INDIA AS PEACEMAKER IN WEST ASIA?

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the latter, in a first by an Arab nation perennially in conflict with Israel, granted Air India, the national carrier, approval to operate direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv over and through Saudi territory. Can India use this soft power and more to bring down the growing tensions among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran? A tall order, but is doable, insists diplomat-scholar Talmiz Ahmad who served in West Asian region for over ten years as India’s envoy to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Ambassador Ahmad thinks that of all the global diplomacy India is currently engaged in, the one in West Asia is truly unprecedented. It gives India a unique position to play peacemaker.   Taking forward his premise, one should consider the biggest likely hurdle: how will an unstable and unpredictable Donald Trump administration take an Indian initiative? India and the US have been consolidating their ties exponentially. Will that help? And how will a Brexit-hit Britain, well past its imperial grandeur, take it? Britain historically and the US since the last century have been the principal players behind much that has been happening, particularly the conflicts, in West Asia. The Saudi-Iran-Israel tensions keep the region on the boil and their impact goes well beyond. Everyone is walking the tight rope. And that is an understatement for India the way it has been interacting with diverse nations in the region, many of which are at daggers drawn with one another. Yet they all come to India and host Indian leaders. These visits have yielded numerous agreements and memoranda of understanding, setting the agenda for the future collaboration in multiple areas of mutual interest. It is another matter, however, that India has acquired a reputation for not fulfilling many proiects – some not taking off some others delayed. This is not unique to West Asia, though.  Fortunately, even if the projects are missed and hived off to others, India’s goodwill continues. And nowhere else this goodwill is more visible than in the presence of eight million Indians working in countries across West Asia, out-populating nine of them. It has not been easy, though.  The turmoil of the past few years in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen has unleashed untold sufferings on Indians working there.   The USD 70 billion earnings by Indians being repatriated home last year, a global highest, have fallen due to an unprecedented fall in crude oil prices and simmering geopolitical tension in the Persian Gulf.  They may nevertheless remain as formidable as the oil and gas that flows from the region to meet 65 percent of India’s growing needs.   Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in the last nearly four years visited and/or hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Palestine, Oman and Iran. Among numerous minister-level consultations, foreign minister of Syria, besieged by five combating forces, visited in January. The UAE Crown Prince was the Chief Guest at the Republic Day last year. Within a six months’ span, Modi both visited and played host to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet, India did not toe the US/Israeli line on Jerusalem at the United Nations and Modi travelled from Tel Aviv to Palestine. Significantly, India, while getting cozy with Trump – also daughter Ivanka and son, Donald Trump Jr. — also deals with Iran, Trump’s bête noire in the region.  President Hasan Rouhani’s visit is yet another signal, not just to the US, but to all players in the Gulf region, of India’s long term intent.   The Rouhani visit yielded significant results that need sustained follow-up. Not just that, it has gingerly pushed the Chabahar project, being jointly worked with Iran. India has secured control of the first phase of the port that it has built to gain connectivity to Iran and through it, Afghanistan, bypassing a hostile Pakistan and with future prospects of reaching Central Asia. Far from being ceremonial in nature, these interactions have consolidated defence ties and investments in India’s energy, infrastructure and other key sectors. The stage for this Look-West Asia was set by government of P V Narasimha Rao (who also initiated Look-East Policy) in the 1990s. It was assiduously followed up by premiers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. But those were different times and circumstances. The Modi Government has shown a better understanding by undoing a historical error on Gwadar which once belonged to Oman and was offered to India during the Nehru era. Understandably, it was then thought that Gwadar could not be defended in an attack from Pakistan. Another act of the “late-Latif” has been to gain access to Oman’s Duqm port, long after many others gained a foothold there.  It is nevertheless useful if India has to secure its presence along the Gulf and Africa’s eastern sea coast.   The importance of these ports cannot be underestimated, not the least in competition to China that is rapidly expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean region, directly and through Pakistan. Chabahar is a smaller project compared to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), but has greater potential  of access to Central Asia and the Caspian Sea. It is more doable, if only the US does not put a spoke, because both India and Iran are on the same page.    A little comparison of India’s ‘Look/Act’ policies would be appropriate. Tackling South Asia, its immediate neighbourhood, easily the most difficult part of its diplomatic task, has kept faltering as it meets new challenges practically each day. The Maldives developments are a pointer, so is a less friendly government taking shape in Nepal, and both have China as the common adversarial factor.     The China factor is stronger in India’s “Act East” Policy. But there India is tying up with the US, Australia and Japan to enhance its clout.  By contrast, the ‘Act West’ policy leaves India to devise its own strategy that in some instances is at odds with the Anglo- American interests.   Given the turbulence in West Asia, many would advise India to have a hands-off approach, and focus only on its bilateral interests in the region. However, India cannot afford to ignore this perilous challenge. It needs to play a role in resolving the regional conflicts. Unlike Pakistan that is happy to dispatch troops to seek leadership of the Muslim ‘ummah’, for India, sending troops would be unwise. India’s military presence is neither sought as of now, nor desirable. Given the goodwill it enjoys, and with a reputation of neutrality, the Indian presence should remain non-combatant, in areas where its economic assistance and knowledge are made available directly to the people. This neutral role helps India as a prospective interlocutor in West Asia. Its relations go back to ancient times, long before that region got divided into modern-day nations. In contemporary terms, India’s ties with each of those nations have been bilateral and transactional. Indians have not participated in any of their conflicts. Nor have Indian Muslims been part of any terrorist group like Al Qaida or the ISIS.   Indians have played peacekeepers on behalf of the United Nations. It is time India uses its unique position to play the peacemaker.             ]]>

