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2019: Major challenges persist in Middle East

Ahram Weekly reviews 12 months in which military spending skyrocketed while instability continued and little progress was made in resolving long-running regional conflicts

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 31 Dec 2019
Major challenges persist
An Iranian drone
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Despite the optimism inspired by developments in the peace processes in Syria, Libya and Yemen, security challenges in the region are unlikely to subside in 2020.

Major challenges persist
a Houthi rocket launched from Iran towards Saudi Arabia

Developments over the last 12 months — the UAE’s announcement in the summer of its intention to pull its forces out of Yemen and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s announcement, towards the end of the year, of the completion of the US troop withdrawal from northeastern Syria — have left many questions hanging, as has the ongoing conflict in Libya between the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

Major challenges persist
Russian manoeuvres in the East Mediterranean

In 2019 Turkey played an increasingly prominent role in supplying arms to western Libya. Elsewhere in the region, oil tankers were attacked close to UAE ports and cruise missile and drone strikes carried out by Sanaa and Tehran targeted critical sites in Saudi Arabia. The US sent ships and marines into the Gulf to protect its allies and re-establish a military presence on the ground in Saudi Arabia after a two-decade hiatus. According to government sources, US troops in the kingdom had risen from 3,000 to 7,000 by the end of 2019.

Major challenges persist
Iranian military parade

Military expenditures in the region continued the upward trajectory that started at the beginning of the decade. Analysts believe the trend will continue at least until 2023. Gulf countries are still the highest spenders on weapons. Expenditure on armaments rose from $82.33 billion in 2013 to $103.01 billion in 2019 and is expected to increase to $110 billion by 2023.

Of the 10 countries that spend the most on arms worldwide five are from the Middle East, and of the 15 countries with the largest military budgets nine are in the region. Military allocations in Middle East countries average 13 per cent of national budgets though in some states it is much higher. Oman and Saudi Arabia average 20 and 30 per cent, respectively.

Non-Arab regional powers, such as Turkey, Iran and Israel, were increasingly active in both arms acquisitions and military operations in the Arab region in 2019. Turkey’s military expenditure has risen dramatically and is expected to increase to $20.6 billion next year, 15.9 per cent more than in 2019. Turkey’s spending is driven by increased military involvement abroad, most notably in Syria where Ankara has staged several incursions and maintains a permanent military presence. Turkey allows private sector participation in military industries, meaning that increased defence spending has to some extent offset the economic decline in other sectors. Foreign investment, particularly from Qatar, has enabled defence firms like BMC to flourish. According to Turkish government figures, military exports rose by 2.6 per cent over the previous year. Sales had reached $1.855 billion by August 2019.

Ironically, countries that have imposed sanctions on Ankara are among Turkey’s biggest customers. The US increased its purchases by 17 per cent last year. While Germany halted weapon transfers to Turkey in response to the Peace Spring operation, it was still the third largest consumer of Turkish defence exports. Turkey’s arms exports to Qatar, where Turkey has a military base, came to more than $138 million. Oddly, Turkish exports to the UAE have also increased despite conflict between Abu Dhabi and Ankara towards Qatar and a host of regional issues.

In terms of military deployment abroad, Ankara’s prospects for building a military base in the Red Sea port of Sawakin vanished with the Sudanese revolution that overthrew Omar Al-Bashir. Turkey still has a military base in Somalia, however, and is persisting with its attempts to extend its militarily influence deeper into Africa. Its main portal is Libya where it has strengthened its military relations with the Tripoli-based GNA. Another avenue is Mauritania where Ankara relies on its “soft power”.

Turkey’s growing profile as an arms supplier to the GNA in Libya and its Peace Spring operation targeting Kurds in northern Syria represent Ankara’s most significant incursions on the Arab scene. In addition to large quantities of small arms and ammunitions, Turkey has supplied militias allied with the GNA with dozens of BMC Kirpi armoured vehicles and Bayraktar drones, and has equipped drone command centres, one of which is located in the air force academy airport in Misrata.

Conflicting Turkish-US agendas in Syria were one source of tensions between Washington and Ankara. Another is the increasingly close Turkish-Russian military relationship. In 2019, Turkey received Russian S-400 missile systems it contracted to buy in 2018. In response, the US suspended the delivery of the first batch of F-35s Ankara had ordered and eliminated Turkey from the F-35 programme. Ten Turkish factories had been taking part in the manufacture of the latest generation in American multi-task fighter jets.

US-Turkish tensions rippled through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), in which Turkey has the largest army after the US. Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian-made missile system will strain NATO’s military infrastructure: if, for example, Ankara deployed the system near the Syrian border it would expand the range of the Russian S-400s that Moscow has deployed at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria.

NATO could find its southeastern flank in jeopardy if Turkey persists in this direction. Indeed, it appears the strategic embrace between Russia and Turkey could soon tighten at the expense of the latter’s relations with NATO. Ankara is negotiating for Russia’s SU-35s, the latest generation of Russian-made multi-task fighter jets, as an alternative to the F-35s. If it goes ahead with the deal relations between Turkey and the US/NATO will grow even more complicated.

Elsewhere, Iran persisted with its strategy of bolstering and arming proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Although the strategy has backfired in some instances — protest movements erupted in the last quarter of 2019 in Iraq and Lebanon, both bases for Iranian militias such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and Hizbullah — international reports suggest that Iran has been exploiting the turmoil to transfer arms to the affected areas. Tehran believes that regional and foreign powers orchestrated the unrest and it is therefore preparing for the next round of confrontation.

