Latest Middle East Regional Intelligence to 14 January 2015
These reports are a synopsis of more detailed reports produced by 5 Dimensions Consultants based in Dubai. For more detail, specific reports or studies, please contact us and we will advise you further.
General: Security Stepped Up across the Gulf
Bahrain and the UAE have subtly stepped up security arrangements in hotels, malls and government institutions in the past week. Both countries have already been on a heightened sense of alert due to their participation in the US-led airstrikes on Islamic State (IS) targets in Iraq and Syria, out of concern that they will face retaliatory attacks from IS sympathisers. But the recent security precautions have been taken in light of coordinated attacks in Paris last week, which targeted a satirical magazine and a kosher market and left 17 victims dead. Security sources in both countries affirmed that the move is cautionary, and not based on any information received that either country faced imminent danger of a terrorist attack.
There was a continuation of the civil unrest in Cizre following on from last week’s clashes between the Islamist Sunni conservative Free Cause Party (HUDA PAR) and the youth wing of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the YDG-H which left at least three people dead. The most recent incident took place on January 11 after YDG-H members were caught by the police performing ID checks at an illegal checkpoint. Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) presented
Turkey’s views on terror at the 7th Ambassador’s Conference. In the aftermath of the recent terrorism incidents in Paris, Hakan Fidan, the head of MIT presented a security assessment at the 7th Ambassadors Conference. The threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria was the main focus of the conference but Turkish observers noted that no word was mentioned on the ‘Kurdish problem’ or on the current campaign against the Gulenists who are often equalized with being terrorists in AKP rhetoric. Regarding Turkey’s position as a NATO ally, Fidan was keen to clarify that Turkey prioritized the fight against the Syrian regime over the IS. He linked the ‘radicalization’ of armed opposition groups to the lack of commitment by NATO allies to bringing down the Assad regime, as well as turning a blind eye to discriminatory practices against the Sunnis in Iraq. On Syria, he said ‘as nobody took care of the real problem, the margin of maneuver of the legitimate opposition was reduced. After that, radicalization started to come and that was not surprising.
Turkey brought it to attention many times but no one listened.’ Yasar Guler, the Deputy Chief of General Staff for the armed forces was next up to speak and he revealed that the Turkish armed forces had prevented 100,000 people from crossing the border into Syria, among which 7,000 were foreigners. He reiterated that Turkey was doing its best to perform efficient control of the Turkish-Syrian border and had been a reliable ally in the fight against terrorism. Needless to say, the revelation that Hayat Boumeddiene, the wife of Ahmed Couliblay who carried out the attack on the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Paris, escaped into Syria via Turkey, brings into question how effective Turkey’s managing of the border really is.
Tensions within the royal family are increasing as King Abdullah’s health continues to deteriorate. The tension is chiefly between major factions within the royal family who are competing to secure their preference for the future post of Crown Prince.
Saudi security forces have arrested at least 60 people since a January 5 terror attack on a border post between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which left three security officials dead (including a Brigadier General).
A sign of both the poor state of King Abdullah’s health as well as simmering tensions within the royal family is also evident from the fact that most of the senior members of the royal family (including ambassadors) have returned to the country.
In a predominantly tumultuous period, one positive development in terms of political stability has been the calm response from Crown Prince Salman. He has not sought to take on more power than he is entitled to, and his calmness is preventing any tensions from boiling to the surface.
For now, the key issue remains over the position of Crown Prince once Salman takes over as king. It is too soon to say whether he will stick with Migrin, who was appointed by King Abdullah as Deputy Crown Prince (the first time this position has been granted) last year, or whether he will appoint another front runner like Ahmed.
Senior Iraqi military officials are adamant that 2015 will mark a drastic turnaround in the fortunes of the army. Slow progress is being made to train up new recruits and increase logistical capacity as part of a $1.6bn US funded program aimed at doubling its frontline combat strength to over 90,000. There are also suggestions to bring back conscription to boost numbers and reduce the influence of Shiite militias. Given time, the hope is that the Iraqi army will play a key role in plans to evict the Islamic State (IS) from cities like Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit.
Having stemmed the IS onslaught somewhat, there is growing pressure in Baghdad to try and reverse many of the recent losses in the New Year. Tikrit will provide a crucial litmus test for the army if it is to play the main role in taking on the IS elsewhere. According to the government, plans to double the army’s size are reportedly well underway and morale is high. But in reality, there must be serious questions about how effective the Iraqi army can really be given the short space of time new recruits will have had for training.
Egypt’s electoral commission announced on January 8 the scheduling for forthcoming parliamentary elections, the final step in a transitional political map outlined by the military in July 2013 after President Mohammed Morsi was ousted. The first two stages are to take place on March 22/23, and the April 26/27 respectively. Should a runoff be required, the election process could extend into the beginning of May.
By holding parliamentary elections, the government hopes that they will deliver long-term political and economic stability after four years of turmoil. Doing so will help bring back crucial foreign investment that would support a return to fiscal strength which Egypt so desperately needs.
However, there is a caveat. The dates for the parliamentary elections could prove to serve as a sort of lightening rod, attracting all sorts of opposition groups irrespective of their political and ideological goals, to come together. Whilst it is much too early to get an idea of how things will pan out, a clear indication of how things stand at present will come on January 25, marking the four-year anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
Diplomatic relations between Bahrain and Lebanon have been lukewarm for some time, and recent comments by Hassan Nasrallah regarding the political situation in the gulf kingdom will have done little to alter that assertion.
In a televised speech on January 9, the Hezbollah leader denounced the arrest of Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of the main opposition group, al-Wefaq. Salman had been arrested by the Bahraini authorities after leading a protest against recent parliamentary elections (which his party had boycotted) and subsequently charged with a number of offences including inciting a change of government by force.
This is not the first diplomatic row that Bahrain has had with Lebanon over Hezbollah and it certainly will not be the last. Nasrallah has repeatedly made comments criticizing the Bahrain authorities over its treatment of the opposition who are predominantly Shiite. In turn, the authorities have frequently accused Nasrallah of unnecessary interference in Bahrain’s domestic affairs, insinuating that he serves as nothing more than a proxy for Iran.
The tiny gulf kingdom remains after all, a focal point where the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is being played out. As such the decision by the Bahrain authorities to summon the Lebanese diplomat should also be seen as a firm rebuke by the Saudis directed at Tehran. Needless to say, the situation in some of the villages surrounding Manama remains tense following Sheikh Salman’s arrest and we would expect a continuation in clashes between the police and anti-government protestors.
A suspected al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) suicide bomber drove a minibus into a gathering of police recruits in the center of Yemen’s capital on January 7. At least 37 people were killed and dozens injured in the attack, the deadliest to take place there since October 9 2014 when an al-Qaeda bomber blew him-self up at a Houthi gathering.
President Hadi remains in a very difficult position. His inability to resist political, military, intelligence and economic interference by the Houthis, and the subsequent loss of support from regional allies (particularly in the Gulf) raises serious questions about the longevity of the current government.