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

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after his consultations with the Americans and others invited about forty participants including national Security Advisers to Jeddah for discussing the way out of the Russia-Ukraine War. But since Moscow was not invited it had limited chance of success but Zelensky’s 10 point plan was indeed a point of discussion. India was represented by NSA Shri Ajit Doval who only a couple of months ago, during his visit to Saudi Arabia had laid the foundations of a new Railway port and connectivity project which eventually became the India-Middle East -Europe Corridor and was announced on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi.

Saudi-Iran rapprochement continues despite some reservations on both sides. Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit and positive statements made rendered some feasible outcomes. Meanwhile the Iranian Ambassador was accredited to the Kingdom. The invitation to President Raisi was reiterated.

Seeing the Act East policy of the GCC states and to avert the impression that US was not concerned with the security of the region, Washington made extensive efforts to reengage with them especially Riyadh. One of the main objectives is to somehow bring Riyadh and Tel Aviv together for which Saudi Arabia is seeking security pact and guarantees like the ones USA has with Japan and South Korea as well as to well as some concessions in the civil nuclear and processing areas to match the Iranian expertise. Moreover, some solution for Palestine and accommodation by Netanyahu government is critical to move forward with normalization and recognition of the Jewish state.

Israeli connect has its down side too for many Arab countries, as was evident in the case of Libyan Foreign Minister who met his Israeli counterpart and came in for condemnation and threats and eventually had to leave her post and the country when the Israelis made the meeting public.

Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi met H.E. Dr Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Johannesburg on 24 August 2023, on the sidelines of the 15th BRICS Summit. India had supported the expansion of BRICS including the membership of Iran to BRICS and SCO.

Minister of State for External Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs, Shri V. Muraleedharan paid an official visit to the State of Kuwait from 23-24 August, 2023. This was his second official visit as Minister of State for External Affairs to Kuwait.

Iranian Foreign Minister’s Visit to Japan and Saudi Arabia

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on 7 August in Tokyo. It was the first high level visit between both sides in more than three years. Amirabdollahian met with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Health, Labour and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato. During the discussions, Japan raised the topic of Iran’s drone supply to Russian forces in Ukraine. The Iranian delegation however denied any drone supply to Russia after February 2022 invasion. The stalled nuclear deal was also discussed by both sides. Japan has backed efforts to restore the nuclear deal and place strict curbs on the nuclear programme in exchange for lifting multilateral sanctions. On Russia-Ukraine war, Japan has maintained economic sanctions on Russia. Iran is a close ally of Russia and it has faced sanctions for alleged drone supply to Moscow.

Iranian Foreign Minister also visited Riyadh on 17 August and met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman. Amirabdollahian in the press statement mentioned that the “relations between Tehran and Saudi are on the right track and we are witnessing progress”. Amirabdollahian met with the Crown Prince in Jeddah to review their relations following the rapprochement and agreed to identify future opportunities for cooperation. Both leaders also discussed the developments in regional and international arenas.

IRGC Conducts Military Exercise in Disputed Islands

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted military exercises to display its readiness to defend three islands disputed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The IRGC deployed vehicles armed with missiles with range of 600 kms. Fateh ballistic missiles and Ghadir cruise missile with range of more than 300 km were installed on the islands. The training beginning on 2 August were carried out off the coast of Abu Musa which along with Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb form the cluster of disputed islands that has escalated political tensions with the UAE. The islands were reportedly taken over by the Royal Navy during Shah’s rule in 1971 following the British withdrawal from territories that became the UAE. The Emirati leadership has maintained the islands belong to the UAE. Iran has however dismissed these claims and denied the possibility of any negotiations over their ownership.

Iran on international level has been highly proactive to assert its claims over the disputed territories. Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian Ambassador to Tehran to protest against Moscow’s joint statement with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) challenging Iran’s rights over the islands. Iran also summoned the Chinese ambassador following joint statement with GCC in December 2022 that backed the UAE’s right to follow up on the ownership of the islands internationally.

The US Deploys Additional Forces

The US has deployed 3000 military personnel in the Red Sea in two warships, USS Bataan and USS Carter Hall as part of efforts to thwart Iran’s alleged seizures of several civilian ships. The US noted that Iran in the past two years have either seized or attempted to take control of nearly 20 internationally flagged ships in the region. Therefore, the deployment according to the US will deter destabilizing activity and de-escalate regional tensions. Earlier in July, the US reportedly blocked two attempts by Iranian forces to seize commercial tankers in international waters off Oman. Tehran has maintained that US’ growing military buildup could lead to inflaming regional instability. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani stated that ”the US government’s military presence in the region has never created security. Their interests in this region have always compelled them to fuel instability and insecurity.We are deeply convinced that the countries of the Persian Gulf are capable of ensuring their own security.”

