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IPCS Columnists
Spotlight West Asia

Amb Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman
India-West Asia: With Relations Boosted, Consolidation Must Follow
India-UAE: An Emerging Special Relationship
West Asia Six Years After the ‘Arab Spring’: Prognosis for 2017
Trump and West Asia: Reading the Tea Leaves
Battle for Mosul: Prospects for the Immediate Future
The Battle for Aleppo and the Imminent Regional Shifts
Will the US-Russia Deal on Syria Hold?
Russia: The New and Unexpected Power Broker in West Asia
Countering IS: Should India be More Assertively Involved in West Asia?
Iran, India and Chabahar: Recalling the Broader Context
West Asia, US, and Obamas Statesman-like Legacy
Modi in Saudi Arabia: Consolidating Ties in West Asia
Current Syrian Peace Processes Sterile: A New Approach Needed
Forecast 2016: West Asia
Turkey's Ambitions and the War in Syria
Potential Implications of Russias Military Involvement in Syria
Prime Minister Modi Finally Begins His Interaction with West Asia*
A Potential Indian Role in West Asia?
US-GCC Summit: More Hype than Substance
King Salman: The Boldest Ever Saudi Monarch?
Yemen: Why the Current Strife will Continue
Saudi Arabia and Evolving Regional Strategic Dynamics
New Leadership Lineup in Saudi Arabia: Reading the Tea Leaves
IPCS Forecast: West Asia in 2015
Rise of the Islamic State: Implications for the Arab World
Islamic State: The Efficacy of Counter-strategies
War against the Islamic State: Political and Military Responses from the Region
The Islamic State: No Country for the Old World Order
India and the Conflict in Gaza
India in Iraq: Need for Better Focus
Looking West: Bridging the Gulf with the GCC
Elections in Iraq: Uncertain Prospects
Nuclear Iran: Will Obama Succeed?
Saudi Arabia-US Estrangement: Implications for the Indian Subcontinent
Syria Today: Is Regime Change the Answer?
The Arab World: Trying Times Ahead
#5295, 12 June 2017
India-West Asia: With Relations Boosted, Consolidation Must Follow
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has invested more personal energy and enthusiasm in the conduct and stewardship of India’s external relations than any prime minister since the first decade of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s premiership, resulting in India enjoying a significantly higher profile in international relations than at any time since then. Modi has also established an enviable international reputation of being able to develop great personal rapport with foreign leaders even in first meetings. This characteristic has the potential to pay particularly high dividends vis-a-vis leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries because their decisions are unchallengeable policy.

Over the past four decades, the eight countries of West Asia's Gulf region, the GCC countries, i.e. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iraq and Iran, cumulatively became India’s preeminent oil and gas suppliers; and together, they also emerged as India’s leading trade partner in the past decade. Over 8 million Indians live and work there, and are the largest expatriate community in each of the six GCC countries, sending annual remittances worth US$ 35-40 billion. Anti-terrorism cooperation and intelligence-sharing have been growing steadily since the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and are gratifying. These facts are an enormous vote of confidence in India and Indians given that these are overwhelmingly Muslim countries, conspicuously conscious and proud of their Islamic identity, where internal security is a major concern, now more so than ever before, and with many of them having particularly special relations with Pakistan. No major power has anywhere near the kind of people-to-people socio-cultural compatibility and socio-economic interdependence with this region, particularly with the GCC countries, that India does.

The leaders of all these countries have visited India, some of them several times, since 1997, with Iran's then President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah being Chief Guests at India's Republic Day celebrations in 2003 and 2006, respectively. Important ministers have exchanged visits often. Path-breaking and visionary declarations envisaging cooperation in multiple fields have been signed between India and these countries. Substantive relations with Israel have grown strongly though remaining publicly low profile.

Though there are deep and fundamental differences of opinion on many regional geopolitical issues, leaders on both sides consciously decided to set them aside and build solid bilateral relationships on the basis of mutual advantage and benefit particularly in the economic, energy, and anti-piracy, anti-terrorism and intelligence cooperation domains. India has long had serious reservations about military alliances, military solutions to political disputes, and externally manipulated regime change. This has helped India steer clear of conflicts raging in West Asia, particularly since 2011, even as it successfully evacuated its citizens from war zones. There are no bilaterally contentious issues.

For the aforementioned reasons, India has excellent relationships simultaneously with Israel, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In a nutshell, this was the broad picture of India’s relationship with West Asia when Modi assumed office.

As prime minister, Modi has maintained policy continuity and built further upon this strong foundation. There have been two particularly significant developments during the Modi era – one relating to Israel and the other to the UAE.

Given the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) and his own known closeness to Israel, Modi publicly signalled attaching high priority to India’s relations with Israel in West Asia. Modi had a particularly friendly phone conversation with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 24 hours after the former's assumption of office as prime minister in May 2014. Netanyahu was amongst the select foreign leaders that Modi met in New York during the UN's annual session in September 2014. This is a very vital strategic relationship which will be strongly nurtured.

In August 2015, Modi became only the second Indian prime minister to visit the UAE, 34 years after former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, finally assuaging the UAE’s long-standing and fully justified unhappiness: Sheikh Zayed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, and both ceremonial and executive head of state of the UAE, had visited India in 1975, 1992 and 1997; and Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid, the ruler of Dubai, visited India in 2007, 2010, and 2011 as prime minister. Modi received unprecedented protocol courtesies from the royal family and the visit was an absolutely outstanding success from every perspective. A singular consequence was that the crown prince, currently the UAE’s de facto head of state, has since then visited India twice, first in less than six months in February 2016 and the second as chief guest at India's Republic Day celebrations in January 2017. Thus, the two leaders have met thrice in less than 18 months. Such frequency is unique in India’s bilateral relations. The three joint statements have sketched a comprehensive and visionary road map of strategic cooperation in multiple fields.

Modi’s visit to the UAE was followed by successful visits to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar. Oman’s foreign minister was the first foreign dignitary to visit India after the Modi government was sworn in. Oman has been India's most consistent friend and supporter amongst Arab countries. Modi is likely to visit Oman when an agreement of very considerable strategic significance could be signed. Turkey has become a particularly proactive player in West Asia and Modi has made a deliberate effort to engage with Turkey; and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited India in May this year.

However, a dark cloud deserves priority attention. Many months have passed since the UAE agreed to make a US$ 75 billion investment in India in the August 2015 Joint Statement, the largest and most explicit commitment made by any country to India, but to the UAE's deep disappointment, no agreement on its utilisation has been signed. India has not been able to come up with a single viable project even as the more than a decade-long legacy issue of the UAE’s past investment in India remain unresolved. Farzad B, Chabahar and associated industrial projects, the International North South Transport Corridor, etc are other telling examples. This is due to a long continuing and abject failure to implement agreements made with foreign countries.

One would have thought that with Modi’s action-and-results oriented persona, unchallengeable and strong leadership of his party, cabinet and government, a parliamentary majority, and strong public support - all luxuries that most previous governments did not enjoy - a conscious and comprehensive effort would have been made to address long-standing critical systemic external relations-related governance deficiencies and weaknesses; but nothing meaningful appears to have been done.

Unless such lacunae are addressed on a war footing, there is a real risk of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, sitting on mountains of investible funds and keen to invest in India, losing interest at a time when the gap between their geopolitical policies and India’s approach is widening with the distinct potential to weaken India’s most beneficial international relationships.

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#5236, 15 February 2017
India-UAE: An Emerging Special Relationship
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

In December 1999, a hijacked Indian Airlines aircraft that had been diverted from Kathmandu to fly to Kandahar, which had deadly Pakistani terrorists on board, had been on the tarmac in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) for over five hours. No Indian official was allowed access to the airport and an Indian request for permission to raid the aircraft was summarily turned down. The UAE was the only country other in addition to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which was a strong supporter of - and had diplomatic relations with - the extremely anti-India Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

As Pakistan continued its descent into internal and cross-border terrorism against Afghanistan and India, the UAE finally recognised that such Pakistani-sponsored terrorism posed grave dangers to the entire region. Deeply alarmed by the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the UAE government dispatched a high level security team to Mumbai within 24 hours for detailed discussions with relevant Indian agencies. Since then, the UAE has been providing India the best anti-terrorism cooperation of any country in the world. It has been repatriating most of those India wanted for terrorist activity within India despite Pakistan's intensive efforts to prevent such repatriations, including going to the extent of often claiming that those persons were Pakistani nationals. 

Trajectory of Bilateral Relations
Encouraged by this and the burgeoning socio-economic bilateral relationship, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided that West Asia needs special attention. He visited the UAE in August 2015, 34 years after former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the country, becoming only the second Indian prime minister to do so. This long gap is further highlighted by the fact that Sheikh Zayed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, and both ceremonial and executive Head of State of the UAE, had visited India in 1975, 1992 and 1997; and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, visited India in 2007, 2010, and 2011 as Prime Minister.
 
Again demonstrating his now well well-known international reputation of establishing great personal rapport with foreign leaders even in their first meetings, he invited the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to visit India, who did so in February 2016 - in less than six months after Prime Minister Modi’s visit. 

In their Joint Statement issued in February 2016, the two leaders had said that it is “the responsibility of all states to control the activities of the so-called ‘non-state actors’, and to cut all support to terrorists operating and perpetrating terrorism from their territories against other states.” 

Greatly encouraged by this, the exceedingly satisfying bilateral discussions, and the Crown Prince’s numerous gestures of high personal regard for the prime minister and friendship for India, Prime Minister Modi accorded the Crown Prince a singular honour by inviting him as Chief Guest at India's Republic Day celebrations. An announcement in this regard is almost invariably made in December or even January but this time it was done in September 2016, and exceedingly significantly, in the immediate aftermath of India’s surgical strikes in response to attacks by Pakistani terrorists on a military camp in Uri in India's Jammu and Kashmir state. The morning after this terrorist attack, the UAE in a statement had said that it “stand(s) against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and expressed… solidarity with the Republic of India and support to all actions it may take to confront and eradicate terrorism.” 

The Crown Prince, currently the UAE’s de facto head of state, has visited India twice in less than 12 months and the two leaders have met three times in less than 18 months. Such frequency is unique in India’s bilateral relations with any country and indeed unprecedented in international relations. 

Continuing concern related to terrorism was expressed in all three joint statements and eloquently reflected in the two leaders joint op ed in the Times of India and the Khaleej Times on 26 January 2017: “We have denounced and opposed terrorism in all forms and manifestations, wherever committed and by whomever, calling on all states to reject and abandon the use of terrorism against other countries, dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they exist, and bring perpetrators of terrorism to justice. We believe that this approach is crucial for fostering an environment of peace, stability and prosperity in our region.”

Status of India-UAE Relations
Some other notable facts about the current bilateral relationship deserve attention:

1. The UAE supports India’s proposal for the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism and India's Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council.
 
2. Internal security in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries was always accorded the highest priority. Given the multiple wars raging in West Asia since 2011, this has become a far greater concern than it did earlier. In this context, that 2.8 million Indians live and work in the UAE - more than double the number of locals - and being by far the largest expatriate group in the country, and with the number increasing every year, represents an enormous vote of confidence in Indians and India. 
 
3. From a mere $180 million in 1971, India was UAE’s 8th ranked trading partner from 1990-91 till 2000-2001; the ranking began rising rapidly thereafter and in the past decade, the UAE has invariably been amongst India’s top three trading partners and amongst India’s top two export destinations, and in both cases, more than once being number one.
 
4. Indians have invested $55 billion in the UAE. During Prime Minister Modi’s 2015 visit, the UAE agreed to invest $75 billion to upgrade India’s infrastructure, particularly in strategically important projects.
 
5. During the Crown Prince’s January 2017 visit, the Chief Executive Officer of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company invited India to explore investments in upstream oil and gas exploration and downstream in refining and petrochemicals; and to store 6 million tonnes of oil in an Indian Strategic Oil Reserve facility - both a first from a GCC country. Since its independence in 1971, the UAE has always been among the top seven oil suppliers to India. 
 
6. The three Joint Statements deserve to be read very carefully as they exhibit the vast depth and breadth of the across-the-spectrum comprehensiveness of bilateral cooperation including new emphasis on security and defence cooperation including in defence co-production. 
 
7. Though there are sharply different perceptions regarding the current conflicts in West Asia between India and the UAE, the two leaders have consciously decided not to allow this to affect the growing excellent bilateral relations.

All this eloquently demonstrates that India's relations with the UAE are clearly on the trajectory of becoming a ‘particularly special relationship’, one of a kind for both countries.

Harnessing the Relationship
Ultimately, it is exceedingly close socio-economic interdependence that will provide the ballast for a true strategic partnership between the two countries. India must get its act together - a quick resolution of past UAE investment legacy issues; and quick identification of potential UAE investment projects that must have time bound implementation flow charts. 17 months have passed since the UAE agreed to make a $75 billion investment in India in the August 2015 Joint Statement but an agreement on the modalities of its utilisation has not yet been signed, putting India’s credibility at stake.

Once exceedingly special, the UAE’s relations with Pakistan are under severe strain. India should desist from pushing the envelope in this regard in the public domain because it could be counter-productive.

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#5224, 19 January 2017
West Asia Six Years After the ‘Arab Spring’: Prognosis for 2017
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

All Arab countries have autocratic governments. Six years ago, in the winter of 2010-2011 a spontaneous and exhilarating surge of massive protest demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of common people swept across the Arab world, swiftly and peacefully toppling long entrenched dictators in Tunisia and Egypt within weeks. This unexpected success inspired the people of Bahrain, Syria and Yemen also to demand fundamental economic and political reform. However, the euphoria has turned out to be a cruel mirage. Seeing fellow dictators ousted, rulers resorted to brutal suppression of these protests; many foreign countries, taking advantage of the unrest, intervened directly and through proxies to promote their own geopolitical interests and in the process unleashed an unprecedented bloodbath and urban devastation worse than in World War II.

The net result has been that instead of the passionately hoped for new political and economic dawn, the people of Syria and Yemen are going through the darkest ever period in their modern history. West Asia has become deeply polarised due to a particularly noxious sectarian feud and a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is being chillingly exhibited in the blood soaked, exceedingly destructive developments in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. A vicious war has broken out within Islam. Muslims are killing other Muslims in an orgy of fanaticism with unprecedented ferocity. Radical Islam and terrorism in the name of Islam have become rampant and are creating mayhem even beyond the region.

