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West Asia Roundup-December 2022


For West Asia, 2022 ended with a hectic diplomatic activity. Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia visited several countries in the region to ensure the presence of West Asian leaders at the ensuing China -Gulf and China -Arab Summits during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Kingdom from December 6-8. The statements issued were quite significant as China tried to retrieve and reinforce its regional influence and sync its BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) projects with the Vision 2030 and developmental paradigms of various regional powers. President Xi has been successfully able to wade through the regional rivalries especially between the Sunni Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and the Shia Islamist regime in Iran as well as the Israeli dynamic while underscoring the support to the Palestinian cause. Several agreements were signed. MBS stressed that the historical relationship between the Arab countries and China is based on mutual respect, friendship, and cooperation in many fields reiterating that “Our countries attach utmost importance to supporting the development process to develop their economies and the well-being of their peoples”. He lauded the role of China in putting forward several valuable initiatives, notably the Friends of Global Development Initiative, which matches many aspects of Saudi Arabia’s priorities towards supporting sustainable development and promoting food security.

On the other end of the spectrum, Israel witnessed the onset of an ultra-rightist government led by PM Benjamin Netanyahu which created deep concern in the region as well as in the US. Biden Administration said that they will hold PM Netanyahu personally responsible for the acts of his far right cabinet members including Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who have called for leveling the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and denying citizenship to non-Jews. In any case most observers feel that situation between Israel and Palestine might worsen.

Tunisia was said to be bright spot of the Arab Spring but in recent times the democracy dividend appears to have been decimated by the subsequent governments. President Kais Saied since 2021 is being accused of further undermining it. The December Parliamentary elections witnessed the citizens’ apathy and the lowest voter turnout.

As Qatar finally hosted the FIFA 2022 successfully, the controversies not only regarding the inhumane treatment of labourers continued in the western media but the influence peddling accusations by Qatar also surfaced. Members of the European Parliament voted to suspend access to the hemicycle’s premises to Qatari representatives as it was suspected of having offered “large sums of money” and “substantial gifts” to MEPs and assistants in a bid to influence European decision-making. Greek MEP Eva Kaili, together with three other suspects, has been charged with participation in a criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering.

Qatar and Germany signed a 15 year LNG deal following similar deal with China.

Saudi Arabia and UK signed a defence cooperation plan.

An estimated 10-20,000 registered Israelis bought tickets for the World Cup in Qatar, the Jerusalem Post reported, but only 3,500 registered as Israelis. However, it was not easy for Israel to find any private airline to initiate direct flights between Israel and Qatar, according to National Public Diplomacy Directorate head at Israeli Foreign Minister, Lior Haiat.

Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, flew to the UAE to meet with President, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Herzog reassured Bin Zayed that “the Abraham Accords are a national consensus in Israel.”Herzog, told Bin Zayed: “Now, we have to reach cruising altitude. That is, to upgrade ties between us even more, to strengthen them and to bring more nations into the Abraham Accords.”

President Herzog also visited Bahrain, where he addressed the Bahrainis, saying: “You are at the forefront of making history in the region, where Jews and Muslims can dwell together, the sons of Abraham, and move forward in peace.”

Following Herzog’s visit to the two Gulf States, and to consolidate economic ties, the Israeli delegation met with Moroccan officials in Rabat and signed a gas and oil exploration deal. Israeli New Med Energy said that it had signed agreements with Adarco Energy Limited and Morocco’s National Office of Hydrocarbons and Mines.

Iran condemned the recent sanctions imposed by the EU against 20 individuals and one entity linked to the violent crackdown on demonstrations over the death of young Mahsa Amini as the protests and even executions leading to more protests have continued as tenor of their demands switched more against the regime and its removal. Meanwhile, United States claimed that the relationship between Russia and Iran has become a complete defence partnership. US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Russia and Iran are giving each other an unprecedented level of military support. Kirby said a defence partnership between Iran and Russia where both will jointly produce drones will harm Ukraine and disturb peace in West Asia.

UAE and Saudi Arabia led mediation efforts saw the release of US basketball star Brittney Griner in a prisoner exchange between Russia and the US. In a joint statement, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFAIC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, announced the success of the mediation led by President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown for the release and exchange of two prisoners between the United States of America and the Russian Federation. It also highlighted the important role played by the leaderships of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in promoting dialogue between all parties.

The second edition of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership supported by France was held on December 20 in Amman, Jordan. At the summit, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and several more Arab nations were present apart from representatives from the European Union, United Nations, Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, and Organization of Islamic Cooperation. President Macron also paid the bilateral visit to deliberate with King Abdullah II of Jordan preceding the conference. Amman invested a great deal of political capital in promoting Kadhimi, and a number of multilateral forums were established during his tenure, from the Baghdad Conference to the kingdom’s ongoing high-level meetings with Iraq and Egypt. This conference indicated the continuation of relations and their importance under new Iraqi PM Sudani between Jordan and Iraq.

Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar visited UAE to attend the 5th Indo-Ocean conference and to discuss and bolster bilateral cooperation. He called on the President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, who has also been invited by India for the G20 Summit as the special invitee. UAE Minister Noura Bint Mohammed said, speaking on India’s Presidency and tenure at the UNSC said “Congratulate you and the Indian mission at very successful 8th term on the Security Council. Your voice at this chamber is necessary and UAE reiterates its endorsement of India’s bid for permanent membership of the reformed UNSC.”

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Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia between 6 and 8 December. Saudi Arabia is keen to expand its global alliances beyond its strategic partnership with the US. Xi Jinping’s last visit to Saudi Arabia was in 2016. Both states signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement and 20 bilateral deals worth US$ 29.26 billion. China and Saudi Arabia also signed 34 investment agreements in sectors such as green hydrogen, IT, transport and construction. Riyadh signed deal involving tech giant, Huawei Technologies to develop cloud computing, data centers and high tech complexes in Saudi cities. Jinping also attended the first China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh. The US warned that China’s attempt to expand its global influence is not conducive to the international order. The US security officials cautioned that equipment from Huawei could be used to interfere with fifth generation (5G) wireless networks and collect sensitive information.

New Government in Israel

In Israel’s latest election in November, the right-wing parties i.e. Likud with 32 seats; Religious Zionist party with 14 seats; Shas with 11 seats; United Torah Judaism with 7 seats secured a majority of 64 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. The new grouping has been called as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history that could further worsen the status of Palestinians living in the occupied territories. The Israeli Prime Minister has called the settlement expansion in occupied West Bank as the top priority of his government. Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet officially took oath of office on 29 December after Knesset passed a vote of confidence in the new government. Among the 120 members, 63 voted in favour of the government and 54 voted against. US President Joe Biden mentioned that his government is looking forward to working with Netanyahu calling him “friend for decades”. The US President talked about jointly addressing challenges in the region including threat from Iran. Russian President Vladimir Putin also welcomed Netanyahu’s return to power and called for strengthening cooperation in all areas and ensuring peace and security in the region.

IS attack in Iraq, Syria and Egypt

The Islamic State (IS) on 18 December carried out bomb blast in Kirkuk killing nine federal police officers. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has ordered a clamp down to dismantle IS hideouts and suggested the security forces to maintain vigilance. In Syria’s Raqqa, IS on 26 December killed six Kurdish fighters in a targeted attack on security and military buildings. Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) subsequently launched offensive dubbed as Operation al-Jazeera Thunderbolt. On 30 December attacked Al-Taim oil field in Syria’s Deir Zor province. IS in December carried out 14 attacks in Deir Az Zor area, Hasakah and the al-Hol camp killing 55 people.

On 31 December, the terrorist group attacked a police checkpoint in the Egyptian city of Ismailia killing at least four people and injuring 12 others. The IS fighters after setbacks in Syria and Iraq have re-grouped in the security scarce Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian forces have been fighting against IS in the northern part of Sinai Peninsula. Earlier in 2018, Egyptian security forces launched campaign to dismantle IS hideouts in Sinai, parts of Nile Delta and border region close to Libya killing around 1000 terrorists. In May 2022, IS had killed 11 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai region.

Italian Prime Minister’s visit to Iraq

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during her first bilateral trip outside Europe visited Iraq and met with Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and President Abdul Latif Rashid. Italy is pushing for close economic and energy ties with the oil-rich Arab state. The Italian Prime Minister identified economic cooperation with Iraq in agriculture, water and health. Moreover, security and cultural cooperation are crucial drivers in the growing bilateral relationship. Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Sudani invited Italian firms specialized in infrastructure and gas exploration to help in the state’s rebuilding process. Iraq is the second largest crude oil producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) producing more than 3.3 million barrels per day.

Low Turnout in Tunisia Election

Tunisian parliamentary election held on 17 December witnessed a low 11.2 percent turnout. The low turnout reflects the anguish by Tunisians against President Kais Saied’s efforts to consolidate power and diluting the progress in democratization in the post 2011 Arab Spring period. Saied dissolved the government in July 2021 and suspended the parliament. The President has stripped the powers of the parliament. The latest election was boycotted by all major political parties. Earlier on 10 December, hundreds of Tunisians organized protest with banners and chants saying “Saied get out”. It indicates frustration with Saied’s power grab. The protestors demanded a return to democracy.

Protest in Jordan

Public demonstrations have erupted in Jordan in December to criticize the high fuel prices that occurred due to limits on subsidies imposed by the IMF. The state is facing enormous debt and the unemployment level has reached at 23 percent. The government has taken measures such as cap on fuel prices, however inflation has continued. In Maan, one police official was killed during violent protest on 15 December. On 19 December, three more police officers were killed during a raid to arrest the suspected killers of the police officer killed on 15 December. The government has promised to take tough steps and deploy more anti-riot police to prevent violent protests.

