New Urge for Regional Leadership in the WANA: Implications for India

EDUCATION

 

 

It was not long after the political turmoil began in the Arab world four years ago that a new era

in the erstwhile political disposition had set in. In the last four years, the region has been marked

by the political uncertainties, growing Jihadism and extremism in the form of ISIS, escalation of

multi-pronged conflict among different stakeholders for ascendancy in the region. Arab Spring

has not merely impacted the internal politics causing mess, anarchy, significant increase in the

fatalities and chaos within each country but engendered the emergence of a new conflict

involving all big and small powers in one way or the other. Four nations in particular are

embroiled in horrible civil war: Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq. The civil war in Syria seems bit

harder to end in near future because of the involvement of multiple forces making the situation

more complex and creating deeper division at different levels. US and its allies have failed to

build a Syrian opposition army which could defeat the force of President Assad and Turkey

seems to be retreating from its earlier position because of its problems at home. 1

Libya is in mess where two parallel governments are running and challenging each other.

Secular-religious divide is growing on top of other long standing tribal division. As far as Yemen

is concerned, Saudi continues to back the weak Sunni regime while Shiite Houthi are acting as a

proxy for Iranian government. Iraq is completely enmeshed in bloody sectarian war for last few

years and the rise of ISIS has further complicated the situation there. Moreover, Iran nuclear deal

has further escalated the situation where a feeling of insecurity has grown among the Gulf

nations.

The geopolitics of the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) at present can be seen as the

combination of internal pressures and external demands. The current political transformation

seems to have shifted the decades-old Israel-centric Arab conflict to a regional sectarian conflict.

 

If one country is threatened with the initial democratic spirit of Arab uprising, it was Saudi

Arabia which adopted multi-faceted means( from coercion to financial package to religious

rhetoric ) to overwhelm the political spirit of Arab Spring and blame its rival Iran which has been

traditionally seen through the prism of an ideological and strategic protagonist within Saudi

Arabia. The beginning of the turmoil deepened the Arab-Persian divergence and both sides

deployed their strategic, sectarian and ideological potential and depth to corner each other and

Syria emerged as the biggest theatre of the sectarian conflict. While Arab Spring seemed to be an

imminent threat to the ruling family of Saudi Arabia and its strategic allies but for Iran it was a

golden opportunity to venture and manoeuvre the situation to regain the lost ground in the region

after its prolonged isolation of nearly four decades. The involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia in

the proxy war in Syria ushered into a renewed geopolitical rivalry and its gradual transcendence

 

1 Kenneth Pollack and Barbara F. Walter, “Escaping the Civil War Trap in the Middle East”, Washington Quarterly.

August 03, 2015. http://twq.elliott.gwu.edu/escaping-civil- war-trap- middle-east , Accessed on August o5, 2015

 

in Bahrain, Yemen and other places mutated the political turmoil into a battle for redrawing the

national boundaries based on ethnic and sectarian lines.

Not long after the unrest spread across other parts of the region, Saudi Arabia geared itself to

confront the growing influence of Iran and sent the Gulf troops to crush the political movement

in Bahrain and extended all political and economic support to Syrian rebel forces.

The search for new leadership in the region and subsequent contention between Tehran and

Riyadh is twined with a will to preserve its own regime and strategic ploys to weaken the other

and that became a dominant feature of regional dynamics. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are using

all means at their disposals ranging from the politics of coercion to economic package to military

power (attack on Yemen, financial package to Morocco and Jordan and earlier failed mediation

in Yemen). For Saudi Arabia, the biggest challenge is to protect its close allies and create the

sphere of influence in the neighbourhood. The notion of Shiite crescent and Pan-Shiism

emanating from the Sunni-Shiite rivalry has become a worrisome issue for Gulf nations. This has

been further propelled by Iran’s growing influence and attempt to political penetration in the

Arab states through its strategic copartners like Shiite regime in Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah in

Lebanon, opposition groups in Bahrain and Houthi rebels in Yemen. The main objective of Saudi

Arabia has been to see that GCC nations not pervaded by the uprising and prevent other powers

not being swayed by the overall developments talking place in the Arab world.

Today’s visible socio-political makeover in the region is marked by interplay of several past and

present factors: absence of US omnipresent status in the region and proven limitation of its

military overarching , process of fragmentation and unification within the regional polity and its

threat to the whole world and one decade of developments in Iraq. The onset of turmoil added to

the volatile situation and power like Iran and Saudi Arabia did not take long to strategize the

region to suit their own strategic interests. New regional aspirations were not confined to duel

powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia alone but nation like Qatar could not hide its urge for a role in

the region. Its political stance in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Iran was predictably different from the

Saudi Arabia and Qatar drove the GCC in Yemen against the wishes of Saudi Arabia. Qatar,

eager to restore its influence in the West, is bankrolling new generations of Islamist forces in

Egypt, Libya and Syria and its opposition to the military coup in Egypt made the hostility

between two more evident.