MIDDLE EAST: CALIPHATE ENDS BUT OTHER WARS GROW

Consequent to well coordinated and determined operations by various anti-terrorist forces ; Daesh or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has been decisively defeated in Syria, Iraq and Philippines. ISIS was defeated in Iraq a few months back by Iraqi Armed Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga duly supported by US and coalition air power. US special forces had also guided and coordinated the operations. Shortly thereafter, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) consisting mainly of Kurds and some moderate Arab opposition armed groups , supported by US and allies airpower and special forces defeated the ISIS in Raqqa, the stated capital of the Caliphate in Syria. In the end, Syrian Arab Armed Forces supported by Iran, Russia and Iraqi Forces have captured Albu Kamal, the border town south of Deir al Zour. Sadly, this is not the end of violence in the Middle East.  It is a coincidence that ISIS defeat in Raqqa, coincided with its defeat in Marawi, Mindanao, in Philippines. Although both the operations in two different parts of Asia took nearly six months to complete with totally different dynamics ; it can safely be assumed that the head and tail of the Caliphate has been dismembered and annihilated. Shortly, thereafter Deir al- Zour , another ISIS strong hold astride Tigris and the last bastion of ISIS has fallen to the Syrian government troops. With ISIS having been decidedly defeated in Iraq earlier, the remnant cadres in Syria in small pockets are unable to reorganise and launch any worthwhile counter offensive.   Raqqa is located on the banks of Tigris river and in addition to being the first major city coming under their control; was the capital of the Caliphate and a pivotal city for ISIS to launch operations on Aleppo, Idlib and towards Damascus in 2014. The loss of Raqqa and Deir al Zour means a death blow for ISIS in Syria and it will be impossible for them to reorganise or link up with its cadres across the border in Iraq as those areas including Al Qaim are dominated by and are under the control of Iraqi Forces.   In an operation that was mounted in June this year and lasted over six months, the SDF first advanced to the city of Raqqa clearing all opposition enroute, encircled it and then started reducing it by fighting and getting one foothold at a time. The battle in Raqqa reminded us of battle of Grozny in Chechnya which was reduced to rubble by Russians in a fierce fighting continuing over a year. Emboldened by this success of SDF, government troops went in for Deir al Zour.   The cost to civilian lives and the disruption was colossal in Raqqa. The majority of over 2,70,000 citizens were either displaced, injured or killed. Those who were trapped inside the city between two sides had suffered malnutrition and deprivation of basic needs of healthcare, water and food items. In addition, lots of heritage buildings, archeological and architectural sites have been damaged or destroyed.   Starting in June 2014, ISIS spread like wild fire in Iraq and Syria capturing the major towns of Mosul, Kirkuk and Sinjar in Iraq leaving a trail of violence, destruction and anarchy unparalleled in twenty first century. The well equipped and highly armed Iraqi Army did not pose any resistance and was totally disintegrated. After looting $ 500 million from the Central Bank in Mosul and controlling Baiaji, Tikrit and other oil rich areas astride the Euphrates and Tigris rivers ISIS became formidable. Based on their success in Iraq, the ISIS got emboldened and swept north eastern portions of Syria in the same wave leaving a state of terror and ethnic cleansing in the wake.   ISIS publicly executed five of the twenty odd western journalists challenging the authority of western democracies and creating tremendous domestic pressure. It was the tipping point and western powers had no option but to go in for ISIS in Iraq and Syria in September 2014. Russia moved in to save the Assad government in September 2015. It also started bombing ISIS and moderate armed opposition groups’ positions and helped the government troops to defeat ISIS in Aleppo, Idlib and Deir al Zour.   The terror tactics that ISIS used also became its nemesis because they ended up alienating the Sunni majority in addition to the excesses they carried out on the minorities and foreigners. The worst hit community was Yazidis in Iraq wherein 5000 men were killed and 7000 women and children were taken as prisoners to be converted into sex slaves. United Nations in a conservative estimate has stated casualties to civilians as 7000 killed in 2016 and nearly 3000 in 2017. As per Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 475, 000 personnel including 100,000 civilians have been killed in Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al- Assad began in March 2011.   After the victory in Raqqa and Deir al Zour, a repeat of what is happening in Kirkuk and Mosul in Iraq is likely to follow. Opposing sides are going to attempt to fill in the strategic void created by the defeat of ISIS resulting in fresh battles between the SDF and government supported militia and government troops. It may be recalled that Russia, Iran and Hizbullah are fighting on the side of the Assad Government whereas Kurds and moderate opposition armed groups in SDF are supported by US, France, UK, Germany and some other member states of EU. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and some other gulf states have supported the Syrian armed opposition groups resulting in proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the battlefield called Syria.    The menace called ISIS is not totally destroyed or wiped out and will keep showing its head in isolated cases in the western world like the recent attack in Paris, Barcelona, London and New York. The terrorist groups who had taken franchise of ISIS will be on the back foot for some time. ISIS in the same form is unlikely to show its head again but as long as the socio- economic aspirations of sections of society the world over continue to be unaddressed, it will show up in some form or the other. Member states of United Nations need to cooperate and share actionable intelligence regarding existing and emerging terrorist groups in order to ensure lasting peace.   As far as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan are concerned, violence will continue in the near future. Government troops of Turkey, Iraq and Syria are likely to go for Kurds in respective territories inhibiting Kurds from joining up and creating a state of their own. // ]]>