Middle East Weekly Roundup: April 11th, 2016
The Levant and Turkey
IDF Colonel Yisrael Shomer was cleared of all charges in the shooting of a Palestinian teenager, Muhammad al-Casbah, this past week. The incident occurred last July, in the town of a-Ram, when al-Casbah hit Col. Shomer’s vehicle with a rock, was subsequently shot, and later died from his wounds. Israeli human rights group B’tselem has criticized the characterization of al-Casbah as a threat, stating that he was shot while fleeing the scene. This ruling comes on the heels of last month’s shooting by an IDF soldier of a Palestinian man, Qaswari Tamimi, after a stabbing had occurred in an area of Hebron. The IDF soldier is facing manslaughter charges. The case of Col. Shomer demonstrates that politics often meddle in military justice issues, especially when it involves Palestinian victims. Therefore, we should expect continued debate and pressure from both sides as this case proceeds.
April 2, 2016 saw Jordan host the first batch of Iraqi Army officers in their start of the NATO training course at The King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center. Over the next 6 months, the Iraqis will focus on military medicine, civil military planning and on countering improvised explosive devices. In addition, Jordan has also engaged with NATO on an “ongoing and continuous” defense capacity building program aimed at counter-terrorism. State Minister for Media Affairs and Communications Mohammad Momani stated that it was one of the important elements today in enhancing Jordan’s counter-terrorism capability. Such cooperation between Jordan and Western security forces is common, as King Abdullah continues to bolster his image as a pro-Western partner in fighting Islamic extremism.
On Tuesday, ISIS kidnapped about 300 workers from a cement factory outside Damascus, and said it had executed 24 who it alleged were Druze or supporters of the Syrian government. The terrorist group released the majority of the remaining workers. Meanwhile, Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halaki announced that the Syrian Army, with help from Russian airpower, was preparing an offensive to liberate Aleppo. In response, rebel leaders claimed that the tenuous ceasefire in the country was on the verge of collapse.
Turkey’s precarious position in the region is now highlighted by a new terror threat, one which the U.S and Israel consider high-level and imminent. The U.S. Embassy emailed an “emergency message” to Americans, warning of “credible threats” to tourist areas of Istanbul and Anatalya, while Israel’s counter-terrorism bureau warned of “immediate risks of attacks being carried out in the country,” and stressed that “the threat applies to all tourism sites in Turkey.” Reuters and Al-Jazeera have reported a high police presence in Istanbul over the weekend, as well as an uptick in tensions among city residents. The urgency behind these warnings reflects the seriousness of Turkey’s two-front threat from both ISIS and the Kurdish PKK. Four attacks since the new year have killed 170 people in Ankara, and 15 in Istanbul.
The Kuwaiti Cabinet of Ministers signed a deal this week for the purchase of 28 Eurofighter jets from a consortium of European manufacturers. The long-delayed agreement will cost the Kuwaiti government just over $9 billion, and is seen as a move to diversify its defense procurement partners beyond the U.S. The contract covers production, logistics and operational support, as well as training for pilots and ground personnel with the Italian Air Force.
Qatar National Bank reported a 7.1% rise in first quarter net profits, despite widespread impacts on the banking sector from low oil prices. The bank reported its successful quarter was largely due to stable loan growth, likely propped up by government spending on infrastructure projects in preparation for the 2022 World cup.
A ceasefire was scheduled to go into effect at midnight on April 10, ahead of peace talks in Kuwait next week between the warring sides in Yemen’s civil war. Fighting continued on Sunday in Marib province just hours before the ceasefire began. Previous attempts to implement ceasefires in Yemen have been unsuccessful.
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced a “national transformation plan” aimed at reducing the Kingdom’s dependence on oil. Suffering from a prolonged period of falling oil prices, Saudi Arabia has seen its foreign reserves depleted as demand for currency falls. In a related move, the Saudi Minister of Finance announced that the country may increase the size of the $8 billion dollar loan it is requesting over 5 years. The objective of the loan is to shore up the government budget deficit that has developed due to slumping oil prices.
