West Asia Round Up: August 2020
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

August witnessed monumental events in the region. US sponsored rapprochement between UAE and Israel; Pompeo’s visit to Khartoum; Beirut blasts; attempts to ceasefire in Libya; Iraqi PM’s visits to Iran and USA; Defeat of US proposal and attempts to extend arms embargo on Iran and unprecedented failed attempt of invoking “Snap” vote at the UNSC; Pakistan-Saudi Arabia spat; Turkey flexing muscles in Eastern Mediterranean; and India –UAE Joint Commission meet were some of the key developments.

UAE and Israel agreed to establish diplomatic relations and eventually sign several agreements and a Peace Treaty. UAE thus becomes the 3rd country after Egypt and Jordan to do so. Trump and his son in law Jared Kushner celebrated it as a partial success to their “Deal of the Century” needed that much to flag during the upcoming elections which Pompeo did during the Republican Convention endorsing Trump. Trump in his acceptance speech also hailed it as a big achievement so did his daughter. UAE did not want to publicly disengage from the Palestinian cause hence predicated the Peace Deal on Netanyahu agreeing not to annex the planned parts of the West Bank. All three countries gained partially as the implicit engagements for decades between UAE and Israel could be formal now. Most of the GCC countries welcomed the deal. Some like Oman and Bahrain might follow suit. Deal was decried by the Palestinians, Turkey and Iran. It is of course a matter of time that several countries might officially recognise Israel and establish diplomatic relations even as Sudanese interim leadership told Pompeo that it was beyond their mandate to normalise ties with Israel. In order to patch up some issues and to persuade other countries in the region to follow suit Secretary Pompeo visited Tel Aviv, Amman, Manama and Khartoum.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al-Saud in Joint Press conference with his German counterpart hailed it “Any efforts that promote peace in the region and that result in holding back the threat of annexation could be viewed as positive.” According to the Arab Peace Initiative, Peace must be achieved between the Palestinians and Israelis based on internationally-recognised parameters. Once that is achieved, all things are possible, he added.

India also welcomed it hoping for an early resolution of the Palestine and Israel dispute. A Statement from Ministry of External Affairs, India has consistently supported peace, stability and development in West Asia, which is its extended neighbourhood. In that context, we welcome the full normalization of ties between UAE and Israel. Both nations are key strategic partners of India. India continues its traditional support for the Palestinian cause. We hope to see early resumption of direct negotiations to find an acceptable two-state solution.

The deal has actually formalised the decade old contacts that have been going on between various Gulf countries and the Jewish state. Earlier first UAE Etihad touched down at Ben Gurion airport with relief supplies for the Palestinians. El Al also started flights to the Emirates. Meanwhile as several agreements for facilitating various dimensions of bilateral relationship are in the process, UAE abolished the 1972 Decree regarding the boycott of Israel thereby permitting trade and contacts in the Emirates. Jared Kushner and Brian Hook discussed various details with the Israeli leadership thereafter the US and Israeli delegations comprising of NSAs and senior officials visited( August 31) Abu Dhabi in the first El al flight to carry forward the momentum and sign various agreements. A Joint Statement read “The accord reached between the United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates on August 13, 2020 is a courageous step towards a more stable, integrated and prosperous Middle East”. PM Netanyahu also invited the UAE delegation to visit Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile Qatar facilitated a ceasefire between Hamas in Gaza and Israel which will stop ballistics of incendiary bombs and balloons and firing by the Israelis. It will also allow Palestinian fishermen to go to Mediterranean as well as imports of food and fuel.

In a major change to accede to human rights groups Qatar decided to disband Kafala system and raised the minimum labour wage by 25% to 1000 Riyals. It also dispensed with the requirement of permission from the employer for changing jobs. This has been done in the wake of the upcoming FIFA 2022 and accusations that migrant workers were being exploited.

Lebanon that has been facing its worst economic crisis and public protests suffered a horrible tragedy as the illegally stored 2750 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate blasted off killing nearly 200 people and impacting over 30000 decimating large part of the capital Beirut into ruins that might need over $ 10-15bn in reconstruction. Public furore grew resulting in the resignation of PM Hassan Diab and the whole cabinet. French President Macron visited twice and trying to work out a reform in the faith based political system that has often led to blockade in forming governments. The powerful Shiite Hezbollah’s Chief Nasarallah has agreed to the new Lebanon Compact subject to discussion among all groups. A virtual donor’s conference was arranged by US and France as most of the GCC countries rallied for assistance. PM designate Mustapha Adib’s main job will be to stabilise the situation, address the street sentiment through urgent economic and political reforms apart from humanitarian assistance. India also provided 70 tonnes of relief aid to Lebanon.

