West Asia Roundup: April 2024
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Much feared ‘Tit for Tat’ altercation between Israel and Iran happened, when allegedly Israeli defence Forces (IDF) carried out missile attacks on the Iranian Consulate in Damascus killing two senior commanders of the IRGC among the seven dead. Observers said that they did it in order to ward off US pressure to not invade Rafah and to work on ceasefire. This was also seen an attempt to secure Biden’s continued support for Israel. President Biden was not amused and clearly told Netanyahu that US will not be involved in the escalation in their behalf while urging Iranians not to escalate and retaliate. But the Iranians did attack after a few days with about 300 missiles, drones etc. most of which were neutralised. However, through Oman and Switzerland the US and their other interlocutors were kept informed. Besides Iran claimed that from their side it was concluded and if Israel responded they will face serious consequences which really no one wanted. Netanyahu did respond in kind but again without hitting any vital targets inside Iran. Through this controlled exchange it became clear that both sides were in a position to reach the other and cause damage. Iran aligned Hezbollah and Houthis kept on the pressure on IDF. Meanwhile, to show their support for Israel the US and western countries imposed more sanctions on Iran and IRGC.

The Iran-Israel stand-off almost distracted the global attention from the core Palestinian issue. Hence, the Palestinian leadership pushed for recognition of Palestine as a full member of the UN but at the UNSC, USA vetoed the resolution while UK abstained even though UK’s foreign minister David Cameron had himself talked about recognising Palestine as a state. This again was criticised as the western hypocrisy and decimated the confidence in the US as Secretary Blinken continued with his shuttle diplomacy.

Israeli Chief of intelligence resigned owning up his failures for the October 7 attack by Hamas as Netanyahu continued to feel the heat through domestic discontent and ongoing protests and his war cabinet colleague Benny Gantz tried to secure US support for new elections and change in government.

After hitting each other’s separatists Baloch targets. Iran and Pakistan made up as President Ebrahim Raisi paid a three-days visit to Pakistan. Several agreements and MoUs were signed especially for enhancing trade. An FTA was also on the cards. Iran-Pakistan pipeline has been hanging fire for a while and Pakistan has reportedly announced to do its part but US sanctions against Iran continue to flounder it. Washington, following the potential Iran-Pak collaboration in missiles sanctioned several entities in China and Belarus that were supplying for Pakistan’s missile programme. It also warned Pakistan against friendlier ties and covert engagements with Iran.

Turkish President Erdogan visited Baghdad and signed a strategic framework agreement.

Qatari Emir also paid his first ever state visits to Nepal and Bangladesh to develop closer ties with South Asian countries.

USA’s Microsoft announced investments of US $ 1.5 bn in an Emirati company G-42 in AI co of Sheikh Tahnoon to wean it away from Chinese ambit.

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM met with UAE Minister of State for International cooperation on April 30 and discussed further steps to bolster comprehensive strategic partnership and shared perspectives on the regional and global situation.
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Iran-Israel Confrontation

Israeli airstrikes on 1 April at the Iranian consulate in Damascus led to death of seven people including two Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) senior commanders. Israel neither confirmed nor denied involvement. It indicated Israel’s efforts to escalate attacks against Iranian assets with minimal consequences or use any Iranian retaliation as justification for further conflict. Iran vowed a "decisive" response, condemning the attack as a violation of international obligations.

IRGC forces on 13 April seized the Portugal-flagged MSC Aries near the Strait of Hormuz. The ship, linked to Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer's Zodiac Maritime, had 25 crew members onboard. The IRGC employed a helicopter to commandeer the vessel prompting the US and Israel to call it an act of piracy. Iranian forces on 13-14 April under ‘Operation True Promise’ launched drones and missiles against Israeli response to the consulate attack. Israeli military reported that more than 300 killer drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles were launched out of which 99 percent were intercepted with help from the US, Britain and France. The US following Iran’s retaliatory strikes, imposed sanctions targeting leaders and entities connected to IRGC, Defence Ministry, and the missile and drone programme.

Iran's air defences on 19 April intercepted three small drones over Isfahan shortly after reports of Israeli missile strikes on an Iranian site. Explosions were reported in Isfahan, prompting the activation of air defences and suspension of flights in Tehran and Isfahan. Airspace reopened after about four and a half hours with no casualties reported.

Regional Escalation

Houthis on 26 April attacked a US-flagged and owned Maersk Yorktown cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden. On 27 April, the group targeted an oil tanker, the Andromeda Star using naval missiles, in the Red Sea and shot down a US MQ-9 Reaper drone in the Saada governorate's airspace, marking the third such incident since the start of Israel's conflict with Gaza.

Israeli military airstrikes in Lebanon on 8 April targeted and killed Hezbollah commander Ali Ahmad Hussein, accusing him of recent attacks against Israel. Hezbollah on 13 April fired number of rockets at Israeli artillery positions responding to air strikes in southern Lebanon. On 23 April, Hezbollah launched drone attacks on Israeli bases near Acre in retaliation for the killing of one of its fighters. The group used decoy and explosive drones in the assault. In response, Israel conducted air raids in southern Lebanon, resulting in civilian casualties in Hanin. Hezbollah retaliated with rocket attacks on northern Israel, following the deaths of two civilians. The Israeli military claimed to have killed two Hezbollah fighters in separate attacks. The conflict has displaced tens of thousands in South Lebanon and North Israel.

On 22 April, several rockets were fired from Iraq targeting a US military base in north-eastern Syria, the first such attack since February. The assault followed Iraqi Prime Minister Shia al-Sudani's return from a US visit. Although initially claimed by Kataib Hezbollah, they later denied responsibility. Iraqi forces launched a search operation and found the used vehicle. The US official confirmed the attack but noted no injuries. Subsequently, a coalition aircraft struck the launch site in Zummar, Iraq. The attack signified renewed tensions after a lull in strikes against the US-led coalition in Iraq.

