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

The year ended on a sombre note and 2020 woke up to more accentuated volatility in West Asia pursuant to the targeted killing of highly influential Iranian IRIGC General Qassem Soleimani by the US drone strikes in Iraq ( Jan 3) while reportedly he was going to meet the Iraqi Prime Minister. President Trump and US officials firmly believed that Soleimani was planning some major and imminent attacks on US assets apart from having been involved in similar terrorist designs. Iranians vowed revenge while the verbal hara-kiri continued from both sides. Eventually the Iranians launched 22 well calculated and calibrated missile strikes at the US bases near Baghdad and Erbil which fell short of causing huge damage or casualties. Even though the Americans denied any casualty in the beginning later they admitted to some concussions to soldiers and damage to equipment. Iran conveyed its message that it could target US forces and decimate its allies in the region should they support any US adventurism. At the same time, they wanted to keep the doors open for some dialogue and did not wish to invite a disproportionate response from the US in case of casualties. Reportedly, the US was pre-warned through the Iraqis to avert a major disaster. However, the US-Iran fracas continues and has the potential to flare up yet again as Iran might exceed the Uranium enrichment limits beyond the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which US has already abdicated.

One of the unintended consequences of the violation of Iraqi sovereignty was that their Parliament and Public were furious and passed a resolution asking US troops to leave the country which obviously met with the Trumpian ire. Moreover, both Iran and Iraq have been witnessing huge demonstrations by the disaffected people against the respective governments and killing of Soleimani and the aftermath provided distraction and invigorated the national fervour and rancour against the Americans.

Finally, Libya came on the radar of the international community when Berlin Conference was organised with the initiative and support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Putin of Russia. This became possible after Putin and Turkish President Erdogan agreed to deescalate conflicts in Syria and Libya. In the Libyan theatre Russia supports General Haftar who has laid seize to Tripoli since April last year against the internationally recognised government of Prime Minister Serraj. Turkey has been supportive of the western Libyan groups and Islamists and signed two maritime agreements with Serraj government. This enabled them to militarily intervene on behalf of Tripoli. Turkish parliament endorsed deployment of troops. However, temporarily the truce was achieved and held despite occasional violations after Berlin even though the ambitious General Haftar refused to sign the agreement in Moscow meet and subsequently at Berlin. Problem with Berlin declaration , an exhaustive statement, was lack of effective deterrents against violators be they the western and regional supporters of the two sides or for that matter continued supply of weaponry in violation of the UN imposed ban even though it was agreed to set up a 5+5 committee with equal representation to work out modalities. However, UN was to take the lead and efforts were to be made for reaching and ensuring a ceasefire before the political process could ensue. Even though fickle and somewhat non-serious this has been a key effort in years to attempt to resolve the Libyan crisis.

Finally, President Trump announced his “Deal of the Century” to resolve the decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the presence of Israeli PM Netanyahu. This was promptly rejected by the Palestinians with President Abbas calling it a conspiracy with his vehement ‘thousand Noes”. Turkey, Jordan, Arab League and Iran also strongly opposed the deal as it violated the rights, hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people with complete disregard to the UN resolutions and Oslo and other agreements. The Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt and Kuwait and others appreciated Trump’s efforts to resolve the conflict and hoped that it be studied and not outright rejected. But they also sought a just and comprehensive solution and some of them referred to 1967 borders as a prerequisite. Under the plan, Jerusalem will completely be under the Israelis and the existing settlements in the West Bank will be legalised even though there is a moratorium for 4 years on new settlements. No military for the Palestinians and their security is to be under the control of the Israelis. Even to visit their Holy Al Aqsa mosque they will need permits. Dream of East Jerusalem as Palestinian capital thrown out of the window and a new capital Al Quds most likely at Abu Dis to be built. Even as large-scale demonstrations are happening in Gaza and elsewhere, Netanyahu expressed happiness at the US Plan and even planned to annex the settlements soon. In return of their sovereignty and suzerainty the Palestinians will receive $ 50 billion in projects and reconstruction to be mainly provided by rich gulf countries. The broadly positive response by several Gulf countries was largely due to changing dynamic in their normalising ties with Israel and to be on the right side of the US. Europeans, Russians and India urged the dialogue between the two sides to resolve all outstanding issues. However, for the Palestinians USA has lost their trust and they prefer dialogue and mediation through the Quartet comprising of US, Russia, EU and UN.

One of the most respected leaders in the Middle East Sultan Qaboos of Oman succumbed to his illness. Under him Oman had emerged as a reliable partner and sane voice and often a reliable mediator. Even in US-Iran tensions Oman is a credible interlocutor. The smooth succession took place as former Culture Minister Hatim bin Tariq Al Said and the one favoured by Qaboos was selected as the new Sultan by the Council.

