West Asia Round up – October 2020
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Normalisation of ties by someArab countries with Israel after UAE and Bahrain continued as Sudan’s transitional government, despite internal opposition, established diplomatic relations at the behest of U.S. USA agreed to remove Sudan from the list of states supporting terrorism and even considered reducing compensation by the beleaguered North African country. U.S. agreed to take Sudan off the terrorism list once it had deposited $335 million it had pledged to pay in compensation after Khartoum deposited in a special escrow account for victims of al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. It will also ease Sudanese access for the western funding including that from IMF. However, for the reason of optics Sudanese leadership did not want the normalisation with Israel to be directly linked to removal from the terrorist list. Palestinians decried it as a “new stab in the back” as Sudan has been a major supporter of Palestine. However, Jared Kushner acclaimed the deal as a “paradigm shift” in the Middle East. He said Sudan’s decision was symbolically significant because it was in Khartoum in 1967 that the Arab League decided not to recognize Israel’s right to exist. A joint statement said that “Israel and Sudan plan to begin by opening economic and trade relations, with an initial focus on agriculture”.

There seemed some hope for Libyan peace and reconciliation as the two warring sides signed a permanent ceasefire agreement with the help of UNSMIL representatives and major stakeholders following five days of talks at the United Nations in Geneva. The Accord, concluded after talks between military representatives of Fayez al-Sarraj's Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar, will be followed by political discussions in Tunisia in November. The UNSMIL statement stated "The 5 + 5 Joint Military Commission talks in Geneva today culminate in a historic achievement as Libyan teams reach a permanent ceasefire agreement across Libya. This achievement is an important turning point towards peace and stability in Libya".

Abkhazia and Damascus signed an agreement on Monday for enhancing bilateral relations and on mutual exemption of visas for the citizens in both countries for bearers of diplomatic, official, and private passports. The announcement came during the visit of an Abkhazian delegation to Damascus, chaired by head of the Administration of the President Alkhas Kvitsinia and Foreign Minister Daur Vadimovich Kove, called on President Assad , PM Arnus and met FM Moallam and attended the opening of Abkhazian Embassy in Syria on October 6. Syria recognized Georgia’s two Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali as independent states back in 2018, a step which was condemned by the international community. Since the Russia-Georgia 2008 war, the regions have been recognized as independent states only by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, and Syria.

Turkey and Egypt launched a verbal tirade against one another over Syria. Egyptian FM Shoukry expressed his “deep concern” over the continued “destructive” intervention by some regional countries in Syria. An Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman said that Shoukry viewed that Turkey’s deployment in Syria was not only a threat to Syria itself, but the entire region and “We must not tolerate plans to stoke extremism and the phenomenon of transporting foreign terrorist fighters”. Countering the criticism the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said Ankara rejects the accusations by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, which he had made during the small group on Syria meeting on October 22. In a statement, Aksoy defended Turkey for “offering martyrs in the fight against terrorism in Syria.” Turkey has taken in 4 million refugees and had protected the people from an “oppressive regime and from terrorists in northern Syria.” It has made “tangible political contributions, whether in Astana and Geneva”. Moreover, he said that Turkey’s role in Syria is not limited to defending its national security, but ensuring the preservation of Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity, vowing that it will continue to play this role. He criticised Egypt for championing oppressive regimes and terrorist groups rather than listen to the people and serve sustainable peace, security and stability in the region.”

Turkey has been accused of facilitating transfer and deployment of Syrian fighters in Libya and Azerbaijan.

Lebanese domestic troubles and political instability are still not over. In order to tide over it former PM Saad Harari was brought back to wade through these difficult times for the embattled country.

The UAE announced its candidacy for a two-year term on the UN Security Council in 2022-2023. Under the theme "Stronger United," the UAE’s campaign for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council will focus on efforts to advance inclusion, spur innovation, build resilience and secure peace, state news agency WAM reported

The former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, condemned the Palestinian Authority for its criticism of normalisation deals with Israel, saying that Palestinian leaders have always been “failures”. The prince made his comments in an interview with Saudi news channel Al-Arabiya.

In response to French President Macron’s move to address “Islamic separatism” in France and consequent beheading of a teacher, Turkish President criticised Macron in an uncivilised and unparliamentary language that “he should go to a mental asylum”. More violence and attacks followed in France and other European countries. There was a widespread condemnation and huge protests against the French position and call for boycott of French products in Muslim countries. While Turkey led the charge, others joined in and OIC condemned in no uncertain terms as it became denigration of religion rather than extremism and freedom of expression which the western world propagated.

Indian government decried and strongly deplored the personal attacks in unacceptable language on President Emmanuel Macron in violation of the most basic standards of international discourse. “We also condemn the brutal terrorist attack that took the life of a French teacher in a gruesome manner that has shocked the world. We offer our condolences to his family and the people of France. There is no justification for terrorism for any reason or under any circumstance.”

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Saad Harari appointed the new Prime Minister of Lebanon

Veteran Lebanese politician and the leader of the Sunni predominant Future Movement, Saad Harari was appointed for the position of Prime Minister for the fourth time on 22 October. In the previous year in October, protest sparked by new tax measures led to his resignation on 29 October 2019. The protest after his resignation refused to subside with several citizens calling for the overhauling of the unique confessional system of democracy to redress the economic and political inequalities in the country.

The political blocs belonging to different sectarian communities were unwilling to compromise over its political control. In order to pacify the public demand for technocratic government, Hasan Diab was selected for the position of the Prime Minister as a compromise candidate by the political blocs in December 2019. Few of Harari’s followers however protested the appointment due to the preponderance of Maronite groups and Shiite group, Hezbollah in the selection process.