The UNSC overwhelmingly rejected the US resolution for extending Iranian arms embargo (that ends on October 18) as it was only supported by Dominican Republic. Pompeo regretted "The Security Council's failure to act decisively in defence of international peace and security is inexcusable”. Likewise, US efforts to reintroduce and force UNSC through Snap back procedure also fell flat. This clearly showed the division between US and Europe on the Iranian issue which Tehran boasted as the isolation of US. However, to bridge the gap President Putin called for a virtual summit of the P-5 leaders at the earliest as Iranians allowed access to IAEA inspectors to two of their nuclear plants.

Riven by anti-India blindness and rhetoric Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi antagonised Saudi Arabia by threatening that PM Imran Khan will ‘suo moto’ call, if it did not immediately convene a special OIC session on J&K accusing India of atrocities against Muslims. Apparently, the Muslim world has understood Pakistani false and fake agendas especially dividing the Islamic world in concert with Turkey. Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan to pay back $ 1bn of loan that has fallen due while cancelling the $3.2 bn credit facility for import of oil. Although General Bajwa rushed to Riyadh to pacify but without any success and FM Qureshi rushed to China to bail it out as FATF also threatened it with Black Listing for terror financing and inaction against terror outfits.

Iraqi PM Kadhimi visited Iran and the US, and in a first, met President Trump and Ayatollah Khamenei. He discussed bilateral relations and ismaking efforts to avoid becoming a pawn in the US-Iran rivalry in the region. Iraq is facing immense developmental and security challenges. He was also able to secure a $ 5 bn IMF loan.

Libya witnessed yet another ceasefire agreement between the political leadership of East and West with the support of Russia, Egypt, Turkey, France and UAE but General Haftar this time could be the spoiler. Meanwhile, Central Banks of Turkey and Libya signed another major agreement to beef up economic cooperation and strengthen financial cooperation. In addition, dismissal of influential Interior Minister of Tripoli government over excesses against protesters could create problems for the government.

Turkey resumed gas exploration supported by his air power and naval assets in the Eastern Mediterranean leading to flaring up of the conflict with Greece, Cyprus and France. As Erdogan feels his country was wronged he went ahead both to please his domestic constituency as well as to convey a message to the region. In the bargain this also precipitated a NATO crisis. Efforts are on to initiate a dialogue to resolve the crisis especially by Germany.

India and UAE held their 13th Joint Commission meeting. Prior to that Foreign Minister of UAE had also briefed EAM Dr S Jai Shankar about the contours of UAE-Israel Peace deal that India welcomed. Both sides agreed to strengthen cooperation in on-going areas and also to explore cooperation in newer areas reflecting the changing times.

More Details;
UNSC rejects extension of arms embargo on Iran

ON 14 August, the 15 member United Nations Security Council (UNSC) overwhelmingly rejected the resolution proposed by the US to extend the arms embargo due to expire on 18 October 2020 under the terms of 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In terms of voting, eleven states including France, Germany and the Great Britain abstained and Russia and China voted against the resolution. The US position was backed only by the Dominican Republic.

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised the development calling it the failure of the Security Council to decisively act in defence of international security and peace. He also claimed that the UNSC ignored the concerns of Israel and the Persian Gulf states. China’s Ambassador to the US, Zhang Jun stated that the unilateral efforts and bullying tactics of the US are bound to fail.

The US prior to voting on 14 August sent a six page memo stating that although it has withdrawn from the nuclear deal, it still remains a participant and would utilise JCPOA clause known as snapback in order to re-introduce all UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic described in UNSCRs 1696 (2006), 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), 1835 (2008), and 1929 (2010). This would include: 1) an indefinite embargo on the transfer of conventional arms to and from Iran; 2) an indefinite ban on international support for Iran’s missile program; 3) an outright prohibition on all testing and development of nuclear-capable missiles; 4) a demand to halt all enrichment-related activities; and 5) an indefinite travel and asset ban for sanctioned individuals. It is likely that the US may pursue the snapback mechanism to pressurise Iran in the coming days.

Russia and China have opined that the US has lost its privilege to utilise the snapback tool since its withdrawal. European states have expressed concerns over Iran’s arms procurement and missile development programme; however it has currently prioritised its efforts to stop nuclear proliferation in the region.

