Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Olya Kay exclusively for SouthFront
The current situation in the Middle East is far from stable. Wars in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan show that there is a growing opposition from local power centers and external players.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (“GCC”) is in crisis due to strained relations between UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt with Qatar. Iran is actively developing missile programs while Pakistan is focused on nuclear ones. Algeria is busy with succession planning. Islamist groups are increasing their terrorist activity throughout the region, although in Syria and Iraq, the “Islamic State” (banned in Russia) is failing. The volume of drug trafficking, which includes Afghan opiates, and the flow of immigrants, moving to Europe through Maghreb and Turkey is growing. Iran is inciting direct confrontation with Israel. Meanwhile, U.S. and E.U. policies in the Middle East have proven to be contradictory and jeopardize their security. A. Bystrov and Yu. Scheglov wrote an article based on the materials published by experts from the Institute of Middle East. The article describes U.S. policy in the Middle East against the backdrop of the crisis in Qatar and several states of Southern Africa. It also explains the current state of affairs in Algeria, where Washington and Brussels have no influence.
Door-to-door salesman from the White House
On July 11, the United States and Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding to combat terrorism financing. The Foreign Minister of Qatar called on Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt to join the agreement. Foreign Ministers of these four countries, who previously imposed restrictions on Qatar, met on July 5 in Cairo. Unfortunately, this meeting, held in the Egyptian capital did not yield any results. This is not surprising, given that the U.S. administration has been taking contradictory steps since the beginning of the GCC crisis. Initially, Trump declared that “no one will escape punishment for supporting terrorism,” but two weeks later his Secretary of State, R. Tillerson, travels to Doha and signs the above-mentioned agreement with Qatar. Within these two weeks, Doha signed a multibillion-dollar contract with the U.S. for the purchase and sale of weapons. That is, first Saudi Arabia and later Egypt give a carte blanche to attack Qatar, and then have to take a position over the conflict. Such mixed signals from Washington in such a short span of time have had a disorganizing effect on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.
For now, only the Egyptians remain decisive. Egypt believes that countries who support extremists should not be part of the international coalition that is fighting IS. Cairo’s representative Ahmed Aboul Gheit pointed out that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain “cut ties with Qatar, a member of the international coalition, due to its support of terrorism in the region, primarily in Libya, Syria
and Yemen”. He did not mention Sinai, where Qatar sponsors terrorists. Neither did he mention Yemen where Islamists from Al Qaeda are sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Qatar finances the party “Islah” an ally of Saudi Arabia and UAE. Doha is in contact with the IS in Syria, and Saudi Arabia is supporting “Jabhat al-Nusra” (renamed “Tahir al-Sham”), a terrorist group banned in the Russian Federation, which positions itself as part of al-Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt consider the above-referenced July 11 agreement between U.S. and Qatar insufficient. It is fraught with uncertainty in its formulation leads to confusions. Saudi Arabia and UAE should get used to the lack of strategy coming from the Trump administration. Trump’s mood is subject to change and there is no consistency in Washington’s actions. Trump’s predecessor, Barrack had consistency – although unpleasant for the Arab monarchies, it was predictable. As Trump’s State Departments faces collapse, Trump’s actions resemble those of a door-to-door salesman: those who buy more, are his allies. This causes U.S. partners in the Middle East to be wary and urges countries in the region to search for an alternative center of power, away from the Americas. This, among other things, explains recent pilgrimage of their leaders to Moscow…
Khartoum’s scares with Moscow
President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir issued a decree on July 12 suspending work of the negotiations committee with the U.S. until October 12, 2017. Khartoum did this after Washington postponed their decision to lift the sanctions against the Sudan for three months. On January 13, the former president of the United States, signed a decree recognizing the positive actions of the Sudanese government and lifted a number of bans on this country. The U.S. Treasury explained that U.S. sanctions will be called if “the government of Sudan continues the positive steps they have taken over the last six months”. Sudan’s holdings have been under U.S. arrest since 1997. In 2007, the administration of President George Bush Jr. decided to impose further sanctions against officials of the Sudan, who were personally responsible for the events in Darfur, where inter-ethnic clashes have continued since 2003. In October 2016, Obama extended the sanctions regime for a year.
In June, al-Bashir reacted roughly to Riyadh’s refusal to accept him at the Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia, which was timed to coincide with Trump’s visit. Omar al-Bashir took it as a personal challenge and a failure to honor the promise of Mohammad bin Salman. The Crown Prince promised to obtain from Trump the lifting of the sanctions during the latter’s visit to the Kingdom. Sudan was represented at the meeting by the former vice-president Osman Taha. The course of talks between Taha, the Americans, and Saudis gave rise to suspicions from al-Bashir that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia consider Taha as a replacement head of Sudan, a replacement that cannot be further considered as a partner due to his past prosecutions for war crimes in the International Criminal Court.
