Middle East Weekly Roundup: March 28th, 2016
Turkey and the Levant
This past week witnessed the immigration of 19 Yemeni Jews in a ‘secret operation’ in the midst of the country’s brutal civil war. While the chapter isn’t completely closed on Yemen’s Jewish community, as 50 Yemeni Jews still remain in the capital of Sana’a and one other location, the 2,000 year-old community faces extinction. Israel’s 1949-1950 “Operation Magic Carpet” saw Israel bring into the country 50,000 Jews from Yemen. Though it’s uncertain as to how Israel extracted the 19 Yemeni emigres, some speculated that the individuals were flown from Sana’a to Amman, and then to their final destination in Israel. While Jordan has offered no comment, Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat claimed that Israel bribed the Houthi rebel faction in order to smuggle the Yemeni Jews out of the country. Israel’s Ynet News reports that Houthi authorities arrested ‘several people’, not for aiding in the Jewish exodus, but rather because the community rabbi brought with him a 500-600 year old Torah, which the rebel faction claims ‘is the property of the Yemeni people’.
King Abdullah, in remarks reportedly made to the U.S. Congress in his state visit January 11th, 2016, stated that Turkey was responsible for exporting Islamic militants to Europe. The King is quoted as saying that “the fact that terrorists are going to Europe is part of Turkish policy and Turkey keeps on getting a slap on the hand, but they are let off the hook,” believing that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought a “radical Islamic solution to the region.” When asked by a member of congress if Turkey was importing oil from ISIS, the King replied, “absolutely”. This news comes days after twin bombings in Brussels were claimed by ISIS, and a week after the EU agreed to provide Turkey 7 billion USD in aid to support the 2.5 million Syrian refugees currently inside the country. In return, Turkey will accept deported Syrian refugees from Greece. The King’s comments represent yet another accusation against Turkey’s intentions in the region, especially as they pertain to Syria’s civil war.
Backed by Russian airstrikes, Syrian government forces have driven towards the ISIS-held city of Palmyra, known for its history and status as a UNESCO world heritage site. Syria’s army has managed to take the surrounding high ground in its offensive, and hopes make its main push into the city’s center soon. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that Shiite militias were on the ground, assisting Syrian forces in taking back the city. Taken by ISIS in May of 2015, Palmyra’s 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and Arch of Triumph were destroyed. All of this occurs under the backdrop of the Geneva-based peace talks between the Damascus government and Western-backed rebel factions.
Within 24 hours of a car-bomb attack in Ankara on March 13, killing 37 people, Turkey took to the skies to strike PKK strongholds across the Iraqi-Turkish border. Turkish jets hit PKK camps both inside the country and in northern Iraq as a part of two separate air operations aimed at disrupting the Kurdish militant group and destroying a series of targets. Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s commitment to fighting terrorism, committing his ground forces and Kurdish village guards.
The following week, on March 19th, a suicide bomber struck in central Istanbul killing 5 people, including 3 Israelis and 1 Iranian. The bombing was claimed by ISIS, illustrating Turkey’s precarious security situation as it faces a potential PKK-led insurgency inside Turkey and a coinciding ISIS-led wave of terrorism.
The Arabian Gulf, Iraq and Iran
Kuwait has expelled eleven Lebanese and three Iraqis suspected of belonging to Hezbollah. The expulsions come just three weeks after the GCC formally recognized Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and may serve to solidify the group’s stance on the issue.
The United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO) warned Qatar it could face a formal inquiry into forced labor allegations unless it improves conditions for migrant workers within the next 12 months. The statement came after an ILO delegation visiting Qatar spoke with workers who had not been paid for months, and whose passports had been confiscated.
Yemen’s warring parties have agreed to a cessation of hostilities starting next month in an attempt to end the year-old conflict. A conflict that began between local factions has now grown to include outside regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. While peace talks will be held April 18th in Kuwait, a growing humanitarian crisis emerges from the conflict as the UN claims millions are without food or access to medical treatment. As several attempts have already been made to form a long-lasting cease fire, it remains to be seen if this newest attempt will bring about a resolution to the conflict. Meanwhile, the leader of Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels called for street rallies to mark the first anniversary of the Saudi-led military campaign against his group.
Journalist Alaa Brinji was sentenced to five years in prison on March 24 by a Saudi court for “insulting the rulers and inciting public opinion” in a series of posts he wrote on Twitter. Brinji was arrested in May 2014, and has been held in prison since. Although he was initially accused of apostasy as well, he was later acquitted for lack of evidence.
Iran’s emergence from an era of sanctions has opened the door for it to become a major player in the global energy markets, notably oil and gas, in the long-term. This past month has seen Iran’s Rokneddin Javadi, deputy minister of petroleum and CEO of National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), present the development plans for the supergiant North Pars field (57 Trillion Cubic Feet), with a call for $16 billion USD in investment. This field, at a depth of 4,000 meters, with an area of 25 km by 20 km, is hoped to boost Iran’s LNG production capacity to 20 mtpa (million tons per annum). Among dozens of other Persian Gulf development projects, Iran’s move to develop North Pars, while still well below Qatar’s annual output of 42 mtpa, aims to place the Islamic republic in the upper tier of LNG producers and exporters in the long-term.
The Obama administration has charged Iranian hackers for a coordinated campaign of cyber attacks in 2012 and 2013 on several U.S. banks and a New York dam.
Iran and Iraq signed the accord in Baghdad on Tuesday. They also discussed possible improvements in Tehran-Baghdad central bank ties.
Iran’s Hassan Rouhani arrived in Pakistan earlier this week on a landmark visit, his first since becoming president. The trip comes as Saudi Arabia is courting Islamabad to increase participation in a new Saudi-led military alliance of mostly Sunni nations, a coalition perceived by Tehran as an anti-Shiite block.
