West Asia Roundup: December 2023
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

As the Israel-Hamas war continued in its third month with devastating consequences and civilian casualties the regional and global attention was essentially focussed on containing the war from spreading further. UN Secretary General (UNSG) Guterres and several of his colleagues maintained the momentum to somehow stop the war and provide humanitarian assistance to the besieged and internally displaced Gazans. UNSG even invoked a rare Article 99 for the UNSC to pass a resolution in this regard which was vetoed by the US yet again. UNGA remained adamant and passed several resolutions with increasing support in favour of the Gazans and Palestinians and cessation of hostilities. But these were merely moral preaching and two UNSC resolutions that eventually passed were totally watered down and lacked implementation. The Foreign Ministers from Arab countries as mandated by their leaders at the Arab Islamic Summit visited the P5 countries but not much was achieved. This also clearly attested to the fractured global order where unilateral views prevail over the collective intent.

Houthis firing and attacks on the commercial ships on the pretext of their support to Hamas and Palestinians against Israel created a real danger of War escalating beyond. Even two India ships came under attack as India deployed her naval assets to protect the shipping.

Prime Minister Modi continued to remain in touch with his counterparts in the region for de-escalation of the Israel-Hamas war, while India continued with its principled policy on various UNGA resolutions. More details …

Israel-Hamas conflict

IDF killed three Israeli captives, namely Yotam Haim, Samer Al-Talalka and Alon Shamriz held by Hamas in mid-December after mistakenly identifying them as a threat. The three Israelis were reportedly waving white flag before getting shot down. Israeli officials said that the incident occurred in an area of intense fighting in which Hamas fighters operate in civilian attire and use deception tactics. Israeli air raid on 21 December killed a Palestinian border crossing director, Bassem Ghaben along with three other people. Ghaben was the director of the Karem Abu Salem crossing. He had been working to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Israeli government on 25 December has announced that it will not renew the visa of a UN staff member and denied visa request one more staff to express anger about UN’s criticism of IDF’s brutal assault in Gaza targeting residential areas, schools, hospitals and stalling aid deliveries. Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eli Cohen stated that, “We will stop working with those who cooperate with the Hamas terrorist organization’s propaganda”. Earlier in December, Israel revoked the residence visa of Lynn Hastings, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories.

The US President Joe Biden again bypassed Congress to provide emergency weapons sale to Israel. Reportedly, in less than a month, US$ 147.5 million worth of equipment were sold to Israel. The weapons package includes ancillary items such as fuses, charges, primers etc. Israel has shown interest to purchase 155 mm M107 projectiles.

Israeli government approved a US$ 3.2 billion grant for the construction of US$ 25 billion Intel Corp chip plant. According to the plan, Intel will buy US$ 60 billion shekels worth of goods and services from Israeli suppliers for more than a decade and create new jobs. Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza killing more than 23,000 Palestinians has intensified calls for boycotting Israeli companies. Israel’s deal with Intel displays a show of support by the US multi-national giant. Intel operates four development and production sites in Israel. Intel plans to expand Kiryat Gat site and integrate in the global supply chain besides the planned manufacturing investments in Europe and the US. Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich noted, “this investment, at a time when Israel wages war against utter wickedness, a war in which good must defeat evil, is an investment in the right and righteous values that spell progress for humanity.”

Houthis in Red Sea

On 12 December, Houthis attacked a Norwegian owned and operated ship, Strinda in Bab Al-Mandeb separating East Africa from the Arabian Peninsula. Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Saree justified targeting the ship because it was carrying oil to Israel. The drone was intercepted and destroyed by French frigate FREMM. On 13 December, the US Central Command shot down a drone targeting a Marshall Islands flagged tanker in the Red Sea. On 16 December, the US and UK announced that their warships have shot down 15 attack drones over the Red Sea. On 18 December, Houthis attacked MSC Clara and Norwegian owned Swan Atlantic to disrupt maritime trade and dissuade countries to provide support to Israel. On 24 December, the USS Laboon guided missile destroyer shot down four drones launched by Houthis. On 26 December, Yahya Saree claimed that drones have targeted Eilat and commercial vessel. MSC United VIII in the Red Sea.

Helicopters from two US warships, USS Eisenhower and USS Gravely on 31 December carried out attacks on three Houthi boats in the Red Sea killing at least 10 fighters. Houthis said that boats are placed to establish security and stability, protecting maritime navigation and “performing their humanitarian and moral duty to prevent Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine from passing through the Red Sea”.

