West Asia Roundup September 2020
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Jordan was the last Arab country in 1994 to have normalised relations with Israel. Even though over the years Israel has tried to informally engage with the Arabs especially GCC countries the formalisation of relations with UAE and Bahrain on September 15 in Washington DC as part of Abraham Accords needed a significant impetus from President Trump. Even though the normalisation has been predicated on Netanyahu suspending his plans to annex nearly 30% of West Bank the ground reality was that the divided Palestinian leadership, impact of Arab Spring, donor fatigue, changes in regional geo-political dynamics, and rise of Turkey and impertinence of Iran and above all the US Presidential elections played a catalyst. President Trump, who tried hard to enforce his subjective “Deal of the Century” to address the Israel-Palestine conflict, needed a foreign policy success as his approval ratings looked suspect. He obviously flagged it during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention. Palestine, Iran and Turkey clearly condemned these accords for their own reasons. Palestinian President called it as “stab in the back” and at his UNGA address urged for convening an International Conference early next year under the aegis of UN, EU etc.

To protest and condemn the Deal the Palestinians tried to call for an emergency session of the Arab League which was not permitted leading them to refuse chair the normal session as such. Qatar, which was supposed to be the next Chair also refused to take the Palestinian seat. Although President Trump and Netanyahu claimed that many more countries were waiting to normalise relations, they are not in a hurry to do so as testing the reaction of the Arab street and getting something significant in return is also essential for them to justify the big step. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait might be the last ones even though Saudi Arabia welcomed the UAE move and gave a nod to the Bahrainis to follow the Emirati lead. It also allowed overflight permission to the El Al flights. However, resolution of the Palestinian issue, howsoever, inexpedient it may be for the Arab world, has to be found through dialogue.

In view of the Abraham Accords and not be faced with a fait accompli, the major Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah agreed to work together and new elections have been called for in June to put up a united front that will have help them negotiate better.

Meanwhile, interactions and exchanges between UAE, Bahrain and Israel are going apace. UAE Crown Prince also hopes that the US will be able to sell the F35 stealth fighter to them. Prince Mohammed is also trying hard to persuade the US to shift the bases at Incirlik or Izmir in Turkey to UAE as the fear of Erdogan’s muscular and militaristic foreign policy become worrisome. NATO has 24 military bases in Turkey.

Trump has been actively trying the lifting of three year old blockade of Qatar by Saudi, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain but pending this reports indicate that Doha might be conferred with a non-Nato ally status in view of the fact that Qatar hosts the largest US base in the Middle East and facilitates talks with Taliban. Israeli President Rivlin also thanked Qatar for facilitating the ceasefire between Tel Aviv and Hamas.

Ailing Emir of Kuwait passed away and Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Sabah took oath as next Amir. Kuwait has been facing tremendous economic problems, budget deficits and the pandemic.

Troubles of Lebanon continue to increase as the public discontent over the economic situation and problems post the huge port blasts, lack of accountability and corruption dogged the PM designate Mustapha Adib who could not form his Cabinet due to political impasse and had to resign leading to greater uncertainty.

As the rocket attacks against the US Embassy and its assets in Iraq increased, Secretary Pompeo threatened to close the embassy in Baghdad in a call to President Barham Salih. There have been fears that the US-Iran conflict could convert the embattled Iraq again into a battle ground.

Turkey continued to flex its muscles in Libya as the talks for ceasefire and dialogue continued. Likewise over the oil & gas exploration and sabre-rattling with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean the EU and Turkey held talks to diffuse the situation even threatening Ankara with sanctions. The frozen conflict of Nagorno -Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan was reignited and Turkey supporting Baku wanted to capitalise on this dangerous conflict which might impact on the oil & gas supply lines to Europe. Russia (supporting Armenia) and France are trying to contain the conflict but both sides refused to listen. Reportedly Turkey facilitated Syrian and Pakistani fighters and extremists to join the battle.

USA unilaterally imposed “snapback sanctions’ against Iran effective September 30 which have been condemned and scoffed at by the Iranians.

More Details;
Peace Agreement among Israel, Bahrain and the UAE

On 15 September, Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed peace agreements in the presence of the US President Donald Trump in Washington DC. President Trump suggested that the agreement would mark the dawn of a New Middle East. The peace deal is seen as a strategic gain for the US and Israel to further isolate Iran. Dubai based port operator, DP World signed memorandums of understanding with Dover Tower, a company owned by Shlomi Fogel, the co-owner of Israel Shipyards and the Port of Eilat. The firms are exploring the possibility of direct shipping route between Jebel Ali ports to Eilat. DP World has also indicated interest to bid for acquiring section in the Haifa Port. On 16 September, Israeli civilian airliner El Al made its maiden flight to Dubai.

The deals by the Arab states have been criticised for failing to gain territorial concessions from Israel. Palestinians have called it a stab in the back by its Arab brethren. Notably, while the Israeli delegation was led by the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the UAE and Bahrain sent their foreign ministers to sign the agreement. Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan thanked Netanyahu for “halting the annexation” in exchange for recognition. Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani assured that the country would continue to stand with the Palestinians. The absence of the head of states from the UAE and Bahrain in the agreement signing ceremony indicates the anxiety about domestic protests. Opposition groups in Bahrain have criticised the decision of the government to open diplomatic ties with Israel. Bahrain’s engagement with Israel has been highly unpopular and civil group groups have come out to register their protest.

