Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Geopolitical Developments in West Asia: India's Concerns'

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Ranjit Gupta
    Venue: IIT, Indore
    Date: February 05, 2016

Mr. Chairman, faculty and students of the IIT Indore, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. I thank Dr. Pritee Sharma, the Dean of Administration of this prestigious institution for inviting me and giving me the opportunity of interacting with you all on a subject of great topical importance.

My talk on ‘Geopolitical Developments in West Asia: India’s Concerns’ has two segments – first, a description of the current overall geopolitical landscape in West Asia with specific focus on the acute and deeply destructive Saudi-Iran standoff and its fallout in Syria and Yemen on the one hand and the emergence of the Islamic State on the other. The second part will cover India’s relations with West Asia including the implications of what is happening in West Asia for India.

The Broad Background

After World War I except for Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, all of West Asia came under the rule of European colonial powers directly or as Mandates under the League of Nations. After World War II a new State, Israel, was created by Great Britain providing the West a long-term strategic foothold in West Asia. After World War II all West Asian countries became independent in due time but the vast majority aligned with the West along with Iran, Oman and Saudi Arabia and the United States emerged as by far the predominant power in West Asia. Thus, the Western world has been the arbiter of West Asia’s destiny for the past hundred years. In the process the West has earned hundreds of billions of dollars in supplying arms to different West Asian countries; after the discovery of oil and the consequent absolutely unprecedented and spectacular, multidimensional construction boom particularly in the GCC countries, the West has also earned hundreds of billions of dollars in the execution of different projects. The West also became the repository of hundreds of billions of dollars as investment from GCC countries, their rulers and their new elites. This continuing all pervasive Western dominance and the abject subservience of their rulers to the West has been a major factor in growing public anger and resentment of the citizenry at large.

Not surprisingly, the US became the main architect and central pole of the West Asian security landscape since World War II. This rested on two major pillars - Iran and Saudi Arabia. The fact that the leaders of both the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam – Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively - were in the American camp ensured that the historical sectarian animosities within Islam did not become a cause of inter State conflict or of internal instability in West Asian countries.

Meanwhile, Israel was there to ensure that Western hegemony could not be seriously undermined in the Levant.

The Beginnings of Dramatic Change

1979 was a watershed year because of the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The reactions of the US and of the Sunni Muslim states of West Asia to these two seminal events have shaped West Asian geopolitics since then. Major landmarks have been: first, the conscious and deliberate creation of the modern jihad by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to fight the Soviets, which in turn fuelled the region-wide spread of constantly increasing Islam related extremism, militancy and terrorist attacks. In due course this found institutional manifestation in Al Qaeda and more recently in the Islamic State, with both these entities finally turning against their creators.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 has unquestionably been the most transformational event in West Asia since the end of World War II. From being the closest of allies, the U.S. and Iran became the bitterest of enemies overnight. Iran’s new regime consciously rejected the influence, interference and patronage of any foreign country, regional or non-regional. It has been under US sanctions ever since it came into existence; one by one other Western countries also imposed sanctions and incrementally so did the UN system after the accidental discovery of its covert nuclear program in 2003. However, all this failed to break Iranian grit and fortitude; in fact it caused Iran to challenge the US on multiple fronts throughout West Asia by forging a very strong alliance with the anti –Western Syrian regime; by creating Hezbollah in Lebanon which has become a particularly potent instrument of Iranian policy throughout the Levant; and by patronizing Hamas in Gaza. Both these entities have been dubbed as terrorist groups by Western countries and several Arab countries. After 1973 Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran have confronted Israel far more than Arab countries and thereby earned Iran popularity and kudos in the Arab street. US folly in overthrowing Saddam and completely dismantling his army and government, led to the formation of a Shia government in Iraq which has become another ally of Iran. Unable to tame Iran or curb its rising influence and with rising costs of the West’s interventionist policies, which were proving increasingly counter-productive, the West was compelled to negotiate with Iran on the basis of equality. The nuclear deal signed between Iran and the P 5 + 1 in July 2015 became operational in January 2016 following IAEA certification that Iran had complied with its obligations which resulted in the lifting of sanctions against Iran. The strategic landscape of West Asia is now in the process of being completely recast and Iran is poised to emerge as the most influential power in the region.

