IN ENGLISH

Greece’s new Regional Strategy, Aris Marghelis

Aris Marghelis is Research fellow at the Centre for Maritime and Oceanic Law (Centre de Droit Maritime et Océanique), University of Nantes – Translation from French by Angus Clarke

The major developments in Turkey’s regional politics from the end of 2019 have had the effect of shaking up Greece and turning 2020 into an exceptional year as regards its foreign policy. Apart from new maritime delimitations, Greece has above all looked to develop synergies, including those with the Middle East’s military powers, through which it might counter Turkish designs in the eastern Mediterranean where Greece is the first target, along with Cyprus. It is also looking to modernise its air force and navy. Several unknown factors nonetheless raise doubts about this new strategy, notably the evolution of the Cypriot question, the consequences of Joe Biden’s agenda, the Russian factor and the situation in Libya.

From the moment when Turkey ‘crossed the Rubicon’ by signing a delimitation agreement on 27 November 2019[1] that infringed upon Greek maritime rights, Athens moved ahead swiftly with two delimitations of its own, one with Italy in June 2020[2]and one with Egypt the following August[3], aiming to counter the Turkish-Libyan accord. In October 2020, Greece came to an agreement with Albania, one of Turkey’s strategic partners, that the settlement of their maritime borders should be left to international arbitration. Finally, in January 2021 it extended its territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to 12 nautical miles, reiterating its discretionary right to do the same along the whole of its coastline if need be, knowing that an extension beyond 6 nautical miles in the Aegean Sea would be a casus belli[4] for Turkey. So many measures coming after decades of a status quo.

THE TRADITIONAL VECTORS OF FOREIGN POLICY HAVE PROVED TO BE INSUFFICIENT

Faced with the danger of a military escalation with Turkey in 2020, Greece took cognisance of both its need, which is undeniable, but also of the limits of its links with the European Union and NATO. The EU remains Greece’s principal asset but is hampered by its internal divisions on foreign policy. States like Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Malta have shown themselves to be very reluctant to adopt a firm approach towards Turkey. On the other hand, France, Austria and even Slovenia are championing a robust attitude combined with substantial support for Greece and Cyprus.

For its part, concerned to preserve its cohesion, NATO has remained true to its traditional equidistance between Greece and Turkey. This is a position that Greece has taken badly; considering itself to the be the wronged party and then to be treated equally with its aggressor is, from the Greek point of view, simply playing the aggressor’s game. It is not by chance that Turkey greatly prefers to work within a NATO context to that of the EU and that it has increased pressure on allies and structures within the alliance, conferring a ‘quasi political commissionaires’ role [5] on its diplomats working in these areas. The setting up of the ‘deconfliction mechanism’ right at the heart of the Atlantic Alliance is in fact quite typical of the way in which the NATO-Greece-Turkey trio works. After it was announced at the start of September 2020 by Secretary General Stoltenberg and the Turkish government, Greece immediately made it understood that the only way to lower the tension was to remove the cause, demanding that the Turkish seismic research ship Oruç Reis and its escort leave the Greek continental shelf. It was quite unacceptable for the Greek authorities to accept any ‘lowering of the tension’ under NATO’s aegis without the prior departure of this flotilla. The deconfliction mechanism was finally set up in October once the Turkish ships had returned to port, and Greece has ensured that it is limited to strictly operational concerns with no impact on political matters.

Athens has therefore taken note of the inherent limitations of these two structures which are in any case interconnected, and this has led it to create alternatives to check Turkey’s aggressive policy: military and diplomatic partnerships that are both bilateral and regional and that are combined with a significant rearmament programme.

NEW MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC PARTNERSHIPS

FRANCE

Leaving the United States to one side, of all Greece’s European partners France is without doubt the most important and the most powerful as far as Athens is concerned. It demonstrated unfailing support during the crisis of 2020 which undoubtedly made the difference in the way in which the crisis evolved and in its outcome. Beyond the increase in joint military exercises[6], Athens and Paris have also increased their cooperation where arms supplies are concerned, as will be discussed later. This valuable support, linked to traditional relationships between the two countries, is clearly not unconnected with Turkey’s policies in North Africa and the Sahel which have led France to give her support to Greece and Egypt in the eastern Mediterranean, to act both as regional outposts and a means of readjusting the balance of power. 

THE GULF STATES

After several years of apparent disinterest vis à vis the Arab world, Greece seems to be operating an energetic return to the Arabo-Muslim states. It has concluded a number of cooperation agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE)[7], and also a strategic partnership that includes a mutual defence agreement[8] signed on 18 November 2020, a first for Greece outside NATO. Theoretically this would mean that in the case of any aggression it could count on the support of the sizable Emirati air force. As a sign of the new dynamic of military cooperation between the two countries, four Emirati F-16s were stationed in Crete throughout August, right in the middle of the crisis with Turkey In addition, this partnership could prove very beneficial to the Greek air force in the long term given the similar equipment used by both air forces, which both want to acquire the F-35 stealth multi-role combat aircraft, and which already have the modernised F-16.

As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, relations are more discreet but are developing on the back of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This affects the space sector[9] but above all the military. Graeco-Saudi air exercises are to take place in the next few weeks in the Mediterranean[10]. At the Americans’ request an agreement on the deployment of Greek Patriot missiles is about to be signed, aimed at protecting the Saudi oil producing infrastructure that has regularly been targeted since 2019. In return Riyadh will update the missile systems at its own expense. Greece pointedly comments however that these are defensive weapons and that it has no desire to be associated with any active support for the war in Yemen[11].

On the other hand, this opening of the door to the Gulf, eased by the recent normalisation of relations between Israel and several Arab states under the preceding US administration, seems to have been done at the expense of Greek-Iranian relationships that had been cordial for a long time[12]. In fact the pro-Greek lobby in Washington seems to have moved closer to those favourable to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UEA, all of them hostile to Tehran.

THE LEVANT

Close to the Arab world until 1990 (when Athens officially recognised Israel), Greece strengthened its links with Tel Aviv from 2010 within a context of deteriorating Turkish Israeli relations. Greek Israeli cooperation, which involves Cyprus in the majority of its planning, rests on the double dimension of energy and the military. With regards to energy, the three states are planning to install the longest undersea electric cable in the world (1200 km/750 miles), aiming to link Israel with Europe in order to ensure the Hebrew state’s supply in case of emergency[13]. But their flagship project is of course the East Med gas pipeline[14]. Nevertheless, the regional architecture it would involve and above all its technical feasibility and profitability, raise doubts as to any real chance of its fulfilment. Until work on the project has truly started nothing is certain and it appears to be more of a geopolitical tool. As well as the question of energy, Greece has just announced that it will open its doors to Israeli tourists in spite of the Covid pandemic[15]. On the military level, the cooperation between Greece and Israel which started in the 2010s[16], is now seeing an upturn and is concentrated on joint training, intelligence sharing and cybersecurity[17]. Israel offers Greece and Cyprus an east-west axis to complement the north-south axis established with Egypt, thus allowing coverage of the eastern Mediterranean. For their part these two European states provide Israel with a direct connection to Europe as well as training areas and a regional strategic depth which has been lacking particularly since the ‘loss’ of Turkey, a valued military partner of previous years[18]. What is more, the regional policy of the previous US administration made it clear that it is now possible to develop links with the Hebrew state without automatically damaging relations with the Arab world, while at the same time curbing the Turkish strategy of creating a Sunni alliance against Israel. The Palestinian Authority and Israel even took part in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, established in February 2020, and which in September became a regional intergovernmental organisation with its headquarters in Cairo[19].

With Egypt, Greece has developed deeper strategic relations since President al-Sisi came to power in 2013 and has intensified military cooperation, a cooperation that regularly involves France and the UAE[20]. This has been all the more so because the al-Sisi regime, with very close ties to Riyadh and Abu-Dhabi, is on very bad terms with Ankara with regards to Libyan and Turkish support for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Despite everything Egypt remains cautious and does not wish to antagonise Turkey any more than necessary, taking for example a neutral stance on the subject of maritime delimitations east of the 28th meridian, where Greece is claiming maritime zones around the Kastellorizo archipelago, a claim that is fervently denied by Turkey. An agreement by Egypt of a maritime boundary delimitation agreement with Greece east of the 28th meridian would be a resounding taking of sides against Turkey, but without benefitting any of Egypt’s vital interests.

Egypt undeniably remains the key state for Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, for its decisions determine any number of developments; it is quite clear that the regional situation would have been radically different and in any event much more complicated for Greece had the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in Egypt.

A SUSTAINABLE STRATEGY?

Greece’s new regional strategy has developed in response to Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy, even if its elements had been in embryo for several years. To be able to counter Turkey’s ambitions in the long-term, Greece has to provide a consistency to its synergies by promoting a credible and federal regional architecture. This rests on three principal axes: economic, diplomatic and military.

Economically, apart from the issue of gas, one of the great challenges is to ensure control of the connective corridors between the Middle East and North Africa on the one hand, and Europe on the other, but above all to be the junction that connects the Middle East and North Africa to the rest of Europe. From this there emerges a certain rivalry between on the one hand Italy and Malta, who because of their preferential economic, commercial and political relations with Turkey hope to manage the latter’s presence in the eastern Mediterranean in order to maintain their network of trans-Mediterranean connections[21], and on the other hand Greece[22] and Egypt, supported by France. In this context the Chinese factor is decisive. Piraeus, now controlled by the shipping giant COSCO, became the Mediterranean’s premier port for container shipping in 2019 (ahead of Valencia)[23]. In combination with Greece’s inclusion by China in its policy of cooperation with the countries of central and eastern Europe in 2019[24], this all reinforces Greece’s regional strategy of attracting maritime trade flows. In this respect cooperation with Egypt, which controls the Suez Canal[25], but also with Saudi Arabia which borders the Red Sea, is clearly essential. As regards this new strategy Greece cannot neglect the Chinese factor, even though Beijing’s ability to pressure Athens must not be overestimated because the American authorities maintain several important bases in Greece and keep a close eye on any new Chinese infrastructure in the Aegean.

On the diplomatic level the Greek foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, has taken on the very complex task of establishing, from North Africa to the Middle East, a group of states favourable to the regional architecture Greece seeks to promote while at the same time denouncing Turkish expansionism. The recent ‘Philia’ forum (meaning ‘friendship in Greek)[26], which brought together Cyprus, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrein and France (but not Italy) characterises Greece’s efforts to operate as the junction between the Gulf and the Mediterranean and to position itself as the entry point to Europe in a way that will more effectively counter Turkey’s aggressive strategy of occupying the eastern Mediterranean space. Beyond all this, Athens’ decision to re-establish a representative office in Damascus[27], to open an embassy in Senegal and to argue for an increase in European presence – including Greek – in the Sahel[28] demonstrates that Greece has clearly understood that the eastern Mediterranean, Sahelian and Middle Eastern questions are interconnected.

Militarily, Greece is spending more on defence than at any time in its history, with the air force being the main beneficiary. France will supply 18 Rafale multirole fighters to Greece at a cost of 2.8 billion euros, the first of which are expected in summer 2021. Greece has also come to an agreement with the United States for the upgrading of 84 F-16 fighters and the purchase of seven MH-60R helicopters, a decisive acquisition for its military capacities in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. Besides this, Athens has submitted an official purchase request for 18 to 24 F-35 stealth multirole combat aircraft. Finally, it has reached an agreement with Israel to hire Heron drones, as well as establishing an international fighter pilot training centre at a cost of 1.4 billion euros over a period of 20 years, accompanied by the sale and modernisation of training aircraft. The centre will be situated at Kalamata in the south-west of the Peloponnese and will be run by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. These new measures should significantly increase the deterrent value of the Royal Hellenic Air Force, whose pilots have a very impressive reputation[29], whereas their Turkish opposite numbers have been notoriously under-trained since the purges that affected the Turkish air force. Significant spending has been made on the navy too, with Greece looking to acquire four frigates. Despite needing to balance relations with the US, hugely influential within the top levels of the Greek military, the Franco Greek Belharra project appears to be favourite.  With a cost of 5 billion euros, the French proposition fulfils all the criteria set by Greece: the modernisation of the four frigates that the Royal Hellenic Navy currently has,  the acquisition of two modernised frigates as an interim solution and the  construction of two of the four new frigates in Greek shipyards. These ‘Frigates for Defence and Intervention’ (4,500 t) are of a general-purpose type: anti-submarine and anti-aircraft. The Dutch and the British are also submitting bids[30]. As for the army, the Hellenic Vehicle Industry (ELVO), which has been struggling for a long time, has been bought over by a consortium of Israeli companies and over the next few years will be renewing the army’s transport fleet and other vehicles. On top of this Greece has decided to extend the period of compulsory military service to 12 months again, after it fell to 9 months in 2009, but introducing at the same time the opportunity of a shorter – and therefore more attractive – national service if the whole period is spent in a border area, thus ensuring the supply of personnel to those units deployed there. In addition, an extra 15,000 soldiers will be recruited over the next three years. These initiatives are taking place after more than ten years of underinvestment and within the context of an aging cadre of regular personnel and aging equipment. There is no doubt that these changes have been accelerated by the very militarised nature of Turkey’s regional policy, even if they were in any case already necessary.

THE UNKNOWN FACTORS

THE CYPRIOT QUESTION

2021 could mark a turning point for Cyprus. Turkey has made it clear[31] that it now rejects the UN solution for the Cypriot question – that of a bizonal, bi-communal federation – in favour of a two-state solution. This constitutes an important change in Turkish claims and is a form of pressure that is clearly not unrelated to regional developments. In this respect an informal meeting that has been arranged for April 2021 in Geneva between Greece, the UK and Turkey, as guarantor powers, along with the Republic of Cyprus and representatives of the Turkish Cypriot community, could turn out to be crucial for the future of not just the island, but also the region and the apportioning of maritime boundaries. Greece’s aim remains the maintenance of the UN structure that was put in place to resolve this conflict dating back nearly 50 years. 

JOE BIDEN’S POLICY

If Donald Trump was regularly portrayed as being too compliant vis à vis the Turkish president, it was nonetheless under his administration that Greek American relations flourished. The American military presence on Greek soil reached new levels[32] and for the first time the US adopted an attitude that deviated from their strict policy of even handedness between Greece and Turkey. Thus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Cyprus without meeting the Turkish Cypriot leader (a first) and while there he signed a series of agreements relating to security[33], including – to Ankara’s great displeasure – raising the US embargo on non-lethal defence articles and services. Pompeo also visited the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch in Turkey but without meeting any Turkish officials. If this was seen in Greece as a clear demonstration of US support, the development of cooperation with Athens and Nicosia is aimed above all at punishing Ankara for its too close relationship with Moscow, while also loosening Cyprus’ traditional links with the Kremlin. The background to this relative American volte face is of course Russia; as proof, the only sanctions taken by Washington against Ankara at the present moment concern Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles and have nothing to do with Turkish behaviour in the eastern Mediterranean. Besides, the vocabulary used by US officials is careful not to close the door on Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, as the recent joint naval exercise between the nuclear aircraft-carrier USS Eisenhower and the Turkish frigate Gemlik, at the beginning of March 2021 bears witness; even if the US ambassador in Athens underlined the excellent nature of the US-Greek military exercises that had taken place just a few days before, declaring that “Defence relationships between the United States and Greece have reached a historic high point and they continue to grow stronger each day”[34].

In this context, Joe Biden’s arrival could change the situation. Indeed two of Greece’s close partners have suddenly found themselves in the White House’s sights on account of human rights: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. While on the other hand Turkey has not yet been seriously concerned. The Turkish president has been careful to take the initiative in order to reduce the risk of this happening[35], in the knowledge that several members of the Senate and of Congress have asked Joe Biden to take up the question of human rights in Turkey. But it looks as if any severity with regards to President Erdogan will above all have to do with Russo-Turkish relations. It’s worth noting that the vision of the eastern Mediterranean[36] shared by the new head of the European department of Joe Biden’s National Security Council, Amanda Sloat, coincides remarkably well with that of the Turks. The United States are presented as being a much more legitimate body to intervene than the EU, whose necessarily biased approach would remove any credibility in resolving the Greek-Turkish conflict. That corresponds perfectly with Turkey’s vision and its desire to disengage Greece from the EU. Turkey also wants to be associated ‘without conditions’ – a term very dear to Ankara – with regional energy synergies, without however the slightest reference to international law, the very precondition in question. At the end of the day, it is Turkey’s agenda that has become the definition of the ‘Greek-Turkish disagreement’, (territorial waters, air space, sovereignty of islets, maritime areas) whereas the Greek position remains that the only real disagreement lies in the delimitation of maritime areas, everything else constituting unilateral and illegitimate Turkish claims that are non-negotiable because they are subject to Greek jurisdiction.

RUSSIA

Having played a crucial role in the creation of the modern Greek state, but also that of the Turkish Republic a century earlier, Russia is in a certain manner an unavoidable element in the Greek-Turkish equation. It is not by chance that the development of Russo-Turkish relations took place in parallel to that of Greek American relations, removing it should be noted, any possibility of friendly dialogue between Athens and Moscow. Historical relations between the two states reached their lowest point in 2018[37], when Greece and its neighbour to the north, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, settled the disagreement over the name of the small Balkan republic that had brought them into conflict since 1992, in order that the latter could join NATO, to Moscow’s displeasure. But despite everything, since summer 2019 and the election of the current Greek government, contact appears to have been re-established which is not unconnected to the growing dissensions between Russia and Turkey. On the other hand, any prospects of a long-lasting and profitable partnership are not realistic. As things stand, the degree of cooperation between Greece and the US, and the leanings of the Biden administration, can only allow a return to cordial relations between Athens and Moscow at best. Nevertheless, a new factor in the eastern Mediterranean could readjust Russian policy in the region, something Athens will follow closely especially as far as Libya is concerned, currently seen as the barometer of regional tensions and which is now part of the Greek-Turkish equation. 

LIBYA

Appalled by the Turkish-Libyan agreement, but lacking influence on developments in Libya, Greece urgently tried to put together a basic policy on Libya by cutting contact with al-Sarraj’s Tripoli based government and increasing its contacts with the military and civil authorities in Cyrenaica. However, the new government set up in Tripoli in February 2021 has been recognised by the fiercest competitors on Libyan soil (Turkey on one hand, the UAE and Egypt on the other), which appears to indicate the start of a process of reallocation of influence. In this context Greece immediately decided to reopen its embassy in Tripoli and to establish a consulate in Benghazi. Greece has no wish to lose Libya from sight again after the shock of the Turkish-Libyan accord that abruptly brought the country into the Greek-Turkish equation and reminded Athens of the geographical realities of its regional environment (Crete is equidistant from Tobruk and Piraeus).

* * *

In conclusion, this recent flurry of expansionist Turkish regional policies, combined with Donald Trump’s policies, has had a catalysing effect: that of shaking Greek-Turkish relations out of their traditional bilateral structure – arbitrated by a US careful to maintain NATO’s cohesion at all costs – and of pushing them into a wider regional framework, one that needs a radically different approach, namely new diplomatic and military partnerships. In this arrangement Greece has several assets. If Turkey retains undeniable advantages such as the importance of its market and an important regional status, Greece, like Cyprus, is a member of the EU. This membership increases its diplomatic weight, its capacity for action and its appeal in a region without any other European countries. On top of that it has a savoir-faire and a solid presence in the maritime world, essential in its strategy to use space, and which increase its global credibility. Finally, its relatively small size compared to Turkey is not necessarily a disadvantage: it eliminates any suspicion of an undercover agenda of local hegemony which could otherwise lead to distrust amongst its partners.  

On the other hand, Greece has genuine challenges to confront. Quite apart from the special case that is Syria, it and Cyprus alone are threatened by Turkey in their territorial substance and the exercise of their sovereign rights, and this constitutes a fundamental difference between them and their European and regional partners. Therefore, a normalisation, even relatively minor, of Turkey’s relations with other countries in the region could lead to an undoing of the partnerships that Greece has struggled to establish, to a ‘re-bilateralisation’ of Greek-Turkish relations and a new isolation of Greece.

It is therefore essential that Greece cultivates its appeal as a partner, while at the same time promoting its regional plan independent of the Turkish factor, in order that this new strategy can survive a possible and long-term change in Turkey’s attitude. This is a tricky gamble, especially in light of European divisions and uncertainty as to the new regional picture, which will in fine be that of the new Biden administration. 


[1] Full text of Turkey-Libya maritime agreement revealed”, The Nordic Monitor, 5 December 2019 (https://nordicmonitor.com/2019/12/the-full-text-of-turkey-libya-maritime-agreement-revealed/).

[2] Aris Marghelis: “The maritime delimitation agreement between Greece and Italy of 9 June 2020: An analysis in the light of International Law, national interest and regional politics”, Marine Policy, vol. 126, April 2021

[3] Aris Marghelis : « Le mémorandum d’accord entre la Turquie et le gouvernement d’entente national libyen et l’accord de délimitation entre la Grèce et l’Égypte dans leur contexte régional », Annuaire de Droit Maritime et Océanique (ADMO), to be published.

[4] “Turkey says Greece’s decision to extend its territorial waters in the Aegean is cause of war”, Hurriyet Daily News, 30 August 2020 (https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-says-greeces-decision-to-extend-its-territorial-waters-in-aegean-is-cause-of-war-157805).

[5] Interview with Pierre Razoux, expert on NATO structures, 15 March 2021.

[6] “Greece, France ‘hold joint drills’ amid tensions with Turkey”, China Daily, 13 August 2020 (https://www.chinadailyasia.com/article/139944) ; “France joins military exercises in east Mediterranean”, Reuters, 26 August 2020 (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-greece-france-idUSKBN25M0UF) ; « Skyros: la grande tournée des Rafale », L’Opinion, 8 February 2021 (https://www.lopinion.fr/blog/secret-defense/skyros-grande-tournee-rafale-235949)

[7] “Greece & UAE sign four memoranda”, Greek City Times, 24 July 2020 (https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/07/24/greece-uae-sign-four-memoranda/).

[8] “Greece, UAE commit to mutual defense assistance”, Kathimerini, 23 November 2020 (https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/259450/greece-uae-commit-to-mutual-defense-assistance/).