All this was epitomised in the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) and its "Caliphate" in Iraq and Syria in June 2014 with its capital at Raqqa, Syria. Actions and policies of Turkey (which has been proactive); Saudi Arabia; the brazenly sectarian (mis)governance of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq; policy omissions and commissions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the US have been the main contributors to the advent and rise of this anachronistic phenomenon. At the peak of its power, the Islamic State controlled 40 per cent of Iraq and over 50 per cent of Syria; it is now less than 10 per cent in Iraq and less than 25 per cent in Syria.

To a very considerable extent, this success is due to the US led coalition conducting almost 10,500 air attacks against it from August 2014 till the end of 2016 in Iraq and just over 6000 from September 2014 in Syria. Russia too has carried out a large number of air attacks against the IS in Syria since October 2015. A full-scale assault to recapture Mosul, the last significant city that the IS controls in Iraq is currently underway as also efforts to recapture the IS capital, Raqqa.

But the third outcome is perhaps the most startling. The US, the world's most powerful country after World War II, has been the architect and guarantor of security and stability in West Asia since then. Despite continuing to be the world’s leading economic and military power, continuing to have a strong military presence in the region, with its regional allies armed to the teeth with the latest state-of-the-art US equipment, the end of 2016 finds Washington in the rather bizarre and completely unfamiliar and unimaginable situation of being virtually marginalised in meaningfully influencing the shape of the emerging strategic landscape of the strategically vital West Asian region. This is not because other players have edged the US out but an almost inevitable consequence of outgoing US President Barack Obama's very deliberately adopted (and trenchantly criticised both within and outside the US; but this author views it as statesmanlike for the longer term) retrenchment approach and refusal to get militarily involved in new conflicts in West Asia. The vacuum has been filled by Russia, which has emerged as the new power broker in West Asia with Iran becoming the most influential regional power.

SYRIA

Credible estimates suggest almost 500,000 people have died in the many wars raging in Syria since March 2011; approximately 5 million people have fled the country and over 6.5 million people are internally displaced, cumulatively comprising over half the total Syrian population in 2011. The utterly devastating destruction of housing and infrastructure in its cities has left Syria a completely broken country where normalcy will not return, if ever, for decades.

Robust Russian military intervention since September 2015 in favour of Assad, and Iran’s consistently growing support and commitment to Assad – compelled by evolving circumstances; the steadily dwindling support for rebels from Turkey; Gulf Sunni States and the West; Assad’s finally taking full control over the psychologically and strategically vital Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and erstwhile commercial and financial centre, enabled by a ceasefire and evacuation of rebels brokered by Turkey and Russia; the focus of all major players increasingly shifting towards defeating the Islamic State – are all factors that have ensured that Assad can no longer be overthrown by military means.

In August 2016, Turkey launched operation Euphrates Shield, which envisages the creation of a Turkish military controlled ‘safe haven’ of over 5000 square kilometres of territory inside Syria to prevent any possibility of the Kurds creating an unbroken corridor under their control extending across the entire Syrian-Turkish border. In the closing weeks of 2016, a rather improbable and opportunistic alliance emerged consisting of Iran, Russia and Turkey, which has taken control of efforts to bring about peace in Syria, with the US and European countries being deliberately excluded from its meetings.

Prognosis:
The multiple ongoing wars in Syria between Assad and Salafi/Jihadi/al Qaeda affiliated rebels; between Assad and other ‘moderate’ rebels; between Assad and the IS; between the IS and other rebels; between the al Qaeda affiliated rebels and other rebels; between various foreign countries and the IS; Turkey’s war against the Kurds scaled up by operation Euphrates Shield, etc., will continue but the intensity of these different wars will diminish significantly except for the war against the IS, which will be ratcheted up, as well as the Turkish war against the Kurds. Assad will remain in power.

There will be serious and sincere Russia driven efforts for ceasefires and peace talks. Given US President-elect Donald Trump’s warm feelings for Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a strategic partnership between the two in Syria is likely to fructify. This will boost the possibilities of moving forward towards ending the mayhem in Syria though collaterally working to Assad’s advantage. Russia and Iran will continue to be the dominant political foreign influence in Syria. 

Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been a particularly destabilising element in West Asia since the advent of the so-called Arab spring; and his frequent policy flip-flops suggest that Turkey will remain a spoiler rather than a constructive factor. Operation Euphrates Shield could cause new complications in Syria.

YEMEN

The inability of the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Shia but a protégé of the Sunni Saudi Arabia since 1991, to control the Arab Spring related unrest led to his ouster in the Saudi manipulated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “mediation” in November 2011. In February 2012, he was replaced by Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, a Sunni, from Yemen's south. Hadi’s inept and ineffective governance and his equally incompetent leadership of the military enabled the Houthis to take control of Sana’a in September 2014. Saleh opportunistically announced an alliance with the Houthis in March 2015 after his residence was attacked by Saudi planes. Despite eviction from office, given Saleh’s still enormous influence over the army, a significant part of the country (including Aden, albeit briefly) came under Houthi/Saleh control. Despite the relentless Saudi offensive, Houthis and their allies continue to maintain their hold over Sana’a, a significant part of the northern highlands, much of the coastal areas, and the important city of Taiz.

Justifying these developments as Iran posing an existential threat, Saudi Arabia, without any credible basis whatsoever, launched operation Decisive Storm on 15 March 2015, in alliance with a few GCC and other Sunni Arab countries. In a complete reversal of traditional under the radar foreign policy, this new muscular approach was initiated by the extremely ambitious, brash and completely inexperienced new Saudi Defence Minister, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the favourite son of the new Saudi King, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Heavy and indiscriminate aerial bombing has devastated Yemen, the poorest Arab country, causing approximately 10,000 deaths; displacement of 1.5 million people; and unimaginable destruction in its cities and infrastructure, leaving 86 per cent of its population in need of urgent and sustained humanitarian assistance.

Two side-effects of all these developments have been the very considerable enhancement of the influence and power of al Qaeda in Yemen and the ingress of the IS.

Prognosis:
Saudi Arabia cannot win this war and this realisation will finally sink in. The drain on Saudi resources will pinch ever more. The international community will finally be compelled to start pressurising Saudi Arabia to end this war. The unnatural and opportunistic alliance between Saleh and the Houthis will begin to crumble. Multi-pronged efforts will be initiated to organise ceasefires to enable humanitarian aid for the Yemeni people. As a result of all this, the intensity of the Saudi assault and internal civil war are likely to abate, setting the stage hopefully for a stop to all hostilities in 2018.

ISLAMIC STATE 

Prognosis:
The IS as a territorial entity will almost certainly be militarily defeated before 2017 ends though small isolated pockets controlled by IS fighters will remain. The new IS tactics of carrying out high visibility high casualty attacks in Europe, Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc., would likely escalate. However, the ideology that inspired and underpinned the IS will remain to trouble West Asia and the world for a considerable time to come.

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#5207, 19 December 2016
Trump and West Asia: Reading the Tea Leaves
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS, & former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman
 

Not only is Donald Trump the least-prepared president-elect in US history, but he compounds this handicap by showing little interest in preparing for perhaps the most important position in the world. He has been brazenly blasé about avoiding intelligence briefings, saying, “I don’t have to be told, you know, I’m, like, a smart person.”

Donald Trump, the first billionaire US president, has appointed to his cabinet or cabinet-level positions people having a combined net worth of about US$5.6 billion, the highest in US history. Success in deals and money-making seems to be a premium criterion for Trump’s evaluation of people, an unusual approach for successful governance. Having 4 former generals in his team is also unprecedented. Less than half of the appointees have government experience. Those who will have his ear on a daily basis are his cronies – his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is an unabashed White-supremacist demagogue having headed right-wing news site Breitbart News, before chairing the president-elect’s campaign; Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief-of-staff, was chair of the Republican National Committee; Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, has emerged as a key power centre. None of them had worked in government. His daughter, Ivanka, has been sitting in Trump’s meetings with foreign dignitaries. His national security advisor, Gen Michael Flynn, is unabashedly racist and an Islamophobe; he was sacked as head of the Defence Intelligence Agency. He has a long record of being unable to work harmoniously with colleagues.

Trump’s foreign policy-related comments during the campaign were like throwaway remarks - seemingly consciously designed keeping in mind the next day's news headlines - conspicuously exhibiting a complete lack of serious thinking through on many critical issues. He has a dim view of long time US security alliances and of allies being freeloaders. Even after being elected he has continued to be off-handed. In a particularly conspicuous and potentially extremely dangerous break with the past, Trump took a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan and later strongly defended his doing so against both domestic criticism and China’s continuing strong warnings. The Sino-US relationship is the most critical relationship in global geopolitics and must be treated with great sensitivity.

All this cannot but be a matter of considerable concern since the US is the world’s most powerful country and has been the linchpin of the global security architecture.

Trump has appointed Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, as secretary of state, and South Carolina Governor Nicky Haley to be ambassador to the UN. Neither has any foreign policy experience. However, Tillerson has shepherded ExxonMobil’s work in over 50 countries remarkably successfully. Trump sees him as a pragmatist and a savvy dealmaker, viewing his strong personal ties with Putin and business relationship with Russia - including opposition to sanctions on Russia - favourably. This resonates well with his own personal warm feelings towards Putin as someone able to cut deals with strongmen, many of whom have traditionally been opposed to the US: “Rex is friendly with many of the leaders in the world that we don’t get along with…I like what this is all about.” All this said, Tillerson may prove to be an inspired choice.

Retired marine Gen James Mattis’ nomination as secretary of defence has been the most popular appointment. He is particularly well regarded in the US military and enjoys bipartisan political support.

It is to be hoped that both Tillerson and Mattis will bring a certain degree of sobriety and gravitas in the consideration of important foreign policy issues.

Currently, the most dangerous flashpoints in the world are in West Asia, which has been in flames for almost six years now, and there are few signs of the situation improving meaningfully any time soon. Issues in this region are likely to be amongst the earliest foreign policy decisions of the Trump administration. Each decision will have consequences that would adversely impinge upon Trump’s other regional priorities, and so it will not be easy to pursue many mutually contradictory components of his West Asian policy agenda.

Trump’s campaign remarks suggest that he attaches the highest priority to defeating the Islamic State (IS) through proactive cooperation with Russia, and that he wishes to establish a close personal working relationship with Putin. Particularly after Russia’s successful military intervention in Syria, such a partnership will inevitably ensure a fresh lease of life for Assad’s continuing in power until his patrons, Russia and Iran, decide otherwise. It will also further empower Iran in the region and enable Russia to consolidate its growing physical military presence and political influence in West Asia in the long-term.

On the other hand, Trump has repeatedly said that it would be his “number-one priority to dismantle the disastrous (nuclear) deal with Iran.” Vice-President Pence, NSA Flynn, CIA Director Pompeo, Chief of Staff Priebus and indeed even Defence Secretary Mattis are also hawks on Iran, but to his credit, Mattis has publicly suggested that the US must not unilaterally scrap the nuclear deal. Abrogating it will create complications with all other co-signatories, particularly Russia, apart from potentially causing Iran to take counter-actions with potentially highly destabilising consequences.

Trump has promised to shift the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Announcing the appointment of a long time lobbyist for Israel, David Friedman, as the new US ambassador to Israel, Trump said, “the bond between Israel and the United States runs deep..I will ensure there is no daylight between us….He [Friedman] has been a long time friend and trusted advisor to me." Accepting the offer, Friedman inter alia said, “I intend to work tirelessly to strengthen the unbreakable bond between our two countries and…. I look forward to doing this from the US Embassy in Israel's eternal capital Jerusalem.” Long-term senior aide to Trump, Kellyanne Conway, later said, “this is a very big priority for the President-elect and I have heard him repeat it several times privately if not publicly” after being elected. Doing this will create a huge uproar all over the Muslim world, greatly complicating the new administration's relations with Muslim countries. This move will almost certainly provide a huge boost to greater radicalisation of increasingly larger numbers of Muslims and terrorism.

Trump has spoken highly of Erdogan and both Pence and Flynn have dropped hints that Gulen could be extradited to Turkey. This would greatly encourage Erdogan to become even more authoritarian. Given his visceral hatred of the Kurds and proclivity towards policy flip flops, this will serve to greatly enhance uncertainties in West Asia. At the same time, Trump has expressed great admiration and friendship for the Kurds of both Syria and Iraq. There is no clarity how this conundrum can be resolved.

If these campaign promises are carried out, it will almost certainly further inflame and destabilise the situation in West Asia. It would be in the interest of the region, the world, and indeed of the US itself to postpone decisions relating to the nuclear deal, shifting the embassy, and decision regarding Gulen for 6 months or so to enable a thorough evaluation of their inevitably serious consequences.   

Finally, it merits mention that the implementation of these promises will create huge dilemmas for India because it cannot sit silently on the fence as it has done advantageously in the past. India will perforce have to take stands, inevitably offending one or the other side, and each one of India's relationships in West Asia are very valuable for India.  

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#5182, 15 November 2016
Battle for Mosul: Prospects for the Immediate Future
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

On 17 October 2016, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi announced the commencement of the battle for Mosul. He also said that except for the Iraqi army, police and security forces, “no others will be allowed to enter Mosul;” Iraqi troops have agreed to stay out of Kurdish territory and the Peshmerga have promised they will not enter Mosul. However, the Iraqi government has little political clout or military capability to enforce this eminently desirable restraining measure in respect of non-state groups. Unexpectedly, rapid advances have been made despite Islamic State (IS) fighters putting up fierce resistance. The IS being defeated and Mosul and Nineveh Provinces being recaptured is now a certainty. Though this would mark the welcome end of a savagery infused and blood soaked episode, it is distinctly possible that another, and longer term, unhappy episode in this northern Iraqi region could begin. 