I will now consider in some detail the most important specific problems in West Asia. The single most important geopolitical factor in West Asia today is the spreading virus of sectarian hatreds between Shia and Sunni because of the cynical misuse of religion in a very bitter competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional influence and primacy. This rivalry is the single major cause of the situation in Syria being what it is, for Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen, and as an important contributory factor in the rise of the Islamic State and also of the growing disaffection of Shia minorities in GCC counties.

Syria

The spontaneous eruption of revolutionary revolts in several countries of the Arab world, prematurely dubbed the Arab Spring, reached Syria in March 2011. Protests broke out demanding political reform but unlike in Tunis and Cairo the numbers were much smaller and there were no calls for regime change. However, alarmed by the very quick overthrow of long entrenched dictators in Egypt and Tunisia and what was happening in Libya, President Bashar al-Assad panicked and cracked down very harshly on the protestors converting a potentially limited internal revolt into a slowly but steadily escalating civil war; however, much more damagingly for Assad, this crackdown provided the opportunity to countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to intervene by arming, funding and facilitating the infiltration of thousands of armed jihadist fighters into Syria with a view to overthrowing the regime and thereby removing Iran’s oldest and strongest ally in West Asia, without which Iran would be not be able to exercise the influence that it has been exercising throughout the Levant; in particular Iran would find it difficult to prop up and support entities such as the Iran-created Hezbollah and even Sunni Hamas. The US and other Western countries also started supplying arms, money and training to these ‘rebels’ as they too wanted an end of the inconvenient Assad regime. Assad’s main crime was not that he was a dictator – all Arab countries except Lebanon and now Tunisia – are ruled by autocrats where democracy, freedom, human rights, etc are nonexistent concepts; all of the West’s Arab allies were ruled autocratically or by military dictators. The real problem was that Assad was a particularly staunch ally of Iran. Another problem was that he was an Alawite, a Shia sect, ruling over a Sunni majority country. Yet another problem was that he allowed Russia to have a strategic presence on the Mediterranean coast through a naval base in Tartus in Syria Therefore he had to be removed. The emergence of the Islamic State in June 2014, rapidly acquiring control of more than 2/5th of the total territory of Syria, including most of its oil producing areas, was another setback for Assad.

The most important reason why this very powerful coalition of opponents has been unable to overthrow Assad even after 4 years of escalating fighting is that of all the dictators in the Arab world his regime had the most broad based public support within the country – Hafez al Assad had shrewdly cultivated the Sunni business community and his son and successor Bashar gave them even more opportunities and thus both the Assad regimes enjoyed their overwhelming support and this continues till today as also of the other upper and middle class Sunnis; Sunnis have always constituted the majority of the Syrian army and even after four years of war and despite casualties and desertions the majority even today is of Sunnis; the regime created an informal armed grouping, the National Defence Forces, to permit the Army to be deployed and used in the more vital sectors and operations –this paramilitary also has a significant number of Sunnis particularly in and around the vitally strategically important city of Alleppo, Syria’s largest city and economic centre. Sunnis have always occupied many very high and important positions in the administration. In fact, the poorest segment of the Alawite community is worse off than the poorest segment of the Sunni community. Given what has been happening in the Arab world in the past four years, Sunnis in Syria are acutely aware that the alternative to Assad is likely to be the rule of fanatic Islamists, untrammelled brutality and chaos.

Four years after the mayhem started in Syria there are no prospects of any early end to the multiple wars raging in Syria.

However, now the situation on the ground is turning distinctly in favour of Assad day by day for the following reasons:

First, Iran’s openly admitted and increasing multidimensional support, including funds, arms, military advisers and even militias fighting alongside Syrian forces; and, the very effective and increasing involvement of Hezbollah fighters have turned the tide in Assad’s favour.

Secondly, Russia's very substantial military involvement in Syria since the end of September 2015 has become a very important factor. For the first few months its aerial attacks concentrated on various Islamist groupings fighting against Assad which have seriously weakened the rebels. Russia has also delivered very substantial military hardware to the Assad regime. Such attacks and more military supplies will continue. Russia has joined the war against the Islamic State too.

