West Asia and North Africa Roundup 2019
Hirak Jyoti Das, Research Associate, VIF
A Year of Protests

In 2019, protests emerged in Algeria against the decision of the 82-year-old incumbent President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to contest in the presidential election for a fifth term which was originally scheduled on 18 April 2019. On 16 February 2019, Algerians spontaneously came out to the streets in response to President Bouteflika’s announcement calling him unfit to run for the presidency. As a result of increasing public pressure, the army intervened and Bouteflika was forced to resign on 2 April 2019 and a fresh election was promised in July 2019. The protests throughout the state continued unabated calling for the resignation of members of the Bouteflika regime resulting in numerous arrests of opposition figures.1 On 12 December 2019, the presidential election was held in which former Prime Minister and regime insider Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected with 58.15 percent. Tebboune has portrayed himself as a reformer and expressed his willingness to engage in dialogue and framing a new constitution. The opposition leaders have called the election a sham as the new president and the other candidates are seen as remnants of the Bouteflika regime.2

The demand for regime change can be witnessed in the political protests in Lebanon, Iraq as well as Iran. In the ethnically and sectarian diverse Lebanon and Iraq, the political demonstrations were triggered by the poor state of the economy, corruption, poverty, unemployment etc. however, the protests escalated to demand not only for regime change but entire overhauling of the political structure based on the system of ethno-sectarian apportionment to guide government formation.

In Iraq, protests began on 1 October 2019 against the government calling for the establishment of an independent technocratic government. The state response to the protest was heavy-handed killing around 450 people.3 The protestors also blamed the Iraqi government for yielding to external influence especially from Iran. The animosity against Iranian influence led to the boycott of Iranian goods and Iranian consulates were torched in Karbala on 4 November and in Najaf on 27 November and 1 December. In response to public pressure, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi was forced to resign on 30 November.4 The government has brought in some cosmetic changes to appease the protestors, however, the demand for political overhaul has continued presently.

In the case of Lebanon, the immediate trigger for the protest that began on 17 October 2019 was the government’s decision to introduce new tax measures on gasoline, online phone calls and tobacco. The scope of demands was further enlarged to end government corruption and penalizing the corrupt officials, reforming the sectarian political system, fair taxation and financial system and formation of an independent technocratic government for problem-solving.5 As a consequence of the protest, Prime Minister Saad Harari resigned on 29 October.6 The Shiite political groups, Hezbollah and Amal Movement as well as Maronite group, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) has backed Sunni politician and former Education Minister and Vice-President of the American University of Beirut, Hassan Diab as the new Prime Minister on 19 December. Diab’s election has however been contested by the Sunni political groups.7

Iran which is facing the brunt of US sanctions and low oil sale also witnessed protests that began on 15 November. The protest started after the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination under President Hassan Rouhani, Chief of Judiciary Ebrahim Raisi and Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani announced the rollback over petrol subsidies in order to set up funds to assist the poorest section of the society. Accordingly, the new rules besides raising the price of petrol to US$ 0.13 per litre has restricted petrol consumption for personal vehicles at 60 litres per month and the price has been raised to US$ 0.26 per litre for additional supply. On a comparative level, the price of petrol continues to remain cheaper, however, due to the crippling sanctions imposed by the US, the average income and the purchasing power of Iranians have reduced. The petrol price hike has served as a trigger to express the multitude of political and economic hardships such as inflation in prices, unemployment, poverty etc. and demonstrations quickly escalated to demand regime change.8 The government has crushed the protest and according to Amnesty International, around 304 people have died due to actions of the security forces.9

State of Civil Wars
Libya

Libya remains to be in a state of stalemated civil war between the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez al-Sarraj based in Tripoli and Tobruk based government under General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar in 2019 has focused its attention to takeover Tripoli, however, Haftar’s Libyan National Army has failed to gain control. In 2019, Haftar’s offensive has resulted in the death of 200 civilians and 2,000 fighters. 10

Syria

President Bashar Al Assad with Russia’s help has been able to retake control over major swaths in Syria. In northern Syria, the US withdrew its troops in October prompting a Turkish incursion to dilute the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and create a safe zone to resettle the Syrian refugees living in 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, the US and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire in order to facilitate the withdrawal of YPG fighters from the safe zone. 11 On 22 October, Turkey reached another agreement with Russia to create a safe zone. The Turkish incursion has resulted in escaping of around 750 Islamic State (IS) fighters from YPG prisons raising fear over the group’s resurgence and influence in the security-scarce areas in Syria and Iraq.12 Crucially, on 27 October, the US President Donald Trump announced the death of the leader of Islamic State (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a military operation in Barisha village of Idlib province in Syria and the IS has announced Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi as the new chief.13 Syrian forces with Russia’s help in December have proceeded towards Idlib province which remains the last opposition outpost. 14

