West Asia Round Up -February 2023
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Closely on the heels of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Riyadh for three landmark Summits in December 22, President Ebrahim Raisi visited Beijing to confer with the Chinese leadership on the outcomes and progress and way forward to the goals of strategic partnership which was signed with much promise and fanfare. Tehran was also somewhat miffed not only on the lack of delivery on promises of $ 400 bn in investments but also that the China- GCC Summit declaration tended to project Chinese support to the three island disputes to the UAE and GCC countries. Even a Tehran paper propagated the idea of rights of Taiwanese people. But the Raisi visit was able not only to garner and renew the commitments from the Chinese but ironed out the rapprochement with the Saudis that was announced in the trilateral meet in Beijing in March 23. China yet again renewed calls of JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Deal) to be revived and resumption of negotiations as well as complete lifting of all sanctions against Iran apart from some investment deals which would have given a breather and comfort to the embattled Iranian leadership with ongoing protests.

Nature‘s fury once again hit with dire and devastating consequences for Turkey and Syria. Most of the world rose to assist the Turkish authorities the Syrians had to do within the limitations of sanctions imposed by the West. But India was one of the first countries to immediately send humanitarian assistance and medical and rescue and relief teams to both Turkey and Syria. Saudi Arabia and several Arab countries sent several planes load of assistance immediately despite problems with Assad regime and representatives visited Damascus, which is likely to alleviate his isolation within the Arab world and into the Arab league.

While ultra-right government led by PM Netanyahu continued to face domestic protests and disturbances on account of proposed judicial reforms that are said to rupture the balance between judiciary and executive and parliament, there was no let up in violence between the Palestinians and Israelis causing fears of another Intifada or higher escalation of conflict. Jordan tried to pacify by inviting both Israeli and Palestinian leadership in Aqaba to arrive at reduction in intensity of conflict. However, the violence continues. Meanwhile, at the African Union (AU) Summit an Israeli diplomat was not allowed to attend the proceedings which caused a rift between AU and Israel. Several countries in the AU are averse to the ideal of Israel being given prominence until the Palestinian issue is resolved.

  1. The 12th round of India-Oman Strategic Consultative Group (IOSCG) meeting took place in Muscat, Oman on 27 February 2023. The 12th round of the IOSCG was co-chaired by Secretary (CPV & OIA) Dr. Ausaf Sayeed and Under Secretary for Diplomatic Affairs of Oman H.E Sheikh Khalifa Alharthy. The meeting reviewed bilateral ties between India and Oman in different domains and identified new areas of cooperation.
  2. The inaugural I2U2 Business Forum was held on 22 February 2023 in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The Forum brought together senior private and public sector representatives from India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States (I2U2) to discuss opportunities for cooperation between the business communities of the four countries. It was the first event of this kind to take place since the official launch of the I2U2 Group during the I2U2 Leaders’ Summit in July 2022.
  3. The 2nd round of the India-Iraq Foreign Office Consultations was held on 20 February 2023 in Baghdad. The Indian delegation was led by Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, Secretary (CPV & OIA) while the Iraq’s delegation was led by Dr. Hisham Al Alawi, Undersecretary for Political Planning Affairs from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iraq. Secretary (CPV & OIA) called on Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Oil H.E. Mr. Hayyan Abdul Ghani, Minister of Trade H.E. Mr. Atheer Dawood Salman, National Security Adviser H.E. Mr. Qasem Al Araji, and President of Sunni Awqaf Board H.E. Dr. Mesh'an Al Khazraji, and discussed a range of bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest. Both sides expressed their satisfaction about the bilateral trade, which exceeded USD 34 billion for 2021-22 and discussed ways and means to further increase and diversify trade from oil to non-oil sectors
  4. Foreign Secretary, Shri Vinay Mohan Kwatra visited France from 05-07 February 2023 where he participated in the Focal Points’ Meeting of the India-France-UAE Trilateral Dialogue, launched in September 2022. As a follow up to the Joint Statement issued and the roadmap adopted by the Foreign Ministers of India-France-UAE during their telephone call on 04 February 2023, the three focal points discussed the practical steps to take the cooperation forward including in the fields of defence, energy and environment, innovation and people-to-people exchanges, by synergising the strong bilateral partnerships between India, France and the UAE.
  5. India’s urgent humanitarian assistance and contribution on the ground in the wake of terrible earthquake in Turkey and Syria was highly appreciated.
Ebrahim Raisi’s Visit to China

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi went for a three day visit between 15 and 18 February to Beijing. Iran is dissatisfied with the slow progress in economic cooperation as well as China’s joint statement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in December 2022. Raisi accompanied by six ministers expressed hope to improve ties with China. Reportedly, both sides signed agreement worth US$ 3.5 billion in areas such as trade, mining, automotive industry, agriculture, tourism and transfer of technology. Raisi also met with representatives of several large Chinese firms. The Iranian petroleum ministry mentioned about discussion with Chinese side to continue trading crude oil for goods; developing natural gas project in southern Iran and advancing oil field projects.

