Middle East Insider, August 28, 2020

GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj suspended Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha (above), fearing he was planning a coup backed by Turkish intelligence


Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) on Friday suspended Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha for the duration of an investigation into his purported role in the violent crackdown on protestors in recent days. Amnesty International reported, “Armed men fired live ammunition including from heavy machine-guns to disperse a demonstration in Tripoli on 23 August, according to eyewitness testimony and video evidence.” Appointed in 2018, Bashagha played a pivotal role in the Turkish-backed offensive that drove Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) from the gates of Tripoli earlier this year. Bashagha’s power base is Misrata and the decreasingly popular al-Sarraj feared the Interior Minister might oust him with the support of Misrata militias and Turkish intelligence. Demonstrators last Tuesday surrounded al-Sarraj’s residence, demanding better living conditions and an end to corruption, before security forces dispersed them. Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj reportedly canceled a Thursday meeting with President Erdogan in Istanbul fearing a coup. Bashagha consented to the investigation as long as it is televised to ensure transparency.


EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell stated after an August 27-28 meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers that the EU could impose sanctions on Turkish individuals, assets, and ships while restricting Turkey’s access to European ports, capacities, technologies, and supplies if Ankara continues illegal drilling and oil/gas exploration in Cypriot and Greek waters. However, Borrell said there will be no punitive action until the September 24-25 European Council. The present standoff between Turkish and Greek warships in the eastern Mediterranean began on August 10 when Ankara dispatched the seismic survey vessel Oruc Reis, accompanied by Turkish warships, to the Greek continental shelf to search for oil and gas deposits. Greece in turn sent its own warships to monitor the Turkish flotilla’s activity and conducted joint training exercises off Crete with the French navy. Then, on August 16, the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) communicated the Yavuz drillship and three support vessels would continue operating in waters claimed by Cyprus between August 18 and September 15. Tensions increased Thursday when Turkish F-16s intercepted six Greek jets returning to Crete from war games in Cyprus. The Greek aircraft requested reinforcements and engaged in a mock dogfight with Turkey’s F-16s. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday discussed deconfliction mechanisms in the eastern Mediterranean with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to Erdogan’s office, he told Stoltenberg, “NATO must fulfill its responsibility against unilateral steps which disregard international law and harm regional peace.”


Egypt’s interior ministry announced Friday the arrest of acting Muslim Brotherhood leader Mahmoud Ezzat by National Security Agency officers in Cairo. Ezzat became acting leader in 2013, after Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie’s arrest, and promptly went into hiding. Egyptian authorities accuse Ezzat of leading the Brotherhood’s armed wing and orchestrating the assassinations of Public Prosecutor Hisham Barakat, Brigadier General Wael Tahoun, Brigadier General Adel Rajai, and Assistant Public Prosecutor Zakaria Abdulaziz. Although Ezzat received two death sentences in absentia for being a Hamas spy and a prison break in Wadi al-Natroun, he will be retried for those crimes.


The UN Security Council Friday unanimously approved a resolution renewing the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon’s (UNIFIL) mandate for another year. Heeding Israeli and American concerns, it includes new language calling on the Lebanese government to facilitate “prompt and full access” to sites – including Hezbollah tunnels – when requested by UNIFIL peacekeepers. On August 17, Israeli UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan submitted a letter to the Security Council noting Hezbollah terrorists infiltrating Israel and asserting, “UNIFIL is supposed to prevent such infiltrations. If it cannot stop Hezbollah from turning southern Lebanon into a terrorist base, then its purpose must be questioned. To be effective, its mandate must include expanding access and oversight into areas where Hezbollah operates.”


Israel and the UAE are reportedly planning to build a base on the Yemeni Island of Socotra to surveil the Bab al-Mandab Strait, Gulf of Aden, and Horn of Africa. The UAE-backed, separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized control of the island in June from forces loyal to President ’s Saudi-supported, internationally recognized government. Although Hadi’s government and the STC are officially allies in the war against the Iranian-backed Houthis, they fought each other after the STC seized Aden, the Hadi government’s interim capital, in August 2019. The STC wants southern Yemen, which was an independent country until 1990, to regain independence. On Tuesday, the STC withdrew from a Saudi-mediated ceasefire agreement in force since June 22.

Saudi Arabia Friday intercepted and destroyed two Houthi drones aimed at residential areas, including in the city of Najran. On Thursday, Saudi forces downed a Houthi missile targeting civilians in the same city.

International Terrorism

Next Wednesday 14 alleged accomplices in the 2015 jihadist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket will stand trial on charges including supplying weapons to terrorists, membership of a terrorist organization, and financing terrorism. 16 civilians and a policewoman died in the attacks along with the three perpetrators. Three of the defendants, who reportedly died fighting for ISIS, will be tried in absentia.

Micah Levinson is the Washington, DC Resident Fellow at the Middle East Forum

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