The assault on Mosul is led by the Iraqi army, police and special forces, supported by the Kurdish Peshmerga and backed by US coalition led air strikes and special forces. Additionally, Sunni militias, many trained by/proxies of Turkey, and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) or Hashd al-Shaabi, composed of approximately 40 predominantly Shia militia groups many of which have close ties to Iran, are also involved, but outside Mosul. Once the common enemy – the IS – is removed from the scene, the centrifugal and competing forces of sectarianism and separatism will inevitably come to the fore. In fact, this may well start happening while the fight against the IS is still underway, even potentially risking an abortion of a successful outcome of the battle. 

Given the deserved ill-repute of the PMF for vengeance attacks on Sunni populations of towns liberated from the IS earlier, it would be a miracle if clashes do not occur between them and others involved in the assault. In early November, they took control of key points on the highway between Mosul and the IS capital Raqqa in Syria and are seeking to take over the strategic town of Tel Afar, near the Syrian border, which is populated mainly by Sunni Turkmens; this could prompt Turkish intervention against them. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other Turkish leaders have made it clear that they will protect the Turkmen community and other Sunni populations in the battle theatre wherever needed. 

Turkey’s unambiguously stated intent of intrusive involvement is an ominous portent. Brazenly rejecting the Iraqi government's repeated demands for removal of its forces from Iraqi territory and despite the Iraqi government’s categorical opposition, Erdogan has insisted that Turkey, with 2,000 well-armed and equipped troops stationed near Bashiqa, only 8 kms northeast of Mosul, and more troops and armour in other border regions and just across the border, must and will be involved in the battle for Mosul and must be at the table to decide Mosul’s future since Mosul and Kirkuk, indeed the whole of Nineveh province, are “part of our [Turkey’s] soul,” (incorporated into Iraq, established in 1920, only in 1923/26). Reopening the issue almost a century later, Erdogan has said that "Insistence on (the 1923 borders) is the greatest injustice that can be done to the state and the nation…If everything is changing in the world of today, we cannot consider adherence to the treaty of 1923 a success.” 

On 07 November 2016, the Kurdish Peshmerga won back control of Bashiqa from the IS. Despite having cordial political and particularly strong economic relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the Turkish foreign minister very recently said that “If there is a threat to Turkey from Iraq, we will use all our resources and rights, including a ground operation…We aren't saying this to Iraqis alone, but to the United States and all coalition nations, (and) to the northern Iraqi government” (Kurdish Regional Government). 

A century-long struggle for independence for the Kurds may be nearing a turning point. Having enjoyed de facto self-governance for over a decade, they will not easily let go of this new opportunity, keeping in mind its particularly significant role in the fight against the IS. The Iraqi Kurds are savouring a sense of empowerment and self-confidence as never before. In a February 2016 interview to the German newspaper ‘Bild’, KRG President Masoud Barzani, inter alia, said that Iraqi Kurds have been waiting for independence “for too long…..We are not Arabs, we are our own Kurdish nation... If the people of Kurdistan are waiting for someone else to present the right of self-determination as a gift, independence will never be obtained. That right exists and the people of Kurdistan must demand it and put it into motion. The time has long been ripe for it, but we are currently concentrating on the fight against Daesh; as soon as Mosul is liberated, Kurds will meet with ’partners in Baghdad’ and talk about our independence.” If pursued excessively assertively, new conflicts could arise. 

The question of who will control/govern Mosul will immediately arise. No plans have been announced, partly because this could unravel the coalition seeking to liberate it. Shia-Sunni clashes and atrocities on different minorities are almost inevitable. Then, almost inevitably, the PMF and the Sunni forces trained by Turkey will also almost certainly enter the fray and in the context of increasing mayhem, direct Turkish intervention is a very distinct possibility and this in turn could bring in other countervailing foreign intervention.

Oil rich Kirkuk is a city that has been particularly hotly contested between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government for decades. The defeat of the IS will reopen the issue of Kurdish control of Kirkuk – the Kurdish Peshmega had taken over after 12 June 2014, when the Iraqi army fled following the success of the IS’ 2014 Northern Iraq offensive. Once the dust settles in Mosul, the central government will seek to reclaim disputed territories and/or recently Kurdish-occupied areas (see map) and Kirkuk in particular – all of which the Kurd leadership has no intentions of withdrawing from. Thus, another conflict is in the making. 

Iraq’s misfortunes are unlikely to end with the defeat of the IS.

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#5153, 13 October 2016
The Battle for Aleppo and the Imminent Regional Shifts
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

Aleppo, the crossroads of civilisation for millennia, Syria’s largest city, and its main commercial and cultural centre, is also the most important strategic gateway from Turkey into Syria. Controlling Aleppo is essential for any ruler to control Syria. Therefore, the battle for Aleppo is crucial for the future of Syria and indeed the Levant.
 
Aleppo was the last city to join the uprising against Assad. It got divided into government and rebel-controlled areas around mid-2012, along lines that had remained largely unchanged till fighting intensified greatly - particularly from June 2016 onwards - culminating in the current relentless, indiscriminate and the most lethal bombardment of rebel controlled parts of the city by Russian and Syrian air forces in nearly six years of war. Hospitals have been hit and civilian casualties are rising as supplies run out and soon, supply routes will no longer be available. 
 
Having little or no choice left, the main insurgent groups in Aleppo such as Ahrar Al Sham, who are themselves ultra-radical, have coalesced under the umbrella of Jaysh al-Fateh and inevitably joined hands with al Qaeda linked Jabhat Fatah al Sham (formerly known as the Jabhat al-Nusra Front). This renaming is a ruse that nobody takes seriously. Even moderate rebel groups backed by the West have little option but to ally with these radical salafi jihadis. However, none of this can be a justification for what has now become a no holds barred aerial assault, the worst of the five-and-half-year old war. On 08 October 2016, China, which has consistently voted with Russia on UN resolutions relating to the Syrian crisis, felt constrained to abstain on the Franco Spanish Resolution demanding an immediate halt in the aerial strikes on Aleppo in the UN Security Council.  Nevertheless Russia brazenly vetoed this Resolution, making it abundantly clear that it is determined to ensure that the Assad regime wins control of Aleppo, immaterial of what the world thinks. 
 
Russia is well aware of US President Barack Obama’s steadfast refusal to get militarily involved in Syria; and now in the past four months of his presidency, chances of assertive US counter intervention are almost nil. Other Western countries have supplied arms but have refrained from military intervention against Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Syria like they had done in Libya; and with Europe facing multiple internal challenges, they cannot take any meaningful counter action. West Asian Sunni countries are simply incapable of doing so and in any case, Saudi Arabia is deeply involved in the debilitating, self-defeating Yemeni quagmire of its own creation. Finally, the most assertive foreign power that could have done something meaningful - Turkey - has changed its policies dramatically in the wake of the coup in Ankara, with Erdogan and Putin having met 3 times in three months – in St Petersburg in August 2016; at the G20 summit in September 2016; and in Istanbul in October 2016. 
 
Turkey’s primary priority in Syria henceforth will be curbing the Syrian Kurds. Russia knows it has a relatively free hand and is taking the fullest advantage of current regional and global geopolitical ground realities.
 
It may take a few weeks or even a few months but Assad’s victory in Aleppo is now assured, backed up also by the proactive involvement of Iranian patronised Hezbollah and various Shia militias. With victory in Aleppo, Assad will have gained control of all the major cities – Damascus, Hama, Homs, Latakia, etc. However, to gain full control of even the Western two-fifths of the country - which includes these cities and where 70 per cent of Syria’s population lived - Assad has to gain control over the highly strategic Idlib province that is still largely under the control of the rebels. This will take time, possibly even a couple of years.
 
Winning control of Aleppo will not mean an end to the war in Syria. Peace in Syria is many years away. The main consequences of an Assad/Iran/Russia victory in Aleppo are likely to be following:- 
 
1. Possibilities of any new regime or even transitional arrangements towards a new regime would become largely academic.
 
2. Assad will continue as the ruler of Syria albeit only of a truncated part of the country for the foreseeable future until such time as Russia and Iran decide that they are ready for an alternative.
 
3. Syria will find itself de facto partitioned into a western part under Assad; the relatively sparsely populated, comparatively arid and economically weak central part where the rebels will be jostling for control with Assad on the one hand and the Islamic State on the other; a de facto Kurdish autonomous zone along much of the border with Turkey – which will face continuous assaults from the Islamic State (IS), some rebel groups and, in some locations, from the Assad regime also, but pre-eminently from Turkey; and, finally, territories under the control of the (IS) that will be under full-scale assault from all sides, particularly from Western powers.
 
4. The effort to overthrow Assad will be transformed into a long-term Sunni guerrilla insurgency. The situation in Syria becoming an Afghanistan like scenario cannot be ruled out. 
 
5. However, the most significant consequence will be a very considerable reshaping of the geostrategic landscape of West Asia. Iran will emerge as the undisputed regional hegemonic power. Russia will upgrade its naval and air bases into major facilities on a permanent basis and ensure a long-term strategic niche role for itself in West Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. The more than a century old unchallengeable Western domination of West Asia will finally end.

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#5132, 19 September 2016
Will the US-Russia Deal on Syria Hold?
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

The war in Syria is still raging after over five and half years since its outset. Several initiatives have been undertaken to try and end it – first through the Arab League, then Geneva I, Geneva II and the Vienna Process, where even a calendar of steps for bringing peace to Syria was laid out. Obviously, partisan efforts by Western countries and their Arab Gulf allies in the UN Security Council (UNSC) were defeated by Chinese and Russian vetoes.
 
Finally, in February 2016 the US, Russia and 19 other countries met in Munich, preceded by intensive negotiations between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and an agreement for a ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria's civil war was announced. On 26 February, the UNSC endorsed this initiative through Resolution 2268. Special Envoys Kofi Annan and Lahkdar Brahimi had toiled without success and resigned; Stefan de Mistura continues his efforts. Despite all this, the situation within Syria has continued to steadily worsen. Given the complex ground realities, a meaningful improvement is nowhere on the horizon, let alone being imminent.

After another round of marathon negotiations conducted secretly between Kerry and Lavrov, a new deal was announced on 09 September, to bring about a ceasefire with the deal coming into effect at 7:00 pm on 12 September. Kerry outlined the main features of the deal at the press conference while announcing the same. 

An Overview of the Deal
The Syrian regime and the opposition will cease all attacks against each other including aerial bombardments and shall not attempt to gain additional territory at the expense of each other; both sides will agree to provide unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all besieged and hard-to-reach areas including, in particular, in and around Aleppo; non jihadist opposition groups are expected to sever connections with Fateh al Sham (earlier called Al Nusra Front – an al Qaeda outfit); after seven continuous days of adherence to the cessation of hostilities and increased humanitarian access to the besieged civilian populations, Russia and the US will begin working together to defeat Fateh al Sham and the Islamic State (IS) jihadist groups; after a “period of reduced violence” the US and Russia “will facilitate a political transition which is the only way to bring about a durable end to this war.”
 
Reception  
The Syrian regime immediately accepted the deal; most opposition rebel groups have also accepted but less categorically and the most powerful, Ahrar al Sham, has rejected it. As of 18 September 2016, the ceasefire is largely holding and fighting has noticeably reduced but humanitarian supplies have not been getting through. However, with opposing sides in Syria increasingly accusing each other of violations and barbs being traded between Russia and the US, even at presidential levels, immediate short-term prospects of the deal working appear bleak.
 
The continuing deep distrust between the two protagonists of the deal, Washington and Moscow, was publicly articulated robustly by both US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter throughout the two weeks of the Kerry-Lavrov negotiations leading up to the announcement of the deal. Even Kerry's remarks at the press conference unveiling the deal were peppered with deep uncertainty if not scepticism – e.g. the repetitive use of phrases such as 'if this happens', 'if those concerned implement the deal', etc. An extremely clear reflection of the enormous difficulties ahead is the fact that the US has made it absolutely clear that the detailed text of the deal cannot be released because if the deal breaks down, the details will be hugely useful to Assad. These are not propitious omens for potential success.

This deal is believed to be very detailed in contrast to past efforts. However, there are no mechanisms to ensure implementation of even a single element of the deal and there are far too many loopholes that can easily be exploited by different parties to continue doing what they have been doing in the past.

Kerry had said that “if groups within the legitimate opposition want to retain their legitimacy, they need to distance themselves in every way possible from Nusra and Daesh." This is perhaps the single most essential key to the deal working out because most rebel groups operate in very close proximity to Nusra fighters when not embedded together in rebel controlled areas. Opposition rebels will inevitably be hit whenever the Syrian regime attacks al Nusra fighters, as it will inevitably do as al Nusra is excluded from the ceasefire, and then the regime will be accused of violating terms of the deal. But who will ensure that this separation is brought about? Neither the US nor Russia can do so. Most of the more effective rebel groups are proxies of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and though they have verbally welcomed the deal, do these countries have the ability or frankly, even any desire or intention, to bring about this separation?
 
Looking Ahead 
Russia has given enough indications that it is not committed to keeping Assad in power beyond a transitional phase. If Russia can persuade Assad to refrain from attacking al Nusra for the next few weeks, progress to the next stage – US and Russia taking on Nusra and Daesh – could take place which is an essential prerequisite for the third stage: initiating a political transition. However, the opposition rebels are resolutely opposed to Assad's continuation for even a very limited period of transition. Will a hugely politically weakened Obama, now also in the last four months of his presidency, and with the US' influence in the region at a historic low, have the clout to persuade Saudi Arabia and its allies to persuade the rebels to accept Assad even for a short time? If Assad is excluded completely from transitional arrangements no progress on a solution is possible at all – Assad and Iran will ensure that notwithstanding Russian views. 
 
Another significant uncertainty is as to whether the exceedingly disparate opposition can cobble together a meaningful representative entity to be a partner in any transitional authority? The obduracy and unalloyed attachment to zero-sum outcomes of all the very large number of players on the ground in Syria is a very serious impediment to a solution.
 
Furthermore, the deal does not say anything about the presence of foreign Shiite militias such as Hezbollah, which like al Qaeda and the IS, is considered a terrorist group by the US, and the Turkish Army having physically entered Syria to prevent the westward advance of Syrian Kurds, who are the US’ most effective ally against Daesh. These issues have the potential to derail any forward movement.
 