The reaction of the Sudanese president was prompt: Taha barely managed to leave Sudan and make his way into Saudi Arabia when he had to ask for protection from King Salman. He was accused by Al-Bashir of treason and of favoring U.S. FBI (FBI is blocked in Khartoum given that local special services refuse to deal with them). This was a serious warning to the Americans. Suspending work of the negotiation committee came as a second warning. The third warning is al-Bashir’s forthcoming stop in Moscow, as he makes his way to Beijing in August. Al-Bashir usually appeals to Moscow in two cases: When he is threatened by the International Criminal Court and requires assistance in blocking their efforts through the UN Security Council and when it is necessary for him to tease the Americans.
Unlike the Chinese, to whom the Sudanese president plans to return to with their loans (companies from the RPC curtailed their activities three years ago after stopping the transit of southern Sudanese oil), Moscow is only necessary for the means above. Khartoum tried and failed to organize serious economic projects with Moscow over the past six to seven years. These failures are based on the lack of financing and reluctance to pay for modernization of the economy, a payment which would entail a transfer of gold mines to Russian companies. The mines are controlled by the clan of the president, and he has no plans to share. Yet he wants loans that Russia it seems, does not intend to provide.
As for the quarrel between al-Bashir, the U.S. and the Saudis, the Sudanese president is trying his hardest to avoid this scenario (he even freed Taha as not to irritate the Saudis): the financial tranches that stabilize the Sudanese pound depend on Saudi Arabia. But he still seems to warn the U.S. by pressing on the weakest point of their bilateral relations – cooperation in the security sphere. The US intelligence services receive a significant array of operational information from Sudan. A pause in cooperation will force American intelligence community to pressure Trump. Their requests will involve perceiving al-Bashir as a partner and requests to weaken the economic embargo.
Dialogue between Somalia and Islamists
Washington is taking steps to stimulate negotiations between Somali President, M. Abdullahi Mahamed Formanjo and part of the Al-Shabaab militant group. U.S. wants to break and fragment the Islamic movement by extracting moderate members and neutralizing the radical ones. To reduce reputational damage, U.S. plans to use indirect contract through Somali. This plan is authorized by Trump. The direction of the negotiations is entrusted to the operational staff of the U.S. CIA, and not the Pentagon’s RUMO, as was demanded by the military. The main partner in negotiations from “Al-Shabab” is M. Rabou (Abu Mansour). He is the current commander of the military wing of Al-Shabab.
The initiative to hold consultations to isolate extremists of Al-Shabab belongs to the CIA’s department in Nairobi. The idea began to take shape in 2015 after the massacre of students at the University of Griss. It was finally formulated and reported to the president after the current administration came to power. The CIA leadership did not want to get involved in long-term projects on the eve of the presidential election, arguing that the situation in Mogadishu during the time of the former president, did not facilitate such events.
The choice of the main partner for negotiations on the part of Islamists was influenced by several factors. Various CIA departments were involved and collected numerous dossiers on potential partners in Al-Shaab. Abu Mansur was chosen after careful analysis of documents not only in Nairobi but also in Ethiopia and Somalia. The CIA headquarters in Langley also acquired a collection of data and operational information regarding current leaders of “Al-Shabab” through their capabilities among the Somali colony in the United States.
Abu Mansoor is the spiritual father of the group, as well as its official representative and operational commander. He was in vicious conflict with the former leader of Al-Shabab, A. Abdi Godane. Godane, who was eliminated by the American UAV, and his closest supporters O. Hamami and I. Afghanistan in 2014. Since 2013, Abu Mansoor distanced himself from the most radical parts of the group. U.S. prepared the foundation for negotiations by destroying all opponents of Abu Mansur. In addition, the US removed his name from the list of wanted terrorists (there was a bounty of five million dollars for his head). Experts attribute this to the fact that the CIA has finally decided on a candidate from the Islamists as the main partner for consultations.
At the end of June, Abu Mansur’s opponents attempted to liquidate him by sending additional forces to the Khudar district in the Bakool region. In response, Mogadishu, at the request of Washington, immediately rushed 300 of its military to protect him. Echoes of those events were seen in local news as fights between Somali army and the Islamists in the south. The US special forces also took part in these fights. Experts point out that the increasing attacks on AMISOM forces and the terrorist campaign in Mogadishu and its vicinity are directly linked to attempts by the Americans and the Somali leadership to fragment Al-Shabab and neutralize Abu Mansoor’s opponents associated with Saudi sponsors.
