This edition of the IPCS Column, 'Spotlight West Asia', is the precis of a larger document titled 'West Asia in 2015', published under the IPCS Forecast 2015 series.
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Making predictions is a hazardous exercise; however, it needs to be ventured into. 2014 was particularly bleak for the Arab world, but as the year ended, there were increasing indications that the situation will steadily improve through 2015 (See Ranjit Gupta, “Rise of the Islamic State: Implications for the Arab World,” IPCS Commentary #4778, 15 December 2014).
In the ultimate assessment, improvement or deterioration of the situation in West Asia is going to be heavily dependent upon whether or not the nuclear negotiations with Iran succeed.
Nature of War and Coalition against the Islamic State in 2015
The battle against the Islamic State (IS) in particular and terrorism in West Asia in general will remain at the top of the geopolitical agenda of all West Asian governments as well as of the US. It is absolutely imperative that the IS be defeated, and therefore, the battle has to be carried out with greater intensity. Since the US airstrikes started in September 2014, the IS’s rapid expansion and advance was stopped. 2015 is likely to witness a progressively increasing roll-back in terms of the territory the IS controlled at its peak.
However, this cannot be accomplished by air strikes alone. Though an increase in the number of US military advisors and Special Forces units, and their sometimes even leading Iraqis into battle can be foreseen, no significant deployment of US combat soldiers is needed; and any temptation to do so should be resisted. The numbers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, already actively involved in the fighting, rising significantly and more airstrikes from Iran also – a few took place in the closing stages of 2014 – are quite likely.
If Saudi Arabia could be persuaded to become more assertive across its border into Iraq’s Sunni-inhabited Anbar province, it could have a salutary effect by pressing the IS from the rear also. However, the main brunt of fighting the IS on the ground must be borne by the Iraqis. Shia militias, Sunni tribals, Kurds and Iraqi government troops are likely to continue to be cooperatively engaged in the common fight against the IS – the common enemy.
Ethnic and Sectarian Divides: Likely Positive Developments in Iraq During 2015
Ethnic and sectarian divides in Iraq have been progressively increasing since 2003. However, despite a great deal of bad blood between them remaining for the foreseeable future, the Iraqi government and the leaders of these communities are likely to prevent these divisions from hardening into irrevocable separatism. Starting from 2015 onwards, the processes of mending a broken Iraq are going to move forward in a meaningful way.
Iran’s Related Nuclear Negotiations: Towards a Successful Conclusion?
The other regional issue, one that has extraordinary geopolitical and geo-strategic significance, both regionally and indeed worldwide, is the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and the ongoing negotiations between Tehran and the P 5 + 1.
The deadline for the conclusion of the talks has been extended twice; this in itself is a sign that the contending parties intend to succeed – which is absolutely imperative, because if they fail, the spectre of nuclear weapons proliferation in the region will loom ever larger, and Iran will inevitably start playing spoilsport in the fight against the IS – and thereby plunging the region into even greater chaos. Partly for these reasons, the negotiations will most likely succeed even though the result will not be fully satisfactory to either side.
Will the Civil War in Syria Come To An End?
If the negotiations on the nuclear issue (with Iran) succeed, the battle against the IS will acquire additional vigour and the prospects of a political solution to the horrendous civil war in Syria will brighten considerably; and we should expect to witness progress in that direction before the end of 2015. Peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, initiated under Russian aegis and that of the UN Special Envoy, are likely to gather momentum in 2015 and Iran would surely start playing an active role in that process too.
Because the war against the IS will be stepped-up, there would be an increase in the already high levels of violence that has gripped Iraq and Syria in the past few years. Additionally, it is extremely likely that the barbaric brutality exhibited by the IS in carrying out mass executions and grotesque video publicity of beheadings, wholesale abduction and rape as it retreats, etc. will increase. This is a price which, unfortunately, will have to be paid.
Developments within Saudi Arabia: Entering Unchartered Territory?
There has been a lot of churning within the senior echelons of the Saudi royal family over the past year two years, with two successive crown princes dying within months of each other; and by the controversial appointment of a Deputy Crown Prince – Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al Saud – (regarded dimly by many in the royal family as not being a true prince as his mother was not the dynasty founder King Saud’s wife) in May 2014, a heretofore non-existent position; uncharacteristically, this appointment did not receive unanimous approval in the Allegiance Council. A few powerful establishment Princes, like Prince Bandar bin Sultan, have been sidelined.
