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem.

But Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas trashed the peace agreement as “a betrayal of Jerusalem.” In a statement read out on Palestine TV, Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said, “The Palestinian leadership rejects what the United Arab Emirates has done and considers it a betrayal of Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause. This deal is a de facto recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The PA also announced it was immediately withdrawing its Ambassador to the UAE, according to a statement on the Palestinian news agency Wafa. Officials from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) rejected the agreement, as did Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Lebanon: the Beirut explosion a Turning Point for Lebanon?

On the afternoon of 4th August 2020, two explosions occurred at the port of the city of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. The second explosion was extremely powerful, and caused at least 177 deaths, 6,000 injuries, and US$10–15 billion in property damage, leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless. The main blast at Beirut’s port was caused when an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had been ignited: ammonium nitrate is a highly combustible material used to make fertilisers and bombs. The appalling negligence that left more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port in unsuitable climatic conditions, with no expert oversight, for more than six years demonstrate the endemic corruption and incompetence of a country devasted by decades of settarian conflicts, absence of a governance and cynical political games played by regional States and internal actors. Exacerbated by the pandemic, the chronic corruption and misrule had brought the economy to ruin; because a long term economic and social crisis the State is going to fail, although Lebanon has been a failing state for years.

For months prices have been soaring and the middle class has been sinking into poverty and despair. For weeks, before the explosion, residents of the capital demonstrated against mismanagement and economic uncertainty. Since the day of the explosion, protesters tried to break the police and army cordons; as consequence, Lebanon’s parliament has approved a state of emergency that grants sweeping powers to the army: the state of emergency allows the army to curb free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press, as well as to enter homes and arrest anyone deemed a security threat. But it was not enough to contain the mass protests: the demonstrations prompted Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet to resign: but the crisis is too deep to be resolved by a change of management.

The impact of the crisis is terrific, especially in the urban areas. People try to leave or survive thanks to economic support from relatives abroad; others are resorting to some support from Hezbollah. Economic sanctions have made Iran less generous, but Hezbollah continues to maintain a widespread patronage network. The main short-term consequence is fragmentation and criminalisation. In the long term, it remains to be seen in which sphere of influence Lebanon ends up. Iran is trying to exploit the deadlock, but cannot alleviate its financial need. Hezbollah is now increasingly looking to China, such as the government that is trying to attract Chinese investment and China itself sees an additional hub in the East Mediterranean (in addition to the bridgeheads it already has in Egypt and Greece), (Holslag, 2020).

Libya: Turkey and Qatar sign military cooperation deal with Libya government

According to Ahval News, Turkey and Qatar have signed a tripartite deal with the Libyan government for military cooperation, in a new development set to enhance the government’s defence against the forces of Khalifa Haftar. The agreement, which was announced by Libya’s Deputy Defence Minister Salam Al-Namroush on 17th August, will establish military facilities and training programmes within the country. This cooperation will include Qatar’s funding of military training centres and the establishment of a trilateral coordination centre and Turkish naval base in the city of Misrata. Consultation will also be provided to Libyan government forces as part of the agreement.

Italy, which has been present in Misrata for years with its own military hospital, has been removed from the area, making the efforts made so far in vain. The same Italian staff will be redeployed near the capital Tripoli.

Syria: U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Syria would most likely shrink in the coming months

The top American military commander in the Middle East said that U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Syria would most likely shrink in the coming months, but that he had not yet received orders to begin withdrawing forces.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said the 5,200 troops in Iraq to help fight remnants of the Islamic State and train Iraqi forces “will be adjusted” after consultations with the government in Baghdad.

General McKenzie said he expected American and other NATO forces to maintain “a long-term presence” in Iraq — both to help fight Islamic extremists and to check Iranian influence in the country. He declined to say how large that presence might be, but other American officials said discussions with Iraqi officials that resume this month could result in a reduction to around 3,500 U.S. troops.

Despite President Trump’s demand last fall for a complete withdrawal of all 1,000 American forces from Syria, the president still has some 500 troops, mostly in the country’s northeast, assisting local Syrian Kurdish allies in combating pockets of ISIS fighters (Schmitt, 2020).

Morocco: Morocco, Portugal Pledge to Fight Against Irregular Migration

Portugal and Morocco have pledged to join efforts to curb irregular migration: Rabat and Lisbon announced the move in a statement following a videoconference between Portugal’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Eduardo Cabrita, and Morocco’s Minister of the Interior, Abdelouafi Laftit. The two officials built the conference’s talking points on the strong cooperation between Morocco and the European Union on security issues. They expressed their governments’ readiness to “intensify” their security cooperation within the broader EU-Morocco agenda of preventing and fighting against “illegal migration and human trafficking.” According to reports, the increasing shift towards Portugal is directly linked to Morocco’s success in curbing migrants’ attempts to reach Europe through Spain, which has long been the traditional route of waves of irregular migrants in recent years (Tamba, 2020).

Tunisia: Tunisia cracks down on migrant departures. Economic crisis worsens

Thousands of migrants disembarked on Lampedusa and Sicily in July and August. The governor of the Sicilian region has called on the federal government to call a state of emergency with hotspots above capacity and a number of migrants testing positive for coronavirus. The majority of the migrants who reportedly disembarked on Lampedusa and Sicily came from Tunisia. Italian authorities reported that in 2020, nearly half of the over 16,000 people who have landed on Italy’s shores departed from Tunisia.

Following pressure from the Italian foreign ministry, Tunisia announced on August 6 that it had made available more means to counter irregular migrant departures from the North African country. Tunisia has announced that it has made available naval units, surveillance devices, and search teams at Mediterranean crossing points to counter irregular migrant departures (ANSA).

Italy’s Interior Ministry has released €11 million ($13 million) to Tunisia’s government for use in efforts to stem the flow of migrants. On 18th August, Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio visited Tunis, accompanied by European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson and European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Oliver Varhelji.

The decision arrived in a critical moment for the country both at economic and political level: the economic situation is worsening and the tourism sector’s revenues down 56% at the end of July to 1.2 billion dinars compared to 2.6 billion in the same period last year (ANSA). Economic crisis is a push factors for Tunisian migrants. At political level, Tunisia’s prime minister-designate Hichem Mechichi said he would form a purely technocratic government following wrangling among political parties over the formation of the country’s next administration. The decision will likely put the prime minister-designate in confrontation with the Islamist Ennahdha Party, the largest political group in parliament, which announced it would oppose the formation of a non-political government. However, the proposal for a government of independent technocrats without political parties will win support from the powerful UGTT trade union and some other parties, including Tahya Tounes and Dustoury el Hor. Protests have erupted in the country’s interior this year over widespread unemployment, lack of development and poor public services in health, electricity and water.


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.