Algeria anticipates change
The new head of the Algerian government, A. Tebbun, was appointed to his post on May 25. He immediately began a massive audit of all contracts signed by his predecessor, starting with the bigger ones. On July 2, he signed an urgent directive, prioritizing full revision of all contracts. One of the first to be audited was a large contract of the previous government for the design and construction of road infrastructure for 4.85 billion euros with the company ETRHB, owned by the Forum des Chefs d’Entreprise (FCE) under the chairmanship of A. Haddad. The new Minister of Public Works and Transport, A. Zaalane reported his thoughts on this project, as a result of which the new Prime Minister blocked an advance payment of 900 million euros to ETRHB. The advance was supposed to cover expenses of project management.
Tebbun also revised and blocked more than 50 import licenses issued on behalf of the Algerian Minister of Trade, B. Belait, while the latter was undergoing treatment in Paris last year. According to the official version, the procedure to issue these licenses lacked transparency. The new Minister of Trade is A. Sasi. He was the previous governor of the political patrimony of the clan of the President Bouteflika. Sasi began the process of reviewing all licenses. Experts believe that his main task will be to transfer all import operations under the control of the presidential clan.
The third important direction in the economy, which is now undergoing a full audit and revision, are the contracts of the former Cabinet of Ministers for the organization and development of more than 10 industrial zones in Algeria. The new Minister of Industry, M. Bedda is currently studying all the circumstances under which the agreements were reached, and circumstances under which these contracts were frozen a few months before the former government’s resignation.
All of this is carried out with the active assistance of the Chief of the General Staff, A. Gaida Salah, who provides the power cover for this action, and the cover of reorganized special service via the former Directorate of Internal Security (DRS), now CSS. The CSS is headed by the protégé of the presidential clan, A. Bashir Tartag. His main task is to liquidate everything that relates to anti-presidential cases of corruption, initiated by the former head of the DRS, A. Medien.
All actions of the new prime minister are aimed at solving the main task assigned to him by the presidential clan, in particular A. Bouteflika, Said’s brother: to prevent concentration of business ties of the former Prime Minister, A Sellall and Minister of Trade A. Boischareb, who previously tried to qualify for the post of the Prime minister and in the future aimed to join the presidential race through the support of financial and trade elites in the country. The same goes for Sellall, who from 2013 (When President Bouteflika had his first stroke) was considered to be one of the main contenders for the highest post within the political and economic elite of Algeria.
The concern of the presidential clan stems from the large business ties that Sellal developed during his prime ministerial life through his son Fares. The main task of the Bouteflika clan is to destroy such alliances. In that, they aim to detach the most serious figures of the country’s political elite from their financial flow, without which it is impossible to finance the presidential campaign of real candidates. The second general task of the Bouteflika clan is to maintain the position of power in Algeria after the death of the president (which can happen at any time). In doing so they need to destroy all possible political alliances between some of the most powerful members of the political elite and the Chief of the General Staff, Haid Salah whom the presidential clan once exalted to counterbalance the head Algerian special services to Medien. After the political fall of the latter, there was a potential danger for the clan from the new Chief of the General Staff, who started to be called the Algerian Al-Sisi.
Maneuvers to elevate certain political figures at the expense of others, to prevent the creation of alliances between them, as well as to diversify financial flows in order to neutralize the ability of politicians to concentrate them in their hands, is the main task of the presidential clan. More precisely – Said Bouteflika. Many experts believe that he will not be able to keep the clan’s monopoly on power when his elder brother passes since he does not have any serious politicians that are loyal to him and which would be capable of ensuring his succession of power and his popularity among the population and the general establishment. All current members of the business and the military elite, after the death of A. Bouteflika, will consider the issue of neutralizing positions of power of Said and his entourage. Only then the struggle between them can begin.
Will Paris and Washington try to intervene in the struggle for power in Algeria? Of course they will, like they always do. The question is if they have any chances of influencing the processes currently underway in Algeria? Not the slightest. Just like in Egypt, Iran or China. All that they can do is watch and try to establish contacts with the winning party. While any Algerian clan or alliance that takes the presidency, will be wary of any external power, which tries to exert any pressure.
The history of Algeria does not provide any opportunities to the Western players. Especially given the current events unfolding in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt during the “Arab Spring”, which alarmed the Algerian military elites. This also applies to Turkey as well as the monarchies of the Gulf, with which Algeria attempts to have balanced relations, deriving maximum benefit from direct competition of Ankara, Doha, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, whose gains in traditionally close to Algeria governments (a prime example of which is Uganda), also alarms Algeria’s special forces and military circles.
Evgeny Santovsky, President of the Middle East Institute