[9] “Saudi Arabia Signs MoU with Greece in the Field of Space”, Saudi Press Agency, 5 February 2020 (https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=2030738).

[10] “Saudi and Greek air forces begin joint exercise in Greece”, Arab News, 18 March 2021 (https://www.arabnews.com/node/1826716/saudi-arabia).

[11] “Greek FM to discuss military ties with Saudi Arabia”, Saudi Press Agency, 20 February 2021 (https://www.arabnews.com/node/1812761/saudi-arabia).

[12] “Iran threatens retaliation against Greece for US use of military bases”, The Jerusalem Post, 15 January 2020 (https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iran-threatens-retaliation-against-Greece-for-US-use-of-military-bases-614185).

[13] “Israel inks deal to link electricity grid with Cyprus, Greece via undersea cable”, The Times of Israel, 8 March 2021 (https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-inks-deal-to-link-electricity-grid-with-cyprus-greece-via-undersea-cable/?utm_source=The+Daily+Edition&utm_campaign=daily-edition-2021-03-08&utm_medium=email).

[14] “Greece, Israel, Cyprus sign deal for EastMed gas pipeline”, Israel Hayom, 3 January 2020 (https://www.israelhayom.com/2020/01/03/greece-israel-cyprus-sign-deal-for-eastmed-gas-pipeline/)

[15] “Greece might allow in Israeli tourists as early as April”, The Jerusalem Post, 10 March 2021 (https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/greece-might-allow-in-israeli-tourists-as-early-as-april-661575).

[16] “Turkey Out – Greece In. As Turkey rattles its saber at Israel, the Jewish state signs a security deal with its neighbor, Greece”, Israel national News, 4 September 2011 (https://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/147529).

[17] “Israel, Greece sign status of forces agreement”, The Jerusalem Post, 19 July 2015 (https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Israel-Greece-sign-status-of-forces-agreement-409492) ; “Israel, Greece and Cyprus agree to boost defense cooperation”, The Times of Israel, 13 November 2020 (https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-greece-and-cyprus-agree-to-boost-defense-cooperation/) ; “Israel pivotal in Greece’s defense plans”, Kathimerini, 15 February 2021 (https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/262372/israel-pivotal-in-greeces-defense-plans/) ; “Israel leads naval drill with Greece, Cyprus as countries deepen ties”, The Times of Israel, 12 March 2021 (https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-leads-naval-drill-with-greece-cyprus-as-countries-deepen-ties/?utm_source=The+Daily+Edition&utm_campaign=daily-edition-2021-03-12&utm_medium=email).

[18] “Israeli Air Force Trains in Turkey”, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 16 April 1996 (https://www.jta.org/1996/04/16/archive/israeli-air-force-trains-in-turkey ) ; Michael Eisenstadt: “Turkish-Israeli Military Cooperation: An Assessment”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 24 July 1997 (https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/turkish-israeli-military-cooperation-assessment ).

[19] “Signing the EMGF Statute to become a Regional Intergovernmental Organization”, Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, Arab Republic of Egypt, 22 September 2020 (https://www.petroleum.gov.eg/en/media-center/news/news-pages/Pages/mop_22092020_01.aspx).

[20] “Egyptian, Greek naval forces conduct joint drills”, State Information Service, Arab Republic of Egypt, 29 January 2021 (https://www.sis.gov.eg/Story/154008/Egyptian,-Greek-naval-forces-conduct-joint-drills/?lang=en-us  ; « Méditerranée orientale : Fin d’exercice MEDUSA-10 pour l’Aconit », Ministère des Armées, 10 December 2020 (https://www.defense.gouv.fr/actualites/international/mediterranee-orientale-fin-d-exercice-medusa-10-pour-l-aconit).

[21] Michaël Tanchum, “Italy and Turkey’s Europe-to-Africa Commercial Corridor: Rome and Ankara’s Geopolitical Symbiosis Is Creating a New Mediterranean Strategic Paradigm”, Austria Institut für Europa und Sicherheitspolitik (AIES), 10/2020 (https://www.aies.at/download/2020/AIES-Fokus-2020-10.pdf).

[22] Michaël Tanchum, “Greece’s Rise as a Trans-Mediterranean Power: Greece’s Eastern Mediterranean strategic shift to Europe-to-Africa and Europe-to-Middle East connectivity”, Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), 56/2021 (https://www.eliamep.gr/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Policy-paper-56-Tanchum-final.pdf).

[23] « Le Pirée a pris la tête en Méditerranée en 2019 », Le Journal de la Marine Marchande, 26 May 2020 (https://www.journalmarinemarchande.eu/actualite/portuaire/le-piree-a-pris-la-tete-en-mediterranee-en-2019).

[24] “Xi Jinping welcomes Greece to join China-CEEC cooperation”, China Global Television Network (CGTN), 5 November 2019 (https://news.cgtn.com/news/2019-11-04/President-Xi-meets-with-Greek-PM-Mitsotakis-LlMofUYGk0/index.html).

[25] “Egypt, Greece sign MoU to cooperate in maritime transport”, Egypt Today, 4 February 2021 (https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/3/97236/Egypt-Greece-sign-MoU-to-cooperate-in-maritime-transport).

[26] “Philia Forum a ‘bridge’ between Europe, Mideast: Greek official”, Arab News, 19 February 2021 (https://www.arabnews.com/node/1811096/middle-east).

[27] Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcement on the appointment of a Special Envoy for Syria”, Ministère grec des Affaires étrangères, 5 May 2020 (https://www.mfa.gr/en/current-affairs/statements-speeches/ministry-of-foreign-affairs-announcement-on-the-appointment-of-special-envoy-for-syria.html).

[28] “Written statement of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Dendias, following the videoconference of the first Ministerial Meeting of the International Coalition for the Sahel (12 June 2020)”, Greek foreign office (https://www.mfa.gr/en/current-affairs/statements-speeches/written-statement-of-the-minister-of-foreign-affairs-nikos-dendias-following-the-videoconference-of-the-first-ministerial-meeting-of-the-international-coalition-for-the-sahel-12-june-2020.html).

[29] As was underlined by Pierre Razoux who was recently able to interview several French and American pilots who had been training with their Greek counterparts in the last few months.

[30] For details of all the proposals: “The frigate candidates for the Hellenic Navy’s new frigate program”, Navales Analyses, 8 March 2021 (https://www.navalanalyses.com/2021/03/infographics-46-frigate-candidates-for.html?fbclid=IwAR3Wzd_6cJmZzX3pm_bDHrODVsR6i5xBFWlpBOdoDCtCcmU6-rKJlQqO67o).

[31] « Erdogan: “Il n’y a plus d’issue à Cyprus, sauf pour la solution à deux états. Que vous l’acceptiez ou pas.” », Agence Anadolu, 10 February 2021 (https://www.aa.com.tr/fr/turquie/erdogan-il-ny-a-plus-dissue-%C3%A0-Cyprus-sauf-pour-la-solution-%C3%A0-deux-%C3%A9tats-que-vous-lacceptiez-ou-pas-/2139991).

[32] “Greece ratifies major military expansion with US”, Greek City Times, 31 January 2020 (https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/01/31/greece-ratifies-major-military-expansion-with-us/).

[33] “Secretary Michael R. Pompeo At the Cyprus Center for Land, Open-seas, and Port Security Memorandum of Understanding Signing Ceremony”, US embassy in Cyprus, 12 September 2020 (https://cy.usembassy.gov/secretary-michael-r-pompeo-at-the-cyprus-center-for-land-open-seas-and-port-security-memorandum-of-understanding-signing-ceremony/).

[34] Laurent Lagneau, « Le porte-avions Eisenhower fait le service minimum lors d’un exercice avec la marine turque », blog Zone militaire Opex 360, 20 March 2021.

[35] “’New human rights plan for the people’: Turkish leader”, Anadolu Agency, 2 March 2021 (https://www.aa.com.tr/en/politics/new-human-rights-plan-for-the-people-turkish-leader/2162111).

[36] “Stronger Together: A Strategy to Revitalize Transatlantic Power”, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, December 2020 (https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/stronger-together-strategy-revitalize-transatlantic-power).

[37] “Greece ‘orders expulsion of two Russian diplomats’”, BBC, 11 July 2018 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-44792714).

Sudan, Russia’s new gateway to Africa and the Indian Ocean – Arnaud Peyronnet

Russia, which wants to play a leading role in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, is looking to provide itself with a long-term base for its forces deployed in both Africa and the Indian Ocean. This new base would allow it to compete with those other maritime powers, whether regional or global, that are already present in this area of high tension. It fits in perfectly with Russia’s new ambitions vis à vis its southern arc, as already evidenced in the Mediterranean since 2015, in order to compete as much with western superiority as with Chinese desires. Seen from the Sudanese side, it could be a manoeuvre aimed at restarting a dialogue with the new US administration. 

40 % of the world’s shipping passes through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea, including 4 million barrels of oil a day[1]. This maritime corridor, where there were already acts of piracy in the 2010s, is now the scene of continuous incidents linked to the conflict in Yemen. In November and December 2020, several merchant ships moored near Saudi ports in the Red Sea were the victims of suspicious explosions[2]. In January 2018 the political leader of the Houthis threatened to cut maritime traffic in the Red Sea in order to force the Arab Coalition to lift its blockade of Yemeni ports. Already under tension, this region is now seeing more and more significant local and international naval involvement. The countries of the Arab Coalition are present (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates), while the Asiatic powers of China and Japan patrol there regularly and several countries, such as the United States and France, have bases there while others (like Turkey and Ethiopia) are trying to establish them. This region is therefore the arena for a renewed and complex interplay of regional and international powers. Within this context Russia, which also wants to play a leading role in the region, announced in November 2020 its intention to open a naval base in Sudan in order to provide itself a new base for its armed forces in both Africa and the Indian Ocean.  

There is no doubt that the Mediterranean played a role as an important incubator in this quest for the projection of Russian naval power into the Middle East and the Indian Ocean, consequently making this Russian bound towards the warmer seas of the Indian Ocean easier. In fact the eastern Mediterranean presented the Russian navy the chance, particularly with regard to the United States, to display its operational abilities and has allowed it to station itself in the Mediterranean on a permanent basis, from Libya to Syria via Egypt. This Russian plan to install itself in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, although it may go back a long way, now represents yet another disruption[3] for the region and reflects Moscow’s geopolitical interests in Africa and the Middle East.

What were the conditions that led to a Russian project of this kind in the Red Sea? What are Moscow’s ambitions for this part of the world? Is it conceivable that the local powers will exploit these Russian intentions? 

The Mediterranean, incubator of the projection of Russian naval power into the Middle East 

The prolonged crisis in Syria and Russia’s vital support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, led Moscow to conduct a ground and aerial intervention in the country in 2015. This has been accompanied by an increasingly significant naval presence. Originally planned to escort the Russian seaborne logistics bridge to Syria[4], the projection of Russian power has gradually grown to become a permanent fixture in the landscape of the eastern Mediterranean. This theatre has given the Russian navy the chance to display its operational and technical capabilities. Syria has become a veritable testing ground for Russian abilities to strike land targets from naval platforms (notably through the use of Kalibr missiles)[5]. The deployment of the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov to the coast of Syria at the end of 2016 was an additional sign. Beyond that, Russia has managed to set in place a strategy of area denial – as in the Black Sea – which has manifested itself through the quasi-permanent presence of a Russian naval task force off the Syrian coast, the deployment of a Bastion-P coastal defence system in Syria (range: 350 km), but also a capacity to strike ground targets up to 450 km away, accompanied by the renovation of advanced Syrian detection systems. Since the Russian Duma’s ratification on 21 December 2017 of a governmental agreement between Damascus and Moscow, Russian warships now have a 49 year access to the port of Tartus. The port will be modernised to accommodate up to 11 Russian warships, including aircraft carriers and nuclear propelled vessels. Russia has finally managed to close off, sometimes for several days, air and sea zones off the coast of Syria on the pretext of naval exercises, deterring other countries from free and unconditional access to these air/sea zones bordering Syria[6].

At first restricted to the Syrian coast up to 2018, this naval force has gradually moved away from its original coastline to extend progressively along the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. Naval exercises are more regular, and can also be very large, such as the one held in September 2018 that involved 25 warships simultaneously. In October 2020 the Russian navy began to escort Iranian oil tankers heading to Syria as soon as they entered the Mediterranean after leaving the Suez Canal[7], thus signalling to the US its preparedness to prevent any western action[8] against the oil traffic between Iran and Syria particularly in what has now become a priority zone for the Russian navy.  

This force projection has consequently allowed Moscow to increase its influence on several countries in the region. Russia first of all prioritised a return to Libya through its support of Field Marshal Haftar’s[9] LNA (Libyan National Army). One of Moscow’s objectives seems to have been the creation, unsuccessful so far, of a new naval base in Libya, no doubt in Tobruk, in order to then develop a strategy of access denial adapting the model developed in Syria to local conditions. Moscow has also increased its naval pressure on Turkey, a logical consequence of the frictions already observed whether in Syria, Lebanon or in the Caucasus. Thus, in September 2020 Russian navy ran two naval exercises to the south-west of Cyprus, in areas frequently used by Turkish naval forces to escort their research ships. In the same manner Moscow has made approaches to Egypt, another of Ankara’s regional rivals, organising a joint exercise between the Russian and Egyptian navies[10],  in the Black Sea in November 2020, and by doing so illustrating the reality of Russo-Turkish frictions. 

A base in the Red Sea: an old Russian project

On 11 November 2020, the Russian government submitted to President Vladimir Putin a proposal for a bilateral agreement with Khartoum aiming to establish a naval base in Sudan. On 17 November the Russian president approved the agreement, opening the way for the establishment of a logistics base for Russian naval forces on the shores of the Red Sea. This agreement provides for the creation of a logistics base and naval repair facilities[11] able to house 300 personnel and accommodate a maximum of 4 warships, including nuclear propelled vessels. The Sudanese government seems to have agreed to supply the necessary port infrastructure for 25 years (and renewable for a further 10 years) free of charge in Port Sudan. The agreement would also allow Russia to import and export through Sudanese ports and airports the arms, munitions and equipment necessary for the functioning of the base and the supply of the warships berthed there. If the security of this base is to be provided by Sudanese forces on land, it is Russia that will ensure it for the maritime approaches and for air defence. In addition, the agreement would allow for Russian military support for Sudanese forces in rescue at sea, sub-sea engineering and air defence of this zone. For this to happen a dedicated protocol is supposed to allow for Russian provision of arms, men and equipment to help the Sudanese armed forces[12]. The Kremlin ought therefore to have everything it requires to establish an A2/AD bubble in the Red Sea that would enable it now and again to cut – or to monitor for the rest of the time – all western shipping and communications (sub-sea cables) along this strategic maritime corridor.  

However, the project of a base in the Red Sea is an old one, and Russia has been seeking a return to the Indian Ocean for a long time.  There was a Soviet military base in Berbera (Somalia) between 1964 and 1977, and in 1978, a Russian naval base was created in the Dahlak Archipelago (on Nokra Island), then belonging Ethiopia, that remained operational until 1990. The USSR also had facilities in Yemen, Aden and Socotra, bases that served at the time to support the Soviet 8th Squadron deployed in the Indian Ocean. Over the last few years the Russians have been trying to install a base in Djibouti, then in Somalia, but these efforts have ended in failure as much through the fickleness of the local governments[13] as through the pressure no doubt applied by the United States on the countries concerned. Now, Sudan was already a country with which Russia had important ties and where the support of the private security company Wagner had already come to the help of President al-Bashir in the spring of 2019. 

Negotiations around the creation of this base are assumed to have started in November 2017 during a visit to Moscow by the Sudanese president. If the project has suffered delays through the deposition of al-Bashir, it has not, however, been buried. Russo-Sudanese cooperation has even accelerated with the creation of a Russian military mission in the heart of the Sudanese Ministry of Defence, along with the signing of several technical-military agreements[14]  Thus, as with the delivery of Mig-29 warplanes to Sudan in 2008, via Belarus, Russia has supplied Sudan with various kinds of arms and munitions types through third countries, in exchange for which Khartoum committed to deploying Janjaweed militia in Libya alongside Field Marshal Haftar’s troops[15].

The symbol of a Russian desire to project power into the Indian Ocean and Africa 

According to some Russian commentators the opening of this base signifies “Russia’s return to the world’s oceans”, “avoiding long transit voyages for the ships of the North and Baltic Fleets”[16].  In fact, Russian presence along one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world allows Russia to promote itself as a naval world power, on the same level as the other naval powers that already have access to the region[17]. This setting up of a base in Sudan is a signal in particular to Turkey, which under al-Bashir’s regime multiplied its attempts to establish bases in the region. At the end of 2017 the Sudanese authorities did in the end cede the management of the Island of Suakin to Turkey[18] for 99 years in exchange for promises of investment and military cooperation, which gave rise to great concern in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The change of regime in Sudan in 2019 and Khartoum’s rapprochement with Egypt and the UAE has made these Turkish projects much more difficult[19], and has in consequence made these Russian announcements all the more painful for Ankara.

Once operational, the Russian base in Port Sudan will serve to support Russian naval ships deployed in the Indian Ocean, and also not excluding support for private Russian security services that could see a new field of operations opening up in the Red Sea combatting the piracy that is still present in the region. The Russian presence would also allow Moscow’s oil interests in the region to be defended[20] and allow it to keep a closer eye on the conflict in Yemen that opposes Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moscow could also try to assert itself, in the long run, as a mediator in the conflict and develop its presence in this country which is a veritable observation window on the Bab el Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden. Such a base would also allow Russian warships to escort Iranian oil tankers around the Arabian Peninsula as it has done since last October in the Mediterranean, further reinforcing Moscow’s regional role[21]. Finally, to complement the port infrastructure, the Russian press has spoken of the installation of intelligence capabilities, potentially jamming and electronic warfare systems, not to mention the anti-aircraft defence systems already talked about. This allows us to predict the possible creation of a Russian access denial bubble in the Red Sea which would be problematic for the frequent transits of western warships in the region.  

The Russian facility in Sudan also constitutes a gateway in for its influence in Africa, with Port Sudan serving as a shopwindow for Russo-African military cooperation.  In this way, and providing Russia offers its help to Sudan in creating coastal defence assets, it can’t be excluded that this model would be emulated in the region. Russian naval shipyards are capable of offering fast patrol boats and launches to regional customers at lower prices than their western competitors, thus securing a very real clientele on the shores of East Africa. 

This new naval base is above all another sign of Russia’s renewed interest in Africa. Moscow has in fact multiplied its investments in East Africa (Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Sudan, in particular through the groups Rosneft and Rosatom) and organised its first Africa-dedicated summit in October 2020. Russia also represents almost half of the total arms exports to Africa[22], in particular to Egypt and Sudan. The increase in Russian intervention in the Central African Republican since autumn 2020[23], supporting the government in place through the private military contractors of Wagner, is also testament to Russian ambitions in the region[24]. In fact, Russia sees in Africa a key partner in its vision of a multipolar world order, less western, centred around the local regional powers and with which it could challenge growing Chinese influence. The creation of this Russian base in Sudan, more than 5 years after the one in Tartus in the Mediterranean, therefore constitutes a new stage in Russian ambitions, prior to a future presence of the Russian navy in other zones nearer to the Arabian Gulf (possibly Iran or Pakistan) or the Mozambique Channel, two exceptionally strategically important international routes for the world’s shipping. 

A message from local governments for the United States to reengage?  

Setting up a Russian naval base like this in Sudan ought nonetheless to prove more difficult than in Syria. Given the distance from Russia, the delivery of the necessary materials (anti-aircraft defence systems, infrastructure) will be long and complicated, certainly requiring the use of the bases in Tartus and Khmeimim (in Syria) as intermediate logistics hubs. Beyond that the state of the on-site infrastructure, in particular the electricity network, make the construction of a modern naval base problematic, especially when it comes to berthing nuclear powered warships. In point of fact, the opening of such a base will not see the light of day before long months, or indeed years, have passed which leaves a question of doubt about the real feasibility of this enterprise. A playing off of Russo-Turkish and Russo-American competition by local powers and above all Khartoum is therefore perfectly conceivable. Indeed, the political game of the Sudanese which for a time favoured the Turks’ offers now prefers Moscow’s. Sudan may have chosen the Russian option in order to allow for, in the first place, a convenient eviction of Turkey, conforming to the wishes of the Saudis and the UAE, and secondly to foster its rapprochement with the United States (by playing on America’s perception of a new Russian threat in the Middle East). Sudan recently normalised relations with Israel, in line with the Trump administration’s wishes, and for doing this it has been removed from the US’s list of states supporting terrorism, thus opening the country to western investment. The plan to create a Russian naval base on the Red Sea, a vital corridor for US naval forces, cannot have gone unnoticed and was therefore perhaps also aimed at provoking a strong reaction from Washington, or indeed a renewed commitment by the United States to security in the Red Sea.  

If the construction of a Russian naval base in Port Sudan is a long-term project, it is however probable that the Russian navy will take advantage of the dynamism of Moscow and Khartoum’s political rapprochement to increase the frequency of its deployments in the Indian Ocean, whether along the coast of East Africa, or close to the Arabian Gulf as the last Russo-Sino-Iranian exercise in the Arabian Sea showed.  The regular or indeed permanent (in the longer term) presence of the Russian navy in the Indian Ocean will complicate still further the plans of the western navies already concerned by a persistent Chinese presence.  The new era of serious competition between the great powers in the Indian Ocean seems to have well and truly started and the new US administration will have to take account of that in its future strategic choices. 


[1] Les Echos, 17 November 2020.

[2] Tanker Agrari, 25 November 2020 near the Saudi port of Al Shuqaiq; tanker BW Rhine, 13 December 2020 at Jeddah.

[3] As with the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015.

[4] Logistical resupply of its own troops and Syrian forces using maritime transport (“Syrian Express”), using both warships and hired merchant shipping.

