Europe is progressively being sucked into the Middle East and North Africa’s myriad conflicts. As if wars on its doorstep in Libya and Syria were not enough, UAE support for an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline that could hurt Qatar economically — combined with Greek, Cypriot and French opposition to Turkish moves — leaves Europe with few, if any, options but to get involved.
Europe’s headaches just got worse. Its efforts to contain wars on its doorstep in Libya and Syria have failed at a moment that Europe is struggling to control a pandemic and reverse its economic fallout.
Proxy wars that pit the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey have spilled out of Libya and Syria into the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole.
European nations, including France, Greece, and Cyprus, feel threatened by Turkey’s use of Libya to extend its grip on gas-rich regional waters in violation of international law. As a result, Middle Eastern and North African disputes are becoming European problems.
Libya’s internationally recognized Islamist Government of National Accord (GNA), backed by Turkish military might, has forced rebels led by Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Russia, Egypt, France and the UAE to retreat in recent weeks from western Libya and fight to maintain control of key cities in the center of the country.
A statement last month by the foreign ministers of France, Greece, Cyprus, the UAE, and Egypt made their concerns clear.
The statement condemned Turkey’s “illegal activities” in the Eastern Mediterranean. It called on Turkey to “fully respect the sovereignty and the sovereign rights of all states in their maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Israel was conspicuously absent among the signatories even though it maintains close relations with all of them.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a prominent Israeli think tank, warned that “given that Israel’s ties with Turkey have been highly problematic and relations with Russia remain delicate, Jerusalem needs to prepare for the possibility of a continuing and even growing regional influence of both, especially in light of Washington’s continued reluctance to assume a more active diplomatic or military role.”
So does Europe, which at the European Union level has so far remained on the sidelines at its peril.
“Now that the catastrophic consequences of European inaction are evident and Haftar no longer has a chance to seize power, a (European) policy shift is both possible and indispensable,” said Libya scholar Wolfram Lacher.
“Two key goals should guide European policies: first, safeguard Libya’s unity; second, counter Russian influence in Libya as a matter of priority. The U.S. shares both goals. But Europeans will only be able to act in unison if the French position shifts away from its relative tolerance for Russia and adversarial stance towards Turkey,” Mr. Lacher suggested.
Mr. Lacher appears to believe that countering Russia would not only help thwart the threat posed by Moscow but also prevent Turkey and Russia from carving up Libya into spheres of influence, if not separate states.
Arguing that the EU can no longer afford to stand by, Mr. Lacher advised the EU to impose sanctions on Mr. Haftar in a bid to undermine Russian support for his forces.
“In parallel, Western states should finally push their interests in a stable Libya more strongly when engaging with Haftar’s other foreign supporters, particularly Egypt and the UAE, to dissuade them from further cooperation with Russia,” Mr. Lacher said.
Underlying the UAE’s Saudi-backed determination to stymie Turkey is its assertive global campaign to confront any expression of political Islam. The UAE is aided by Egypt, whose president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, came into power in a 2013 Emirati-backed military coup that toppled an elected Muslim Brotherhood president.
Coupled with an agreement between Turkey and the Tripoli-based GNA which extends the two countries maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish involvement in the wars in Libya and Syria appears to have fueled Emirati efforts to suck Europe, and ultimately the United States, into its conflict with Turkey.
Greece and Italy — which was believed to be supporting the GNA prior to Turkey’s intervention — this week signed a maritime boundaries agreement to counter Turkish moves. The accord recognizes Greek territorial waters off its many islands in accordance with the international Law of the Sea. The Turkish-Libyan agreement ignores those rights for a number of Greek islands.
The UAE and its partners in the Eastern Mediterranean were expected to support the Greek-Italian accord.
The UAE is banking on the fact that Turkey’s traditional ties to its NATO allies, Europe and the US, are strained over a host of issues, including Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, the fate of millions of refugees primarily from Syria hosted by Turkey, and Turkey’s relationship with Russia and its acquisition of an S-400 Russian anti-missile defense system.
The UAE has been putting in place the building blocks for enhanced influence in the eastern Mediterranean for some time. Increasingly close ties to Israel, whose relations with Turkey are complex, constitute a cornerstone. So does UAE participation in Greek-led annual military exercises in which Israel, Cyprus, Italy, and the United States also take part.
Containing Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean has taken on greater significance after the UAE’s hopes for a planned EastMed pipeline that would have transported natural gas from Israeli, Cypriot and Lebanese fields via Greece to Italy, were dashed.
The pipeline threatened to replace up to half of Qatari exports to Europe with gas from the Eastern Mediterranean.
Among Qatar’s detractors, the UAE is believed to be the most resistant to finding a compromise that would end the three-year-old UAE-Saudi-led boycott of the Gulf state.