The economic situation remained uncertain in the 2020 which further deteriorated after the outbreak of COVID-19 during Diab’s tenure. Eventually, Diab resigned on 10 August due to the public outcry after the Beirut explosion in early August. It was followed by the appointment of another technocrat, Mustapha Adib as Prime Minister. He also resigned in late September due to failure of forming government.

The political uncertainty and the failure in experiments with technocratic governance have forced the blocs to favour a more status quo approach leading to Saad Harari’s appointment. Harari was highly unpopular due to his failure to tackle the economic problems in the past year and it is not likely that he would succeed to uplift the conditions in the immediate period. He is seen as close to Saudi Arabia. Therefore, financial transfer and economic engagement with Gulf States is likely to increase during Harari’s tenure.

Israel expands settlements amidst normalisation and protests

The Israeli government has provided green light to the construction of over 2100 new settlement homes in the West Bank on 14 October. 1313 housing units have been given final bureaucratic approval for construction, while 853 homes have received preliminary approvals requiring additional review. The expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank has made the goal of a contiguous Palestinian state unsustainable. Palestinian Authority (PA) spokesperson, Nabil Abu Rdeneh stated that “The Netanyahu government is determined to go ahead with its settlement policies to steal Palestinian land, taking advantage of international silence, free normalization, and blind support by the Trump administration for the occupation and its settlement policies”. Jordanian officials have condemned Israel’s move calling it illegal that undermines the two state solution.

The protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued in October. Israelis on 14 October demonstrated outside the Israeli Supreme Court demanding a new investigation over bribery allegations in the US$ 2 billion submarine deal with Germany. Several Israeli businessmen close to Netanyahu and a former commander of the navy have been suspected for their involvement in the graft scandal connected to the purchase of warships and submarines from German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp. Former military chief of staff, Dan Halutz has accused Netanyahu of hiding relevant information from defence officials when deciding to purchase the submarines from Germany. The Israeli Prime Minister is already facing indictment for charges ranging from favourable news coverage to receiving expensive gifts.

Besides the corruption charges, the Netanyahu government has been criticised for the poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the normalisation agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan have been unable to deflect the criticism towards the incumbent Prime Minister.

Israel-Sudan deal

On 23 October, Israel and Sudan signed agreement to normalise ties between both states. Sudan as an African Arab state has been a firm supporter of the Palestinian cause. The recent normalisation agreements by the UAE and Bahrain have encouraged the state to pursue diplomatic ties and reap benefits for closer engagement not only with the Jewish state but also with the US. Sudan also agreed to recognise the Lebanese group, Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation to further pacify Israel. The deal was mediated by the US and President Donald Trump announced the agreement after phone conversation with the Israeli Prime Minister mad the Sudanese Prime Minister and Transitional Council Head Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

The US as part of the deal has agreed to remove Sudan from the list of states supporting terrorism that would ease the state’s task to seek help for economic recovery. Domestically within Sudan, the move by the military backed transitional government has been highly unpopular with several major political parties claiming that it would lead to the elimination of the peace process. The Palestinian leadership expectedly condemned the deal.

Meanwhile, Israel has consented to the sale of the US made F-16 fighter jets to the UAE and also indicated that Qatar despite its close ties with Hamas and Iran may be next in line to receive the fighter jets despite refusal to normalise ties with the Jewish state.

Israel Lebanon maritime border talks

Israeli and Lebanese officials met on 28 October for second round of talks to discuss on the prospect of hydrocarbon exploration in the East Mediterranean region. The talks have been mediated by the US at a UN peacekeeper base. The differences over their maritime positions have remained with Lebanon claiming further south and Israel claiming further north that their original positions. Israel and Lebanon have historically shared tense relation with the Jewish state occupying southern Lebanon since 1980s until 2000s. In the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal from the military occupation in Lebanon, it fought bitter conflict against Hezbollah that controls the southern region

Diplomatic row with France

The brutal killing of French school teacher, Samuel Paty in Paris on 16 October for showing cartoons of Prophet Mohammad have been condemned by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Iran, Turkey, Turkey, the UAE, Kuwait etc. The French President called the incident as an attack on the freedom of expression and on principle supported the publication and display of the cartoons in consonance with it secularist foundation. It led to backlash within the West Asian region and firms in Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, and Turkey have launched boycott of French goods. The controversial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made disparaging comments about the French President leading to the recalling of the ambassador.

The anti-French sentiment took a violent turn in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 28 October after an attacker injured one security guard outside the French consulate. The incident occurred a day after the attack in the city of Nice that killed three people. The Saudi government condemned the Nice attack, tweeting: “The kingdom categorically rejects such extremist acts, which contravene all religions, human beliefs and common sense, while stressing the importance of avoiding all practices which generate hatred, violence and extremism.”

Iran reportedly extending construction at nuclear site

Only weeks before the upcoming US presidential election result, satellite images have indicated that the Iranian government has restarted construction at nuclear site in Natanz. It has built an underground advanced centrifuge assembly plant. The previous plant exploded early this year under mysterious circumstances. Israel was accused for the explosion, however it has denied responsibility. There are also reports of construction of new roads and tunnels at the nuclear site. Iranian officials have refused to comment on the new construction and insisted that its conduct has been transparent. Iran has relaxed few obligations under the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It has however continued to allow unfettered access to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iran’s current enrichment level is at 4.5 percent, and according to the latest IAEA report, it has a stockpile of 2,105 kg of low-enriched uranium. The “breakout time” i.e. the time needed for building one nuclear weapon has reduced from one year under the deal to three months.

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