West Asia Roundup -August 2021


Fast moving events in Afghanistan captured the regional and global attention as US forces withdrew in an unprecedented manner shortening their own timelines ceding space to Taliban as the Afghan national forces crumbled. Taliban entered Kabul on August 15. While Doha talks between US and Taliban and Afghan government and other international stakeholders continued in various formats, Qatar along with Pakistan emerged as major interlocutors. Qatari special envoy visited India to invite them to join the extended Troika meetings, as the future course was being discussed, much against the Pakistani opposition. For extensive evacuations also Qatar played a stellar role which was acknowledged by the US and other western countries. It also is hosting the western missions including that of US as they temporarily moved out of Kabul to Doha.

Erstwhile benefactors of Taliban, the Saudi Arabia and UAE were not enthusiastic this time after their experience with the terrorist entity in the wake of 9/11 attacks and Taliban’s refusal to handover Osama bin Laden. However, the Saudis played it down by acknowledging as the wishes of the people which should be respected. “The kingdom stands with the choices that the Afghan people make without interference” was stated by Saudi MFA.
Iran, also pushing for an inclusive government with Hazaras and Shias, is hoping to revive its advantage in Afghanistan as Taliban was veering towards a Pashtun Sunni government broadly on the Iranian model. They started providing fuel supplies at the request of Taliban as they braced for refugees. UAE and Qatar started providing assistance and relief supplies on humanitarian considerations as they helped transit desperate evacuees. Turkey and Qatar also assisted in repairs and running of Kabul airport as long as there security was assured. Geo politics in the region is on full display among regional and global actors especially Russia and China and Saudi Arabia and Iran and Turkey. OIC also called for a meeting to discuss Afghanistan and asked for the new government to ensure that country should not be used for any terrorist activities.

After former President Rivlin’s visit, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet visited US on his first official visit and met President Biden who had cold shouldered Netanyahu in the early days of his Presidency. While Israeli defence and security cooperation were main agendas, Biden Administration was categorical in their pursuit of JCPOA talks with Iran in larger regional context. .

Iraq tried to retrieve its regional role under PM Kadhimi as it plays cupid between Riyadh and Tehran. He hosted a landmark Baghdad Cooperation and Partnership conference which witnessed the participation of nine countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Iran, and Turkey. Syria was not invited. Three regional countries – Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – were represented. French President Macron was also a key participant conveying their continued interest in the region. France also urged Iran to return to JCPOA talks.

Iraq is scheduled to hold its general elections in October as the domestic politics goes through a churn.

As African Union granted observer status to Israel and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Rabat, the Algerians severed ties with Morocco for latter’s hostile actions including support to separatist groups during the disastrous wild fires in Algeria.

At the invitation of the Government of Iran, External Affairs Minister visited Iran on August 5-6, 2021 to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the President Ayatollah Sayyid Ebrahim Raisi on August 5. He met several leaders during the visit. Dr Jai Shankar was also the first foreign leader to have met the President-elect Raisi when the two sides agreed to collaborate more extensively on bilateral and regional issues.

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Naftali Bennet’s visit to the White House

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet met with US President Joe Biden on 27 August in order to boost the strategic partnership in the post-Benjamin Netanyahu political context. Biden stressed that his government is committed to strengthening bilateral relations that would benefit citizens of both states such as Israel’s inclusion in the Visa Waiver programme. In terms of regional challenges, Biden assured US support towards Israel’s security and right to self-defence. Both states discussed the challenges emerging from Iran’s nuclear programme and its regional actions. Biden expressed his commitment to ensure that Iran does not attain nuclear weapon. Biden also welcomed Israel’s growing engagement with Arab states and the wider Muslim world. Both states also discussed on efforts to advance peace with Palestinians and widening their economic opportunities.

Israel’s strikes in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza

The situation in Israel’s northern border escalated after Hezbollah launched series of rocket attacks in early August. Israel in response conducted series of air strikes in southern Lebanon. Israel has suggested that it is unwilling to launch a full-fledged war but it would not shy away from all out confrontation in case of escalation by Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s actions are connected to the wider conflict in the region centring on Iran. The Lebanese government has condemned Israel’s escalation. In southern Syria near Quneitra, Israel carried out missile attacks on bases operated by Iran-backed fighters.

