West Asia Roundup- April 2023
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

As the dates for civilian transfer of power was being conceived, Sudan erupted into a power grabbing violence between the Sudan’s Armed Forces led by General Burhan and the rapid Support Forces led by General Dagalo with their respective external benefactors working over time overtly to diffuse the crisis. Humanitarian catastrophe followed and fragile ceasefire orchestrated by Saudi Arabia often breached. However, in order to let the international and expatriate people leave Sudan, the ceasefire was ensured with some humanitarian corridors. More than 600 Sudanese died thousands injured and large number joined the already hapless refugees on borders with Chad and other countries. Couple of rounds of talks has been hosted by Saudis but progress is rather slow and of course democracy may be short-shrifted for a power sharing formula.

Riyadh and Tehran continued their efforts to normalize relations with the help of the Chinese as their Foreign Ministers met in Beijing to work out other details regarding reopening of their respective missions. The Houthis welcomed it and there have been positive signs for some solution to the seven years old conflict.

On the other hand Riyadh expressed its desire to normalize relations with President Assad of Syria and work on his readmission into the Arab league even though some countries like Qatar were not on board. Syrian and Saudi Foreign ministers exchanged visits to discuss the matter further. Even the Americans and Europeans decried the move but Saudis are moving along the path of regional modus vivendi and rapprochement.

Qatar and Bahrain also decided to bury the hatchet as their delegations met up during the month and direct flights were also agreed to. After Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman decided to lift the Qatar blockade in 2021 the other GCC countries are normalizing bilateral relations at their own pace although working in tandem in the regional groupings including the GCC and Arab League.

Iran continued to have confrontational approach with the West especially several maritime incidents and breaches were reported by both sides as the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) remained on the back burner. Tehran also continued to face protests from women and others.

Iraq and Iran also tried to work a matrix for further collaboration as Iraqi president visited Tehran. Baghdad has been working on rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran for nearly two years.

Egypt and Turkey also are working to normalize diplomatic relations. Egyptian Foreign Minister visited Ankara to confer with his counterpart on return of their Ambassadors as overtly Turkiye decided to keep the support to Muslim Brotherhood under the wraps.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba visited Iraq on April 17 and met his counterpart. Baghdad urged a ceasefire at the earliest. Even Russian FM Lavrov was in Baghdad in February. Since the support of Middle East and Global South has been somewhat lukewarm, Ukraine is reaching out to them as the war drags on.

As usual Israeli – Palestine conflict continued to be stoked with exchange of barrage of rockets, bombings and violation of the sanctity of third holiest mosque by some ministers of the ultra right faction of the government. Jordan tried to raise the issue regionally and with the US with limited success.

Israeli Foreign Minister visited Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan who have difficult relations with Iran. In fact Baku expelled four Iranian diplomats for subversive activities.

Reportedly, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang spoke to his Israeli and Palestinian Foreign Ministers offering their good offices for peace talks.

Leaked Pentagon documents exposed the US thinking that they were concerned about the proximity and growing relationship between UAE and Russia which was denied by the Emiratis. Also the report regarding Israeli security establishment not being in sync with Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms. Similarly US was said to have prevailed upon Cairo not to supply 40,000 rockets to Moscow during the war.

Turkey claimed to have killed the ISIS leader Abu Hussein al Quraishi.

Saudi Arabia and UAE provided $2 bn and $ 1bn to Pakistan to help realize the IMF loan to the beleaguered and economically bankrupt country. KSA also agreed to provide a loan of $ 240 mn to Pakistan for a dam in the North West part of the country.

  • New Delhi launched ‘Operation Kaveri’ to successfully evacuate Indian nationals and some foreigners from the war zone in Sudan. MOS V Muraleedharan was in Saudi Arabia from 25-28 April 2023 in Jeddah to oversee Operation Kaveri.
  • Parliamentary delegations from south Sudan and Israel visited India and conferred with their counterparts and other leaders.
More details ….
Sudan Conflict

On 15 April 2023, the power struggle between Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) under Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Rapid Support Forces under Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo culminated into a full scale conflict. In order to directly challenge the military-led government, RSF began attacking key government sites including the Presidential Palace; Khartoum International Airport; Merowe Airport; El Obeid Airport, Soba military base On 21 April, RSF announced a 72 hour humanitarian and opened the humanitarian corridor marking the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Gunfights however continued in Khartoum and other parts of the state. The US and Saudi Arabia on 24 April brokered another 72 hour ceasefire to establish humanitarian corridors; allow civilians to access essential resources, healthcare and safe zones and evacuate diplomatic missions. Both military and paramilitary forces at the present have maintained stubborn attitude and unwilling to compromise from their respective positions. Reportedly, around 550 civilians have been killed until 30 April 2023 (Crisis24 2023). It has led a new humanitarian crisis causing acute shortages of food, clean water, medicines, fuel, electricity and severely thwarted Sudan’s prospects towards building a democratic state. Indian government in total rescued 3862 nationals under ‘Operation Kaveri’ that came to close on 5 May.