In addition to Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey too could not hide its regional ambition and amidst

the strategic shift and claimed to become one of the regional actors along with Iran and Saudi

Arabia. Only at the early stage of the turmoil, Turkey received new boost and projected its

democratic Islamist model for those countries which had become vulnerable to the multiple

political and ideological formulations during the uprising. Turkey did not only preach its

ideological model but acted as an interventionist power and was the first to call for the removal

of President Assad of Syria. It also hosted anti-Assad rebels in Ankara. After the political

uprising, Turkey could not hide its ambition to be acknowledged as a regional player and its

support for Muslim Brotherhood ( MBH ) in Egypt , high sounding anti-Israel rhetoric and

support to present Saudi-led Operation Precise in Yemen are indicative of its ambitious design

in the regional strategic game.

 

More over Turkey’s current airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) and Kurdish

Workers’ Party (PKK) bases in Syria and Iraq have given a new direction to the geopolitics of

the region. Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davotoglu himself has said that Turkey can change

the game in Iraq and Syria and the entire region. It is worth mentioning here that the apparently

ISIS suicide attacks in the town of Suruc bordering Syria and the PKK attacks against the

Turkish police in July, 2015 prompted the airstrikes.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have their own historical and ideological reasons to show their

displeasure over the growing appeal of the Turkish Islamic democratic model in the region which

commands considerable acceptability in the West too. Turkey’s unabated support to the Arab

Spring was not taken in a good spirit among the Gulf nations and the subsequent condemnation

of Israeli policies by Turkey in Palestine added to its appeal in the Arab world.

When the region is still beleaguered with the unfolding geostrategic trajectory, signing of the

nuclear deal between Iran and the Western powers has added a new chapter to the geostrategic

transformation in the region. The deal may not change the map of the region but it will certainly

change the geopolitics. There is an understandable sense of jubilation in Iran because it will

bring to an end the decades of isolation and on the other hand it has created a sense of insecurity

among the royal family of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. The Gulf nations are more upset and

apprehensive of Iran’s new emboldened strategic and economic potential after the signing of the

deal and they have no doubts about the changed political behavior of Iran. What has further

puzzled the situation in the Gulf is dubious interplay of verification versus trust between Iran and

the US as claimed by US President Obama that Iran deal is not built on trust but built on

verification. 2 Meanwhile it is also interesting to note that both are speaking in two different

terms. These developments are causing the decline in the level of trust between the US and the

Gulf nations and it was not a coincidence when one Arab official involved in discussion with

State Department said that, “We have to be very clear about what the future looks like”. 3

The deal is being seen by many of Iran’s rivals in the region as a geostrategic victory for Iran

giving further anchorage to Iran in the affairs of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen which

according to Saudi Arabia and its allies were acting under tutelage of Iran. Moreover, Iran in

near future might have louder strategic claim to fight the ISIS along with others in the region and

the covert cooperation between the West and Iran against ISIS might be indisputable agenda for

future.

One can disagree over the magnitude of Gulf’s fear but cannot deny the state of fear and

apprehensions of the rulers’ vis-à- vis Iranian nuclear deal and they are seeing in the deal an

opportunity for Iran to play greater role and act as an aspirant hegemon of the region. Saudi

Arabia’s reaction to deal has been petulant and not much different from Israel where both

perceive that the deal has the potential to change the geopolitical and strategic map of the region.

2 The Indian Express, 14 July, 2015

http://indianexpress.com/article/world/americas/iran-nuclear- deal-is- built-on- verification-not- on-trust- barack-

obama/

3 The Wall Street Journal, May, 3, 2015.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/gulf-states- want-u- s-assurances- and-weapons- in-exchange- for-supporting- iran-pact-

1430585002

 

Successive months would reveal how Iran navigates strategically and what would be response of

other actors like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. One should not be surprised if in future the

conventional geography-centered nationalism turns into a confessional nationalism where

present boundaries might cease to exist. It seems increasingly feasible that Levant region would

be divided into smaller states where Syrian, Iraq and Lebanon would be reshaped in term of both

sect and geography. The sectarian hue in the emerging geostrategic design might provide a fertile

ground to different terrorist groups with the full support of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey as

well.

Rise of the Islamic States in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an outcome of the ongoing changes in the

political scenario. The role and centrality of the ISIS cannot be undermined in the unfolding

situations. The emergence of ISIS as the most dreaded force in Iraq and Syria and its subsequent

horizontal and vertical spread has challenged the notion of nation-state in the region. In last two

years, it has captured the large swaths of territories in Syria and Iraq and created a political and

ideological space for itself. Its rise has overshadowed other political and militant Islamist forces

and seems bent upon changing the geographical, political and ideological contour of the region.