The past six years have witnessed many unpredictable surprises thrown up in the Arab world and West Asia. Making predictions, always hazardous, has become more iffy now. The many negative elements outlined above and the even more numerous imponderables make it difficult to be even mildly optimistic of this new deal bringing an early end to the conflict in Syria. That said, it will be good for the world at large and for the people of Syria in particular if this prognostication is proved wrong.

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#5102, 16 August 2016
Russia: The New and Unexpected Power Broker in West Asia
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

In sharp contrast to the Soviet Union, post-Cold War Russia, completely preoccupied with rebuilding domestically both in the economic and political domains, was determined to establish a good relationship with the US and disinclined to challenge US policies and presence even in Europe, let alone in West Asia or other parts of the world, until well into the Putin era. In fact, in its first decade as the new Russian Federation, its role and relevance in West Asia reached a post-World War II low. But as a proud nation and one of two erstwhile global superpowers, Russia had no intentions of remaining a nonentity in global geopolitics. Its veto power in the UN Security Council ensured that it could not be entirely disregarded while it bided time patiently.

The manner of US' dismantling of the Taliban regime and later that of Saddam Hussein following the unilateral US invasion and occupation of these countries, exacerbated the radicalisation of increasing proportions of the populations of Islamic countries on the one hand and contributed to significantly exacerbating sectarian tensions within Islamic societies on the other. Ultimately, the consequences of these particular US policies, and those of Turkey and Saudi Arabia too,finally opened the door for the now hyper-nationalist Putin-governed Russia to make a dramatic re-entry and emerge as the new and unexpected power broker in West Asia. History is more often than not an account of unexpected and unintended consequences of events and policies, the significance of which emerges only in hindsight.

The Saudi-Iran standoff in West Asia has never been as bitter and hostile as today. The wars in Syria and Yemen are essentially proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional supremacy. Syria has been Iran’s foremost ally ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. An internal NATO draft report entitled ‘Regional and Global Implications of the Syrian Civil War: What Role for NATO? (August 2014) had characterised the war thus: “The struggle for the future of the Middle East is being played out in Syria. The Syrian conflict has transformed over the last four years from a local to a regional to a global conflict.”

Russia’s longest-standing relationship in West Asia is with Syria, having begun in the mid-1950s with arms supplies. President Hafez Assad elevated it to a strategic alliance by granting the Soviet Union a naval base at Tartous. His son and successor, President Bashar al-Assad, consciously maintained this alliance even as Russian power and standing was in precipitous decline. As the war in Syria got fully under way, Russia adopted a dual track approach: to help Assad meet the military challenge of a particularly formidable coalition, apart from continuing to supply modern weaponry in ever increasing quantities, Russia (along with China) vetoed punitive Resolutions on Syria in the UN Security Council four times; given what Western countries did in Libya these Russian actions provided an essential lifeline for the survival of the Assad regime. But from the beginning, Russia also consistently supported efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Syria and talks under the auspices of the UN. After the use of chemical weapons in Syria in August 2013 and Obama resiling from his previously publicly announced commitment to take punitive action against the regime in Syria if such an event occurred, a Russian diplomatic initiative resulted in the peaceful dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, sending out a clear message that supposedly intractable problems can be resolved peacefully.

Obama had voted against Bush's war in Iraq; despite increasing domestic criticism and from longstanding allies in West Asia, as President, Obama steadfastly refused to permit significant US involvement in new wars and conflicts in Arab and Muslim countries. Obama also abandoned long-standing US demonisation and marginalisation of Iran, reaching a historic nuclear deal with it in a negotiating process in which Russia was proactively involved. Iran is now poised to play a leading and significant role in West Asia and Russia’s strong relationship with Iran becomes another strengthening factor in enhancing Russia's future role in West Asia. Long-standing US regional Sunni allies regard Obama's policies as treacherous betrayal. However, rather perversely, the net effect of Obama’s well-intentioned policies has been that US ability to influence ground realities and its prestige and standing in West Asia are today at a historic low.
Taking the fullest advantage of these new ground realities in end September 2015, Russia took the world by surprise by robust military involvement in Syria, its first ever direct combat involvement in West Asia, to prevent any possibility of the Assad regime being defeated. The existing naval base at Tartous was strengthened and a new state-of-the-art airbase was established at Hmeymim near Latakia and the Turkish border. Russian military involvement has transformed the war decisively in favour of Assad and he cannot now be defeated militarily; at the same time, Assad cannot remain in power without continuing Russian (and Iranian) support. Meanwhile, given the many high profile, high casualty Islamic State (IS) terrorist attacks in Western countries, defeating the IS has acquired far higher priority for the West than Assad’s removal. Russia is now also conducting increasing and particularly effective airstrikes against the IS too. Earlier this month, Syria and Russia agreed to make the Hmeymim facility a permanent fully-operational, full-fledged military base equipped with vast advanced weaponry, clearly indicating Russia's intentions to remain substantively involved in West Asia in a major way for the long-term.
Russia will now be playing the pivotal role in how the future evolves in Syria; indeed in how the strategic landscape of West Asia will be determined.
Russia is being courted by the region’s most powerful and prominent countries: Egypt, Israel, and Turkey. President Sisi has has paid three visits to Russia since he became president. The two countries have signed a US$3.5 bn arms deal. Russia will construct Egypt’s first nuclear power plant; Sisi publicly expressed full support for Russian intervention in Syria when it began. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also commended Moscow's efforts in Syria while making his third visit to Russia since Russia began its military intervention in Syria. Despite being a NATO member and an aspirant for EU membership, Turkey's relationship with the US and the EU is in tatters, at least for the immediate future. It was no surprise that Erdogan’s first post-coup visit abroad was to Russia and a re-establishment of the past very robust economic relationship has been agreed upon. In a significant policy U-turn, Turkey is likely to also abandon its ‘regime change’ project and leave Assad’s fate to future internationally monitored elections and a new commitment to be a fully proactive participant in the war against the IS. However, none of these three countries intends to abandon their traditionally strong bilateral security relationships with the US while fully accepting strong Russian involvement in West Asia. US Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Moscow four times in the past year and met his counterpart Sergey Lavrov a dozen times at various multilateral fora to coordinate their common war against the IS and al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. Russia’s role is now widely regarded as being constructive and helpful rather than destabilising. Despite serious differences particularly in relation to Syria, even Saudi dignitaries have been visiting Moscow: the powerful Deputy Crown Prince and Saudi Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman in June 2015 and Foreign Minister in August 2015 while King Salman and President Putin met on the margins of the G20 Summit in Antalya in February 2016. They are in a continuing dialogue over oil production levels and pricing issues. Russia has never enjoyed such standing and leverage in West Asia in the past.

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#5080, 12 July 2016
Countering IS: Should India be More Assertively Involved in West Asia?
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

In the context of conflicts raging across West Asia, a region of vital importance to India, many in India’s strategic community and media have criticised India's utterly passive hands off attitude. Suggestions have been made that India should have joined the international coalition fighting in Syria against the Islamic State (IS) and even of sending troops. The past few weeks have witnessed a particularly animated debate about the IS posing a serious terror threat to India. 

India has faced thousands of deadly terrorist attacks over the decades in Kashmir and the Northeast; Naxalite/Marxist type attacks in many parts of India; and, random politically motivated attacks. Such attacks continue on a regular basis even today. In strong contrast there has been no IS related terrorist attack in India. India has not been mentioned in statements listing IS’ branches around the world. Episodic arrests, detentions, deportations, interrogations, etc, involving a maximum of 150 or so persons constitute the overall IS related footprint in India; this number includes Indians reportedly fighting in Syria. Compared to the devastating mayhem it has and continues to unleash in many countries, IS activity in India does not constitute even minor pinpricks. If IS is making an effort to foment terrorism in India it has very clearly failed miserably. 

The US, Russia and many other countries are heavily involved in the war against the IS which is finally succeeding. The IS has lost a substantial part of the territory it controlled, casualties and desertions are mounting, it is facing an increasing financial resources crunch,and though the ideology it represents will remain a long-term global challenge, as a political entity in a specific geographical location, it is well on its way to defeat. Its resultant anger and desperation will be directed against its tormentors, not countries like India. In any case, the ideological threat has to be combated domestically not abroad.

Prime Minister Modi has paid extremely successful visits to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar in the past eleven months. These countries are deeply involved in the wars that are going on; while the conflicts in the region were discussed none of the leaders of these countries asked for India’s involvement, being fully aware of and respecting India’s wise traditional policy of non-involvement in wars abroad. Why therefore should India get involved at its own initiative? 

It is because of this reticent non-partisan attitude that India is the only major country in the world that has excellent relationships simultaneously with Israel, Iran, Palestine, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE apart from China. China has turned down all suggestions to join the international coalition against IS. 

India was not remotely involved with the actions and policies of the countries that led to the creation of the IS – in fact India opposed these policies. The Frankenstein monster that they created is now fighting them. Why should India voluntarily invite a blowback from global jihad by getting involved?  

Merely declaring that India is joining the international coalition will not make the slightest difference to the IS’ fortunes on the ground but cause India to be put on the IS hit list. It is worth noting that even Pakistan, a client state of the US and Saudi Arabia for decades and having extremely close military relations with them, has refused entreaties by them to join the ground or aerial war against the IS - one of the very rare wise decisions it has made.  

Given India’s unique demography, the historical baggage associated with it, the rampaging spread of extremism and militancy within Islam, and Pakistan’s 7-decade old ceaseless efforts to foment communal discord in India, India’s deploying troops in Muslim countries against a Muslim entity in a region torn apart by vicious sectarian warfare is an enterprise fraught with potentially hugely dangerous consequences both domestically and for its excellent relations with all countries in the Gulf region. 

For all these reasons there is no case whatsoever for India waging war or joining the international coalition against the IS or in any way getting intrusively involved in conflicts in West Asia. India’s hands off, low profile, and pragmatic approach based on mutual benefit has yielded very satisfying results and there is absolutely no need to change this policy.

A truly impressive fact is that no Muslim community of the world has kept itself further away from extremism and militancy than India’s Muslims. It is the world’s third largest Muslim community. There was not a single Indian who went to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Hardly any Indians joined al Qaeda. The IS has served as an ideological beacon to radicalise hundreds of thousands of misguided Muslims around the world. Only a tiny number of Indian Muslims have gone to Syria and Iraq to join Islamist fighters. In the context of 180 million Muslims in India, all this is very impressive. This author knows from personal interactions that these realities are greatly admired, even envied, in West Asia. All Indians should be proud of these facts. 

Every single Indian Muslim entity of repute, theological institution and prominent Muslim leader in different parts of the country, including separatist leaders in Kashmir, has strongly denounced the IS and also the so-called Caliphate. In September 2015, over 1,000 clerics ratified a 1,100-page religious ruling that declared the IS as un-Islamic and that its actions were against the basic tenets of Islam. Signatories included the Imam of Jama Masjid and the heads of Ajmer Sharif and Nizamuddin Auliya. On 24 February 2016, about 300 top Indian ulema passed a similar resolution in Hyderabad and also declared IS a terrorist organisation. Last week, the IS was condemned in a massive public gathering of Muslims in Kerala. A prominent scholar, Muhammad Qasim Zaman, the author of South Asian Islam and the Idea of the Caliphate has written, "The Muslims of India have, for the most part, seen the promises of a secular state as the best hope for the preservation of their culture and identity." As they have so successfully done so far, leaders of and family elders within the Muslim community will ensure that India’s Muslim youth are not led astray. 

However, it is necessary to maintain the utmost vigilance. India’s intelligence, investigative and security agencies are doing whatever is necessary quite well. However, it is a cardinal principle of counter-terrorism that the fight against terrorism is always more effective away from publicity. Therefore, newspaper reports detailing results of investigations of people being arrested for ostensible IS links are not helpful; counter intuitively, they help radicalisation, provide useful information to potential recruits, serve to exaggerate the so far distinctly manageable dimensions of the problem and contribute to spreading panic. 

India’s greatest contribution to the world has been its tolerant pluralistic civilisational ethos that has, over the centuries, nurtured inclusiveness consciously treating equally and with respect people of different customs, ethnicities, languages, religions, traditions, etc. At the November 2015 West Asia conference organised by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), 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. It is imperative that India maintain this globally admired, iconic and sacrosanct civilisational heritage. This is by far the best guarantee against radicalisation and potential threats posed by the likes of IS or even Pakistan’s ISI, which, in fact, poses far more danger for India than the IS. 

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#5060, 13 June 2016
Iran, India and Chabahar: Recalling the Broader Context
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Iran has generated huge euphoria around the country and reams of adulatory commentary. While it is worthy of applause, this author also sombrely recalls that few weeks ago, an Iranian had in a conversation, said, ‘India voted against us; particularly ardently courts the US; accords priority to Israel; cosies up to UAE and Saudi Arabia – all those who hate Iran passionately; owes us almost $ 6.5 billion for imported oil; had done nothing in Chabahar since an agreement was signed in 2003; how is a meaningful relationship possible?'

The person in question has since conceded that it was a great visit and an excellent outcome but suggested postponing celebrations for a year to see how things pan out on the ground.

After the uneasy Khomeini era relationship, despite India establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1992 and the Babri Majid being demolished in December 1992, Iran received then Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in September 1993 with great cordiality. In a particularly significant gesture, in 1994, Iran prevented a Western-backed OIC initiated resolution against India in the Human Rights Council from being considered. The then Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani paid a return visit in 1995. Both countries cooperated strongly in trying to prevent Pakistan from succeeding in installing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan by providing military assistance to the Northern Alliance. Iran invited India to the Teheran Conference on Afghanistan in October 1996 in spite of Pakistan’s strong objection and threat to abstain from the conference that it ultimately did.

In 2000, an agreement was signed creating a mechanism for seamless transport between India and Eurasia through an International North-South Transport Corridor, of which Iran was the centrepiece. The then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Iran in 2001; In January 2003, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed an agreement for joint development of transportation links to Afghanistan from Chabahar in Iran where India would develop the port. In 2003, the then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami visited New Delhi where he was also the chief guest at India’s Republic Day function. The two countries signed the historic ‘New Delhi Declaration’ establishing a visionary multi-dimensional ‘Strategic Partnership’ between the two countries. Iran was the second-largest supplier of oil to India.

