Sunday, 25 February 2018

Sisi’s Islamist enemies and secret friends

                                                                                                    video version
Egypt has been battling with Sinai-based terrorists ever since the overthrow in 2013 of former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government that he headed.

Their year in office demonstrated all too clearly to the majority of the Egyptian population what living under an extreme Islamist administration meant, and by and large they rejected it. Even so, the Muslim Brotherhood retained the support of a fair minority of Egyptians, and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, later to be president, inherited an inherently unstable situation which, he believed, could only be contained by suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and all its works.  Hence the trial of Morsi, the clampdown on leading Brotherhood figures and its adherents, and the jailing of journalists employed by the TV station Al-Jazeera based in Qatar, which supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

As Sisi’s clampdown grew in severity, prominent Brotherhood figures fled the country, while existing Islamist bodies in Sinai affiliated either to al-Qaeda or Islamic State were joined by new extremist terror groups. The Sinai Peninsula, vast and sparsely populated, was the ideal launching pad for pro-Brotherhood bodies intent on harassing Egypt’s new administration.

 But the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula delineates the internationally recognized 213 kilometer (132 mile) border between Egypt and Israel. Military action by either nation in the region is subject to a delicate balance set out in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979.  On the one hand the agreement imposes strict limitations on Egyptian military deployment; on the other, any Israeli incursion into the Peninsula requires Egypt's permission.

Ever since the jihadist groups stepped up their terror attacks in the Sinai, Israel has given its approval to Egypt’s greatly enhanced military presence. Equally, as reports like that in the New York Times on February 4, 2018 assert, Egypt has been approving Israeli air strikes – more than 100 of them over the past two years − against Islamic State targets in northern Sinai. That suggestion was vehemently denied by Egypt’s military spokesperson Tamer El-Refaai.  The Egyptian army, he asserted, was the sole entity conducting military operations in North Sinai.

Although at least six other extremist Islamist groupings have been identified in the region, most of the attacks in the Sinai Peninsula in recent years have been claimed by Sinai Province, the Egyptian affiliate of Islamic State. The group has never claimed responsibility for what has been described as the “deadliest militant attack in modern Egyptian history”, but all the evidence points to it.  It was this atrocity that has led to the intensive military effort just launched by the combined Egyptian military forces.

In the midst of Friday prayers on November 24, 2017, militants launched a bomb and gun attack on the al-Rawda mosque in the town of Bir al-Abed, in Egypt's North Sinai province. 311 people were killed, including 27 children, and at least 122 other people were wounded. When ambulances arrived to transport the wounded to hospitals, the attackers opened fire on them as well, from pre- selected ambush points.

Immediately after the attack Sisi declared three days of national mourning and ordered his armed forces to mount a full-scale military operation aimed at defeating the Sinai-based militants within three months.  It took some eight weeks to plan the campaign. On February 16 the operation, named Sinai 2018, began.  Involving the army, navy, air force and police, it is targeting "terrorist and criminal elements and organizations" in north and central Sinai, parts of the Nile delta and the western desert.

According to Egypt’s Colonel Tamer al-Rifai in a news conference broadcast on state television, forces have so far destroyed over 1,000 kg of explosives, 378 militant hideouts, and weapon storage facilities including a media center used by the militants. Some 680 people have been detained. The air force has carried out more than 100 airstrikes in northern and central Sinai, focusing on militant hideouts outside residential areas to avoid hitting civilians.

Major General Yasser Abdel Aziz of Egypt’s Military Operations Authority said that the operation would only end when Sinai was free of "terrorists".  When this happy state of affairs had been achieved, he said, Egyptian authorities would push ahead with a comprehensive development plan for Sinai.

Sinai 2018 started just a couple of days before US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Cairo. For several years now, American commanders have provided intelligence assistance to Egyptian commanders in Sinai including reconnaissance imagery, intelligence gleaned from eavesdropping devices, and other information from sophisticated sensors.  In addition, ever since 2015 there have been reports of Egypt working closely with Israel in Sinai, and of Israeli drones, helicopters and jets carrying out dozens of attacks in the region.

Neither Egypt nor Israel is acknowledging their growing cooperation as they face a common foe − a jihadist insurgency in the Sinai. Their relationship mirrors that between Jordan and Israel − security cooperation, but as far from the public eye as possible. Nothing, however, can disguise the $15 billion natural gas deal just struck under which the operators of Israel’s vast Tamar and Leviathan fields will be selling some 64 billion cubic meters of gas to Egypt over ten years – an agreement mirroring Israel’s 2016 gas deal with Jordan worth some $10 billion.  Today’s political and commercial realities are overriding the outworn imperatives of yesteryear.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 February 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 February 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 March 2018:

Friday, 16 February 2018

Lebanon - one big Iranian arms factory?

                                                                                video version
Lebanon goes to the polls on May 6.  Nine long years have passed since the last parliamentary elections which, according to the constitution, are supposed to be held every four years.  Ever since 2014 ministers and politicians have voted again and again to postpone elections and extend the current parliament, citing security concerns, political crisis and a dispute over the election law.

