West Asia Roundup - December 2019
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
Abstract:

Year 2019, in keeping with the ongoing trend of conflicts and hotspots in the region, ended in heightening tensions between US and Iran which does not portend well for 2020. Iraq has been facing series of demonstrations and consequent killing of innocent and disgruntled people by security forces. There was a growing discontent against the Iranian intervention and a pro-Iranian militia attacked an Iraqi military base killing a US contractor which provoked a solid retaliation from US that killed more than two dozen militias in Iraq and Syria. US Embassy was stormed in return resulting in evacuation of US personnel as they feared the repeat of Benghazi (Libya 2012) when the US Ambassador was sadly ambushed in the premises. Following week with the killing of well-regarded Irani General Soleimani in an attack near Baghdad, when he was going to meet the Iraqi PM, not only brought the US and Iran to the brink of a disastrous conflagration and orbit of revenge but also forced Iraqis to demand the expulsion of all American troops. This indirectly salvaged the sentiment against the Iranian regime in Iraq and Iran which the Iranians surmised being engineered by the US overtly and covertly.

Islamic Ummah appeared under stress as the four days Islamic Summit held in Kuala Lumpur on December 21 put PM Imran Khan of Pakistan in a bind as he had to cancel participation under the pressure of the Saudis when he visited Riyadh on December 18 even though he was one of the promoters of the Summit with Turkey and Malaysia –both of whom had criticized India for Art. 370 abrogation. Growing relationship of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries with India perhaps gave an Idea to Pakistan to try another institutional mechanism which will give it a primacy in more anti-India rhetoric especially pertaining to J&K. Although 20 countries including Iran, Qatar and Turkey attended no statement was issued. Saudi Arabia fears that countries politically opposed to it especially Turkey and Iran may undermine the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) and that there was no need to have another outfit to address the issues pertaining to Muslims around the world. Pakistan, which has been dependent on Saudi bounty eventually persuaded them to organize an extraordinary meet to discuss situation in J&K. OIC again issued statements on internal matters of India including Citizenship Amendment ACT etc.

Although under the effects of Arab Spring 2.0 Algeria and Lebanon witnessed the installation of new leaders but the people are still not happy as they fear the continuity of the same old policies and seek immediate results. And demonstrations continue. In Iraq the Parliament approved a New electoral law ushering in direct election of the candidates rather from the Parties’ list.

An important development was the 4 days long Naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman by the navies of Russia, Iran and China starting December 28.

An important development was the participation of Qatari PM at the 40th GCC Summit in Riyadh on December 10. Since the Saudi led blockade of two and a half years ago it was the first time that Qatar was represented at a high level even though Emir Sheikh Tamim who was invited by King Salman, in a hand written letter, could not attend. Before this the Qatari Foreign Minister had made visits to Saudi Arabia. It is expected that under the US advice as well as internal realization among the concerned countries of the futility and adverse consequences for all in this conflict some solution might be on the anvil. Meanwhile sports diplomacy was in full swing when Qatari Emir was present at the final foot cup match in Doha between Saudi and Bahraini teams and felicitated them personally.

Oman continued to play its mediatory role when its FM Minister after his meetings with US Secretary of State Pompeo visited Tehran twice.

Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S Jai Shankar visited Tehran (Dec 22-23) and Muscat (Dec 24-25) for bilateral meetings after his visit to Washington DC for the 2+2 dialogue. Interesting facet was the luncheon meeting hosted for Indian and Iranian Foreign Ministers by their Omani counterpart which was considered highly significant. In Iran he also called on President Rouhani. India expects US to give waiver for continued development of strategic Chabahar port. In any case, the visit underscored India’s enhanced engagement in the region and possibility of its beneficent and benevolent role amidst regional outbursts.