This was the golden decade of Indo-Iranian relations.

Thereafter, this blossoming relationship plunged dramatically. With the accidental discovery of Iran’s clandestine potential nuclear weapons programme in 2003, the then US President George W. Bush denounced Iran, terming it a part of an ‘axis of evil’ and imposed ever increasing sanctions to strangulate Iran’s economy. India had been under intense US-led high technology international sanctions since 1974.

Despite India’s nuclear tests in 1998, then fiercely denounced by the US, the friendliest US president towards India, Bush, offered ending of that sanctions regime and a civilian nuclear deal, also ending India’s international nuclear isolation. This understandably became India’s preeminent foreign policy priority and inexorably led to India’s negative vote against Iran in the IAEA Governing Council in September 2006 at a time when the agreement with India was at a particularly critical phase of legislative consideration in the US. Iran was absolutely shell shocked; the wound will take time to heal. More than the vote itself, the complete unexpectedness of it hurt enormously; India should have sent its foreign minister to Iran the day before the vote to give advance intimation and explanation. India had to abide by international sanctions, and inevitably, India’s oil imports from Iran suffered – it dropped from the second to the seventh rank. In today’s complexly interconnected world, bilateral relations are subject to unexpected buffeting by extraneous factors. In the case of Iran, this possibility has been particularly salient, and remains so even today.

West Asia was almost completely absent from the Modi government’s foreign policy priorities during its first year in office except for a clear emphasis on significantly elevating the relationship with Israel – certainly overdue. Very understandably, relations with immediate neighbours, elevating ties with the US and Japan, and managing the very difficult relationship with China, were priorities. With West Asian Muslim countries deeply embroiled in the region’s worst ever sectarian wars and conflicts, it was felt that it is better to steer clear from engagement with them at that time. Those priorities attended to, Modi visited UAE in August 2015 and Saudi Arabia in early April 2016. It was far easier to make a beginning with them since relations were already very good.

After the Iranian nuclear deal with the West and easing of sanctions against it, opportunities with Iran opened anew. Unlike with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, a strategically significant Indo-Iranian relationship hinges fundamentally around the Pakistan-Afghanistan factor.

India quickly executing projects – Chabahar port development, roads and railways construction, infrastructure for commercial gas exploration etc. – in Iran impinging on that factor is of the essence Barring Afghanistan, India’s record on agreements/project implementation abroad has been dismal.

Therefore, Modi’s visit to Iran required extensive preparatory work; in the past year, several ministerial visits – External Affairs, Shipping and Transport, Petroleum, and of very senior officials – the NSA, the foreign secretary, senior officials of finance and other relevant ministries and PSUs – took place.

The result is that of the 12 MoUs signed, 5 concerned Chabahar Port and related projects; these MoUs and the very long paragraph 6 of the joint statement, which also covered potential Indian development of the Farzad B gas field, spell out India’s monetary commitments, executing entities, deadlines, etc. Payment of USD 1.25 billion of the outstanding amount was made on the eve of the visit and India has committed to clearing the remainder soon. If all this happens in the envisaged time-frame, then Prime Minister Modi’s May 22-23 2016 visit to Iran, the first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister 15 years, will be regarded as a truly historic, strategic game changing one.

The 23 May 2016 signing of the Trilateral Agreement on Establishing Chabahar Transport and Transit Corridors in the presence of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Modi deserves special mention. Ghani said, “Hundred years from now historians will remember this day as the start of (true) regional cooperation. We wanted to prove that geography was not our destiny. With our will we can change geography.” Rouhani said, “Today is an important and historical day of development of relations between the three countries…From Tehran, New Delhi and Kabul, this is a crucial message ... that the path to progress for regional countries goes through joint cooperation and utilising regional opportunities.” Modi said, “We have also agreed to enhance interaction between our defence and security institutions on regional and maritime security.” This was rounded off by Prime Minister Modi and President Ashraf Ghani jointly inaugurating the Salma Dam near Herat, Afghanistan, on 04 June 2016.

All this gives India greater space to be a proactive player in the Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan region. However, some adroit diplomacy will be needed because in sharp contrast to the past, both Iran and Russia have developed working relationships with the Taliban. India is the only regional player with no contact with the Taliban.

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#5026, 10 May 2016
West Asia, US, and Obamas Statesman-like Legacy
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

The US has been the main architect and central pole of the West Asian security landscape since World War II. It has sought to maintain security through a web of bilateral and regional military alliances and militaristic solutions to political problems and issues – including direct military interventions of its own. The US’ unconditional patronage and protection of authoritarian Arab regimes has acted as a major disincentive to domestic economic, political or social reform. This pervasive American dominance and the abject subservience of the rulers of Arab countries to the West has been a major factor in the growing public anger and frustrations among the Arabs at large.

The standout hallmarks of the US’ past policies in West Asia – the unconditional patronage of and support to Israel; the fallout of the exceedingly shortsighted creation of the modern jihad in Afghanistan; the demonisation and sanctioning of Iran for decades; the utterly and completely unjustified invasion of Iraq; and the even more foolish wholesale disbanding of the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s army and government, have been major contributors to the rise of phenomena such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State in addition to the hugely destructive and rampaging spread of militant Islamist extremism throughout the Arab world.

The surge of hope and optimism that swept through the Arab world in the winter of 2010-11 – which swiftly felled two longstanding dictators – was subsequently brutally suppressed by autocratic rulers and compounded by self-serving foreign intervention, plunging the Arab world into the worst ever period in its long blood-soaked history.

US President Barack Obama had vociferously opposed the war in Iraq and sought election on a platform of withdrawing US troops from West Asia and Muslim countries. Despite intense domestic criticism and excoriation from allies – both European and Arab, particularly trenchantly from Saudi Arabia – and from all prominent figures within his own administration, to his great credit, Obama has had both: the intellectual perspicacity to recognise the hugely negative consequences of past US policies, as well as the political courage to refuse to get militarily involved in new military interventions in West Asia, even going to the extent of effectively reneging on a red line he himself had laid down.

In that context, Obama said “I’m very proud of this moment,” Jeffrey Goldberg quotes, in his April 2016 article in The Atlantic, ‘The Obama Doctrine’ – a must read on Obama’s West Asia policy. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make....any thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome…..What I think is not smart is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order. We just can’t do that,” Obama added.

His prescription for regional security is clear: “[The Saudis] need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian foes … and institute some sort of cold peace.” Obama believes that leaders in West Asia are “failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people” and that they need to “do more to eliminate the threat of violent fundamentalism.” Obama has had doubts regarding the value of the Washington-Riyadh alliance from before he became president. April 2016 saw his fourth visit to Riyadh, but the deep chasm that has developed between the two countries remained – there was no strategic congruence about Syria or Iran.

Had the US intervened in Syria, the nuclear negotiations with Iran would not have taken place. Obama reaching out to Iran and the nuclear deal are testaments of a particularly statesman-like and visionary approach that he has also exhibited vis-à-vis Myanmar and Cuba. Historians will judge him positively for his transforming US policy approaches towards and in West Asia.

Washington refraining from military interventions in West Asia is the first absolutely indispensable step that is necessary for new approaches to conflict resolution in that region. The most immediate consequence has been that Riyadh’s traditional calibrated, cautious, circumspect foreign policy has been jettisoned and replaced by completely uncharacteristic reckless assertiveness in Syria and particularly, in Yemen. Despite Turkey’s even more aggressive stance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they cannot militarily defeat and overthrow him; and if Assad has to go, it will only be via a negotiated settlement with Russia and Iran being on board.

Saudi Arabia cannot militarily trump Iranian influence and power in West Asia even in tandem with other Sunni powers such as Turkey and Egypt; and although bloodletting is likely to continue for some more time, ultimately, Riyadh will have to talk and negotiate a modus vivendi with Tehran, even if it is likely to take time and increasingly rising costs for this realisation to finally sink in.

History will give Obama great credit for forcing this to happen, ultimately.

[See ‘Saudi Arabia and Evolving Regional Strategic Dynamics’, IPCS Commentary #4843, 2 March 2015, and ‘King Salman: The Boldest Ever Saudi Monarch?’ IPCS Commentary #4868, 5 May 2015]

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#5019, 14 April 2016
Modi in Saudi Arabia: Consolidating Ties in West Asia
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

Some contextual background is essential to properly appreciate the significance of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 02-03 April 2016 Saudi Arabia visit.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have had a particularly special one-of-a-kind relationship since the beginning of the 1970s, the nature of which has no similarity with any other bilateral relationship in the world. Given this reality, there was little or no scope for India to develop any meaningful relationship with Saudi Arabia at its initiative. Something had to happen to impel Riyadh to look beyond Islamabad to New Delhi towards developing bilateral relations grounded in mutual benefit and advantage, consciously skirting the Pakistani factor.

Over the past decade, Pakistan has increasingly degenerated into terrorism-infused instability. 2015 in particular witnessed deep strains in the special Riyadh-Islamabad bilateral. This was due to a very public and emphatic rejection of Saudi requests for Pakistani troops towards the former's military involvement in Yemen, as well as the latter's ambivalence towards the Saudi-created Sunni Islamic alliance.

On the other hand, over the same period, India’s economy has been growing strongly and it was being courted by countries around the world. In terms of purchasing power parity, India is now the world’s third-largest economy, and credible international entities and analysts are predicting that India could become the third-largest economy in absolute terms by 2030 and even the largest, by 2050.

Energy is key for this to happen and sooner rather than later, India will need to import up to 90 per cent for its growing oil and gas requirements. Most of this will come from the Gulf region. Since 2005, Saudi Arabia has been India's largest oil supplier. Oil producers are facing enormous competition to maintain market share. India offers Saudi Arabia an assured, large and growing market in closer geographical proximity, and logistically the most hassle free destination than any other customer. Saudi Arabia has been India’s fourth largest trading partner for some years now with bilateral trade having increased by an incredible nine times in the past decade. India’s trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries has witnessed the fastest growth rate in comparison to its trade any other region.

8 million Indians live and work in the GCC countries, the largest expatriate group by far in each of the six GCC countries. There are over three million Indians in Saudi Arabia, making the Indian community there the largest Indian passport-holding population in any country in the world.

Anticipating such developments, the visionary King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had chosen India as the second country to visit after ascending the throne. Saudi kings do not personally sign joint statements with foreign leaders. In 2006, however, in a very special gesture, he signed the 'New Delhi Declaration' with former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, and later, the 'Riyadh Declaration' in 2010, when Singh paid a return visit to Riyadh. It is worth noting that the King spent almost four days in India - compared to a little less than two days in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia’s particularly special friend. There was nothing remotely comparable to the ‘Delhi Declaration’ in the mundane agreements that were signed with Pakistan.

An MoU on defence cooperation was signed in 2014 when King Salman as the Crown Prince had visited India.

A particularly welcome feature has been the excellent and expanding anti-terrorism cooperation extended by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the best that India receives world-wide. The US and Saudi Arabia jointly imposed sanctions on individuals linked to Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Taiba on the very eve of Modi's visit. It may be recalled that in 2012, Riyadh repatriated Abu Jundal and Fasih Mohamed to India. The issue of terrorism features particularly prominently in the April 2016 Joint Statement.

Additionally, there exist no bilaterally contentious issues. The 2006 Delhi Declaration, the 2010 Riyadh Declaration, the 2014 MoU on Defence Cooperation, and the 2016 Joint Statement issued at the end of Prime Minister Modi’s visit are documents that deserve to be read very carefully. They lay out in great detail the multi-dimensional nature of the evolving bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and India. The Joint Statement commends “the successful transformation of bilateral relationship in political, economic, security, defence, manpower and people to people exchanges, in recent years, which have enriched bilateral ties,” placing particularly heavy emphasis on defence, security and counter terrorism cooperation in all its multifarious dimensions.

Significantly, “the two leaders agreed to transform the buyer-seller relationship in the energy-sector to one of deeper partnership focusing on investment and joint ventures in petrochemical complexes, and cooperation in joint exploration in India, Saudi Arabia and in third countries…(and underlined) .. the importance of energy security as a key pillar of the strategic partnership.” After meeting, Prime Minister Khalid Al Falih, Chairman, ARAMCO Board, said it looks at India as “its most preferred investment destination."

All this becomes even more noteworthy because India and Saudi Arabia/UAE have sharply different perceptions regarding current conflicts in West Asia; both sides have very consciously prevented these differences coming in the way of continuing to upgrade the already excellent bilateral relations. The New Delhi-Riyadh bilateral is no longer hostage to any other relationship that either may have with any third country.

In the context of current circumstances, that India has 180 million Muslims - the third largest in the world and the least radicalised - is an extremely positive factor that cannot be ignored by any West Asian country. Hopefully, Prime Minister Modi will pay early visits to Iran and Israel too.

In fact, with the possible exception of China, no country in the world has simultaneously excellent bilateral relations with Iran, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as India has. All these countries are in West Asia and are India’s best bilateral relationships (excepting Bhutan) in the world despite the fact that, overall, West Asia is going through its worst ever period in its long blood soaked history.

*It may be useful to also read the author's 06 October 2015 and 02 June 2014 entries to his IPCS column - Spotlight West Asia - titled 'Prime Minister Modi finally begins his interaction with West Asia’; and 'Looking West: Bridging the Gulf with the GCC', respectively. URLs to the said columns are provided on the top right corner of this page.

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#4997, 14 March 2016
Current Syrian Peace Processes Sterile: A New Approach Needed
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

Several initiatives have been taken to try to end the war in Syria. The first was by the Arab League, then Geneva I and Geneva II by Russia and other countries, and finally, the Vienna Process, where even a calendar of steps for bringing peace to Syria was laid out. In February 2016, followed by intensive negotiations between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the US, Russia and 19 other countries met in Munich and an agreement for a ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria's civil war was announced. This agreement exempts the war against the Islamic State (IS/Daesh) and Jabhat al Nusra. Therefore, ostensibly, the wars against these two groups are continuing.

