In­dia and the West Asian Wars

The re­alpoli­tik, re­li­gion and proxy con­flicts of West Asia are a pol­icy chal­lenge In­dia must nav­i­gate deftly


THE RE­CAP­TURE OF ALEPPO by the As­sad gov­ern­ment in Syria has cat­a­pulted the Syr­ian civil war into ev­ery liv­ing room in In­dia and else­where. The hu­man­i­tar­ian hor­ror on TV screens is, how­ever, only the tip of the ice­berg of a com­plex con­flict that has deep roots and presents unique dan­gers to In­dian in­ter­ests, given our geo­graphic prox­im­ity and se­lec­tive de­pen­den­cies with the re­gion. Un­like many other civil wars with a lim­ited num­ber of fac­tions, Syria is char­ac­terised by a mind-numb­ing ar­ray of ac­tors and con­tests at many lev­els. Un­scram­bling their tax­on­omy is vi­tal if we are to un­der­stand their geopol­i­tics, and what it could all mean for In­dia.

In fact, Syria is nei­ther an iso­lated the­atre nor a sin­gle war. Rather, it is part of a con­tin­u­ous, in­ter­linked spa­tial ter­rain of con­flict stretch­ing from the Mediter­ranean coast all the way up to the Ira­nian bor­der. Within this space, mul­ti­ple fierce con­flicts have been rag­ing since the ‘Arab Spring’ rev­o­lu­tions in 2011 and the US in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003. Along­side the con­flicts in the Syria-Iraq re­gion, there is also a sep­a­rate but re­lated con­flict un­der­way in Ye­men.

First, the ac­tors. Four lev­els, in in­creas­ing scales of power and ge­og­ra­phy, can be iden­ti­fied. Nu­mer­ous armed non-state ac­tors form the first and low­est level. These in­clude the ex­trem­ist Sunni Ahrar al-Sham, Jab­hat Fateh alSham (till re­cently, Al Qaeda’s Syria af­fil­i­ate) and Jaish al-Is­lam among many oth­ers, the mod­er­ate Sunni Free Syr­ian Army, rad­i­cal Shia mili­tias such as the Sadrist Kataib al-Imam Ali, the Alaw­ite Shabiha, smaller fac­tions of armed Assyr­ian Chris­tians and Turko­mans, and some­what sep­a­rately, the Kur­dish na­tion­al­ist PKK, con­fined to south­ern Turkey. These mili­tias are small rel­a­tive to the other ac­tors, of­ten ter­ri­to­ri­ally in­ter­spersed in byzan­tine ways, and are typ­i­cally al­lied with one or more of the larger play­ers.

At the sec­ond level are the quasi-states. These are marked by a more sta­ble ter­ri­to­rial iden­tity, and oc­cupy a po­si­tion be­tween the mili­tias and for­mal na­tion­states. The key quasi-states are Hezbol­lah in Le­banon, which has now pro­jected its fight­ers deep into Syria, the Kur­dish statelet of Ro­java com­pris­ing of three en­claves on the Syr­ian-Turk­ish bor­der with its mil­i­tary arm the YPG, the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment in north­ern Iraq, Daesh (bet­ter known to the English­s­peak­ing world as ISIS), and a rebel zone in Ye­men un­der the con­trol of an al­liance of An­sar Al­lah (also known as the Houthis) and a tribal mili­tia un­der the pow­er­ful ex-pres­i­dent Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh. The qua­sis­tates and mili­tias have seen the max­i­mum in­flux of for­eign fight­ers, such as Shias from Afghanistan and Pak­istan and Sunni vol­un­teers from across the world.

At the third level up, we fi­nally get to what are in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised na­tion-states and re­gional pow­ers. These in­clude the As­sad gov­ern­ment in Da­m­as­cus, now con­trol­ling all of Syria’s ma­jor cities and much of its western heart­land, the Iraqi gov­ern­ment of Haider al-Abadi, the of­fi­cial Ye­meni gov­ern­ment now based in Aden and key re­gional states of Iran, Saudi Ara­bia, Qatar, Turkey and Is­rael. Fi­nally, at the fourth level, four great pow­ers ex­ter­nal to West Asia are mil­i­tar­ily in­volved; namely Rus­sia, the United States, the UK and France.

Next the con­flicts. Much of the in­ter­na­tional me­dia has been dom­i­nated by a par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive of the West Asian wars in which the As­sad gov­ern­ment and his Rus­sian and Ira­nian back­ers are the main per­pe­tra­tors of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. The re­al­ity, as al­ways, is much greyer. There is un­ques­tion­ably a re­pres­sive cam­paign un­der­way by Da­m­as­cus, hugely aided by Iran and Rus­sia, to de­stroy all rebel and dis­si­dent groups in Syria, with in­dis­crim­i­nate at­tacks in east­ern Aleppo and else­where. Iran does seek to cre­ate a hege­monic sphere by arm­ing rad­i­cal Shia mili­tias. And Rus­sia, through its de­ci­sive en­try in Syria in late 2015, sees an op­por­tu­nity to neu­tralise western in­flu­ence and open a new front in what is al­ready a shadow con­flict with NATO in East­ern Europe. This much is true. How­ever, equally true are the un­savoury ac­tions of most op­po­nents of the Iran-Rus­sia al­liance. Most prom­i­nent are the Sunni ex­trem­ist groups in Syria, who in ide­o­log­i­cal terms are lit­tle dif­fer­ent from Daesh, and have a long his­tory of per­se­cu­tion of Shias, Chris­tians and other mi­nori­ties. Rebels in Aleppo have also in­dis­crim­i­nately at­tacked the western part of the city, held civil­ians hostage and block­aded Shia vil­lages. Re­stric­tions on women in many rebel-con­trolled ar­eas are much greater than un­der the sec­u­lar As­sad gov­ern­ment. Mean­while, Daesh, in­cu­bated in the dis­as­ter of post-2003 Iraq, demon­strates stay­ing power with ma­jor in­fu­sions of cash from oil sales, but also al­legedly from wealthy pri­vate donors in the Gulf. Turkey and the Gulf states’ back­ing of some of the non-Daesh Sunni mil­i­tants is an open se­cret. The coali­tion bomb­ing of civil­ian tar­gets in Ye­men has

been un­con­scionable. And the US-UK-French hos­til­ity to­ward Rus­sia matches Moscow’s an­tipa­thy to­ward the NATO al­liance.

In short, this is no Bangladesh of 1971, or even the Span­ish Civil War. The only moral nar­ra­tive here (pos­si­bly apart from the unique Ro­java ex­per­i­ment) is that of suf­fer­ing civil­ians on all sides and the de­struc­tion of an­cient ar­chi­tec­ture and price­less ar­ti­facts. Daesh is uniquely toxic and bru­tal, but it too does not op­er­ate in a vac­uum. Search­ing for moral saviours among the com­bat­ants them­selves would be fu­tile in what are equal-op­por­tu­nity bat­tles of re­alpoli­tik and re­li­gion in West Asia.

Es­sen­tially, six core geopo­lit­i­cal con­tests are play­ing out in the re­gion. Three of these in­volve Iran—against Saudi Ara­bia, Is­rael (which is also fo­cused on Hezbol­lah) and the US-UK. The Shia-Sunni ri­valry, so prom­i­nent in the atroc­i­ties and me­dia nar­ra­tives, is in many ways a byprod­uct of the Saudi-Ira­nian con­test that orig­i­nated post-1979 (though it is in­creas­ingly tak­ing on a life of its own). The fourth con­test is the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s war on Daesh, pros­e­cuted mainly by Iraq and the YPG, with cru­cial western air sup­port. The fifth is a ma­jor Turk­ish drive to ex­pand its in­flu­ence in north­ern Syria and con­tain Kur­dish as­pi­ra­tions for self-rule. To this stub­born set of con­flicts has been added a sixth layer— the Rus­sia fac­tor. Rus­sia’s 2015 in­ter­ven­tion in Syria was a game-changer, as it saved the As­sad gov­ern­ment and brought all the ten­sions of the Rus­sian-NATO ri­valry into the heart of West Asia.

THE CAP­TURE OF ALEPPO has strongly tilted the bal­ance of power to­wards the Rus­si­aIran al­liance. Par­tic­u­larly dis­ad­van­taged is Saudi Ara­bia, with its push to dis­lodge As­sad in tat­ters at a time of bud­getary pres­sures and a level of in­ter­nal dis­con­tent. Re­cent Turk­ish and Egyp­tian re­align­ments also pro­vide an ad­di­tional set­back for Saudi goals in the re­gion. Mean­while Daesh is steadily los­ing ter­ri­tory due to gains on the ground by the Iraqi army, Shia mili­tias and the YPG.

This is the re­gional con­text as In­dia fash­ions a re­sponse to the West Asian cri­sis. And re­spond it must, given its deep ties to the re­gion. Prox­im­ity is it­self a de­pen­dence—ge­og­ra­phy mat­ters. Then, Saudi Ara­bia and Iran are among In­dia’s top sources of im­ported oil. Qatar dom­i­nates vi­tal gas sup­plies. There are also 7 mil­lion In­dian ex­pa­tri­ates in West Asia, who send home about $40 bil­lion an­nu­ally as valu­able for­eign ex­change and pro­vide for their fam­i­lies. Last but not the least, the toxic ef­fects of Daesh (and glob­alised Sunni ex­trem­ism gen­er­ally) on In­dian Mus­lim youth re­main a con­cern, al­though very few In­di­ans thus far have ac­tu­ally been rad­i­calised by the group.

In­dian poli­cies to­ward West Asia must be for­mu­lated at two lev­els. First is the level of strate­gic cal­cu­lus. Strate­gi­cally speak­ing, In­dia has no favourites in the fights of West Asia (ex­cept in sup­port of the widely-backed war on Daesh). Nor does it have the ca­pac­ity to in­flu­ence or re­solve these con­flicts. But In­dia is also not a nat­u­ral ad­ver­sary of any of the coun­tries in the re­gion.

High de­pen­dence com­bined with low in­flu­ence con­strains In­dia’s op­tions. The choices then are ei­ther to greatly re­duce de­pen­dence or ex­pand it in a way that serves In­dian in­ter­ests. The first op­tion is im­prac­ti­cal and can be ruled out. It is the sec­ond op­tion that must be re­tooled. In­dian de­pen­dence is cur­rently se­lec­tive and skewed to­wards the Gulf states and Is­rael. A shift to­wards omni-di­rec­tion­al­ity will min­imise risks no mat­ter which way the wars end. It will also en­able wider op­por­tu­ni­ties if and when peace and high eco­nomic growth re­turn.

This im­plies that re­la­tions with three states in par­tic­u­lar—Turkey, Iran and Iraq—need to be strength­ened while main­tain­ing the strong part­ner­ship with the Gulf and Is­rael. Indo-Turk­ish ties have tra­di­tion­ally been dis­tant, and there is tremen­dous scope for im­prove­ment. Indo-Ira­nian ties suf­fered due to western-led sanc­tions, but Iran now presents op­por­tu­ni­ties for co­op­er­a­tion in the ar­eas of Afghanistan, nat­u­ral gas and bi­lat­eral trade.

Strate­gic di­a­logue on a fre­quent ba­sis with both the US and Rus­sia on de­vel­op­ments in West Asia should be given pri­or­ity. Amer­i­can pol­icy is par­tic­u­larly un­cer­tain. The in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pears to be more will­ing to use force in West Asia. How­ever, its stated aims to re­pair ties with Rus­sia and si­mul­ta­ne­ously take a harder line on Iran are con­tra­dic­tory in terms of their re­gional im­pli­ca­tions.

Many of the pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios for West Asia in the com­ing years are not positive. For In­dia, the three most neg­a­tive sce­nar­ios would be an in­ter-state war be­tween ei­ther the US, Saudi Ara­bia or Is­rael against Iran, in­sta­bil­ity in the wake of a fall of the Saudi monar­chy and the nu­cle­ari­sa­tion of Iran and/or Saudi Ara­bia.

De­tailed con­tin­gency plan­ning is es­sen­tial to pre­pare for such dystopic sce­nar­ios. This in­cludes plans for bol­ster­ing en­ergy se­cu­rity, evac­u­a­tion of In­dian nationals, re­solv­ing mass hostage sit­u­a­tions, and man­ag­ing diplo­matic fall­outs. It re­quires a faster ramp-up of In­dian strate­gic petroleum reserves and di­ver­si­fy­ing oil and gas im­ports to the ex­tent pos­si­ble. Strength­en­ing in­tel­li­gence ca­pa­bil­i­ties at home to counter Daesh re­cruit­ment, while re­spect­ing the hu­man rights of In­dia’s Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties, is ob­vi­ously also needed.

Fi­nally, at the sec­ond level In­dia should never lose sight of the hu­man­i­tar­ian an­gle in what is at its heart a ter­ri­ble hu­man tragedy. In­dia must al­ways stand for a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment to all dis­putes and wel­come any ac­cords that re­duce vi­o­lence in the re­gion. It must con­sis­tently op­pose fram­ing the con­flict as a clash of civil­i­sa­tions. More con­cretely, it could of­fer greater med­i­cal as­sis­tance to griev­ously wounded civil­ians and aid the restora­tion of valu­able cul­tural trea­sures which, af­ter all, are the com­mon her­itage of all hu­mankind.

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