Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
Events in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s confrontation with Iran are by no means exhausted in what is happening presently in the Middle East. The situation, observed in the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa, are no less important for understanding the situation in the region.
The present article, based on materials from A. Bystrov, is a look at what is going on in Algeria, Libya and the Sudan.
Algerian Oil Guard
Units of the government National People’s Army (NPA) of Algeria located and destroyed the terrorists’ secret safe haven in the province of Jijel in the north-east of the country. The Minister of National Defence of the republic published about this in a message on April 18. The security forces succeeded in arresting two individuals who supported terrorist groups in the province of Boumerdès. Such reports appear regularly indicating increased extremist activity in Algeria, associated with the rise of radical groups in the Sahel and Libya. At the same time, nothing is heard about major terrorist attacks inside Algeria, typical of the mid-90s.
The country faced the problem of terrorism when the armed conflict between the authorities and the radical Islamist groups began in 1992. The reason was the annulment in the result of parliamentary elections, won by the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF). In response, the Islamists launched a terrorist war, the victims of which were more than 200 thousand people. The level of violence has decreased because of the policy of civic accord pursued by the President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, approved by referendum in September 2005, brought an end to the conflict. However, in 2015, the security services of Algeria destroyed 157 terrorists, and in 2016, nearly 130. Now, the Special Services are focusing their efforts on neutralising threats, posed by groups operating inside the country and the extremist movements that have established bases in the Sahel and the Sahara.
The Algerian military’s attention is focused on securing the borders with these regions and strengthening the protection of the oil fields. The NPA command has revised the concept of protection of the main hydrocarbon deposits in connection with which it plans to conclude large-scale contracts with the American company Lockheed Martin and Italian company Leonardo. The emphasis on the safety of oil and gas fields is obvious, since this industry provides the main income for the military budget items. The leadership of the national Algerian company Sonatrach initiated the programme of modernisation of protection and monitoring of oil fields. The purchase of air monitoring tools and equipment is carried out by the army, but is funded by Sonatrach.
Analysts predict serious risks and want to minimise the threat of attacks such as committed in 2013 at the Sonatrach-BP-Statoil base camp in In Amenas by the Murabitun group, which penetrated into Algeria from Libya. Nearly forty people were killed and the volume of hydrocarbon production sharply decreased. At the time, the company’s management invited the military to participate in the modernisation of the oil infrastructure protection system, but it took five years to develop an air surveillance strategy and inventory of technical capabilities needed for this.
Lockheed Martin should conclude negotiations with the authorities for the order of five observation balloons in the near future. Negotiations have been underway since 2015. Presently, there are only disagreements on the price of the contract ($375 million), which the US side wants to increase. The SASA-Aerostat Project will provide Algeria with an air monitoring system similar to that used by the US to secure bases in Afghanistan and on the border between the US and Mexico. The Italian company Leonardo is ready to supply the Algerian army a few twin-engine King-Air aircraft intended for surveillance.
AgustaWestland negotiates with the NPA on the supply of helicopters to transport troops and air cover for operations to neutralise militant raids on the country’s oil infrastructure. The Algerian military has a dozen AW-139 helicopters, which are in service with the police, the National Gendarmerie and the Civil Guard. The company intends to build a helicopter assembly plant in Setif. In doing so, the NPA has initiated a programme to strengthen its air surveillance capabilities. Plans to purchase six C27j Spartan helicopters from Leonardo can be realised in June. The purchase of three Gulfstream G550 aircraft from the American group Defence Raytheon for almost a billion dollars looks more problematic. The subcontractor of this company, Field Aerospace is facing technical difficulties in the integration of monitoring sensors on the plane.
Some sources believe that the contract can be renewed, but the crash of the army’s Il-76 on April 11 may lead to a review of the priorities of the NPA expenses. Prior to the air catastrophe, where 257 people died, the Algerian Air Force, because of poor technical maintenance, have lost nearly twenty aircraft since 2007. The tragedy in Boufarik can push the Air Force commander of the NPA Abdelkader Lounes to accelerate the decommissioning of the obsolete Il-76 and C-130s Hercules with the renewal of the fleet and the establishment of adequate technical maintenance. This will certainly require adjustments to the procurement programme, abandoning some contracts for the purchase of reconnaissance and monitoring aircraft in favour of transportation aircraft.
Not Brothers of Haftar
The Libyan National Army (LNA) is prepared, without coordination with Western countries, to launch an operation to liberate the city of Dema, which is still being held by terrorist groups. The official representative of the LNA command Colonel Ahmed al-Mismari stated this. He noted that the exception is Egypt, with which contacts are maintained to ensure the security of borders between the two countries. Neither the Egyptian military nor the French, on which the main emphasis was placed, will participate in the operation. Thus the success of the operation is questionable, because instead of the Egyptian aviation attacking, the LNA aviation will cover, and these were agricultural aircraft converted with the help of the UAE, operated by crews of mercenaries from Blackwater. At the same time, Khalifa Haftar’s forces managed to take Benghazi with the help of the French Special Forces.
