Security Exchange News

Security Exchange Newsletter | January | MENA

31 January 2020

Iraq & Iran – The fate of Iraq and Iran are inextricably linked, evident in the aftermath of the killing of Iranian Commander Qassem Soleimani. The US airstrikes which targeted Iran’s most senior military official near Baghdad airport also killed Abu Mahdi a-Muhandis, the commander of the Kataib Hezbollah militia and deputy chief of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Iran’s immediate response saw multiple rockets fired at Iraqi military bases which housed US troops; it was recently revealed that 50 US soldiers were wounded in the attack. The incidents raised the prospect of a direct confrontation between Iran and the US taking place in Iraq. The government in Baghdad called for the withdrawal of US troops from the country, although this week it was confirmed that joint operations against the Islamic State (IS) group were ongoing.

Iran is also directly involved in the political crisis which has crippled its neighbour, where thousands of anti-government protesters continue to take to the streets to demand major reforms. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi announced that he was resigning in November in response to the mounting wave of civil unrest, yet he still remains in office in a caretaker capacity and President Barham Saleh has failed to nominate a candidate. The situation has been complicated by the myriad of competing visions for Iraq’s future; influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew his support for the protesters this week. His supporters had been protecting demonstrators against the Iraqi security forces at camps around Tahrir Square and the Sinak Bridge. Following their withdrawal, troops stormed protest camps and killed several protesters.

Tehran has spent years building up a network of influence in Iraq. Leaked cables released last year revealed how embedded Iranian intelligence officers had become across all areas of Iraq’s political and military institutions. A complete withdrawal of US forces, and Washington’s political influence, would see Iran attempt to fill the vacuum even further. Yet there are large numbers of Iraqi citizens who are fiercely opposed to Tehran’s interference, something which has been evident throughout the recent protests. The Iranian consulate was torched in the southern city of Najaf back in November, and there remains a strong anti-Iran sentiment among many of the protesters. Their anger at Tehran is also not just confined to the cities and towns of Iraq; thousands of people have joined rallies against the government back in Iran. The latest wave of civil unrest was sparked by increases in fuel prices but are linked to a broader frustration at the state of the Iranian economy. More than 1,500 people are estimated to have died since protesters took to the streets in mid-November. Thousands of people rallied in Tehran after it was revealed, after initial denials, that the Iranian military had shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 after it set off from Tehran, killing 176 people. The government's decision to breach key parts of the 2015 nuclear deal - which follows the US withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 - has seen the European signatories trigger a formal dispute mechanism. The drift back towards isolationism will result in the reimposition of sanctions, further weakening the economy and fuelling deeper public unrest.

Israel - Israel is facing its third general election in less than a year. In March Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attempt, once again, to win enough support to form a ruling coalition. As with the previous vote in September, his main challenge will come from Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party. Netanyahu is facing an indictment on corruption charges, and earlier this week he withdrew his attempt to secure political immunity from prosecution.

Yet despite the dark clouds hanging over him, the PM has been handed a lifeline from another head of state under investigation. US President Donald Trump stood alongside Netanyahu when he announced his peace plan for the Middle East, which would see Jerusalem be the unified undivided capital of Israel, part of the Jordan Valley annexed and legitimising the status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, despite the fact that they are considered illegal under international law. The timing of the announcement prompted Democratic senators to write to Trump and say that “the timing of this proposal to coincide with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s indictment on bribery charges also raises disturbing questions about your intention to intervene in the Israeli election process.”

The message from both Trump and Netanyahu to their supporters on the right is, ignore the impeachment and indictment, vote for us in 2020, and then we can implement this “deal of the century.” While that may well work for their domestic political campaign, it will not be accepted by the Palestinians. When the plan was formally announced on Tuesday, it was immediately met with anger and dismay in Gaza and the West Bank. "We say a thousand times, no, no, no," said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in response to the proposals. "We rejected this deal from the start and our stance was correct." Activists condemned the deal, describing it as the new Balfour Declaration, and clashes were reported between protesters and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Palestinian officials will complain to the UN, but the US has a veto on the Security Council, and without a strong political voice another escalation in violence seems almost inevitable.

Libya – 2019 saw the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launch its offensive on the capital, Tripoli. Although the eastern forces, led by Khalifa Haftar, seized key towns to the south and east, they have so far been unable to capture the city from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Haftar launched the operation in April, claiming that he was going to rid the country of terrorists, and his forces have had international support from Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Russia and France. Fighters from Chad and Sudan have also been reported to be fighting alongside the LNA. For the GNA, they called on their Turkish allies to send troops to help them to defend the capital; at the start of January parliament approved the request and Turkish troops have started travelling to Libya; French officials claim Syrian mercenaries have also been travelling on Turkish warships to join the fight.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that military means will not solve the conflict in Libya. Diplomatic efforts have intensified, and talks were held this month in Moscow and then Berlin. The summit in Germany resulted in an agreement to uphold an arms embargo and for international states to limit their roles in the country. However, France and Turkey have subsequently accused each other of exacerbating the conflict. Meanwhile, the two people who need to reach an understanding, Haftar and the head of the GNA, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, refused to meet during the latest round of talks. Sarraj previously said he will not deal with Haftar, accusing his rival of breaking previous promises.

There is no obvious solution to the current conflict; Tripoli is less likely to fall now that Turkish troops have been deployed to support the GNA. Haftar’s forces briefly held the town of Abugrein on Sunday before the GNA launched a counter-offensive alongside fighters from the nearby town of Misrata. This trend is likely to continue into 2020, with both sides capturing and losing territory without making any significant breakthrough. The GNA doesn’t appear to be capable of launching its own major offensive on the LNA strongholds in the east, so Libya will remain divided and the conflict will keep rumbling on.