West Asia Roundup: May 2023
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Resilience and political astuteness of President Erdogan enabled him to win the Presidential elections once again in the second round despite several odds including the poor performance during the devastating earth quakes. He was able to convince his constituents that Islamic way was still the best option to tide over the socio-economic crisis and geo political contest. Not many changes are expected even though he has appointed a brand new team of experts and his loyalists to somehow bridge the electoral divide and expectations.

Turkey also decided to bury the hatchet with Syria. A meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Turkey, Russia, Iran and Syria in Moscow to resolve the cantankerous issues.

Another important development was the return of President Assad of Syria back to the Arab League after a decade which was engineered by Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, whose olive branch in the region appears pretty expansive and expedient. Qataris did not seem very happy perhaps like the US and most of western countries who were not pleased either. Like the Iranians and Iraqis, President Assad wants the region to resolve its own problems and wants the Americans out.

President Zelensky of Ukraine also attends the Arab League Summit seeking support from the Arab world who have not joined sanctions against Russia but would want the war to end early .

As Iran propagated a new Naval Alliance with participation of some Gulf countries as well as reportedly India and Pakistan, UAE decided to move out of the US led combined Maritime Forces grouping after an extensive evaluation of its security needs and scenario. It will be recalled that two of Emirati vessels were captured by the Iranians in the Strait of Hormuz and the UAE was reportedly miffed on the action by the US like in earlier case when Houthi drones had hit Abu Dhabi.

Sudanese Military and rival Rapid Support Forces indulged in a civil military war when more than 500 civilians were killed and a very large number became refugees yet again. Large number of foreigners had to be evacuated with the help of Saudi Arabia and others. India also evacuated her 3000 + citizens from the war zone under the aegis of ‘Operation Kaveri’.

Israel-Palestine conflict continued to intensify with ultra-right coalition of PM Netanyahu taking a much harder stance on Gaza.


MOS (EA) V Muraleedharan visited Bahrain which happens to be first since the onset of pandemic, to discuss bilateral and regional developments.

India and Bahrain held bilateral foreign office consultations.

The 5th round of India-Tunisia Foreign Office Consultations (FOC) were held on 17 May 2023 in Tunis.Situation in Libya was also discussed. A cultural Exchange Programme for 2023-26 was renewed.

Eliyahu Cohen, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel, paid an official visit to India on 09 May. He was accompanied by a 37-member business delegation, apart from senior officials of the Israeli Government. This was his first visit to India as Foreign Minister. Apart from meeting Dr S Jaishankar, EAM he also called on PM Modi. The discussions veered around connectivity, mobility, academic and scientific research, fintech, agriculture, water, trade, etc, and agreed to further diversify the basket of collaboration. They also discussed regional and international issues of mutual interest, including cooperation under the framework of I2U2, the ongoing conflict in Sudan, developments in West Asia, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, etc.

Elections in Turkey

Turkey’s incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to win a third term after sealing his victory in the second round of voting held on 28 May winning 52.1 percent votes. The elections occurred in the backdrop of deep economic crisis and fallout of the devastating earthquake in February 2023. The key issues in the May 2023 elections were economy; after-effects of 6 February earthquake; conservative vs. secular debate; democratic backsliding and refugees. In the parliamentary election held on 14 May, AKP led People’s Alliance secured 322 seats and the opposition, CHP and IYI Party secured 169 and 44 seats respectively. Therefore, AKP and its allies will continue to dominate the parliament. During the first round of presidential elections held on 14 May, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to maintain the lead in the presidential race securing 49.5 percent while his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu from CHP secured 44.89 percent. The voter turnout in the presidential and parliamentary election was at 86.98 percent. Erdogan facing his toughest fight failed to cross the 50 percent mark. Sinan Ogan who was contesting as the joint candidate of the ultra-nationalist parties under the banner of ATA Alliance secured 5.17 percent. Ogan following the results of the first round has endorsed Erdogan emphasizing that the newly elected parliament should be under the same leadership as the parliament. Sinan’s nationalist and ultra-nationalist voter base is ideologically close to Erdogan and AKP’s conservative agenda that contributing in his victory in the second round.