Thirdly, two issues related to the Islamic State are causing increasing concern in the Western world. Audacious attacks attributed to the Islamic State - bringing down the Russian airliner over Sinai, in Turkey, in Paris, etc, and its threats to carry out more frequent and more destructive attacks have alarmed Western countries. The number of fighters from Western countries under the Islamic State banner, already several thousand, has been steadily increasing. The United States had started aerial attacks against the Islamic State in Iraq in August 2014 and a month later against the Islamic State in Syria along with many of its Western allies. The frequency and intensity of these attacks has increased after Russia’s military intervention in Syria and even more after the Islamic State attacks in Turkey and Paris. Western countries and in particular the US, are now increasingly veering towards attaching higher priority to confronting the Islamic State over efforts to oust Assad. This naturally has been working and will continue to work to Assad’s advantage more and more.

Assad can no longer be defeated militarily. It should be clearly understood that there cannot be a military solution to the problems in Syria; negotiations are the only way forward. However, the current peace processes are focused on alternatives to Assad and this objective will not and indeed cannot be achieved. If negotiations are to succeed the objective has to be the stopping of the wars in Syria.

Yemen

Shia Imams had ruled Yemen for over 1100 years till 1962, when the Imamate was overthrown, despite the strong military backing of Saudi Arabia, by nationalist military officers determined to establish a modern republican regime. The revolt was led by Col. Abdullah Sallal and both he and Republican Yemen’s second President, Abdul Rahman Yahya Al-Iryani, were Zaydi Shias; Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of Yemen for 34 years, is also a Zaydi. Circumstances forced Saleh to become a Saudi protégé in 1991and since then he has received billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia. At Saudi Arabia’s insistence Saleh waged a bitter military campaign against the Houthis from 2004 to 2010 in the course of which Saleh ordered the killing of Hussein Badr Al-Deen Houthi, the founder-leader of the Ansarallah, the formal name of the Houthis.

All this shows that political contestations in Yemen have been driven by personal ambitions, political ideology, and Saudi interference but not by sectarianism. In fact, the first overtly sectarian element in Yemen’s political firmament was the establishment of the Islah Party under the aegis of Saudi Arabia in 1990.

Yemen was among the six Arab countries convulsed by massive Arab Spring related demonstrations from February 2011 onwards. Due to Saleh’s inability to control the burgeoning unrest, Saudi led GCC mediation forced Saleh to step down in February 2012, while power was redistributed among the other existing power claimants. Though Saleh’s General People’s Congress was included, Saleh himself and the Houthis were left out even though the Houthis had participated very actively in the 2011 uprising. Abd Rabbuh Mansour Al Hadi, the Vice-President under Saleh, was elected President without any candidate to oppose him. Nevertheless, the Houthis participated actively in the National Dialogue from March 2013 to January 2014 but after two of its representatives were assassinated, the Houthis stopped participating and rejected the final outcome.

With both Saleh and the Houthis shut out, the stage was set for an alliance between these two erstwhile bitter enemies. Having headed the Army for so long, Saleh enjoyed its support and particularly of the powerful Republican Guard. The Army’s huge weapons inventory became the key factor that enabled the Houthis to take control of Sana'a in September 2014. Despite Hadi’s term being extended unilaterally, the Houthis still continued to negotiate with him, but as their hold on Sana’a firmed up, Hadi resigned in January 2015 and fled to Aden in February. Suddenly and despite the fact that the Houthis had done nothing against Saudi Arabia, it launched a massive aerial assault on Yemen on March 26 2015 and the next day Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. A large coalition consisting of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, with US and UK’s technical support has been assembled and the attacks continue till today indeed with increasing ferocity. A desperately poor country Yemen is going through the worst period in its history.