On the day of signing, two rockets were fired inside Israel lightly injuring two people. IDF responded by striking 10 sites under Hamas control including weapons and explosives manufacturing factory, underground infrastructure and military training compound.

The US to designate Qatar as a major non-NATO ally

The US has indicated that it would designate Qatar as a major non-NATO ally that would upgrade its status to receive preferential access to US military equipment and technology including free surplus material, expedited export processing and prioritized cooperation on training. Currently, 17 states are under the ambit of Major Non-NATO ally including Kuwait and Bahrain where the US Fifth Fleet elements are located. The US’ largest military facility in the region is located in Qatar. The US has been pushing the Gulf States to reconcile with Qatar that has dented the prospect of a united Gulf front against Iran.

Protests in Israel

In Israel, the corruption charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have continued to occupy the political space and protests calling for his resignation have continued in September. The grievances have been compounded due to the poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic instability and unemployment.

According to a survey conducted by Israel Democracy Institute, the public trust towards Netanyahu in handling the pandemic has declined. While the trust towards Netanyahu was high in March and April between 54 and 57.5, it has plummeted to 30 percent in July. The decline is noteworthy among the Netanyahu’s Likud Party voter base that has declined from 83 percent in April to 55 percent in July 2020. Moreover, 45 percent of the population has expressed disappointment over the government’s handling of the crisis.

Netanyahu’s governing coalition narrowly survived in August after an agreement was reached with his coalition partner, Benny Gantz to delay a budget vote until December.

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

On 27 September, clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted with both sides blaming the other in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Nagorno-Karabakh region is demographically dominated by Armenians. During Soviet Union’s control over the region, Nagorno-Karabakh was recognised as an autonomous territory within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. In the late 1980s, ethnic Armenians fearing the forceful incorporation of the territory in future Azerbaijani state revolted and the Nagorno-Karabakh legislature voted to join the Armenian republic in 1988. The decision was however dismissed by Moscow. Armenian separatist forces backed by Armenia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union seized the territory along with seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts. The conflict killed around 30,000 people on both sides. In 1994, Azerbaijan and separatist forces backed by Armenia formally accepted the internationally brokered ceasefire; however sporadic clashes have erupted from time to time in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the Azerbaijani-Armenian international border. Earlier in July this year, 17 soldiers from both sides were killed.

In the ongoing clash, the Armenian government accused Azerbaijani troops of attacking civilian areas in Nagorno-Karabakh and responded by crashing two helicopters and three drones. Azerbaijan has called its military action as counteroffensive to thwart Armenian aggression and secure its population. It has moved tanks, artillery missiles, combat aviation and drones in the frontline areas.

The Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced the decision to impose martial law and called for total mobilisation to defend the sacred homeland. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev also warned against those using intimidation tactics and called for defending its lands including Nagorno-Karabakh. The situation has been further escalated due to the entry of external actors. Armenia and France have accused Turkey of sending mercenaries from northern Syria to supplement Azerbaijani forces in the conflict. Armenia also reported that Turkish F-16 fighter jet was used to shoot down an Armenian SU-25 warplane. Turkey has said that it supports Azerbaijan’s efforts in the conflict, however denied sending troops.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Designate resigns

The newly appointed Prime Minister Designate Mustapha Adib resigned on 26 September as a result of political impasse over formation of the new cabinet. Adib was appointed as consensus candidate by the major political factions including the Maronite predominantly Free Patriotic Movement, Sunni predominant Future Movement and Shiite predominant Hezbollah and Amal Movement etc after Hasan Diab resigned on 10 August in light of the explosion in Beirut on 4 August.

Adib during cabinet formation process had inclined towards appointing technocrats rather than political appointees handpicked by the sectarian based political parties. During discussions, Hezbollah and Amal Movement insisted on maintaining control over the Finance Ministry. Adib held several meetings with senior Shiite politicians however the differences could not be resolved.

Lebanon’s unique political structure was reshaped by the 1989 Taif Accord that entails proportional political representation among the 18 recognised sects. The prevalence of the confessional system, however, encouraged sectarian loyalty for political goals and nurtured a system of patronage by granting rewards in exchange of votes. The sectarian political parties ally with parties of different sects to serve their interests. The contemporary politics is broadly divided between the March 8 Alliance and March 14 Alliance. The alliances emerged in 2005 over differences about Syrian control in Lebanon.

The March 14 Alliance includes Saad Harari’s Future Movement which is largely pro-western and pro-Saudi Arabia. The March 8 Alliance, comprising of Hezbollah and Maronite predominant, Free Patriotic Movement, is more accommodative towards Iran and Syria. The geopolitical competition between the two regional rivals i.e. Iran and Saudi Arabia has affected the domestic politics and added to the mutual suspicion between the Shiite predominant Hezbollah and the Sunni predominant Future Movement.

The political parties are unwilling to compromise their political hold and have tried their best to deflect the demand for technocratic government raised during protests since last year. It is feared that the continuing political instability could further worsen the economic situation in the state.

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Visits Syria

Russia’ Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Damascus and met with President Bashar Al Assad on 7 September. The visit was made to prepare the ground for an elaborate agreement on more than forty new projects in areas of energy, reconstruction of power stations and offshore oil extraction. Syria is facing unprecedented economic and political challenge. Russia is keen to restore the regime capacity and improve its governance function. It would however be difficult for Russia witnessing its own economic downturn to single-handedly revive the economy and keen to attract international partners to fulfil its objective.

(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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