In many theatres of the multiple wars in Syria, Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra are present cheek by jowl with other Islamist groups and regime forces; and therefore, attacking the former two, permitted under this agreement, could and has led to attacks against other groups covered by the ceasefire agreement. This has led to charges of violations, particularly against the regime, Iran and Russia; and this combined with several other loopholes and serious shortcomings make this agreement unenforceable. Therefore, this ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement reflects nothing more than well-intentioned desires and despite the welcome lull in the fighting, this is emphatically not a prelude to any longer term halt to fighting or any substantive step towards a settlement.

Furthermore, this agreement does not remotely address the exceedingly complex underlying dynamics of ground realities in Syria at all.

Multiple wars have been simultaneously raging in Syria for some years now. The original war between the Syrian protestors and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime; the war by over 1000 jihadi groups actively supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey against the Assad regime; the war between Daesh and the Assad regime; the war between Daesh and all the other Islamist groups, including in particular Jabhat al Nusra; the war between the Kurds and Daesh; and the aerial war between a number of countries and Daesh. In these processes, five foreign countries – Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US – have become rather deeply involved in Syria, militarily. The only aspect all of them agree on is on defeating Daesh. However, the top priorities of each are different and in several cases mutually contradictory.

Amongst these countries, the highest military priority of the US and its Western allies is defeating Daesh. The Kurds are their strongest and most successful allies in the war on the ground against Daesh, both in Iraq and in Syria. However, Turkey’s immediate top priority is the destruction of the Syrian Kurds’ power potential and the next priority is the removal of Assad. Ankara does not allow the Kurds to be part of any peace negotiations. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been publicly criticising the US with increasing vehemence, challenging it to choose between its NATO ally Turkey or what it calls the Kurdish ‘terrorists’. For Saudi Arabia, the highest priority is Assad’s removal – it continues to publicly insist that Assad has to stand down at the beginning of any transition process.

Riyadh also insists on determining the composition of the negotiating team of the “opposition” to Assad. There does not appear to be any let up in the Qatari, Saudi and Turkish support for different jihadist groups fighting in Syria, and supply of arms and funds to them continues. Iran is probably the most committed to Assad’s continuance in power over all of Syria. It has and continues to contribute significantly towards efforts to defeating Daesh in Iraq. Russia’s highest priority is to ensure that the jihadist groups fighting Assad, particularly those supported by Turkey, in the western third of the country are comprehensively defeated to ensure Assad’s continued control of this vital part of Syria, at least until transition agreements can be agreed to. In fact, in what should be considered an encouraging factor, Russia publicly chided Assad when he announced that he intends to regain control of the whole of Syria.

Day by day, Russia’s intervention is shifting the advantage in Assad’s favour, both diplomatically and militarily. Assad can no longer be defeated militarily and if he cannot be defeated on the battlefield, there is no way that he can be removed in a conference room.

For any peace process to have any realistic chance of success, it must be fully in accord with substantive ground realities. It is difficult enough for a peace process to be successful when there are only two antagonists. No peace process can possibly succeed when it involves the participation of such a large number of entities; more non-state than state actors, many of whom are engaged in a life and death struggle against others; and many entities imposing impossible-to-meet preconditions to even participate. Such an approach cannot possibly achieve positive results and should be abandoned.

A greatly intensified war against the IS with the US and Western countries acting in coordination with Russia should become the top priority. It is entirely possible that this could cause a temporary partition of Syria into zones under the control of different authorities. In fact, a review of the Sykes-Picot arrangements may be the only way for long-term stability in West Asia. The simultaneous holding of intense and continuous negotiations, strictly away from media attention, initially between empowered sherpas of the P5, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey potentially provides the most workable hope to even attempt to get out of the Syrian quagmire. The involvement of non-state groups, who are essentially proxies of states, only complicates negotiations.

Modalities of a political transition process in Syria should also be part of these discussions. While it may be politically correct to say that any peace process must be Syrian-owned and Syrian-led, the reality is that such a process simply cannot be brought about.

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#4984, 8 February 2016
Forecast 2016: West Asia
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

Insofar as existing flashpoints are concerned, West Asia continued to present a bleak picture in 2015. The major change in 2015 from the end of 2014 was that the Islamic State (IS) lost ground in terms of the total territory it controls, and more importantly, it lost control of several important towns mainly in the Sunni inhabited areas of Iraq as well as considerable territory and small towns to the Kurds, in both Iraq and Syria. The IS has suffered heavy casualties and considerable damage to its military and revenue generating assets. Russia also joined the battle against them. Retaliatory consequences were ‘spectacular’ attacks in Turkey and Paris, and the downing of the Russian plane over Sinai.

All these trends will continue in 2016. More frequent and more destructive attacks against Western targets can be expected, leading to the Western war against the IS to be further galvanised and become more hard-hitting. Though the IS as an idea and ideology will take decades and generations to defeat, its persona as a proto state is likely to suffer considerable further damage in 2016.

Syria
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad was clearly in a better position at the end of 2015 than at the end of 2014; and this trend too will also continue in 2016, primarily because of Russia’s continuing, and indeed expanding, military support for Assad, and the expanding Iranian military support for him. This support is playing an extremely significant role in weakening the jihadist opposition groups. The current peace processes are going nowhere – no negotiation process has any chance of success if preconditions are placed before the negotiations begin; and non-state actors are holding up the process by imposing all kinds of preconditions.

In any case, participation of the two most potent opponents – the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra – is not envisaged at all; and therefore, participation should be restricted only to states – after all they are the patrons of the different rebels groups in Syria. The objective of the negotiations has to change from determining alternatives to Assad to stopping all wars in Syria, as no negotiating process is going to make any headway unless it is in sync with ground realities. These issues require focused attention in 2016.

Yemen
2015 witnessed the entirely unexpected aerial assault by Saudi Arabia on Yemen. With global and even regional attention likely to be concentrated on the war in Syria and against the IS, the war in Yemen is likely to become completely marginalised in terms of international attention; and therefore, any significant subsiding of the Saudi-led coalition’s war against the Saleh-Houthi alliance is unlikely.

However, it is also highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia will succeed in reinstating the Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi government in Sana’a. Even if it does, the war will not fade away, mainly because there is no possibility whatsoever of his continuing to remain in power without continuous military support from Riyadh, as Hadi does not have any political, military or tribal support bases in the country. This is an unwinnable war and the sooner all concerned parties realise this the better it will be for them and the region.

Saudi Arabia
However, there were two very significant path breaking developments in 2015, one of which was a great surprise and could not have been predicted and the other, was expected. The first was the appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the youngest son of King Salman, as Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, with considerable additional responsibilities that have concentrated unprecedented enormous power in the hands of a young, completely new-to-government royal, which no Prince has previously enjoyed.

Since his duties also encompass being the gatekeeper to the King, even the Crown Prince has access to the King only if Prince Salman agrees. No foreign ministry, no intelligence agency, no West Asia expert or observer of the Saudi scene had anticipated this or his first significant move – the launch of an expanding war against Yemen. This highlights the perils of attempting to make forecasts. Nobody can predict whether Prince Salman’s authority can or will be diluted or get even further enhanced; but either way, there will be important consequences – either the lessening of Saudi assertiveness or increasing it. The former will improve prospects for calming regional tensions and the latter could escalate them to highly dangerous levels insofar unseen.

Iran
The second extremely significant development in 2015 was the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal between the P 5+1 and Iran, presaging the lifting of the bulk of the sanctions. Only a few weeks have elapsed and therefore, to expect immediate positive fallout is completely unrealistic; however, markedly unfortunately, there seem to be absolutely no indications at all on the horizon, of any, even potential, improvement in ground realities. However, all countries who have stakes in the region know that even today, Iran’s Comprehensive National Power is much more than that of all of West Asia’s Sunni countries combined, and will only continue to increase year by year; and it is the natural regional giant.

Confrontational policies by some regional countries will not change this reality. This deal provides Western powers in particular the first real opportunity to try and reorient Iran in more positive directions and this chance must not be lost. If this is not done meaningfully in 2016, then, in 2017, new and potentially more serious complications could arise in the region.

US and West Asia
2016 is the last year of US President Barack Obama’s presidency; and his policy towards West Asia has been very strongly criticised domestically and by the Sunni countries who are long-standing US allies in the region.

However, it is to be hoped that he will not be deterred – he has crafted a statesmanlike legacy by overturning the decades-long US propensity for military interventions in the region. President Obama’s approach is the right way forward, since the reality is that Washington’s interventions in West Asia have perhaps been the single major contributor for constant regional turmoil. Obama’s visionary approach has led to re-engagements with Myanmar, Cuba, and most significantly, with Iran. Therefore, Obama’s continuing to make negative public comments about the Iranian role in the region is disappointing – whoever Obama’s successor may be, he/she will have a considerably less charitable view of Iran and its policies. 
The potential positive fallout of the path breaking nuclear deal must be realised while Obama is still at still at the helm. Otherwise, there is real danger of the US policy vis-à-vis Iran being reversed, and this will be disastrous for the region. This is a challenge that Obama must take up in 2016.

Overview
In 2016, the pendulum is likely to sway one way more than the other in the three hotspots – Syria, Yemen and in relation to the IS – but it is unlikely that ground realities would change sufficiently for final solutions in any of these three cases.

The single most important geopolitical factor in West Asia today is the spreading virus of sectarian hatred between the Shias and Sunnis 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; Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen; a contributory factor in the rise of the IS; and also of the growing disaffection of Shia minorities in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. With the somewhat unnecessary and avoidable execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia, the situation reached the worst it could. Iran’s top leadership’s public apologies for the retaliatory attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran was a very positive gesture.

In an interview to The Economist on January 08 2016, Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, “War would not be allowed to happen. It is something that we do not foresee at all, and whoever is pushing towards that is somebody who is not in their right mind. For sure we will not allow any such thing.” This is particularly reassuring, since he is the architect of Saudi Arabia’s new and particularly assertive posture.

The most important task that could and should be attempted in 2016 is that major global powers, particularly the P5, individually and collectively, should concertedly use whatever influence they have with both these countries to tone down the vitriolic rhetoric being exchanged between them on a daily basis, and try to re-establish credible back channels between the two. They have existed in the past, but seem to have broken down; and no task is more urgent than restoring these. A workable via media between Tehran and Riyadh can only be brought about by the two countries themselves and cannot be imposed upon them by any third country. It is fervently hoped that in 2016 there will be movement in this direction.

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#4941, 8 December 2015
Turkey's Ambitions and the War in Syria
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

Like in almost all Arab countries, the regime in Syria is also an absolute dictatorship. The unprecedented revolutionary fervor sweeping across the Arab world since December 2010 hit Syria in March 2011, but the trajectory of developments in Syria was completely different from those in Tunisia and Egypt.

In Syria, the unrest spread only gradually and did not immediately become a spontaneous coherent mass movement demanding regime change. This was because the regime enjoyed the overwhelming, if not almost total, support of the minority communities such as the Alawites, Christians and Druze, and a rather substantial support amongst the upper and middle class Sunnis, particularly the business community in all major cities. Also, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) did not withhold support as in Tunisia and Egypt despite the fact that at that time 3/5th of the SAA was comprised of Sunnis.

Syria’s army was estimated at around 350,000 strong, and after over four-and-a-half years of war, and taking into account casualties and desertions, approximately 90,000 still remain a part of the SAA. Furthermore, Sunnis also constitute a not-insubstantial number of the National Defense Forces raised since 2013. Foreigners played no part in the toppling of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. In Syria, the protests had become an armed uprising almost from the beginning entirely due to foreign intervention of Sunni regional states with Turkey taking the lead. Syrian President Assad’s foreign opponents had finally found an opportunity to overthrow the regime because its longstanding alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran was a festering sore that had to be excised.

After Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s election victory in 2002 and the innovative enunciation of a ‘zero problems with neighbours’ foreign policy, in just under a decade, Turkey’s relationship with Syria was transformed from one of deep enmity to becoming Turkey’s best bilateral relationship; Turkey's prestigious Hürriyet newspaper labeled Turkish-Syrian relations as a “model partnership in the Middle East” as late as January 2011. When the uprisings in Syria began, Erdogan at first continued to publicly support Assad, calling him “a good friend who was loved by his people.” He was fully aware of the ground realities in Syria and knew well that Assad could not be overthrown by an internal revolt and that substantive foreign intervention would be necessary. Though Assad released large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood detainees on Turkey’s request, he turned down Ankara’s threatening demands to include the Muslim Brotherhood in the government. Turkey had its alibi, albeit rather weak, for large-scale intervention.

Having won three successive elections and successfully curbed the power that the military has traditionally enjoyed in the post Ottoman Turkey, Erdogan started nursing neo Ottoman dreams and, inter alia, described his election victory in 2011 as a victory of its Ottoman heritage. In October 2009, the then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu, invoking Turkey’s former imperial grandeur, had said that “As in the sixteenth century, when the Ottomans were rising, we will once again make the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, together with Turkey, the center of world politics in the future. That is the goal of Turkish foreign policy and we will achieve it.” Under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey began considering itself the foremost patron of political Islam and began pushing his belief that it should be the main component of governing entities in Muslim countries. Developments in Syria were viewed as the perfect opportunity to begin implementing these dreams.

Sanctions were put in place. Strident denunciations of Assad began, and he was now termed “a butcher’ – calls for him to be overthrown became a daily staple.

Turkey began proactively supplying arms and sending in Islamist fighters almost from the beginning, and this steadily increased over time; and most of these foreign fighters and arms entered Syria via its border with Turkey. A NATO document  admits that “It is believed that there are as many as 1,200 armed opposition groups in Syria, with well over 100,000 fighters.” The war in Syria acquired a new dimension with the establishment of the Islamic State (IS) in mid-2014. Though initially created by disgruntled Sunni elements from Iraq, it expanded very rapidly due to several reasons, amongst which the Turkish role has been vital.

In fact, Turkey has chosen to attack the Syrian Kurds who have been the single most potent fighting force against the IS.

There is a large amount of literature in the West which substantiates Syria expert and West Asia historian Helena Cobban’s comment that “Turkey has certainly colluded with the Islamic State, allowing arms, men and money to flow across its border into the Islamic State-controlled area with almost no hindrance.”

