Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
It is no secret that the new American administration did not inherit the best situation in the Middle East. The policies of ex-President Obama were confusing and inconsistent.
The declared goals and means used in their realisation were badly correlated between them. Attempts to transform Iran the enemy into a partner did not bring Washington any particular dividends, but quarrelled the USA with traditional allies.
The declared objective of the war on terrorism by the USA poorly planned the support of Islamist radicals across the Middle East, whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood, the State Department’s favourites, placing them in the Arab Spring with the write-offs of military regimes and authoritarian leaders, or ultra-conservative groups of the Al-Qaeda type, used to carry out Saudi Arabia and Qatar policies.
It looks as if the Trump administration has no thought-out strategy for the Middle East; neither do the analysts. However they try, at a minimum, not to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. It also means that they will make their own mistakes. Thus, a marked intensification of the American military and the support at key points on their own strength are traditional for Republicans. Still, many decisions had to be made quickly, changing in mid stride the usual working format of the Pentagon and the CIA, where the emphasis was not so much on results as on demonstrating to the leadership for the sake of outright PR to the presidential administration for the next election campaign. We will keep silent on the squandering of budget funds. Their allocation to the support programme of “moderate opposition” in Syria became an illustration of why American policies in the region are a disaster.
National experts in connection with the intensification of Russia’s military-political activity in the region, firstly in Syria, analyse not only American politicians, their NATO allies and regional partners, fighting between each other for Washington’s attention for the role of the main American ally, but the dominant trends in analytical developments prepared for the White House by the expert community of the USA as well. The changes in the American policies, meanwhile, are noticeable not only on such traditional Middle Eastern footholds such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the Persian Gulf and Turkey but on distance peripheries of the region, in the Sahel. We will look into some aspects, based on materials from the Middle East Institute from A.A. Bystrov, P.P. Rybov and Y.B. Scheglovin.
The Pluses and Minuses of the New Strategy
In Syria, differences between Turkey and the USA are growing on the “Kurdish issue”. Ankara insists on the participation of its troops in the liberation of Raqqa and considers the Kurds as terrorists from the Forces of the Democratic Syria (FDS), leading the fighting against IS. The USA are relocating the Marines, Special Forces and howitzers. And after the Kurds appealed to Russia, asking to block with the Syrian government forces a number of areas the progress of pro-Turkish groups towards the town of Manbij. The delay of the operation in Raqqa it tied with Washington’s reluctance to send there the Turkish army. It was explained to Ankara during the talks of the military chiefs of Russia, USA and Turkey in Antalya. The Americans are not going to refuse the participation of the Kurds in the composition of the FDS during the assault on Raqqa, although they reassure Ankara that Raqqa itself will be stormed by the Arab component of the FDS with active support of American Marines. The main reason for the delay of the assault on Raqqa is the deficit of air support, since the aviation of the coalition is currently active in Mosul.
It is characteristic that the USA plans to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan in accordance with the new strategy in the Middle East. This was announced by General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) on March 8 at the hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The new Pentagon strategy, which Trump approved, is the question of deciding for confrontation with radical groups in reference to US security points at the expense of their own forces. The new President of the USA does not trust long-running combinations. The Pentagon continues training local forces, but this policy was a fiasco. The plus of the new strategy is the speed of deciding the tasks on the destruction of main jihadi forces; the minus is the country’s engagement in guerrilla warfare. Thus the main conflicts are not resolved because of contradictions of the local elites and activities of external sponsors.
It is curious that according to the American military analysts’ report on activity prospects of Al-Qaeda in Syria, groups opposing Assad, affiliated with this organisation (banned in Russia), is the most effective military force, opposing Damascus, which allows them to absorb small opposition bands. Thus grow the numbers of those not happy with Jabat al-Nursa’s influence, which in September 2016 renamed itself into Jabhat al Fatah ash-Sham (banned in Russia as well). American analysts associate the new alliance with Al-Qaeda and believe that after the destruction of the Islamic State (IS, banned in Russia) the USA and its allies will direct its main military efforts against it. The question of how will this be combined with the US policy of reanimating the regional strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia (KSA) as the main sponsor of Jabhat al Fatah ash-Sham, is not asked by the Americans. Aside from the Islamists, Riyadh does not have tools to strengthen their influence in the region.
In contrast from what American analysts claim, IS from the moment of its creation in Syria at a minimum was not inferior to Jabhat al Fatah ash-Sham on military potential, and is some cases surpassed it. It is enough to see the zones of influence in Syria to ascertain: IS held under control two large territories in key points near the border with Turkey, where the main logistics corridors were concentrated for material and technical help, as well as on the river Euphrates, through which the main channels of goods and oil contraband flowed. Even now IS zones of influence are larger than Jabhat al Fatah ash-Sham. The reason is a clear programme of the administration-government system (more precisely, economic autonomy), which IS proposed to the Syrian Sunnis. Jabhat al Fatah ash-Sham always focused on the fight against Iran and the overthrow of Assad. The KSA did not bother in working out schemes of governing and administrative structures, but simple bought the loyalties of the populations.
