West Asia Roundup, November 2018
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi finally became the Head of Government in a fledgling Iraqi political and security scenario. Despite some consensus between the two largest parliamentary coalitions and blessings of their respective western and regional benefactors he found it difficult to form the Cabinet due to competing claims. Although 14 ministers out of 22 were sworn-in in September, the main issue was the post of powerful Interior and Defence Ministers. The Reform Alliance (Sairoon Bloc) Party led by cleric Muqtada Al Sadr could not agree to the Iran backed Al Binna ( Fatah Alliance of Hadi-al-Amiri) Party’s proposed candidature of Faleh-al-Fayad, a former National Security Adviser, for the post of Interior Minister, since the Reform Alliance did not consider him an ‘independent’, which was the precondition for such ministerial nominations. Fayad is seen by most as Tehran’s (especially that of Iranian General Soleimani’s) man. Obviously, the US supported parties would not agree to his candidature lest Iran gains an upper hand yet again. Fayad, a main ally of former PM Al-Abadi had also fought against Daesh (ISIS) since 2014. Since Maj Gen Faisal Fener headed Saddam Hussein’s private Jet Squadron, he is debarred by law despite huge bipartisan political backing. The two sides could agree only on six Ministers who were eventually appointed. Hence the instability and competition for influence in governance continues.

Syria

War- torn Syria is yet another domain of competing influences with US, Saudi Arabia and UAE on one side backing the disunited and emaciated rebels and Russia, Iran and Qatar fighting for the Assad Government. Turkey has its own interest due to the Kurdish problem. Mayhem is the end result. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and UAE have sent military forces to areas controlled by the Kurdish UPG group in North East Syria. These forces will be stationed along with US led coalition troops. It was also reported that Saudi and Emirati military advisers have been meeting the officials of the Kurdistan democratic party (KDP) and Kurdistan Workers party (KWP), considered by the Turks as the terrorist organizations. There are fears about the Arab-Turkish confrontations in the Syrian landscape. This is further being complicated by the Turkish role in the investigations and release of damning information with regard to the assassination of Khashoggi, in which Turkish President Erdogan stressed that the order to assassinate Khashoggi was issued by the highest authority in Saudi Arabia, indirectly accusing crown prince Md. Bin Salman (MBS). MBS was able to coast clear through the crisis due to the personal support from President Trump, who even discounted his CIA’s report. In fact, MBS undertook visits to UAE, Bahrain, Tunisia and then on to Argentina for the G-20 Summit to convey the impression that it was business as usual.

Jordan

Jordan shares a border with Syria and had been supporting the Rebel Free Syrian Army, and despite being a part of the coalition led by the US has played a moderating role viz-a-viz the Assad regime. Therefore, a nine-member Jordanian parliamentary delegation visited Damascus and had a meeting with President Assad, which the Veteran MP Abdul Karim Dughmi termed, “ in a brotherly atmosphere”. He further said that they discussed Jordanian- Syrian Cooperation in the field of trade, transport and tourism, apart from the issue of Jordanian prisoners in Syria as well as over 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Jordan. It was only in mid-October that Jordan and Syria have re-opened the Jaber-Nasib Border Crossing after a closure of three years. Thousands of Syrian refugees have returned to their country. The delegates also confirmed that Syria, especially from the south to the borders with Jordan, was completely safe and that all major cities including Aleppo were also safe except for some pockets in Idlib, Deir Ezzor and east of the Euphrates.
Meanwhile, the 11th round of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, failed to achieve any tangible progress towards an agreed constitution that is being seen as a major step towards normalization of the political process. The UN Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura, who had announced his resignation last month, said that the “The meeting in Astana was a missed opportunity to accelerate the establishment of a credible, balanced and inclusive, Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, UN-facilitated constitutional committee”.

Israel
PM Netanyahu visits Oman

In a landmark visit, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu went to Oman on an invitation from Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said. The official reason was to discuss regional developments but also to strengthen the coalition against the Iranians. The visit took place just two days after a Palestinian delegation led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who was in Oman. The last such Israeli visit occurred in 1996, when former Prime Minister Shimon Peres traveled to Oman.

According to the PMO of Israel, Netanyahu was keeping in line with his election promise of normalizing ties with Gulf and Arab countries. An official PMO release stated that “Netanyahu's visit is a significant step in implementing the policy outlined by Prime Minister Netanyahu to strengthen ties with the countries of the region, while leveraging Israel's advantages in security, technology and the economy”.