Iraq and Iran
Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, stated that his country’s missile program was off the table in any prospective negotiations with the U.S. Zarif went further and claimed that, if the U.S. were truly serious about preventing violence in the region, it should halt the provision of arms and other military aid to Saudi Arabia and Israel. For his part, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not back down from the position that Iran must be prepared to stop ballistic missile tests if any negotiations are to continue.
Months after the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) was driven from the city of Ramadi, thousands of Iraqis have begun to return. Much of the city is in ruins, however, and many areas are still strewn with explosive devices and mines. ISIS captured the city last May, and was driven out seven months later by Iraqi forces backed by US-led airstrikes. The extremist group has implemented similar area-denial tactics in its other conquered territories prior to being driven out.
Algeria summoned the French ambassador and complained of a “malicious campaign” after Le Monde reported on Algerian officials mentioned in the Panama Papers leak. The report said that Algerian Industry Minister Abdesselam Bouchouareb had created an offshore company in Panama. It also implied that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was named in the documents; a correction later noted that Bouteflika was not mentioned in the Panama Papers. In response, Algeria refused to issue a visa to a Le Monde journalist to report on French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ visit to Algeria.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia announced an agreement to create a $16 billion investment fund and establish an economic free zone in Egypt’s Sinai region. The two countries also announced plans to build a causeway across the Red Sea and demarcate their maritime borders. As part of this plan, Egypt will hand over control of two islands in the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia.
Tensions between Egypt and Italy regarding the murder of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni continue to rise. Regeni was conducting research on Egyptian trade unions when he was abducted on January 2016. His body was discovered on February 3rd near Cairo showing signs of torture. Italian authorities have criticized what they describe as Egypt’s reluctance to cooperate in conducting a thorough investigation. This week, Egypt rejected an Italian request to provide phone records of Cairo mobile subscribers noting that it violated Egypt’s constitution. While the Egyptian government claims an anti-foreigner criminal gang is likely responsible for the murder, Italian press and rights movements speculate the Egyptian security forces are to blame.
Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company, Abu Dhabi: Masdar, has succeeded in installing 50 per cent of the solar home systems that make up a project to electrify the rural areas of Morocco. The project has seen 9,000 out of 17,670 solar systems installed, spanning 940 villages and taking only 1 year to reach its current state of progress. The project will be completed by the second half of 2016. Such solar projects should continue to see growth across a region that is facing slumps in oil prices and seeks more efficient ways to generate electricity.
Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, this week called for a negotiated free trade agreement between the EU and Tunisia. The suggestion comes as Tunisia faces growing challenges along its borders and struggles in the development of its interior regions.
Social media giant Facebook has proven its worth for those in Libya trying to get their hands on weapons. A new study has shown that over the past 18 months, an assortment of weapons, from handguns to rocket-propelled grenades, have been traded over closed or secret chat groups. Such activity adds to the chaotic and violent landscape in Libya, which has seen a growing presence of militias and foreign fighters. In a further revelation, General David Rodriguez, Commander of the U.S. Africa Command, stated that intelligence estimates now place the number of ISIS fighters in Libya at between “4,000-6,000”. This figure represents a doubling of the ISIS presence over the past 12 months.
In Other News: Energy
Last Monday, April 4, 2016, saw U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz sign a joint energy deal. The agreement expands upon existing cooperation in alternative fuel technology, desalination and water treatment, and natural gas. Israel’s advances in desalination and other energy technologies likely spurred the U.S. to strengthen this relationship. The deal originated from the understanding that the development of advanced technologies in water delivery methods and energy efficiency remains mutually beneficial to Israel and the U.S. Considering that Mr. Moniz met with Prime Minister Netanyahu at length, natural gas likely was raised as a topic of importance, especially as U.S. energy developer, Noble Energy LLC, heads the gas consortium developing Tamar and the prized Leviathan fields. While the U.S. State Department has actively weighed in previously on behalf of Noble Energy, Mr. Moniz may also serve in this capacity in hopes of breaking the stalemate between the government and gas companies.