In the light of above account reflecting the critical situations in the region, it becomes extremely

significant for India to re-look at its engagement with the region. The nature of India’s economic

engagement, where 35% of Indian expatriates live, GCC being the source of one third of Indian

remittances and the biggest trading block for India entails India to adopt a holistic approach

involving both short term and long term assessment as the region is fraught with a series of

variable crises. There are few short term and long term policy options for India in the current

situations.

 

  • India should evolve a different approach to different set of crises. On the one hand the

region is embroiled in a sectarian war which is causing as much destruction as the

ruthless Islamic movements in the form of ISIS. On the other hand, there is different set

of ideological and political rivalries among regional players bringing the region at the

brink of disintegration and here: India needs to stride cautiously before identifying the

potential actors in the region and what is needed at the moment is to analyze the

developments critically and prioritize its policies in the transient region accordingly.

  • The time has come that India should upgrade and enhance the ambience of relationship

with the region. The rise of violent religious extremism and sectarian violence is a

compelling consideration for utterly unexpected alliance. These developments demand

that India relooks at the region and inject some strategic element in the hitherto trade and

commercial engagement. At present, the region has turned into a volatile zone which

would entail long term and short term security mechanism for India. Some Arab

commentators have called the security in the Gulf a sentimental issue and would like to

use their oil in lieu of security provision of the region. India should ponder over this

proposition and try to diversify its engagement in the light of the new emerging realities.

 

  • India should expand the focus of its strategic ambiance in the Gulf region. It should look

beyond its traditional confines of West Asia when it comes to the issue of national

security’s definition. India needs not to be dragged in the seemingly political rift between

Iran and the Gulf nations because both are important and India has enjoyed friendly

relations with both of them.

  • The WANA region is passing through a very volatile phase and it poses a series of

challenges to us. Hardening of political and strategic positions on the part of each state is

visible and here India has two options: We could be a pacifier in the whole issue but that

might have security implications for us and meanwhile preferred option could be that we

ensure we are not party to any development taking place in the region.

  • Indian government should gear up itself for any unpleasant development in the region.

One cannot deny the possibility of spread of violence in other region where Indian

expatriate are based. In a sudden development, Indians might be forced to secure their

safe exit even if it entails bringing large number of workers back to the country. The

logistic of such a large displacement apart, social and political effects and its adverse

impact on the inward remittance will be massive. In this regard, India should focus on its

drastic management affairs more critically and in particular, Indian mission abroad could

initiate special program on drastic management to confront the similar situations in near

future.

 

  • Though the evacuation of Indian expatriates in the crisis of Yemen received global

appreciation but still we need to identify some major points in case similar crisis erupts in

near future. It was noticed that in emergency situations like Yemen when the Indians had

no option but to flee the country, their passports were either with the sponsor or

company owners and that caused a lot of hardship to them. In this regards, Indian

missions in respective countries should be advised to evolve more comprehensive

mechanism to facilitate the process and reduce the hassles. Indian expatriates in these

countries should be provided with a legal and informative broacher they could utilize in

case they had to leave the country at short notice.

  • Indian government should devise a comprehensive plan for its expatriates in the light of

multiple fault lines in the region. The Indian expatriates should not fall prey to this and

there have been instances in the past where different divisive and polemic literatures have

been distributed among the workers in the camp of UAE and other places. It requires an

extensive plan because India is itself a home to variable socio-religious groups.

  • Given the political trajectory of last four years in the region, India should be ready to face

any unforeseeable development in the monarchies of the Gulf nations. India should

devise a comprehensive plan and should evolve set of strategies to enhance and diversify

the level of political engagement in the region in addition to economic engagement. India

needs to expedite the process of widening the channel with the Gulf nations.

  • Gulf of Aden is a major source of sea route for our oil import and immediate attention

should be paid to secure its safety and same applies to the Strait of Hormuz because India

 

is poised to be the highest consumer of the energy in the coming decade and subsequently

its prime concern is the energy security. Same is true of the importance of the Arab ports

in the Indian Ocean including the Oman coast because of its important location at the

Arabian Gulf. Though India cannot change the security architect of the region but it can

strengthen security measures and take additional steps to safeguard its interest. We

should pay special attention to safeguard our coastal areas and see it does not fall in the

trap of radical elements and hamper our national security. We could also expedite the

Chabahar project to diversify the lines of communication and it could be developed as

another junction of our import of oil and gas.