The port-city of Derna on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea is the last stronghold of extremists beyond the control of government forces in Eastern Libya. The majority of “Afghan veterans” came from Derna, where the headquarters of the groups controlling the cross-border smuggling, the illegal migration and hostage-taking operations for ransom is located. Derna was captured by the extremists more than four years ago and is controlled by the al Qaida affiliated Alliance of the Shura Council of Derna Mujahideen. Since September 2014, militants of the Islamic State have established control over the city, but they left Derna in the spring of 2016 after fighting with local Islamists and militias. The LNA unsuccessfully stormed Derna a few times, as well as with the help of Egyptian Special Forces.
This city is a key hub of communication. Through it passes a strategic highway linking Benghazi to Egypt. Derna uses the Qatari for a guerrilla war on the Egyptian territory, diverting forces and means from the counterterrorist operation in the Sinai. It is unlikely that a new offensive on the Islamist stronghold will be carried out without the active support of Egypt and the UAE. The Commander-in-Chief of the LNA Haftar held talks in Cairo last February with President of Egypt al-Sisi on financial support and cover for his forces from the air (despite the fact that the unsuccessful actions of the Egyptian Air Force failed to storm Derna last October). He was refused. The Egyptian Air Force at the time was fighting in the Sinai.
At the same time, Ahmed al-Mismari visited Paris, where he met with French officials. His goal was to obtain financial and technical assistance to Haftar to seize Derna. It seems that he was able to agree on support, but the French lied. Their Special Forces, together with helicopters, have gone to the Sahel, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, where the situation has deteriorated dramatically. And not because of Islamists, but because of the riots and discontent of local security forces.
This forced Haftar to cancel the assault. Attempts to conduct reconnaissance also failed. Cairo and Abu Dhabi suggested concentrating forces on establishing control over the administrative centre of the southern region of Fezzan, which fell under the Tripoli control zone of Prime Minister of the National Consensus Government Faiza Sarajj and, behind him, the Italians. In the end, the negotiations between Haftar and local tribes was blocked and the rebellion of the 6th Battalion began, who swore allegiance to Sarraj, more precisely, was bought with Italian money. As a result, Fezzan remained outside the control of the LNA forces. Thus, six years of efforts by Haftar and his foreign sponsors to build a powerful military force led to very controversial results.
The LNA continues to be a hindrance to the armed militias, which operate according to their own agendas and views of the territory. It includes the Qaddafi supporters, eastern and southern tribal militias, Salafi brigades and mercenaries of the Darfur-based SLM M. Minawi faction and Chadian opposition groups. They are united by their common hostility to Islamist groups, Ansar al-Sharia or Islamic State. The main opponents of the Field Marshal are the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, or rather, the Misurata and Tripoli clans, who do not want the strengthening of Cyrenaica. If Haftar leaves the scene, the remaining commanders of the LNA will do everything possible to keep it from collapsing, but the policy of Haftar for the failure of the Alliance with the Tripolitania tribes ensures the beginning of a competitive struggle for the leadership among his successors.
The Supreme State Council of Libya under Sarraj elected a new head on April 8. It was Khalid al-Mishri, nominated by the Justice and Construction Party, the political wing of the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The elections were held at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Tripoli with the participation of 115 members of the State Council. Initially, four candidates presented themselves for the post of speaker, following the results of the first round, two of them dropped out, so that Khalid al-Mishri and former Chairman of the Council Abdelrahman Al-Sweihli moved to the second round. In the final vote, the latter received 45 votes and the Islamist al-Mishri, 64. Six other members of the council abstained from participating in the elections.
The Supreme State Council plays an advisory role. It began its work in April 2016 in pursuance of the Libyan Political Agreement, signed under the patronage of the UN in December 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco. The majority of its members are deputies of the General National Congress (GNC, former interim parliament), which was dominated by the Brotherhood. It lost its legitimacy with the election of a permanent legislative body, the House of Representatives, which is now sitting in the east of the country. Abdelrahman Al-Sweihli, who heads the Union for Homeland party formed in 2012, was first elected to the post of head of the Council in 2016 and then re-elected for a second term in April 2017.