Yemen

The civil war in Yemen has reached a stalemate and the territory is divided between Houthi controlled northern Yemen and Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi government in Aden. The Houthis have continued its drone and missile targets against Saudi targets in 2019 including the attack on Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais cutting down the output of 5.7 million barrels per day (bpd) or around 5 percent of global oil supply on 14 September. 15 The exchange of prisoners between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia is a good sign that may de-escalate the conflict in northern Yemen. In southern Yemen, the Hadi government fearing assertions of self-governance and autonomy from the southern separatists has accommodated southern representatives in the political structure.

Great Powers and Regional Powers

The US in 2019 has re-oriented its strategic objective in the region by reducing ground troops from Syria and instead focusing on enhanced military cooperation and repositioning especially in the Gulf region to ward off the Iranian threat. In October, the US has deployed 3,000 additional troops and dispatched military hardware such as two additional Patriot missile batteries, one THAAD ballistic missile interception system, two fighter squadrons and one air expeditionary wing etc. The US decision came in the background of increased escalation with Iran and since May 2019, it has deployed about 14,000 additional forces in the Persian Gulf region including airborne early warning aircraft, maritime patrol planes, Patriot air and missile defence batteries, B-52 bombers, a carrier strike group, armed Reaper drones and other engineering and support personnel.16

Russia as a consequence of the US’ re-alignment in the region has emerged as a significant power-broker and succeeded in maintaining strategic ties with all major powers in the region. Russia’s help was crucial in stabilizing Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime and presently aiding Syrian forces to take control over Idlib. Russia due to its stay in Syria has developed a tactical alliance with Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia as well as Israel. With regard to Iran, Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi and Russian Navy’s Commander-in-Chief Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov signed an agreement on maritime defence cooperation on 30 July.17 Russia and Iran along with China have conducted a joint maritime exercise in the northern Indian Ocean on 28 December.18 Russia and Kazakhstan have also signed an agreement to supply wheat to Iran in November.19 Russian President Vladimir Putin in October also visited Saudi Arabia and signed agreements on energy cooperation.20

Russia has also intensified its ties in Egypt and both states signed a strategic cooperation agreement in October 2018 and have taken initiatives such as the construction of Dabba nuclear power plant, building industrial zone in Suez Canal Economic Zone and free trade area including Israel.21 Russia is emphatic to Israel’s security concerns in the northern theatre stemming from Syria and on various occasions have consented to Israeli airstrikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets, however, Israeli strategic manoeuvrability has been affected by Russia’s military presence in Syrian territory. Russia’s and Turkey’s diplomatic and strategic understanding has also improved in 2019 with Turkey receiving S-400 missile in July and second battery in August irking the US.22

Israel-Palestine Conflict

Israeli has continued its airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria in 2019 and the Jewish state was engaged in brief conflict with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in May and November 2019. During the conflict in May, more than 19 Palestinians were killed and four Israelis were killed.23

In November, conflict broke after Israel conducted a pre-emptive attack on the Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu al-Ata, his wife Asma Abu al-Ata and four others in Shajaiyah in Gaza.24 Meanwhile, two Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders were also killed in Damascus during this period. Islamic Jihad launched more than 150 rockets inside Israeli territory injuring 17 Israelis and Israel in response conducted airstrikes killing 34 Palestinians and attacked Hamas assets. On 14 November, Israel and Hamas agreed to a truce to avoid further escalation.25

In a diplomatic boost to Israel, the US recognizes Golan Heights as part of Israel in March26 and dismissed Israeli settlements in West Bank as illegal in November.27 The US introduced the economic aspect of the Middle East Peace Plan in July by proposing to set up a US $50bn global investment fund for the Palestinians and neighbouring Arab states. The political part was contingent on the Israeli elections.28

Israel witnessed two national elections in April and September, however, the two largest parties Likud led by Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan led by Benny Gantz failed to form a majority government. The next election is scheduled in March 2020.

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced Presidential and Legislative Council Election in mid-2020 in West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.29 The last presidential election was held in 2005 and the last parliamentary election in Palestinian Authority (PA) was held in 2006.