Chinese President Xi Jinping during his speech called for lifting sanctions on Iran.

Supreme Leader Pardoned Thousands of Protestors

Iran’s Supreme Leader has offered limited amnesty or allowed reduction in jail sentences to thousands of protestors that were arrested or detained during the anti-government protests that began after death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022. The pardon did not apply to dual nationals; individuals convicted of offences carrying the death penalty; acts of arson; refusal to admit and regret their crimes; proofs of cooperation with foreign agents or affiliation with hostile groups. The ruling regime has only released youngsters with minimal political motives.

Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, the head of the judiciary has reportedly suggested the Supreme Leader to apply this policy as an act of reconciliation after the regime largely crushed the protests. Human Rights groups have noted that more than 20,000 people have been arrested and four people have been executed. The former President Mohammed Khatami stressed on reforms including improvements in the judicial process and procedure, delinking the military from politics, freedom of press and political prisoners etc.

Notably, acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was released on bail on 3 February from Tehran’s Evin prison after his hunger strike to resist his detention. Panahi was imprisoned in July 2022 and stayed in jail despite a ruling by Iran’s Supreme Court that quashed a six year sentence in 2010 for “propaganda against the system”

Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria

Turkey and Syria experienced devastating earthquakes in February 2023. The first earthquake hit on 6 February measuring 7.7 in Richter scale followed by tremor measuring 7.6. The region witnessed around 9,000 aftershocks during the month. On 20 February, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit Turkey and Syria with epicenter near Defne in Hatay province. It was followed by 5.8 magnitude earthquakes. The earthquake caused further destruction of buildings and killed at least three people and more than 200 injuries.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Turkish government launched investigation into building contractors suspected of violating safety standards. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu noted that 564 suspects have been identified and arrested 160 people until 23 February 2023. The opposition parties have blamed Recep Tayyip Erdogan government of not enforcing building regulations and misspending special taxes levied since 1999 earthquakes to build infrastructure that are more resistant to earthquakes.

By end of February, the death toll in Turkey was at 44,218 and Syria at 5,914. President Erdogan has promised to rebuild housing within one year. In Syria, the aid was slow to flow due to the sanctions imposed on the regime. The situation is dire in the opposition held northwestern Syria. The UN humanitarian convoys are allowed to cross at one authorized border point, Bab al-Hawa. The Gulf States have committed to offer aid to Syria to recover after the devastating earthquakes.

Syria’s Re-entry in the Region

Syria under Bashar Al Assad faced regional isolation since the 2011 Arab Spring and the subsequent civil war. In the recent years however, Arab neighbours have warmed up and have attempted to re-engage with the Assad regime.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi arrived in Damascus on 15 February to improve ties. Safadi during his meeting with President Assad discussed about the humanitarian situation, aid, ongoing relief operations and welfare of Syrian refugees living in Jordan. Jordan during the civil war backed the opposition groups to remove Assad. Amman later backed Russian led military campaign that regained southern Syria from rebel control.

On 24 February, the heads of the Iraqi, Jordanian, Palestinian, Libyan, Egyptian and Emirati Houses of Representatives as well as representatives from Oman and Lebanon travelled to Syria as part of delegation from the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The delegation met with the Syrian President and the parliamentarians in signs of regional acceptance. Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi noted that “We cannot do without Syria and Syria cannot do without its Arab environment, which we hope it can return to”. The critics of the Assad have warned that he could use the disaster to normalise ties with the rest of the Arab world and divert aid through government held areas in Syria to its supporters.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Damascus on 27 February. It was the first visit by an Egyptian Foreign Minister since 2011. Following the earthquake, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi held phone conversation with President Assad on 7 February. President Assad visited Oman on 20 February and met with Sultan Haitham bin Tareq. The Omani Sultan expressed his condolences about the loss of lives following the earthquake. Assad appreciated Oman’s balanced policies. Both leaders discussed bilateral and regional ties.

Israel-Palestine Conflict

Violence continued unabated in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in February. Israeli forces killed five Palestinians during a raid in the Aqabet Jabr refugee camp in Jericho on 6 February. On the same day, five Palestinians were killed in Jericho. On 7 February, one 17 year old teenager was killed in Nablus. A Palestinian teenager, Muntaser al-Shawwa on 20 February succumbed to bullet wounds shot by Israeli forces in first week of February. He was shot during an overnight Israeli army raid on the Balata refugee camp in Nablus in occupied West Bank.