The success of the Islamist expansion in Syria consists of two factors. First, the reluctance of the Obama administration to allocate resources in the formation of the “secular opposition”, that Ankara never proposed to make, basing on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which at the beginning of the civil war consisted of Sunnis, deserters from the army. This brought on the Islamisation of the opposition movement under the aegis of the Saudis, who connected to its support those offended by the American and Turkish neglect. Second, any expansion costs money. The backbone of Jabhat al Fatah ash-Sham is 70 percent foreigners, who do not fight for free. The recipe of the fight against radicals is simple: actions against their sponsors, and these are the KSA and in the case of IS, Qatar. The weak point of all reports from the American expert community in relations with Islamic terrorism is the departure from the emphasis on the role of foreign sponsors of the terrorist groups.
The Americans consider such feature tactics of Jabhat al Fatah ash-Sham as a public compromise of hostile rebel organisations (especially those related to the US), and then their isolation or absorption. They predict clashes of Jabhat al Fatah ash-Sham with other large players of the armed opposition in Syria, which will increase as IS’s influence decreases, in first order the pro-Turkish Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. Essentially, the minimisation of the Saudi influence in Northern Syria will depend on the extent to which assurances of the Turkish president of the commitment of the fight against Jabhat al Fatah ash-Sham will come to life. Idlib became the base of Jabhat al Fatah ash-Sham, which makes the province the main goal for Russia and her allies. The destruction of this group in Idlib is essential to decrease its influence in Syria.
Compromises and Compromising Evidences
The crisis in the relations between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh and the “legal” Yemeni president A.M. Hadi is growing. The culmination of the conflict were the events in February when groups of President Nasser’s son tried to take under their control the Aden airport, faced resistance from not only the pro-Emirati militia Security Belt guarding the terminal, but with the UAE Air Force as well. Abu Dhabi unlike Riyadh demonstrated its direct participation in the conflict. Its essence is in the monopolisation of the Emirates main channels of smuggling and arms depots in the country through the South Yemeni logistics routes: the ports in Aden, Mokha, Hadramawt and the Aden airport. This removes from the game A.M. Hadi and groups of the Islamist party Islah with at its head the vice-president Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. The UAE took under their control the arms supplies channels (mainly from Ukraine) for lowering to a minimum their capacity to influence on the situation in the country, removing them from important financial flows. The reason for this is the reluctance of Abu Dhabi for a renaissance of Yemeni forces, as a main part of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
The Saudi interference and involving the US in mediation through their diplomats in Abu Dhabi did not change the UAE’s position (Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan). Attempts by the KSA and the representatives of the “legitimate authorities” of Yemen to discuss a compromise on the problems such as joint protection of the airport in Aden were rejected. There is a crisis in the Saudi-Emirati relations so far in relation to the Yemeni situation. From the KSA steps were taken in the process of “reconciliation” by King Salman and his son, the Minister of Defence and heir to the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. They sent first to Abu Dhabi for negotiations the commander of the Special Forces of the KSA Fahd bin Turki al-Saud, then A.M. Hadi himself. But the negotiations fell apart, although King Salman sent to the Crown Prince of the UAE a message in which he expressed “hope, that the present incident will be settled before his departure for his Asian tour at the end of February”.
At the time of the meeting in Abu Dhabi on February 27, where in addition to the Crown Prince, the curator of UAE intelligence was present as well as the assistant head of the Supreme National Security Council Ali bin Hamad al Shamsi, in addition to the charges in support of Hadi by the proponents of the Muslim Brotherhood from the Islah party, evidence was presented that at least 14 higher functionaries of Islah are associating with Al-Qaidi in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The facts, obtained by the Special Forces of the UAE, were so convincing that Hadi promised to quickly talk to the Secretary General of the Islah party Mohammed al-Ademi on the urgent exclusion of these persons from the party and to distancing from them. In response to the Hadi offer to organise joint protection of the Aden airport with the participation of units under the command of his son Nasser, the president of Yemen presented materials, according to which it is Nasser that organised South of Abyan (patrimonial estate of the Hadi clan) training camps, where fighters and emissaries of the AQAP are deployed, groups actively involved in activities under his control.