  • For quite some time, we have been witnessing very low oil and gas price and it is not

likely that demand for oil and gas would increase from western hemisphere while India

will continue to be the importer of gas and oil. Therefore we could develop a mechanism

which would lessen our burden of payment and would be complementary in economic

term.

  • In recent years, the region has become quite vulnerable to the rise of non-state actors and

very often, one comes across a new militia or new Islamist radical group which pays

allegiance to the more authoritative one deserting the loyalty to old master. The rise of

ISIS is being viewed as a worrying phenomenon which has thrown the entire region into

disarray. Its non-stop march across the region has not merely exposed the weakness of

the authoritarian states but has challenged the old notion of nation-state. It is well-known

fact that the ISIS is no longer an Arab phenomenon in term of its geographical spread and

ideological appeal. They have reached to the confines of Afghanistan and several groups

in other countries are reported to have deserted their old loyalty to pay allegiance to the

ISIS. It is into this ultra-radical ideological fold that a new breed of educated Indian

youth (like the engineering students who left for Syria t join ISIS last year – Areeb

Majeed, Aman Tandel and Fahad Sheikh) is now getting trained and getting

indoctrinated. 4 There are reports of several Indians joining the fight on the side of ISIS

and being killed in the battlefield. It is important to recognize and understand the new

threat-its worldview, aspirations and goals- for not only getting a proper grasp its

ideology and modus operandi, but also for developing effective counter-terrorism

strategies. Before it is too late and some of Indian radical Islamist groups are swayed by

the rhetoric of ISISI, India should devise comprehensive plan to stop the tide and evolve

both short term and long term mechanism to prevent the Indian youths from falling in the

false trap of the Islamic miscreants.

 

  • Recent past has witnessed a spurt in terrorist activities and particularly in states of

Punjab and Kashmir which has added further threat to our national security. What is more

worrisome is that in the cloak of conventional militants, some ISIS and other Arab radical

elements could penetrate the country and become a long term problems. Our security

should be at the guard of it and not allow extra-territorial radical forces to exploit the

vulnerability in our border areas.

 

4 West Asia Monitor, Volume 1, Issue, xii-August 2015.

 

  • Indian government should initiate a comprehensive project to counter the literature

propaganda of the ISIS and like-minded entities. In this regard, a series of websites

should be started and the help of Islamic intellectuals, scholars as well as Ulema of

seminaries could be sought because there is no dearth of clergies who do not subscribe to

the propagandist brand of religion. Moreover their voices and their appeal would be more

effective. There should be a special initiative on the part of the government to launch

websites devoted to the Islamic knowledge highlighting the inclusive and composite

feature of Islamic history in India.

  • In addition to the institutions like Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and

Indian Council of Cultural relations (ICCR) which are playing an active role in

highlighting the syncretic feature of all religions in India, civil societies should come

forward in the spread of dictum that what is being preached by the radical elements have

no association with any religious doctrine. They should also come forward to counter the

puritanical and literal interpretation of Islam propounded by ISIS and like-minded

movements in the region. Intelligence services should beef up its watch on the networks

of the radical groups operating in the country and monitor that they do not develop any

coordination with any element of the ISIS. The Intelligence service should develop a

wide-ranging plan of filtering the ISIS literature appearing on its web sites and playing an

instrumental role in the intoxication of the youth.

  • India should maintain its conventional policy of non-interventions in the affairs of others.

It is necessary for the pivotal states like India not to middle in the other’s affairs. Though

India in the past did not succumb to US pressure to join war against terror and even today

India has showed its reluctance to join US-led coalition against ISIS but meanwhile

should not shy away from raising the issue at global forum and should support all

resolutions condemning ISIS in global bodies. There are some media repots that some

members of the strategic community also want India to join the war but it would a fatal

on the part of India to join the war which one does not know how long will last.

  • After India cast negative vote against Iran at International Atomic Energy Agency

(IAEA) a few years ago, the country had less than cordial relations, our support to the

Iranian nuclear deal would be welcomed in Tehran and pave the way for making a new

beginning. It is time for India to forge deeper ties with Iran to tap its market for its

product and commodities. The natural outcome of the deal is likely to be increase in the

oil production engendering the fall in the price of crude oil and will subsequently help us

in our balance of payment. Our good relations with Iran will have positive impact in our

plans for the Chabahar port an eventually for access to Central Asia. Indian investors

should take advantage of the removal of sanction after they failed to take advantage of

Iranian markets during period of its isolation.

  • Strategically India has viewed Iran as a natural ally in Afghanistan in opposition to the

regime of Taliban. Here once again in the backdrop of deteriorating security situation in

the country and new Afghan’s government rapprochement with Pakistan, both Iran and

India can come closer and prepare a new strategic vision to prevent the Afghanistan

from slipping in the hand of radical groups.

 

Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui

Research Fellow

ICWA

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