West Asia Round up- June 2020
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The mutually decimating spat among the Gulf nations, Qatar Vs Quartet (comprising of Saudi Arabia, UAE , Bahrain + Egypt) celebrated its 3rd anniversary in dismay as no signs of thaw are seen despite US efforts even though they have been participating in the GCC ( Gulf Cooperation Council) meetings. UAE’s Foreign Minister reiterated the 13 exacting demands for Qatar to comply for normalisation which were already rejected by Doha as undermining their sovereignty.

The UN’s arms embargo on Iran is expected to be lifted in October in accordance with the JCPOA (Joint comprehensive Plan of Action) of 2015 which is being opposed by the US, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain who want it to be re-imposed which at the outset is being opposed by Russia and China. US, which had opted out of the JCPOA, has floated a draft resolution at the UNSC. Saudi Foreign Minister of State Al Jubeir lamented in his press conference with US Special Envoy Brian Hook “Despite the embargo, Iran seeks to provide weapons to terrorist groups, so what will happen if the embargo is lifted? Iran will become more ferocious and aggressive.” He also said that a huge consignment of Iranian arms and drones meant for Houthis was intercepted recently. Meanwhile Houthis continued missile attacks on Saudi assets. Similar sentiments were expressed by Bahraini FM who accused Iran of seeking to undermine the kingdom's stability and security "by fomenting sectarian tensions and providing arms to proxy groups and terrorists". US reassured its commitment to their security. Suffering from huge adverse impact of Covid-19, Iran obviously threatened to reverse the nuclear agreement if embargo was extended. Meanwhile for the killing of General Soleimani by US drone attack in January, reportedly Iran has issued an arrest warrant against President Trump however, ludicrous it may sound. Israeli PM Netanyahu accused Iran of "systematically violating its commitments by hiding sites, enriching fissile material and in other ways. In light of these discoveries, the international community must join the US and re-impose crippling sanctions on Iran".

In their 1st Technical Dialogue , OPEC and GECF (Oil and Gas exporting countries groups) had an energy dialogue to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on global economy, oil and gas markets, medium- and long-term energy market assumptions and perspectives, as well as technical collaboration on data and statistics. The GECF was led by its Secretary General Yury Sentyurin while OPEC secretary general Mohamed Sanusi Barkindo led its delegation. The meeting also reached a consensus on the importance of energy security and maintaining stability in the energy markets as well as supporting and promoting the unique importance of multilateralism.

On June 7 the OPEC+ group of oil and petroleum-rich countries agreed to extend the cuts in oil production until the end of July. Iraq and Nigeria, who have previously been non-compliant on oil reduction agreements, have stepped in line with the group’s plans.

Libya remained the major theatre for conflict by regional and extra regional powers despite the Berlin Process and the illegal supply of weapons to their surrogates continued. Direct military intervention by Turkey on the side of internationally recognised Government of Fayez Al Serraj and GNA ( also supported by Qatar, Italy and USA) reversed the impending fall of Tripoli against the forces of General Haftar of LNA who is supported by Egypt, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia and UAE and had laid seize of the capital for nearly 14 months. This led to President Sisi of Egypt asking for a ceasefire and initiating of the dialogue between the two sides. Russia backed Wagner Group and assets were moved out even though they relocated as the Turkey and Russia discussed the way out or some kind of accommodation to avoid direct confrontation. Sisi even threatened to militarily intervene if Turkey continues to push Haftar out citing its own security considerations. The two NATO allies Turkey and France are on opposing sides and mutual recriminations followed. Turkish Foreign Ministry said “Macron’s categorisation of our country’s support for Libya’s legitimate government based on UN resolutions and upon their request as a ‘dangerous game’ can only be explained through an eclipse of the mind.” Meanwhile, Greek Foreign Minister visited the Tobruk based government supported by General Haftar taking their own Mediterranean fight against Turkey to the Libyan theatre becoming the latest foreign entrant in the conflict.

Designating 39 people including Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his wife Asma, US invoked the Caeser Act imposing stringent sanctions even on those who do any business with Syria. The overt objective as outlined by Secretary of State Pompeo is “the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people” which was outright rejected by Syrian foreign Minister Muallem. “If they [Washington] dreamt that Syria and its people would bow to their conditions then I would say let them keep dreaming because this will never happen." Meanwhile plight of Syrians continues to worsen. Washington also expressed its displeasure with UAE’s plans to help in Syria’s reconstruction calling it a “bad idea”.

As Prime Minister Netanyahu’s resolve to formally annex nearly 30% of West Bank effective July 1 stayed on despite global criticism, the Belgian Parliament proposed to recognise the State of Palestine. 1000 MPs from across European Parliament signed a letter opposing the proposed annexation by Israel. Joe Biden, US Democratic Presidential Candidate also expressed his displeasure on the proposed plan and would seek to reverse it. During his interactions with US officials and lawmakers, King Abdullahof Jordan reiterated “that any unilateral Israeli measure to annex lands in the West Bank is unacceptable and undermines the prospects of achieving peace and stability in the Middle East”. In view of the extreme international pressure Netanyahu may look for a better time and postpone the current plans through a face saving measure.

Lebanese Judge Mohammed Mazeh, banned local and international media from reporting comments after US Ambassador Dorothy Shea criticised the Iranian-backed group during an interview with the Saudi-owned news channel Al-Hadath. In the interview, Shea said that US has “grave concerns about the role of Hezbollah” which “is destabilising the country and jeopardizing Lebanon’s economic recovery”. Protests and demonstrations against the government due to deteriorating economic conditions continued.

