West Asia Roundup– February 2020
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
Abstract:
US-Taliban

After a weeklong trial halt in violence by Taliban against US or Afghan targets the Peace Agreement was signed between US and Taliban in Doha that seeks to end the 19 years old war and presence of US forces in Afghanistan and to promote a dialogue between various Afghan stakeholders. This is expected to lead an end to violence (a tall order indeed) and to initiate a political process and transition. For President Trump, in keeping with his policies and poll promises of withdrawing from unending and undesirable wars and conflicts, it provides him a certain leeway in this reelection campaign. Pakistan and Qatar played key roles while Russia and China tacitly approved the way forward even though they have their own reservations. Pakistani PM Imran Khan got rewarded after his shuttle diplomacy including to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. On the same day US Defence Secretary was in Kabul and issued a Joint Statement. But even before the talks could begin between Ashraf Ghani led government and Taliban his statement that release of 5000 prisoners was conditional and not a commitment by him led to provocation on all sides. Qatari Emir again interjected and urged the two sides to move forward. A day before, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh V Shringla visited Kabul and had wide ranging discussions and assured of India’s continued assistance to Afghanistan while India’s Ambassador to Qatar P Kumaran represented the Indian Government at the signing of the agreement which was the first official Indian presence.

OIC & India

OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) in a statement condemned the recent “heinous” Delhi violence against the Muslims stating “the OIC condemns the recent and alarming violence against Muslims in India, resulting in the death and injury of innocent people and the arson and vandalism of mosques and Muslim-owned properties” which was strongly countered by India calling these factually inaccurate and asked them to refrain from such irresponsible statements “OIC statement is factually inaccurate, selective and misleading. There is an effort on ground to restore normalcy and create confidence. We urge these bodies not to issue irresponsible statements”. Earlier Pakistan PM, who wanted an emergency session on situation in Kashmir at the OIC and was trying to extract the promise from the Saudis in lieu of his withdrawal from the Islamic Summit Kualalumpur. However, he expressed his frustration accusing the OIC of dragging its feet on Kashmir and lamented lack of unity among the Muslim countries “the reason is that we have no voice and there is a total division amongst [us]. We can't even come together as a whole on the OIC meeting on Kashmir “

Saudi-Israel

In a further thaw in bilateral ties, the Israeli interior Ministry officially permitted Israeli citizens to travel to Saudi for Haj or Umrah and for business trips up to 90 days subject to an invitation from a Saudi counterpart. Also in a first a Rabbi David Rosen not only visited Riyadh for an Interfaith Dialogue meeting by King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) but was also received along with others by King Salman. Rosen called this meeting “Revolutionary”.

Libya

Even though some hopes had arisen out of the Berlin Consensus with regard to Libya, the fighting and violations of truce continued by both sides decimating hopes of a quicker transition. EU decided to set up a force to stop illegal supply of arms and to enforce an arms embargo but supplies are continuing in violation of all promises by the relevant sides. Turkey remained defiant too in not supporting the internationally recognized government. And the intensification of attacks and killing of Turkish soldiers in Idlib by Syrian forces led to the breakup of the understanding even in Libya that was reached between Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan, who in Libya are supporting the opposing sides.
Lebanon and Iraq and Algeria continued to see the demonstrations against the interim governments. Miffed over the Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century” the Palestinians broke off ties with Israel and US and eve threatened to stop security coordination with Israel while asking for a more sincere Quartet initiative in accordance with established principles for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict . Arab League had rejected the Peace Plan while some of the Arab countries had asked Palestine not to summarily reject the Trump plan.

Iranian elections saw the reemergence of a hard-line parliament by disqualifying a large number of moderates from the lists. However, Iran got beset hugely by the Corona Virus that had taken away the global attention from the nuclear issue even though occasional statements were made by US Secretary of State Pompeo decrying the Iranian intransigence.

Ironically the state funeral of former arraigned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak witnessed a huge turnout with current President Sisi leading the procession in a marked contrast to the Arab Spring 9 years ago when Mubarak had to leave under public pressure. Wheel turned 360 degrees in Egypt.