Sanctions against Iran

The US and Canada on 9 December announced new round of sanctions against Iranian officials accused of human rights violations during the ongoing protest in Iran. The US has claimed that that the three officials have carried out illegal detentions and violence against protestors. The US also drafted a resolution to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women for applying systematic violations of women’s rights. The 54 member UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted the resolution passed by 29 for and 8 against votes. 16 states abstained from voting. Iran condemned the move that could create an “unwelcome precedent”. The ministers of the European Union of Foreign Affairs imposed new sanctions on 20 individuals including Iranian clerics, senior officials and state media executives and one entity i.e. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting due to their role in suppressing protestors as well as for supplying drones to Russia

Iran in a tit for tat response imposed sanctions on 23 individuals and nine entities in the European Union (EU) and the UK. The sanctions include media institutions, military base and current and former politicians. Tehran blacklisted Radio Farda and French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo; two German firms i.e. Water Engineering Trading GmbH and Gidlemeister Projekta GmbH. Iran also sanctioned Tony Blair Institute of Global Change, British Institute of Human Rights Chair, Geoffrey Bindman and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) co-founder, Bernard Kouchner.

On 20 December, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian held meeting with European Union’s Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell in Amman on the sidelines of the second meeting of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership hosted by Jordanian King Abdullah. The meeting was aimed at identifying measures to restore the 2015 nuclear deal. The EU foreign policy chief emphasized on curbing military support to Russia and stopping internal repression in Iran.

West Asia Review -July 2021


Arab Spring 2.0 continued to take its toll. This time it was in Tunisia- the very birth place of it, when President Kais Saied decided to dismiss the Islamist Ennahda Prime Minister and suspended the Parliament and lifted the immunity of parliament members in view of the poor state of economy, unemployment, poor handling of Covid pandemic and the ongoing public protests and demonstrations demanding the dismissal of the government and dissolution of Parliament. President Saied took advantage of the public discontent to settle political scores and tried to project himself as the People’s president as he assumed all executive powers. Opposition called it a coup and so did several others of their supporters in Turkey etc. However, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister dashed to Tunis to take stock of the situation while expressing Kingdom’s support. It will be recalled that most of the Gulf monarchies were supporting counter revolution during the early phase of the Arab Spring fearing its fall out on their own turf, however they unleashed spate of reforms to keep the popular opinion from swaying as it did in North Africa and elsewhere. Secretary Blinken spoke to Saied and asked for respect for democracy and smooth transition. Saied may find it very difficult to overcome the existing difficulties the people are facing and it remains to be seen how far he can go with conserving power in his hands. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi agreed with Algerian Foreign Minister Ramdane Lamamra to give full support to Tunisian President Kais Saied.
Oman’s new Sultan Haitham bin-Tariq al-Said made his first visit to Saudi Arabia and met King Salman at Neom -the futuristic Saudi city. A highly successful visit with several agreements and promised assistance as Oman faces the economic stress. The visit was also seen as an effort by Saudis to balance out their recent issues with the UAE especially at the OPEC+ even though the immediate aftermath of acrimony subsided as the two Crown Princes met. Oman also acts as the trusted arbiter in Gulf issues and is working to diffuse the crisis in Yemen between Houthis, Iranians and Saudis. Oman also played an important role in ending the Qatar blockade at the Al Ula Summit.
In Libya, the international community is trying to keep the ball rolling so that the elections as promised on December 24 are held despite the trust deficit among international actors as well as local political claimants. Government of National Unity is guided by the agreed principles at Berlin -I & II. Efforts are being made to ask all foreign forces to leave the country. Meanwhile reports were floating around that General Haftar as well as Saif ul Islam, son of Muammar Gadhafi, are hoping to contest for the next Presidency.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, after his India visit, went to Kuwait and discussed military security cooperation and the post Afghan exit situation where it might beef up its forces and bases as well as use it as a transit destination for Afghans permitted to go the US. He met Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. Sheikh Nawaf “expressed utmost appreciation for the US president and the friendly American people, as both countries are celebrating 60 years of historic ties, as well as 30 years of Kuwait’s liberation.”
Lebanon’s problems do not seem to end after Hariri also expressed his inability to form a government. In order to contain further deterioration, after France agreed to go along, EU adopted the sanctions regime
to impose sanctions on officials in Lebanon with hopes to speed up the formation of a government and enact the measures required to steer the country towards a sustainable recovery. This was welcomed by US Secretary Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who agreed with EU’s legal framework, stated “Sanctions are intended, among other things, to compel changes in behaviour, and promote accountability for corrupt actors and leaders”. Najib Mikati, yet another interim PM, was asked to try and form the government.
As some direct talks have started between the Israeli government ministers and the Palestinian Authority within the ambit of Oslo Accords, Ismail Haniyeh was elected to a second term as head of Hamas movement that controls the Gaza Strip. As some low scale conflict went on between Hamas and Israel the Hamas spokesman reiterated that US’s continued armament of the occupation will only increase tensions in the region and encourage Israel’s defiance of international laws and resolutions. US State Department said it approved the sale of 18 Sikorsky CH-53K heavy-lift helicopters to Israel in a deal worth around $3.4 billion.
Ben & Jerry –the famous Ice cream makers, of Vermont USA decided to suspend the sale of their ice cream in the occupied West Bank creating a major controversy and chagrin to Israel as it stood to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) regime in favour of the Palestinian cause.
Secretary of State Blinken said that the negotiations with Iran on JCPOA cannot remain indefinitely on the table. Iran, post-election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as the President, is possibly awaiting his taking over before the next round of Vienna Talks are launched. Meanwhile, an Israeli managed tanker off the coast of Oman was attacked killing a Briton and a Romanian. Tel Aviv accused Tehran’s complicity. It is being perceived as a revenge for the attack on Iranian tanker some time back. UK Foreign Minister also accused of an Iranian hand in it “We believe this attack was deliberate, targeted, and a clear violation of international law by Iran”. Separately, Israel raised the issue of human rights violations against the President elect Raisi. As such Iran faced huge demonstrations due to water crisis especially in Khuzestan. Biggest challenge for the new President will be to address the economic and pandemic distress .
After his 4th disputed election in May, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has tasked Prime Minister Hussein Arnous to form a new government.
In view of the evolving situation in Afghanistan, Dr S Jaishankar, EAM,
visited Tehran to discuss bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual concern. It was followed up by a telecon with Jawad Zarif. Dr Jaishankar also became the first foreign leader to meet President elect Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi appreciated the meeting and extended his full support for enriching bilateral ties including greater economic engagement. India was invited to the inaugural ceremony of the new President on August 5 (EAM Jaishankar attended).