When the new poll is held, the political landscape within Lebanon and in the region will have changed dramatically.  The intervening period has seen both the rise and the battlefield defeat of Islamic State in neighboring Iraq and Syria, a dramatic extension of Iranian power in both countries, the direct involvement of Hezbollah military forces – ­composed, be it remembered, of young Lebanese fighters – in the civil conflict in Syria, acting under direct Iranian command, and a huge build-up of sophisticated Iranian weaponry in Lebanon itself together with the development of arms manufacturing facilities on a massive scale.

Moreover, the previous pro-Western, Saudi-backed political alliance led by prime minister Saad Hariri, has disintegrated.  Over the nine years from 2009 Hariri’s government has included members of the increasingly confident, Iran-backed Shi'ite movement Hezbollah – one obvious sign of Iran extending its power base into Lebanon by way of its subsidiary.  This was a dangerous development that Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni world, was determined to nip in the bud.

In November 2017, urged on − it is surmised − by the charismatic Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Hariri travelled to Riyadh, and from the Saudi capital he resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister, incorporating a resounding denunciation of Hezbollah and Iran in his announcement.
The resultant political storm could not be contained. He stayed abroad for two weeks, then travelled back to Lebanon where he withdrew his resignation, and resumed his office.  But all was far from well.  Hariri could never be reconciled to the increasingly dominant position that Hezbollah was assuming within the Lebanese body politic.  Regardless of his political objections, his personal reasons are overwhelming. 

On February 14, 2005, his father, Rafik Hariri, one-time prime minister and a powerful opponent of Syrian and Hezbollah dominance in Lebanon, was assassinated.  The subsequent judicial proceedings, which are still ongoing after 12 years, have pretty well established that the murder was ordered by Bashar al Assad, Syria’s president, and carried out by Hezbollah operatives.  So Saad Hariri has business left unfinished by his father to complete.  There is no doubt that Rafik would have been appalled by the extent to which Iran has gained control over Lebanon’s military power, and is using the country as a manufacturing base from which to arm the Shi’ite crescent that it is consolidating.  For Iran is building and equipping a Shi’ite empire extending from Yemen, through Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Syria and through to Lebanon.

Back on March 11, 2017, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida reported that an aide to Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, had informed it that Iran had established facilities for manufacturing missiles and other weapons in Lebanon, and had recently handed them over to the management and oversight of Hezbollah.  The newspaper reported that the facilities were more than 50 meters underground and heavily shielded against aerial attacks.

"Moreover,” ran the Al-Jarida report, “manufacture of the missiles does not take place in one factory; different parts are built in different factories and then assembled.”  The weaponry included surface-to-surface and surface-to-sea missiles, torpedoes, spy drones, anti-tank missiles, and fast armored boats.
This report was confirmed in some detail in July 2017 by France’s Intelligence Online.  It referred to at least two underground facilities being constructed in Lebanon for manufacturing missiles and other weaponry, providing details of the weaponry produced and the approximate locations of the plants. One of the factories, being built near the town of Hermel in the eastern Bekaa Valley, will produce the Fateh 110, a medium-range missile. The second, between the towns of Sidon and Tyre, will manufacture smaller munitions.

The Fateh 110 has a range of approximately 300 kilometers − enough to cover most of Israel  − and can carry a half-ton warhead. Israel’s David’s Sling missile defense battery, which went operational in April 2017, is specifically designed to combat medium-range rockets like the Fateh 110.

          These developments highlight the depth of Iran’s involvement in Syria and Lebanon, something that both Israel and some Arab states including Saudi Arabia have been warning against recently. In particular was the article published on January 28, 2018 by Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Ronen Manelis – an article reproduced on several Lebanese websites, including Ahewar, in other Arabic publications and on media outlets including the Voice of Beirut, the Moscow-based Sputnik media group, and Israeli radio's Arabic station.

"Through the actions and inaction of the Lebanese authorities,” wrote Manelis, “Lebanon is turning into one big missile factory while much of the international community looks the other way. It's no longer about transfers of arms, money or advice. De facto, Iran has opened a new branch, the Lebanon branch."  With Iran's support, Hezbollah is building "terrorist infrastructure and plants to make arms under the nose of the Lebanese government."

Hezbollah's actions are turning Lebanon into a "powder keg" that its people are living around, Manelis warned, and Iran "is playing with their safety and future".  2018, he said, will determine Lebanon’s future -- a stable and economically prosperous country, or an arm of Iran and Hezbollah.  

Then Manelis turned to the forthcoming elections.  Will Hezbollah, he wondered, manage to elbow out the Sunni camp and officially turn the country into an Iranian client state?

Responsible opinion would deplore such an outcome.  Possible counter-measures range from military action by one or other outside agency in Lebanon or in Iran to prevent any such outcome, diplomatic pressure on the Lebanese government to exert effective control over the overweening power of Hezbollah, or a major internal political effort by Hariri and his allies in the new election campaign aimed at wresting power back into responsible hands.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 February 2018:

Published on the Eurasia Review, 21 February 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 26 February 2018:

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Turkey's enduring emergency

                                   video version
            An emergency, the Oxford English dictionary informs us, is “a sudden state of danger requiring immediate action”. 