Turkey is a NATO member and a long-standing ally of the Western powers. Barring Israel, Turkey is by far the most militarily powerful country in West Asia; if Turkey really wanted to hit the IS, the latter would crumble within months, given the heavyweight coalition that is fighting against it. There are two wars ongoing in Syria – one against the IS and the other against the Assad regime. The war against the IS cannot be won without Turkey being an active participant. Even with its best efforts, Turkish ambitions to overthrow Assad cannot succeed with Russia and Iran now actively militarily committed to the continuance of the Syrian regime at least until the end of a transitional period which – could be a long time away.

The first substantial step required to end the tragedy in Syria is a complete change of Turkish policy, which however, unfortunately, seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

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#4929, 2 November 2015
Potential Implications of Russias Military Involvement in Syria
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

Russia’s massive military intervention in Syria that began on 30 September 2015 took the world by complete surprise. Moscow has inducted 12 Su-25 ground-attack aircraft, 12 Su-24 bombers, six Su-34 strike fighters, four Su-30 fighters, 21 helicopters – including 16 Mi-24 attack helicopters – as well as six tanks, and 15 artillery pieces etc. at their air base in Latakia, Syria, in addition to 500 military personnel. They conducted a cruise missile attack from across the Caspian Sea, demonstrating hardware and capabilities that were insofar not witnessed. They have been engaged in daily and increasing airstrikes primarily against the anti-regime Islamist groups including the al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as the Western-supported Syrian National Army and other ‘secular’ groups, with only a few directed against the Islamic State (IS). In contrast to about 7300 – less than 2500 in Syria – airstrikes carried out by the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria since August 2014 (according to Secretary of State Kerry speaking in Vienna on 30 October 2015), the Russians have already carried out almost 1000 airstrikes in Syria in just one month.

Russia has clearly signaled that it has returned to West Asia in a big way and is determined to protect its interests.

The primary objective appears to be to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the immediate short term. Adding focused momentum to a far more aggressive approach towards fighting the IS is the secondary objective, but for the longer term. The US and its allies have been hypocritically criticising Russian intervention even though they themselves have been doing precisely the same for decades but particularly after the widespread unrest that swept across the Arab world since the winter of 2010-2011.

The Russian intervention is already proving to be a game-changer. It has been a godsend for Assad, greatly boosting the regime’s sagging morale and that of its armed forces. His army had been greatly weakened due to defections, mainly of the Sunni conscript element, and due to the non-stop fighting over the past four years; the regime has been steadily ceding territory to the IS as well as to the myriad of other Islamist groups funded and armed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Assad had been finding it increasingly difficult even to hold on to cities and territory in the strategically vital Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, Homs and Idlib Provinces. With robust air cover provided by Russian airstrikes, Assad’s forces can start liberating and holding territory particularly in the extremely strategically vital corridor connecting Damascus and Aleppo. Russian help provides Assad’s military the distinct possibilities to regain the upper hand in the conflict at least in Western Syria.

Russian intervention has paved the way for open and enhanced Iranian involvement in Syria. Last week, Brig Gen Hossein Salami, Deputy Commander, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said Iran is increasing the quality and quantity of its presence in Syria with Iranian officers providing tactical help for Syrian commanders in direct battles, as well as weapons and ordnance, operational assistance and help with strategic planning. It is believed that they are between 1000 to 2000 Iranian troops in Syria.

Despite its unhappiness the US has perforce had to sign a MoU with Russia to ensure that there are no accidental run-ins between their two air forces operating in the Syrian airspace. It has also been forced to modify its tactics by the deputation of 50 Special Forces personnel in the war against the IS, with the possibility of increase in the numbers.

“Russia's entrance, given its potential and capabilities, is something we see is going to have an effect on limiting terrorism in Syria and eradicating it,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in a televised interview broadcast on 03 October 2015. Iraq too has requested Russian airstrikes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by high ranking senior military officers paid a visit to Russia two weeks ago. The US and Saudi Arabia had egregiously prevented Iran from participating in international conferences on Syria – this has suddenly changed and Iran was an active participant in the 19-nation conference held in Vienna earlier this week. Russia and Iran will ensure that Assad is not defeated in the battlefield. That being the case, the Saudi demand that he should step down before negotiations can commence to end the civil war is totally and absolutely unrealistic and will simply not happen. Only Russia and Iran can persuade Assad to make compromises and therefore these two countries are completely indispensable to reaching a solution which ends the civil war.

Those advocating regime change need to seriously ponder over the fact that today, the internal situations in both Iraq and Libya are far worse than they were when Saddam and Gaddafi were in power. Intrusive military interventions by foreign countries in Libya and Iraq are not examples to be emulated but instead shunned.

Russia’s intervention in Syria is going to prevent regime change through such means. The huge array of different and competing Islamist jihadi groups, including thousands of foreigners, cannot possibly come up with a cohesive and acceptable alternative government. It is beginning to appear that Assad is going to be around for some more time at least but the civil war is no nearer to ending yet.

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#4919, 6 October 2015
Prime Minister Modi Finally Begins His Interaction with West Asia*
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

Over the past four decades, the GCC countries have become India’s preeminent oil suppliers, and leading trade partners, with 8 million Indians living and working there who send annual remittances worth $40 billion back home. Indians have been the largest expatriate group in each of the six GCC countries. Even though West Asia has increasingly been in turmoil, over the past four years, the numbers have continued to increase steadily. Being predominantly Muslim countries where internal security is a major concern, now more so than ever, these facts are an enormous vote of confidence in Indians and India.

No major power has the kind of people-to-people socio-cultural compatibility and socio-economic interdependence with the GCC countries that India does. Anti-terrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing has been very satisfactory. There are no bilaterally contentious issues. Both the GCC countries and Iran have consciously de-hyphenated their relationship with India from the Pakistan and Israeli factors.

Thus, though hardly recognised, India’s most meaningful and best external relationship is with the GCC countries despite India having invested the least time, effort, energy and time to it as compared to Pakistan, China, the US or the immediate neighbourhood.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has personally invested immense energy in strengthening India’s international relationships; but the Gulf region of West Asia, so critical to India’s national interest, security and wellbeing, was inexplicably left out for a long time. His hugely successful landmark visit to the UAE has finally begun addressing this glaring lacuna. The high regard for India was on full display by various gestures, specific elements of the programme, and the contents of the particularly significant joint statement; the Indian prime minister reciprocated with his usual aplomb in word and action. The UAE is actively involved in the war against the Houthis in Yemen and, to a lesser extent, in supporting anti-Assad groups in Syria; India is against such foreign interventions; both sides put forth their respective stands and it is noteworthy that this considerable divergence of opinion did not stand in the way of the visit’s extremely satisfying outcome. In contrast, ‘special friend’ Pakistan is in the doghouse for not supporting UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

India’s relationships with the GCC countries, Iran and Israel began growing simultaneously in the early 1990s and really took off in the first decade of the current millennium. Based on mutual benefit and advantage, they developed in parallel without impinging on each other. Modi, in his 15 August interview with the Dubai-based Khaleej Times, very rightly pointed out that “India is uniquely blessed to have good relations with all countries in the region. I have always believed that regional or bilateral problems are best solved by the countries involved. We have often seen the consequences of outside interference. India has always abided by the principle of non-interference in other countries and has consistently supported dialogue as a means to resolve all issues.”

Modi should visit Saudi Arabia and Iran before becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to pay an official visit to Israel. This is a welcome and long overdue step; India needs to be open and self-confident about this vitally important relationship.

Many in India’s strategic community advocate India displaying greater activism including exercising a ‘leadership role’ without suggesting any specific actions to be taken. The indisputable reality is that anything that India says or does will not even marginally influence the actions of any individual player or outcomes on the ground in the context of the highly complicated political and security situation in West Asia. India does not have the institutional capacity, is not structurally equipped, and lacks national political consensus for the huge strategic leap required for such a role yet. Policy should always be consciously tempered by a mature recognition of the limits of one’s capabilities and influence at any given point of time. Reticence or so called policy passivity in a particularly unpredictably changing and volatile environment does not reflect an absence of decision making, an abdication of ‘leadership’, or of being a ‘freeloader’. It is simply being sensibly prudent. India’s non-intrusive, low-profile, pragmatic approach has yielded very satisfying results and there is absolutely no need to change the broad contours of this policy.

Prime Minister Modi has exhibited a unique ability to establish particularly close personal relationships with the heads of state/government of countries he has visited or has otherwise met. Nowhere in the world does this particular attribute have greater potential for India to realise hugely beneficial dividends and more quickly than with the GCC countries where the rulers personally formulate policies. But India needs to dramatically improve its implementation mechanisms to take meaningful advantage of the GCC countries’ initiatives and investments. Interacting with them at heads of government/ministerial levels much more frequently on a consistent basis should become standard policy. In doing so, advantage should be taken of their proximate locations, formality and protocol; and the quest for deliverables should be replaced by the desirability of forging close personal relationships by simply dropping in for a day or so for informal conversations; this approach will pay rich  dividends.

India needs very strong relationships with Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia/ the GCC countries simultaneously and it is absolutely imperative that they are seen to be balanced; and hence, the singular importance of coherent messaging to them. The only way to maintain this is by continuing the focus on mutual advantage and benefit, remaining non-intrusive and non-judgmental, and strictly abjuring taking sides in regional disputes or exhibiting conspicuous partiality amongst them. 

*Please see the 02 June 2014 entry (#4483) in the author's IPCS column, Spotlight West Asia, titled 'Looking West: Bridging the Gulf with the GCC'.

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#4898, 14 July 2015
A Potential Indian Role in West Asia?
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen (North) and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

Since the beginning of 2011, a blood-soaked West Asia has been constantly enveloped by increasing deaths, destruction, devastation and displacement. The region is going through the worst ever period in its history with little prospects of any improvement in the situation in the near future.

The Gulf region is India’s preeminent oil supplier, leading trade partner, and 8 million Indians live and work there, sending annual remittances worth $40 billion to India. No major power is impacted either positively or negatively by what happens in the Gulf region as much as India does. There has been much adverse comment that India, a very significant global power, situated next door to the region, an ardent aspirant to be on the global high table, and despite having this particularly significant strategic stake in the stability of the Gulf region, seems to be completely uninvolved; even completely disinterested. Should India get involved more actively?
 
India’s past interaction with West Asia has been guided by the following considerations: 

a. India has had a consciously low-key, non-intrusive policy approach to the Arab world, guided preeminently by considerations of pragmatism and mutual benefit.
 
b. No interference in the internal affairs of other countries has been a cardinal principle of Indian diplomacy.
 
c. Independent India has never gotten intrusively involved in wars between other countries.
 
d. India has been consistently opposed to military interventions to solve political problems.
 
e. Though India is the world’s largest democracy and takes pride in that fact, it does not consider that promoting any particular form of government in other countries is any business of New Delhi. India endeavors to maintain good relations with all countries and accepts ground realities as they are, irrespective of its own preferences. It is certainly not for outsiders to decide what constitutes legitimacy of the forms of government of West Asian countries.
 
f. India deliberately avoids making partisan comments in relation to internal situations in countries experiencing domestic turmoil and continues its interaction with the regimes of the day in these countries, while keeping possibilities of discreet lines of communication with select influential groups, including those in the opposition.
 
g. India fully respects the right of any country in the region to have whatever relationship it wishes to have with any other country.
 
h. India does not take sides in intra-regional disputes except supporting the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. India’s relationships with countries of the Gulf region and Israel started growing substantively since the early nineties and have been blossoming in parallel particularly since the advent of the new millennium, even as India’s commitment to the Palestinian cause has remained robust.

This approach has paid dividends and has contributed to India’s excellent relations with all countries of the Gulf region and Israel simultaneously. This is India’s most spectacular foreign policy success. Therefore there is no reason whatsoever to change it.

Furthermore, in the context of the current situation in West Asia, the reality and indisputable fact is that anything that India says or does will not even marginally influence the actions of any individual player or outcomes on the ground. Policy should always be consciously tempered by a mature recognition of the limits of one’s capabilities and influence at any given point of time. The situation is exceedingly fluid and uncertain. There has been a massive proliferation of violent, irresponsible and irrational non-state actors and India’s becoming intrusively involved could provoke them to harm Indian interests; and in particular to attack the very large Indian community in the region. With 180 million-strong Muslim population, India has to be very careful about potential blowbacks. India has to do everything it can to avoid such possibilities.

Therefore, reticence or so called policy passivity in a particularly unpredictably changing environment does not reflect an absence of decision making, an abdication of ‘leadership’, or of being a ‘freeloader’. It is simply being prudent.

India, like all other countries, must give top priority to its own national interests. India should continue on this path, undeterred by ideologically motivated domestic or international criticism.  

The current situation in West Asia clearly exhibits that predominantly military-oriented approaches to security are wrong, undesirable and unsustainable in the 21st century, particularly in as volatile a region as the Gulf. China, India, Japan and South Korea cumulatively already have a much larger energy and trade relationship with the Gulf region than the Western world and this is poised to grow exponentially in the decades ahead.

These four Asian countries should come together and strive to bring on board Saudi Arabia and Iran to discuss the promotion of a new security framework for the Gulf region, but quietly behind the scenes, focus on dialogue. This effort would represent the beginning of a new process and patient persistence would be required. Success will take much time. It is only in these contexts that India must become proactive. Encouragingly, under President Barack Obama, the US has moved dramatically towards negotiations in preference to knee-jerk military interventions to promote solutions to West Asia’s myriad problems; growing disenchantment between the US and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and the nuclear deal with Iran on the other are factors that provide an environment conducive to moving forward on this process. This should be considered as complementary to the newly emerging US approach and not anti-US in any way. 

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#4881, 1 June 2015
US-GCC Summit: More Hype than Substance
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

On 17 April, the White House announced US President Barack Obama’s invite to GCC monarchs for a summit on from 13-14 May to reassure the Saudi Arabia-led GCC bloc about the nuclear framework agreement with Iran and against the backdrop of the then three-week-old war against Yemen embarked upon by Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies without consultation with the US. Reflecting the widespread sentiment amongst GCC governments, a senior Arab diplomat had said, “We don't have to ask America's permission… we won't wait for America to tell us what to do.”