[5] Frigates, corvettes and submarines (especially those based in the Black Sea and deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean) carried out the first operational tests of these missiles in 2016, and then more regularly since 2017 in support of ground operations. New missile launches were carried out in November 2020.

[6] Some of these reserved zones have even extended as far as the north of Israel for the largest exercises, such as the one in September 2018.

[7] USNI 21/10/2020. This type of escort arrangement occurred again in December 2020.

[8] In 2019 an Iranian tanker suspected of trafficking Iranian oil to Syria was seized and then impounded for a while in Gibraltar. The affaire prompted Iranian reprisals in the Arabian Gulf. In July 2020 the US administration also seized 4 tankers loaded with Iranian oil, this time sailing towards Venezuela.

[9] FM Haftar was welcomed on board the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov off the coast of Libya in January large 2017.

[10] Previous exercises of this kind, called “Friendship Bridge”, have normally taken place off the coast of Egypt.

[11] Or “technical and equipment support facility”, the standard nomenclature used for Russian naval bases abroad. 

[12] A Petrushka class patrol vessel was sold to Sudan by Russia in October 2020 (Defense web, 12 November 2020).

[13] Between 2012 and 2014, negotiations were held between Moscow and Djibouti on the subject, but the local government only consented to a fraction of what the Russians were wanting, and at a prohibitive cost (1 billion dollars, 5 times more than the base in Port Sudan ought to have cost).

[14] Al-Monitor, 17 November 2020. An agreement on Russo-Sudanese cooperation was signed in May 2019.

[15] Ibidem.

[16] Dmitry Litovkin for TASS taken up by Defense News, 13 November 2020.

[17] As is the case for France, the United States, China and Japan in Djibouti; and in Assab, Berbera Périm and Socotra for the United Arab Emirates.

[18] By the beginning of the 20th century the island was already an outpost for the Ottoman Empire. 

[19] The Turkish Foreign Ministry has announced that negotiations are continuing with the government about this maritime project concerned with “essentially tourist plans” – Al-Monitor, 19 November 2020.

[20] The Sudanese Ministry of Energy did sign contracts in 2018 with Russian companies for the modernisation of a refinery in Port Sudan – Al Monitor, 17 November 2020.

[21] The Russian navy has also taken part in exercise Maritime Safety Belt with Iranian naval forces in the Gulf of Oman in mid-February 2021. A similar naval exercise had already been carried out off the Iranian port of Chah-Bahar in December 2019, with the presence of Chinese warships already.

[22] Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) quoted by Deutsche Welle, 30 June 2020.

[23] The first Russian mercenaries appeared in the country in 2018.

[24] “To assist Bangui in strengthening the capabilities of the Central African Republic, Russia responded swiftly to the CAR government’s request and sent an extra 300 instructors to train the national army” as announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry; in Opex360, 23 December 2020.

Russia-Algeria : a flexible and pragmatic partnership – by Adlene Mohammedi

Adlene Mohammedi, strategic research officer for AESMA and author of a thesis on the Arab politics of post-Soviet Russia

On September 29, 2020, a few days before the visit of the then U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, the director of the Russian federal service of technical-military cooperation visited Algiers. Dimitri Shugaev was received by the Chief of Staff of the Algerian Army, Said Shengriha, and together they discussed the state of military cooperation between both countries. If military cooperation is central to relations between Moscow and Algiers, while economic relations are developing quite discreetly, the two countries share common priorities and representations.

Vladimir Putin slowed down a little to take an interest in the Middle East and North Africa after he was elected as President of the Russian Federation in 2000. His first term (2000-2004) was more focused on the United States and Europe, and he only began his diplomatic campaign in the Arab world during his second term (2004-2008). He went to Algiers in March 2006, and was replaced by his ephemeral successor, Dmitri Medvedev, who visited the Algerian capital in October 2010. Even before Russian diplomatic efforts towards the Arab world from the second half of the decade 2000, Abdelaziz Bouteflika – then the new Algerian President – went to Moscow to sign a declaration of strategic partnership and an agreement between both Ministries of Defence in 2001.

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Algiers in 2006 is even more significant as it takes place some thirty years after the last visit of a Soviet leader[1]. The origins of Russian-Algerian relations stem from the Soviet era, even if the Soviet Union first showed caution in the aftermath of Algerian independence in 1962. Nikita Khrushchev is said to have declared to the first president of independent Algeria Ahmed Ben Bella: “We cannot support two Cuba; you have a good partner, General de Gaulle, keep him!”[2]. A decade later, President Houari Boumediene (who succeeded Ben Bella following the 1965 coup d’état) hosted the 4th summit of the conference of non-aligned countries in Algiers (5 September 1973), while maintaining good relations with Moscow.

These good relations are notably reflected in the delivery to Algeria of Russian military equipment in a context of tension between Algiers and Rabat. At the end of the 1970s, 90% of Algerian military equipment was of Russian origin[3]. Algerian-Soviet relations go beyond arms deliveries. Moscow contributes to the development of the mining sector in Algeria and opens its training centres and universities to young Algerian graduates – among other African and Arab graduates. Many executives, engineers and officers of the young Algerian republic benefit from Soviet training, which is accompanied by matrimonial (mixed marriages) and cultural (language learning) connections.

Today, while the opening of Soviet universities to Arab and African students continued until the fall of the USSR, traces of this influence – in competition with French and Anglo-Saxon influence – are becoming increasingly rare. Moreover, executives trained in the Soviet Union are rarely the best-off. If we take the example of the energy sector, and more precisely the oil giant Sonatrach founded in 1963, its presidency is regularly entrusted to engineers trained in the United States (Chakib Khelil, in particular). On the other hand, executives trained in the USSR are well represented in the army staff. The current Chief of Staff, Said Chengriha, was trained at the Russian academy in Voroshilov during the 1970s. His predecessor, Ahmed Gaïd Salah (who died at the end of 2019), the strongman of Algerian power after the first months of the popular uprising (Hirak) and architect of the ousting of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was also trained in the Soviet Union. Of all the centres of Algerian power, the army – which remains the first of them – appears to be the one where Russian influence lasts the longest. The young generation of generals is, however, less Russophile than the previous ones.

In order to grasp Russian-Algerian relations in their globality and complexity, beyond the myths about an unfailing alliance, it is necessary to look at three sectors (energy, economic and commercial, arms transfers) and two themes: common geopolitical representations and the Russian position regarding the Algerian popular uprising (Hirak).

Competition, tensions and cooperation in the energy sector

When it comes to oil, relations between Russia and Algeria are first and foremost relations between the Kremlin and OPEC. On this point, two contradictory representations coexist: on the one hand, a permanent arm wrestling, fuelled by a role attributed to OPEC in the fall of the USSR (strong production in the 1980s having favoured a fall in prices);; on the other, the spectre of Russia’s membership in this organisation. Moscow has participated in OPEC discussions since 1993 while affirming its independence; but the essential trust  needed for a genuine partnership is not always there. In 2001, divergences were already visible. First, OPEC was confronted with an expanding Russian oil sector, with important investments. As the increase in production and exports weakened prices, OPEC hardened its stance with non-member producing countries. Russia nevertheless ended up agreeing to a symbolic reduction in production. With the rising price of oil, the need for cooperation was lessened between 2003 and 2007. At the end of 2008, the idea of a possible Russian membership arose, at a time when the price per barrel had fallen. Even if the discourse may have seemed ambiguous as the idea of having quotas imposed has always been a major issue from  Moscow. Otherwise, OPEC considers that Russia’s falls in production are symbolic and that the organisation alone bears the burden of stabilizing prices. In 2009, faced with major budgetary problems, Russia announced a drop in production, justified by the situation of its oil industry rather than by coordination with OPEC. For Russia, as long as prices are considered “normal” (above $80 per barrel), dialogue and exchange of information is sufficient. Today, while world demand is being squeezed by the health crisis, the price per barrel is less than 50 dollars and the terms of tension between Russia and OPEC remain the same: OPEC is demanding Moscow’s collaboration to stabilize prices. Currently under Algerian presidency, OPEC is continuing its negotiations with Russia to further reduce  production in order to  keep prices stable[4].

As for gas, here again, the relations are ambiguous. Intuitively, the hypothesis of competition between Algiers and Moscow imposes itself: in a desire to escape an excessive dependence on Russia, European clients are tempted to encourage an increase of imports from Algeria. However, the hydrocarbons sector in Algeria is not doing very well, as is shown by the waltz of the presidents of Sonatrach (four in three years). Beyond the present context, between a domestic demand which is increasing and a production which remains limited, Algeria seems attracted by shale gas, including within the framework of partnerships with American companies. But with a socio-political context already marked by the distrust of the Algerian population, the exploitation of shale gas could exacerbate the current crisis. Anxious to multiply the explorations and exploit new deposits, the Algerian government has relaxed its legislation in order to attract foreign investors[5] – European, American, but also Russian actors. For example, on May 5, 2020, the Algerian national company Sonatrach signed a protocol of agreement  with the Russian company Lukoil[6]. Nothing specific has been planned for the moment.

Finally, in the field of civil nuclear power, relations are less ambiguous. Russia makes no secret of its intention to export its expertise in this field throughout the Arab world. In 2014, an Algerian-Russian agreement was signed. It provides for the assistance of the Russian agency Rosatom to the Algerian Ministry of Energy in the development of a civil nuclear industry in Algeria. In 2016, Rosatom and the Algerian Atomic Energy Commission (COMENA) signed a declaration of intent to build Russian-designed nuclear power plants in Algeria. This bilateral cooperation, which is set to develop, has also been discussed at the International Nuclear Energy Forum of Sochi in 2018. The construction of these plants is planned for 2025-2030.

A trade balance largely favourable to Russia

In order to encourage the development of commercial exchanges between Russia and the Arab world, an agreement in 2002 between the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – chaired at the time by Yevgeni Primakov[7] whose role is central here – and the General Union of Arab Chambers gave birth to the Russian-Arab Business Council. Since 2003, this Council has multiplied initiatives (sessions, forums, business trips) throughout the Arab world (from Mauritania to Oman), and Algeria is one of the privileged destinations.

On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of this Council (2018), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recalled his role in the development of trade (22 billion dollars in 2018), as well as Russia’s main trading partners in the Arab world: Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. While these figures are quite modest in comparison with Russia’s other trading partners (trade with the European Union is more than ten times higher), they are far from negligible in comparison with the 1990s. While Vladimir Putin reached power, trade between Russia and the Arab world was less than a billion dollars (whereas it was as high as $10 billion before the fall of the Soviet Union). From Russia, the results are therefore rather satisfactory, even more  as trade balances are often largely favourable to Moscow.

Regarding Algeria – which remains a very large importer of Russian armaments – trade with Russia is particularly unbalanced. By collecting some data from UN Comtrade (as reported by the Russian authorities in each case), we can see the extent of this imbalance by comparing the situation in Algeria with that of its two neighbours, Morocco and Tunisia. Beyond trade with Russia, these figures are revealing  the weakness of the Algerian economy and its extreme dependence on hydrocarbons.

In 2018, Russian exports to Algeria were more than 450 times greater than the imports of Algerian products by Russia. This number is far more impressive than for Tunisia (approximately 5 times more Russian exports) and Morocco (less than twice). Furthermore, still in 2018, Tunisian exports to Russia were 13 times higher than Algerian exports and Moroccan exports more than 50 times higher. Not only do Tunisia and Morocco succeed in exporting many more products from agriculture (especially fruit) than Algeria, but they also export some industrial products. For Russia, Algeria is above all a client. It is a very demanding customer for military equipment, but not only. Algeria is now preparing to import more and more Russian wheat to the detriment of French wheat[8].

Russian-Maghreb trade since Vladimir Putin came to power

UN Comtrade Database data reported by the Russian government.
In millions of dollars ($)

Algeria: a big customer on the armament market

Looking at data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), several comments must be made:

  • The world arms market remains dominated by Washington and Moscow – who export 57% of the arms – despite the French breakthrough between 2015 and 2019.
  • With the United Arab Emirates (18th largest exporter in the world), the Arab world has a fledgling military industry. This industry is above all turned towards the Arab world: Egypt (41% of Emirati exports) and Algeria (13%) are the main clients of Abu Dhabi.
  • The Arab world is over-represented among importing countries. Of the ten main arms importing countries, six are Arab, with Saudi Arabia in first place (12% of all imports in the world, versus 5.6% for the 2010-2014 period).

Algeria is the sixth largest importer in the world. It imports 4.2% of the arms on the world market (versus 2.6% for the 2010-2014 period). If the increase in Saudi imports is explained by the war in Yemen and the privileged relations with the Trump administration (the Saudis absorbed a quarter of American exports in the period 2015-2019), that of Algerian imports can be explained by an expressed desire to modernise the Algerian army in a context of regional tensions.

As mentioned above, Algeria is a valuable customer of the Russian military industry. After India (25% of Russian exports) and China (16%), Algeria is Moscow’s third largest customer (14%). Algeria alone buys around half of the Russian arms exported to the African continent. With 67% of Algerian imports, Russia is by far Algeria’s main supplier.

If Algiers is a historical client of Moscow, and has been since the Soviet period, Vladimir Putin’s visit to Algiers in 2006 marked a turning point. On this occasion, the Russian President announced the cancellation of the Algerian debt, i.e. 4.7 billion dollars. In the wake of this, Algeria undertook to spend 7.5 billion dollars on Russian arms[9]. According to specialised Russian media, between 2006 and 2018, Algeria would have spent more than 13.5 billion dollars on Russian arms. Between 2000 and 2019, Algeria has purchased around 200 aircraft[10] (from helicopters to fighter aircraft, including MiG-29s), 500 tanks, as well as anti-aircraft defence systems (from Pantsir to S-300s). In addition, the equipment delivered has been modernised, following the example of the Su-24 aircraft that were treated in Russia in April 2020.

The main arms exporters and their main customers for the period 2015-2019

Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
UAE : United Arab Emirates

Major arms importers and their main suppliers for the period 2015-2019

Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
UAE : United Arab Emirates

Despite this privileged relationship, it is difficult to speak of an alliance between Algiers and Moscow. At most, we can identify common priorities and reflexes. More precisely, it seems obvious that Russia and Algeria share the same attitude towards the geopolitical recompositions in the Middle East and North Africa.

Common representations

Confronted with the three geopolitical axes which have emerged in the Middle East (namely the counter-revolutionary axis led by Abu Dhabi, the Islamic-reformist axis led by Ankara and the axis of resistance led by Tehran), Russia and Algeria share the same flexibility. Russia, which assumes as a foreign policy doctrine the refusal of alliances and bloc logics has been able to take advantage of its military successes in Syria. After an exacerbation of tensions with Damascus’ main adversaries in the early years of the Syrian conflict (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar), who reproached it precisely for its decisive support to the Syrian government, Russia ended up appearing as an unavoidable partner.

It maintains excellent relations with the United Arab Emirates (one of Russia’s main economic partners in the Arab world), while maintaining a dialogue that has become almost systematic with Turkey (in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh[11]) and pursuing cooperation with Tehran and Damascus. Russia intends to multiply mediation[12] and maintain good relations with all the players while ensuring that no relationship is threatened by another: cooperate with Iran[13] while preserving links with Israel; dialogue with Turkey while safeguarding links with the Emirates.

At its level, Algeria follows the Russian example and tries to maintain good relations with almost everyone. Beyond the anti-imperialist propaganda (carefully maintained by a large part of the Algerian media), the Algerian government needs to compensate for its internal illegitimacy (the Algerian population has massively boycotted the last two elections, namely the presidential election of December 2019 and the referendum on the constitutional revision of November 2020) by a relative stability in its external relations. Where Russia considers that flexibility in foreign policy (the ability to dialogue with all the players) is an instrument of power and a vector of economic opportunities, the Algerian authorities see it simply as a protection mechanism.

Despite occasional tensions that are largely exaggerated, the Algerian government maintains good relations with Abu Dhabi. From an ideological point of view, the Algerian leaders represent everything that the Emirates support in the Arab world (especially in Egypt): military power against the instability that democracy would bring and against the terrorist threat[14]. On this precise point, Algiers, Moscow, and Abu Dhabi seem to be on the same wavelength. Moreover, Algeria is the second largest customer of the Emirati military industry, which is constantly looking for markets.

In Libya, Algeria has opted for a balanced position between the government of national unity and the army of Khalifa Haftar. In February 2020, the latter welcomed the head of Algerian diplomacy in Benghazi[15]. Four months later, President Fayez al-Sarraj was received in Algiers[16]. With its main sponsor, Turkey, the Algerian government maintains similar relationships to those between Russia and Turkey: it consider it as  an essential partner without necessarily supporting its adventurism and its military operations.

Finally, Algeria has maintained very good relations with Iran since 2000. Like Russia, it supports the Tehran-Damascus axis (by promoting, for example, a return of Syria to the Arab League) with a certain caution, because there is no question of it sacrificing good bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia.

Ultimately, Russia and Algeria share many common representations and biases: an emphasis on the hallowed stability (particularly through the importance given to the fight against terrorism), a preference for flexibility in diplomatic relations and a willingness to contribute – through mediation – to the resolution of conflicts. Moreover, despite its traditional support for the Polisario Front and its stormy relations with Rabat, the Algerian government favours prudence and restraint in its treatment of the current tensions in Western Sahara[17].

Russia facing Algerian Hirak : moderate support to the government

To conclude this synthesis on Russian-Algerian relations, a few additional words on Moscow’s position in the face of the Algerian popular uprising. Since February 2019, the Algerian government has been facing an unprecedented protest movement (Hirak). In the name of a short-sighted vision of stability (the excesses of Algerian power are bound to lead to instability), no external power has turned its back on the cryptocratic regime (a civil showcase and an elusive military power) that controls Algeria. Contrary to what has been seen elsewhere, no opponent of the Algerian regime has come forward to call for its downfall. On the contrary, it seems to have enjoyed widespread support and the notion of interference was only invoked by the demonstrators. The latter criticised Paris for its benevolence towards the Algerian authorities and recent statements by Emmanuel Macron (in support of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune) did not help matters[18].

Russia’s support for the Algerian leadership was also criticised by Hirak protesters. From the first months of the uprising, the then Algerian Foreign Minister, Ramtane Lamamra, undertook a diplomatic tour to reassure European partners, as well as Russia[19]. A few months later, it was the turn of Abdelkader Bensalah, acting president, to visit Moscow. His laborious speech to Vladimir Putin was perceived as a humiliation by some Algerians, as the Algerian leader gave the impression of being accountable to the Russian President[20].

The Russian leadership has in fact been limited to minimal support. By suggesting the re-election of a lifeless man (Abdelaziz Bouteflika), the Algerian authorities did not make it easy for their partners. The Russian leaders, like the others, could hardly apologise for a man who had been incapable of making a single speech for several years. And even after Bouteflika’s ouster, the Russians gave only discreet and moderate support to the Algerian government. Some statements by the French president and the head of French diplomacy seem much more benevolent towards the Algerian regime than those of their Russian counterparts. The official Russian television channel RT is moreover one of the foreign media which has covered the most demonstrations in Algeria. It was not invited by the Kremlin, but nothing was done to dissuade it from doing so.

For Moscow, the overbidding in favour of the Algerian regime was therefore useless. There are two reasons for this limited, though unquestionable, support. Firstly, because the Russians are sufficiently well informed to know that the Algerian Hirak isnot actively supported by any external power. Second, because they are certain of the dependence of the military structure – itself preponderant – on them. A dependence that the heads of the Algerian army are trying to alleviate by maintaining very good relations with Washington and the Atlantic Alliance, which explains the visits that the head of the Pentagon and the head of the US Africa Command paid  to Algiers during the autumn of 2020.


[1] Mansouria Mokhefi, « Alger-Moscou : évolution et limites d’une relation privilégiée », Politique étrangère, Autumn, no. 3, 2015, pp. 57-70.

[2] Mohammed Harbi, L’Algérie et son destin : croyants ou citoyens, Paris, Arcantère, 1992, p. 188.

[3] Nicole Grimaud, La politique extérieure de l’Algérie (1962-1978), Paris, Karthala, 1984, p. 133.

[4] “OPEC and Russia study deeper oil cuts – two sources”, Reuters, November 3, 2020. URL : https://www.reuters.com/article/opec-algeria-idUSKBN27J27X.

[5] « En Algérie, adoption d’un projet de loi controversé sur les hydrocarbures », Le Monde, November 14, 2019. URL : https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2019/11/14/en-algerie-adoption-d-un-projet-de-loi-controverse-sur-les-hydrocarbures_6019170_3212.html.

[6] “Algeria’s Sonatrach signed a MoU with Russia’s Lukoil”, Neftegaz, May 5, 2020. URL : https://neftegaz.ru/en/news/companies/547017-algeria-s-sonatrach-signed-a-mou-with-russia-s-lukoil/.

[7] This former Foreign Minister (1996-1998) and Prime Minister (1998-1999) was an Arab orientalist who was familiar with the Arab world and some of its leaders. After the election of Vladimir Putin, he made a major contribution to the development of Russian-Arab relations. He was one of the most important advisers to the Russian President while chairing the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (2001-2011).

[8] « L’Algérie se prépare à importer du blé russe », RFI, September 18, 2020. URL : https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/20200918-lalg%C3%A9rie-pr%C3%A9pare-%C3%A0-importer-bl%C3%A9-russe.

[9] Tatiana Kondratenko, “Russian arms exports to Africa: Moscow’s long-term strategy”, Deutsche Welle (DW), May 29, 2020. URL : https://www.dw.com/en/russian-arms-exports-to-africa-moscows-long-term-strategy/a-53596471.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Olivier Roy, « L’Arménie a cru au mythe de la Russie chrétienne », Le Monde, November 18, 2020. URL : https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2020/11/18/olivier-roy-l-armenie-a-cru-au-mythe-de-la-russie-chretienne_6060140_3232.html.

[12] Adlene Mohammedi, « La stratégie russe en Libye : entre biais inavoués et perspectives de médiation », Fondation méditerranéenne d’Etudes stratégiques (FMES), July 17, 2020. URL : https://fmes-france.org/la-strategie-russe-en-libye-entre-biais-inavoues-et-perspectives-de-mediation-par-adlene-mohammedi/.