Shrine in Shiraz Attacked

The Shah Cheragh shrine came under attack on 13 August after one shooter, identified as Rahmatollah Nowruzof from Tajikistan entered the building to carry out public shooting. The shrine was previously attacked on 26 October 2022. The attacker shot four people killing one before he was arrested. Reportedly, 10 people have been arrested on suspicion of being involved in the shooting, all of whom were foreign nationals. The attack was reportedly carried out by IS operatives. The IS in 2017 carried out coordinated attacks on the Iranian parliament and mausoleum of former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iran Bans Weightlifter

Iran Weightlifting Federation banned a veteran weightlifter, Mostafa Rajaei for life and dissolved a sports committee after he greeted an Israeli athlete, Maksim Svirsky during the 2023 World Master Weightlifting Championships in Poland. The federation announced that its stance aligns with the position of the Islamic Republic. The federation removed Hamid Salehinia, the head of the weightlifting team as well as dissolved the committee formed to represent veteran weightlifters. Iranian government has faced criticism and bans over its refusal to allow the members of the sports community to compete with Israelis.

Protest in Libya after Foreign Minister’s Meeting with Israeli Counterpart

Libyans came out to the streets to protest against the meeting of Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in Rome. Subsequently, Al-Mangoush was dismissed by the Tripoli based government. Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah announced an investigation into her meeting. There were reports that the former Foreign Minister left the country. Libya’s Internal Security Service responded by denying reports that it allowed or facilitated her departure specifying that she was on the list of people barred from travelling.

The political row broke out after Israeli Foreign Ministry admitted about the meeting between the Libyan and Israeli Foreign Ministers. Domestically within Israel, the public acknowledgement was criticized by opposition politicians that have damaged the credibility of the Jewish state. Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah following the report dismissed the Foreign Minister. Dbeibah has come under scrutiny after reports emerged that he was aware of the Foreign Minister’s meeting with the Israeli counterpart. In the aftermath of the diplomatic fiasco with Libya, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued an order that would require his approval for all secret talks and also asked his ministers to secure his consent before publishing news of any such meetings.

Saudi Arabia Appoints New Ambassador to Jordan and Palestine

The Palestinian government officials have welcomed the appointment of Ambassador Nayef al-Sudairi as the first Saudi ambassador serving as a non-resident envoy in Jordan and Consul General in Jerusalem. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s diplomatic adviser Majdi al-Khalidi called the occasion as “an important step that will contribute to further strengthening the strong brotherly relations that bind the two countries and the two brotherly peoples”. The US following the Abraham Accords is looking for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, thorny issues such as Israeli raids in West Bank and Saudi nuclear power development remain to be resolved to achieve normalization.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia hosted a summit participated by around 40 states excluding Russia to discuss Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s plan for peace. The peace plan announced first in November 2022 G20 summit encompasses radiation and nuclear safety; food security; energy security; release of all prisoners and deportees; restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Russia’s adherence to the UN Charter; withdrawal of Russian troops; justice; prevention of ecocide; prevention of escalation of conflict and building security architecture in the Euro-Atlantic space and confirmation of the war’s end including a document signed by the involved parties.

President Zelenskyy welcomed the participating states that gathered in Jeddah on 5 August and expressed hope that the initiative will lead to a peace summit of world leaders. Notably, China, an ally of Russia attended the Jeddah summit. Saudi Arabia by hosting the talks is seeking to exert its good offices in reaching a solution resulting in permanent peace. Riyadh hoped that the summit would reinforce dialogue and cooperation to resolve the crisis through political and diplomatic means.

Sudan’s Paramilitary Force Offers Peace Proposal

The head of paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo offered a 10 point peace plan in the last week of August aimed at solving the conflict with the military. The RSF in the statement claimed that the group did not seek nor initiate the conflict with the military. RSF also noted that “efforts to end the protracted crisis must be directed toward achieving a lasting ceasefire, coupled with comprehensive political solutions that address the root cause of Sudan’s wars.” The peace proposal talked about non-symmetrical federal system that would represent Sudan’s regional, cultural and ethnic diversity after elections to form a civilian government and eliminate structural violence against Sudanese citizens. Dagalo’s plan also proposed a new apolitical and unified Sudanese army built from merging existing forces which have civilian oversight and confirm to internationally recognised foundations. General Abdel Fattah al Burhan, the Commander in Chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) rejecting the calls for a ceasefire denounced the RSF as traitors and promised a decisive victory.

General Burhan who also chairs the governing Sovereign Council met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi in El-Alamein city on 29 August. Both leaders discussed the latest developments in Sudan and relations between the neighbouring states. Al-Burhan through his trip to Egypt has attempted to project himself as focusing on the political and diplomatic aspects of the conflict. Al-Burhan was accompanied by acting Foreign Minister Ali al-Sadiq and General Ahmed Ibrahim Mufadel, head of the General Intelligence Authority. Egypt has maintained close ties with the Sudanese army and the visit is likely to intensify military cooperation between both states.