Ceasefire in Libya

The rival governments of Tripoli based internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Tobruk government led by Khalifa Haftar has agreed to ceasefire on 21 August. The GNA led by Prime Minister Fayaz Al Sarraj ordered military forces under its control to stop all combat operations and obey the immediate ceasefire. He mentioned that the government’s final goal is to secure full sovereignty over the Libyan territory and the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries.

Haftar’s forces that control eastern Libya re-launched military campaign to take over Tripoli in April 2019. Haftar’s forces after initial successes have suffered loss of territory and military assets and GNA took control over parts of Sirte. The Libyan conflict has emerged as battleground for regional and global powers. The Muslim Brotherhood dominated GNA has benefitted from Qatar and Turkey, Turkey since late 2019 has been highly active in thwarting Haftar’s advances and sent troops to supplement GNA forces in January 2020. Turkey is also to keen to gain political support from the GNA government over its claims in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Haftar portraying himself as bulwark against Islamism and radicalism is supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, Russia etc. Despite the international consensus to stall the inflow of arms, all the external actors are accused of backing rival sides thereby perpetuating the crisis.

Similar to Syria, Russia and Turkey’s interests overlap in Libya and both states support rival sides in the war torn state. Russia has reportedly sent mercenaries and weapons to back Haftar’s troops and safeguard critical assets such as military bases and oil fields.

Beirut Blast and Political Developments in Lebanon

On 4 August, a large amount of ammonium nitrate exploded at Beirut port killing around 190, injuring 6500 and rendered 300,000 people homeless. The explosion was reportedly caused by detonation of 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the port warehouse without proper safety measures since 2013. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 37 refugees have died and 127 were injured in the incident.

Lebanon has witnessed large scale protests since late 2019 arising from economic mismanagement, corruption, growing disparity, declining standards of living and sectarian political structure. The protest led resignation of Prime Minister Saad Harari and appointment of technocratic government to solve the state’s endemic problems. The technocratic government under Hasan Diab remained under firm control of political blocs and failed to implement genuine reforms. The Lebanese government in March 2020 announced that it would be unable to repay bond payment of US$ 1.2 billion. The economic condition further worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic and protest against Diab government reappeared in April.

August 4 explosion intensified the public criticism against the government and clashes were reported between the protestors and the security forces. Eventually, Prime Minister Diab resigned on 10 August. Subsequently, Justice Minister Marie Claude Najm, Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad and Environment Minister Damianos Kattar have also resigned.

The French President earlier on 6 August went to Beirut to talk to victims of the blast and pressurise the government to implement reforms. France alongwith the United Nations (UN) led a virtual donor conference in which international leaders have pledged nearly US$ 300million in humanitarian assistance that will be "directly delivered to the Lebanese population”. The French President on 31 August paid a second visit and met with the new Prime Minister designate Mustapha Adib to discuss reconstruction and reforms.

The new Prime Minister has been appointed as the 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. Notably, Diab’s appointment was opposed by the supporters of Saad Harari led Future Movement in late 2019.

In the aftermath of the explosion, the goals of the international community are aimed at facilitating are political reforms and directly dispensing the donation to civil society groups rather than the political establishment. The political blocs deriving its power from the sectarian communities are unwilling to undertake drastic measures that may weaken their political and economic control.

Pakistan Army Chief’s visit to Saudi Arabia

Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief, General Faiz Hameed on 17 August visited Riyadh amidst the diplomatic row after Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi criticised the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for failing to conduct a high-level meeting over the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.

The dispute arose in February after Saudi Arabia rejected Pakistan’s request to convene a special meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the OIC, to gather support from Muslim states support on the Kashmir issue. The Pakistan Foreign Minister’s recent statement has invited criticism from the Saudi Arabia and the government has demanded Pakistan to pay back US $1 billion prematurely and is demanding another US$ 1 billion of the loan. Pakistan has received US$ 3 billion loan and US$ 3.2 billion oil credit facility to ease its balance of payments crisis in late 2018. Pakistan repaid US$ 1 billion loan to Saudi Arabia with China’s help.

Bajwa requested a meeting with the Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman which was declined. Bajwa met Saudi vice Minister of Defence Khalid bin Salman, and the Saudi Chief of General Staff Maj. Gen. Fayyad bin Hammad Al-Ruwaili. Pakistan said the meetings of the military chief and the spy chief were focused on "military to military ties including training exchanges".