The $7 billion USD, 2,200-kilometre-long pipeline project was effectively put on hold because of the economic fallout of the pandemic and the collapse of energy prices.
A consortium led by France’s Total, which includes Italian oil and gas major ENI and Novatek, Russia’s second largest gas producer, was expected to halt drilling after its first well proved to be dry.
ENI and Total have also suspended plans for six drillings off the coast of Cyprus while ExxonMobil has delayed exploration of its two wells in the area. US explorer Noble Energy together with Shell and Herzliya-based Delek Drilling is likely to follow suit in Israel’s Aphrodite field.
All of that does not seem to deter Turkey. The country’s Official Gazette announced on May 30 that state-owned oil company Turkish Petroleum had been granted 24 exploration licenses that include waters off the coast of Greek islands such as Crete and Rhodes.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’ warning that his country would answer what he called, “the Turkish provocation” if Turkey were to proceed would further draw Europe into the Eastern Mediterranean’s mushrooming imbroglio.
It is a development that would boost Emirati efforts to further corner Turkey internationally even if it would for now likely further dampen prospects for dealing a blow to Qatar.
China-Iran Deal and its implication for the region
From the past few years, the increasing partnership between China and Iran has raised major concerns among many countries. Sinking economy and the recent COVID crisis pushed Iran into the corner and China timely manifested itself as a perfect partner for Iran. The diplomatic ties between these two countries were established in 1971 and over the years China’s demand for energy and Iran’s isolation from the international community brings them together. The recent investment and security pact covered almost every sector from Telecom, banking, ports, railways and dozens of other projects. Though the secret details of the pact were leaked but soon rejected by Iranian officials.
In 2016, Xi Jinping made a state visit to Iran and then laid the structure of this deal. Soon after in 2019, China announced its plan to invest $ 400 billion. Iran’s economy is suffering greatly because of the U.S.A sanctions and needs a lifeline to revive their domestic market. Where one side, most of the companies from different nations pulled out their businesses from Iran, On the other hand, Chinese investment can play a significant role in Iran’s survival. This partnership between these two nations directly challenges U.S.A efforts to cut off Iran from the international market arena. China’s ever-growing aspirations to increase its involvement in the Middle East perfectly sync with the geostrategic location of Tehran. However, Iran’s ambition to become a regional power needs huge investment in its domestic market. That’s where both countries see themselves as an emerging partner.
China-Iran Economic Relationship
As a growing economy, China dependence on Iran’s oil is quite reasonable. Though this relationship is not just based on the energy, but even on the many different aspects. After 2016, China and Iran were agreed to increase their trading relations to $600 billion in the upcoming 10 years. The agreement was concordant with One Belt, One Road framework. A total of 17 agreements were signed, including one which relates to the Iran nuclear programme. The Chinese will help connect Tehran with Mashhad via their high-speed rail technology. After the sanctions levied by the USA and other western countrieson Iran, its dependence on China increased in recent years. The trading relationship is not only limit to purchase of crude oil but even China’s involvement inIran’s upstream and downstream production processes through major investments.From 2005, both countries signed seven upstream production agreement with each other. All these agreements involve the state-owned Chinese companies, which shows the significant presence of China in Iran.
In December 2019, Syrian president while giving an interview to a Chinese media expressed his willingness to join the BRI project and projected Syria as a perfect partner for the Chinese investment. Syria suffered a lot because of the decades of war and wanted to start the reconstruction activities in their country. Iran and China identified themselves as the ally of Syria and they even wanted to make a strategic nexus between these countries. For the reconstruction process, China is helping Syria from Port of Tripoli by setting up it as a logistic base for the reconstruction process. China wanted to link this port with Syria’s “Four sea strategy” and connect the BRI project to the eastern Mediterranean area. This whole economic bloc could challenge the American hegemony in the region. Iran and Syria are already strategic allies in this region and by adding China in this situation, it would promote the autocratic rule in the region to counter America.
The implication for the Region
Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy towards Iran pushed many countries like India and Japan to cut off the trading ties with Tehran. This was seen as the major diplomatic blunder made by the U.S.A because of the one very simple reason that these countries could play a major role to find the middle ground for the talks between Iran and the west.As claimed by the reports, China will increase its partnership to build the ports too, getting a port in the Persian Gulf will provide the major boost to Chinese strategic plans. If China successfully expands its presence in Iran then it will lead to the major conflict between the U.S.A and China. Though China has already invested heavily on the Gwadar port, it will not hesitate to gain an upper hand in the Persian Gulf. From where Beijing can keep its eye on U.S.A movements in the region. India’s investment progress in Iran was slow and that’s the reason recently Iran started the railway track construction work on its own.