On March 24, the Iraqi military launched the first operation in its “Fatah” (“Conquest”) offensive to retake the city of Mosul and Nineveh province from ISIS. Iraqi forces, backed by Kurdish troops and the US-led coalition, reportedly captured three villages near the town of Makhmour, but their advance was slowed by mines planted by ISIS. Earlier in the week, ISIS fighters launched a series of attacks Monday on Iraqi military interests.
Iraqi Kurdistan intends to hold the referendum on the region’s independence by October.
A March 18th attack by militants on the Sonatrech gas facility resulted in two RPGs missing the target with no damage or injuries. While Sonatrech, a state-owned gas company, oversees the facility, Norwegian-based Statoil and British-based BP control operations. Though the attack failed in causing damage, the operations were shut down for the day. No group claimed responsibility, yet suspicion has fallen on al-Qaeda’s North African branch. A previous attack on Algeria’s gas infrastructure in 2013, at Ain Amenas facility, resulted in the deaths of 37 foreign gas workers. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility at the time. While the attack was unsuccessful, such events highlight a clear threat to Algeria’s energy infrastructure, which lies at the heart of its economy.
Egypt’s military-run government faces further questions from international observers as to its human rights record. This past week, the UN high commissioner for human rights expressed his ‘grave concern’ over Egypt’s prosecutions of human rights advocates and for the forced closure of human rights-based NGOS. This statement occurred as a judicial hearing for two high-profile human rights activists began on Thursday in Cairo. Egypt’s media was shut out from reporting on the trial procedures, further highlighting the grievances of human rights groups. The London-based Amnesty International voiced its displeasure at Egypt’s erosion of its civil society. “Egypt’s civil society is being treated like an enemy of the state rather than a partner for reform and progress,” Amnesty’s Said Boumedouha said. President al-Sisi’s government continuously faces these types of accusations, further indicating that Egyptian governance has a long way to progress from the era of Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
This past week saw Moroccan security services dismantle a Libyan-originated ISIS cell inside the kingdom, highlighting the dangers posed by the militant group in sowing regional instability and terrorism. The cell, composed of 9 individuals, operated in the eastern cities of Marrakesh, Sidi Bennour, and Smara. These arrests signify a serious problem that many North African nations will face in the near-future: the return of their citizens from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Morocco believes 1,500 of its nationals are fighting with militant groups in Syria and Iraq. Some 220 have returned home and been jailed, while 286 have been killed in combat.
Tunisian security forces are on high alert after dozens of Islamist militants stormed through the border town of Ben Guerdan earlier this month. As street battles resulted in the deaths of 12 Tunisian Security force-members and over 50 militants, such bloodshed points to a growing danger posed by the instability in Libya to its neighbors.
Besides the infiltration of ISIS fighters into Libya, the overall chaos and fighting between competing government factions, both those allied to the rival eastern government and the newly formed unity government, risk sending the country further down the road towards a more deadly conflict. While some armed factions have voiced support for the unity government, others have not. As a result, the past two weeks have seen clashes erupting in Tripoli and other areas such as Tuwaybiya, located 22 miles to the west of the capital, between the militias. While the UN-backed unity government seeks to move its government to Tripoli, the security situation remains an impediment to law and order being imposed.
Conflict between South Sudan and its northern neighbor continues, as South Sudan accuses its neighbor of aerial bomb raids and providing support to rebels. This comes just days after Khartoum accused the south of backing rebels in its territory.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been issued a guilty plea by Ahmed al-Fahqi al-Mahdi, for the destruction of 9 mausoleums and a mosque. Mr. al-Mahdi, once a member of the Ansar Dine, a Taureg militia with ties to al-Qaeda, took part in the Islamist occupation of Timbuktu in 2012-2013. Special Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda stated that al-Mahdi’s “admission of guilt would also be a milestone in the history of the ICC.” Timbuktu is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, notable for its centrality to Islamic scholarship in the 13th-17th centuries.
Countering Violent Extremism
Australian police have arrested a 20-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl on suspicion of transferring money overseas to fund ISIS. While charges have not formally been announced, the pair could face up to 25 years in prison under Australia’s prohibitions on funding terrorist organisations.
MENA Energy News
Israel and the Palestinian Authority
After intense, secret negotiations held between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, along with the US, Russia, the EU, and the UN, the sale of 0.25-0.4 Bcm a year from Leviathan field worth $50 mil/year to the Gaza strip appears likely. The aforementioned Quartet has agreed to pay for a pipeline which would connect Gaza’s 140 MW power plant to either Israel’s receiving facility in Ashdod or an additional direct underwater pipeline from Leviathan to the Gaza Strip. Construction plans for the pipeline, estimated to take up to 3 years, remain unclear as the Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources and Israeli National Gas Lines must decide upon a feasible and secure supply route. From a Palestinian perspective, the import of Leviathan gas to Gaza counters the PA’s previous cancellation of a proposed import deal in 2015 which would have fed the West Bank’s electrical grid. Therefore, an import deal in Gaza could lead to Israel and the Palestinians re-visiting a supply agreement for the West Bank.
An early March deal by OPEC and Russia to curb their respective oil production will perhaps be “meaningless,” according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), as Saudi Arabia is the only country capable of increasing output. According to IEA’s head of oil markets division, Neil Atkinson, the move by OPEC and Russia is more of a “gesture” aimed at regaining market confidence rather than actually curbing production. However, what may be more telling are Iran’s and Libya’s refusals to attend the April 17th OPEC-member and non-member oil producers meeting in Doha. The talks, aimed at expanding the production freeze, may prove fruitless if Iran continues to increase production output in its post-sanction push to enter the market.