Syria’s Re-entry in Arab League

On 7 May, the foreign ministers from Arab League member states gathered in Cairo and consented to reinstating Syria’s membership after its suspension in 2011. Earlier on 1 May, the foreign ministers of Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan met in Amman and issued joint statement to take necessary measures to end smuggling on the borders with Jordan and Iraq. Syria has agreed to tackle drug trafficking across its borders with Jordan and Iraq.

The diplomatic bonhomie between Syria and the Arab League states can be reflected in the visit of the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad on 18 May to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to attend the Arab League Summit. It was Assad’s first visit to Saudi Arabia since the 2011 Arab Spring. Assad called the summit as a historic opportunity to address the crises in the region and expressed hope that it will mark a beginning of a new phase of Arab action for solidarity. He warned about the “danger of expansionist Ottoman thought” influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. He also opined that it is important to leave internal affairs to the country’s people as they are best able to manage their own affairs. Hundreds of Syrians in Idlib, Al-Bab, Azaz, Jarabulus and Afrin protested against Assad’s entry in Arab League. Anti-Assad protests were also reported in Vienna, Amsterdam, London, Vaile, Stockholm and Lyon.

Notably, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attended the Arab League summit in Jeddah to appeal for support. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has expressed readiness to mediate the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.

Syrian, Turkish, Iranian and Russian Foreign Ministers’ meet

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on 10 May met with foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia in Moscow in the Arab state’s attempt to rebuild ties with Ankara. Mekdad noted that the Syrian government’s top priority is to end the presence of all foreign militaries including Turkey’s. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu emphasised the need for cooperation in the fight against terrorism and jointly working to build the basis for the return of Syrians. Syria and Turkey also talked about progress in the Syrian political process and protection of Syria’s territorial integrity.

Iranian President’s Visit to Syria

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad on 3 May and signed around 15 long-term cooperation agreements on oil and other sectors. Raisi led delegation included the ministers of foreign affairs, defence, oil, roads and urban development and telecommunications as well as representatives from private industry. Iran has been a crucial ally for Syria and it has played a key role to preserve Assad’s political authority. Iran has described the visit as a sign of its strategic victory in regional affairs.

Sudan Conflict

The military conflict in Sudan between the military under Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and paramilitary under Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo that began in mid-April has continued throughout the month of May. The multiple attempts at ceasefire have failed. On 2 May, South Sudan brokered a truce between two sides that failed almost immediately as more air raids and shootings were reported in the Khartoum region. Saudi Arabia has been trying to mediate between the two warring parties. On 11 May, a declaration of principles was signed in Jeddah between both sides. It failed almost immediately and fighting resumed. Saudi Arabia resumed mediation efforts and announced a ceasefire on 20 May. However, it has again failed to bring peace and both sides have accused each other for ceasefire breaches negotiated by the US and Saudi Arabia. The military on 31 May suspended its participation in ceasefire talks. It is estimated that around 528 people have been confirmed dead and 4,599 are wounded. India since 24 April launched ‘Operation Kaveri’ to evacuate Indian citizens stranded in the war torn state. Indian government in total rescued 3862 nationals under Operation Kaveri that came to close on 5 May.
Notably, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has announced on 6 May that Turkey’s diplomatic mission will be temporarily shifted from Khartoum to Port Sudan following a gunfire attack on the car of the Ambassador.

Libya’s eastern parliament ousts Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha

Libya’s eastern based parliament on 16 May voted to suspend Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha. Bashagha has been replaced by Finance Minister Osama Hamada. Bashagha government has been criticized for failing to capture Tripoli or challenge Prime Minister Abdulhamid Al-Dbeibah under the internationally recognised Government of National Unity. The clash between Bashagha and Al-Dbeibah has persisted. Bashagha’s dismissal reflects the loss of support from Khalifa Haftar that maintains strategic control in the eastern region.

The oil rich Arab state after years of negotiation, mediation and ceasefires has failed to bring the two warring parties to overcome their differences and form a unity government. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has pressed for political, legal and security requirements to carry out elections in 2023. Both parliaments have agreed to set up joint committee to draft electoral law for the vote.