            Turkish citizens have been living in a state of emergency for a year and a half, and on 8 January 2018 deputy prime minister, Bekir Bozdag, announced that the government intended to extend it.  This represents the sixth such extension, and Turks might be excused for starting to forget what “normal” life feels like.

            The facts and the reasons leading to the original declaration of a state of emergency might be precisely what the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his government declared at the time.  Conspiracy theories, however, are easy to hatch, and alternative explanations continue to be propounded.

On 15 July 2016, just before 11 pm, military jets were seen flying over Ankara, and a group of Turkish soldiers took over several institutions there and in Istanbul. Prime minister Binali Yildirim announced that action by part of the military was being "taken outside the chain of command," in an "illegal attempt" to seize power.  During subsequent encounters between the insurrectionists and national forces, 250 people were killed and 2,200 injured.  This thwarted coup d’état was adjudged ample justification for the imposition of a state of emergency on the Turkish nation on July 20.

At this time Erdogan had been Turkey’s president for two years, but had made no secret of his determination to transform the office traditionally simply ceremonial into that of a political supremo.  Twice during the course of 2013, when he held the post of prime minister, violence directed against him and the AKP party he leads broke out on the streets of Turkey’s major cities. The underlying cause in both cases was a widespread perception that Erdogan, a close adherent of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, had become too dictatorial in attempting to end Turkey’s role as a model of secularism in the Muslim world.

Opposition centred around followers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who lives in the US. Gulen had once been one of the AKP's main spiritual leaders, preaching a blend of moderate, business-friendly Islam that helped the party rise to power. His dispute with Erdogan and the AKP leadership arose over a government decision to shut down the large network of private schools that the Gulen community, or Hizmet Movement, operated. 

Gulen had followers at high levels in the Turkish establishment, including the judiciary, the secret service and the police force.  Early in December 2013 Erdogan was furious to discover that, for more than a year and unknown to him, the police had been engaged in an undercover inquiry into corruption within the government and the upper echelons of the AKP. By the end of the year Erdogan’s own son had been named in the widening corruption investigation.  Erdogan declared the police investigation a plot by foreign and Turkish forces to discredit his government ahead of local elections in March 2014.

Those elections were the key to unlocking Erdogan’s ambitions.  Returned to office, Erdogan was able to change the constitution to allow him to remain as prime minister beyond his statutory three terms.   Subsequently he was able to stand for president in 2014, and in the June 2015 general elections, the AKP made the creation of an executive presidency central to its campaign promises. 

The idea was to enhance the presidential role to a nearly all-powerful position as head of government, head of state and head of the ruling party. The office of the prime minister would disappear, making way for a strong, executive president supported by vice-presidents. The president would have the power to appoint cabinet ministers without requiring a confidence vote from parliament, propose budgets and appoint more than half the members of the nation’s highest judicial body. The president would also have the power to dissolve the national assembly and significantly perhaps impose states of emergency. 

The timetable for accomplishing Erdogan’s constitutional revision envisaged its passage through parliament by the end of 2016, and a popular referendum a few months later.  However the AKP and the Gulenists were at daggers drawn, popular support was spread evenly between them, and the result of the referendum seemed far from certain. 

Then came the events of 15 July 2016, a confused and confusing sequence of incidents amounting to what was apparently a failed coupDespite subsequent intensive inquiries, a considerable number of questions remained unanswered.  The New York Times believes that these loose ends have led to the suspicion that in order to justify the subsequent crackdown, the government may have allowed the coup to unfold, or even encouraged it. The leader of Turkey’s largest opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has described what happened as a “controlled coup.”

The attempted putsch undoubtedly gave Erdogan reason enough to institute retribution of unprecedented severity on those suspected of opposing the regime.  More than 110,000 people were arrested including nearly 11,000 police officers, 7,500 members of the military, and 2,500 prosecutors and judges. 179 media outlets were shut down, and some 2700 journalists dismissed. 

In April 2017 the referendum on the constitutional changes duly took place.  The result a narrow 51 percent in favour and 49 percent against confirmed the suspicions of those unconvinced about the nature of the coup the previous July.  Erdogan might well have lost the referendum, and with it his bid for supreme power. had there not been a strong reason to remove opposition voices and to rally Turkish opinion against rebels in the military seeking to overthrow the government.

          Meanwhile the perpetual state of emergency enables Erdogan to continue governing with virtually dictatorial powers a situation that has met with considerable popular hostility. In July 2017 Kilicdaroglu led a 25-day march from Ankara to Istanbul culminating in a huge rally to protest against the year-long, post-coup crackdown.  

          One way to counter opposition at home is to divert public attention to enemies abroad. Erdogan may be hoping that his current foreign adventure against the Kurds in northern Syria will help disarm his critics and rally popular opinion in his favour.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 3 February 2018:

MPC Journal video published on Youtube as "Turkey's extended emergency":