West Asia Round-up - April 2019
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
Libya Civil War

After eight years of Arab Spring the plight of the Libyans continues unabated. General Khalifa Haftar, debunking the proposed conference (power sharing agreement) that could have ushered in some stability through a dialogue among all stake holders , launched a military offensive (LNA- Libyan National Army) to swiftly take over the capital Tripoli and Western Libya that has remained under the control of Islamist ruled GNA - Government of National accord - and where the UN Special Envoys have been making the efforts to bring about a viable way forward preferably through the participation of all the spoilers of peace into reconciliation.

The situation has been once again worsened as the international players on the two ends of the disastrous spectrum continued to play their vicious role by propping up one against the other. Hence General Khalifa Haftar, who appears to idolize his Egyptian neighbor in General Sisi, wants to be in the driving seat with the help of the USE (UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and US , UK, France etc. by decimating the GNA and internationally agreed Government of Prime Minister (PM)_Sirraj which is supported by Italy , Qatar and Turkey, into submission. The erstwhile colonial power Italy criticized France for supporting the invasion by the de facto ruler of Eastern Libya Haftar to take over Tripoli. Italian Deputy PM and interior Minister said that France had blocked an European Union initiative to bring peace due to its commercial interests ignoring humanitarian concerns, and that Italy will not stand by and watch the repeat of 2011. Hence the Gulf conflicts are also spilling over into Libya and elsewhere.

Civil war is under way as the UN expressed concern at the plight of hapless Libyans and its Secretary General condemned the military escalation, while US State Department did not approve the military aggression by Haftar. However, General Haftar’s telephone conversation with President Trump seemed to overrule that objection and gave him the implicit support to carry on. Meanwhile hundreds have died and thousands have been displaced and street fight is underway. Some of the regional powers tend to believe that General Haftar could probably could bring about stability and rein-in the wayward Islamist militias of the west who are no mean a force in a highly armed Libya down to the grass roots level.

US-Iran Spat

On the other hand, US and Iran spat continues with US not only threatening all countries, including India, who had received temporary waivers, to stop oil and gas imports from Iran and comply with their diktat. It also declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. Iran too reciprocated by declaring US Central Command (CENTCOM) in West Asia as terrorists. Meanwhile the Iraqi leadership tried their balancing act. After the first visit by Iranian President Rouhani to Baghdad last month the Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi paid a visit on April 17 to Riyadh and signed over a dozen agreements signaling their adherence to the Arab brotherhood.

President Sisi succeeded in convincing President Trump to declare Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization while managed to have a constitutional amendment through referendum that would allow him to stay in power at least until 2030. The Arab revolution in Egypt has completed its 360 degrees cycle.

Situation Elsewhere

PM Netanyahu won his 5th victory in the recent elections and hence his hawkish policies got an overt public endorsement. President Trump’s declarations on Jerusalem and Golan Heights may have rung-in right cords too with the Israeli electorate. The Middle East Peace Process and the “Deal of the Century” secretly propounded by the US have remained under the shroud. Israel’s fight against Hamas in Gaza has intensified.

Lastly, Sudan and Algeria, as a result of continuing public protests, saw the regime change and abdication by long standing rulers. Some termed it as a revival of the spirit of the “Arab Spring”; the Gulf monarchies for obvious reasons discounted this description and termed it as typically “African”

Iran declares all US troops in West Asia as a terrorist organization

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, on 30 May 2019, signed a bill into law announcing all US Central Command (CENTCOM) that operates all US military missions in the West Asian region and Afghanistan as terrorists and claimed that the US government was a state sponsor of terrorism. The bill was passed in the Iranian Parliament in response to US President Donald Trump’s assertion of identifying Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization, on 9 April 2019. After the bill was signed, President Rouhani ordered the Supreme National Security Council, ministry of foreign affairs, ministry of intelligence and the military to implement the law. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi hinted that the two designated ‘terrorist’ forces, i.e. IRGC and CENTCOM are likely to confront each other in the Persian Gulf and in other parts of the world. He laid the blame on the US for escalating the situation. IRGC has repeatedly warned that the US bases and the aircraft carriers in the region are within the range of Iranian missiles.

Iraqi Prime Minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi visited Saudi Arabia and met with King Salman on 17 April 2019. The visit came in the aftermath of Saudi Arabia re-opening its consulate in Baghdad after 30 years. Saudi Arabia also offered US$ 1 billion to aid in Iraq’s development efforts. The visit was seen as an Iraqi effort to return to the Arab fold and both sides signed 13 agreements in the area of trade, energy, agriculture, industry, oil and gas, minerals, maritime communication, education, culture and political cooperation. Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Iraq has suffered since then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s military invasion in Kuwait in 1990. The recent visit is seen as Saudi effort to tilt Iraq’s strategic balance in its favour in the light of its geo-political competition with Iran.

Egyptian President Sisi’s visit to the US

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi paid a visit to the US on 8 April 2019. Sisi met with the US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss efforts to enhance political, economic and security cooperation and develop a strategy to meet with common challenges. Both sides discussed the situation in Libya, Yemen and Syria. The Egyptian President also met with Jared Kushner to discuss the Israel-Palestinian peace efforts and pledged its support for a just and lasting solution to the conflict based on a two-state solution. The visit by the President is seen as part of his charm offensive to gain US support in light of the international condemnation against his authoritarian rule. Sisi also lobbied President Trump to declare the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The US following the visit has hinted on considering the Islamist group as a terrorist organization.

Egyptians Vote to Extend President Sisi’s Term until 2030

Egypt’s National Election Authority has announced on 23 April 2019 that 88.83 percent Egyptians have voted in favour of extending the term of President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi until 2030. During the vote, 14 amendments to the 2014 constitution and two new articles were brought to fore for voting. The voters also voted in favour of extending the presidential term from 4 to 6 years in which two years in Sisi’s present term was added. It would allow him to contest for election in 2024. The referendum also facilitated the creation of an upper house, i.e. Senate whose members would be directly chosen by the President. Moreover, the strength of the lower house was reduced from 596 to 450 seats with 25 percent of the seats reserved for women. Critics fear that the constitutional changes would expand the power of the president and enlarge the scope of military trials for civilians, weaken the judiciary and further curb the fundamental rights of activists, journalists etc.

2019 Israel Election

During the national election in Israel held on 9 April, the incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged as the winner and became the longest serving Prime Minister in the Jewish state. His party, Likud, secured 35 seats and its allies such as Shas, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), Yisrael Beiteinu, Union of the Right-wing Parties (URWP) and Kulanu secured 30 seats taking the total share of the ruling coalition to 65 in the 120 member Knesset. Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz’s party, Kahl Lavan won 35 seats. However, it failed to secure the majority number of 61 due to the weak performance of its partners with Labour Party at six seats and Meretz at four seats. The pro-Arab parties such as Hadash Ta’al and United Arab List won six and four seats respectively. The fresh mandate has empowered Netanyahu to combat the corruption allegations and greater consensus to deal with issues such as security policy framing and the Middle East peace process.

Sudan’s President Omar Bashir Resigned

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir was deposed by the military on 11 April 2019 in response to four months of public protests against his rule. The military announced an emergency for three months, suspension of the constitution, dissolution of the parliament and that the government would be overseen by the transitional military government. The National Security and Intelligence Service declared that it would release all the political detainees. The people, after the president’s ouster, celebrated on the streets. However, the military’s decision to impose the transitional military council to rule has faced condemnation and people continued to gather on the streets to demand the early return of civilian rule.

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