Shooting in Synagogue in Tunisia

On 9 May, Ghriba Synagogue, located in Aghir town on Djerba Island was attacked by a guard from Tunisia’s National Guard Naval Centre killing six people. The attacker used his weapon to shoot a colleague and seize his ammunition before moving towards the synagogue and firing indiscriminately at security units located near the synagogue. Djerba, is home to Africa’s oldest synagogue. The synagogue was previously attacked by Al Qaeda in 2002 killing 21 western tourists. Tunisia has no diplomatic ties with Israel, but Israelis are allowed entry into the state as part of organized tours to the island for the pilgrimage.

Clash at Iran-Afghanistan Border

On 27 May, shooting broke out near a border post between Iran and Afghanistan that led to death of two Iranian border guards and one Taliban fighter. Afghan Interior ministry spokesman Abdul Nafi Takor blamed Iranian border forces for firing toward Afghanistan that led to the counter-reaction. Iranian state media reported that besides deaths of two border guards; two Iranian civilians were also injured. Iran’s deputy police chief, Qasem Rezaei accused the Taliban of flouting international laws and shooting at the Sasoli checkpoint. Iranian authorities after the clash shut down the Milak-Zaranj border post, a major commercial crossing.

The UAE Withdraws from US led Maritime Coalition

The UAE on 31 May announced withdrawal from US led Combined Maritime Forces after an extensive evaluation of its security needs. The UAE stressed that it is committed to dialogue and diplomatic engagement to advance regional security and stability and ensure navigation safety in accordance with international law. The UAE’s move indicates change in the dynamics of the international cooperation in maritime security. The 34-nation task force headquartered at the US naval base in Bahrain was formed to counter terrorism and piracy in the Red Sea and Gulf areas.

Tense Flag Day March in old city of Jerusalem

On 18 May, members of Jewish community took out Flag Day march in the old city of Jerusalem to commemorate the capture of the city in 1967. The Flag Day marches are notorious for raising racist slogans against Islam and Arabs. The route of the march passes through the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter. Israel’s controversial National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir also joined the protest. It led to high level of tensions in Israel, West Bank and Gaza. In Gaza, Palestinians took out demonstrations which were met with harsh response including live fire and tear gas.

Israel-Palestine Conflict

Khader Adnan, Palestinian prisonerand member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) died in Israeli jail on 2 May after almost three months of hunger strike. Adnan refused to undergo medical tests and receive medical treatment. He began his hunger strike as an act of resistance to protest against the administrative detention that allows Israeli authorities to hold Palestinians indefinitely without charge or trail. Israel is currently holding more than 1,000 Palestinian detainees without charge or trial. In response to Adnan’s death, PIJ launched number of rocket strikes from Gaza towards Israeli territory. Israel in response carried out air raids. Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza agreed to a “reciprocal and simultaneous” ceasefire on 3 May. The situation on the Gaza front escalated on 9 May leading to rocket attacks by Hamas and air raids by Israel. The four day assault in Gaza between 9 and 13 May killed 36 Palestinians. Reportedly, around 158 Palestinians have been killed between January and May 2023.

In Occupied West Bank, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces during raids in Qabatiya town on 10 May. Israeli military claimed that both individuals fired on soldiers from a vehicle and were killed by return fire. A Palestinian man was shot an Israeli armed civilian on 26 May. Israeli military has stated that the Palestinian man was killed after he attempted to stab a resident in the Tene Omarim settlement. Israeli forces on 29 May killed a Palestinian Authority (PA) official and injured others during an overnight raid in Jenin refugee camp. On 30 May, one Israeli man was killed near the entrance of Hermesh settlement outpost in occupied West Bank. Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The European Union delegation in Israel on 8 May cancelled its Europe Day diplomatic reception over the planned participation of controversial far-right Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir. The EU delegation specified that it does not want to offer a platform to someone whose views contradict the values the EU stands for. Brussels marks May 9 as Europe Day, honoring a 1950 French declaration that led to the founding of the body that became the EU.

The Israeli government on 24 May passed a new two year budget for 2023 and 2024 that has emboldened the religious and pro-settlement agenda. The budget was passed with 64 for and 56 against votes. Reportedly, US$ 131 billion and US$ 139 billion were assigned for 2023 and 2024 respectively.

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