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Political crisis in Tunisia

Tunisia has been undergoing political crisis and the rift between President Kais Saied and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi has widened in the recent months. Eventually in the last week of July, the President ousted the Prime Minister and key cabinet ministers; suspended the parliament and assumed executive authority. The protests in Tunisia against autocrat Zine El-Abidine ignited the 2011 Arab Spring in the West Asian region. The transfer of power and the political transition process in the state was relatively peaceful.

The political crisis is seen as the biggest challenge for newly democratised Tunisia. The 2014 constitution demarcated the powers of the President, Prime Minister and the parliament. President Saied has justified his decision which according to him is aimed at stabilising the state facing economic and health crisis.

The ruling Ennahdha party and other political groups called it a “constitutional coup” and protests were reported in Tunis and other cities. Notably, there were demonstrations supporting the President’s action. There are reports of public frustration over the government’s handling of the economic and COVID-19 related health crisis and failure to curb corruption. The President has capitalised on the popular anger against the Ennahdha led government to centralise power. Prosecutors in Tunisia have also initiated investigations on Ennahdha and two other political parties on charges of foreign campaign funding and anonymous donations. Ennahdha after protesting in the initial period has indicated its willingness to enter into dialogue.

Meanwhile, the Al Jazeera office was Tunis was raided by Tunisian security forces on 26 July due to its critical reporting of President Saied’s political actions and staff was evicted.

Omani Sultan’s visit to Saudi Arabia

In his first official overseas as Oman’s new Sultan, Haitham bin-Tariq al-Said visited Saudi Arabia’s ambitious new city of Neom and met with King Salman. The war in Yemen and economic and investment cooperation were discussed. The Omani Sultan is facing pressure due to rising unemployment and poor state of the economy and demonstrations were observed in the recent months.
Oman’s energy reserves are relatively modest and it is seeking to diversify its revenue from oil sector to trade, investments, technology etc. The pace of economic diversification however has been slow. The oil price crisis and the ramifications of Covid-19 pandemic have strained the economy. Both states signed agreement in the spheres of commerce, culture, investment promotion, post and transport and agreed to set up joint council to oversee several agreements.

On regional issues, Oman has carefully crafted a policy of neutrality. It has carried out engagement with Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It differs with Saudi Arabia’s policy of military intervention in Yemen. It is however seeking to cooperate with Saudi government to resolve the Yemeni crisis.

UAE opens embassy in Tel Aviv

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) formally opened its embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel on 14 July. Israeli President Issac Herzog called the opening as an important milestone in the shared journey towards peace, prosperity and security in the region. On 29 June, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Abu Dhabi and inaugurated the embassy.

The UAE and Israel has maintained secret relations since 1990s. The relations were formally recognised in mid 2020s. Since developing formal ties, both states have signed agreements in gas sector, technology, health etc. The UAE ambassador to Israel, Mohamed Al Khaja announced that the embassy will serve as base for building new partnership that would seek dialogue rather than dispute; establish new paradigm of peace and provide model for new collaborative approach to resolving conflicts in the region.

The UAE’s decision to recognise Israel led to subsequent normalisation agreements by Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. On 25 July, two Israeli carriers landed in Marrakesh commencing direct commercial aviation between Israel and Morocco. Israel has hoped that civil aviation will promote tourism, trade and economic cooperation.