Although Lebanon and Iraq saw the appointment of new Prime Ministers, they failed to assuage the disenchanted people and demonstration and protests continued through the month. Likewise Algerian protests against the government continued.

Berlin Conference

German Chancellor Angela Markel hosted leaders and officials from Algeria, China Egypt, France, Italy, Russia, Turkey, the UAE, the UK and the US, the Republic of the Congo and representatives from the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) to deliberate on resolving the Libyan civil war. The latest escalation started after General Khalifa Haftar launched military strike against internationally recognised government of Fayez al-Sarraj since April 2019. The participants agreed to refrain from interfering in Libya’s internal affairs as well as the armed conflict. The Berlin Conclusions suggested punitive measures against those found guilty of breaching the 2011 UN arms embargo which has been violated in the past on repeated occasions.

The summit also covered de-escalation and ceasefire efforts; dissolution of militias and integration into civilian, military and security institutions; safeguarding Central Bank of Libya and the National Oil Corporation (NOC), strengthening transnational justice institutions etc. Crucially, the Berlin Conclusions created an International Follow-Up Committee (IFC) comprising of participating states and Organisations as well as a Joint Military Commission i.e. 5+5 committee nominated by the two parallel governments to carry the dialogue. The Haftar government breached the ceasefire arrived at the Berlin Summit by pushing towards Misrata city and killing 3 fighters belonging to al-Serraj government.

US-Iran tensions

The US killed Major General Qassem Soleimani, the Chief of Iranian Revolutionary Force Guards (IRGC)’s Quds Force and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi government-sanctioned counter-insurgency militia, Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Baghdad airport on 3 January 2020. Iran on 8 January 2020 retaliated against the US strike by launching 22 surface-to-surface missiles at two US military bases in Ain al-Asad base in Anbar province and one facility in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Iranian security forces, during the missile attack, accidentally shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines PS752 heading for Kyiv killing 176 people. The initial denial and finally acceptance of guilt over the incident has enraged public opinion re-ignited protests against the government in Iran.

The Demise of Sultan Qaboos of Oman

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said passed away on 10 January 2020. Sultan Qaboos took reign from his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur in a bloodless coup and became the ruler on 23 July 1970. Sultan Qaboos changed the name of the state from Muscat and Oman to The Sultanate of Oman. The deceased Sultan has been credited for modernizing the state and is widely respected in the region for his diplomatic initiatives including the secret talks between US and Iran in 2013 prior to the implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal. He had also opened channels of communication with the Israeli leadership which has facilitated in Israel’s increasing engagement in the Persian Gulf region. The Omani Ruling Family Council has selected former Culture Minister, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said as the new Sultan.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Muscat and met with Sultan Qaboos in February 2018 and both states signed eight agreements to intensify cooperation in the field of defence, health and tourism. External affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, after the demise of the Sultan expressed condolences. He said that India has suffered an irreparable loss of a true friend and well-wisher.

EAM’s visit to Tunisia

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited Tunisia and met with President Kais Saied on 22 January 2020. During the visit of the External Affairs Minister, both states signed MOU to establish India-Tunisia centre for innovation in information and communication technologies (ICT) in order to support business acceleration and enhance interactions on innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems. Jaishankar met with the Tunisian Foreign Minister, Sabri Bachtobji to discuss on improving bilateral economic cooperation and working closely in multi-lateral forum. He also met the Speaker of the Assembly of Representatives, Rached Ghannouchi to undertake exchanges between the parliamentary institutions of both states.

Trump’s Deal of the Century

The US President Donald Trump unveiled the political aspect of the Middle East Peace Plan called, ‘Peace to Prosperity’. The economic aspect of the plan was revealed by Senior Presidential Advisor, Jared Kushner in June 2019. The political aspect of the plan according to Donald Trump seeks achieve a realistic peace to improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. The plan has been widely criticized by being completely one-sided in favour of Israelis and ignoring the demands of the Palestinians. The plan presented a prospective map of the two states in which a non-contiguous Palestinians would be left with only 15 percent territory of mandate Palestine. It also entails that Jerusalem would remain as the undivided capital of Israel and Palestine is allowed to erect a capital in a small neighbourhood in East Jerusalem outside the present security barrier. It has allowed Israeli annexation of settlements in the West Bank as well as annexation of the Jordan valley. On the issue of refugees, Israel is not entitled to absorb any Palestinian refugees who were displaced by the Zionist expansion. It has however, allowed refugees to settle in the future Palestinian state as well as in Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states. Israel would continue to control the future Palestinian state’s airspace, sea routes and entry points.

The Palestinian leadership’s relations with the US have been highly strenuous after the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the de facto capital of Israel in December 2017. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has refused to engage with the Trump administration and it rejected the plan out rightly.

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