Anthony Blinken’s visit to West Asia

US Secretary of State Secretary Antony Blinken visited Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel between 29 April and 1 May. In Saudi Arabia, he participated in a Ministerial meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to enhance regional security coordination. He attended the World Economic Forum's special meeting on Global Collaboration, Growth, and Energy for Development to advance efforts on climate change mitigation and the global energy transition. In Jordan and Israel, the agenda focussed on efforts to achieve a ceasefire in Gaza, address the humanitarian situation, prevent the conflict from escalating, and promote lasting peace and security in the region, including the prospect of an independent Palestinian state with security assurances for Israel.

The United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on 18 April supporting full membership for Palestine at the United Nations. Twelve countries voted in favour, while two i.e. Britain and Switzerland abstained. The US deputy envoy, Robert Wood cited the need for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians for statehood, dismissing the resolution's effectiveness. The veto was anticipated due to US-Israel alliance and opposition.

Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Resigns

Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Aharon Haliva resigned on 22 April, citing failures to prevent the October 7 attack by Palestinian armed groups in southern Israel. Haliva expressing regret wrote in letter that, “The intelligence directorate under my command did not live up to the task we were entrusted with. I carry that black day with me ever since, day after day, night after night.” He called for the establishment of an investigative committee to thoroughly examine the circumstances leading to the attack. Haliva's resignation is expected to increase pressure on other top leaders to step down.

Possibility of Israel-Hamas Dialogue

Hamas in late April received Israel's response to a ceasefire proposal. Hamas has insisted that any agreement must lead to ending Israel's war on Gaza. Khalil al-Hayya, Hamas Political Bureau member stated that, the group “is serious about releasing Israeli captives within the framework of an agreement that also ensures the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails”. The Gaza conflict is on the agenda for an international summit in Saudi Arabia, including a session focused on Gaza's reconstruction with key figures from Palestine, Egypt, and the UN.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Istanbul on 20 April, urging Palestinian unity amid Israel's Gaza offensive. He emphasized the need for solidarity against Israel's actions and called for attention to remain focussed on Gaza. Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan discussed humanitarian aid to Gaza with Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry. They also urged restraint between Iran and Israel following recent attack.

Ebrahim Raisi’s Visit to Pakistan

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Pakistan on 22 April for a three days trip to enhance regional and bilateral relations in the background of recent hostilities with Israel. Raisi’s meeting with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif focused on mending ties, economic development, border, energy cooperation, connectivity, agriculture, and people-to-people contacts. Raisi sought Pakistan's support amidst escalating conflict with Israel. Iran and Pakistan agreed to increase bilateral trade from US$ 2 billion per year to US$ 10 billion per year over the next five years. The US cautioned Pakistan against the risk of sanctions following its pledge of increased security and economic cooperation with Iran during President Ebrahim Raisi's visit.

Jaish al-Adl or Army of Justice on 4 April attacked an IRGC headquarters in Iran's Sistan-Baluchestan province killing at least 11 soldiers. The attack occurred in Chabahar and Rask, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Sixteen attackers were killed in clashes with security forces. The group’s agenda includes better rights for ethnic Baluchis in Iran. Iran had retaliated against the group's bases in Pakistan in January.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Visit to Iraq

Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 22 April visited Baghdad and met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani to discuss security, economic, energy cooperation including US$ 17 billion Development Road project. Both sides signed a strategic framework agreement and a 10-year-old agreement on management of water resources. The two leaders discussed measures to combat the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdogan welcomed Iraq’s decision to ban PKK. Bilateral trade between Turkey and Iraq declined in 2023 but showed positive trends in early 2024.

Iraq Criminalises Same-sex Relationship

Iraq's parliament on 27 April passed a law “Combating Prostitution and Homosexuality” criminalizing same-sex relationships, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, under the guise of upholding religious values. The law backed mainly by conservative Shia Muslim parties, criminalizes anyone promoting prostitution, gender-affirming surgery, transgender individuals and complicit doctors with up to three years in prison. The bill originally entailed death penalty for same-sex relations which was amended following international pressure. While Iraq previously lacked explicit laws against homosexuality, vague morality clauses were used to target LGBTQ individuals, who also faced violence from armed groups. Human rights organizations condemned the law as a severe violation of fundamental rights, perpetuating discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ community with impunity.

Floods in Oman and UAE

Heavy rains and flash floods in Oman have claimed at least 18 lives, including nine schoolchildren and their driver on 18 April. The UAE experienced flooding on major highways, disrupting travel and leaving vehicles abandoned in Dubai. Following the floods, schools were closed, and government employees worked remotely. Emergency services were deployed to evacuate flooded areas, and tanker trucks pumped water off the streets. Rainfall also occurred in Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Parliamentary Election in Kuwait

Kuwait held parliamentary elections on 4 April amid political deadlock between the ruling family and the National Assembly. It was the first election under new Emir Sheikh Mishal al-Ahmad Al Sabah. The concerns of low voter turnout prompted the Emir to warn against boycotts. The dissolution of parliament in February due to constitutional violations exacerbated tensions. Opposition politicians similar to previous elections in December 2020 and June 2023 maintained a majority in Kuwait's parliament, with 29 out of 50 seats won in the latest elections. The turnout was around 62 percent with little change in parliamentary makeup from previous years. Despite the new Emir’s desire for economic reforms, political deadlocks persist between the assembly and the cabinet. The new parliament will confirm the Emir's choice of crown prince, potentially leading to further political tension if rejected. The gridlock has led to a decline in social services despite the state’s strong economic position.

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