West Asia Round-Up: October 2019
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
Abstract

Arab Spring 2.0 is in full view. The Middle East continued to reverberate with protests and demonstrations against regimes in several countries leading to the exit or resignations of the leaders in Lebanon and Iraq in the same vein as was done in Sudan and Algeria. After weeks of protests Prime Minister Hariri of Lebanon and Prime Minister Mahdi of Iraq tendered resignations partially meeting the demands but situation remains tense as the protesters continue to demand redressal of their real grievances and are concerned about their own wellbeing and future.

Lebanon’s economy continued to face problems with banks remaining closed for weeks and the pressure on Libyan pound increasing. Economic woes combined with lack of opportunity, social services, high unemployment, corruption and high taxes have initiated the protests with the external powers like Iran, USA and Saudi Arabia trying to use their influence in favour of their surrogates. This is further compounded by the confession based system of governance in Lebanon and Iraq that makes it equally difficult to identify successor to the removed leaders.

Tunisia, the harbinger on the 2011 Arab Spring, once again carried out the democratic process successfully while its neighbor Libya remains in the throes of external interference and internal civil war among competing governments. Algerians continue with their non-violent Friday protests to take the transition of power to its logical conclusion. Israel, despite its repeat elections, saw a hung house and the inability of both leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Gantz to stitch up a coalition to form the government. Another election is very likely even though President Rivlin tried his best just to avoid. Jordan also faced protests and eventually the Cabinet of PM Omar Razzaz resigned.

Turkey, in concert with the US, carried on with its military aggression into Syria to create a safe zone, where its millions of Syrian refugees could be accommodated while it was able to contain the feared Kurdish insurgents (YPG). US looked the other way in its purported haste to leave the war theater and did not hesitate to dump the Kurds and others whom it had supported all along, even though publicly some noises were made to contain excesses by the Turkish army. Eventually, Turkey and Russia agreed to joint patrols thereby reducing further conflagration. Trump, in his peculiar style, wants to retain around 900 US troops to secure Syrian oil for the U.S. One of the biggest achievements of this hoodwinking tactic was that the US was able to kill the Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in Idlib.

India, peeved by Turkish extraneous reaction on Art 370 & J&K, clearly decried the Turkish invasion of Syria, maintaining her stance that Syria’s territorial integrity should be upheld. PM Modi’s 2nd visit to Saudi Arabia further enriched the strategic partnership between the two countries as dozen key agreements were signed in defence and strategic petroleum reserve sector among others. Ru Pay card will also be available and valid in Saudi Arabia. PM also addressed the 3rd “Future Investment Initiative – Davos in the Desert” inviting investments in India that seeks become a $ 5 trillion economy. Earlier, during the February visit of Crown Prince Salman Saudi Arabia, it was agreed to explore investments to the tune of US$100bn. For the first time, the two countries will conduct joint naval exercises. The two also cooperate a great deal in the G-20 which in 2020 will be hosted by Saudi Arabia and in 2022 by India. In order to seriously steer the real progress in bilateral relations and projects a Strategic Partnership Council, headed by PM Modi and Prince Salman, has been established.

Key Developments
Turkish incursion in Syria

On 9 October 2019, the Turkish military and allied Syrian militias launched attacks namely ‘Operation Peace Spring’ on areas controlled by Syrian Kurdish militia, Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) to create a 30 km wide and 440 km long safe zone alongside northern Syrian borders. The US had earlier in the month announced withdrawal of troops from Northern Syria. The YPG was a crucial partner for the US in uprooting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. YPG, on the other hand, is considered as a terrorist group and an extension of the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) by Turkey.

Russia and the Bashar Al Assad intervened after four days of Turkish assault by deploying the Syrian army and Russian military police in the northern borders. On 17 October 2019, the US and Turkey agreed to ceasefire in order to facilitate the withdrawal of YPG fighters from the safe zone. On 22 October 2019, Turkey reached another agreement with Russia in which both sides agreed that Turkey would maintain its troops in the 120 km long territory between Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad; Syrian and Russian control over rest of the border areas and joint Russian-Turkish patrol inside 10 km long deep zone. The Turkish incursion in October 2019 has resulted in escaping of around 750 IS fighters from YPG prisons raising fear over the group’s resurgence and influence in the security-scarce areas in Syria and Iraq.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Killing

On 27 October 2019, the US President Donald Trump announced the death of the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a military operation in Barisha village of Idlib province in Syria. According to the US President’s statement, Al-Baghdadi killed himself after he was trapped in a dead-end tunnel. Killing of the IS Chief is seen as a major foreign policy victory for Trump. Saudi Arabia congratulated Trump and said that Baghdadi and his group has distorted the real image of Islam. Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan, Jordan, Bahrain, the UK and France have appreciated the US efforts. Russia’s initial reaction was highly skeptical suggesting it does not have reliable information on the US operation. Iran suggested that the death of the IS Chief is no big deal as it has only killed the ‘creature’. Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces suggested that the killing of Baghdadi is a result of joint Intel cooperation. The IS has announced Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi as the new IS Chief.