Phone call between Turkish President and his Israeli counterpart

Israeli President Isaac Herzog spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 12 July focussing on Israel-Turkey relations and the critical role of the engagement in maintaining security and stability in the eastern Mediterranean Sea region. Both leaders agreed that cooperation has great potential for both states. The phone call indicates thaw in ties that has scaled down in the recent years due to Erdogan government’s harsh criticisms of Israel’s policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israel and Turkey shared cordial relations since the onset of the Cold War and the level of military, economic and political engagement was high. The relations soured after the Israeli attack on Turkish flotilla carrying aid and construction material for Gaza killing 10 Turkish activists in May 2010. Turkey on international forums has constantly raised voice against Israel’s security operations and air raids in Gaza. The communication between Israeli and Turkish president could renew the level of engagement and Erdogan expressed hope that dialogue is carried out for advancing steps towards a two-state solution.

Najib Mikati appointed as new Prime Minister of Lebanon

On 26 July, former Prime Minister Najib Mikati was appointed as the new Prime Minister of Lebanon by the group of former Sunni Prime Ministers. In Lebanon’s consociational political system, the position of Prime Minister is assigned for member of the Sunni community. The appointment was made due to failure by Saad Harari to form government

Lebanon is facing political instability since the 2019 October protests leading to resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The political contestation within the sect based political parties has weakened Lebanon’s political system. After Harari’s resignation, technocrat Hasan Diab was appointed to stabilise the state and restore the economy. Diab resigned after August 2020 Beirut port explosion. The subsequent Prime Minister Mustapha Adib resigned within a month of coming to office. Saad Harari was appointed as the convenient choice to overcome the crisis and ease foreign aid. Hariri after 10 months failed to form cabinet due to conflict with President Michel Aoun over cabinet posts.

Houthi attack in Southern Yemen

Houthi movement fighters on 4 July carried out missile strike in the southern region. The attack on military base in Abyan led to death of at least two soldiers and injured over 20 others. The southern region is contested between the internationally recognised government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Saudi Arabia is trying to reconcile the contesting parties. The government forces and STC, both allies of Saudi Arabia have reportedly agreed to stall political, military and security escalations and adhere with the power sharing deal signed in 2019. Houthis that currently control the northern region including capital Sanaa is attempting to seize Marib region from government forces. In Bayda province, the fighting between government forces and Houthi forces has led to death of 320 people by mid-July.

In related news, the Joe Biden administration in the US has extended the programme to allow Yemenis to live in the US temporarily due to the ongoing civil war. According to the Department of Homeland Security, around 2100 Yemenis and their families will benefit from the extension and re-designation of the temporary protected status permitting them to live and work in the US until March 2023. The policy however, does not automatically grant citizenship to the Yemeni refugees. The policy of granting and extending temporary status was diluted by Donald Trump. The programme has been applied to people from Myanmar, El Salvador, Haiti and Venezuela.

Iran hosts talks between Afghan government and Taliban

Iran on 7 July hosted the first significant talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban political committee was represented by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai and the former Vice President Younus Qanooni and others from the High Council for National Reconciliation represented the government. The outgoing Foreign Minister Javad Zarif held discussions with both sides and urged the representatives to “take difficult decisions today for the future of their country”. Iran according to Zarif is ready to assist dialogue and resolve current conflicts in Afghanistan.

The situation within Afghanistan is highly tense as Taliban is aggressively seizing new grounds and the government is losing control over large tracts of territory. Iran through the peace talks is seeking to maximise its presence and political role in the changing political landscape in Afghanistan. Iran intends to renew scope for dialogue after discussions in Qatar were stalled due to diplomatic stalemate and escalating violence.

Mossad agents reportedly arrested in Iran

Iranian authorities have arrested members of group allegedly linked to Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency. The arrests were made after unspecified number of agents smuggled into the Islamic Republic through its western border. Iranian state TV reported that members of spy network have been arrested with large number of weapons and ammunitions. Iranian authorities have claimed that the arrested persons intended to stir riots and execute assassinations. The situation has been tense between Iran and Israel in the recent months.

Syria’s military action in rebel held areas

Syrian government forces in the recent weeks have renewed their efforts at re-claiming rebel strongholds in north western Syria home to nearly 4 million people. On 15 July, at least nine civilians including three children were killed by rockets launched by government forces. In March 2020, Russia and Turkey agreed truce to prohibit Syrian forces to push into the rebel held territory which may trigger another round of conflict and force more Syrians to seek refuge in Turkey. Turkey has maintained military bases and observation points in north-western Syria to check Syrian military action in the rebel held areas.

The US on 28 July extended sanctions on eight Syrian prisons controlled by general and military intelligence agencies. The sanctions are carried out under the ambit of Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. The policy was adopted to maintain pressure on Bashar Al Assad government.