At present, King Abdullah is seriously ill and will most likely pass away or become completely non-functional during the first half of 2015 – a rather unfortunate happening at this particular juncture because he has been a strong and commanding figure. With Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud’s fragile health, questions arise about the future stability of the policies of this family-run, oil-rich country, apart from domestic consequences of potential discord with the Royal family.
This could lead to unpredictable consequences not only for Saudi Arabia but for the region as a whole when it is in chaos. Every attempt would be made to present a unified and harmonious Royal family façade to the outside world and the endeavour would be to maintain broad continuity of recent policies with a view to building bridges rather than exacerbating differences with neighbours. However, Saudi Arabia is now entering an uncharted territory and therefore all predictions are necessarily speculative.
Oil prices fell precipitously over December 2014, and the Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi has been reported as repeatedly and emphatically saying that it will not curtail production even if the price falls as low as $25.00 per barrel. This is hurting all oil producers and Iran in particular in the region, and Russia outside it; if this persists for long, the US shale oil extraction could become unviable. If nuclear negotiations with Iran do not succeed, this low oil factor may become a particularly strong aggravating factor in catalysing a dramatic deterioration of the situation throughout West Asia.
Rest of the Arab World in 2015
Irrespective of the outcome of the battle against the IS and the nuclear negotiations, the internal situations within many Arab countries, particularly in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, are unlikely to improve. Though there is a democratically elected government in Egypt, it is even more authoritarian than previous authoritarian regimes and this will cause continuing domestic political unrest and increase in what the regime describes as terrorism. Libya has two competing national governments and parliaments and about two dozen different militant groups in contention with others, controlling virtual Islamic emirates.
Libya is likely to descend into a Somalia-like situation. Yemen has a weak and increasingly ineffectual central government; the Shia Houthi rebels are in virtual control of the capital Sanaa and important Sunni majority neighbouring towns; the secessionist movement in the south is strengthening by the day even as the Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, ensconced mainly in southern Yemen, remains a dangerous outfit. A break-up cannot be ruled out but in that event, the situation in both successor states is likely to deteriorate even further.
US in West Asia: Towards a Credible role?
Notwithstanding occasional public statements denouncing the US policies in West Asia, the US military involvement against the IS, in great contrast to past decades, is welcomed by all regional states and will almost certainly contribute to a recovery of the US’ credibility, influence and standing in the region – that had fallen to historical lows. If the nuclear negotiations succeed, despite unquestionable Saudi anger and disappointment, the US will once again resume its role as the indispensable power in the region as it has clearly exhibited in the fight against the IS already.
Israel and Palestine: Repeat of 2014?
The complete absence of any visionary leadership on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, deep domestic cleavages amongst the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the pressing preoccupations of Arab countries and influential world powers with other issues, will result in the lack of any meaningful progress of the Palestinian-Israeli imbroglio; in fact, there could well be a repeat of what had happened vis-à-vis Gaza in 2014.
India and West Asia in 2015
An earlier column (See Ranjit Gupta, “Looking West: Bridging the Gulf with the GCC,” IPCS Commentary #4483, 2 June 2014) explained the enormous significance of the GCC to India’s wellbeing and security. Unfortunately, India’s new government does not seem to be persuaded by the column’s rationale. West Asia has been almost totally neglected as never before since India’s independence. This could have serious consequences for India.
Having said this, India has no specific role to play on the ground in the struggle against the IS beyond offering full diplomatic and political support to the struggle against the terror group. The danger of terrorist activities by Indian Muslims is exaggerated, and to the extent that it exists, it would be much more due to some being enticed by the notorious Pakistani spy agency, the ISI, than due to of the influence or activities of the IS or al Qaeda.
India’s Muslim community – the third largest in the world – has an absolutely outstanding record of resistance to contagion by Islamist extremist entities, ideologies, and movements. Therefore, there is no great danger of radicalism of significant numbers of Indian Muslims by the latter and India’s security agencies are quite capable of handling any such contingencies. A greater challenge is posed by possible consequences of the highly unfortunate rhetoric and activities of far right Hindu activists that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will hopefully curb in 2015.
Prime Minister Modi has been an enormously dynamic leader with a particularly proactive and visionary foreign policy with lack of attention to West Asia being a conspicuous exception. Hopefully he would remedy this lacuna in 2015.