However Saudi rhetoric has focussed on Iranian involvement. Yemeni Zaydi Shias are "fivers” whose ideology is closer to the Sunnis than to the Iranian "twelver” Shias. There is no record of significant Iranian involvement with the Zaydi Shias of Yemen beyond some Houthis pursuing religious studies in Iran in the early 1990s. Among them was Hussein Badr Al-Deen Houthi, the founder-leader of the Ansarallah, during which time he picked up the Iranian slogan and made it the Houthi motto: "Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Iranian interest in the Houthis was kindled by the six-year conflict between Saleh and the Houthis from 2004 to 2010 but truly meaningful interaction between the two began only after the Houthis took control in Sana'a in 2014. There is no credible evidence that Iran provided large consignments of weapons to the Houthis to have made any tangible difference on the ground; logistically, it was almost impossible to do so; in any case, there was no need since Saleh was now an ally. However, with several airports and ports under Houthi control since 2014 Iran finally decided to do so and that assistance is continuing. From being an interested bystander at best, Saudi rhetoric, policies and actions have enabled Iran to acquire credible locus standi vis-a-vis Yemen and to become an indispensable player in the processes of determining Yemen’s future for the first time ever.

Hadi lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the people, especially after fleeing the country and operating from Saudi Arabia. He has no tribal or political support base in northern Yemen at all and little support even in the south, outside Aden. Even if Saudi Arabia somehow manages to reinstall the Hadi government in Sana’a, that government simply cannot remain in power without continuous military backing from Saudi Arabia which clearly is not a sustainable proposition. Unfortunately the war in Yemen has gone off the international attention radar; it has become a forgotten war with all attention concentrated on Syria and how to counter the Islamic State. Therefore, unless Saudi Arabia changes its policies, and there no indications that it might do so any time soon, Yemen will continue to suffer for the foreseeable future.

The Islamic State

A brief account of how and why it emerged would be in order. America’s illegal, unilateral, unprovoked and completely unjustified invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its subsequent military occupation of Iraq provided an enormous push to the rise of militant Islam. The historical reality that Iraq has always been ruled by Sunnis even though it had a 65% Shia population was dramatically reversed due to the wholesale dismantling both of the Baathist Party, which was virtually synonymous with the State and of its administration, and of the Iraqi Army. Demobilized, suddenly and sullenly unemployed thousands of Iraqi government officials and more importantly army personnel, including skilled Saddam-era officers, with their weapons joined newly sprouting anti-government forces, while simultaneously the new government was stripped of administrative and military capabilities. The Sunnis were deeply angry. Saddam’s unnecessary humiliation compounded the anger. Since 2006 Iraq has been ruled by a Shia government under US installed and supported Nuri al Maliki that particularly brazenly implemented an enlarging sectarian agenda, contributing to the total alienation of the Sunni population of the country. The Shia Sunni divide in Iraq was never ever as poisonous as it then became. A Sunni backlash was inevitable.

All this led to the outbreak of Sunni insurgencies spearheaded by the then newly formed Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). At the peak level of AQI’s influence in 2007 it had taken over significant chunks of Sunni inhabited Iraq and set up a quasi-government which ruled brutally according to harsh Islamic precepts. This led to even the Sunni population at large revolting out of anger with AQI's brutal rule and they even partnered with the hated Americans and the equally hated new Shia dominated Iraqi military to overthrow the AQI. The fall of AQI illustrated clearly that extremist sectarianism was not a part of the Iraqi ethos. Al Maliki’s government failed to grasp the self-evident and clear implications of this simple, common sense message. Had the Maliki government not gratuitously alienated the almost 100000 strong Sahwa – the Sunnis who had revolted - Iraq may have remained relatively peaceful.

The defeated AQI retreated to and regrouped in Syria and mutated into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and returned to Iraq in early 2014 advancing rapidly with spectacular success overrunning northern Iraq and capturing towns at will including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city on June 10th 2014. On June 30 the ISIS announced the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, with its capital in Raqqa in Syria, to be ruled strictly in accordance with the Sharia and its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was declared the new Caliph Ibrahim, the leader of Muslims everywhere. It soon won control of 2/5ths of the total territories each of both Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State had acquired assets of several billion dollars – cash taken from all the banks and government treasuries of the towns it had taken over in Syria and Iraq; ransom money from those kidnapped; from the sale of ancient antiquities; revenues of $ 3 million per day from sale of oil and oil products from the 11 oilfields in Syria and Iraq and the two refineries that it controlled; from fees and taxes; from funding from entities and individuals in Gulf countries; etc. It became virtually self-sufficient economically and financially. It is very well-equipped militarily having captured huge amounts of sophisticated weaponry abandoned by the new untrained Iraqi army; and, in Syria captured from the government and from rebels which was supplied by the West and GCC countries. The Islamic State has carried out dozens of mass executions, innumerable beheadings and taken thousands of women as sex slaves.