The growing instability in the region will further escalate, as the partnership will grow between these countries. China’s ambitions to expand its BRI projects and Syria’s “Four seas strategy” can become a foundation for future projects in the whole region. Syrian President Bashar Assad has promoted this four seas strategy since 2009 that would transform the Damascus into a major trading hub. Syria wanted to form an economic space between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria that will shape a new bloc of nations in the region. This plan includes the four seas of the region from the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf, which makes easy for these nations from investment to transportation.
The expanding partnership will lead to the architecture of a security structure between these three countries and will directly undermine the U.S.A presence in the region. The gradual consolidation of powers based on Anti-American and Anti-west sentiments can even form a proper security alliance where the inclusion of Turkey would be a possible scenario shortly. All these countries kind of having the same political regime one way or another, so for them it will be a great strategy to stop America’s presence from their domestic issues. If U.S.A wants to stop China’s involvement in the region, it needs to involve its key Asian partner, so that there will be some major power players in the region to maintain stability.
Are The U.S. And Its Partners Losing The Grip On Syria’s North East?
The oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor located in Eastern Syria has witnessed another escalation between the local Arab populace and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Unexpectedly for the SDF and the U.S. military, the protesters have established control over a number of towns, and it seems they are willing to go further.
Sources close to the SDF initially reported that the protesters limited their demands by requesting a solution to a number of minor issues, but soon enough it became evident that it was not the case and the issue – and a major one – was the presence of SDF in the area. The demonstrators were quick to turn from chanting slogans to taking control of towns: in a single day they captured all of Shuhayl, Al-Hawayej, Diban and forced the SDF members to leave before blocking the roads.
The protests were sparked by a series of assassinations of influential leaders of Al-Aqidat and Al-Baqara tribes. Three Deir Ezzor sheikhs were killed in less than a week: Sheikh Suleiman Khalaf al-Kassar from Al-Aqidat was shot in Busayra village July 30. The next day Sheikh Suleiman Al-Weis who belonged to Al-Baqara was shot in the head by two gunmen on a motorcycle in Al-Dahla. Finally, Sheikh Muttshar al-Hamoud al-Hifl was shot in the outskirts of Al-Hawayej on Sunday, August 2. His relative Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifl was also wounded in the incident but survived.
In a peculiar coincidence, a few weeks before the assassinations the tribal leaders were invited to a meeting with the SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi with the U.S. servicemen also present. The agenda reportedly included co-operation between the tribes and the SDF. It was reported that at least one of the victims, Muttshar al-Hifti, declined to participate and to engage with the Americans.
An insight into the details of these meetings can be gained through the reports about an oil deal allegedly struck by the SDF and a little known American oil developer Delta Crescent LLC. Delta Crescent was granted exclusive rights for production, refinement and export of the oil from Deir Ezzor fields potentially bringing the participants annual profit of hundreds of millions dollars, according to statements made by U.S. officials. The deal was met with harsh response from the Syrian government who labeled it a “deal between thieves”.
According to sources on the ground, the implication is that those who fell victim to the assassinations shared this view and opposed the deal. Their removal, however, has clearly failed to deliver the results intended by the masterminds behind their deaths, yet another time when the Kurds were thrown to the wolves by the U.S. who is accustomed to making their allies bear the consequences of the reckless pursuit of the American interests.
Meanwhile the SDF started to amass forces in the vicinity of the areas shaken by the unrest. The reinforcements sent from Al-Shadadi, Al-Sousa and Baghuz are gathering at the US military base near Al-Omar oil field. Moreover, two US Apache attack helicopters were spotted patrolling the area. These developments combined with lack of report on any negotiations between the protesters and the SDF leadership paint a grim picture, indicating that the SDF likely intends to use force to disperse the protests.
It is not the first time the SDF resorts to the use of force when faced with the discontent of the local populace in north-eastern Syria, although this approach had never brought the desired result. All areas affected by the protests have been subjected to dozens of raids of the SDF and the US special forces. Reports on these operations unfailingly mentioned arrests of ISIS terrorists. They failed to mention, however, what the Pentagon files under the category of “collateral damage” – deaths of civilians killed in the result of the actions of the US military and their allies.
The upheaval in Deir Ezzor is yet another evidence that the SDF, initially an independent movement, has degraded to a tool or a lever of American influence in Syria, and now finds itself fighting consequences instead of locating the root cause of the unrest – widespread corruption among the officials of the Kurdish administration and dramatic deterioration of the living conditions.
The regional turbulence created by Washington’s constantly shifting stance – or rather a lack of stance – on Syria has grown so strong it finally turned against the American interests. The latest escalation in Deir Ezzor should be considered nothing but a byproduct of this ill-designed policy and, perhaps, marks a beginning of the end of the US and SDF hegemony in Syria’s North East.