Election Review
  • Algeria: President Abdelmadjid Tebboune (12 December 2019)
  • Tunisia: President Kais Saied after incumbent President Beji Caid Essebsi died on 25 July 2019 (13 October 2019)
  • Lebanon: Prime Minister Hasan Diab (19 December 2019)
India’s Overtures in the Region

In 2019, India hosted several high-profile dignitaries from West Asia and North Africa, especially from the Persian Gulf states. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited India on two occasions between 7 and 9 January and on 13 May in the backdrop of the US sanctions. During the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on 19-20 February, several MOUs were signed on the investment fund, tourism, housing, international solar alliance etc. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al Jubeir and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan also visited India on 11 March and 7-9 July respectively. Besides the Persian Gulf states, Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel also paid a visit covering subjects such as defence and security, fertilizers, space cooperation, counter-terrorism, education.30

In terms of outgoing visits, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited UAE and Bahrain between 23 and 25 August and received the highest civilian awards in both states. He also introduced Rupay card in UAE on 24 August. Modi also visited Saudi Arabia on 29 October in which 12 MOUs were signed. Earlier on 1 March, then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made a historic address at 46th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of OIC in Abu Dhabi, UAE. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in order to further intensify ties with the Persian Gulf states visited Iran and Oman between 22 and 25 December. 31

China in 2019 has also been pursuing a pro-active policy towards the Persian Gulf states and it has hosted Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to expand strategic dialogue in the fields of political, economic, investment, energy, technology, investment, artificial intelligence, security cooperation, culture and tourism. On 27 November. Middle East Security Forum was held in Beijing attended by the Assistant Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong to focus on reaching solutions in conflict areas and exploring strategies for development and security and counter terrorism cooperation32.