In the UAE, it is known that AQAP is the main threat to the USA in the Arabian Peninsula, and precisely for the elimination of this structure they operate in Yemen. Washington evaluates any Yemeni president firstly on his readiness to fight AQAP. Abu Dhabi compromised not only A.M. Hadi in Washington’s eyes, but his Saudi curators as well. UAE does not welcome the desire of the new American administration to give the strategic regional cooperation to the KSA and demonstrates with evidence in hand (the American diplomat attended the negotiations, reporting to Washington on the results), that the decision could lead to unpredictable results. The good move and the precise impact on the sore spots of the American foreign policy in the field of security, will certainly not remain without consequences in multiple combinations to establish the dominance of one or another monarchy of the Gulf in Yemen, as well as in the struggle for the strengthening of the position in the USA itself.
Missionaries Against Partisans
The main American efforts are directed towards the fight against IS and Al-Qaeda because of the historical reasons for the opposition with these groups. At the same time different Islamist formations of North Africa remain on the periphery of attention of the press and politicians, although they present an important threat for the countries where they operate. It is first and foremost about the Somali Al-Shabab and Boko Haram, active in Nigeria and neighbouring countries of the Sahara and Sahel. Currently the active confrontation with Boko Haram grows, which, according to experts, is linked with the control programme, developed by the US national intelligence, according to the December 14, 2016 bill, initiated by the Senator from Maine S. Collins. The Special Forces were presented with the task of assessing the shortcomings involved by the US forces and equipment, first of all intelligence, opposing terrorists. The USA once again started to work on strengthening the intelligence potential of countries, and the main part of the work in North Africa, with agents, is entrusted to the British.
Under pressure from the American partners, London decided to intensify its efforts in the NATO framework to conduct joint activities in relation to Boko Haram in Nigeria. Until then the main activity of Great Britain was concentrated on the prevention of the spread of influence of this group at the limits of North Nigeria. Under this diplomatic working hides the advisory services and training support staff of the Special Forces and Army of the governments, where terrorists operate. Starting in 2014, the British trained about 22,000 Nigerian troops, the majority of which passed the training on counterinsurgency warfare. As it is assumed, British and Canadian Special Forces will participate directly in raids by the Nigerian military, and will coordinate the work of drones for the collection of intelligence. Usually these activities of the Special Forces mean the preliminary stages to the use of attack aircraft.
MI-6 is bound to strengthen the exchange of intelligence with French and American colleagues. London is ready to allocate five million Sterling pounds on equipment and maintenance of the multi-national forces of African nations, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF), with contingents of soldiers from Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria. It does not address the issue of coordination between the command of these forces, because the government of Nigeria does not want to see on its soil Chadians, with whom, in the past more than once they had conflicts. President Idriss Deby last year withdrew troops from the border with Nigeria and concentrated them in the Lake Chad area (where the major transnational trade and smuggling routes and channels are, as well as logistics to terrorist Boko Haram) and in the capital of the country N’Djamena, which was caused by the unrest of the opposition. In the lake region there are two large camps for the refugees from Nigeria, which are the rear bases of the terrorists.
The main reasons for the withdrawal of Chadian troops, weakening the front of confrontation with Boko Haram supporters and the control of their movements across the borders in the depths of Nigeria, were financial reasons. Paris had incurred the wrath of the Chadian leader because of massive delays in payments in the maintenance of the military contingent. Since the majority of Chadian military, former members of the Darfour rebel Movement for Justice and Equality (MJE), the question of payment of their contract is very sharp. The MJE are mercenaries for money, fighting for anyone, from M. Kaddafi to authorities of South Sudan. Experts believe that a significant portion of the sum allocated by the British government will go towards their payment.
Note that London will no longer in accordance with the division of responsibilities between NATO partners engage in aerial and signals intelligence with drones for these goals. This mission fully lies on the shoulders of the Americans, who deployed in Nigeria close to 200 military Rangers and a few drones. It is expected that in the near future the USA will strengthen the stationary system of telephone conversations interception and Internet traffic. That is, the Americans take the sphere of military-technical and intelligence activities, where they are traditionally strong. Fortunately, these areas require the availability of appropriate logistical capacity, which in large part is weaker in Washington’s partners. This was fully demonstrated in the operation “Serval”, where France did not succeed with the initial set of objectives in the fight against terrorist in the Sahara and Sahel.
In addition to these areas of cooperation with local governments, London took upon itself the financing of projects, not only in the sphere of security, but in the social sphere as well. In particular, the British Department for International Development (DfID) allocated 80 million pounds on the support of social and infrastructure projects in North Nigeria, in addition to the 90 million, which were spent on similar goals since 2014. The British Special Forces in Nigeria actively work under the cover of such projects. The social sphere gives a good possibility to recruit informers in all sectors of society. Which in its time was in Russia during her military activities in Northern Caucasus…
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute