The National Interest Foundation Newsletter, Issue 155

The National Interest Foundation Newsletter

Issue 155, August 4, 2022

Welcome to our NIF Newsletter. In this week’s headlines: Yemen’s warring parties agree to extend their truce for another two months, tensions mount over the failure to form a government after months of political deadlock in Iraq, the U.S. envoy mediating a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel signals optimism about making progress towards a deal, and Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is killed in a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan.

Truce Extension in Yemen

A sense of cautious optimism remains among aid workers and Yemeni civilians alike as the warring parties agree to extend the existing truce. (Photo from AFP)

Yemen’s Warring Parties Agree to Extend Their Truce for Another Two Months

In the preceding days, peace activists and observers of the longstanding conflict in Yemen have welcomed the news that the warring parties in the embattled country agreed to extend the existing truce by another two months until early October. This happened just hours before the now four-month long ceasefire was due to expire. The agreement to extend the truce also “includes a commitment from parties to intensify negotiations to reach an expanded truce agreement as soon as possible,” according to United Nations Special Envoy on Yemen Hans Grundberg. It seems apparent that both sides of the conflict are beginning to reevaluate their circumstances and may be more open to finding a peaceful resolution. However, there are still some stipulations that have yet to be adequately addressed. Despite these challenges, the overarching truce has continued to hold, to the relief of many aid workers and activists, Yemeni civilians, and others. It is hoped that its extension will allow for further important efforts to alleviate the dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Currently, there are some notable challenges that remain in place. One of the main demands of the Houthis are that the Yemeni government contribute to civil servants’ salaries in areas that are under their control and that Sanaa Airport allow flights to additional destinations. The Yemeni government, has in turn, demands that the Houthis lift their siege on the city of Taiz. There is also the issue of truce violation accusations taking place on both sides, with reports of limited clashes in certain areas. Even in the face of these issues, some analysts have speculated that the relative restraint from the leaders of the two groups may indicate that both sides are ready to end the fighting for good and are willing to work past these obstacles.

The Yemeni conflict began in late 2014 and has devolved into the worst humanitarian crisis in contemporary times. Hundreds of thousands have died, both directly and indirectly from the fighting. Most troubling is that many of these deaths have been innocent civilians killed as a result of indiscriminate bombing campaigns and desperate humanitarian conditions. An enduring cessation of hostilities and fighting would allow for more much-needed aid to flow into Yemen, greatly improving the lives of civilians. In fact, most observers have noted that the ongoing four-month long truce has provided positive developments, with aid agencies reporting that civilian casualties have dropped significantly after the implementation of the truce. Additionally of great importance, the halt in fighting paves the way for humanitarian flights to fly in and out of Yemen, allowing those in desperate need of medical attention to be evacuated to hospitals that are better equipped to provide them with the necessary treatment.

The outstanding issues make it apparent that Yemen is still a long way from a permanent peace, but an extension of the truce indicates that both sides are open to finding a peaceful resolution. A note of caution still remains among aid groups though. Eric Hutchinson of the Norwegian Refugee Council commented that, “After seeing swift and decisive action towards the success of the truce in the first months, progress towards meeting all of its elements has slowed. We hope this two-month extension will allow for the reopening of roads linking cities and regions, enable more displaced people to return to their homes safely, and ensure humanitarian aid can reach people who have been out of reach for far too long because of hostilities.” It will remain to be seen whether this extension will allow for more areas to be reopened, or if it is merely a brief moment of respite for the Yemeni people before they are thrust back into the dangers and uncertainties of conflict.

Political Paralysis in Iraq

Iraq is in the midst of a months-long political crisis. (Photo from Reuters)

Tensions Mount Over the Failure to Form a Government After Months of Political Deadlock in Iraq

Iraq has witnessed the outbreak of a serious political crisis in recent months. Populist leader Muqtada al-Sadr has urged his supporters to continue their sit-in inside the Iraqi parliament, and called for an overhaul of the nation’s delicate constitution, a dissolution of parliament, and early elections. The paralysis has taken shape after al-Sadr failed to form a government within the last 10 months since elections in October of 2021. The efforts of Iranian-backed politicians and al-Sadr rivals in parliament to try and do so has sparked al-Sadr’s calls for his supporters to take action. Iraq, which already has been struggling to form a strong continual government for the past couple of decades, sees itself at the brink of complete governmental collapse. Human rights activists and security analysts have raised alarms over the possibility for this political crisis to turn violent, with counter protests growing and in close proximity to the al-Sadr demonstrators. Furthermore, the foreign meddling in Iraq’s government increases the possibility for the crisis to deteriorate and worsen humanitarian conditions.

The protesters stormed Iraq’s parliament which resides in Baghdad’s “Green-Zone,” a region of the city which houses Iraq’s governmental buildings and international embassies, including the American embassy. The green zone is Baghdad’s most heavily fortified area, however despite Iraqi police tear gasses and the barracking of parliament, they were overrun by the protestors – showing an aggressive and strongly motivated political movement. Meanwhile, one of the most alarming elements is the fact that next to al-Sadr protesters are growing and large-scale counter demonstrations, which have security officials worried about the potential for clashes between the two camps. With the green zone now under control of rival protestors, the possibility for the situation to erode at the expense of Iraq’s fragile institutions is evident.

The ten-month political stalemate over Iraq’s parliament has already weighed on the country’s institutions and voters. With growing frustration and little sign either side wants to negotiate, the trajectory of the crisis points to a legitimate fear of an increase in hostilities. In a public address, al-Sadr told his supporters he was not going to negotiate with the opposition, with Iran also calling for parliament to be dissolved. It appears that no matter how the crisis continues, Iran will be a crucial player. Issue experts and analysts of the region worry regarding further proxy conflicts between Iran and Gulf Arab states, with Iraq being seen by some as the next “battleground.” With unstable institutions, some have voiced warnings that the situation could devolve into a similar scenario as what has transpired in Yemen.

Human rights activists and the international community have called for both sides to resist any potential damaging escalation. The United Nations has called for the right to protests, but urged for all parties to ensure that the people and institutions in Iraq are kept safe and secure. While the crisis remains in its relative early stages, without significant improvements to ensure an increase in hostilities and interference is avoided, it could degenerate into a situation with serious humanitarian and international security implications.

Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute

Lebanon and Israel are engaging in U.S.-mediated negotiations regarding their maritime border. (Photo from Reuters)

The U.S. Envoy Mediating a Maritime Border Dispute Between Lebanon and Israel Signals Optimism About Making Progress Towards a Deal

Maritime border contentions between Lebanon and Israel could see impending progress towards a deal, according to U.S. Envoy Amos Hochstein and other officials. This decade-long dispute relates to a section of the Karish offshore gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea, and who has rights to the materials in these areas. Negotiations over the maritime border dispute had resumed in 2020 with the help of mediation from the United States, but had been stalled because of a claim by Lebanon that the map used by the United Nations in the talks needed modifying. The United States has played an important mediating role in these talks and appears to be signaling that an agreement may be reached soon. Reports emerged that Hochstein would present a new Israeli proposal to the Lebanese negotiating team that “includes a solution that would allow the Lebanese to develop the gas reserves in the disputed area while preserving Israel’s commercial rights.” This statement has left many observers hopeful that this new proposal will be a compromise that both countries will agree to.