Israeli flights carried out air raids in Gaza on 7 August after Hamas operatives launched incendiary balloons towards Israeli population areas and agricultural farms. Palestinians have launched these balloons to protest against the road and sea blockades imposed by Israel and allow goods and aid to reach the territory. Israeli aircrafts in late August resumed air strikes destroying weapons production facilities in Khan Younis, tunnel entrance in Jabalya and rocket launch sites in Shujaiya after few balloons caused fire within Israel. Israel also shot down a rocket using Iron Dome missile defence system launched from Gaza. Besides air strikes, Israeli forces wounded atleast 41 Palestinians during protests to protest against the blockade.

In West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian woman after she allegedly attempted to attack with a knife. Palestinians in the recent years have carried out stabbing attacks, shooting and car ramming as forms of violent protests against Israeli military occupation in the West Bank.

Israeli Foreign Minister visits Morocco

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on 12 August visited Morocco and met with the top leadership. Lapid inaugurated Israeli Liaison office in Rabat and both sides agreed to establish embassies within two months. Morocco enjoyed cordial relations with Israel since 1993 Oslo Accords. The relations cooled off in 2000 after the Al Aqsa Intifada. In 2020, Morocco joined the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan to normalise relations with Israel. Morocco after normalising ties with the Jewish state has managed to secure recognition from the US over its control of Western Sahara.

During Yair Lapid’s visit, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita emphasised on rapid return of direct and serious negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia executes Shiite man accused of armed rebellion

The Saudi authorities on 3 August executed one person, Ahmed bin Saeed bin Ali al-Janabi who was charged with armed rebellion and protesting against the state in the Shiite populated eastern region of Qatif. Al Janabi had reportedly opened fire at several security points in Qatif. He also participated in smuggling weapons, riots and protests which are classified as terrorist acts undermining social fabric and cohesion. The restive eastern region with substantial Shiite population on several occasions has voiced opposition against Saudi government’s coercive policies and despite abundance of oil resources, the area is relatively underdeveloped. There have been number of violent protests in Qatif since the 2011 Arab Spring protesting against Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory policies.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia in early August announced arrest of 207 government employees from number of ministries on charges of corruption, fraud and abuse of authority. The arrests backed by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were conducted by the National Anti-Corruption Commission called Nazaha. The anti-corruption purge was initiated by the Crown Prince in late 2017 in order to consolidate power by targeting more than 300 princes, public figures and businessmen. The kingdom acquired around US$ 106 billion in assets for the purge. In April 2021, the authorities arrested 176 officials from different public sectors on allegations of corruption.

US Ambassador’s meeting with Khalifa Haftar

The US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland held meeting with self-styled head of the Libyan National Army and leader of the Tobruk based rival government, Khalifa Haftar on 11 August. Haftar has challenged the legitimacy of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli and carried out a series of military campaigns against GNA. The country continues to remain under turmoil and after international mediation, the rival sides have agreed to parliamentary and presidential elections in December 2021. In the recent past, the political process has suffered setback due to impasse between Haftar and the Tripoli based government over promotions of security officials without consulting or getting approval from the Presidential Council.

The meeting between Norland and Haftar is part of the US effort to support the political process in Libya. The US ambassador suggested the need to accept difficult compromises necessary for establishing constitutional basis and legal framework prior to December elections.

Bashar Al Assad announces new cabinet after re-election

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad appointed a new government on 10 August. The cabinet positions in defence, interior and foreign affairs ministries remained unchanged. Prime Minister Hussein Arnous maintained his current position. Assad appointed new faces in information, internal trade and consumer protection. There are three women in the 29 member cabinet. In May 2021, Assad won election for 4th term with 95 percent of votes which has been called as illegitimate by the western states and Syrian opposition groups. Syria is facing major economic crisis which has further deteriorated due turmoil in Lebanon. Reportedly, around 80 percent of Syrian population live under property.

In northern Syria, Kurd led Syrian Democratic Forces clashed with Turkey backed Syrian forces killing five and wounding 15 on 18 August. Turkey’s strategic interest in Syria is based on maintaining military control over north-western Syria to block forces under Bashar Al Assad; thwart further inflow of refugees and contain the influence of Kurdish groups.

Iraq retrieves stolen artifacts

Iraq’s Culture Ministry on 3 August received over 17,000 looted ancient artifacts from the US, Japan, Netherlands and Italy. The majority of artifacts date back to 4000 years to ancient Mesopotamia. These items were looted by smugglers after the 2003 US invasion. The recovery that was made possible through months of discussion between the US and Iraqi embassy and has been called as the largest in Iraq’s history. Iraq’s efforts have been backed by the UN.