Regional Intelligence Reports to 17th December 2014
GCC Meeting overview
The 35th Ministerial and Heads of State meeting of the GCC was held in Doha on December 9. Regional security issues, as ever, featured high on the agenda with the summit focusing primarily on the threat from the Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups, Iran’s growing influence, Houthi expansion in Yemen, the situation in Libya and relations with Egypt. Much of the bickering between member states has been put aside and there was a concerted effort to show unity with the announcement that a regional police and naval element was to be created.
Despite the Houthis advance slowing, fighting continues in Ibb, Marib and Arhab, between the Houthis and a variety of local tribes. A brief cease fire in Arhab is negotiated but fighting soon resumes. Southern separatists appear to support al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with offers of weapons and fighters (particularly hardline Islamists), as they see AQAP acting as buffer against the Houthi advance.
With the Houthis continuing to pursue unilateral objectives, it is not surprising that local stakeholders, including the Southern Movement are supporting AQAP, and this has led to the Houthis’ advance stalling outside of the capital. Nevertheless this slowdown in their strategic advance has increased the Houthis’ grip on Yemen politics as they grow more insistent on being merged into the state institutions, such as the army, intelligence and security forces.
Many tribes are uneasy with this state of affairs as they see the Houthis as being backed by Iran. There is continuing evidence that Iran is sending arms shipments and military experts into Yemen.
32 individuals with links to Fetullah Gulen were arrested on December 14, marking a new milestone in the war between the AKP and the Gulenists.
Fetullah Gulen is a US-based Islamic cleric with a vast network of supporters in Turkey. He is the spiritual leader of the Hizmet movement, and was formerly an ally of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In recent years Gulen become an archenemy of the Turkish government and is widely believed to have driven the December 2013 corruption scandal against the government; the most significant threat to the government’s authority in a decade.
Internationally, relations between Turkey and Western Powers are at their worst levels in years, reflected by proCRussia policies, antiCWestern statements, regular waves of arrests and a heavyChanded domestic security agenda which are often labeled as human rights violations by Western civil society movements. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed
EU criticisms by saying “Whether they take us in or not, we don’t care at all”.
That said, Turkey remains an important ally to the West due to its geostrategic location and political, economic and military prowess, and therefore military and technical cooperation is unlikely to be greatly affected by recent political developments. On the other hand, Turkey’s diplomatic leverage will be affected negatively as a result of the continued deterioration in relations with the West, not to mention its fraught relations with regional powers.
The al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra faction further consolidated its near-total control of the Idlib province countryside with the capture of significant military bases in Wadi al-Deif and Hamidiyah. Meanwhile, non-jihadist rebel groups in the area have reportedly found their military and financial aid from the United States severed as Washington redirects resources to fighters in the southern Deraa province.
Extremist Islamic State (IS) militants continued their efforts to overrun a regime’ held air base in Deir al-Zor province, with an IS suicide bomber detonating a tank outside the facility Friday. The base is one of the last parts of the eastern border province not to have fallen to IS.
The combination of al’Nusra’s expanding and strengthening hold over Idlib province with the severance of US aid to moderate rebels in the area marks another milestone in a now lengthy series of strategic setbacks for Western policymakers. It is also arguably another example of how such setbacks can be self-inflicted: with their funding and ammunition now dry, many of those 18,000 hitherto moderate rebels may well conclude they have little choice but to jump ship to well armed and well financed extremist groups such as al-Nusra or even IS.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to keep oil prices low puts a strain on relations between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states.
Whilst Saudi Arabia and the UAE can withstand a dip in their income levels, given that they are standing on vast quantities of cash reserves, the same cannot be said for some of the other GCC member states. Both Kuwait and Oman are especially vulnerable. Whilst the Kuwaiti authorities feel largely indebted to Saudi Arabia (for footing the bill for the first
Gulf War) and they are unlikely to voice too much opposition over low oil prices, Oman has no such moral obligation. As a consequence, Oman may not feel its interests are best served remaining a member of the GCC should Saudi Arabia continue to influence global oil markets to the extent that is currently happening.
The spectre of the devastating sectarian violence witnessed in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 loomed large this week as Islamic State (IS) forces closed in on the city of Samara, home to a shrine profoundly revered by Shiite Muslims, the bombing of which eight years ago by IS’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), triggered the worst carnage Iraq had seen since the Saddam Hussein era.
The city of Samara, 125km northwest of Baghdad, although predominantly inhabited by Sunni Muslims, is home to one of the most significant sites in Shiite Islam, the 10th century al-Askari Shrine, believed by most Shiites to be the burial place of the tenth and eleventh Shiite Imams as well as the site of the occultation of the twelfth Imam, al-Mahdi.
Having taken significant portions of the city of Tikrit, 60km north of Samara, IS is giving every sign of turning its attention now to the latter. Their likely goal is to strike the al-Askari Shrine once again, provoking new rounds of grave sectarian atrocities and population exchanges that would ultimately leave many Sunnis with nowhere else to turn for their security and livelihood but the ‘caliphate’.
Egypt’s Cabinet approves the electoral constituencies law, the final legal step necessary before the parliamentary vote which is expected mid next year.
President Sisi starts to focus on increasing support for a possible limited intervention in Libya in 2015 if the Islamists there continue to hold sway in large parts of the country.
Disclosure of the number of Pakistani nationals in Bahrain prompts widespread debate over the sensitive issue of citizenship and the religious make-up of the country.
The naturalization of foreign nationals in Bahrain is a contentious issue. Under national law, citizenship can be granted to non-Arab foreigners after having spent at least 20 years in the country and gaining proficiency in Arabic. But for al-Wefaq the main opposition movement, the government has accelerated the naturalization process to absorb the sectarian imbalance, and broaden its support base
Bahrain does not publish figures reflecting religious breakdown between Shiite and Sunnis, but the view among GCC sources is that the naturalization process has now given Sunnis a 53% majority. In time, the suggestion is that the government hopes to widen the demographic divide even further, resulting in a 60:40% religious breakdown in favour of the Sunnis.
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