Discussions between the leaders were largely focused on achieving peace in the region. During the trip, Netanyahu was accompanied by Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad’s chief Yossi Cohen which cast doubts over the stated purpose of the visit. This was further followed by the visit of the Israeli Minister for internal security. Already there have been some political and sporting contacts with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar. In fact, in his meeting with the visiting Chadian President, the Israeli Prime Minister mentioned that he expects to visit more Gulf countries.

The visit remains significant in many ways. Firstly, it demonstrates that Arab leaders are willing to engage with Israel independent of the Palestine issue. Secondly, Oman’s geographical proximity and political closeness to Iran could be a strong reason for Netanyahu’s visit. Oman could act as an interlocutor between Israel and Iran. Finally, Israel is seen as ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ with Arab countries who have mostly remained hostile towards normalizing ties with Israel. On its part, Oman declared that the visit would create an environment to resolve the Palestine-Israel conflict that has been hanging fire for decades.

Israel-Gaza flare up and domestic repercussions for Netanyahu

A sudden flare up of hostilities between Israel and Hamas militants threatened to put Gaza on the brink of a major war, for the fourth time since Operation Cast Lead of 2008. The recent spurt of violence was the worst since 2014, when Israel Defence Forces (IDF) launched a full-scale operation called Pillar of Defence in Gaza’s urban areas.

The latest clashes started after a failed covert operation in Gaza by IDF forces which resulted in one Israeli soldier and seven Palestinian fighters dead. Hamas and other armed groups launched rockets and mortars into Israel. Israel responded with airstrikes that killed several Palestinians. Tensions had been brewing since the US decision to shift its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This conflict could have easily ballooned into a major war but a willingness to end the clashes by holding talks has calmed the situation. Yet, under such a hostile atmosphere hopes for long lasting peace seem distant.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on the verge of a revolt from his own coalition partners due to the recent fiasco in Gaza when his Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman quit in protest of Netanyahu’s surrender to the Palestinian resistance. The situation became more difficult when in response to the Israeli attacks on Gaza by the Palestinians responded by showering the southern Israeli border with rockets and carried out violence and killings against the Israeli army and civilians. However, Netanyahu was smartly able to tide over the calls for new election by resorting to his continued calls for beefing up fight against the security challenges on which most of the political parties do get united.

Saudi Arabia
The Khashoggi fallout

Ever since the October murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, the image of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has taken a serious hit. Recent revelations, according to the CIA, tell that Khashoggi was murdered on orders from MBS himself.

Turkey has been leading the front opposed to MBS by conducting investigations. The Turkish police had recently searched a villa connected to the killing of Khashoggi. For Turkey’s unflinching efforts at solving the ‘murder mystery’ to pay off, it needs external support from the West especially from the US. No doubt Saudi ties with the West have been strained badly but the US has remained unwavering in its support for Saudi Arabia.
This support has put Turkey and its president Recep Erdogan in a soup. A standoff with Riyadh could jeopardize its ties with Washington, a scenario Turkey would like to avoid. This Turkish dilemma could be seen at the recent G20 Summit at Buenos Aires, in which Erdogan had toned down his rhetoric against Saudi Arabia by saying that while Turkey did not want to damage the Saudi Royal Family, Khashoggi’s killing has been a test for the whole world.

It seems that as time keeps moving, the wound keeps healing. This was also seen when Russia agreed to renew an oil production deal with Saudi Arabia. Yet, human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have not allowed the murder to be completely whitewashed. Taking the G20 Summit into consideration, HRW had asked Argentina to investigate the role of MBS in the murder of the Saudi journalist. MBS’ visit to Tunisia was not smooth either. The visit was opposed by activists protesting the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

Yemen

Yet another major fall out of the Khashoggi murder is the US, UN and Western call to end the Saudi-UAE led war against Yemen where scores of people have died and are suffering starvation and disease. UN led efforts have been agreed to be hosted in Stockholm in December as a result of international pressure and efforts of Special Envoy Martin Griffins who has been shuttling between Riyadh and Sanaa to meet the Yemeni President Abed Rabto Mansour and Mohammed Ali Al Houthi, head of the Houthi Revolutionary Committee, to ensure ceasefire. Both Saudi Arabia and UAE have agreed to provide humanitarian relief of US$ 250 mn each to the beleaguered people while Kuwait took the lead with $ 1.25 bn contribution to UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for 2018.

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