[13] Adlene Mohammedi, « Russie-Iran : cette rupture qui ne vient pas », Middle East Eye, June 4, 2020. URL : https://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/decryptages/russie-iran-diplomatie-guerre-syrie-turquie.

[14] Adlene Mohammedi, « Les Émirats, parrains du parti de l’ordre dans le monde arabe », Middle East Eye, April 24, 2019. URL : https://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/opinion-fr/les-emirats-parrains-du-parti-de-lordre-dans-le-monde-arabe.

[15] « Libye: le chef de la diplomatie algérienne rencontre le maréchal Haftar à Benghazi », Le Figaro, February 5, 2020. URL : https://www.lefigaro.fr/international/libye-le-chef-de-la-diplomatie-algerienne-rencontre-le-marechal-haftar-a-benghazi-20200205.

[16] « Crise libyenne : Fayez Al Sarraj à Alger », El Watan, June 21, 2020. URL : https://www.elwatan.com/edition/actualite/crise-libyenne-fayez-al-sarraj-a-alger-21-06-2020.

[17] « Sahara occidental : Alger appelle à la retenue après l’annonce de la fin du cessez-le-feu de 1991 », Sud Ouest, November 13, 2020. URL : https://www.sudouest.fr/2020/11/13/sahara-occidental-alger-appelle-a-la-retenue-apres-l-annonce-de-la-fin-du-cessez-le-feu-de-1991-8074862-4803.php.

[18] Adlene Meddi, « Algérie : l’opposition critique les déclarations de Macron sur Tebboune », Le Point, November 23, 2020. URL : https://www.lepoint.fr/afrique/algerie-l-opposition-critique-les-declarations-de-macron-sur-tebboune-22-11-2020-2402152_3826.php#.

[19] « Algérie : Ramtane Lamamra mardi en Russie pour informer Moscou “de source directe” », Jeune Afrique, March 15, 2019. URL : https://www.jeuneafrique.com/749943/politique/algerie-ramtane-lamamra-mardi-en-russie-pour-informer-moscou-de-source-directe/.

[20] « Bensalah : la boulette russe », Liberté, 26 octobre 2019. URL : https://www.liberte-algerie.com/actualite/bensalah-la-boulette-russe-326728.

What can we expect from Joe Biden in the Middle East and in North Africa? – by Pierre Razoux

Pierre Razoux, Academic and Research Director of the FMES Institute

ABSTRACT :
Even if his style will be more welcoming, there is no doubt that Joe Biden will be defending America’s interests first. His election is a bitter blow for Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Bashar al-Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Cautious, pragmatic and realistic, and attached as he is to the Palestinian and Kurdish causes, deciphering the 46th president of the United States of America’s approach to foreign policy is not easy, and not least because his team has very contrasting views on the main issues concerning the Middle East. He has no illusions about the United States’ ability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His priorities for the MENA region consist of containing China and Russia’s advances, ending the policy of maximum sanctions against Iran to enable the renewal of dialogue with Teheran, distancing himself from Saudi Arabia by condemning its policy in Yemen, and reassuring America’s other regional allies in order to restore the United States’ credibility. In North Africa he seems ready to re-engage with America’s most fragile partners to prevent their total collapse, while still avoiding any direct involvement in Libya or the Sahelo-Saharan strip. Amongst those who had hoped for a Donald Trump victory (see map and table), the Israeli, Egyptian, Saudi and Emirate leaders are going to have to demonstrate goodwill to the new Democratic administration. The most complex relationship is going to be that with the Turkish president Erdogan. The latter seems aware of this, because he has been adopting a posture of de-escalation over the last few weeks.
If it is highly unlikely that Joe Biden will reach an agreement with Teheran in the short term, the new conservative team which should come to power in Iran in June 2021 could be tempted at that point to enter into a general agreement with him in order to reinvigorate their economy and avoid falling into China’s bailiwick. In the meantime, it is Qatar which stands to gain the most from Biden’s election, especially as he is not opposed to the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood, as long as it remains compatible with the liberal values of the United States, as long as it promotes the free market economy, democratic elections and as long as it does not question the arms deals concluded with American industry.
To anticipate the United States’ policy with regard to the Middle East and North Africa the most sensible option consists, in fine, in deciphering the foreign policy agenda of Vice President Kamala Harris, a key element in the American institutional system given the context and the age of the President.

As he becomes the 46th President of the United States of America, Joe Biden is inheriting a fragmented and volatile situation not just in the Middle East, but also in North Africa. The situation is all the more so because his predecessor seemed to have turned his back on the region, while at the same time tacitly agreeing with Vladimir Putin to divide the Middle East into two zones of influence; one (in the north) dominated by Russia and Iran, and the other (in the south) by the US and Israel. This implicit division of concerns, corresponding to his wish to reduce the United States’ military footprint and simplify the regional geopolitical equation (‘You’re either for me or against me!’) led him to condemn Iran in extreme terms and in doing so to destroy the sole diplomatic achievement of the Obama presidency, the nuclear agreement known as the JCPOA[1] – even though it meant pushing the Iranians into the arms of the Russians and the Chinese. As with many Republican presidents before him, Donald Trump continued the policy of containment with regards to Iran and its allies of convenience (Syria yesterday, Iraq, Qatar and Lebanon today) by relying on Israel and the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. 

Joe Biden and his close team have their work cut out to ease tensions, reassure some, restrain the ambitions of others, resume a difficult dialogue with Teheran and in doing so reduce the risks of a military escalation that deep down none of the regional actors wish to see, leading as it would to a greater fragmentation that would play into the hands of the jihadists and religious extremists. The main risk lies in an error of calculation. The challenge is all the greater because the actors in the Middle East have exported their rivalries to the Mediterranean and North Africa, whether it be those between Iran and Israel on the one hand, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Iran, Qatar and Turkey on the other, or again the exacerbated rivalry between the pro and anti-Muslim Brotherhood factions. As it is, any geopolitical and strategic analysis must henceforth consider the two regions of the Middle East and North Africa together, whereas once they could be treated separately.

In addition Biden’s administration comes into office at a pivotal time, marked by a move away from the west, a weakening of the influence of liberalism and multilateralism, and the rise of populism and nationalism. These tidal waves impact the Middle East and North Africa, just as the disastrous socio-economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have done, isolating the countries of these two regions a little more and making them that much more vulnerable not only to the expansionist appetites of Peking, Moscow and Ankara, but also to jihadists, criminal groups and demagogues of every kind. There is however no doubt that the arrival of Jo Biden on the scene will have come as a real blow to Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad. 

A very experienced President, whose software seems somewhat out of date

The 78 year old Joe Biden has been a member of the Senate for 36 years, has led the highly influential Committee of Foreign Relations in the US Senate and for eight years he was Vice President to Barack Obama. In all of these roles he has continuously travelled to the Middle East and North Africa, forging personal ties to many leaders of whom several are no longer on the scene. He masters his briefs, even though his principal instincts were forged in the years between 1980-2000 and are perhaps not completely in phase with the rapid changes in these two regions. Although pragmatic and realistic he remains very attached to the Palestinian cause, as with that of the Kurds, and is clearly counting on the current regimes, whatever they may be. Robert Malley, the White House Coordinator Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration, and close to the new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, summarises the priorities for the new Biden team as follows:

  • “Control the coronavirus crisis;
  • Contain China without jeopardising dialogue and economic cooperation with Peking;
  • Put an end to the policy of ‘maximum sanctions’ against Iran, in order to return to the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) with an assurance that Teheran will comply with the treaty again, respect all of its commitments and will adopt a more reassuring attitude towards its neighbours; 
  • Distance itself from Saudi Arabia by stopping the policy of issuing a blank cheque for its disastrous intervention in Yemen;
  • Rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change;
  • Reassure the traditional allies of the United States, because the loyalty and the credibility of the US are values in which he deeply believes.” [2].

Robert Malley continues by emphasising that « Joe Biden is not easy to pigeonhole in terms of foreign policy; he was in favour of the Balkan War, as he was of intervention in Iraq in 2003; but he was opposed to intervening in Libya, along with any plan to intervene in Iran; […] he doesn’t have his finger resting on the trigger; […] Joe Biden is someone who is very realistic and pragmatic. He doesn’t share the optimism and ambitious vision of Barack Obama when he started out; he will begin where Obama finished. In this respect, his politics will be more like those of the end of Obama’s second term; […] At heart, Joe Biden doesn’t harbour any great hopes for the Middle East. He doesn’t see any probable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will not want to devote the main effort of the United States to it.”[3]. Malley reminds us in addition that the members of the former Obama administration – who ought to find posts in the Biden administration – had, and still have, very different views on the issues in the Middle East and North Africa.[4]

In his memoirs Barack Obama stressed Joe Biden’s caution, recalling the crisis meeting at which he ordered the raid on Abbottabad to eliminate Osama Bin Laden: “Joe (Biden) also weighed in against the raid, arguing that given the enormous consequences of failure, I should defer any decision. […] I also knew that Joe, like Gates, had been in Washington during Desert One (the fiasco of the American raid in April 1980, designed to free US hostages taken in Iran). I imagined he had strong memories of the time: the grieving families, the blow to American prestige, the recrimination and the portrayal of Jimmy Carter as both reckless and weak minded in authorizing the mission” [5].

As part of the Democratic establishment formed by liberal ideals Biden is not opposed to the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood, as long as it remains compatible with his vision and his values especially human rights, and as long as it promotes the free-market economy, democratic elections and doesn’t call into question arms contracts agreed with American industry.  If in addition he has an aim of returning troops to their barracks, then so much the better for a whole generation of Democratic politicians marked by the film Midnight Express[6].

A fairly predictable roadmap

Even if the style will be more welcoming, there is no doubt that Joe Biden will be defending American interests first and foremost. In the Middle East, if one applies Robert Malley’s diagnosis, confirmed by Anthony Blinken’s utterances, it is probable that his administration will look to slow down and if possible counter Russian and Chinese expansion, to protect trade routes and the straits if these were to be threatened, while controlling the chokepoints of the flow of hydrocarbons towards China in order to convince it that an all-out economic war against the United States – a fortiori a direct military confrontation – would be lost from the outset. The struggle against Islamic terrorism will continue, concentrating on IS and Al Qaeda and no longer on those movements close to Iran described as ‘terrorists’ by Mike Pompeo.

Contrary to Donald Trump, Biden will seek to re-engage with most of the regional actors abandoned by his predecessor, so that the US can reclaim its role of a legitimate and indispensable actor in both the diplomatic and economic fields. Everything indicates that he will solidly support the moderate monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, that he will help to stabilise Lebanon to prevent it from ending up totally in Iran’s pocket and that he will seek to maintain US influence in Iraq. Very attached to form, he will adapt the style of his foreign policy by reassuring his traditional allies and by reverting to greater multilateralism, giving greater prominence to human rights. The Syrian regime can expect little from him during his mandate.

As far as Palestine is concerned, Robert Malley believes that “the new American administration will abandon the Trump peace plan, will adopt a more critical attitude towards Israeli settlements on the West Bank, will restart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and will renew economic support for the Palestinians.”[7] Nevertheless, it is very unlikely to reverse the decisions to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem, to recognise Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights (which affects Syria and not the Palestinians), or decisions on the supply of arms to Israel and the presence of American radar stations and anti-missile bases on Israeli territory. Joe Biden knows that he has to make goodwill gestures to the Israeli government in order for the Israelis to swallow the pill of US re-engagement with Iran. His priority will in fact remain the issue of Iran, that he links to the security of the Gulf and the Levant. He will do everything to ease the restart of bilateral negotiations with Iran, all the while encouraging Saudi Arabia and the UAE to renew a dialogue with Teheran, all with the aim of reducing regional tensions and facilitating the return of the US to an improved nuclear agreement (JCPOA).

With regard to the Kurds, it would appear logical that Biden, who never accepted Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian PYD, will do the minimum necessary to allow the Syrian Kurds a breathing space and allow them to continue resisting both the Turkish army and the Syrian regime. This will in no sense provide a long-term solution for their future, but it will allow them to gain a little time.

In North Africa, the Biden administration appears to want to re-engage with the most fragile states to prevent their collapse in the face of Jihadist assaults, faced with the incompetence of certain leaders, or to prevent them from falling under the influence of Moscow or Peking. It would appear probable that the administration will put pressure on them to control the variations in the price of oil more effectively and if possible to build up a share of their energy industries. There seems little desire to become involved in Libya, with the same going for any involvement in the Sahel-Saharan region, even though the new administration will quite certainly continue its logistical support for the international forces deployed in the region.[8]  

Those who welcome Joe Biden’s arrival in power

Joe Biden knows that a number of the leaders in the Middle East and North Africa were fervently hoping for a Donald Trump victory and did all that they could to help his campaign as the map and table below demonstrate. On the other hand, he also knows that other leaders, on whom he will be able to rely, were hoping for his victory, for various reasons: some to renew bilateral discussions allowing agreement on a new strategic balance of power (Iran); others who are looking for American reassurances (Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman); still others who wish to return to the previous state of affairs (Qatar, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority). Libya and Yemen which remain firmly fragmented, are special cases because their leaders, or those who would aspire to become leaders, share different views. The Yemeni leaders agree nonetheless that Biden remains the best placed to put the necessary pressure on the Saudi leaders to abandon their military intervention in Yemen, an intervention that appears daily more unpopular in Congress.

The accompanying map and table below demonstrate the very different perceptions between the  pro-Biden and the pro-Trump camps, but also between those who are favourable to, or hostile to the presence of the American military in the region, such that it is impossible to simplify things by using criteria such as governance  (dictatorships vs more open regimes, monarchies vs republics) or the status of privileged allies (Turkey, a NATO member, hostile to both Biden and the American military presence in its own sphere of interest). There are no clear fault lines. The regional organisations, whether it be the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, or the Arab Maghreb Union are themselves equally deeply divided on these issues and will be of no help to Arab leaders looking to develop a coherent line in regard to the new US administration. The recent normalisation of diplomatic relations between several states (the UAE, Bahrein, Morocco, Sudan) with Israel only reinforce the picture of an Arab world more divided than ever. Even if the Arab leaders who recognised Israel at the end of 2020 all supported Donald Trump, Joe Biden’s team will rejoice in the fact of this normalising of diplomatic relations which, from his point of view go in the direction of an easing in regional tensions.[9]

Table of Middle East and North African leaders and their attitudes to Joe Biden

The most enthusiastic appear to be the Iranians who are interpreting the arrival of the Biden administration as putting an end to the risk of direct military confrontation, but especially as giving them the chance to conclude a global deal that would allow them to consolidate their gains in the Middle East, even if it means giving up their long term nuclear military ambitions and normalising diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE once the US has returned to the JCPOA and has lifted the sanctions that have so heavily handicapped the Iranian economy. This is however far from a done deal because Congress, no matter its colour, is structurally hostile to the Iranian regime just like a majority of the American population, still haunted by successive hostage crises and explaining why Barack Obama would have preferred not to submit the JCPOA to Capitol Hill. Even with a Democratic majority, it is unlikely that Congress will push through the Iranian deal at a time when it is focussed on matters of internal American politics. Different lobbies (neo-conservative, Israeli, Emirate, Saudi, Greek[10]) are preparing to fight against any approach from Washington to Teheran. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that he will remain the final authority as far as the issue of Iran is concerned, an indication that he will not feel restrained by America’s return to the JCPOA and that he will retain his freedom of action, including military action, in anything to do with Iran.  

As the skilled negotiators that they are, the Iranian authorities are blowing hot and cold, allowing their parliament to pass a bill called ‘A strategic plan of action for lifting sanctions and for the protection of the rights of the Iranian nation’ which makes conditions for the restart of negotiations with the US considerably harder and puts pressure on the White House by fixing 21 February 2021 as the deadline for allowing the inspectors of the IAEA access to certain Iranian nuclear installations, while they are significantly increasing the quantity of uranium that can be enriched up to 20% purity. Mohammed Javad Zarif, the Iranian minster of Foreign Affairs, declared a few days before Joe Biden’s swearing in: “The return of the United States to the JCPOA is not enough at this present time. The aim of the JCPOA was the lifting of sanctions […] If the United States are saying today that they will return to the JCPOA, that means nothing to us. Sanctions must be lifted before anything else […] our banking relationships must be returned to normal and the agreements that we signed put in place […] At a later date the matter of compensation will have to be discussed.” [11] However he has overcalculated the possibility of new conditions being presented by the members of the JCPOA on the lifting of sanctions: “Nobody has the right to do that. The JCPOA is an agreement on nuclear power and has nothing to do with ballistic missiles”[12]: Mohammad Ghalibaf, the Speaker of the Iranian parliament and a putative candidate for the presidential elections of 2021, repeated that “all the articles of law concerning the Strategic Action Plan for lifting sanctions and the protection of the rights of the Iranian nation were reversible in the event of a complete lifting of sanctions” [13], with the implication that everything is reversible if an agreement can be reached.  

Increasing the pressure on Joe Biden but also on President Rouhani by indicating that an agreement seems very unlikely in the short term, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is serving notice to all parties that any possible agreement will not be concluded until after the Iranian presidential elections of 18 June 2021. The main issue of all this is not to find out if the winner of the election will be a reformer or a conservative, because all the indications are that it will be a staunch conservative, rather the question is whether he will be a former soldier from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, someone from the clergy, or else a ‘civilian’ politician with a reputation for sound economic management. For the moment it appears as if all options are on the table and the winner, whoever he is, will without doubt have a freer hand to negotiate with Washington since the conservative block will trust him and not accuse him of trying to sell off Iran’s interests. As so often in history it is those leaders who appear the most intransigent who end up by concluding a peace deal, because the bottom line is that a deal between Washington and Teheran would look as much to finding a negotiated solution to the question of the nuclear deal as it would to burying the hatchet. We can therefore expect nothing of significance before the end of 2021 at the earliest. If push comes to shove, the new Iranian team would probably choose to go for a nuclear military capacity and to move even closer to Moscow and Peking, strengthening Russia and China’s posture in the Middle East as Albert Wolf of John Hopkins University notes.[14]

In the Persian Gulf, there is no doubt that it is Qatar that will profit most from Joe Biden’s election since he does not just wish to see an easing of the tensions between the Arab monarchies and Iran, but also between the reigning families themselves. The Saudi leaders were well aware of this when they agreed a public reconciliation with Qatar at the plenary session of the Gulf Cooperation Council at Al-Ula on 5 January 2021, to the great displeasure of the Emirate Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan who hadn’t made the journey to the meeting.[15] The Emir of Qatar Tamim al-Thani, who knows he can now count on the support of the US as well as that of Iran and Turkey, will be able to get on with organising his 2022 World Cup finals with peace of mind, whereas the Emirate leaders are in danger of running into problems for the rollout of their World Expo 2021 should tensions with Iran rise. In the medium-term Qatar will probably have to choose between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, because it will be difficult to manage both in the longer term. For Tamim al-Thani the essential thing is to retain the support of the United States and that of Iran, which he needs to guarantee the security of his emirate and its economic and diplomatic development. He is no doubt hoping to play a major role in the negotiations between the Americans and the Iranians, in the knowledge that he has credibility in both camps.[16]

The newly designated leaders of Kuwait and Oman welcomed Biden’s victory because like them, he is calling for good relations between both sides of the Gulf. Older, and for the moment lacking legitimacy, they have internal problems to face and don’t seem in a position to make an impact on the international scene.   

In Iraq, if Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi wants a continuation of the American military and diplomatic presence, if only to counterbalance the Iranian presence in his country, his opponents, as with the Shiite militias orchestrated by Teheran, are acting behind the scenes to weaken the credibility of the US and force them to leave Iraq. Biden’s arrival might offer some respite to the Iraqi Prime Minister who is supported by a part of the Sunni political class, but it is highly unlikely that the Democratic administration will be able to reverse the disastrous image that the United States suffers from in Iraq. In the long term, the fate of the American presence in Iraq appears sealed.  

In the Levant, King Abdullah II of Jordan, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, are all the more openly delighted at the election of Joe Biden because they feared that they would be the victims of Jared Kushner’s peace plan, the famous ‘deal of the century’. Greatly weakened within the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Abbas is hoping for a return to the previous status quo (the two-state solution and a ‘fair’ mediation from the US) which would allow him to hold on a little longer with the backing of his supporters, because of the lack of any credible options[17], even though Iran seems to be strengthening its hold in the Gaza Strip, increasing its means of deterrence vis à vis Israel.[18]

In North Africa the arrival of a Democratic team openly promoting America’s liberal values, in particular the right to self-determination, development aid, multilateralism and protection of the environment and on top of all this, without negative prejudices in regard to Political Islam, can only make its aged leaders, stunned by Donald Trump’s cynicism, his unpredictability and his brutality, heartily rejoice. Their internal difficulties nonetheless limit their margins of manoeuvre within the region. Notwithstanding the above, the Algerian and Moroccan leaders have reservations regarding the Biden team’s goodwill towards the Muslim Brotherhood.  

Those who are going to have make goodwill gestures to the new American President

The first to have reacted is the Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu who knows he has four difficult years ahead, if he can manage to remain in power, because he gave his unconditional support to Donald Trump. Like many Israelis he sees the election of Joe Biden as a step backwards.[19] He nonetheless called Biden a few hours after the latter had declared victory to congratulate him, to emphasise the long-lasting nature of their relationship, and to acknowledge him as a friend of Israel’s. Since then, he has kept a low profile and concentrated on his own political survival and the negotiations to improve relations with other Arab countries. It appears as if he has delegated communication with the US to his close entourage. Tzachi Hanegbi, Minister of Settlement Affairs, speaking in the name of the Israeli government stated on 13 January 2021: “The most important thing is to convince the new American administration not to repeat the errors of the Obama administration, which is to say appeasement of the Iranians.”[20] In parallel, and to remain in the new Democratic administration’s good books, Eli Cohen, the Minister of Intelligence, leaked a note which envisaged a possible normalisation of diplomatic relations with Qatar, stipulating that “The importance of Qatar for the Jewish state lies in its capacity to build a network of contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood […] Good relations with Qatar could be an important factor in stabilising the situation in the Gaza Strip and in contributing to an easing of existing tensions with Turkey.” [21]

The Saudi and UAE leaders also know that they are also going to have to demonstrate goodwill if they do not wish to be completely marginalised.  The first signs of this have not been long in coming, as discussions in Congress questioning the delivery of F35 stealth fighters to the UAE bear witness. Normalising diplomatic relations with Qatar is a first step; others will no doubt be needed, probably with regard to Yemen, Iran, Pakistan and China if the discontent in the White House is to be diminished.  