New Iraqi PM in accordance with the recent high level understandings with the US officials to protect their forces in Iraq from attacks by Iranian militias as well as IRGC protested to the Iranians and took credible action against the Shia militia groups.

In the embattled Yemen.The Southern Transition Council, supported by UAE and having good relations with Israel captured the strategic port of Socotra from the Saudi supported government of President Hadi. Houthis continue to indulge in missile and drone strikes against Riyadh.

Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia mutually recriminated and remained at loggerheads over the Ethiopian decision to fill the Blue River Nile dam (largest hydroelectric project in Africa – Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) under its jurisdiction which might impinge adversely on the welfare of the people of Egypt and Sudan in the downstream areas.

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Haftar Losing Ground in Libya

The conflict in Libya between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and General Khalifa Haftar’s forces has continued in June 2020. The GNA is backed by Turkey and Qatar. Haftar based on his anti-terrorism agenda has the support of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and Russia. Haftar’s forces under the banner of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in April 2019 launched military campaign to take control of Tripoli. During the protracted conflict, Haftar succeeded in capturing several areas under government control in southern and western Libya.

However, Haftar’s efforts to take control over Tripoli have failed due to GNA’s military preparedness in the capital city as well as the availability of Turkish ground forces. The GNA in the recent months has retaken control over strategic sites such as al-Watiya airbase and Tarhuna and Haftar’s forces have been pushed back to Sirte. The GNA currently controls a large chunk of Western Sahara and forces loyal to the Tripoli based government are seeking to take over Sirte from Haftar’s control. Haftar in response has mobilised a large number of foreign mercenaries in Sirte to defend against GNA’s campaign. Egypt has warned the GNA that it would face direct intervention, if it proceeds to take control of Sirte.

Meanwhile, the discovery of mass graves in the recently evacuated Tarhuna has prompted the United Nations (UN) to establish a fact finding mission to investigate the charges of war crimes.

Prospect of Agreement to Resolve the Nile Dispute

Egypt and Ethiopia are at loggerheads over the construction of the 6450 MW capacity Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile, responsible for 85 percent share in water after it joins White Nile in Khartoum. For Ethiopia, the operation of the dam could solve the power needs of the state and provide opportunity to export surplus electricity. It is therefore seen as key to Ethiopia’s economic revival. Egypt is however worried about the implications on its water and food security. Egypt has requested Ethiopia to fill the reservoir over a longer period of time to avoid water shortage. Ethiopia has however argued that the longer timeframe would delay the production of electricity and slow down its energy and economic goals. Sudan is largely in favour of the dam construction that would provide access to affordable energy and regulate the occurrence of floods. Sudan however wants Ethiopia to coordinate the water release from the reservoir in order to safeguard its own dams. The negotiations in the past have failed due to differences over timeframe in filling the dam; nature of dispute redressal mechanisms etc. On 26 July 2020, the head of the three states agreed to reach a final agreement following which Ethiopia would proceed to fill the reservoir. The preliminary agreement is seen as a breakthrough. However, differences over technical and legal aspects may disrupt the positive environment and the dispute may continue in the future.

US Imposition of Caesar Act on Syria

The Donald Trump administration on 17 June 2020 ordered fresh round of sanctions on the Syrian ruling elite under Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act for human rights abuses and obstructing the peaceful political resolution of the conflict. The act received bipartisan congressional support in December 2019. Caesar was the pseudonym of a Syrian military official who leaked around 55,000 photographs documenting torture in prisons under Assad’s control.

Under the new act, 39 individuals are subjected to sanctions including President Bashar Al Assad and extended members of his family, business executives and military officials. Sanctions were also imposed on the first lady, Asma Assad calling her “one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers”. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, called it the beginning of a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny revenue to the Syrian government. The financial sanctions campaign is likely to continue in which more individuals and businesses would be targeted in the near future. The latest US action is expansive in nature encompassing travel restrictions and financial sanctions on foreign companies, institutions and individuals that are involved in transactions with the Syrian government. It has therefore target Russian, Iranian and Lebanese firms operating in Syria.

Several commentators have feared that similar to past sanctions, the Syrian elite would succeed in evading the punitive provisions of the new legislation. The act would only contribute in worsening the living and economic conditions of ordinary Syrians. The new act may further choke the channels for humanitarian aid.

Southern Separatists Take Control of Socotra

The Southern Transitional Council (STC) separatists captured the strategic island of Socotra from the control of internationally recognised President Hadi government on 21 June. Earlier in January 2018, the STC took control Aden and on 26 April of this year announced self-rule in southern Yemen. STC envisions a separate state in South Yemen.

President Hadi, running his government in exile from Saudi Arabia has appealed the STC to stop the bloodshed and comply with the Riyadh agreement signed in May 2019. The STC was crucial for Hadi’s forces to block the expansion of Houthis in the southern region. However, differences erupted within the anti-Houthi coalition over power sharing eventually leading the STC to politically and militarily challenge the Hadi government. The STC received support from the UAE that weakened the regional coalition against the Iran backed Houthis.The capturing of Socotra has emboldened its efforts to take control of remaining areas in Hadramaut and Shabwa from the Hadi government’s control.

(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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