UAE-Israel Peace Deal

On 13 August, the US President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi released a joint statement announcing normalisation between Israel and the UAE. The UAE has become the fourth Arab state after Egypt, Jordan, and Mauritania to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel. In the short-term, both states agreed to focus on telecommunications; visa access; air travel; shipping; investments, tourism, collaboration on healthcare, water and food security, climate change, technology and energy; cultural and educational exchanges; and ministerial-level visits. It would be followed by exchange of Ambassadors and establishing diplomatic missions. The statement raised the subject of cooperation with regard to treatment and development of vaccines for COVID-19 and common threats referring to the Iranian influence. On 15 August 2020, Emirati firm Apex National Investment Company signed a “strategic commercial agreement” with Israeli firm Tera Group to conduct joint COVID-19 research. Telecommunication lines were also opened between both states by 16 August. Israel following the opening with the UAE is hopeful that other Arab states would follow course.

According to the Joint Statement, Israel would suspend ‘declaring sovereignty’ over Palestinian territories in the Jordan Valley outlined under the ‘Vision for Peace’ proposal. The UAE saw the annexation as a threat to the regional balance of power that would embolden radical groups and boost ideological support for Iran and Turkey’s measures against the Jewish state. The Israeli Prime Minister has however reminded that the halt in annexation is only temporary and it would proceed under viable circumstance. The US has claimed that the normalisation of relations would positively contribute to regional stability and thwart the influence of Iran and its allies in the region.

Palestinians have called the decision of the Emirati government for normalisation with Israel without securing the final status agreement and commitment to facilitate the two state solutions as a stab in the back. Besides, Iran and Turkey, the international community has largely welcomed the diplomatic rapprochement between the regional powers.

Domestically, the US President Donald Trump contesting for re-election in coming November is seeking to consolidate the Jewish and evangelical voter base. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been facing protest over government handling of the COVID-19 crisis, economic instability etc. The protestors calling for Netanyahu’s removal have claimed that the peace deal would not distract their goals and demonstrations would continue. In UAE, the response of the civil society was largely muted and there have been reports of arrests of Emirati citizens criticising the normalisation in public meetings and social media.

Dispute between Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean Region

The crisis in the Mediterranean is escalating at a rapid speed drawing in countries far and wide. At the heart of the conflict are two historical rivals- Turkey and Greece- and their claims to the rich gas deposits of the Mediterranean. As a signatory to United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), Greece has a legal claim over maritime boundary up to 12 nautical miles off their coast which brings 71.5 percent of Aegean waters under Greece’s jurisdiction. Many Greek islands present in the Aegean Sea gives Athens sole drilling rights in waters around them. Ankara, which is not a party to UNCLOS, has always maintained that any enforcement of maritime boundary beyond six nautical miles will be viewed as an act of war. Turkey has also objected to the exclusion of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus from the energy deposits of the Eastern Mediterranean. What makes the conflict precarious is the involvement of a large number of players including Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, and Palestinians coveting vast energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey has been sending drilling vessels, along with warships to explore for gas off Cyprus. On 12 August, the conflict escalated quickly when Turkish Oruc Reis survey ship and its naval escorts, the Kemal Reis, while moving between Cyprus and Greek island of Crete collided with the Greek warship. France, which is at odds with Turkey in the Libyan conflict, briefly sent in a couple of fighter jets and warships, and it is currently holding military exercises with Greece, Cyprus and Italy to deter further exploration by Turkey. In this conundrum, Germany, the current Chairman of the European Council, is trying to bring Turkey and Greece at the negotiating table. However, foundering the mediation attempts by Germany, Athens has signed a maritime agreement with Cairo which will allow both the countries to obtain the full and mutual advantage of the energy resources available in their exclusive economic zone. Greece has already signed a similar deal with Italy. At the same time, sending a stern message to Turkey, Greece said it would assert its maritime claim off its western coast to 12 nautical miles in the Ionian Sea, facing Italy. The conflict will spiral out of control if Greece chooses to assert a similar claim on territorial waters in the Aegean Sea.

In response to these moves, Turkey has already stated that it will hold “gunnery exercises” in the Eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Iskenderun, northeast of Cyprus on 1 and 2 September. Ankara will also continue the exploration work of the Oruc Reis vessel southwest of Cyprus, until 1 September. Further, giving the whole crisis a new nationalist zeal within the country, President Erdogan in his message on 30 August, the Turkish Victory Day, said: “Turkey’s struggle for independence and future continues today as well. It is absolutely not a coincidence that those who seek to exclude us from the Eastern Mediterranean are the same invaders as the ones who attempted to invade our homeland a century ago.”

(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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