The current proposal from Israel provides Lebanon with the area north of Line 23, a maritime line that was an original demand by the Lebanese government during negotiations. It would also allow Lebanon to explore the Qana Prospect. The last outstanding issue seems to be Lebanon’s request for a guarantee of exploration rights in its southern Block 9 area. Some experts and analysts have outlined the importance of reaching an agreement for Lebanon in particular, as the country looks to access offshore gas reserves to try and alleviate what has become the most severe economic crisis in its modern history. Instances and accounts of Israeli ships in disputed gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea have also fueled tensions and highlighted the need for a deal. Lebanon contends that the Karish gas fields are disputed territory due to the ongoing maritime border negotiations, while Israel claims that they lie within their economic waters. Ultimately, Hochstein and others seeking to reach a mediated agreement have urged both sides to avoid provocative behavior in an attempt to achieve a resolution through diplomacy and the negotiating table.

Adding to the urgency for trying to alleviate the maritime border dispute is the fact that Lebanon and Israel have been prone to escalations in tensions, engaging in varying degrees of conflict over the years. During the past decade, they have avoided any major confrontations since the month-long war back in 2006, but bouts of traded rocket fire between Israel and Hezbollah have elicited fears of the potential outbreak of more serious conflict over contentious and unresolved issues. Further complicating the situation is the significant power that Hezbollah wields in Lebanon. In addition to its political standing, it often operates as its own independent entity within Lebanon. The group recently issued a video warning Israel that “playing with time” could have consequences, signaling the threat of military escalation if a deal was not reached.

Despite all of these complications, it still appears that a deal will be made that benefits both countries. Tensions will likely remain, but such an agreement would be a welcome development. The potential realization of this would not only prevent an escalation in hostilities, but would also be an indicator and reminder to the Middle East that the United States can still play a productive role in the region.

Killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Intelligence officials had tracked down al-Zawahiri to a home in the Sherpur area of Kabul. (Photo from Getty Images)

Al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is Killed in a U.S. Drone Strike in Afghanistan

A recent American drone strike in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The targeted attack was the culmination of a months-long intelligence gathering operation that had tracked down al-Zawahiri to a safe house in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul. He had assumed control as head of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda over the past decade following the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, and al-Zawahiri was regarded as one of the key plotters behind the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts were long unknown until U.S. intelligence pinpointed his location earlier this year, according to Biden administration officials. Some security experts have argued that the drone attack provides a glimpse into expected U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the aftermath of last year’s American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and also highlights that the United States can still conduct successful operations of this kind in the absence of a direct military presence in the country.

As a part of the intelligence gathering mission leading up to the killing of al-Zawahiri, U.S. operatives determined that the Al-Qaeda leader had moved from neighboring Pakistan to a safe house in the Sherpur area of Kabul. They were also able to observe that once al-Zawahiri arrived at the hideout, he never left it. U.S. officials then spent a period of several months tracking his daily habits and created a model of the safe house to brief U.S. President Biden on the operation. Particular attention was placed on trying to minimize any potential risk to civilians, with reported focus on dynamics such as not threatening the integrity of the infrastructure during the planned drone strike. Additionally, there were inquiries into the type of construction materials that the home was made of, as well as potential weather conditions that could have an effect on the impact of the strike. President Biden ultimately provided his authorization, something that was recommended by his entire national security team. The move gave intelligence operatives the ability to conduct the airstrike at a time deemed most optimal, and al-Zawahiri was killed at 6:18 a.m. local time in Kabul this past Saturday morning.

Analysts have speculated that this strike may provide hints about the United States’ future grand strategy. After the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August of last year, some around the world assumed that the United States would begin to gradually shift its attention away from regional issues in the Middle East and place more focus on other matters such as Russia and China-related concerns. This attack indicates that the United States still has both the ability and will to continue to conduct counterterrorism operations, even if their physical presence in the region has decreased dramatically. It is still evident however, that the United States’ priorities have shifted to Russia as the immediate threat, while classifying China as a long-term challenge. It could also be argued that the United States staying active in the Middle East addresses these threats, as it is almost certain that any vacuum left by the United States would quickly be filled by China or Russia. Remaining a key figure allows the United States to prevent, or at the very least mitigate, any large-scale upticks in Chinese or Russian influence.