Other Key Developments and Details
Developments in Iraq

The interim Iraqi government in order to solve the demand of the protestors for political overhaul has introduced electoral reforms in which people can vote for individual candidates rather than the party lists and member of parliament are elected from individual constituencies rather than representing the entire province. However, the deadlock has continued as protestors are demanding the removal of the entire ruling elite which is seen as corrupt and influenced by external actors.

On 27 December 2019, an American contractor was killed in an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk which houses foreign contractors that train Iraqi security forces. The rocket attack was blamed on Shiite militia group, Kataeb Hezbollah allegedly backed by Iran. The US in response hit the militia group’s targets on three sites in Iraq and two sites in Syria killing 25 people. The US attack was deplored by the Iraqi government and Iraqis in a display of outrage stormed the US embassy on Baghdad on 31 December 2019. The US embassy guards resorted to crowd control and embassy officials were evacuated. Earlier on 30 December 2019, influential Shiite cleric and political leader, Moqtada al-Sadr suggested that he is willing to cooperate with Iran backed groups to remove US presence from Iraq through political and legal means.

Israel holds funds for Palestinians

Israel on 29 December 2019 announced that it would withhold US$ 43 million in tax handovers to the Palestinian Authority (PA) for providing financial support to the families of dead or injured militants. According to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord, Israel is obligated to levy taxes for Palestinian Authority which stands at US$ 222 million per month. After the peace talks stalled in 2014, Israel has resorted to withholding the funds and in February 2019, it had withheld the funds to object against PA’s policy of providing stipends to the families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. According to the Israeli government, PA had spent US$ 43 million as said stipends in 2018. Israel has also continued power cuts in several cities in the West Bank over non-payment of dues worth $US 516 million by Palestinian Electricity Company.

ICC probe on Israeli war crimes

The Chief Prosecutor of International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda on 20 December 2019 has announced a probe on Israeli war crimes in Palestinian territories i.e. West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in which charges can be filed against Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinian Authority has welcomed ICC’s decision; however, Israeli Prime Minister has called ICC as anti-Semitic and argued that ICC has no jurisdiction in Palestinian territories since it is not a sovereign state.

Attack on Southern Separatists in Yemen

On 29 December 2019, a ballistic missile hit at a military parade of the southern group, Resistance Forces in Al-Shoebi, the capital of Dhale province killing six soldiers and four children and injuring at least 21 people The Resistance Forces are backed by UAE and is an integral part of the Southern Transitional Council. The attack has been blamed on the Houthis; however, Houthis have not offered any comment. Houthis that control the northern region have been seeking to expand control in Dhale province.

Developments in Algeria

Former Prime Minister (May-August 2017) Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected as the President on 13 December 2019. Tebboune has promised political reforms and introduce a new constitution which would be approved by referendum. The protests, however, have continued claiming Tebboune to be part of the corrupt old regime. Algerian Army’s Lieutenant General Chief of Staff Gaed Salah passed away due to cardiac arrest on 23 December 2019. Salah played a crucial role in seeking the resignation of then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika while preserving the present political structure. The protestors gradually demanded the resignation of Salah.

Saudi court sentences five people on Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder

A Saudi court on 23 December 2019 has sentenced five people to death in connection with the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October 2018. Three more people have been sentenced to a combined 24 years in prison for covering up the crime. The court rejected that the murder was premeditated which is consistent with the narrative of the Saudi government. The trial was attended by Turkish delegates along with government-controlled media. Khashoggi’s family in Saudi Arabia has expressed satisfaction over the trial, however, sceptics have claimed the trial as white-washing that has provided immunity to the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

Joint military exercise by Iran, China and Russia

Iran, China and Russia have conducted four-day joint military exercises since 28 December 2019 in the northern Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Oman. It was seen as a major diplomatic and strategic boost for Iran and the exercise covered drills such as rescuing ships on fire or suffering piracy and other forms of attack. Iranian spokesperson suggested that the exercise would embolden international maritime commerce, information sharing and aid in combatting piracy and terrorism.

(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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