On 22 February, Israeli forces during clashes in Nablus killed 11 Palestinians and injured 102 others. The Lion’s Den armed group clashed with Israeli forces along with Balata Brigades. In response to death of 11 Palestinians, fighters in Gaza launched number of rockets towards Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Sderot. Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) called the Israeli military raid in Nablus as a major crime. Israeli forces retaliated by carrying out air strikes in the coastal strip. Israeli forces on 23 February killed one Palestinian during confrontations at the Arroub refugee camp in Hebron. Israel earlier on 13 February conducted air raids in Gaza destroying underground complex containing raw materials utilised for manufacturing rockets.

On 26 January, two settlers were shot and killed in Huwara village, south of Nablus. Israeli settlers in response carried out at least 300 attacks including shootings, stabbings, arson, attacks with metal rods and rocks through Palestinian villages of Huwara, Zaatara, Burin and Asira al-Qibliya, all south of Nablus. During the incident, one 39 year old Palestinian named Samih al-Aqtash died of his injuries. Al-Aqtash returned home five days earlier after volunteering to help earthquake survivors in Turkey. Reportedly, Israeli soldiers were complicit and slow to respond to contain the violence. On 28 February, one Israeli-American motorist was killed by a Palestinian gunman in Jericho.

Jordan in order to curb violence invited leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Aqaba on 26 February. Israeli and Palestinian officials after the end of the meeting issued joint statement that they would work closely towards de-escalation on the ground and prevent further violence. Israel promised to stop discussions on building new settlement units for four months and stop approving any new settlements for six months. The meeting was also attended by Egyptian and US officials.

Moreover, the Palestinian Authority (PA) following a deal with the US agreed to withdraw a draft resolution at the UN Security Council (UNSC). As part of the deal, the US promised financial aid package, temporary suspension of announcements on new Israeli settlement units and Palestinian home demolitions. The move by the PA was condemned by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Palestinian National Initiative. The opposition groups talked about the futility of the bill with the US which has been complicit with the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Protest in Israel

In Israel, demonstrators in February 2023 continued to organize protests and sit-ins in several cities against government’s plans to pass judicial reform bill that will weaken the powers of the judiciary; compromise the system of checks and balances and led to concentration of powers in the hands of the Prime Minister. Israeli police force blocked the protestors from reaching the parliament and arrested number of protestors for breaching public order and disobeying instructions.

The Israeli Parliament in mid-February passed a law that further suppresses the political space and participation of the Arab citizens. According to the new law, the Israeli government could revoke citizenship and residency from Palestinians imprisoned over “acts of terror” and who receive financial assistance from the Palestinian Authority (PA). The law will allow deportation of Palestinians to the occupied territories.

Attack on Israeli Vessel

On 10 February 2023, a tanker owned by a global firm, Zodiac Maritime Company headed by an Israeli, Eyal Ofer was attacked by drone in the Arabian Sea. The US and Israel have blamed Iran for the incident. According to a US military official, the vessel, Campo Square was attacked by several Iranian ships and Shahed 136 drone. The vessel suffered minor damage.

Israeli Prime Minister blamed the attack on Iran and assured that Israel will continue its efforts to counter Tehran. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Nasser Kanaani rejected the allegation of Iran’s involvement in the tanker attack. Kanaani has stated that Israel has compromised the security of other states hinting its involvement in Syria. Therefore, Israel is no legitimacy to accuse others of offences that jeopardise regional security.

Israeli Diplomat Removed from African Union Summit

In light of dispute within the African Union (AU) member states over Israel’s accreditation to the bloc, Ambassador Sharon bar-Li was removed from AU summit in Adis Ababa. The AU spokesperson, Ebba Kalondo argued that the diplomat was removed since the Israeli diplomat was not accredited as the ambassador to Ethiopia. The non-transferrable AU invite was issued only to the Israeli Ambassador to the AU. The Israeli diplomat was not invited to the meeting. AU regretted that the Israeli diplomat ‘abused’ the courtesy.

Israel condemned the incident arguing the diplomat was removed despite her status as an accredited observer with entrance badges. Israel accused Iran of orchestrating the move with help from Algeria and South Africa. Clayson Monyela, head of public diplomacy in South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation argued that until the AU takes a decision on whether to grant Israel observer status, it cannot participate in the summit.

South Africa and Algeria have been vocal supporters of the Palestinian struggle. Both states have objected to Israel’s observer status to the bloc. The Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau on 9 February announced that the city would suspend ties with Israel until it ends the systematic violation of the people of Palestine’s human rights. The City cut off ties with all official institutions of the state as well as the twinning agreements with the Tel Aviv City Council. The Mayor emphasised that boycott of Israel did not apply to Israeli or Palestinian people who “work to build peace in the Middle East”.

While Israel faced a diplomatic setback in AU, in Gulf States, it has managed to deepen its inroads after Oman opened its airspace for Israeli airplanes. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen thanked Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said for his decision that will shorten flight time to Asia. In 2022, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to Israeli planes. However, Israeli carriers could not use its airspace to fly to Asian states due to blockade by Oman. The duration of flights to India and Thailand will shorten by at least two hours.

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