There is no doubt that the very pragmatic President Sisi will also know that he has to demonstrate goodwill to the new occupant of the White House, to remind him of the strategic importance of Egypt, guardian of the Suez Canal and a country that is still very influential in the Arab world, within the American geopolitical equation.  In North Africa the King of Morocco is already regretting Donald Trump’s departure, whose administration firmly supported Rabat’s position on the Western Sahara while also helping with the maintenance of his army’s operational capabilities. He remains however one of the guardians of the Straits of Gibraltar, the US’s main supplier of phosphates and a symbolic actor in the American strategy of normalising diplomatic relations with the Arab countries. If he remains cautious, he will probably not have to suffer any criticism from the Democratic Party, but he knows he will probably have to make moves towards those Islamist parties that are close to the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood. Which is not necessarily good news for the Europeans.

There is no doubt that the most complicated relationship will be that with President Erdogan. There has been no shortage of subjects for dispute recently: the conflict in Syria and Turkish aggression against the Kurdish PYD, American protection for the opposition leader  Fethullah Gülen, the tit for tat imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey, the Jamal Khashoggi affair which has put the United States at odds with Saudi Arabia, the Turkish purchase of Russian S-400 antimissile systems leading to the freezing of the F-35 contract, the crisis in Libya, and tensions in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. Mike Pompeo openly criticised President Erdogan’s disruptive attitude at the meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Brussels on 01 December 2020. Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows he needs America’s support to counter Russia’s growing economic, energy and strategic influence in Turkey. The Turkish President also knows that Joe Biden owes a lot to the Greek lobby that has supported him throughout his long political career. But he is also aware that the new American President remains favourable to the concept of a ‘moderate, democratic Islam’, a concept that the AKP knows how to sell skilfully to US Democratic elites.  As Robert Malley points out, “Joe Biden enjoys good relationships with Erdogan; this goes back to his vice-presidency when Obama delegated him to serve as the interlocuter with the Turkish president. So he will try to show greater solidarity with the Syrian Kurds than Trump did, which will complicate his relationship with Turkey,  while at the same time he will be looking for an entente with Erdogan (…) Turkey’s aggressive regional policy today has given rise to debate at the very heart of the Biden team;  on the one hand there are the hardliners, very critical of Turkey, and on the other those who believe that the US cannot allow itself to become involved in a major crisis with this important NATO ally. Both of these instincts are to be found in Joe Biden.[22] For American strategists, Turkey remains above all else NATO’s southern shield against Russia and Iran, and probably against China in the near future. They also know that they not only need the radar station at their base at Kürecik as part of their anti-ballistic missile defence framework, but also the airbase at Incirlik where a stockpile of B-61 nuclear bombs is supposed to be, a part of NATO’s nuclear deterrence plan. Turkey’s strategic position and its capacity to weaken European cohesion are enough reason to justify support for Ankara, even if Erdogan regularly questions the long-term existence of the US presence at their Incirlik base. This support for Erdogan could nonetheless alter if the left wing of the Democratic Party came to power.  

The importance of understanding Kamala Harris

Given the equal balance of the parties in the Senate (50-50) which gives the vice president the casting vote, but also the age and uncertain health of Joe Biden, who pushes her to the front and repeatedly states that he will only seek one term of office, Kamala Harris is obviously a key piece in the American institutional game. This is equally true in the area of foreign policy where she assists and supports the President, and in the Senate, where she can support or obstruct any agreements negotiated by the administration. Her key role would apply all the more so if events were to propel her to the presidency of the United States of America. It is therefore crucial to understand her position on the main issues in the Middle East and the Mediterranean rim. To date, and if one refers to her statements during the presidential campaign, this brilliant 56 year old attorney has demonstrated unequivocal support for Israel[23], while at the same time declaring that she “believes in the value of each individual Palestinian and each individual Israeli[24]. Up to the present moment Kamala Harris has made very few statements of her views on geopolitical matters, emphasising instead her progressive nature, her commitment to human rights and minorities but also her closeness to Barack Obama. Her notable term on the Senate Intelligence Committee gives one to understand that she has nonetheless taken a close interest in the most sensitive international matters. If we are to predict the policies of the United States in the medium term with regards to the Middle East and North Africa, the most sensible course of action consists therefore of understanding Vice President Kamala Harris’ real foreign policy agenda. Researchers and analysts can start on that immediately, in the hopes that she is well protected by the Secret Service.


[1] Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, signed in Vienna on 14th July 2015 between Teheran and the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, supported by Germany and the European Union and re-establishing Iran in the community of nations.

[2] Robert Malley, interviewed by Armin Arefi in Le Point, November 13, 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Consulting the report “Ten conflicts to watch in 2021” by the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank led by Robert Malley during Trump’s term of office, also sheds an interesting light on the priorities for Joe Biden’s term of office, since it cites Afghanistan, Ethiopia-Eritrea, the Sahelo-Saharan strip, Venezuela, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, USA-Iran relations, Russia-Turkey relationships and tensions due to climate change.

[5] Barack Obama, A Promised Land, Penguin/Viking, 2020, p. 686.

[6] As related to the author of this article by many American experts.

[7] Interview with Robert Malley by Armin Arefi, Le Point, op. cit.

[8] The intervention in Libya and its disastrous consequences have remained a nightmare for many responsible Democrats.

[9] Even if these normalisations of relations could ultimately increase the tensions between Israel and Iran through proxy wars, whether in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea; or the Western Sahara since King Mohammed VI made it a condition of his acceptance of normalising relations with Israel that the US should recognise Western Sahara as part of Morocco, thus deciding against the Polisario Front supported by Algeria and Iran.   

[10] Traditionally close to Iran, Greece, panicked by Turkey’s aggressivity and its ambitions, has recently sought closer relations with Israel and the UAE, not just on economic and energy matters but also militarily and strategically.

[11] Official Iraniansite Khamenei.ir, January 10, 2021.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Albert Wolf, “Why hasn’t anyone attacked Iran’s nuclear sites?”, Perspectives Paper n° 1878, BESA Center, January 11, 2021.

[15] Armin Arefi, “Pourquoi l’Arabie saoudite et le Qatar enterrent la hache de guerre”, Le Point, January 5, 2021.

[16] As reflected in the laudatory message tweeted in English by Mohammed Javad Zarif on January 5, 2021: “Congratulations to Qatar for the success of its brave resistance to pressure & extortion”.

[17] Thierry Oberlé, “Mohammed Dahlan, un Palestinien dans l’ombre de l’accord Israël-Emirats”, Le Figaro, August 18, 2020; the Emirate leaders were counting on a second term for Donald Trump so that they could place their man – Mohammed Dahlan – at the head of the Palestinian Authority; this option now appears excluded.

[18] As demonstrated by the organization of a major exercise in the Gaza Strip on December 29, 2020 in which members of the Iranian special forces were advising Hamas fighters; I24 News, December 31, 2020.

[19] Alex Joffé, “The Swamp Returns to Washington”, Perspectives Paper n° 1868, BESA Center, January 5, 2021.

[20] I24 News, January 13, 2021.

[21] I24 News, January 13, 2021.

[22] Interview with Armin Arefi, Le Point, op. cit.

[23] Ali Harb, “Kamala Harris pledges unconditional support for Israel”, Middle East Eye, August 27, 2020.

[24] The Arab American News & I24 News, November 6, 2020.

Opening webinar of the 1st 5+5 Mediterranean strategic studies – A launching that opens up very good prospects!

The context is not favorable for meetings! This is the least we can say at a time when the key words “curfew” or “confinement” are spreading almost everywhere in Europe and around the world. This is undoubtedly one of the most devastating effects of the COVID-19 crisis in the field of social relations. Everyone experiences it more or less well on a daily basis. But it is also a real difficulty regarding international relations, and we should not underestimate its scope. These relations are more necessary than ever in a restless world where even the largest democracies are faltering. We therefore have to  debate. We have to exchange. We have to know how to listen and hear the others. For nothing can ever replace the exchanges that take place around a table where everyone can carefully observe the reaction of their interlocutors by speaking “right in the eyes”. In a world where relationships are strained, any approach that favors debate and concertation is therefore welcome, and alternative solutions that allow this must be sought.

This first “5+5 Mediterranean strategic studies” consists of an introductory webinar held on Monday, January 11. It will be followed by two one-week seminars, the first one on the North shore in France and the second one on the South shore in Mauritania. The face-to-face sequence will take place as soon as the constraints are loosened. 

This introductory webinar was a great success! All the countries proposed auditors apart at this stage from Algeria. Beyond the introductory speech pronounced by the Vice-Admiral (ret) Pascal Ausseur, Director General of the FMES Institute, and the presentation of the session’s program by its director, Air Force General (ret) Patrick Lefebvre, an intervention by Pr. Pierre Razoux, Academic and Research Director of the Institute, set the scene.

He was anxious to describe the Mediterranean area and the Middle East as it is and not as one would like it to be. A language of trueness that paved the way for questions. The first debates, which only involved the participants’ opinion, illustrated the variety of points of view and the relevance of allowing exchanges, however contradictory they might be. These open and informal debates encourage mutual knowledge, and beyond the differences, which have their raison d’être, the identification of convergent points for these ten countries facing a shared reality and common challenges (health crisis, environmental crisis, radicalism, migration, terrorism, power games, …). It is this approach which, combined with meetings, visits and team work, will create a long-lasting network of young leaders who will be able to better understand the differences and the proximities of the citizens of the Western Mediterranean. This kind of meeting makes it possible and we firmly intend to anchor it in the long term.

This introductory webinar is therefore the first step in a journey that is now taking shape in concrete terms. In direct contact with the auditors, we will announce them the study theme in early April. This theme will therefore be that of the 1st 5+5 Mediterranean strategic studies. A thoughtful idea that is taking shape today! And as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry would put it: “Who am I if I don’t participate?”.

Nagorno-Karabakh: a new Turkish front against Russia ? – by Pierre Razoux

Pierre Razoux, Academic and Research Director of the FMES Institute

ABSTRACT

By encouraging Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in his attempt to regain Nagorno-Karabakh, President Erdogan opened a new front facing the Kremlin to boast a symbolic success with his population and to force Vladimir Putin to accept a compromise on the other Syrian, Libyan, Mediterranean and energy fronts.  This strategy is not without risk because the conflict could spread to the secessionist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in neighbouring Georgia. Above all, it could provoke an escalation of tensions with Iran. The relatively even military balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan does not allow either of the two belligerents to conduct a victorious blitzkrieg against the territory of the other, a fortiori in the very mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh. Any confrontation will structurally lead to a war of attrition, leaving time for the Turkish and Russian presidents to negotiate. Forcing his luck, Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be tempted to annex the northern part of Cyprus soon, exchanging his disengagement from the South Caucasus for the silence of the Kremlin.

By encouraging Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in his attempt to reconquer the secessionist province of Nagorno-Karabakh defended by Armenia (launched on September 27, 2020), has President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voluntarily opened a new front against the Kremlin to force Vladimir Putin to find a compromise on the other Syrian, Libyan, Mediterranean and energy fronts? It must be noted that the counteroffensive of Fayez el-Sarraj in Libya, supported by the Turkish President, is trampling on in front of Sirte[1], that the battle of Idlib is not turning to the advantage of pro-Turkish forces in Syria – even if the death-blow of the Syrian regime, supported by Moscow, is slow in coming – and that Turkey has had to back-pedal in the Eastern Mediterranean under triple pressure from the United States, NATO[2] and the Europeans[3]. It was thus time for the Turkish President to create a diversion – or to encourage it – so as to boast of a symbolic success with his population and make it forget the economic difficulties. What could be better for him than to agitate the Armenian scarecrow, the issue most likely to federate all the strata of a Turkish society still hostile to Christian Armenia? This time he favored the indirect approach by targeting Nagorno-Karabakh, through an intermediary proxy, without taking the risk of a direct attack on Armenian territory that would have undoubtedly led to a direct response from Russia.

PRESIDENT ERDOGAN’S NEW SOMERSAULT

The Turkish President is undoubtedly taking advantage of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia to strengthen his power on a background of exacerbated nationalism and expansionist ambition, as the press correspondents present on the spot testify[4]. His unabashed tweets go in the same direction, especially when he declares, less than an hour after the outbreak of hostilities : “The Turkish nation supports its Azerbaijani brothers with all its means, as always,” and then when outbids a few days later, saying, “We support our Azerbaijani brothers in their struggle to save their occupied lands and protect their homeland” and “Every unpunished crime (the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh) makes its perpetrator more insatiable; every uncounted crime invites new persecution”.[5]

The presence of a handful of Turkish F-16 fighters pre-positioned in Azerbaijan during the summer of 2020 within the framework of bilateral exercises between Ankara and Baku, then deployed on the air base of Ganja a few days before the launch of the Azerbaijani offensive[6], leaves little doubt about the premeditation of the Turkish President. This henceforth proven presence gives more credibility to the words of the spokesman of the Armenian Ministry of Defense indicating that one of its Su-25 ground attack aircraft had been shot down by a Turkish F-16 the day after the outbreak of hostilities. This may also have been one of the reasons why the Nagorno-Karabakh army fired some venerable SCUD missiles at the town of Ganja near the air base where the Turkish F-16s were apparently based.

The presence of Syrian fighters on the battlefield, close to the Iranian border, constitutes the second tangible element in favor of the premeditation thesis. On October 1, 2020, during the European summit in Brussels, President Emmanuel Macron pointed at Turkey’s responsibility by asserting that 300 Islamist fighters from Syria had transited through the Turkish city of Gazantiep, not far from the Idlib front in Syria[7]. His remarks have not been denied, but reinforced by those of Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who was moved by the presence of these fighters near Iranian territory, at the extreme south of the front line[8]. Is this to be seen as an additional message from the Turkish President to his Russian and Iranian counterparts, his two partners in the Astana process[9], in the mode « I have the capacity to cause a nuisance against you two if we do not get along »? His risky gamble illustrates in any case the fact that the Astana Process is not the panacea that Moscow, Tehran and Ankara want to convince us of.

This strategy of the boutefeu is not without risk because the conflict could spread to the secessionist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in neighboring Georgia, at the risk of leading to a new Russian military intervention in the Caucasus. Above all, it could provoke an escalation of tensions with Iran, if the mortar fire that targeted Iranian territory during the first week of fighting were to intensify. Tehran did not hesitate to utter barely veiled threats in the direction of Baku and Ankara. In a telephone conversation with Ilham Aliyev, President Hassan Rohani stressed “the importance of respecting the territorial integrity of the IRI, as well as the lives of Iranian citizens in the regions bordering Nagorno-Karabakh … The Islamic Republic of Iran will not tolerate the targeting of its citizens”[10]. The day before, the diplomatic adviser to the Supreme Leader had stated: “We advise our Turkish friends to stop fanning the flames of conflict and to join us in helping to find a negotiated solution”[11]. To give more weight to their words, the Iranians massed infantry, artillery and drones on their border with Azerbaijan. In the very uncertain context which precedes the American presidential election, the Iranian government is nonetheless seeking to calm the situation in the region in order to be able to engage in dialogue with a new American administration, even as Washington envisages closing its embassy in Baghdad after repeated harassment by Shiite militias subservient to Tehran. The Iranian regime is all the more embarrassed because it is strategically close to Armenia[12], even though the latter is Christian Orthodox, and because it distrusts Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan, even though this country is predominantly Shiite. It is true that Azerbaijan has never abandoned its ambitions to reforge “Great Azerbaijan” and that the Azeri population is numerous within the Iranian ethnic mosaic. Some Iranians believe that the reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh could be only a first step in the agenda of the Aliyev family. All are wary of the instrumentalisation of the ethnic factor, as are many academics[13]. Iran also distrusts the close military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.

One element seems certain: given the ambient hostility and the weight of history, Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not need to deploy much effort to convince President Aliyev to launch an assault on Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed, President Aliyev kept telling his people that the time had come to regain the territories lost in 1994. The skirmishes of 2016 and then of July 2020 only served to stir up the determination of the Azerbaijani President, all the more so since he needed a success – even symbolic – to justify his spending on arms (when the price of a barrel of oil was high), to restore his coat of arms and to erase the memory of the war of independence (1988-1994) which resulted in nearly 20,000 Azerbaijani deaths.

A WAR OF ATTRITION

Without going back over the historical causes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – there is a plethora of articles summarising the positions of the two camps – let us analyse the battlefield, the military balance, what is known about the fighting and the consequences of all this on the probable continuation of operations if the provisional ceasefires that came into force on October 10, 2020 and then on October 18, 2020 were to shatter.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous area of rocky highlands to which some deep valleys lead. It is thus a compartmentalised terrain that is very easy to defend, especially since the 1988-1994 war, since the Armenian militias, which physically dominate the gaps through which the assailant could emerge, have entrenched themselves in bunkers scattered along the front line. Most of the population is concentrated around the “capital” Stepanakert, itself protected by a circus of fortified hills. The Latchin corridor that links Nagorno-Karabakh to neighboring Armenia constitutes the zone best defended by the Armenian militias, because it is through this umbilical cord that all military and economic assistance from Armenia transits. Located far behind the front, it has not been the object of Azerbaijani attacks for the time being.

Only the eastern façade of Nagorno-Karabakh, consisting of plains and valleys conquered by Armenian militias at the end of the civil war, is vulnerable to massive attacks by the Azerbaijani army. In fact, it was along this façade that the latter launched its most determined assaults, which enabled it to re-conquer some villages in the northeast (Tartar, Talysh and Madagiz), in the center near Aghdam and Martuni, but above all in the southeast where the Azerbaijanis succeeded in seizing Fuzuli, then pushing their advantage in the direction of Djabrayl. It was in this last sector of the plain near the Iranian border that Syrian fighters were engaged, at the head of a vast mechanised offensive supported by mobile artillery and armed drones.

Map of military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh (September 27- October 12, 2020)

At no time did the town of Stepanakert suffer the threat of direct capture, especially since the Azerbaijani army, consisting mainly of conscripts, has only a limited number of commandos and airborne means to transport them by helicopter. On the other hand, Stepanakert has been the regular target of artillery fire and bombardments intended to weaken the morale of its inhabitants, forcing half of them to take refuge in the western part of the province, or even in Armenia. This is a great classic of recent military history: when the aggressor fails to penetrate the battlefield and threaten his opponent’s center of gravity, and the front becomes largely static, he attacks the population in an attempt to weaken its morale and combativeness. As always, the other side retaliated by targeting the enemy cities, which the Armenian militia did by targeting the large city of Gandja located not far from the front. And as always, the belligerents resorted to propaganda and psychological warfare to spread false news and try to influence the course of the fighting[14]

Despite the reconquest of several border towns and some sectors of the plain by the Azerbaijani army, the front remained largely static, each camp trying to crush the entrenched positions of the other under a deluge of shells. In this war of attrition, the Armenian militias overlooking the battlefield, well equipped with anti-tank missiles, were able to multiply their blows to the goal on Azerbaijani armored vehicles. The latter would have suffered heavy losses.[15] On the other hand, the Armenian artillery and Air Defense missile batteries were strangled by the armed drones of Israeli and Turkish origin equipping the troops in Baku. The Turkish (or Israeli, which would explain the dismissal of the Israeli ambassador stationed in Armenia) advisers did a very effective job in precipitating their Israeli ‘kamikaze’ drones of the Harop type against Armenian targets of high technological value (certain Turkish experts mention the destruction of several batteries of S-200 and S-300 surface-to-air missiles).[16]

For the moment, it does not seem that there has been massive fighting along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Local observers have reported the occasional bombing of crossing points between Armenia and the autonomous republic of Nakhichevan (attached to Azerbaijan), as well as skirmishes north of Lake Sevan. Thus, it is not yet a direct war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, even if the latter supplies the militias of Nagorno-Karabakh with arms, munitions, advisors and probably fighters.

In any case, the relatively balanced military balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan, illustrated by the table below, would not allow either of the two belligerents to conduct a victorious blitzkrieg against the territory of the other. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is capable of aligning a sufficient ratio of ground forces to break through a very mountainous front, even more compartmentalised than that of Nagorno-Karabakh, so as to threaten its capital. Yerevan is protected by a line of high mountains, but also by the presence of Russian troops deployed within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to which Armenia is linked. Azerbaijan, for its part, is not formally part of any defensive alliance, although it has a partnership with NATO and close military cooperation with Russia, Turkey, Israel and the United States. But Baku, located in an isthmus of the Caspian Sea, is far from the front and easily defensible by a network of rivers and swampy land that can easily be flooded.