If we analyse these personnel rotations, it should be noted that they mean the return to power to the State Council extreme elements of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. al-Mishri, was born in Zawiyah, the stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time, Qaddafi was serving a sentence for Islamist activities in the Abu Salim prison, where he met with the leadership of the Brotherhood and one of the leaders of the Libyan combat group (LBG), which is considered affiliated with al Qaida, A. Belhaj. In 2012, he was elected to the PJC party from the political formation created by the Brotherhood. He was close to the radical mufti of Libya, Sadiq al-Ghariani and former Prime Minister of the Caliph al-Gwali. Al-Mishri is a staunch opponent of any alliance between Tripoli and Haftar. He broadcast this position on April 9 at a meeting with UN Special Envoy to Libya Hasan Salaam. With his election, experts link the execution by the Islamists, with the help of Ankara and Doha, of the scenario of blocking the upcoming elections. As the head of the State Council, he will be able to make the elections dependent on the organisation of the constitutional referendum, which is now insisted on by the leader the Libyan Brotherhood Ali Sallabi. So the influence of the pro-Qatari radicals in Tripoli will grow, which means the failure of international sponsors to reach a national consensus.
As for Haftar, the latest news about him is related to his severe illness. Egypt and the UAE have serious doubts about the return of the Field Marshall to power. At the same time, after the next phase of escalation in recent weeks, tensions between the Tubu and the Awlad Suleiman communities in Sebha are diminishing. Following the signing of the ceasefire agreement on April 10, the Tubu removed the sand barriers that had been built on the road between Sebha and the southern part of the country. These events took place on the eve of the Niamey talks organised by the Minister of the Interior of the Niger, Mohamed Bazoum. The Libyan Tuaregs are expected to participate. The chief architect of the round of consultations is the President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou, increasingly active in the Libyan situation. The process of reaching a national consensus in Fezzan could be hampered by renewed confrontation between the 6th Battalion, led by the chief Awlad Suleiman, General Khalifa Abdelaziz and the Tubu. The battalion headquarters is located in the old Fort of Sebha, in the heart of Tubu territory, and they demand that they evacuate.
President Idriss Déby of Chad became involved in the Libyan situation. He intends to hold a summit with the Niger and the Sudan on the security of Libya’s southern border in N’Djamena (Chad) in June. The summit, which will be attended by ministers of the interior and defence, as well as the Libyan delegation, should be the continuation of the meeting held in Niamey (Niger) on April 4. Déby plays a more limited role in resolving the Libyan problems than his Nigerien counterpart. The latter heads the Sahel Regional Anti-Terrorist Alliance of the G5 and tries to establish himself as the main inter-tribal mediator in southern Libya. Déby is an ally of Haftar, who helps track down the Chadian rebels who took refuge in Fezzan. This explains in part the tension that has been blowing up the region for nearly two months. The Chadians are fighting on the side of the Tubu, and Haftar’s attempts to neutralise this threat somehow did not bring success.
The Sudan Says Goodbye to the Minsiter
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has removed Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour from his post. This decision was announced less than three hours after the President returned from Saudi Arabia, where he participated in the 29th summit of the League of Arab States. The formal reason for the resignation of the Foreign Minister was his speech in Parliament accusing some government circles of seven months’ delay in the salary of the diplomatic corps. It should be noted that it began in February when he submitted his resignation in protest against the appointment of former Oil Minister Awad al-Jaz as an assistant to the President and chief curator of Sudan’s relations with China and Turkey. Al-Jaz belongs to the old guard of the Islamists and was one of the architects of the military coup in 1989, which led al-Bashir to power. He was a liaison between the military and Islamists in the preparation of the coup and is among the presidential commissioners.
Ghandour’s main mission as Minister of Foreign Affairs was the removal or weakening of the American sanctions. His main partners were Saudi Arabia and the USA. Ghandour was actively lobbying for the strengthening of relations with Riyadh. The sanctions were partially lifted, but the Sudan continues to appear on the lists of the US State Department as state sponsors of terrorism. The need for the too independent Minister disappeared; thanks to the relationship with Riyadh with its unwillingness to support the economy of the Sudan with regular financial tranches to the Central Bank of the country became strained. Saudi Arabia was replaced in this role by the UAE, the prospect of strengthening their relations with the Sudan was jealously perceived in the KSA. In this regard, Ghandour’s fate has become uncertain, increasing the tension in relations between Khartoum and Washington.
The point of no return for al-Bashir was the visit in November of last year to Sudan of the US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. He said during a meeting with Ghandour (the American officials do not meet with al-Bashir due to the verdict of the International Criminal Court) about Washington’s negative attitude to the current President’s decision to run for election in 2020. Ghandour informed the Prime Minister, but not the head of state. The latter suspected of trying to remove him from power with the support of the United States (“Not a pound of Khartoum”). It was this episode that prompted the Sudanese President to initiate the idea of creating a Russian military base as a signal to Washington. Ghandour’s resignation put a stop to the crisis of relations with Egypt, which could have turned into a military conflict. The Minister was able to reduce tensions between the countries, although a number of senior Sudanese official and al-Bashir himself believed that fighting within the Alliance with Ethiopia against Egyptian presence in Eritrea is necessary. So, the President of Sudan does not need Ghandour anymore.
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute