By Amb Anil Trigunayat
Year 2020 will go down in the history not only for the adverse impact of Covid-19 on global and regional economies, lower oil prices, budget deficits, health hazards but when the West Asia region nearly came to a catastrophic war between Iran and US apart from the intensification of other conflicts and hotspots. Killing of Iranian IRGC General Soleimani in Iraq in the beginning of the year by a US drone to mysterious fires and blasts at Iranian nuclear plants as well as assassination of its top nuclear scientist Fakhrizade (attributed to Mossad) were enough to ignite the revenge, but Iran chose to maintain a strategic patience as Trump’s ouster was deemed imminent.
High decibel recriminations and possibility of Trump driving last minute escalation, before his departure to derail any rapprochement Biden might engage in, continued to keep the region on the tenterhooks. Maximum pressure tactics of President Trump do not seem to have tamed the Iranians but despite economic and pandemic related difficulties they have continued to wield influence including in Iraq where demand for Americans to leave has grown. For Trump his actions in the West Asia until the last have created legacy issues while brought about a discernible paradigm shift in the power equations in the region.
On December 17, the smouldering Arab Spring had its 10th anniversary when one witnessed some hope as in Libya the warring sides, factions and international actors agreed for a permanent ceasefire and formation of transitional authority to pave the way forward. Tunisia remained the sole successful experiment in democracy in the region despite frequent changes in government while Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon experimented with new transitional dispensation as public displeasure, pressure and protests due to corruption, lack of opportunity as difficult economic situation continued. Eastern Mediterranean became another area of contestation between Egypt, Turkey, and EU via Libya.
The unprecedented blasts at the illegally stored Ammonium Nitrate storage at Beirut port and extensive damage to people and property alike unleashed a severe political fallout and rethink of the confessional representative architecture. President Assad of Syria retained his control with the help of Russia and Iran. However, in change of stance UAE, Bahrain and some other regional powers are looking to partake in Syria’s reconstruction which is a hopeful sign.
Turkey continued to flex its muscles in Syria, Libya and Nagorno Karabakh while tried to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel. The military edge provided by UAVs and the high-tech equipment as well as likely sale of F35s to UAE could change the landscape as US blessed Israel-Arab entente follows. The three-year-old Gulf dispute between Qatar and Saudi led Quartet also is heading for a resolution as Israel and Arab world rapprochement expanded to include UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco through Abraham Accords engineered by Trump Administration.
Saudi Arabia also tried to call off the Yemen conflict through its Riyadh Agreement, but Houthis supported by Iran remain intransigent. Even then a new Aden based Yemeni government was formed with UAE backed Southern Transitional Council becoming part of it. Humanitarian crisis in Syria, Yemen and other hot spots continued. Moreover, the contest between political Islam and well entrenched monarchies and conflict between the two value systems is expected to take its toll. Most countries in the region embarked on socio-economic reforms to address some concerns which are also necessitated as rentier system is paying less dividends and old ways are no longer viable for ruling classes and the public at large.
Netanyahu, despite some foreign policy successes, was unable to keep his political partners and hence fourth election in two years has been called and his own fate may be uncertain. The disgruntled Palestinians continue to hope for President elect Biden to support the international conference to resolve the longstanding Palestinian issue with some viable solution acceptable to them.
President Trumps’ “Deal of the Century” and his decisions on Jerusalem and Golan Heights not only failed to have any traction but also widened trust deficit with the Arab street in general and Palestinian leadership in particular. The cornered Palestinians, post normalisation of relations by some key Arab countries with Israel, tried to bridge the gaps between Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Gaza to hopefully have a united front while reviving security cooperation and acceptance of tax revenues from Tel Aviv which were suspended.
China enhanced its footprints in the region especially as they signed a long-term agreement with Iran for nearly US$400 bn strategic investments and oil supplies under BRI projects. Some thought it was more of a kite flying but the Chinese do have a long term view and might find a modus vivendi with other major regional countries including Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia with whom it has developed close partnership as the US security guarantees and continued engagement became more transactional.
Moreover, China does not sit in judgement over the regimes or what they do. Hence its value neutral policy and economic heft become increasingly acceptable to most sides irrespective of their own intra-regional differences. While straddling a modest posture in the region and elsewhere China continued to indulge in its expansionist policies, Covid inappropriate behaviour and wolf warrior diplomacy. Russia emerged as a strong player in the West Asia especially in Syria and Libya while developing ties with other countries in the region.
Although Turkey and Russia were at odds at various theatres of conflict, an understanding between Erdogan and Putin deflected any major crisis between the two. With the key leaders in Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait passing away, a new and somewhat younger and ambitious leadership prevails in the GCC that will ipso facto introduce a new dynamics that is not necessarily very accommodative and consensus driven.
Of course, all are waiting Biden Presidency to unfold. Even though not much of Trump’s decisions can be reversed the democratic dispensation will have somewhat different understanding and approaches to regional issues which might be driven by collective approaches along with Transatlantic friends regarding China and Russia while tackling others through the prism of human rights and pragmatism which might have a salutary impact on prevailing regional conflicts. At the end of the day, the most powerful arms industry of the USA has its best clientele in the West Asia.
As for Israel, Trump has tried to ensure the regional security through its “Arc of Abraham Accords” and the exceptionally influential Jewish lobby and consequent bipartisan support in US may not give enough room to Biden Administration to take a stronger view on Tel Aviv but may try to calibrate its approaches on certain aspects like the settlements so as to appear once again a honest broker in the Palestine-Israel conflict.
India remained engaged with the region even more and provided medicinal and paramedics and other relevant assistance to several countries in the region under its Covid diplomacy as Prime Minister Narendra Modi worked closely with Saudi King and Crown Prince Salman during their G20 presidency and summit. He maintained close contacts with the leaders in the region. External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar visited UAE and Bahrain and Iran and Qatar while Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also visited Tehran enroute to Moscow. Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan visited Oman to condole the death of Sultan Qaboos, who was a great friend of India and a sane voice in the region.
Indian Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General MM Naravane visited UAE and Saudi Arabia that underlined the growing bilateral strategic and security linkages between the two sides. Under the Saudi Leadership and with UAE support Pakistani efforts to sensationalise developments in J&K especially in OIC were decimated as their relations with Islamabad saw a downward drift. Even during Covid times, while bringing over 600,000 Indians home under Vande Bharat Missions, India’s Medicine diplomacy and ready assistance were highly appreciated. However, the increasing polarisation and emerging informal alliances, which might counter India’s strategic interests, will require innovative ways of engagement with the region from now on, as hopefully the economic downturn in the region especially in the GCC will soon be reversed with Covid ebbing out.
Meanwhile in the region, the year has begun on a right note with the rapprochement between Qatar and Quartet signed at the historic Al Ula Summit chaired by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on January 5 and attended by Emir of Qatar and other leaders at the 41st GCC Summit. Even the Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry, part of the Quartet, endorsed it. The GCC has gone full circle courtesy President Trump who unintentionally provoked and stoked the rift in 2017 post his Riyadh visit but credit needs to be given for bringing about normalcy as a result of his maximum pressure and his son in law and Adviser Jared Kushner’s unstinted efforts to bridge the gaps until the last minute and was present at the signing of Al Ula Declaration. Although much water has flown in the Persian Gulf in past three years and seven months hopefully the Gulf rulers have realised the importance of collective security and regional stability against all challenges including the pandemic.
The article was originally published (https://www.vifindia.org/article/2021/january/06/west-asia-2020-in-retrospect) on the portal of Vivekananda International Foundation.
-The writer is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) and a commentator on Foreign Policy issues