Developments in Syria

On 7 August, Israel launched missile attack from Golan Heights targeting areas near Damascus. The strike killed four soldiers and injured four others. Israel has been carrying out missile attacks against Iranian and Syrian targets. In the last week of August, clashes between the Arab tribal fighters and US backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters killed several people including civilians. On 11 August, Islamic State (IS) fighters ambushed a bus carrying Syrian soldiers near the eastern town of Mayadeen in Deir Az Zor province killing 20 troops. The clashes first broke out on 28 August, a day after the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) detained the commander and several members of the Deir Az Zor Military Council, at a meeting they invited them in the northeastern city of Hassakeh.

In Sweida province controlled by the government forces, people have come out in large numbers to protest against the rising inflation and declining state of the economy. The latest round of protests was ignited after Bashar al Assad government reduced the subsidy on fuel and gasoline subsidy programme. The protest beginning in Sweida has spread to Deraa province.

Moreover, in the last week of August, a US delegation from the Republican Party composed of Congressmen Ben Cline, Scott Fitzgerald, and French Hill made a rare visit to rebel held territory in northwestern Syria to emphasize on the humanitarian crisis.

Al Qaeda Attack in Southern Yemen

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) carried out attacks in southern Yemen on two occasions in August. On 1 August, five fighters from the Southern Armed Forces loyal to the Southern Transitional Council were killed and four others were injured in Wadi Omran in Abyan province using mortars and rocket propelled grenades. On 10 August, four members of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) were killed by AQAP. Commander Abd al-Latif al-Sayyid and the three fighters from the Security Belt Forces were killed using explosives. AQAP has not claimed responsibility for the attack but is active in Abyan province and carries out ambushes against Yemeni forces. AQAP killed two fighters from the Southern Armed Forces in July 2023 in Shabwa governorate.

Six Turkish Soldiers Killed during anti-PKK Campaign in Iraq

On 9 and 10 August, Turkey carried out combat activities as part of Operation Claw Lock launched since April 2022. The operation is part of Turkey’s military offensive to prevent PKK from using Iraq as a base to carry out attacks within Turkish territory. During the current conflict, four Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) fighters and six Turkish soldiers were killed. Turkish Colonel Zeki Akturk assured that the military will continue to fight against terrorism with determination until all ‘terrorists’ are eliminated. The PKK, which has bases around northern Iraq, is designated a “terrorist” group by Turkey, the US and European Union (EU).

Israel-Palestine Conflict

The month of August continued to remain violent in Israel and the occupied territories. On 1 August, one Palestinian, Mohannad al-Mazraa was killed by Israeli police after his opened fire towards an illegal Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim injuring six people. On 4 August, two Palestinian teenagers were killed in two separate incidents. Jamal Maaten was killedby settlers in Burqa village, east of Ramallah. One teenager, Mahmoud Abu Sa’an was killed by Israeli forces during a pre-dawn raid in Nur Shams refugee camp in Tulkarem. On 5 August, one Palestinian gunman, Kemal Abu Bakr was shot dead after he opened fire in central Tel Aviv and killed an Israeli police inspector. On 6 August, Israeli forces killed three Palestinians who according to the army were heading to carry out an attack. Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man, Mahmoud Jarad during raids in Tulkarem refugee camp on 11 August 2023. On 15 August, Israeli forces killed two Palestinians, Qusay al-Walaji and Mohammed Nujoom during a raid on a refugee camp in Jericho. On 16 August, Israeli forces used military bulldozer to raid the Balata refugee camp forcing Palestinians to evacuate a residential building and blowing it up at around 3 am. Reportedly, more than 80 Palestinians suffered from tear gas inhalation during the raids.

On 19 August, two Israelis were killed near Nablus. On 21 August, one Israeli woman was killed after a shooting attack on a car on Route 60 near Hebron. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran for the recent attacks on the Israelis. He claimed that the attack is encouraged, guided, funded by Iran and its satellite states. On 22 August, one Palestinian teenager was killed by the Israeli forces during a raid in Zababdeh town. On 30 August, one Palestinian teenager was killed in East Jerusalem near Damascus Gate following a stabbing attempt at a light rail station. On 31 August, one Israeli soldier was killed and two others were injured in a ramming attack by a Palestinian truck driver at a checkpoint between Israel and West Bank.

A Palestinian man, Ramzi al-Ardah was killed by Palestinian Authority (PA) security services on 30 August following armed confrontations between security services and fighters inside the Tulkarem refugee camp. The confrontation began after Palestinian fighters from Tulkarem Brigade tried to stop members of the security forces to remove barricades that were placed to obstruct Israel’s repeated raids on the camp.

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