The Islamic State has declared war against the US in particular and the West in general; it has also declared war against pro West Arab regimes particularly Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, it has in addition declared war against all other Islamist militant groups including in particular Al Qaeda. Its ideology demands the extermination of the heretic Shias and other ‘minorities’. In short, it is against everybody and has no allies except some ideational pockets within the global Muslim community. Over the next 12-16 months it should be possible not only to contain and diminish the Islamic State’s destructive capabilities but also to significantly erase its persona as a proto-state.

The extremely deep Shia Sunni divide and the idea, the ideology that is personified by the Islamic State, however, will take a couple of generations and several decades to be overcome, if at all. These battles have to be fought within Islam by the Islamic world acting in concert. In the absence of this effort while the non-Islamic world will continue to be adversely affected also, the Islamic world already suffering so deeply, could go into terminal decline.

India and the Situation in West Asia

The current situation in West Asia should be a matter of very deep concern for India because the policies of Saudi Arabia and Iran have enormous potential for impacting positively or negatively on India’s future well-being and security. India’s relations with GCC countries are today India’s best external relationship globally. Over the last 4 decades the GCC countries have become India’s preeminent oil and gas supplier, leading trade partner, 8,000,000 Indians live and work there and send annual remittances of more than $35 billion back home.

In GCC countries ensuring internal security has always had the highest priority and in current conditions in West Asia this is even more so. The largest numbers of Indian passport holders abroad are in Saudi Arabia, a little over three million, and in the UAE, a little under three million, more than Pakistanis in both countries despite these two countries having a long standing particularly special relationship with Pakistan. In Qatar and the UAE the number of Indians is larger than that of local people. The number of Indians in all GCC countries has continued to rise notwithstanding the tightening of their policies to curtail the influx of expatriate manpower and despite the ongoing conflict in West Asia from 2011onwards. Clearly these facts represent an enormous vote of confidence in Indians and India. Furthermore, it is particularly noteworthy and gratifying that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have provided excellent and expanding anti-terrorism cooperation - the best that India has received from any country in the world - by repatriating people India wanted for terrorist activities despite intensive efforts by Pakistan to prevent such repatriations. It also merits mention that India is amongst the very few countries in the world that simultaneously has excellent relations with Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Despite India having a Muslim community of 180 million, the third largest in the world, and some 3 million India Muslims living in the Gulf region, it is the world’s least affected by dangerous radicalism emanating from West Asia.

The GCC countries and Iran are the only part of West Asia where some kind of a bloody conflict is not raging; as long as there are no internal conflicts within GCC countries it is unlikely that there will be any major substantive implications for India. Beyond India having had to bring home about 40000 nationals cumulatively from Libya, Yemen and Iraq in the recent past and 39 Indians remaining in captivity of the Islamic State in Iraq, there has been no impact of events in West Asia in India.

India’s non-intrusive, non-interventionist, non-judgmental, non-prescriptive, not taking sides in regional disputes, low key, low profile pragmatic approach based on mutual benefit and advantage has yielded very satisfying results and there is absolutely no need whatsoever to change the broad contours of this policy. This is the best way to preserve our excellent relationships and protect our interests in the Gulf region in particular and West Asia in general.

Not a single Indian Muslim fought in Afghanistan; a miniscule number joined Al Qaeda; only a couple of dozen may have some links with the ISIS. It is my considered assessment that the Islamic State does not pose any significant threat to India – Pakistani ISI sponsored terrorism has been and will remain the main danger. India’s greatest contribution to the world has been its civilizational ethos that has, over the centuries, nurtured inclusiveness encompassing within its society people of different customs, ethnicities, languages, religions, traditions, etc. At last month’s West Asia conference organized by the Institute of Defence Analysis and Studies participants from Iran (repeatedly), Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen made specific reference to this suggesting that West Asia has a lot to learn from India.

Thank you for your attention