West Asia Review: February 2021
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

West Asia remained in focus as President Biden’s Administration saddled up in its first month and showed significant inclination to reduce tensions with Iran while assuaging the concerns of its Arab allies and Israel. Biden seems to have adopted an equanimous approach to be seen as fair and equitable. Although Tel Aviv and Riyadh as well as Tehran showed some signs of understanding yet displayed a non-elastic attitude in public. Backdoor diplomacy as well as Biden’s outreach to Putin and Xi Jinping as well as to his European partners paved the way for a move forward by inching towards informal talks with regard to Iran’s compliance and US’s return to JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal abandoned by former President Trump). US also decided to strike off Houthis from the list of designated terrorist groups so that Yemen war could be ended and pressured Riyadh into action yet assured it that Saudi security remained important and US will ensure it sending a message to Tehran as well. Houthis continued to indulge in drone and missile attacks on Saudi territory. At the same time Biden conveyed a strong message to the Iranians by authorizing a retaliatory strike on Iran supported militia assets in Syria (Feb 26) in response to their attacks on US assets (Feb 15) in Erbil, Iraq.

It has become a gold standard as to whom and how soon and to which leader the new US President makes a call. Hence it took him over a month to speak to Israeli PM Netanyahu -a symbolic and suspended delay since he is dead against any concessions to Iran. Biden made it clear that while Israel remained its most important ally in the region it will not be able to dictate the US policy in the region. Likewise, in his call with King Salman later Biden indicated that he would deal with the real ruler rather than the de facto ruler i.e. his son Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) who is implicated in the Khashoggi murder. In fact, a CIA report that was held back by Trump, also a close friend of MBS, was authorized for release to Congress by President Biden. Despite media frenzy and Saudi disenchantment, US has made sure that the relationship stayed on rails and assured them of it in official statements.

Libya also moved on a hopeful path as the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum elected their interim PM and the 3-member Presidency Council to work for December 24 general elections. It was endorsed by all sides and regions and supported by all stakeholders. Calls for removal of foreign troops and militias became stronger. Former Diplomat Mohammed Younes Menfi was elected as the Chairman of the Presidential Council while Abdul Hamid al -Dbeibeh was elected as the interim Prime Minister. Egypt also re-opened its embassy in Tripoli and is working closely with Tripoli government which it had opposed earlier having been a strong supporter of Gen Haftar. "It will be a government of technocrats representing the whole Libyan spectrum," PM Dbeibeh reiterated at a news conference in Tripoli, adding that he had attempted a "fair distribution" of posts between the west, east and south of the country while submitting his interim Cabinet. The PM has a difficult task ahead - until March 19 to receive the parliament’s vote of confidence before embarking on the most challenging part of his mission, which is unifying institutions and leading the transitional phase until the December 24 elections are held.

Libyan Unity Talks

The 75 member Libyan Political Dialogue Forum comprising of delegations from the two rival governments based in Tripoli and Tobruk restarted negotiations to choose an interim Prime Minister and a three-member Presidential Council in Geneva. In the latest round, both sides expressed hope to stabilise the state and hold national election on 24 December. Both sides have already agreed the possible list of candidates as well as national referendum to finalise constitutional arrangements.

The three-member presidential council is represented from the three regions i.e. Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. The winning candidate for Prime Minister’s position would require 70 percent share of votes.

On 11 February, the Chairman of Libya’s Presidential Council, Mohammad Younes Menfi visited Benghazi controlled by General Khalifa Haftar’s forces and governed by the Tobruk based government. Khalifa Haftar has also welcomed the development.

Iranian Parliament Rejects President Hassan Rouhani’s Budget Bill.

Iranian parliament which is currently dominated by conservative hardliners rejected President Hassan Rouhani’s budget bill draft. In the 290-seat parliament 99 members voted for and 148 voted against the bill. The hardliners complained that the bill lacked transparency; was unrealistic and further aggravates inflation. The political tussle between the hardliners and moderates should be seen from the lens of the upcoming parliamentary elections in June 2021.

The political situation in the Islamic Republic reflects disenchantment with the moderates due to its failure to lift sanctions and improving the economic condition in the state. The hardships for ordinary Iranians have continued after the US withdrawal from JCPOA and re-imposition of sanctions. The hardliners have insisted on resumption of the nuclear programme and pointed to the failure of the government dominated by moderates to push European states to carry out normal trade links as promised under JCPOA.

In order to overcome the difficulties of the US re-joining JCPOA, Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif has suggested that the European Union (EU) should coordinate and synchronise. Both Iran and the US want the other to resume compliance first with the JCPOA.

Israel and Kosovo Establish Ties.

In a virtual event held on 1 February, Israel and Kosovo formally established diplomatic relations. The event was attended by Israeli and Kosovan Foreign Ministers Gabi Ashkenazi and Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla. Besides the US and Guatemala, Kosovo has become the third state to set up its embassy in Jerusalem. It is also the only European and Muslim majority state to have an embassy in Jerusalem. Kosovo and Israel agreed to establish ties in September 2020 during the visit of Kosovan Prime Minister Avdulah Hoti to the US.

Serbia continues to consider Kosovo as part of its territory. It has expressed its displeasure and warned that diplomatic recognition and relations with Kosovo could affect its future ties with the Jewish state. Kosovo is currently recognised by 117 states including Israel. Besides Serbia, Russia and China have refused recognition to Kosovo.