The Looming Disaster of the Safer Oil Tanker Moored off the Coast of Yemen
Amidst the raging conflict in Yemen, the challenge of the Safer Oil Tanker emerges as one of the most hazardous risks to the environment safety in the Red Sea as a result of the potential oil spillage in the Red Sea at any moment.
Following expressing deep alarm, the United Nations Security Council called on 29 June,2020, to immediately grant unconditional access for the United Nations technical experts to assess the tanker’s condition without overdue to prevent growing risk of possible rupture, explosion or even spillage.
The threat of the floating Oil Tanker, moored off the coast of Yemen, does not only impose challenges to the geopolitical and strategic importance of the Red Sea, but it rather represents a huge challenge that threatens the environment safety, leading to one of the largest environmental hazards in the world, after the unforgettable 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Siberia – Russia.
On 18 July 2019, the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator Mr. Mark Lowcock informed the UN Security Council of the growing threats of the deserted Safar Oil Tanker, warning of possible explosion or leakage of its loads [1.14 M barrels of crude oil]. In his briefing on the humanitarian situation in Yemen, he pointed out that such an incident would result to a disastrous crisis to the marine life in the Red Sea and maritime in the straits of Bab-Al Madeb and Suez Canal which are two significant water corridors to the world.
It is known that the Red Sea is home for some scarce invertebrates such as corals and 600 species of fish. Unless preventative measures are taken now and immediately to prevent oil spill or possible tanker explosion, we will concretely witness a disastrous incident leading to severe effect on the Red Sea marine environment, and on both biodiversity and livelihoods starting from Yemen and extending north to Suez Canal through Jobal strait and the Gulf of Suez and south through Bab-Al Madeb strait reaching even Hormoz strait through the Arabian sea.
Environment experts’ projections expect that 115 islands are vulnerable to the risk of oil pollution; 126,000 fishermen will lose their source of income, among them 76,000 fishmen are in Al Hodeidah governorate; 850 tons of fish stocks will be exposed to the danger of contamination and death in Yemen, in the Red Sea and in Bab Al-Mandam; more than 500 fish species are at high risk of disappearing; and 300 corals will certainly disappear as a result.
The problem emerged following the takeover of the Capital Sanaa on 21 September 2014, when Houthi militias implemented unilateral actions inter alia dissolving parliament and taking over Yemen’s government institutions, which have seriously escalated the situation, leading to illegitimate seizure of power “coup d’etat”, and eventually leading to current conflict in Yemen.
The floating storage and its connected offloading terminals have not been inspected or maintained since 2015 after Houthis militias took control of the area including port of Ras Isa to which the floating tanker is connected by terminals extending 9km off the coast of Yemen.
Yemen’s internationally-recognized government has warned in many letters of evident corrosion and lack of maintenance, creating the conditions for serious environmental disaster. The Yemeni government made an urgent call for the UN to send inspection team to scale the risks.
Unfortunately, the UN inspection team was denied access to the floating tanker by the Houthi militias many times. The UN inspection team is tasked with the mission to provide the necessary inspection and put recommendations for the needed maintenance and continuing to create obstacles will refrain the team from reaching the tanker and delivering the urgent inspection.
Lately, the Government of the Republic of Yemen repeated asserting the urgent emergency of the imminent catastrophe of the floating “Safer Oil Tanker”. The government confirmed that “given the critical nature of the aging floating tanker’s situation, on 27 May 2020 leaks have been reported in the tanker causing water leaked into the tanker’s operational machineries raising the possibilities of the tanker rupturing, sinking or even exploding.
Despite urgent fixing of leaking occurred, the deteriorating situation of the tanker threatens continuing eroding. As a result, on 15 July 2020, the UNSC held a session to debate latest urgent developments and called for urgent response to be taken by the Houthi militias as required by the inspection team. It is worth mentioning that the Houthis always show willingness to accept the inspection team just like the assurances made by the Houthis in August 2019 only to be withdrawn right before the inspection team was due to board the tanker.
The Yemeni government has always approved all relevant initiatives recommended by the UN to allow addressing the serious matter and proposing necessary urgent solutions to the Safer oil tanker, as part of the responsibility to the humanitarian and economic measures proposed by the office of the UN Special Envoy Mr. Martin Griffiths and as part of its responsibility to building and sustaining environment safety; however, the Houthi militias continue refusing to allow permissions to the UN inspection team to visit the oil tanker, noting that the situation of the Safer oil tanker is becoming extremely critical more than ever, causing increasing threats of possible oil spillage, tanker sinking and explosion at any moment.
In conclusion, the Safer Oil Tanker is a floating time-bomb and allowing inspection and maintains is the only possible means that will stop a serious catastrophe from happening. If incidents of explosion or even oil spill occur, that will lead to one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in the Red Sea. Action must be taken immediately while we have in hand an opportunity to protect the environments and spare the lives of millions of people in Yemen and the region from a looming tragedy.
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