TABLE : MILITARY BALANCE BETWEEN BELLIGERANTS

ArmeniaNagorno-KarabakhAzerbaijan
Active Armed Forces
45,000 (42 000 within land forces) = 1.6 % of the population [mostly professionnal soldiers] 7 combat brigades 7 asset brigades (mostly artillery)20,000 (40 battalions) = 12 % of the local population      70,000 (57,000 within land forces) + 10,000 Internal Security Forces = 0.8 % of the population [mostly conscripts] 24 combat brigades 6 asset brigades
Active Land Forces :
62,00067,000
Reserve : 200,000Reserve : 40,000Reserve : 300,000
Main Land Fighting Equipment
  100 T-72 Tanks 280 other Armoured vehicles (BRM & BMP-1/2) AT-14 Kornet-E Antitank missiles 230 Artillery 16 conventional SRBM (including 4 Iskander-E)    A hundred of Tanks AT-6 Spiral Antitank missiles 200 Artillery A dozen of conventional SRBM (mostly Scuds) + Large quantities of Armenian equipment    440 Tanks (including 100 T-90) 250 other Armoured vehicles 560 Armoured personal carriers AT-15 Khrizantema Antitank missiles 600 Artillery (including 150 LRM) 6 conventional SRBM (4 SS-21 & 2 Israeli LORA)  
Air Force
  17 combat aircraft  (4 Su-30*, 13 Su-25) 27 combat helicopters (12 Mi-8/17 & 15 Mi-24) Une quinzaine de drones israéliens « Krunk »   * 8 other Su-30 should be delivered by Moscow    1 or 2 Su-25 10 combat helicopters (Mi-8 & Mi-24) + Armenian UAVs  35 combat aircraft (15 MiG-29, 2 Su-24, 18 Su-25) 46 combat helicopters (20 Mi-17 & 26 Mi-24) 30 UAVs (20 Israeli: 1 Heron, 4 Aerostar, 10 Hermes 450, 5 Hermes 900  ; 10 Turkish UAVs Bayraktar TB2 + « Kamikazes » Israeli UAVs Harop  
Most effective Air Defence systems (SAMs)
S-300 (+ A2AD Russian Bubble)S-200 (+ SA-18 Manpad)S-300

Sources: Military Balance 2020, IISS, London; SIPRI’s annual Report 2020, Stockholm; CIA World Factbook 2020; Wikipedia: « Armenian & Azerbaijani Armed Forces ».

In terms of combatants, Azerbaijan has at best a military balance of 1.5 to 1 against Armenia, which is very insufficient to break through the front, even if the Azerbaijani army can locally reach a military balance of 3 or 4 to 1, enabling it to conquer some symbolic gains. Even if it has a real advantage in terms of the number of tanks and armor, the latter are of little use in the mountainous zone. Both sides possess a large arsenal of conventional artillery that allows them to harass the opponent and slow down any breakthrough thanks to the saturation fire of their highly mobile multiple rocket launchers.

On the air front, Azerbaijan has the numerical advantage, both in terms of combat aircraft and helicopters and armed UAVs and surveillance. In this respect, the recent delivery of Turkish and Israeli UAVs has given it a real tactical advantage, since it can locate and attack targets that would have been more difficult to engage before. However, Armenia enjoys a triple qualitative advantage: 1) its Su-30 fighter-bombers far superior to the venerable Azerbaijani MiG and Sukhoi; 2) its modernised S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries integrated into the CSTO’s air defense network; 3) the presence of a Russian air group consisting of 18 modernised MiG-29s based in Erebuni.

In the event of a rise to extremes, the two belligerents would be able to rely only on their conventional ballistic missile launchers to attempt to strike the capital or the main opposing cities.

In the end, these factors combine to structurally transform any confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia into a war of attrition condemned to bog down. This observation is not to displease the Turkish President and the master of the Kremlin, who thus know they have the necessary time for possible negotiations that they might be intrested to make last.

RUSSIA IN THE POSITION OF PARTIAL ARBITRATOR

The thawing of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict places the Kremlin in a delicate position, especially since it has always considered the South Caucasus as its strategic backyard. On the one hand, Russia is the historical ally of Armenia, which is a founding member of the CSTO (1992). This explains the presence of the 102nd Russian base at Gyumri (Armenia), northwest of Mount Arara. This base was initially intended to protect Yerevan from NATO member Turkey. Since the end of the civil war, it has also been intended to dissuade Baku from invading Armenian territory. In fact, Russian leaders would find it difficult not to intervene militarily if Azerbaijan invaded or directly bombed Armenia. The Russian garrison at Gyumri today comprises 3,300 soldiers (the equivalent of a reinforced mechanised brigade) equipped with 74 modernised T-72 & T-80 tanks, 160 BMP-1/2 armored vehicles, 24 self-propelled artillery vehicles, 12 multiple rocket launchers, 12 Mi-24 combat helicopters, and a battery of Iskander ballistic missiles, all protected by batteries of S-300 surface-to-air missiles and by the fighter squadron deployed at Erebuni. These substantial means are not likely to fundamentally change the military balance, but their punctual engagement could cause the defeat of an Azerbaijani offensive on a symbolic objective. By interposing themselves between the belligerents, the Russian military can above all question them about their willingness to confront Moscow, thus playing the role of a very precious dissuasive shield to avoid an uncontrollable escalation.

The Kremlin is at the same time annoyed by the liberal line of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pachinian who since 2018 has been pursuing a policy deviating from the pro-Russian line. This former Armenian opposition leader has imprisoned corrupt oligarchs with strong ties to Moscow.

On the other hand, Vladimir Putin knows that he can hardly enter into a frontal clash with Azerbaijan if he wants to preserve his energy interests in the Caucasus region. To prolong the conflict in order to show both sides that they need Russia, while at the same time exercising a potential threat to Turkey’s energy supply[17], may be an interesting way out for the Kremlin. But for the Russian president, it is clear that at the end of the game, he will have to be the arbitrator of the conflict. It is no coincidence that Sergueï Lavrov, his illustrious Minister of Foreign Affairs, became personally involved in negotiating a first ceasefire agreement during the night of October 9 to 10, 2020, after two weeks of inconclusive fighting. Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows this and is certainly waiting for the right moment to put his commitment to Azerbaijan in the balance.

The annexation of Northern Cyprus as the next step?

In the opinion of the observers and journalists who try to decipher him, the Turkish President has only one idea in mind: to ensure his political survival by chaining together a series of foucades and power grabs that will allow him to flatter the nationalist fibre of his population.[18] And what could be stronger and more symbolic than annexing the northern part of Cyprus? It could be a double win for him if Brussels did not react, thereby demonstrating the weakness of a Europe that could explode over this symbolic crisis, a bit like the European democracies were unable to anticipate or face the Sudeten crisis in the 1930s.

Let us imagine the following scenario: at the beginning of November 2020, the outcome of the American presidential election is uncertain and contested by the two parties in contention. Tension is rising and the Pentagon is studying scenarios for the engagement of the federal army on American territory (it is already leaking rumors to that effect). The country, on the brink of civil war, is fracturing a little more. The traditional allies of the United States panic and try to obtain guarantees from the White House and Congress, without success. Taking advantage of the regional vacuum and the tensions following the “presidential” elections of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which they had provoked by provocations aimed at the local population[19], the Turkish authorities annexed the northern part of Cyprus manu-militari, then organised a referendum on self-determination which concluded a few days later with the formal attachment of this territory to Turkey. The Crimea scenario, in short. The annexation did not technically pose any difficulty for Ankara since Turkish troops had been present on the spot since 1974 and controlled all the strategic points. Their apparatus, including naval and air (in the form of drones and helicopters), has been reinforced for a year. It is thus sufficient for Turkish officers to hoist their flag, without even provoking armed conflict with the Republic of (Southern) Cyprus. 

Who will react? The United States will have other, more crucial concerns; perhaps it will take advantage of this to repatriate its Turkish base in Incirlik to Cyprus? The Chinese will be all the more discreet since they may have taken advantage of this strategic vacuum to take pledges of the South China Sea, or even of Taiwan, by forcefully occupying the fortified islands of Quemoy and Matsu, close to their coastline; the British certainly have an imposing military apparatus along the demarcation line, but they know they have several tens of thousands of pensioners – potentially hostages – living in the northern part of Cyprus[20]; the European Union will protest vigorously in unison with France and Greece, but it risks showing its divisions, as at the recent European summit in Brussels when the German Chancellor refused to associate herself with the proposed sanctions against Turkey; only Russia could react vigorously, especially since it has financial and naval interests to defend in Cyprus and is determined to hold the Turkish president high on all other fronts. In this case, the latter could be tempted to exchange his disengagement in the Caucasus for Russian silence in Cyprus, pointing out to Vladimir Putin the precedent of the Crimea. President Macron could then find himself quite alone.

But the worst is never certain. What seems likely, however, is that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, blinded by his ego and his court, could make a miscalculation leading to an uncontrollable military escalation. This is what European leaders fear, much more than his ranting. To quote the ancient Roman adage, when Jupiter wants to lose the powerful, he drives them mad, therefore imprudent.


[1] Ahmed Eleiba, « Ankara islosing hand in Libya », Egyptian Center for Security Studies, October 3, 2020. Observation confirmed by several institutional observers contacted by the author.

[2] The Turkish government accepted on October 1, 2020 a mediation mechanism with the Greek government under the aegis of Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO.

[3] Didier Billion, « Pourquoi la Grèce et la Turquie ont finalement opté pour le dialogue », France 24, September 24, 2020.

[4] Gabriel Détrie, Le Point, Octobre 8, 2020 :https://www.lepoint.fr/monde/haut-karabakh-la-nouvelle-guerre-d-erdogan-08-10-2020-2395511_24.php

[5] President Erdogan’s Twitter account, September 27, October 1 and 2, 2020.

[6] Laurent Lagneau, « L’imagerie satellitaire confirme que des F-16 turcs sont basés en Azerbaïdjan », OPEX 360, Octobre 8, 2020 : http://www.opex360.com/2020/10/08/limagerie-satellitaire-confirme-que-des-f-16-turcs-sont-bases-en-azerbaidjan-a-80-km-du-haut-karabakh/

[7] Although he did not specify precisely where these fighters entered Azerbaijan.

[8] At a Council of Ministers meeting; FARS Agency, October 7, 2020.

[9] The Astana Process, set up on May 4, 2017 between Russia, Iran and Turkey, aims at resolving the frictions and enforcing the ceasefire zones in Syria but also the respect of the zones of influence claimed by these three countries.

[10] Agence FARS, October 6, 2020.

[11] Ali Akbar Velayati, Diplomatic Advisor to the Supreme Leader, Kayhan, October 5, 2020.

[12] A fake news campaign (on social networks) denied by Tehran on September 30, 2020 claimed that Iran had allowed Russian arms to transit through its territory to Armenia in the early days of the war; which seems all the more surprising given that Russia has a large military base in Armenia!

[13] Elaheh Koolaee & Fahimeh Khansari Fard, ” The impact of historical narratives on ethnic conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia “, International Studies Journal (Téhéran) vol. 17, numéro 1, n° 65, Summer 2020, pp. 137-168.

[14] As evidenced by the emails sent to the community of French researchers and experts (including the author of this article) by the Azerbaijani embassy in France, accusing the Armenian side of systematically violating the ceasefire and specifically targeting civilians.

[15] Sébastien Roblin, « Tanks ablaze as Azerbaijani forces attack Armenian troops in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh », Forbes.com, September 27, 2020, update October 9, 2020.

[16] EDAM, October 1, 2020 : https://edam.org.tr/en/the-hunt-for-armenias-s-300-assessing-azerbaijans-most-sensational-sam-system-hit-in-the-ongoing-war/

[17]Azerbaijan provides 20% of Turkey’s gas supplies and guarantees it substantial revenues thanks to the royalties paid for the transit on its territory of hydrocarbons extracted from Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea (eurasianet.org via Le Guetteur, CDEM Newsletter, No. 2020-13, September 30, 2020).

[18] Delphine Minoui, « la dangereuse surenchère d’Erdogan », Le Figaro, October 11, 2020.

[19] Such as the reopening of the Greek ghost town of Varosha, which had been a forbidden zone since 1974; confer Alexis Kefalas, “La Turquie avance ses pions dans la partie nord de Chypre”, Le Figaro, October 11, 2020.

[20] Pierre Razoux, « BREXIT will have consequences on the Mediterranean », FMES, February 5, 2020 : https://fmes-france.org/in-english-brexit-will-have-consequences-in-the-mediterranean/

Deciphering the normalisation agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – by Pierre Razoux

Images Pixabay

Click here to read the original (French) version

 

Abstract:
The provisional agreement of August 13, 2020 to normalise relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a risky gamble that is good news for its signatories, for the White House, Europe and China. However, it is not certain that it will be enough to ensure Donald Trump’s re-election. On the other hand, it is bad news for the Palestinians, the Arab world which appears more divided and fragmented than ever, Iran, Turkey and to a lesser extent Russia. If it is formalised in the coming weeks, it will have consequences for the geopolitical balance in the Middle East. This agreement, which increases regional frustrations and feeds ambient nationalism, is not likely to contribute to the democratisation of the region.

 

On August 13, 2020, a few weeks before the deadlines of October 18 (probable end of the UN embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran ) and November 3 (American presidential elections), the White House surprised the world by announcing the conclusion of a formal agreement to normalise relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A diplomatic success that came at the right time for some, a clear provocation and a risky decision for others, this agreement – which does not yet constitute a formal peace treaty – immediately raised many questions .

Risky bet, high payoffs
First of all, it should be remembered that this is a fragile agreement reached under pressure from Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, both of whom are desperate in the face of unfavourable polls. This provisional agreement remains subject to the conclusion of a formal agreement between both capitals in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the unexpected can still happen .
By crossing the Rubicon and becoming the third Arab head of state to normalise relations with Israel (after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994), the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi has taken a real risk on the international stage. There is no doubt that by overtaking other Arab leaders, including the shady Saudi Mohammed Ben Salman, Mohammed Ben Zayed has stirred up frustrations, rekindled jealousies and thrown oil on the fire of an Arab street that is always quick to catch fire. He apparently doesn’t mind being ostracised by some of his peers, as he sees himself as sheltered on the domestic scene and knows that he has powerful support on the international stage. Criticism towards his initiative is all the more acerbic as the UAE seems to have set only three conditions for this normalisation: that Israel ceases any further annexation of Palestinian territories, that it does not reject the eventual creation of a Palestinian state and that its own embassy won’t be located in Jerusalem. The Emirati leader has therefore not imposed any real concession on the Israeli government, contenting himself with maintaining the status quo. This is no doubt a sign that he was aware of the fragility of the UAE on the regional scene, after the collapse of oil prices, the health crisis and its worrying economic consequences, the flight of capital and expatriates, but above all the strong resurgence of Iran to the regional scene, to the point that the UAE had no choice but to resume dialogue with Tehran.
As a result of this standardisation, the UAE is promised significant investment, trade and tourism, transfers of high technology, but above all security and military cooperation, including, most probably, in the sensitive areas of space and arms industries. Israel has undoubtedly obtained guarantees – a right to visit? – with regard to the Emirati civilian nuclear programme, since Abu Dhabi became the first Arab state to launch a (South Korean technology) nuclear power plant in Barakah on August 1, 2020. It is probably no coincidence that Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, was the one to go to Abu Dhabi on August 17 and 18 to negotiate directly the terms of the future peace agreement . At this stage, the agreement provides for the immediate establishment of regular air links, the implementation of consular measures, as well as the reciprocal opening of two embassies, no doubt from the beginning of autumn 2020.
For Israel, the risk is exclusively related to its domestic policy. By agreeing to stop any further annexation of Palestinian territories contrary to what he promised his electoral base, Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself at odds with his ultras. The latter raise the banner of revolt in the Knesset and promise to torpedo the agreement. The tension is such that the current Prime Minister would imagine an umpteenth dissolution of Parliament . The agreement with the UAE is however very symbolic, since it breaks an implicit taboo reinforced by the collapse of the Oslo Agreements and the resurgence of colonisation of the occupied territories. The Israeli leaders hope that this agreement will set an example for other monarchies in the Gulf. The two most credible candidates to date are the small kingdom of Bahrain and the strategic Sultanate of Oman, the official guardian of the Strait of Hormuz. Contrary to what Donald Trump suggests on Twitter, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will be convinced to join the agreement, especially since the king and his son do not seem to be on the same line (see below) and that Israel is as wary of the Saudi nuclear programme as of the unpredictable character of the Crown Prince . Within the Israeli security establishment, many believe that Israel has nothing decisive to expect from a partnership with Saudi Arabia, whose present leadership is judged unreliable .
By betting on Abu Dhabi, Israel is obviously strengthening its game against Iran by placing a pawn close to the Strait of Hormuz in order to counter – or threaten – the Iranian game against it, especially in Syria and Lebanon. The goal is obvious: to create a diversion and force Iran to make painful choices, or even to push it into making a mistake, hoping that the Revolutionary Guards will attack the UAE directly. Beyond this game of chess, normalisation with the UAE allows Israel to strengthen its strategic, industrial and technological cooperation ties with authoritarian and technologically advanced states, following the example of its close cooperation with Singapore, so as to further strengthen its image as a Start Up Nation.
For the White House, the deal is looking like a last-chance gamble. After the foreign policy slaps, Donald Trump hopes to show that he is capable of getting a deal that suits him, ten weeks before the presidential election. It is forgetting that international coups d’éclat have never been decisive for the re-election of an American president: Jimmy Carter was not re-elected in 1980 when he could avail himself of the Camp David peace agreement between Israelis and Egyptians (1979); George Bush was not re-elected either in 1992 after having pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. If Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996, it was not because he had been the man behind the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan (1994), but because he had successfully put the American economy back on track.
Finally, it should be emphasised that this normalisation agreement is very good news for the European Union and the international community since it puts the Israeli-Palestinian issue on hold, spares the two-state solution and avoids provocations that could have led to a third Intifada. Europeans avoid finding themselves in an awkward situation where they would have had to react to further Israeli annexation without breaking trade ties with Israel.
This is finally good news for China for two reasons. On the one hand, this agreement strengthens Beijing’s grip on Tehran, which feels more isolated than ever. On the other hand, it should create opportunities of economic development likely to contribute to the stabilisation of the Middle East, thus facilitating Chinese investments and the extension towards the Mediterranean area of the new Silk Roads within the framework of the OBOR (One Belt, One Road) project. Well aware of the impact of this project, the UAE is investing massively in port infrastructures to position itself as an essential interlocutor for the Chinese with whom it has already developed partnerships in the field of armament, notably in the field of drones.

Those who are weakened or further isolated by the agreement
The biggest losers are obviously the Palestinians, even though the agreement preserves the status quo and the appearance of a two-state solution. Its formalisation without this leading to an outburst of criticism from the Arab world shows that the Palestinian Authority and its supporters are no longer in a position to exercise an effective veto over the foreign policy of other Arab countries, especially those who consider the Iranian threat, supposed or real, to be more decisive than the Palestinian question. In this respect, the Palestinian strategy which made any peace agreement with Israel conditional on a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian question now appears to be obsolete. In the end, what has just happened shows that time is no longer on the side of the Palestinians, but against them. One may or may not regret it, but it is a fact that is difficult to deny. Of course, this apparent abandonment of the Palestinian cause is a godsend for the ideological regimes, which will be able to reaffirm their support for the cause with the help of thunderous declarations that the Palestinians are waiting to see the concrete effects on their daily lives. For in these times of very low oil prices and a drop in economic activity linked to the health crisis, Tehran, Ankara and Doha will have a hard time bail out the various rival Palestinian organisations.
The Arab world, especially the Arab League, is greatly weakened by this agreement, which divides and fragments it further, highlighting the contradictory postures and hypocrisy of certain leaders who are incapable of speaking out towards their peoples and neighbours. Within the Arab world, there is no doubt that the Saudi leaders have had a bad time of having been pawned off by their Emirati neighbour, while Riyadh has been at the forefront of negotiations with Israel for thirty years. Formally, the Saudi peace plan (general normalisation in exchange for a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement based on the ‘adjusted’ ceasefire lines of June 1967), formulated in 2002 by King Abdullah, is still on the table. In fact, the kings of Arabia, Guardians of the Two Holy Mosques, have always considered that it would be up to one of them to endorse normalisation with Israel. The fact that Emir Mohammed Ben Zayed took King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman by surprise illustrates the divergent postures of the father, very attached to the Palestinian cause, compared to that of his son who is more inclined to compromise with Israel and the United States to make his own agenda triumph.
Kuwait, trapped by its historical support for the Palestinian cause and eager to spare its powerful neighbours (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia), has declared that it would be the last Arab state to normalise its relations with Israel. Qatar, mired in its rhetoric of ideological support for political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, sees itself a little more rejected in the Iranian-Turkish camp.
At first glance, the Israeli-Emirati normalisation should be good news for Egypt, since it strengthens the MBZ-Sissi axis intended to counter the activism of Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. But in reality, the Egyptian President has just lost both his status as an Arab interlocutor hitherto privileged by Israel, while finding himself in the front line managing explosive relations with Hamas entrenched in the Gaza Strip. He is no doubt beginning to understand that the Israeli strategy could consist in handing back to Egypt the management of the chaos of Gaza in the event of a de facto partition and the extended annexation of Palestine.
Other losers are the Arab leaders who would like to normalise relations with Israel, if only to capture a large flow of investment, but who know that their people will not tolerate such an opening. This is particularly the case of the King of Morocco, who has long been calling for such a normalisation, but who is aware that such an agreement would risk setting fire to the powder keg, at a time when the political and socio-economic situation in his kingdom, aggravated by the consequences of the health crisis, appears extremely tense and uncertain. Further East, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, entrenched in their ideological certainties and historical positions of denouncing Israel and supporting the Palestinian cause, have criticised the Israeli-Emirati agreement. There is no doubt that business leaders, merchants and those in charge of promising economic sectors are aware that they are missing an opportunity to hold on to the train of economic development, to the great satisfaction of Chinese investors who will be able to increase their hold in these countries.
The other big regional loser is of course Iran, which seems at first sight to be more isolated than ever by this normalisation comming shortly after the resumption of the dialogue between Tehran and Abu Dhabi. The epidermal reactions of the political and military class and the barely veiled threats launched in the UAE bear witness to this. This movement on the regional chessboard comes at the very moment when Iran is facing a resurgence of Israeli attacks in Syria and must manage the disastrous consequences of the explosion of the port of Beirut which occurred on 4 August 2020, thereby questioning the strategy of Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. All this pushes Iran further into the camp of Russia and China. A fortiori at the moment when Tehran has been negotiating since the end of June 2020 with Moscow and Beijing (by putting them in competition) new strategic partnerships combining energy, investments, arms sales and diplomatic support. If the context does not calm down, Tehran will find it very difficult to sell its HOPE project (for HOrmuz PEace) to its Gulf neighbours by convincing them that a regional stability agreement can rest solely on the riparian states. In the meantime, Iranians and Emiratis know that they are interdependent, since Dubai remains very much economically linked to Iran. Warned of what they would risk if they opened the door too wide to the Israelis, the Emiratis are pragmatic and will probably not cross any of the Iranian red lines, especially at a time when they are hosting the 2020-2021 Universal Exhibition on their territory.
Turkey finds itself more than ever torn between its interests and its contradictory postures in a context of strong tensions in the Levant and the Eastern Mediterranean, as witnessed by the (voluntary?) collision of a Turkish frigate with a Greek frigate on 13 August 2020. President Erdogan’s very harsh statements bear witness to this. He will have to evaluate the evolution of the balance of power and draw the necessary conclusions.
Russia is not pleased by this agreement in which it was not consulted, especially as it is perceived as an American success that takes Israel a little further away from the Kremlin; it is the paw of Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi who know that their rival Benjamin Netanyahu has a very close relationship with Vladimir Putin. But the Russian leaders also know that by doing so, they are strengthening their grip on Iran, which in itself is a valuable counterpart.

