West Asia Roundup - May 2020
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Abstract:

West Asia continued to suffer under the onslaught of Covid -19. While Iran despite its socio-economic problems and US sanctions remained the major victim in the region others caught up rather fast. Some took early containment actions while others wondered. Lebanon and Iraq did comparatively well. On the other hand Qatar achieved the unique distinction of highest number of infections per 100000. In any case majority of the countries except Kuwait have decided to ease restrictions and opening of businesses and public places. They also announced several stimulus packages for their citizens and businesses as distressed entities went bust and unemployment especially among the expats grew manifold resulting in their repatriation. The low oil prices and demand contraction remained the major challenges. Kuwait announced that it would prefer its own citizens over the expats in the post-Covid era. In the past, Oman, UAE and the Saudis have undertaken similar approaches to a limited extant.

India, which has over 9 mn of its citizens in the region, started evacuating those, stranded, unemployed or senior citizens and really needy ones. Hundreds of flights repatriated large number of Indians and more in the pipeline under the “Vande Bharat Mission”. Given the economic downturn in the region it may be difficult for these Indians to return in near future hence a data bank of their skills and expertise is being created to match with the domestic opportunities.

Iraq, finally after seven months, saw a reasonably stable government under Prime Minister Mustafa Al Khadimi who apart from on-going social protests and economic problems will have to deal with the US-Iran tensions since the Iraqi Parliament and people have been demanding the ouster of US forces after the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January by a US drone strike when purportedly he was going to meet the Iraqi Prime Minister.

Israel also witnessed the continued leadership of PM Netanyahu for the 5th time, despite corruption charges and on-going legal battle, after he was able to stitch a coalition with his rival General Benny Gantz. The power sharing formula, if it lasts, will see Gantz becoming PM after 18 months. Meanwhile, much against the global concern, Netanyahu has decided to go ahead with his decision to annex a significant part of the West Bank in accordance with Trump’s “Deal of the Century” and would legalise the much decried settlements, calling it “a historic opportunity”. Secretary Pompeo travelled to Tel Aviv to try and delay if not dissuade Netanyahu while also seeking his overt support in the US-China all out confrontation. King of Jordan, who is also the custodian of Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem expressed his extreme displeasure with Netanyahu’s decision and warned of a “Massive conflict”. Palestinians decided to withdraw from all agreements with Israel and the US including Oslo Accords while urging for a credible dialogue.

Turkey’s intervention and substantial military support to the GNA and internationally recognised government, based out of Tripoli, forced a retreat on General Haftar who has been trying to militarily capture Tripoli for over a year. Tripoli was under siege. It was reported that the Russians and the UAE have decided to loosen their support to Haftar as US has cast its support to GNA. But there was no let-up in the violence against ordinary and hapless Libyans. Meanwhile, a GNA delegation led by Deputy PM Ahmed Maiteeg visited Russia to have talks with Foreign Minister Lavrov to carry forward the Berlin conference agenda. UAE and Egypt also urged the two sides to enter into ceasefire talks and welcomed a political solution pursuant to the UN backed Berlin Conference outcomes.

Saudi Arabia decided to call for a virtual donors meet for raising funds for the war ravaged Yemen in collaboration with the UN SG. Houthis had rejected the Saudi led ceasefire and continued with their attacks.

More Details

First Positive COVID-19 reported in Houthi controlled Northern Yemen

The Houthi led government announced the first positive case of COVID-19 on 5 May 2020 after a Somali man died in a hotel in Sanaa. The second case was recorded on 9 May. The war-torn state is already undergoing a major humanitarian crisis facing cases of poverty and malnourishment. The decade long civil war has devastated the infrastructure including health services and there is shortage of essential medicines, medical equipments and protective kits. Health experts have suggested about the possibility of large number of undetected cases due to low testing capacity in the northern region. The UN announced that it received US$ 516.6 million and appealed for US$ 2.4 billion from the international community to cope with humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The US contributed US$ 225 million in the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) for Yemen. The US also asked the Houthis to cooperate in providing the essential humanitarian aid.

The southern region under the control of internationally recognised Mansour Abdrabbuh Hadi government reported its first case on 10 April in Hadramaut. On 1 May, the first positive case was recorded in Taiz governorate and on 14 May, first case was reported in Al Dhalea. The authorities imposed restrictive measures further affecting the unstable economy. The pandemic alongwith the complaints of corruption, political mismanagement, insecurity, poor handling of the April Flash floods has reinvigorated the demands for southern independence. The southern separatists are in de-facto control over large patches of territory. It declared self-rule in territory under their control affecting their ties with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia had earlier brokered agreement between the southern separatists and the Hadi government in October 2019. Therefore, the declaration of self-rule has disrupted the strategic peace further weakening Saudi Arabia’s strategic goals in Yemen.

Unity Government in Israel

On 17 May, Benjamin Netanyahu sworn in as the new Prime Minister after receiving support from his political rival, Benny Gantz. The unity government has ended the political deadlock with two inconclusive elections in April and September 2019. The third election was conducted on 2 March 2020. The failure by Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Kahol Lavan to deliver majority in Knesset led to the compromise. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has also played a crucial role to end the political deadlock and facilitate effective leadership to tackle the pandemic. The political control including key appointments is equally divided between the two parties. The centre-left Labour party has also offered support to the Netanyahu led government.

The unity government under Netanyahu has raised fears about the annexation of Jordan Valley and apply Israeli sovereignty following the approval of Knesset in July 2020. Netanyahu on 28 May announced that the Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley including Jericho would however not be offered Israeli citizenship and live within enclaves under Israeli security control.

Haftar’s Retreat in Libya

The civil war between the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar continued in May 2020. Haftar had launched military campaign to take over Tripoli since April 2019. Haftar’s forces suffered series of setbacks after GNA’s troops took control of key military base in the outskirts of Tripoli. The GNA forces also destroyed Russian-made Pantsir air defence system. Haftar’s forces have resorted to tactical withdrawal due to the weak military position.

The conflict in Libya has emerged as arena of strategic competition between Turkey and Russia. The military setback suffered by Haftar has forced him to identify Turkey’s role and in a video message, he called his forces to resist the ‘colonial’ interference. Turkey’s support for GNA has both ideological and strategic basis. Ideologically, similar to Qatar, Turkey is in favour of greater role of moderate Islamist groups in Libyan domestic politics. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also keen to rekindle the Ottoman past and emerge as a regional hegemon. Russia along with France, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt have called for peaceful resolution but these states have continued to militarily support Haftar contributing to the continued destabilisation process.

Developments in Iran

On 10 May, Iranian forces in an incident of friendly fire struck missile at the Konarak naval vessel near the port of Jask in the Gulf of Oman killing 19 and injuring 15 sailors. The latest incident has raised concerns about the war readiness of Iranian forces in case of conventional war with the US. Iran in January had struck Ukrainian civilian airliner killing 176 people.

On the nuclear issue, Iranian authorities have insisted that it would continue to develop its atomic programme after sanctions were imposed by the US on 27 May on Majid Agha’i and Amjad Sazgar working for the development and production of centrifuges for enriching uranium. In light of the COVID-1 pandemic, Iran has urged the international community to ease the sanctions to access essential supplies. The US however has continued to tighten the sanctions to further corner the regime.

In political development, the new 290 seat parliament was convened on 27 May with tight social distancing protocols the legislative election occurred on 21 February. The candidature process is strictly regulated by the Guardian Council and the majority of the members are considered to be hardliners. The former mayor of Tehran and one time political opponent of President Hasan Rouhani, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf has been appointed as the speaker of the parliament.

(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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