West Asia Round-up: March 2019
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

President Trump continues to surprise the world as far as the foreign policy domain is concerned especially with regard to West Asia. After his Jerusalem Salvo and the proposal in making “Deal of the Century” for the Middle East, he sprung a surprise by announcing the disputed and occupied Golan Heights territorially as part of Israel. Let alone the legality of the proclamation which might help Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in elections, it has created yet another volatile front as far as the Arab world is concerned which has condemned the ill-founded move at its Arab League meeting.

The month also witnessed the first ever visit by Iranian President Rouhani to Iraq ( March 11-14), preceded by the preparatory visit by Foreign Minister Zarif ,which was seen as quite significant as ‘historic’ and a new Start taking it beyond the military ties into more strategic security and economic domain. Several important agreements were signed since Iraqi President Salih is hoping for a ‘chance for peace’ by keeping his regional partners and the United States in good humour. He also met the Senior Cleric Grand Ayatollah Al Sistani in Najaf. On a positive note the last Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) hold out of Baghouz fell on March 22 in the hands of Syrian Kurdish Democratic Forces (SDF) broadly aligned with the US but open to discussions with the Assad regime under the Russian guarantees. Turkey and Iran also were fighting to contain their own respective Kurdish adversaries.

As a first and with full honours India was invited to be a ‘Guest of Honour’ at the Plenary of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Foreign Ministers in Abu Dhabi on March 1 despite Pakistan’s failed attempts to have the invite to Smt. Sushma Swaraj withdrawn and Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi boycotting the meet. This was historic and was a sweet revenge after 50 years, when in 1969 India was unceremoniously asked not to participate at the very first meet where it was supposed to attend as a full member. Moreover, at the behest of India the Abu Dhabi Declaration did not include any references to India’s internal matters that has been the ongoing factor all along due to Pakistani intransigence. Finally, long serving and ailing President Bouteflika of Algeria faced immense resistance to his continuation with increasing protests and civil unrest and had to resign.

US Recognition of Golan Heights

On 25 March 2019, the US President Donald Trump signed a presidential proclamation recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the Occupied Golan Heights. The proclamation was signed four days after President Trump’s tweet announcing his decision. The pretext to accord recognition is premised on Israel’s need to secure itself from Iran and other militant groups operating in southern Syria. The Golan Heights region has historically been part of Syria since its independence in 1946. During the 1967 Arab-Israel war, Israel captured the Golan region from Syria along with West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt. According to the United Nation Charter, capture of territories by force is inadmissible under international law and UN Security Council Resolution 242 asked Israel, the occupying power to return the territories it captured during the war. Israel however continued its occupation and in 1981, it effectively annexed the territories which were objected by the UN and the international community.

The US had historically maintained the Golan Heights as an occupied territory and agreed that Israel’s borders must be decided through a negotiated settlement. The latest move is part of trend in which the Trump Presidency has undertaken several measures such as recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving its embassy; removal of the Jerusalem consulate; cutting funding to United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and Palestinian Authority (PA) etc. These measures on the one hand have emboldened Israeli interests and on the other soured the relations with Palestinians and Arab world while some commentators surmised that Jared Kushner had taken some Arab leaders on board.

Turkey and Iran Launch Joint Military Campaign against Kurds

Turkey Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, in the first week of March 2019, announced that Iran and Turkey intends to launch an offensive against Kurdish rebels. Turkey has been fighting against Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and Iran has been fighting against the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). Both the groups also maintain bases in Iraq. Subsequently, the attack on PKK bases was launched on 18 March 2019 at Turkey’s eastern borders. Iran however denied any role in the 18 March campaign.

Turkey is pushing Russia to sideline Syria’s People’s Protection Unit (YPG) from peace talks. Iran at the same time is coordinating with the Syrian government and military to take actions against all foreign forces including YPG. Turkey’s military coordination with Iran also sends a strong message to the US that has coordinated its strategic efforts with YPG during the conflict against Islamic State in Syria.

India at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation

In a historic turnaround and in recognition of India’s global status, on 1 March 2019, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj represented India as the guest of honour at the Plenary of 46th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the 57 member strong Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). India’s participation was declined during its inaugural session due to Pakistan’s insistence in 1969. Therefore, The Indian Minister’s visit especially in the backdrop of terrorist attack in Pulwama and Balakot strikes and the heightened tensions with Pakistan is significant. Pakistan has historically used the forum to criticize India on the mistreatment of the Muslim community in India and internationalise the Kashmir issue. Pakistani Foreign Minister tried in vain with the UAE and other OIC countries to withdraw the invite and having failed decided to boycott.

The External Affairs Minister in her speech congratulated the OIC for completing 50 years and thanked the organisation for its support to India against the threat of terrorism. She revisited India’s spiritual core and enumerated the ethos of non-violence and peace. The invitation can be seen as recognition of India’s economic success story and its growing status as a rising global power.

Israeli Prime Netanyahu’s Corruption Scandal

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been running for his fifth term in office for election to be held on 9 April 2019 has been indicted on three charges of corruption. He was elected for the first time in 1996 for one term. He then returned to office in 2009 and continued until present. The three corruption charges are Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000. In Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of accepting gifts worth US$ 200,000 including cigars and champagnes from Hollywood director Arnon Milchan to support him to secure a US visa and pushed for a legislation that would offer tax breaks to Milchan if he decides to move back to Israel. In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of pushing for a legislation that would ban free daily newspapers. It was intended to sabotage the functioning of pro-Netanyahu but free daily newspaper Israel Hayom, funded by billionaire Sheldon Adelson in favour of another newspaper, Yediot Acharonot to buy positive coverage. The charge of buying favourable media coverage can be seen in Case 4000 in which Netanyahu allegedly sought to relax regulations of telecom company Bezeq for positive coverage in their news website Walla.

Netanyahu has claimed he is innocent since the investigation began in 2016 and called it a left-wing conspiracy. As Israel is approaching its national election on 9 April, questions have emerged if the charges would go forward. According to Israeli law, a sitting Prime Minister is not allowed to resign in case of indictment. The investigation is likely to continue after the election which would determine the fate of Netanyahu.

Arab League Summit in Tunis

On 31 March 2019, leaders of the Arab world met in Tunis to discuss wide-ranging issues affecting the region. The summit took place in the backdrop of regional turmoil ranging from the war in Yemen, instability in Libya to anti-government protests in Algeria and Sudan. The organisation renewed the call for the establishment of a Palestinian state stating that peace and security in the region is contingent on finding a solution to Israel-Palestinian conflict. The Arab leaders also emphasised their full support for Syria’s right over the Golan Heights and condemned US move to unilaterally recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed region. The leaders agreed that inter-Arab reconciliation is the starting point for stability in the region.

Algeria Protests

Algeria, since mid-March, has witnessed massive protests throughout the country in Algiers, Bejaia, Oran, Batna, Tizi Ouzou etc. demanding a change in the political leadership and called for an end to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime. The protest started after Bouteflika announced that he intends to run for presidency for the fifth time. The President suffered a stroke in 2013 causing speech damage and difficulty in movements raising questions on whether he is fit to run for office. During his fourth term, he rarely came out in public.

At the same time, Algeria is facing domestic problems in terms of high rate of unemployment, corruption, inflation etc. Eventually, Bouteflika resigned on 3 April 2019 due to intense public pressure and loss of confidence from the army and the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party leadership.

(Ambassador Anil Trigunayat (Retd) is a Distinguished Fellow at the VIF)

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