Rocket attack on US base in Iraq

On 7 July, the Al Assad air base was attacked by 14 rockets injuring two personnel. On the same day, the US forces and allied Syrian Democratic Forces managed to thwart drone attack in eastern Syria. The tension between the US forces and Iranian backed militias has heightened after US air strikes on militia base in the Syria-Iraq border killing four Iraqi fighters on 27 June. The 7 July attack on US bases in Iraq and Syria was carried out by a previously unknown group, “The Brigades to avenge Al-Muhandis”, named after Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Commander of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC). He was killed on 3 January 2020 along with Qassem Soleimani by the US forces.

Morocco arrests Uyghur activist

Morocco’s General Directorate for National Security on 20 July arrested a Uyghur activist, Yidiresi Aishan from Mohammed V International Airport upon arrival from Istanbul. The arrest was made based on Chinese terrorism warrant distributed by Interpol. Aishan was subject of a red notice issue by Interpol due to his alleged links with terrorist organisations.
The Uyghur activist has been living in Turkey since 2012 working on Uyghur diaspora online newspaper; supported other activists in media outreach and gathering testimonies of abuse by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang. Aishan is likely to be extradited to China. Morocco has ratified extradition treaty with China in 2017. The arrest is seen as politically driven aimed at hunting down dissidents living outside China.

West Asia – Review- June, 2021


As the US decided to withdraw some of its defence equipment like Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia and some other countries, it conducted Falcon Claws 4 joint exercises with Saudi land forces. It also retaliated against Hezbollah and Iraqi militia groups justifying that the US military targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one in Iraq in response to drone attacks by the militia against US personnel and facilities in Iraq. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed “We took necessary, appropriate, deliberate action that is designed to limit the risk of escalation, but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message”. Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran in a statement named four members of the Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada faction who were killed in the attack on the Syria-Iraq border. They vowed to retaliate. Iraq’s government, wary of getting dragged into a US-Iran conflict, condemned the strikes on its territory and said it would “study all legal options” to prevent such action being repeated. Syria called the strikes a “flagrant violation of the sanctity of Syrian and Iraqi lands.” However, observers believe that these actions could have been taken within the knowledge of the Iraqi establishment. Iraq’s military issued a condemnation of the US strikes. US forces came under fire after the attacks.

On June 28-29, US and Italy organised an anti-ISIS Coalition conference which was attended by a large number of countries from the region including Saudi and Qatari and Israeli foreign ministers and the Arab League. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan stressed “we must not ignore the fact that the organization is still a threat. This demands that all sides continue efforts and coordination to contain and eliminate ISIS completely.” On the sidelines of the meeting, Prince Faisal met with United Nations envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen, and his counterparts from the Netherlands, Sigrid Kaag; France, Jean-Yves Le Drian; Libya, Najla al-Mangoush; Iraq, Dr. Fuad Hussein; and Jordan, Ayman al-Safadi and Joseph Borrel of EU.

Palestinian Authority faced continuous demonstrations pursuant to the death of a video blogger and activist Nizar Banat in police custody. Officials in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the Fatah party accused the Gaza-ruling Hamas of plotting chaos in the West Bank and a coup against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Hamas has felt emboldened after the recent Gaza-Israel war.
President Sisi, who brokered peace between Israel and Hamas spoke to the new Israeli Pm Naftali bennet urging that reconstruction of Gaza should be the priority along with finding a permanent solution for the Israel-Palestine issue. Bennet thanked Egypt for help find two missing Israeli soldiers since 2014 Gaza and wants them back as a precondition. However, it allowed passage of relief material as well as fuel supplies. Egypt and Qatar have pledged $500 million each for reconstruction in Gaza, where two-thirds of 2 million residents are dependent on aid.

Arch enemies Iran and Israel had new leadership. While Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party could not muster enough seats the “Coalition for Change” with eight political parties across the spectrum led by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennet formed the government with a margin of only one seat (61 to 59) in the parliament. Netanyahu, who after his recent show of strength in the Israel -Hamas war hoped for the 5th election in two years, vowed to return to power. While Bennet became the new PM for half the term Yair Lapid became the new Foreign Minister as Benny Gantz retained his portfolio of defence ministry. First the Arab “Ra’am” Party supported the government in Israel and cut a deal to look after the interests of the Israeli Arabs and hopefully act as mediator with the Palestinians who are facing their own leadership crisis.

On the other hand the Iranians had a preconceived outcome as the ultra-conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi, head of judiciary and closer to Ayatollah, won the Presidential election by 62% votes. Economy, unemployment and spiralling inflation as well as the pandemic will be the main priority for him when he takes over in mid-August. Meanwhile, he extended his full support to the resumption of the JCPOA nuclear deal and Vienna talks. Obviously Israel is unhappy with his election and the US efforts to re-join the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) without addressing the issues of Iranian missiles and proxy militias across the region.

After his visit to Rome and meeting with Bahraini counterpart as well as Secy Blinken and others, Israeli FM Lapid visited UAE for inaugurating their Embassy in Abu Dhabi and consulate in Dubai while carrying forward the dialogue and to address some of the concerns regarding the Palestinian conflict with his counterpart.