China hosts Saudi and Iranian Foreign Ministers

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian met in Beijing on 6 April for the first formal gathering since China brokered the deal in March 2023. Both ministers agreed to follow-up on arrangements to reopen diplomatic missions, visits of official and private sector delegations, and facilitate visas for Iranian and Saudi citizens and resume daily flights.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning talked about Beijing’s willingness to support both sides in fostering good relations, urging the international community to help the West Asian states to resolve their differences. A Saudi technical delegation visited Tehran on 8 April and met with Iran’s chief of protocol at the foreign ministry to discuss about re-opening embassies and implementing security and economic cooperation.

Diplomatic Visits between Syria and Saudi Arabia

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on 12 April visited Riyadh on the invitation of the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan. Both foreign ministers discussed about reaching a political solution to the Syrian crisis that preserves the unity, security and stability of Syria as well as facilitate the return of Syrian refugees and securing humanitarian access to the affected areas in Syria. The joint statement issued on 13 April mentioned about resuming consular services and regular flights between both states.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud reciprocated and visited Damascus on 18 April and met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi foreign ministry talked about the kingdom’s desire to find a political solution to Syrian conflict and preserving the state’s Arab identity, and return it to its Arab surroundings”. Riyadh hosted the ministers and senior officials of nine Arab states six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries i.e. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan to discuss the possibility of normalizing ties with Syria and its return to the Arab League.

As part of Damascus’ efforts to re-integrate into the Arab world, Syria and Tunisia on 12 April have issued a joint statement to initiate reopening of their respective diplomatic missions and appointing ambassadors.

Swapping of Prisoners following Saudi Arabia-Houthi deal

In a positive development, the truce in Yemen has been emboldened after Saudi Arabia and Houthis agreed to release and swap 869 detainees by mid-April held by both sides since the beginning of Yemen’s conflict in 2015. The prisoner exchange has been managed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The swapping has been done between six cities in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The prisoner exchange agreement was signed earlier in March 2023 in Geneva.

Saudi Arabia led military coalition lifted eight-year old restriction of imports headed for Yemen’s southern ports. Saudi Arabia has eased restrictions on commercial goods entering the Houthi-held Hodeidah port. Reportedly, more than 500 types of goods, including fertilizers and batteries, would be allowed back into Yemen through southern ports.

The US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaking to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has emphasized the remarkable progress in the continuing peace talks with the Houthis and appreciated the efforts by Riyadh to pursue a more comprehensive roadmap and offered full US support.

Iraqi President’s Visit to Iran

Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid during his first official visit to Iran on 29 April met with Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Ebrahim Raisi and speaker of the parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalib. Khamenei during his meeting mentioned that “The Americans are not friends of Iraq.” He also reiterated that the US is not even loyal to their European friends. Khamenei emphasised that Iraq’s progress to be of high importance to Iran and called for urgent implementation of bilateral security and economic agreements signed between both states in April 2023. The Iraqi President stressed on deepening ties with Iran, resolving their differences and address common concerns such as water rights, drug smuggling etc. Rashid welcomed the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia and expressed hope that it will strengthen stability and security in the region. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said that both states will come together on energy transport and nurturing economic relations.

Tehran Police on 25 April arrested two actresses namely Katayoun Riahi and Pantea Bahram for defying headscarves regulation. The judiciary accused the two women of the crime of removing their hijab in public and publishing its images in the virtual space. Iran since September 2022 has witnessed nation-wide protests against Islamic Republic’s regressive laws including compulsory headscarves. Iranian security forces in April initiated the process of installing cameras in public places to identify and penalize unveiled women.

Iran Captures Oil Tanker in the Gulf of Oman

Iranian military on 27 April seized a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman after it collided with an Iranian boat injuring several crewmen. Iran mentioned that the tanker after collision fled the scene and ignored radio calls for eight hours before its seizure. The Turkish-operated, Chinese-owned tanker entered the Gulf of Oman after moving through the Strait of Hormuz. It was heading to Houston, Texas from Kuwait. The US noted that the seizure happened while the vessel was travelling through international waters. The US Fifth Fleet condemned Iran’s actions calling it a continued harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights in regional waters. The US demanded immediate release of the oil tanker. Earlier on 20 April, an Iranian official announced that the navy forced a US submarine to surface after it entered the Gulf region by violating its maritime border.