Protests in Lebanon and Iraq

Iraq has been witnessing widespread protests that began in Baghdad on 1 October 2019 and spread throughout the country to express frustration about the deteriorating economic situation, corruption, unemployment, poverty, poor quality of services etc. The demand for reform quickly escalated to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi regime and a complete overhaul of the political structure. The current political structure, i.e. Muhasasa Ta’ifia, is based on consociationalism or ethno-sectarian apportionment to guide government formation in which power and budget are distributed among the people and parties of the three major communities namely the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. This political structure has created a system of rewards and corruption in which politicians after occupying government offices award its supporters that are largely on ethnic and sectarian lines and political groups use its ministers to extract government resources

The protests that cut across ethnic and sectarian lines were spontaneous in nature and not coordinated by any political group. The size of the protest on 1 October 2019 was small which was quickly dispersed. On the following day, the size of the demonstration grew after protestors gave a call on social media. On 2 October 2019, clashes were reported between the protestors and the security forces in Nasiriyah and Najaf and protestors attempted to enter the Green Zone. Large-scale protests grew in Amarah, Hilla, Diwaniya, Kut and Basra and in Kirkuk, Tikrit, Samawa and Diyala, peaceful demonstrations and small rallies were held in solidarity with the protestors’ demands. By 6 October 2019, 104 people were killed including eight security personnel and nearly 6,100 people were wounded including 1,200 security officials due to clashes throughout the state. The Iraqi military, on 7 October 2019, admitted that excessive force was used outside the rules of engagement and after a cabinet meeting on 14 October 2019, services of 61 government officials were terminated. The situation in mid-October was calm, but the situation changed drastically after calls of protests were made on 25 October 2019. By 30 October 2019, 220 people have lost their lives.

Protests also erupted in Lebanon since 17 October 2019 to rally against the newly proposed taxes in Beirut that spread to other cities to express anger over government corruption, poor public services and economic mismanagement. By 18 October, political offices of Hezbollah, Amal Movement and Free Patriotic Movement were attacked and in subsequent days, strikes and blockades were observed all over the state. Hezbollah’s General Secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, criticized the tax proposals however it fell short of demanding the resignation of the government. There were reported cases of clashes between protestors and Hezbollah and Amal. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on 29 October 2019 announced his resignation. The public mood was jubilant but protests continued as they argued that Hariri is only part of the problem.

The protestors are continuing with the demands for eradicating corruption and resignation of corrupt politicians, improving the economy, addressing public service concerns and return of the Syrian refugees.

Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia

On 28 and 29 October 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a visit to Saudi Arabia and met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud and the crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman. The Indian Prime Minister also met with Saudi Environment, Water and Agriculture Minister Abdulrahman bin Abdulmohsen Al-Fadley and Labour and Social Development Minister, Ahmad bin Sulaiman Alrajhi. He also held a meeting with the Jordanian King, Abdullah II during the visit in Riyadh.

During the current visit, both states signed 12 Memorandum of Understandings in the area of security, energy, renewable energy, combating illicit trafficking, civil aviation, military acquisition and R&D, medical products regulation etc. The National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) signed an agreement with Saudi Payments to officially launch the RuPay card in Saudi Arabia. The RuPay card is likely to ease financial transactions for the large Indian diaspora working in the Gulf state as well as Haj pilgrims. Saudi Arabia has become the third country after the UAE and Bahrain to implement the RuPay card system.

Modi also attended the 3rd edition of the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh in which he reiterated India’s commitment to becoming a US$ 5 trillion economy by 2024. He shared India’s enthusiasm to align ‘Make in India’ initiative with Saudi ‘Vision 2030’ initiative and enumerated five key trends that affect global business environment namely technology and innovation; infrastructure; human resources; compassion for the environmental and business-friendly government. One of the most crucial outcomes of the visit was to set up the Strategic Partnership Council between both states. It is the highest bilateral mechanism to encompass all aspects of cooperation in defence and security, diplomacy, economy, people to people contact, culture cooperation etc. which will be directly monitored by the Indian Prime Minister and the Saudi Crown Prince.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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