Indian Navy in the last week of December dispatched guided missile destroyers to the Arabian Sea following attack on an Israel linked chemical tanker off its coast. Indian Ministry of Defence announced that three stealth guided destroyers were deployed as part of deterrence at various areas of the sea. India also deployed long range maritime patrol aircraft for domain awareness. The US blamed Iran for attack on MV Chem Pluto in Indian Ocean on 23 December. Iran has dismissed the accusation calling it baseless. Indian Navy mentioned that it is investigating the nature of the attack on 23 December that reached safely in Mumbai.

Conflict Escalation in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon

On 8 December, the US embassy in Baghdad was attacked with rockets by Iran backed groups. Iraqi officials stated that 14 Katyusha rockets were fired that landed near the embassy’s gates and few fell in the Tigris River. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani called it an act of terrorism that undermines the state’s stability, internal security and political reputation.

The US military carried out air strikes against three sites of Kataib Hezbollah on 26 December in response to attack by the group in Erbil airbase injuring three US service members. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin called the strike as necessary and proportionate to disrupt and degrade the capabilities of Iran backed groups. The US’ counter attack leading to death of one member of Iraqi security forces has intensified diplomatic spat with Iraqi government calling it unacceptable attack on Iraqi sovereignty that would harm bilateral relations.

IDF on 25 December killed top IRGC commander in Syria, Sayyed Razi Mousavi by air strike in Zeinabiyah district in the suburbs of Damascus. He was reportedly responsible for forming military alliance between Syria and Iran. IRGC warned that, the “usurper and savage Zionist regime will pay for this crime”. Israeli forces conducted air raids in Aleppo on 30 December causing some material damage. Syrian Ministry of Defence stated that Israeli aircrafts came from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea and struck on number of locations in Aleppo.

The conflict between Israeli forces and Hezbollah escalated on 10 December after the Lebanese group launched explosive drones and missiles at Israeli positions. IDF carried out air strike in Aitaroun town destroying five houses. On 27 December, Israeli air strikes in Bint Jbeil killed three people including one Hezbollah fighter.

Situation in Sudan

Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo visited Djibouti, Ethiopia and Uganda in the last week of December. Dagalo met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Dagalo; Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen and Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh to discuss about the recent developments in the war and emphasized his intention to end the conflict and work towards a substantive solution. Djibouti is leading regional initiatives to facilitate ceasefire between the military and the RSF. The US and Saudi brokered talks have failed to resolve the conflict. The war has killed more than 12,000 people and displaced more than seven million people.

On 10 December, a convoy of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was attacked in Khartoum killing two people and injuring seven others. It is likely that the convoy was targeted by Sudanese military. Sudan’s army said the convoy was attacked after it violated an agreement by approaching its defensive positions using a car belonging to the RSF.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Hungary

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbanon 18 December and pledged strengthen bilateral ties. The visit coincides with the 100th anniversary of formation of diplomatic relations. Both states agreed to take measures to increase trade volume from US$ 4 billion to US$ 6 billion. Besides Turkey, Hungary has raised objection to Sweden joining North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Sweden has been critical of Hungary’s weak rule of law. Hungary similar to Turkey has maintained cordial ties with Russia and China. Prime Minister Orban stated that his country was “looking for allies with whom we can win” and “the big plan is that Turks and Hungarians will be victorious together in the 21st century”.

Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission, controlled by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has approved Sweden’s NATO membership bid on 26 December. It indicates that Turkey has concurred to Sweden’s entry in NATO. It is likely to be approved by the parliament and receive approval from President Erdogan.

Turkey on 29 December arrested 189 people for links with the Islamic State (IS) under Operation Heroes-38 that took place simultaneously in 37 provinces. Political analysts view the arrests as part of Erdogan’s efforts to secure goodwill prior to the March 2024 municipal elections.

Turkish forces targeted 71 sites linked to Kurdish groups in Syria and northern Iraq on 27 December in response to death of 12 Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq. Turkish Defence Minister Yasar Guler announced on X that security forces killed at least 59 members of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

Russian President in the Gulf

Russian President Vladimir Putin escorted by four fighter jets visited Abu Dhabi and Riyadh on 6 December. In Abu Dhabi, Putin attended the UN COP 28 climate talks. The UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan called Putin his “dear friend. Both leaders talked about bilateral cooperation in the energy industry and advanced technologies.

