Middle East Weekly Roundup: December 12th – 18th, 2015

JMEPP’s new Middle East Weekly Roundup is compiled and written by JMEPP editors.

Shifting Authority for Countering Violent Extremism in the U.S.

A six-member panel of experts has expressed uncertainty about the effectiveness of an online U.S. State Department program to discredit the Islamic State. Current and former U.S. officials have said that “a review by outside experts cast new doubt on the U.S. government’s ability to serve as a credible voice against the terrorist group’s propaganda.” As a possible alternative, the U.S. Department of Defense received authorization to counter Islamic State messaging. There are currently “substantial gaps in the ability of the Department of Defense to counter Islamic State propaganda and messaging,” according to congressional testimony by the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The Pentagon’s new authority to act in this area may signal a deliberate narrowing of these capability gaps.

Of further interest in this area, the New York Times recently published a discussion group titled “Where Jihadism Grows.” The panel investigated the question of whether and to what extent Saudi Arabia is responsible for the growth of jihadism, due to its close ties to fundamentalist clerics.

More Negative Reports on Regional Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab has released its 2015 overall statistics report, showing high infection rates in the Middle East. Of note, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and the UAE have begun to suffer from a rising trend of financial malware designed to steal money via popular online banking applications. Algeria, Qatar, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Syria and the UAE were all rated poorly on overall risks of online or local malware infection. Highlighting these regional threats, Managed, another cybersecurity firm, has taken down a series of fake Dubai government jobs websites created to fool users into giving up their credit card information.

Israel Approves Leviathan Natural Gas Field Development

After more than a year of political hand wringing, negotiations, and stalls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel announced on Thursday a final government approval for the politically divisive deal to allow an American-Israeli energy consortium, Delek Drilling and Noble Energy, to develop the offshore Leviathan natural gas field. Mr. Netanyahu emphasized the deal’s security ramifications, claiming development of an estimated 18 trillion cubic feet of natural gas will “give the country more energy options”. Though the deal was previously opposed by the Israeli Anti-Trust Authority as giving ownership rights to a duopoly, pressure built from all sides and ultimately culminated with Mr. Netanyahu’s approval. As this past summer saw Italian energy firm Eni discover an estimated 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Zohr field in Egyptian waters, much speculation has surrounded Leviathan’s future viability as a source of export. Discussions also surrounded perceptions of Israel’s poor business environment, questioning whether it was wise to invest in its natural gas development. However, this latest political development has finally removed Israel’s self-imposed barrier to development of its largest field. It remains to be seen, however, whether this will reverse the tide of negativity surrounding Israel’s natural gas sector or will lead  to backlash from those opposed to the deal.


Countries in Brief

The Peninsula

Qatar: Qatar has announced that it is sending high-level officials to work on the immediate release of its citizens who were abducted during a hunting trip in Iraq.

Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia announced a 34-state Islamic military alliance against terrorism. This new alliance will “share information and train, equip and provide forces if necessary for the fight against Islamic State militants,” according to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. States in the new coalition include Egypt, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan and several African nations.

Yemen: A ceasefire took effect in Yemen after being postponed for 12 hours as warring sides began U.N.-brokered peace talks in Switzerland. Limited violations of the truce were reported shortly after, with several mortar rounds hitting government forces in the southwestern province of Taiz, according to a Yemeni security official. UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi confirmed that the talks had begun at an undisclosed location. He said the two delegations taking part in the talks consist of 12 negotiators and six advisers. Ahead of the truce, clashes shook the flashpoint city of Taiz and coalition warplanes bombed rebel positions. Before the ceasefire went into effect, both parties escalated attacks, causing the deaths of two senior Gulf commanders in Yemen. In the nine months since the war erupted, more than 2 million Yemenis have been forced to flee their homes.

The Levant

Iran: Iran on Thursday started registering candidates for an influential clerical body that monitors the country’s supreme leader and picks a successor after his death.