Meanwhile, reports indicate that the Palestinian Authority have submitted a 30 items list to the Biden Administration for reviving the Peace deal with Israel. But whether those will be acceptable to Tel Aviv is a big question apart from how far US is willing to get involved, although Washington has agreed to restore its consulate in Jerusalem for maintaining relations with Ramallah.

The leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Iraq met in Baghdad to discuss the developments in the region from Israel-Palestine conflict to economic cooperation. This was their 4th meeting. First Trilateral Summit was held in Cairo in March 2019. This was also the first visit by an Egyptian President to Iraq since the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 when ties broke between Egypt and Iraq. In February, the two countries had signed 12 MoUs including Iraq supplying 12 mn barrels of light crude in 2021. Jordanian FM Safadi said that Iraq must be isolated from regional interventions referring to Iranian influence. US welcomed this Arab Alliance that might help in security and economic cooperation and stability in the region. Meanwhile, Egypt has agreed to supply 700 MW of electricity to Iraq to tide over the immediate crisis.

Sudan was approved for debt relief of $2.5 bn by IMF as US sanctions had been lifted.

75 Libyan delegates met in Geneva under the aegis of UNSMIL to discuss and iron out differences over the December 24 elections. The Berlin II process also began to address security issues and to ensure steady movement forward. Holding elections and removal of foreign forces, militias and mercenaries were fundamental to the success of stability in Libya.

Post rapprochement between Qatar and Saudi led Quartet at Al Ula Summit, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani received the credentials of the new Saudi Ambassador to Doha, Prince Mansour bin Khalid bin Farhan. Likewise, Egypt has appointed a veteran diplomat, Amr el-Sherbini previously, ambassador at large at the Egyptian foreign ministry. Normalisation of Qatar’s relations with UAE and Bahrain are still moving at a slow pace.

PM Modi congratulated both Prime Minister Bennet and President elect Ebrahim Raisi hoping for continued good relations with both the countries.

Dr S Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister visited Kuwait and held discussions on bilateral, regional and international issues with their leadership. In Rome he also met his Saudi counterpart among others. He also chaired a meeting with the Heads of Missions in the Gulf region and asked them to explore possibilities of early and smoother return of Indian work force which had to be evacuated under ‘Vande Bharat” missions due to pandemic and economic downturn.

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Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi emerges winner in Iranian Presidential Race

The current Chief Justice, Ebrahim Raisi appeared as the clear winner in the Presidential election held on 18 June securing 61.95 percent of total votes. The presidential election held on 18 June 2021 saw the lowest turnout at 48.8 percent since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Interestingly, the no vote option received more votes than the first runner up, Mohsen Rezaei followed by the only moderate candidate; Abdolnasswer Hemmati.1 Raisi would join office in August 2021.

Raisi’s victory has consolidated the gains for the conservative faction that already controls the parliament. He enjoys good relationship with the clerical hierarchy, intelligence, security forces and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Critics have expressed concerns over possibility of renewed social oppression including arrests of journalists and activists and further curbs in the already restricted cyber space. Amnesty International has called for investigation for crime against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance against Raisi during his long tenure within the judiciary.

On the nuclear issue, the Iranian delegation made some progress to renew the JCPOA with the US. Raisi has supported the nuclear deal however, sceptics have raised concern that the new president could complicate the possible US return to the nuclear deal. The US during the talks has insisted on extending the dialogue not only on nuclear issue but also on missile programme and IRGC’s activities in the region. The new Iranian President is not likely to concede to the new demands. Meanwhile, Joe Biden administration on 10 June lifted sanctions on three former Iranian oil executives and two companies indicating US’ willingness to carry forward dialogue.

In second week of June, it was widely reported that an Iranian destroyer, Sahand and intelligence gathering vessel, Makran are sailing in the Atlantic Ocean. Iran’s Deputy Army chief, Habibollah Sayyari called the expedition as navy’s longest and most challenging voyage. Iran is hoping that it would improve its navy’s seafaring capacity and provide long term durability in facing unfavourable weather conditions in the Atlantic Ocean. The goal of the mission is inconclusive however, the US officials have concluded that the vessel may be headed to Venezuela.

Anti-Netanyahu coalition takes control over Israel

Israel since 2019 has witnessed four elections to form a stable government. Due to the fracture in the right wing coalition, Benjamin Netanyahu despite receiving highest number of seats failed to present a stable government. Netanyahu after third election in 2020 managed to form a unity government with Benny Gantz led Kahol Lavan. The unity government eventually dissolved in December 2020 leading to fourth election in March 2021. The new government led by Naftali Bennet was formed after weeks of negotiations among right wing, centrist, leftist and an Arab party to replace Netanyahu. Bennet after serving as the Prime Minister for two years would be succeeded by Yair Lapid. The uneasy coalition is highly fragile and Netanyahu is likely to use the fissures to weaken the government.

In early June, Isaac Herzog, the former leader of the Labour party has been elected as the new President by 87 votes in the 120 member Knesset. Herzog is the son of former President Chaim Herzog. He is expected to hold office for a single seven year term starting on 9 July.