Qatar hosts peace agreement

On 29 February 2020, Qatar hosted the peace agreement between the US and the Taliban. The agreement was signed after 18 months of deliberations and two decades of violent conflict. The agreement guarantees that Afghan soil is not used for attacking the US and its allies. It also guarantees withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghan territory. Moreover, the intra-Afghan talks were expected to start on 10 March 2020.
India is a crucial stakeholder in the Afghan peace process and a key contributor in the reconstruction efforts. India has been an ardent advocate of Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled and Afghan-owned reconciliation process. In terms of security concerns, India is worried about the potential of new ungoverned spaces which may become the hideouts of extremist groups. In light of India’s importance in the Afghan peace process, the Indian Ambassador to Qatar, P. Kumaran was invited to the peace ceremony. India had sent two retired diplomats in non-official capacity to Moscow conference on Afghanistan which was attended by top Taliban leadership in November 2018.

Warring sides in Libya agree on truce

On 2 February 2020, the representatives of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and forces close to General Khalifa Haftar met in Geneva in compliance with the terms of the Berlin summit. The talk did not lead to a breakthrough as General Haftar did not want to halt the fight but maintain a diplomatic momentum. The talks completely collapsed after an attack by Haftar’s forces on Tripoli port on 18 February 2020. The UN Mission on Libya intervened to implement a ceasefire and both sides agreed to a draft deal to facilitate the safe return of civilians on 24 February 2020.

Idlib conflict

Syrian government forces has intensified efforts to take control of the rebel held Idlib province since December 2019. Turkey has opposed Syrian overtures fearing a new refugee crisis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Turkey until 27 February 2020 hosts 3,587,266 Syrian refugees. Turkey has supported and provided military cover to rebels in Idlib against President Bashar Al Assad’s forces military onslaught. It has raised the risk of a full-fledged conflict between Syria and Turkey. In a major escalation on 27 February 2020, Syrian government forces killed 33 Turkish soldiers in the Balyun area. Russia which has backed Syrian forces to recapture the rebel held areas has called for de-escalation and immediate ceasefire.

Hosni Mubarak’s death

Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak that ruled the state between 1981 and 2011 passed away on 25 February 2020. Mubarak was a staunch ally of the US and he is credited for continuing the normalisation process with Israel including opening Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) and gas relations in 2000s. As an administrator, he maintained autocratic control of the government and rigged elections to maintain his hold on power. Mubarak’s 30 year rule was toppled during the Arab Spring protests and he resigned on 11 February 2011. The deposed president faced several charges of misconduct, corruption and conspiracy to kill the protestors, however he was acquitted of most of the charges in 2017 leading to a public outcry. Mubarak had visited India on two occasions in 1982 and 2008 and he was awarded Jawaharlal Nehru Award in 1995.

Iran legislative election

Iran held the first round of legislative election on 21 February 2020 for the 290 seat parliament. There were 174 single-member constituencies and 34 multi-member constituencies for 31 provinces. Five seats are reserved for religious minorities i.e. Jews, Zoroastrians, north Armenians and south Armenians and shared seat for Assyrians and Chaldeans. Several political commentators prior to the election, predicted the political consolidation of hardliners in the parliament. The reformist leadership of President Hasan Rouhani has been facing criticism over the poor handling of the economy. The Guardian Council which is responsible for the approval of candidates has traditionally favoured conservative candidates and it disqualified 7,296 people from contesting the election weakening the entry of reformists. The voting turnout of the latest election was at 42.57 percent. The second round of the election will held on 17 April 2020.

PA cuts off ties with Israel and the US

The Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on 1 February 2020 announced that PA has cut off all ties with the US and Israel including the crucial security cooperation enshrined in the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. The diplomatic breakdown has come in the background of the US President Donald Trump’s contentious Deal of the Century plan which has been rejected by the PA. President Abbas was speaking at Arab league summit in Cairo. The Arab League Foreign Ministers’ summit opined that the League would not cooperate in implementing the peace plan because it did not cater to the minimum requirements of Palestinians. The ministers reiterated their support for a free Palestinian state based on 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as the capital.

(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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