The global nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, has ended its 12-year investigation into concerns that Iran might be developing nuclear weapons.

Iraq: Hundreds of heavily-armed ISIS militants launched a “significant” 17-hour assault on Kurdish forces in Iraq. The fighters were eventually repelled with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.

Turkey and Israel: Despite recent strains in relations with its neighbors, Turkey looks to be improving them with an unlikely one: Israel. Five years after the storming of the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara by Israeli commandos, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists, Israel and Turkey have reached an understanding on the outlines of a reconciliation agreement that would end the poor relations between the two nations, resulting in a normalization of ties. Israeli officials, including Joseph Ciechanover, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s envoy to Turkey, and National Security Advisor and soon-to-be head of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, agreed with Turkish under-Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirioglu on most of the principles of the agreement this past Wednesday in a meeting in Zurich.

With the December 7th announcement of Yossi Cohen’s appointment as head of the Mossad, and his marked skills in diplomacy–diplomacy being one of three priorities for the Mossad as dictated by Prime Minister Netanyahu–one has to wonder if his appointment is in any way connected to his behind-the-scenes efforts with rejuvenating ties with one-time ally Turkey.  As seen previously, however, thaws in the Israeli-Turkish relationship since 2010 have been short-lived and difficult to come by, which may explain the tempered atmosphere surrounding these talks so far.  

North Africa

Algeria: The vice president of Algeria’s national oil company, Sonatrach, announced the company’s intentions of raising crude output by 5% in the coming year, as well as their intentions to offer additional resource exploration rights to foreign companies in an effort to boost foreign direct investment. Analysts fear that these steps may backfire given that the global oil market is currently oversupplied.

Cevital, Algeria’s national food processing, mining and steel company, announced it would be building a corn-based ethanol plant in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state. The company is reportedly already buying $1.5 billion in raw materials from Brazil per year.

Algeria’s Minister of Maghreb Affairs, African Union and the Arab League, Abdelkader Messahel, hosted a meeting this week in preparation for the 2nd Algerian-Iranian High Joint Commission, stating that Algeria and Iran “share willingness to [further] strengthen economic cooperation”.

Today marks the opening of the Arab Film Festival in Constantine, featuring eleven films produced in 2015 by filmmakers from around the Arab world. The festival will be held until December 24th and is one of many events that Constantine has hosted in light of its nomination as the Capital of Arab Culture for 2015.

Egypt: The UK concluded a highly-anticipated review of the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities, resulting in British Prime Minister David Cameron ruling out the banning of the organization on the basis of terrorist activities, while admitting that the group sported an “ambiguous relationship with violent extremism.” Several countries in the region, with Egypt at the forefront, are said to have placed pressure on the UK and other countries to ban the Brotherhood. Egypt, for its part, praised the report, hailing it as “an important… step forward for the UK towards combatting.. extremists.

The European Parliament called on Egypt to immediately release Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish-Egyptian citizen, who has been imprisoned in Egypt since 2013 after he was arrested during a protest against the ousting of former president Mohamed Morsi.

Libya: A historic agreement was signed yesterday between representatives from Libya’s two warring political parties, marking the culmination of the UN-brokered effort that had been underway for over a year. The parties agreed to the formation of a national unity government, which analysts and Libyans hope will bring the civil war to an end.

News broke this week regarding a group of several dozen members of the U.S. special forces who were “chased away” from Libya after encountering a local militia group. Reports claim that the U.S. forces had been flown there in an effort to provide support to government troops.

Morocco: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon thanked Morocco for its role in hosting the UN-brokered Libyan peace effort in the resort town of Skhirat.

Tunisia: This week marked the five year anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street vendor whose death triggered the Arab Spring. Tunisia, for its part, kept its commemoration low key, with the Prime Minister Habib Essid holding a small event in Sidi Bouzid.

Tunisia cracked down on homosexuals this week, sentencing six students to three years in prison on sodomy charges. Human Rights Watch blasted the sentencing, describing it as “medieval”.