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.
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.