References:
  1. Reuters. “Timeline: Algeria's year of protest and turmoil.” Reuters. December 10, 2019. Accessed December 29, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-algeria-election-protests-timeline/timeline-algerias-year-of-protest-and-turmoil-idUSKBN1YE1RG
  2. France 24. “Bouteflika-era PM Tebboune declared winner of Algeria’s presidential election.” France 24. December 13, 2019. Accessed December 28, 2019. https://www.france24.com/en/20191213-bouteflika-era-pm-tebboune-declared-winner-of-algeria-s-presidential-election
  3. Peterson, S. “Iraq protesters to government: Listen to us (not to Iran).” The Christian Science Monitor. December 6, 2019. Accessed December 28, 2019. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2019/1206/Iraq-protesters-to-government-Listen-to-us-not-to-Iran
  4. Kittleson, S. “Iranian consulates torched in Najaf and Karbala.” Al-Monitor. December 4, 2019. Accessed December 28, 2019. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/12/iraq-protests-iran-consulate-karbala-najaf.html
  5. CBS News. “Protests triggered by planned tax on Whatsapp calls paralyze Lebaonon.” CBS News. October 18, 2019. Accessed December 29, 2019. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/lebanon-protests-planned-tax-whatsapp-calls-triggers-unrest-beirut-nationwide-today-2019-10-18/
  6. Haaretz. “Day After Resigning, Hariri Says Ready to Be Lebanese PM Again, Official Says.” Haaretz. October 30, 2019. Accessed December 29, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/days-after-resigning-harari-says-ready-to-be-lebanese-pm-again-official-says-1.8058830
  7. Financial Times. “Hassan Diab appointed Lebanon PM with Hizbollah backing.” Financial Times. December 19, 2019. Accessed December 28, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/3c687a1a-2281-11ea-b8a1-584213ee7b2b
  8. Al Jazeera. “Iran's protests: All you need to know in 600 words.” Al Jazeera. November 20, 2019. Accessed December 27, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/iran-protests-600-words-191118060831036.html
  9. Amnesty International. “Iran: Thousands arbitrarily detained and at risk of torture in chilling post-protest crackdown.” Amnesty International. December 16, 2019. Accessed December 28, 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/12/iran-thousands-arbitrarily-detained-and-at-risk-of-torture-in-chilling-post-protest-crackdown/
  10. Al Jazeera. “Libya's Haftar announces 'decisive battle' to capture Tripoli.” Al Jazeera. December 13, 2019. Accessed December 27, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/12/libya-haftar-announces-decisive-battle-capture-tripoli-191212205130743.html
  11. White House. “The United States and Turkey Agree to Ceasefire in Northeast Syria.” White House. October 17, 2019. Accessed December 28, 2019. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/united-states-turkey-agree-ceasefire-northeast-syria/
  12. Mckernan, B. and Borger, J. “Turkey and Russia agree on deal over buffer zone in northern Syria.” The Guardian. October 22, 2019. Accessed December 26, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/22/turkey-and-russia-agree-deal-over-buffer-zone-in-northern-syria
  13. Al Jazeera. “ISIL confirms death of leader al-Baghdadi, names new chief.” Al Jazeera. November 1, 2019. Accessed December 27, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/isil-confirms-death-leader-al-baghdadi-names-chief-191031151709004.html
  14. Yee, V. & Saad, H. “Syrian Offensive Sends Tens of Thousands Fleeing.” The New York Times. December 23, 2019. Accessed December 28, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/23/world/middleeast/syria-idlib-russia-aid-refugees.html
  15. Defterios, J. & Cavaliere, V. “Coordinated strikes knock out half of Saudi oil capacity, more than 5 million barrels a day.” CNN Business. September 15, 2019. Accessed December 29, 2019. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/09/14/business/saudi-oil-output-impacted-drone-attack/index.html
  16. The Times of Israel. “US deploying 3,000 more troops to Saudi Arabia to boost air defenses.” The Times of Israel. October 11, 2019. Accessed December 28, 2019. https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-deploying-3000-more-troops-to-saudi-arabia-to-boost-air-defenses/
  17. Jalilov, O. “Iran & Russia Ink Agreement On Naval Cooperation.” Caspian News. July 31, 2019. Accessed December 26, 2019. https://caspiannews.com/news-detail/iran-russia-ink-agreement-on-naval-cooperation-2019-7-31-2/
  18. Press TV. “Iran, Russia, China launch joint maritime drills in Indian Ocean, Sea of Oman.” Press TV. December 27, 2019. Accessed December 29, 2019. https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2019/12/27/614670/Iran-Russia-China-kickoff-joint-maritime-drills
  19. Iran Daily. “Iran signs MoU with Russia, Kazakhstan on wheat imports: Official.” Iran Daily.November 10, 2019. Accessed December 27, 2019. http://www.iran-daily.com/News/261386.html
  20. Deutsche Welle News. “Putin courts investments in trip to Saudi Arabia.” Deutsche Welle News. October 14, 2019. Accessed December 25, 2019. https://www.dw.com/en/putin-courts-investments-in-trip-to-saudi-arabia/a-50819277
  21. Ramani, S. “Sochi summit highlights growing Russia-Egypt ties”. Middle East Institute. November 5, 2019. Accessed December 26, 2019. https://www.mei.edu/publications/sochi-summit-highlights-growing-russia-egypt-ties
  22. Hurriyet Daily News. “Turkey receives second S-400 battery from Russia.” Hurriyet Daily News. August 27, 2019. Accessed December 25, 2019. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-receives-second-s-400-battery-from-russia-146097
  23. Holmes, O. and Balousha, H. “More than 20 dead as violence flares between Gaza and Israel.” The Guardian. May 6, 2019. Accessed December 26, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/05/gaza-militants-and-israeli-forces-lurch-into-new-round-of-violence
  24. BBC News. “Israel kills top Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant in Gaza.” BBC News. November 12, 2019. Accessed December 24, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50386164
  25. India Today. “Islamic Jihad offers Israel truce as Gaza toll hits 26.” India Today. November 14, 2019. Accessed December 26, 2019. https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/islamic-jihad-offers-israel-truce-as-gaza-toll-hits-26-1618846-2019-11-14
  26. White House. “Proclamation on Recognizing the Golan Heights as Part of the State of Israel.” White House. March 25, 2019. Accessed December 25, 2019. https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-recognizing-golan-heights-part-state-israel/
  27. BBC News. “US says Israeli settlements are no longer illegal.” BBC News. November 18, 2019. Accessed December 26, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50468025
  28. Al Jazeera. “US won't release Middle East peace plan before Israeli election.” Al Jazeera. August 29, 2019. Accessed December 27, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/08/won-release-middle-east-peace-plan-israeli-election-190828200445497.html
  29. I24 News. “Palestinian Authority President Abbas announces general elections.” I24 News. December 10, 2019. Accessed December 28, 2019. https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/international/middle-east/1575971412-palestinian-authority-president-announces-general-elections
  30. Ministry of External Affairs. “Incoming Visits.” Ministry of External Affairs. 2019. Accessed December 25, 2019. https://www.mea.gov.in/incoming-visits.htm?1/incoming_visits
  31. Ministry of External Affairs. “Outgoing Visits.” Ministry of External Affairs. 2019. Accessed December 25, 2019. https://www.mea.gov.in/outgoing-visits.htm?2/outgoing_visits
  32. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. “Assistant Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong Attends the Middle East Security Forum.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. November 27, 2019. Accessed January 3, 2020. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/t1720145.shtml

(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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