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).

More Details;
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.