Iranian Court Orders Payment of Compensation by the US

A Tehran based court in its verdict has ordered United States government and a number of individuals and entities, including former President Barack Obama and George W Bush to pay compensation for Islamic State (IS) attacks. The court issued the verdict on 26 April based on complaints by families of three people killed and six wounded during June 2017 attacks in Tehran.

During the attack, the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were targeted that killed 17 people. The court ruled $9.95 milli on needs to be paid to compensate for financial damages while $104million and $199 million are for moral and punitive damages, respectively, with the total nearing $313 million.

The convicted in the case includes the US government, former Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, Central Command (CENTCOM), and its former commander Tommy Franks, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Treasury Department, weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin, and American Airlines Group. According to the court verdict, US officials played fundamental role in organizing and guiding terror groups. Notably, these entities do not hold any assets in Iran; therefore, there is no possibility of seizing any assets. The verdict can be seen as response to legal actions taken in US courts blaming Iran for terrorist assaults and claiming compensation from seized Iranian assets.

Rapprochement between Qatar and Bahrain

The delegates from Qatar and Bahrain met on 12 April at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) General Secretariat in Riyadh to resolve their differences and restore diplomatic relations. Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Secretary-General Ahmed bin Hassan al-Hammadi met with Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Political Affairs Sheikh Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa to develop diplomatic relations. Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2017 to place embargo on Qatar. Both sides following the meeting agreed to advance the Gulf unity and integration in accordance with the GCC Charter. Bahrain’s dispute with Qatar centered mostly on the Doha’s relationship with Iran and issues along the maritime border.

Egyptian Foreign Minister’s visit to Turkey

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Ankara on 13 April as part of efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations between both states. Earlier in March, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Cairo to initiate discussion on returning ambassadors. Shoukry in Ankara met with the Turkish leadership to discuss on concrete steps in raising diplomatic relations to the highest level.

Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi severed diplomatic ties with Turkey due to Ankara’s harsh reaction after toppling the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood led government. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the 2013 coup as “damaging, inhuman and against the people, national will and democracy”. Turkey has provided refugee to Egyptian dissidents including Muslim Brotherhood leaders and allowed them to openly criticize the Al-Sisi government.

Egyptian President’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Saudi Arabia on 3 April and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah. Both leaders discussed joint cooperation and regional developments. On the sidelines of the presidential visit, Egypt’s intelligence Chief Abbas Kamel met with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have provided Egypt’s central bank with huge deposits and promised major investments to overcome its financial difficulties.

Israel-Palestine Conflict

Israel Police in the first week of April carried out consecutive raids at the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound. On the first night of the raid, 12 Palestinians were seriously injured and more than 400 were arrested. The mood at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound remained tense after increasing number of visits by ultra-nationalist Jews. The police raids and attack of worshippers triggered number of rocket attacks from southern Lebanon and Gaza. Israeli military retaliated by carrying out air raids in Lebanese territory and Gaza. The Arab League held an emergency meeting called by Jordan, Egypt and Palestinian officials to discuss the Israeli action in Al Aqsa Mosque compound. Israeli government on 11 April issued a new directive to halt the visits by Jews and tourists to the Al Aqsa Mosque until the end of Ramadan after weeks of tensions between worshippers and Israeli security forces. In a car ramming incident in Tel Aviv on 7 April, one Italian citizen, Alessandro Parini was killed. Several civilians including five other Italian and British citizens were also injured in the attack.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on 18 April. Abbas discussed about the continuing violence in the Israeli occupied Palestinian territories. Reportedly, a Hamas delegation led by politburo chief, Ismail Haniyeh was also visiting the state. Hamas delegation held talks about a number of Palestinian and regional issues and bilateral relations between Hamas and Saudi Arabia. Israel is closely watching the visits by the Palestinian leaders. Israel is seeking to establish ties with Saudi Arabia after succeeding to nurture ties with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Death of Islamic State Leaders

The US Central Command (CENTCOM) on 4 April announced the death of a senior Islamic State (IS) leader, Khalid Aydd Ahmad al-Jabouri in Syria. He was responsible for planning IS attacks in Europe and helped in building a leadership structure.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 30 April announced that the security forces have killed the suspected leader of the Islamic State, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi. He was reportedly killed as part of an operation in Jinderes town in Syria by Turkish National Intelligence Organisation. President Erdogan facing tough election on 14 May has used the killing to boost political support. He announced that his government will continue to take measures to eradicate the terrorist organizations without any discrimination.

Moreover, Turkish Police have arrested around 110 people over ties with PKK. The government has claimed that these individuals are suspected of financing the PKK; recruiting members or engaging in propaganda. The timing of the arrests is crucial which is happening in the background of presidential and parliamentary elections due to be held on 14 May. The arrests have been made to project Erdogan as a tough leader and gain support among the nationalist voters.

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