In Riyadh, Putin met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud and both leaders discussed about strengthening ties. Putin’s meeting with Prince Salman came after oil prices fell, despite a pledge by OPEC+ to further reduce output. Putin has reduced the frequency of international trips after ICC issued an arrest warrant in March 2023.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Moscow on 7 December. Both leaders discussed about the ongoing cooperation between both states and measures to build a new world order. Moreover, subjects such as trade, economic cooperation including transport and energy sectors.

On 24 December, Iran summoned the Russian Ambassador to Tehran to register protest about Russia signing a joint statement with Arab states calling for negotiations over three disputed islands claimed by the UAE. The three disputed islands, the Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa are governed by Iran since 1971 and its navy took control after withdrawal of British troops. Iran has earlier summoned the Chinese envoy in December 2022 and summoned the Russian ambassador in July 2023 over the said issue.

Pro-Iran Political Bloc Wins Provincial Elections

Iraq’s governing Shiite alliance called as the Shia Coordination Framework (CF) won 101 out of 285 council seats the provincial election held on 18 December. The victory of the Shiite bloc close to Iran indicates its political dominance that was challenged by Muqtada Al Sadr in 2022. The victory will ensure CF’s predominance in provincial councils responsible for appointing regional governors and allocating health, transport and education budgets. The CF’s electoral success could occur due to boycott by Muqtada Al Sadr.

Kuwait’s New Emir

Kuwait’ new emir, Sheikh Mishal Al Ahmad Al Sabah swore in before the parliament. He took office after death of his half brother, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah. The previous emir was hospitalized on 29 November and he died on 16 December at the age of 86. The new Emir has committed to safeguard the state and its people, adhere to constitutional principles and combat corruption. He has earlier served as deputy chief of the National Guard from 2004 to 2020 and head of State Security for 13 years. Kuwait will likely preserve the alliance with Saudi Arabia and will attempt to expand ties with China.

Sisi Wins Third Term

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi won his third term in office after elections were held between 10 and 12 December. According to the National Elections Authority, Sisi won 89.6 percent of the votes and the turnout was at 66.8 percent. According to Al Jazeera, more than 39 million Egyptians voted by Sisi. Sisi’s competitors were Hazem Omar from Republican People’s Party; Farid Zahran from Egyptian Social Democratic Party and Abdel Sanad Yamama from Wafd Party. The runner up, Hazem Omar received only 4.5 percent votes. The elections happened in the midst of grave economic crisis and ongoing war in Gaza. It was carefully staged to preserve the political and economic predominance of the military.

Sahel Alliance Dissolved

Chad and Mauritania, the two remaining members of West Africa’s G5 Sahel alliance agreed the dissolve the anti-rebel grouping. In 2022, Mali withdrew from the group. The alliance was formed in 2014 by Chad, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, with a counter insurgency force supported by France in 2017. Chad and Mauritania announced that both states will implement all necessary measures according to G5 convention. Burkina Faso and Niger noted that the organization has failed to achieve its objectives. The efforts of these states to convert the Sahel region as a zone of security and development have been hindered by institutional red tape from previous regime. Therefore, it was felt that the process of independence and dignity is not compatible with G5 participation in its current form. The grouping met with limited success to curb the growth of violent armed groups and contributing to political instability in the region.

Iran’s Progress in Space Exploration

Iran on 6 December sent an indigenously made rocket carrying capsule with animals. The rocket called Salman weighing 500 kg was sent 130 km into orbit. The capsule was ordered by the Iranian Space Agency and developed by the aerospace division of the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology. The rocket was built by the aerospace wing of the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics. In 2013, Iran sent two monkeys into space and brought them back. Iran’s space program has suffered due to the ongoing sanctions.

Iran Executes Four for Links with Mossad

Iran on 29 December executed three men and one woman convicted for their links to Israel’s Mossad. The three men, Vafa Hanareh, Aram Omari and Rahman Parhazo – and one woman, Nasim Namazi, were sentenced to death on charges of “moharebeh”, an Islamic legal term meaning “waging war against God”, and “corruption on Earth” through their “collaboration with the Zionist regime”. They were charged with kidnapping Iranian security forces to extract intelligence and setting fire to properties of some agents. Besides the death sentence on the four individuals, several others were sentenced to 10 years in jail. Earlier on 16 December, one Iranian was executed in Sistan-Baluchistan for working with Mossad.
On 15 December, around 11 Iranian security personnel were killed in attack on police station in Sistan Baluchistan province’s Rask town. The attack was carried out by Jaish al-Adl and reportedly, a number of assailants were killed in the gunfight.

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