Yemen in Crisis

The US on 12 February announced the decision to revoke the designation of Houthi movement as a terrorist group in order to ease the flow of humanitarian aid in the northern Yemen. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that decision to rescind the designation has been made in view of recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.

The US also declared that it would stop arms support for Saudi Arabia led military campaign in Yemen urging an end to the six-year long conflict causing huge loss to life and resources. The White House in terms of diplomatic outreach named Timothy Lenderking as the US enjoy for Yemen to reopen measures to end the war. Notably, senior US officials on 26 February for the first time also met with Houthi movement to find out ways to end the six-year long war. The discussion occurred between Lenderking and Houthi movement’s Chief negotiator Mohammed Abdusalam.

In another development, the UN Special Envoy on Yemen, Martin Griffiths visited Iran in the first week of February to discuss the crisis in Yemen. The initiatives by the international community have been complicated by the continuing escalation between the Houthis and the Saudi government as well as ground clashes between Houthis and the Abdrabbuh Hadi government.

Clashes with the government forces killed at least 30 people in Marib province in the first week of February. In the last week, another 30 people have died due to continued escalation. Houthis that controls much of northern Yemen have been attempting to take control of the province for years and attacks has escalated in Soroug and Makhdara districts. Houthis have failed to break the defence by the government forces.

Houthis besides ground escalation against government forces has continued rocket and drone attacks against Saudi assets. On 10 February, Houthi forces launched a bomb laden drone at Abha airport in south western Saudi Arabia that led to a civilian plane catching fire. Saudi military reported that it intercepted and destroyed two drones. Houthis are retaliating against Saudi Arabia’s continued aerial bombing in northern Yemen.

Developments in Gaza

Egypt on 9 February opened the Rafah border crossing that would ease movement and access to supplies for Palestinians living in Gaza. Egypt has resumed its role as the mediator between Fatah that governs West Bank and Hamas that controls Gaza to push for reconciliation in light of the upcoming Palestinian general elections. Griffith during his visit met with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other Iranian officials to coordinate a negotiated political solution to the conflict. The Special Envoy’s immediate priority is to support agreement between conflicting sides to accept ceasefire, resume political process and provide humanitarian measures.

Qatar, a steady benefactor for the Palestinians living in Gaza has promised to contribute US$ 60 million to help construct a natural gas pipeline between Israel and the Strip. Qatar has been providing US$ 20 million per month to Gaza since 2018. Besides Qatar, the European Union (EU) has pledged around US$ 24.5 million to build the pipeline.

There is only one power plant in Gaza and power outages are frequent. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has thanked Qatari and European support and hoped that the project would completely solve the electricity problem.

Palestinians Start Vaccination Drive

The Palestinian Authority (PA) on 2 February launched COVID-19 vaccination drive after receiving doses from Israel. Israeli government delivered 2000 doses of Moderna Inc’s vaccine. Besides supplies from Israel, PA received 5000 doses of Sputnik V vaccine and 37000 doses from the COVAX global vaccine sharing programme. Israel received widespread criticism for initially denying vaccines to Palestinians.

Medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients at the Hugo Chavez hospital in Ramallah were the first to be vaccinated. The PA also delivered some of the doses to Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas. The Palestinian Health Minister Mai Alkaila in mid February however, complained that Israel has blocked the supply of 2000 doses of Russia made Sputnik V vaccine into the Gaza Strip meant for frontline medical workers.

Israel on 28 February announced plans to vaccinate thousands of Palestinians working inside Israel and the illegal settlements within occupied West Bank. The decision has been made to maintain public health and the smooth functioning of the economy.

The US Strikes Shiite Militia Base in Syria

On 25 February, two American F-15 aircrafts launched seven missiles destroying nine facilities and damaging two other bases of a Shiite militia group reportedly close to Iran. The US action is seen as an act of retaliation for a rocket attack at military air base in Erbil International Airport killing an American civilian contractor. Domestically with the US, several Democratic Party Congress members condemned the strikes that occurred without authorization from lawmakers. Republican Party members have largely supported the move.

The US President Joe Biden after the airstrikes in Syria warned Iran that it would face consequences for supporting militia groups that harm US interests and its citizens. The US defended the airstrike as being legal and appropriate.

Israeli Ship Attacked.

Israeli owned vessel, MV Helios Ray suffered an explosion in the Gulf of Oman on 28 February. The ship sailing from the Persian Gulf to Singapore suffered two holes on its port side and two on its starboard side on 28 February. Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz blamed Iranian forces for causing explosion on an Israeli owned vessel, MV Helios Ray in the Gulf of Oman.

Iran has denied the accusation. Israel has however, insisted that the location of the ship in relatively close proximity to Iran suggests its complicity. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Iran as the greatest enemy of Israel and it is determined to halt the Islamic Republic’s actions.

US Report Claims Saudi Crown Prince’s Role in Khashoggi Killing

The US intelligence released a report on 26 February noting that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman had in fact ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The US accordingly imposed sanctions on several Saudi officials. It has however, resisted imposing sanctions on the Crown Prince.

The US insisted that the killing of political opponents is unacceptable and during Joe Biden’s conversation with King Salman, he told that Saudi Government must tackle human rights abuses to deal with the US. The Saudi government rejected the US report’s findings and denied the involvement of the Crown Prince.

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