Iran has long sought to enhance its missile capacities. In 2019, however, it narrowed its focus to developing unconventional weapons. Drones emerged as its weapon of choice against Saudi and Emirati targets. Explosive-laden drones targeted Saudi Aramco pipelines in Dawadmi in May and, several months later, the Aramco processing facilities in Abqaiq. Although the Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attacks, US officials have confirmed that the drones were fired from either southern Iraq or possibly even from Iran. That said, Iran’s Houthi proxies did continue to target critical areas inside Saudi Arabia, including the Abha airport and some military infrastructure.

It is believed that Iran developed its drone in stages, with successive refinements to the fibreglass shell to make it lighter and more streamlined and more difficult for conventional radars to detect. Improvements to the motor meant it could travel longer distances and carry larger payloads. It is believed that Iran has also developed anti-drone weapons. Iran downed a US drone in June 2019 using a missile that was probably fired from a Khordad missile system.  

On 7 October 2019 Major General Abdul-Rahim Mousavi, commander of Iran’s Air Defence headquarters, inaugurated a new Persian Gulf Air Defence Headquarters on Kharg island, part of Bushehr Province. Iranian media reported that the purpose of the new facility is to tighten security over an extensive portion of southern Iran and strengthen the direct control of Iranian air defences and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) over the southern coast. 

In the final quarter of 2019 Tehran also announced its intention to build a new type of warship, a mega destroyer with a displacement of between 5,000 and 7,000 tonnes. Iran has announced similar projects in the past, but it was never taken seriously because of the economic impediments. This time the announcement included plans to establish a specialised naval group to supervise the construction. In December, Iran announced plans to manufacture a 300-foot trimaran warship “to be used in asymmetric coastal warfare and rapid-reaction operations”, according to Fars news agency. 

Iran is clearly seeking a more extensive naval presence in the Gulf, an ambition fired by the fact it has reached the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean by dint of its military presence in Syria. Iran is developing a military and naval infrastructure in the Syrian port of Beniyas, 35km north of the Russian base at Tartus. Iran’s sights are set on becoming a major military power in the region by developing conventional military capacities such as its naval forces, elite conventional capacities like advanced missile systems and unconventional weapons such as drones. 

The map of Israeli military engagement expanded in 2019 to include four fronts. In addition to continuing its strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, Israel staged drone attacks against PMF locations in Iraq, fired missiles at Hizbullah locations in Lebanon and bombarded Gaza where the Quds Brigade, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, has obtained a new rocket system capable of striking deeper into Israel. Despite flare-ups and occasional brinkmanship the engagements did not spiral into conflict. Many of the Israeli strikes appear to be part of a pre-emptive strategy to sabotage Iranian-linked military operation and forestall the reinforcement of Iranian forces and proxies abroad.

The last year also saw a closer strategic embrace between the US and Israel. The US Military Defence Agency (MDA) and Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) designed and performed a simulation drill integrating US and Israeli defence systems for the first time in the history of military cooperation between the two countries. Six missile defence systems were tested in the simulation staged in July, three from Israel (Arrow 2, Arrow 3 and David’s Sling, formerly called Magic Wand) and three from the US (Aegis, Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defence). The US and Israel also conducted a joint test of the Arrow 3 advanced missile defence system in Alaska. The system succeeded in intercepting ballistic missiles flying at unprecedented heights and speeds. The joint missile system drills came at a time when Iranian proxies are developing their own missile capacities. Following the successful test in Alaska, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said Arrow 3 gave Israel the ability to take out ballistic missiles fired from anywhere.

Although there is a general impression the US is withdrawing militarily from the region, reports suggest that what is actually happening is a redeployment rather than a pull-out. One example is the US presence in northeastern Syria which garnered so much attention this year. The US still preserves a significant presence in the Al-Tanaf base in eastern Syria, near the border with Iraq. Also, the 2,000 troops that were withdrawn from Syria were actually relocated to the Ain Al-Assad base in Iraq. The US also deployed forces on the ground in Saudi Arabia in 2019 in the framework of US-Saudi plans to strengthen Saudi defences against missile attacks from Houthi forces in Yemen: 3,000 US troops were stationed in the kingdom in tandem with the deployment of the US Patriot defence system the Saudis purchased.

Russia, too, has enhanced its military presence in the Middle East, starting with Syria where it has leased facilities on terms that suggest a Russian presence in the region for the next five to seven decades. Russia has increased its forces at the Hmeimim base and the naval base in Tartus where it has stationed a fleet of a size and composition that suggests functions beyond the scope of the military operations in Syria. According to US intelligence estimates, Russia has 10 to 15 warships there. Moscow has also continued to expand its military and naval cooperation with Arab countries, including Egypt, and appears keen to work with the LNA to establish a naval presence off Libyan shores.

The lines of engagement between Moscow and Washington are essentially defined by their allies. The US is focused on supporting NATO in the framework of the Russian threat to Eastern Europe and the Middle East, a context in which its support for Israel can be situated. Russia has been working, primarily, to strengthen an axis that comprises both Turkey and Iran. The rivalry has reflected itself in shifts in tactical deployments on the ground, such as the increasing Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean at the expense of the conventional US presence there epitomised by the Sixth Fleet.

The Middle East is in the process of a military/strategic shift in security arrangements that have prevailed since the end of the Cold War. The competition between regional powers to strengthen their offensive and defensive military capacities is one feature of this process, a trend that will carry over into the coming year and probably beyond given mounting military expenditures, ongoing instability in many parts of the region and lack of progress in engineering reconciliation in ongoing regional conflicts. The new year is also likely to bring heightened fears of the resurgence of the Islamic State and other exponents of transnational terrorism.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. 

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