Foreseeable consequences
In the very short term, normalisation between Israel and the UAE is increasing the antagonism between Iran and its Russian and Chinese supporters on the one hand, and Israel, Washington, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh on the other, in the particularly delicate context of the lifting (or not) of the embargo on conventional arms, which is theoretically due to take place on October 18, 2020, but also of the American presidential election on November 3.
Everything will then depend on the outcome of these two deadlines. If Donald Trump is re-elected, whether or not he succeeds in extending the arms embargo and imposing new sanctions against Iran, this antagonism is unlikely to settle down. The next step would then be the Iranian presidential election (spring 2021), which will most certainly see the election of a conservative candidate. Paradoxically, the latter could all the more easily engage in discreet negotiations with Washington since, being supported by the hard faction of the regime, no one could reproach him for selling off the interests of the Islamic Republic. Conversely, if Donald Trump were defeated and a new administration emerges that is mindful of putting the United States back at the centre of the diplomatic game, for example by reintegrating the JCPOA in one way or another, everything suggests that this antagonism could gradually settle down, especially if Russia and China succeed in the meantime in obtaining the effective lifting of the embargo on arms sales to Iran. For Tehran’s priority is to modernise its conventional arsenal dating from the Shah which is now totally obsolete (except for drones and missiles). This appeasement could convince several Arab or Muslim states to follow in the footsteps of the UAE by normalising in their turn their relations with Israel, while resuming dialogue with Iran. The current Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz and his colleague Gabi Ashkenazi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, two former pragmatic chiefs of staff, are well aware of this. They know that the future must not be insulted and that all scenarios must be prepared. That is why they have begun a discreet rapprochement with Turkey, but also with certain European leaders, while at the same time courting the American Jewish community which is in favour of the Democratic movement. These two political leaders also know that Benjamin Netanyahu, weakened by legal affairs and strongly contested within the Likud movement, will not last forever. Knowing that it is imprudent to put like him all his eggs in the same American basket, they are conscious that by now having actions in the UAE, they place themselves in a position to discuss discreetly with the Iranians, the Chinese and other Arab delegations when circumstances require it.
In the meantime, Israeli-Emiratist normalisation accentuates the tectonic fault that divides the Middle East into two distinct geopolitical plates. To the North, the one encompassing Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Qatar under the leadership of Russia and China. To the South, the one that stretches from Egypt to the UAE via Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of the United States. The stability of this southern plate is threatened just as much by the ambitions of Iran, which continues to instrumentalise the Yemeni conflict, as by the fury of the Saudi Crown Prince and the socio-economic imbalances which weaken the Arab states and feed the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as that of Daech. Between these two plates, North and South, the Turkey of President Erdogan is struggling to position itself. Both hope to tip it into their camp.
In the longer term, this normalisation allows Israel and the UAE to gain time in the face of the new global cold war between the United States and China, including in the Middle East. This is no longer an ideological conflict as in the first Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, but a power struggle between a comfortably established hegemon wavering between its Asian and Middle Eastern interests and its Chinese challenger trying to occupy the space – especially the economic and political space – left vacant in the region. Yet, in Washington as in Beijing, the analyses diverge. Part of the American elite refuses to consider China as an adversary, believing that the only two real enemies of the United States in the Middle East remain Russia and Iran. For its part, part of the Chinese establishment believes that it is too early to challenge Washington in its own backyard, even though it recognises that it is vital to secure energy supplies from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea on a long-term basis. This cacophony is causing turmoil among the United States’ traditional allies in the Middle East, who no longer know to which saint to devote themselves, while at the same time encouraging renewed tensions and rivalries between Russians, Turks, Iranians and Europeans. As Harvey Jaskel points out, Israel and the Gulf monarchies will have to face difficult choices . By normalising their relations, Israel and the UAE are giving guarantees to both parts. On the one hand, they offer a royal gift to Donald Trump in the event that he is re-elected, knowing that this same gift will play into Joe Biden’s hands if he is elected. On the other hand, they favour China’s long-term strategy, without crossing the red lines defined by the White House.

All in all, the normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE appears to be good news, even if it increases the frustrations of numerous regional players and contributes to reinforcing the ultranationalist and populist discourse of some of them, at the risk of triggering new neighbourhood conflicts. One thing seems certain, it will not contribute to the democratisation of the North Africa & Middle East zone because the message is clear: in this region, only an autocratic power can take the risk of normalising with Israel

Turkish ambitions in the Mediterranean: towards an acceleration of naval frictions with Europe? – by Arnaud Peyronnet

Click here to read the original (French) version of this article

The Turkish merchant ship Cirkin, which is used to transit between Turkey and Libya for deliveries of military equipment under the guise of “humanitarian deliveries”, has been escorted by Turkish warships since May in order to avoid inspection. However, on June 10, shortly after a first tense confrontation between this Turkish escort and a Greek ship belonging to the European operation Irini, a Turkish warship carried out “unfriendly actions” (illumination on 3 occasions with a fire control radar) against a French frigate, which was part of a NATO operation, off Libya. This unusual incident, which clearly represents a new escalation in the tensions already identified in this zone, is part of a deeper logic of increasing tension between the EU (and first and foremost France) and Turkey. These frictions are caused in particular by the problem of the Turkish naval presence in the Cypriot EEZ and by the difficulties linked to the monitoring of the arms embargo imposed on Libya since 2011 [1].

The Turkish naval stiffening is, for its part, essentially dictated by the profound refoundation of Turkish geopolitical perceptions since President Erdogan came to power, the latter favouring a vast movement of Turkish naval expansionism in the Mediterranean. This movement also seems to be accelerated by the local perception of a possible Western withdrawal from the Middle East, coupled at the same time with a regional irruption of Russian power. These two changes are strategic opportunities of importance for Ankara, which must then take advantage of them to strengthen its geopolitical interests.

In this context, what are these Turkish geopolitical perceptions in the Mediterranean? By what means does Ankara seek to materialise them? Is the weakening of Europe also a Turkish objective?

Rather “expansionist” Turkish geopolitical perceptions in the Mediterranean

Turkey’s regional ambitions first emerged during a speech by President Erdogan in 2011 in which he proclaimed that Turkey should “reside as close as possible to the Suez Canal, the adjacent seas and project itself into the Indian Ocean”. This Turkish policy, centred on the renewal of its influence in the Middle East (Syria, Qatar, Libya, Iraq, the Horn of Africa), could then be described as “pan-Ottoman” while having the essential characteristic of placing particular emphasis on the naval aspect, especially in the Mediterranean. Indeed, Ankara is calling for an extension of Turkey’s geopolitical presence in the maritime areas of the Mediterranean, and even beyond, in accordance with the doctrine of the Blue Motherland (Mavi Vatan), developed by Admiral Cihat Yayci[2]. The aim of this doctrine is to eventually obtain Turkish supremacy in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, through multiple territorial claims around the island of Cyprus and in the Greek islands of the Dodecanese. The search for maritime delimitation agreements with countries willing to “accommodate” Turkish interests is thus particularly highlighted, with this approach being supported upstream by permanent force deployments facilitating the “fait accompli” of Turkey’s “natural” claims. The new Turkish footprint in Libya is integrally linked to such ambitions, thus transforming an entire Mediterranean zone into an “exclusively Turkish continuum” which would also have the advantage of further isolating Cyprus from the European continent…

In order both to implement this geopolitical vision and to prevent its adversaries from disrupting its actions, Turkey has gradually developed a strategy of access denial, both off the coast of Cyprus and now also along the Libyan coast. This strategy can be seen in particular in the deployment of large naval forces (groups of several vessels) in its areas of interest (protection of Turkish drilling activities in the Cypriot EEZ, support for land operations in Libya) and the recurrent reservation of exercise areas on high seas, all of which makes the activities of other navies obviously more complicated in those same regions. In addition, the Turkish Navy also no longer hesitates to deliberately engage in a logic of friction with rival navies, betting that the latter will avoid any armed escalation with their NATO ally …

 

Increased military frictions, symptoms of a new “Turkish unilateralism”

For several years Turkey has in fact set up a logic of frictions with its rivals, considering for a long time that the latter will never fully assume the balance of power that is being imposed, and therefore allowing the imposition of Turkish ” faits accomplis ” that are difficult to reverse. Frictions involving Turkish units with European vessels have thus multiplied, both in the Aegean Sea and off the coast of Cyprus and now along the Libyan coast. At the same time, the Turkish navy is increasing the number of demonstrations of strength through increasingly regular large-scale exercises.

In the Aegean Sea, episodes of tensions are certainly sporadic but also real, with repeated Turkish incursions into Greek territorial waters. At the beginning of May 2020, the Turkish fighter aircraft nevertheless carried out a demonstration of strength (a “provocative” act according to Greece) over the Greek island of Inousses during a visit there by the Greek Minister of Defence and the Chief of Staff of the Greek Armed Forces. This case had a precedent since in March 2019 a visit by the Greek Prime Minister had already been disrupted by Turkish fighters near the island of Agathonissi, situated in the south-eastern Aegean Sea. Ankara’s territorial claims in the Aegean Sea, particularly those relating to the Dodecanese archipelago, obviously explain these frequent and sometimes very serious incidents [3].  Off the coast of Cyprus, Turkey exerts pressure, even interference, on international companies carrying out drillings [4]. Turkey also carries out, under naval protection, its own research activities in the Cypriot EEZ, which Turkey partly considers its own. The Turkish militarisation of Northern Cyprus (deployment of surveillance drones and the future construction of a naval base) could exacerbate this trend, as these new tools would then make it possible to further support the naval assets deployed all around the island. In Libya, the Turkish naval forces began by conducting a “precursor” operation off the Libyan and Tunisian coasts in spring 2019. Then, in November 2019, Turkey concluded a maritime delimitation agreement with the Libyan government of national unity (on the principle of equidistance) de facto excluding Greece, Cyprus and Egypt from negotiations[5]. This agreement was logically coupled with a “military cooperation” component which has resulted in the permanent presence of Turkish naval units off the coast of Libya since the beginning of 2020. These unprecedented and substantial deployments mark Turkey’s direct support for the Libyan Government of National Accord, in addition to the dispatch of pro-Turkish Syrian militiamen and the protection of its deliveries of military equipment (drones, munitions) by sea. Indeed, merchant ships used to transiting between Turkey and Libya are henceforth escorted by Turkish warships in order to avoid any inspection against it, in particular by French and Greek vessels, as we witnessed on June 10.  Finally, the creation of a Turkish naval base in Misrata, Libya, would be envisaged in the long term, as would the dispatch of Turkish combat aircraft, possibly on the al-Watiya base. Turkish investment in Libya would thus become substantial.

In addition to this logic of frictions, the Turkish Navy is conducting more and more regularly demonstrations of strength in the Mediterranean. In March 2019, the Turkish naval forces held the Mavi Vatan 2019 exercise in the Aegean Sea, Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, their largest naval training sequence since the fall of the Soviet Union. This exercise mobilised some 100 units, including almost all first-rank Turkish vessels. This exercise was doubled by a second one (Denizkurdu 2019) on an equivalent scale (more than a hundred ships of all types involved) in May 2019, once again in 3 distinct zones (Black Sea, Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean). In November 2019, the Doğu Akdeniz 2019 exercise brought together some forty vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean. More recently, in June 2020, Turkey carried out a new ” demonstration of force ” with the exercise called ” Haute-mer ” which saw the participation of 8 ships and 17 fighter aircraft in the Mediterranean (2000 km raid from Turkey).

 

A resolute instrumentalisation of NATO in order to weaken Europe ?

With a certain disengagement of the United States from the Middle East scene (to the benefit of its “local allies” to whom American power seems to be willing to subcontract the management of regional crises), Turkey would finally see its ambitions “reinforced” by Washington, which now only thinks in terms of a “power confrontation” with China and Russia. In fact, since 2015 Turkey seems to have taken advantage of the emergence of the “Russian threat” in the Mediterranean to win the favour of the United States and to appear as a reliable and indispensable ally within NATO… The United States has moreover recently and very openly supported the pro-Turkish Libyan camp while deploring the “escalation” represented by the Russian presence in Libya. In this context, the Turkish naval forces have every interest in protecting their actions in Libya through NATO: use of codes and identifiers of the alliance, including during escort missions between Turkey and Libya, refusal of any cooperation between NATO’s Sea Guardian operation and the European operation Irini, opposition to any involvement of NATO in monitoring operations of the embargo off Libya…

Strengthened by this (as a minimum) passive support of the United States and NATO towards Turkey, the European forces then quickly find themselves isolated and even sometimes divided as to the strategy to be adopted, once again confirming Turkey’s policy of fait accompli. Operation Irini thus very often comes down to the Franco-Greek couple alone, in line, however, with the growing strategic partnership between the two countries. However, Europe’s security could also be at stake in Libya, given the possibility of an unprecedented pro-Turkish geographic continuum[6] in the Mediterranean, which would facilitate both the isolation of Cyprus from the European continent and Turkish migration blackmail vis-à-vis the EU (Turkey would then eventually control two of the three main crossing points for migrants to Europe) .

**

The naval frictions imposed by Turkey in the Mediterranean thus seem to be dictated by a “neo-Ottoman” geopolitical ambition that seeks to turn the Eastern Mediterranean into a “pro-Turkish lake”. With the passive support of the United States and Europe’s reluctance to fully accept the balance of power, Turkey could then seek to pursue this “expansionist” vision in Libya and Cyprus before turning more resolutely to the Dodecanese. Unless there is a major political change in Turkey (or even in the United States) in the coming years, it therefore seems very likely that a lasting balance of power, which is moreover consubstantial with the conception of international relations in the Middle East, will be established between Ankara and the European nations. This deteriorated context could, however, offer a great opportunity for Europe if it wanted to break the Turkish ‘logic’ by taking up precisely this challenge of ‘strength,’ thus undoing once and for all the Gordian knot of European military weakness.

[1] This embargo was extended for another year on June 5, 2020 by a unanimous vote of the United Nations Security Council. It authorises inspections of ships on high seas.

[2] Former Chief of Staff of the Turkish Navy (who was dismissed from his functions on May 18, 2020, apparently for simple domestic political reasons). He is considered to be the founder of this doctrine and the organiser of the Turkish engagement in Libya.

[3] Some of them in 1987 and 1996 also caused serious crises between both countries.

[4] In March 2018, Turkish ships forced an ENI ship to stop drilling in Eastern Cyprus.

[5] An agreement that would allow Turkey to extend the area of its continental shelf by 30%, which would prevent Athens, Nicosia and Cairo from reaching an agreement to delimit their respective maritime zones and would torpedo projects related to the exploitation of these gas reserves.

[6] The last “Turkish” presence in Libya ended in 1911… shortly before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Does the resignation of the Chief of Staff of the Turkish Navy mark a pause in the escalation of tensions between Turks and the West in the eastern Mediterranean? – by Jean Marcou

Click here to read the original (French) version of this article

 

On May 15, 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed a decree dismissing Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı as Chief of Staff of the Navy and assigning him to the General Staff. The man who appeared to be the architect of the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement of last November finally resigned three days later after explaining that he perceived this reassignment as a sanction.

This departure naturally raises questions. As a specialist of Turkey, Jean Marcou, a university professor and holder of the Mediterranean-Middle East Chair at Sciences Po Grenoble, gives us his analysis.

 

Does this resignation have an impact on Turkish domestic policy?

Although it has been little noticed, this downgrading of Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı is an indication which also concerns internal politics and the Turkish political regime itself. Indeed, for the first time, the President of the Republic is in a way dismissing a high-ranking military officer. Admittedly, since 2010-2011, through his strong influence henceforth over the Supreme Military Council – YAŞ – (which provides for appointments and promotions each year during a session traditionally held at the end of July or the beginning of August), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had already taken control of the Army and reduced its political influence. However, this domination did not start a rather routinary honorary curriculum at the top of the command, ensuring the succession to the general staff of military personnel, trained before the AKP came to power. On 15 May, he downgraded a leading military officer. Although it is a logical continuation of the cleansing and reforms that took place after the coup of 2016, the event has another dimension, as it shows a kind of normalisation of interventions of the civil power over the military command. It may be added that the measure is quite clever, as it hits a military officer considered to be close to the presidency. Seeming not to lend itself to the accusation of bias, it ultimately increases a little more the executive’s control over military command.

 

What does this case tell us about the Turkish army itself?

With regard to the Turkish army, this event shows that it is now divided and confronted by rivalries. Rear Admiral Yaycı also alludes to “slander” and even a ” conspiracy ” in his letter of resignation, presented on 18 May and made public. It should be recalled that Cihat Yaycı is considered to be one of the leaders of a tendency, driven by “Eurasian” ideas, and therefore rather anti-Western, which has had free rein in recent months, especially during the campaign of Turkish gas prospecting off the coast of Cyprus or during the maritime and defence agreements with Libya, signed on November 27, 2019. Above all, he is regarded as being at the instigator of the maritime doctrine of the “blue homeland” (Mavi Vatan), a thesis claiming to defend Turkey’s rights in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, which the Presidency has not hesitated to endorse in order to justify the latest developments in its foreign policy. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also publicly paid tribute to Rear Admiral Yaycı for his role in Libya, but also for his fight against the Gülenists, considered to be behind the coup d’état of 2016.

However, this over-mediatised and over-politicised military personality exasperates the block of legitimist servicemen who currently lead the Turkish army and who are mainly composed of General Hulusi Akar, Chief of Staff (2015-2018), who became Minister of Defence in 2018, General Yaşar Güler, Chief of Staff (since 2018) and General Ümit Dündar, Commander of the Land Army. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has formed an alliance with these old-style military leaders, who accepted his regime and remained loyal to him in 2016 during the attempted putsch. As such, he still needs them in the current context (of military interventions in Syria and Libya), especially Hulusi Akar. The latter appears to be the key figure in the new relations between the army and the government. After the coup of 2016, the army was placed under the authority of the Minister of Defence, but the latter is none other than a general who was previously this army’s chief of staff.

This is not the first time that Erdoğan sacrifices apparently close military personnel to preserve his relationship with the army’s dominant trend. Already, on December 31, 2018, a disguised downgrading had sidelined General Metin Temel, commander of the 2nd Army, who had led the military operation in Afrin in January-March 2018. Highly popular and media-savvy, Temel took the liberty of publicly taking pro-government political positions.

It should be noted, however, that Generals Güler and Dündar will soon be retiring… In this regard, it will be interesting to observe what the next Supreme Military Council will do at the end of July-early August and to analyse those who will then be promoted to the General Staff.

 

What is the strategic impact of the event?

Beyond the reasons linked to internal political balances and the relations of political power with the army, the dismissal of Rear Admiral Yaycı opportunely gives the impression that Turkey is seeking a break in the escalation of tensions observed in recent months in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly off the coast of Cyprus. During the last Idlib crisis in Syria in February 2020, Ankara measured to what extent its game of convergence with Russia could be dangerous if it was not counterbalanced by maintaining a credible relationship with the West. Despite the current joint Russian-Turkish patrols and the ceasefire that has been established, the situation there remains fragile. In Libya, of course, Turkey can boast about having saved the government in Tripoli by giving the Russian defence system Pantsir, which equips General Haftar’s forces, a pawn, but this has irritated the Russians and the situation remains uncertain. Russia has often made Turkey pay a heavy price for such misdemeanours. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had several phone conversations with Vladimir Putin in recent weeks and also seeks to maintain dialogue with Russia.

But in this context, rekindling ties with the West, proving that one is a NATO ally that is still in a position to intercept Russian aircraft in the Black Sea – as was the case on May 21 with Bulgarian and Romanian aircraft – remains equally important. The downgrading of Rear-Admiral Cihat Yaycı, who holds the “blue homeland” theory, mainly directed against Greece and Cyprus, may also be a sign in the direction of Europe to calm the tensions caused by Turkish gas exploration campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean. Several times in recent weeks, General Hulusi Akar, Minister of Defence, has expressed his conviction that the dispute with Greece could not lead to armed conflict. Economically, it should not be forgotten that links with the EU are also vital for Ankara. And, in the context of the post-Covid-19 crisis, the country has an interest in looking after its fundamentals with Brussels and pursuing its policy of doing the splits, cultivating a convergence of interests with Russia while preserving the security provided by its membership of the Atlantic Alliance. Another indication to be observed in this respect will be the activation of the Russian S-400 system by Turkey. This activation has been postponed, using the epidemic crisis as a pretext. What will happen next?

The value of war studies and wargaming to decipher strategic dilemmas in the Levant – par Pierre Razoux

 

While the strategic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis still seem uncertain in the Levant and the fighting continues methodically in the Idlib pocket in Syria, several Israeli experts, commentators and politicians took advantage of the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon[1] (June 2000) to question the relevance of the strategies applied since 1982[2]. Was it necessary to invade Lebanon and stay there? Would it not have been better to favour an air campaign without the presence of ground troops, with the exception of occasional raids by special forces? Was it not preferable to maintain a buffer zone in southern Lebanon?