Israel-Palestine issue

Israeli air force conducted series of airstrikes at several locations in Gaza on 16 June reportedly targeting Hamas meeting sites. The air raids since the ceasefire with Hamas in May were carried out in response to incendiary balloons being launched by Palestinians in Gaza. Palestinians have condemned the provocative rally carried out by Israeli ultra-nationalists in East Jerusalem chanting “Death to Arabs” and “May your village burn” on 15 June to celebrate the Israeli takeover of the whole city after 1967 Arab-Israel war.

The parade and its prior approval was a difficult challenge for Prime Minister Naftali Bennet who has promised a pragmatic approach currently presiding over a delicate, diverse coalition government. Despite warnings about renewed escalation, Bennett went ahead with approving the rally in order to consolidate his right-wing support base. The leader of the United Arab List, Mansour Abbas who is currently a coalition partner in the Bennet led government called the rally as “an attempt to set the region on fire for political aims,” and undermine the new government.

Notably, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemned the racist slogans on Twitter calling it “a disgrace to the Israeli people,” adding, “The fact that there are radicals for whom the Israeli flag represents hatred and racism is abominable and unforgivable.”

Defence Minister Benny Gantz met with the military chief of staff, the police commissioner and other senior security officials highlighting the need to avoid friction and protect the personal safety of both Jews and Arabs. The Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, called the march an “aggression against our people.” The Jordanian Foreign Ministry condemned the march as “unacceptable diluting the efforts to reduce friction between Israel and the Palestinians.

Moreover, according a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, around 53 percent of Palestinians have favoured Hamas as the most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people and only 14 percent has expressed preference for Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas’ 11 days conflict with Israeli forces in May has contributed to its increase in popularity.

In other news, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has halted “intelligence mapping” or the practice of conducting night time raids in Palestinian homes in the West Bank to derive information about the residents. IDF came under intense pressure by Israeli civil society and human rights groups i.e. Yesh Din; Physicians for Human Rights Israel and Breaking the Silence. The activist groups published a detailed report concluding arbitrary invasions of private Palestinian homes does not serve any strategic purpose and only leads to oppression and intimidation of the Palestinian population causing deep psychological trauma.

US’ UN Ambassador assures Humanitarian Relief to Syrian Refugees

The US Ambassador to Turkey, Linda Thomas-Greenfield during her visit to Turkey between 2 and 4 June, has announced that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is providing US$ 240 million to support humanitarian efforts for Syrian refugees settled in Turkey. The US has reportedly spent around US$ 13 billion in humanitarian relief for Syrian refugees in the last ten years. She met with UN agencies and NGO partners to provide-life saving assistance to millions.

The Ambassador met with senior Turkish leaders to discuss opportunities to strengthen bilateral ties, collectively address global challenges; upgrade the level of cooperation on Syria including management of refugees. The US recognised the crucial role of Turkey to facilitate cross border assistance and providing refugees.

Peace talks fail between Sudanese Government and Rebel Group

The transitional government in mid-June failed to accomplish the peace deal with the rebel group, Sudan Popular Liberation Movement – North led by Abdel-Aziz al Hilu. The government and PLM – N on 15 June shut down the negotiations and agreed to discuss the disputed points at a later date. Reportedly, only four out of 19 points remain unresolved. The group is demanding secular constitution; disbanding militias erected during Omar Al Bashir’s tenure and reforms in military. The government has been negotiating with the rebel group since the last two years and recently signed a declaration of principles entailing roadmap for talks. The current talks are mediated by South Sudan. PLM-N operates in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces and threatened to call for self-determination in the areas under their control in case the demands remain unfulfilled.

In other news, Sudanese transitional government has indicated that it will review the agreement with Russia to establish a naval base. The naval base would hold up to 300 Russian troops and host up to four navy ships including nuclear powered vessels in Port Sudan. Russia had committed to provide weapons, military equipment and training, Sudan concluded the agreement during the presidency of Oman Al-Bashir. The deal was never ratified by the parliament.

Spain Reopens Embassy in Tripoli

Spain in early June reopened its embassy in Libya’s capital, Tripoli after a gap of seven years. The decision was made after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez held discussion with Libyan Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. Spain has agreed to start the authorisation process to expedite visas to improve mobility between both states. The Spanish Prime Minister expressed hope that it would pave the way for cooperation and benefit the Libyan political process.

Turkish President’s visit to Azerbaijan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 15 June visited Azerbaijan and met with President, Ilham Aliyev in the historic city of Shusha. Shusha is an important cultural centre for Azerbaijan which came under Armenian control in 1992. Azerbaijan recaptured the strategic city in November 2020 during the six weeks conflict with Armenia. Turkey was crucial military ally for Azerbaijan supplying weapons and UAVs.

Both leaders signed declaration in order to deepen relations in several areas including security. Erdogan became the first foreign leader to visit Shusha. Turkey promised to set up a consulate in the city extending support for Azerbaijan’s control over city and other areas in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.