These debates obviously echo the strategic dilemma that Israel faces today with Iran and Hezbollah, both in Lebanon and in Syria[3]. For some, the frontal approach being inevitable in the long run, the Israeli army must be ready to invade, if necessary, portions of Syrian and Lebanese territories. For others, the air approach, based on regular air and cruise missile strikes, would be sufficient to stem the challenge posed by Iran and Hezbollah. For others however, an indirect approach based on clandestine actions, cyber warfare and economic sanctions should be favoured. Finally, for a minority, the solution to this strategic dilemma will necessarily involve a discreet dialogue with Tehran which will make it possible to reconcile the minimal expectations of all sides, which does not, moreover, prevent the parallel conduct of “kinetic” operations, to use a term which is fashionable among Anglo-Saxon thinkers[4].

Two other dilemmas divide the community of experts examining the short-term evolution of the Levant. The first concerns the outcome of the Battle of Idlib in Syria, which stigmatises all the rivalries between the present and influential players in the Levant. The second concerns the possible outbreak of a third Intifada to unblock the Palestinian file, after the announcement of the probable annexation of the Jordan Valley and new parts of the West Bank.

In the face of these dilemmas, war studies and wargaming are two distinct but complementary academic approaches that provide empirical answers.

What do war studies and recent military history teach us?

War studies, a fashionable term developed by Anglo-Saxon academics[5], are a broader approach of a classical military and battle history – popularised at the end of the twentieth century in France by the Military History Centre of the Paul Valéry University of Montpellier under the auspices of Professor André Martel, then by the Chair of Defence History at the IEP of Aix-en-Provence. Since then, several universities and associations have taken up the torch and are developing teaching and research programmes devoted to polemology. Within the Ministry of Defence, the Institute of Strategic Research of the Military School (IRSEM) strives to federate studies on war, as this discipline is not recognised by the French university nomenclature, unlike in Anglo-Saxon countries. This discipline is nevertheless very useful in deciphering the contemporary conflicts in the Levant.

Let us first look at the military interventions conducted from Palestine, then Israel, towards the north (current paradigm). Since the British breakthrough in Palestine in 1918 against the Ottoman army, the fundamentals remain unchanged. Given the highly compartmentalised topography, there are only three axes of progression from what is the Israeli territory today: the first runs along the coastline to Beirut; the second diverges slightly north-east from the Golan Heights to reach Damascus after having meandered through the basaltic high heights; the third sinks between the first two, along the Beqaa valley, between two mountain ranges, to cut the transversal axis linking Beirut to Damascus. Each time, strategists had to arbitrate between these three axes. In 1941, when the British troops launched an assault on the territories of the Levant managed by Vichy France, they chose to advance in parallel along these three axes; encountering fierce resistance, their progression proved slow and costly, but the disproportion of forces and British air superiority left the French troops, who had no reinforcements, no chance.

During the War of Independence of 1948-49, Haganah, on the defensive on the northern front, was unable to break through the Lebanese and Syrian fronts. In June 1967, during the Six Day War, the Israeli army favoured the Syrian axis, seizing the Golan Heights without too much difficulty. During this war, the Israeli air force gained air superiority and opened the way for infantry and armoured vehicles. It was a remake of the Second World War blitzkrieg. For the price of its passivity, Lebanon had to accept the massive presence of Palestinian feddayin on its soil, starting the vicious circle of a long and deadly civil war that only ended in 1990.

In October 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, the Israeli army counterattacked in the direction of Damascus, ignoring Lebanon. This time it was its tanks and commandos that opened the way for the air force by destroying the batteries of ground-to-air missiles that challenged Israeli air superiority. It is a question of piercing what is today called an A2/AD bubble. The lesson for the Israelis is that no ground-to-air defence is invulnerable if one accepts to put a price tag on it by agreeing to a certain level of losses. Despite everything, the Israeli counteroffensive was bogged down by the wear and tear of the combatants, limited logistics and pressure from the Soviets making it very clear to Israel that they would not tolerate a direct threat to the Syrian capital. In fact, Tsahal had to retro-pedal and return the portions of Syrian territory that had been conquered (except for the Golan Heights annexed eight years later).

In 1978, the Israeli army cautiously launched a punitive operation against the PLO entrenched in South Lebanon (like Hezbollah today) along the coastal axis to the Litani River, but had to withdraw under UN pressure.

In June 1982, this same army, considerably modernised, set off in the direction of Beirut, this time along the two parallel axes of the coast and the Beqaa Valley, after having clearly indicated to the Syrian authorities that it did not intend to carry the hostilities into Syria. In fact, the Syrians, the Israelis and the various Lebanese and Palestinian militias were fighting each other only in Lebanon. Once again, the Israeli air force conquered air superiority by playing cleverly with the combination of means, making massive use of UAVs drones (for the first time in the region) and electronic warfare, preventively destroying SAM batteries and curbing the Syrian aircraft after having blinded it. This operational success will not prevent a strategic defeat, similar to what the American armed forces will experience in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

After three years of presence in Beirut (1982-85), followed by 15 years of occupation of a buffer strip at the Israeli-Lebanese border (1985-2000), the Israeli authorities, exhausted by incessant harassment hostilities and by the deterioration of their image on the international scene, threw in the towel and withdrew from the land of the Cedars, taking in their luggage their suppletives from the South Lebanese Army[6]. Opposite, the Hezbollah fighters claim victory and feel their wings spreading, multiplying the provocations that will lead to the Second Lebanon War.

In the summer of 2006, Tsahal resumes and once again launches an assault on Lebanon, voluntarily abandoning the Syrian front. The Israeli strategists were hesitant about the strategy, the path, the choice of means and the best way to coordinate them. For the first time, Israeli fighters refuse to open fire against the entrenched positions of Hezbollah and the Shiite militia, even if it has to give ground, inflicts heavy losses on Tsahal, while harassing the Israeli population with rockets and ballistic missiles. The Israelis discover at their expense the effectiveness of an asymmetrical war that they have long practised and mastered. Like the Americans against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, but also against Serbia in 1999, air power shows its limits; it cannot win a war on its own, even if it wears out the adversary. At some point, its action must be combined with that of ground troops, involving the crucial decision to engage fighters on the ground.

Since then, Israeli strategists who have launched a discreet war of attrition against Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards deployed in Syria have not stopped preparing their revenge. They are wondering how to reconcile both the Lebanese and the Syrian fronts. For the time being, they are content with a mixture of occasional air strikes, clandestine actions, information and cyber warfare, but above all economic warfare. As long as neither of the two belligerents wishes to escalate, this recipe seems to work; but what would happen tomorrow if one or the other, for reasons of prestige, national cohesion or political survival, chose escalation?

Let us now turn to the Idlib pocket in northwest Syria, the second hot spot in the Levant. The intensive fighting there seems to signify the end of the civil war that has been bloodying the country since 2011. In many ways, this conflict is reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). It started with a rebellion and an attempt to overthrow the regime in place, then became international and ideological through the gradual involvement of regional and global players. Each of them cynically – but pragmatically – pushed their own interests, including economic ones. The forces of each are intertwined in a puzzle that resembles a kaleidoscope rather than a tidy battle. As in Spain, it is the most implacable camp, mobilising the majority of the population and the most militarily supported, that will undoubtedly win in the end.

What’s at stake in the battle of Idlib today? Quite simply, the future of the balance of power in the Levant[7]. As in Spain in the late 1930s, everyone is pushing their own pawns. The Syrian regime wants to reconquer its territory. The rebels and the jihadists, discreetly supported by Ankara, are challenging Bashar el-Assad and pushing their radical Islamist agenda, hoping to resurrect guerrilla warfare in other parts of the territory. The Turkish government sees it as a tool of harm and negotiation to force the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian supporters to make concessions in Syria[8], but also in Iraq (as demonstrated by the Turkish operation ”Eagle Claw”) and in Libya (against Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates). For their part, the Iranians are seeking to secure a land corridor towards Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast to more easily supply their Lebanese affiants and to export their hydrocarbons to the Mediterranean by freeing themselves from Hormuz, the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb and the Suez Canal. Maintaining the status quo allows them to justify their military presence in Syria to help Bashar el-Assad, while maintaining a power of harm against Israel, Turkey and especially Russia. The presence of jihadists in the immediate vicinity of the Kremlin’s troops does not displease them, as long as it does not threaten their own positions.

For its part, the Kremlin seeks to push back as far as possible the jihadists of all kinds who threaten the Russian bridgehead in Syria rooted between Tartus and Latakia. It also seeks to demonstrate that the Syrian regime cannot win without the decisive support of the Russian army, while at the same time preventing Iran from gaining access to the Mediterranean. For their part, the monarchies of the Gulf are divided. Qatar firmly supports the Turkish position out of empathy with the Muslim Brotherhood. The United Arab Emirates has resolved to support Damascus out of hatred of the same Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia is torn apart; tempted to support the Syrian rebels, it does not wish to favour Turkish President Erdogan who poses as a herald of the Sunni cause and who remains a fervent advocate of the Islamic republics, a vital threat to the absolute monarchies of the Gulf.

Let us now go down a little further south. The upcoming commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the outbreak of the second Intifada (September 2000) raises the spectre of a new insurrection in reaction to the famous “Peace Plan of the Century” conceived by the Trump family. Here again, what do war studies teach us? That while the first Intifada (1987-1993) led to the Oslo Accords (now buried) because violence had remained below a certain threshold, the second Intifada (2000-2005), which had shattered that threshold, only resulted in the mutual weakening of both sides. In each case and given the reality of the balance of power, the Palestinians could not win and the Israelis could not lose. This seems more than ever to be the case today.

What does wargaming teach us?

Let us briefly recall what a wargame is: it is an elaborate form of strategic simulation in the form of an interactive board game that reproduces a crisis situation or armed confrontation past, present or hypothetical. By identifying with a camp, whatever it may be, each side understands what the other is really looking for, thereby contributing to anticipation and foresight[9]. It is a question of learning and reflecting by playing, testing options and strategies with a right to make mistakes since no life is really at stake[10]. The Anglo-Saxons[11], Russians and Israelis have been practicing this discipline for a long time, which has not prevented them from making mistakes in certain operations, because wargaming is neither a crystal ball nor a magic wand. It is a tool designed to stimulate participants’ intellectual agility by forcing them to think like their opponents and rivals, in a context marked by extreme uncertainty and unpredictability. It is therefore a pedagogical tool that contributes to forging leadership by forcing participants to make decisions while prioritising their actions.[12] In France, wargaming did not really emerge in institutional circles until 2014 following a series of strategic surprises[13] (annexation of the Crimea, territorial extension of Daech, Russian and then Turkish interventions in Syria) aggravated in 2016 by the election of an impetuous and unlikely American president.

Since 2017, the wargame FITNA – GLOBAL WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST, conceived by the author of this article, is used by analysts, military, institutional experts and academics to think about the evolution of conflict and power relations in the Middle East[14]. The illustration below provides an overview of the state of forces prevailing today between Israel and its Lebanese and Syrian neighbours.

Some 50 test parties replicating a large-scale Israeli air-land offensive towards Lebanon and Syria in an attempt to annihilate Hezbollah and push the Iranian contingents present on the ground northwards, came to the following conclusions:

  • Within a few weeks of a determined air-land offensive backed by intensive bombing, the Israeli army reached the suburbs of Beirut or Damascus (and in only 60 per cent of cases if both Beirut and Damascus are targeted) without major difficulty, albeit with significant losses.
  • Tsahal can only seize one of these two capitals if it chooses to forego the other. In other words, conquering both Beirut and Damascus is almost impossible for it, especially since the Syrian capital rapidly benefits from multiple reinforcements coming from Iran, Russia and the Arab world, supported by a significant number of militias of all kinds, as shown in this second illustration.

  • The seizure of Beirut by the Israeli army usually leads to direct military intervention by Iran, as well as a flurry of UN Security Council resolutions.
  • The assault or siege of Damascus provokes direct military intervention by Russia supported by China and Iran. Under these conditions, the conquest of the Syrian capital by Israel becomes very complicated.
  • As always in recent history, an offensive targeting both Beirut and Damascus (or their southern suburbs) requires progress along three key axes, thereby dividing its forces into three. It is thus extremely difficult for the Israeli army to be sufficiently powerful along these three axes while protecting its rear bases in the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee. Israel’s opponents can therefore counter-attack with a certain degree of success in the direction of the weakest axis.
  • If, on the other hand, Israeli strategists limit their ambitions and renounce from the outset the seizure of Beirut and Damascus, they can easily make progress along these three strategic axes to establish a buffer zone large enough (but not too large) to protect Israeli territory from ground attacks and rocket fire from their main adversaries, especially Hezbollah. But this buffer strip does not protect them from ballistic missile launches. It is therefore understandable why the Israeli government is determined to integrate the Iranian ballistic arsenal into the negotiations between the international community and Tehran.
  • If it reaches the suburbs of Beirut and Damascus, the Israeli army does not have the means to remain there permanently as soon as Israel’s adversaries massively engage their militias to harass and exhaust the spearhead units of Tsahal. Quite rapidly, the level of Israeli losses increases and this war of attrition forces the Israeli staff to castle from one front to the other (Syria-Lebanon) and to carry out a gradual withdrawal towards Israel in order to shorten both its defence and logistical lines.
  • The Israeli army manages to maintain itself sustainably in the suburbs of Damascus and Beirut in only 10% of cases, as a result of gross mistakes by the Syrians, Russians and Iranians. On the other hand, it remains in southern Lebanon in two-thirds of cases if it has not simultaneously launched an offensive towards Syria.
  • In the event of an Israeli offensive in Syria, the Syrian army can only survive if it carries out a rapid strategic retreat towards Syria’s centre of gravity (Quseir-Homs-Palmyra-Bir Basin quadrilateral), entrusting the defence of Damascus to the Republican Guard and the 4th Syrian Armoured Division, Russian paratroopers and the Iranian Al-Quds force.
  • In any case, Russia has the means to challenge Israeli air superiority locally, limiting the impact of Israeli air power and forcing Israeli strategists to rapidly exhaust their stock of cruise missiles and other long-range missiles. Similarly, the presence of Russian ground troops acts as a deterrent shield, as Israel is reluctant to directly confront a nuclear-weapon state, which is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
  • In two-thirds of the cases in which Israel invades Lebanon or Syria, the Palestinians take advantage of the dispersal of Israeli forces and the emotion of the international community to trigger a third Intifada, weakening the Israeli strategic position and forcing Tsahal to make crucial choices.
  • If the Israelis choose a strategy of harassment of Hezbollah by refusing a ground offensive and favouring massive recourse to their firepower (aviation, cruise missiles, armed drones, artillery) combined with cybernetic offensives and airborne raids by their elite troops (apparently the top option of the strategy chosen for the moment by Tsahal’s GHQ), they can stand up to Iran and Hezbollah as long as these two actors deploy only a fraction of their forces against Israel. If Hezbollah commits most of its forces to a confrontation with Israel, regardless of which side is responsible for the outbreak of hostilities, and if Iran sends substantial reinforcements to Syria or even Lebanon, this strategy is no longer sufficient to reduce the threat. All the more so as the massive use of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s ballistic arsenal generally attracts the Israelis into a massive air-land intervention (see above).

There is no doubt that Tsahal’s GHQ, which has been practicing wargaming for a long time, has drawn its own conclusions from the many simulation sessions it has been conducting for years.

Let us now focus on the ongoing offensives around the Idlib pocket for the control of north-west Syria. The illustration below shows the state of the forces present at the beginning of 2020, before the Covid-19 crisis.

The results of about 40 test games involving more than 200 participants in total lead to the following findings:

  • If Turkey stops supplying the Idlib pocket, the Syrians and Russians will inevitably regain control. Reconquering Idlib takes less than a year (usually six months) once the rebels and jihadists entrenched around Idlib are effectively isolated.
  • While Turkey continues to assist entrenched fighters in the Idlib pocket, the Syrians and Russians regain control in 80 per cent of cases. By counter-attacking, the Turkish army and its local auxiliaries reconquer Idlib in two out of three cases, opening a new cycle of confrontation that prolongs the conflict and brutally increases international tension, with Turks, Russians and Syrians coming face to face. In most cases, the Syrians and Russians eventually reconquer and secure the Idlib pocket sustainably, albeit with heavy losses.
  • As long as the Idlib pocket is active, the Syrians, supported or not by the Russians, do not have the military means to drive the Turkish army out of its bridgeheads in Afrin and Jaraboulous (in Syrian territory).
  • Once the Idlib pocket is reconquered, the Syrians, discreetly supported by the Russians or even the Iranians, regain control over one of these two Turkish bridgeheads in two-thirds of cases; they reconquer the two bridgeheads in only 10% of cases. In other words, the Turkish government has a 90% chance of retaining at least one military hold in Syria, regardless of the course of the fighting. This is certainly what Turkish President Erdogan is aiming at in order to flatter the nationalist ego of his people, occupy his army and stay in power until 2023, when his country will celebrate the centenary of the Turkish Republic born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
  • In eight out of ten cases, Russia is the key player in the conflict and manages to achieve its objectives: saving the Syrian regime, eradicating the Idlib pocket, securing its military bases as well as the Aleppo-Damascus axis while preventing Iran from accessing the Syrian coast.
  • The longer the conflict lasts, the more likely it is that Iran will be able to maintain itself in Syria by improving its positions there.
  • In the end, it is the Syrian regime that has the most difficult job in achieving its objectives of victory to remain independent. It can only win by remaining closely allied with Russia and Iran. If it loses one of its two supporters, it can no longer win, even if it can still avoid defeat by securing the “useful Syria”.
  • Once the battle of Idlib is over, the only way to durably eradicate Daech from Syria (and thus to prevent it from gangrening Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey) consists in an agreement between the Syrian regime, the Kremlin, Tehran and Ankara (the Astana process).
  • The big losers in this strategic aggiornamento are the Kurds, who in any case have no means of breaking their enclavement and logistical isolation. For in the absence of a major port, neither Syria, Turkey, Iraq nor Iran, which surround them, will ever allow anyone to supply them on a long-term basis.

Of course, beyond the confrontations mentioned in this article, wargaming can be applied to many other theatres of tension or conflict, be it in the Strait of Hormuz, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula or closer to Libya and the Sahel-Saharan strip. The French armies have understood this, since they are setting up wargaming programmes adapted to their needs.

This is why the FMES Institute (https://fmes-france.org/) will, from the start of the academic year in autumn 2020, organize monthly workshops on strategic wargaming for students, academics, industrialists, institutions, the military, elected representatives or journalists who wish to acquire different keys of understanding in order to better decipher the complexity of current conflicts, particularly in the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin. The FMES will also organise, on request, tailor-made wargaming sessions.

Finally, in order to contribute to strategic thinking, the FMES proposes to bring together in a dedicated section articles, studies and research papers from academics and military officers who analyse current or potential conflicts and who question past wars in order to shed new and original light on those of the present.

 

***

[1] In June 2000, Ehud Barak, Prime Minister and Minister of Defence of Israel, ordered the withdrawal of the Tsahal from southern Lebanon occupied since the “Peace in Galilee” operation launched on June 6, 1982. This first Lebanon War demoralised Israeli society and caused 1,220 deaths, and nearly a thousand more to its auxiliaries of the South Lebanese Army.

[2] Efraim Karsh, “Israel’s flight from South Lebanon 20 years on”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1577, May 22, 2020, https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/israels-south-lebanon-withdrawal/ ; Gershon Hacoen, “Israel’s frustrating experience in South Lebanon”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1581, May 25, 2020, https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/israel-south-lebanon/ ; Udi Dekel, “Unilateral moves as game changers: 20 years since the withdrawal from Lebanon”, INSS, May 26, 2020, https://www.inss.org.il/publication/annexation-and-the-withdrawal-from-lebanon/ ; Hanan Shai, The 1982 Lebanon “War and its repercussions for Israel’s National Security”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1596, June 4, 2020, https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/1982-lebanon-repercussions/

[3] Yaakov Lappin, “Gantz’s challenges and agenda as Israel’s new Defense Minister”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1582, May 26, 2020, https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/benny-gantz-defense-minister/.

[4] “Ex-Mossad Chiefs discuss the Iranian threats”, Atlantic Council, 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/q-a-ex-mossad-chiefs-discuss-the-iranian-threat/

[5] Jean-Baptiste Jeangène-Vilmer, « Le tournant des études sur la guerre en France », RDN n° 800, May 2017, pp. 51-61.

[6] The SLA includes a majority of Lebanese Christians, but also a significant number of Shiite fighters from the villages of southern Lebanon, who today live in Israel.

[7] Pierre Razoux, « Quelle sortie de crise au Levant ? », RDN n° 822, Summer 2019, pp. 71-76.

[8] Notably the preservation of the Turkish army’s bridgeheads at Afrine and Jaraboulous (on Syrian territory), as well as the establishment of a corridor to isolate the Kurdish fighters in Syria from those of the Turkish PKK.

[9] Pierre Razoux, « Le wargaming, outil pédagogique pour une réflexion innovante », Défense n° 198, IHEDN, pp. 36-37.

[10] For a complete overview of wargaming, see the excellent work by Antoine Bourguilleau, Jouer la guerre : histoire du wargame, Passé composé / Ministère des Armées, 2020.

[11] As evidenced by the Wargaming Handbook published in 2017 by the Development, Concepts & Doctrine Centre of the British Ministry of Defence (UK MOD).

[12] Guillaume Levasseur, « De l’utilité du wargaming », Note n° 47 of IRSEM, 2017, https://www.irsem.fr/data/files/irsem/documents/document/file/2449/NR_IRSEM_n47_2017.pdf

[13] This was evidenced by the debates held at the Ecole Militaire on the occasion of the two Serious Games Forum organised on 9 November 2018 and 27 January 2020 by the Serious Games Network France association (https://sgnfr.wordpress.com/) and sponsored by IRSEM et l’IHEDN.

[14]https://www.dropbox.com/s/btjhjht69i0wynt/Bon%20de%20commande%20Fitna%20-%20Flyer%20fr-en.pdf?dl=0 ; https://www.nutspublishing.com/eshop/fitna-en ; the rules and maps in French can be downloaded from the publisher’s website. This wargame expects to simulate today what the iconic Gulf Strike (Victory Games) used to di in the 1980’s and 1990’s.