GCC expectations were well summed up by the Ambassador of the UAE Youssef Al Otaiba who, on 7 May, said in Washington that, “We are looking for (some form of) security guarantee given the behavior of Iran in the region. In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement with the United States about security ... I think today we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized.”

On 7 May, US Secretary of State John Kerry met King Salman; on 8 May the US announced fixing the King’s special meeting with President Obama at the White House. On 10 May Saudi Arabia announced the cancellation of the King’s visit. With Bahrain now under complete Saudi tutelage, Bahrain’s king preferred to go to London to attend the derbies. Only the Emirs of Kuwait and Qatar went, though the latter attended the derbies in London too. The rulers of Oman and the UAE could not attend due to genuine health reasons. Two rising stars, the Crown Prince, and Deputy Crown Prince – who seems to be running the war in Yemen –  represented Saudi Arabia. All this was a strong public manifestation of the growing Saudi/UAE exasperation with US policies towards the region, particularly in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring.

What did the GCC countries actually get? Some extracts from the lengthy Joint Communiqué and a lengthier Annexe provide an answer:

“The United States is prepared to work jointly with the GCC states to deter and confront an external threat to any GCC state's territorial integrity that is inconsistent with the UN Charter…. to determine urgently what action may be appropriate, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, for the defense of our GCC partners”.  The US also agreed to support GCC countries “to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.” These statements, the strongest language in the Joint Communique, can hardly be construed as the US “ironclad commitment” that President Obama spoke of as a Summit outcome; particularly as another of his comments clarified that "the purpose of security cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalise Iran."

The US will be particularly pleased about paragraphs: “The United States and GCC member states also affirmed their strong support for the efforts of the P5+1 to reach a deal with Iran by June 30, 2015, that would verifiably ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, noting that such a deal would represent a significant contribution to regional security…. At the same time, the United States and GCC member states reaffirmed their willingness to develop normalized relations with Iran should it cease its destabilizing activities and their belief that such relations would contribute to regional security….”. And, “With regard to Yemen, both the United States and GCC member states underscored the imperative of collective efforts to counter Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, and emphasized the need to rapidly shift from military operations to a political process…..(there is) a shared recognition that there is no military solution to the regions’ civil conflicts, and that they can only be resolved through political and peaceful means…”

However, these sentiments are likely to remain mere aspirations as Saudi Arabia resumed its intensive bombing across Yemen within minutes of the conclusion of the five-day ceasefire. If anything, the intensity of the bombing has been steadily increasing, inflicting greater casualties, causing ever increasing damage to the already weak infrastructure and displacement of increasing numbers of people, already in the thousands; all of this is going to engender long-term bitterness, even enmity towards Saudi Arabia. The Houthis remain undaunted. Saudi Arabia cannot succeed in reinstalling the Al-Hadi administration through this approach. Meanwhile, al Qaeda is gaining ground by the day.  

Frankly, the only elements of the joint communiqué that could be implemented soon are those related to the greatly expanded supply of weapons, and the installation of a GCC-wide Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. In his first term, the Obama administration agreed to sell over $64 billion in arms and defence services to the GCC countries with almost three-quarters of that going to Saudi Arabia. New offers worth nearly $15 billion were made to Riyadh in 2014 and 2015. Now, even more weapons will be made available. The US military-industrial complex is celebrating.

Thus, the summit ended with the US coming out a winner, Iran not losing anything and little for the GCC countries beyond lots more weapons. Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness will increase in the short term as paranoia and pique continue to override rationality; President Obama will persist with his top foreign policy priority, a deal with Iran; the increasing misery of the peoples of the region will continue unabated; and prospects for meaningful political processes to end conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen in the foreseeable future remain bleak.

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#4868, 5 May 2015
King Salman: The Boldest Ever Saudi Monarch?
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

King Salman, at 79 years old, was widely believed to be in poorer health when he ascended the throne than any of his predecessors. He had been the Saudi minister of defence for six months and Crown Prince for two-and-a-half years – the shortest period amongst his predecessors. King Abdullah and Prince Salman did not have a close relationship. He was overshadowed by his three high profile elder brothers – King Fahd, Crown Prince Sultan, the longtime stalwart and defence minister, and the longtime equally stalwart Crown Prince Nayef, who was interior minister for most of his working life. The latter two had sons who held high profile jobs and were regarded as influential in their own right. Salman was the governor of the strategically key Riyadh Province for 53 years. Though he has been a part of the core decision-making coterie for the past few decades, from the background perspective, he was less ‘prepared’ to be King than all his predecessors barring King Khalid. No King has ascended the throne in Saudi Arabia in circumstances more challenging for the country than Salman. (See ‘Saudi Arabia and Evolving Regional Strategic Dynamics’, IPCS Commentary #4843, 2 March 2015). For all these reasons, there was a consensus that he would do no more than maintain continuity and stability; rocking the boat would have been completely out of character and totally unexpected.

However, Salman’s actions and decisions as King have been swift and breathtakingly audacious. It can be safely asserted that nobody in Saudi Arabia, let alone abroad, could visualise when Salman took over that in just over three months, the composition of the Saudi government could be so utterly and dramatically different from the previous one; and that Saudi Arabia would be involved in the biggest war in its history.

It is not only the decisions themselves but the manner and timing of their being taken and announced that is unprecedented. On the morning of 23 January, the Saudis woke up to discover that they had a new King – Salman; a new Crown Prince – Muqrin was promoted; a new Deputy Crown Prince –Nayef, settling a longtime speculation about when the transition to the next generation will be and who it will be; and, the most surprising, a new Defence Minister, Mohamed bin Salman, under 30 years old, whose major qualification for the job is that he is his father’s favourite son. He was also made Head of the Royal Court and the chairman of one of two new committees that would define and implement policies.

This combination made him the second-most powerful person after the King. All this happened in the first few hours of Salman becoming the king – former king Abdullah hadn’t even been buried yet.  Never before in Saudi history had such sensitive and important appointments been made so extraordinarily swiftly. No King before Salman had so blatantly favoured his own progeny.

On 25 March, Saudi Arabia launched Operation Desert Storm, a series of airstrikes across Yemen – Saudi Arabia’s first major war at its own initiative since its invasion of Yemen in 1934.  Riyadh has been the world’s largest arms importer in the past decade; no comparable country has such huge amounts of state-of-the-art military hardware as Saudi Arabia but its decent-sized armed forces are not battle-tested in a real conflict. Riyadh has thus entered completely uncharted waters.  

The war has been personally monitored by the Saudi defence minister. Despite claims of success in daily briefings, the reality is that the war is far from achieving its objectives. Yet, on the morning of 29 April, Saudis awoke to discover that they had a new Crown Prince and a new Deputy Crown Prince. Crown Prince Muqrin had been removed; the first time such a thing has happened in Saudi history; the defence minister was promoted and made the new Deputy Crown Prince; Prince Saud Al Faisal, the iconic foreign minister for 50 years, the world’s longest serving foreign minister, was replaced and the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, Adel Al Jubeir, replaced him. This is the second time in the Kingdom’s history that a non-royal will hold this post. This will inevitably increase the say the young defence minister will have vis-à-vis foreign policy. The first non-royal Foreign Minister was Ibrahim bin Abdullah Al Suwaiyel (1960-62); but those were relatively calm and staid times for Saudi Arabia and the region.

As the governor of Riyadh, he was also responsible for maintaining discipline amongst the Princes – nobody knows the ins and outs of the extended royal family better than him. He was considered more genial and less assertive in family interactions than his elder and more powerful siblings, both Sudairies and non-Sudairies. Therefore, he may be able to override dissensions in the family.

However, the implications of Salman’s decisions are a high risk gamble for him personally, for the stability of the country and even the future of the royal family. If he can pull it off, he would certainly be regarded as the most visionary Saudi monarch after the kingdom’s founder. But, if he fails, there will be little consolation for the country that he was the boldest amongst Saudi monarchs!

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#4860, 6 April 2015
Yemen: Why the Current Strife will Continue
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

Soon after its formal establishment in 1932, Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen and absorbed the Yemeni provinces of Asir and Najran, in 1934. Since then, Saudi Arabia has tried to influence internal political dynamics by using a ‘carrots and sticks’ policy to ensure that unfriendly regimes did not come to power in Yemen, but with limited success. For these reasons Yemenis have not been well disposed towards Saudi Arabia.

Except for intermittent periods of relative ‘stability’, from 1962 onwards, Yemen has witnessed continual internal armed conflicts between regional and tribal groupings. Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaidi Shia himself, was president of North Yemen from 1978 to 1990 and of united Yemen till 2012. Major protests against his autocratic rule started in the mid-1990s. The most powerful amongst them was by the Ansar Allah, under the leadership of Hussein al Houthi, from the Saada region in the north, but there were no sectarian motives behind this. This led to a concerted military campaign against the Zaidi Shia grouping, during which Hussein al Houthi was killed in September 2004, even as Saleh was dubbed a puppet of the Americans and yet another ‘civil war’ in Yemen began. Saleh now became an American ally.

Saleh’s inability to control the burgeoning mass demonstrations in Yemen, which were part of the so-called Arab Spring unrest, led to him being forced to step down by the GCC countries in 2012; adept at switching alliances, Saleh opportunistically allied with the Houthis in 2014 in an effort to recapture power. Having headed the army and the country for so long, Saleh enjoys a considerable support within the army (even though it is a predominantly Sunni army), and particularly amongst the powerful Republican Guard. This support has contributed particularly significantly to the Houthis taking control of most of the country including almost all its main cities and ports in just a few months. The incumbent President Abd Rabbu Mansour al Hadi and his cabinet were arrested.    

Having escaped, the President, a southerner, and previously a vice president under Saleh, first fled to Aden and after the presidential palace came under attack there, fled to Saudi Arabia. Al Hadi has no support base in north Yemen and little real support even in southern Yemen, except in Aden. Meanwhile, the powerful al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, has been steadily expanding its control of major areas of southern Yemen; in longer term, it stands to gain the most.

All this has led to Saudi Arabia abandoning its traditional cautious, deliberate, low key diplomacy and adopting a surprisingly muscular approach, apparently at the behest of Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the very young and completely inexperienced new Saudi Defence Minister and the youngest son of King Salman. Incredibly, in a matter of days, Saudi Arabia successfully forged a grand Sunni alliance and launched ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ involving extensive air strikes against Houthi and Saleh forces in and around Sana’a, Taiz, Hodeidah and even Aden in the past week, but has been unable to dent Houthi/Saleh dominance.
 
A particularly notable feature is the large military commitments made by the members of this coalition, with Saudi Arabia contributing 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers, and some naval units; Bahrain and Kuwait deploying 15 fighter jets each; Qatar contributing 10 jets; and Jordan contributing 6. Even Sudan has promised 3 jets. Egypt is deploying unspecified naval and air force units, and ground forces will be deployed “if necessary.” Concerted efforts to persuade Pakistan to join are being led by King Salman himself. Turkey is being strongly wooed too. This underscores Saudi Arabia’s alarm about developments in Yemen. 

Frenetic Saudi rhetoric notwithstanding, there is little credible evidence of Iran having provided large enough consignments of weapons to the Houthis, to make a tangible difference. But, Iran has now made very significant gains in Yemen: direct flights between Tehran and Sana’a started in March; with several ports now being under Houthi control, theoretical possibilities of Iranian weapons supplies to Yemen have opened up. This will inevitably happen if needed. Iran has already signed several agreements with the Houthi authorities to supply Iranian oil, help in construction of power plants, modernisation of strategic ports, etc.

Thus, Iran has acquired credible locus standii and will inevitably be an active player in the processes to determine Yemen’s future, particularly now that the nuclear deal has been signed. The issue of the ‘lost provinces’ may well be reopened.  

Clearly, the war cannot be won through air strikes alone. Given that Saudi troops had performed particularly poorly against the then much weaker and less organised Houthis in 2009-2010, and have no real combat experience, they are hardly likely to do any better this time, fighting against battle-hardened Yemenis in their own terrain. A military victory is unimaginable. A semblance of peace, the normal situation in Yemen, can only be re-established through negotiations mainly between the parties directly concerned – Iran and Saudi Arabia under US auspices sitting down with the Houthis.

There is very little prospect of a Saudi-friendly government emerging as the end result of such negotiations. Thus, the unfolding events in Yemen are likely to prove another and particularly major strategic setback for Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Yemen is likely to remain embroiled in violent civil strife for some years to come.

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#4843, 2 March 2015
Saudi Arabia and Evolving Regional Strategic Dynamics
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman
 

Saudi Arabia had, for the immediate short-term, seemingly successfully launched the process of transition to monarchs coming from the next generation; however, there has been dissent about the two younger generation appointments which has been kept secret from the public. Moreover, continuing widespread, but unreported, unhappiness within the royal family about Prince Muqrin’s elevation means that he may not necessarily become King; Prince Ahmed, the youngest of the seven Sudairi brothers, though presently sidelined, cannot be ruled out from becoming King and then equations change for the future.

Thus, uncertainties on the domestic front remain. These add to Saudi Arabia facing the most challenging and daunting external security environment since the end of World War II. It is strongly besieged on all sides - the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria determined to recast the geopolitical map of West Asia while simultaneously posing an unprecedented ideological challenge to Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and to the very existence of its monarchical regime; Shiite Houthis taking control of the capital Sana’a and most of northern Yemen, with the country falling apart and staring at the South seceding and where the deeply anti-Saudi al Qaeda is likely to become even stronger than it is; the potential rapprochement between the US, Saudi Arabia’s preeminent ally for the past 70 years, and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy since 1979; Obama’s West Asia policies being very different from that of previous Presidents even as US need for Saudi oil is diminishing very sharply. Saudi Arabia’s continuing troubled relations with two GCC partners - Oman since long and Qatar in recent times.

Saudi Arabia has little or no control over how events in the region will evolve. It is not a significant military power. Even though it is the swing producer in global oil dynamics and can singlehandedly influence the price of oil this still does not give Saudi Arabia the clout to meaningfully influence regional strategic dynamics. To compound matters, it has a new King in fragile health and a relatively inexperienced new senior team.

Iran is, has been and will remain the leading regional power in West Asia. Saudi Arabia is not and cannot be an equal power. Carried away by strong US animosity towards the new revolutionary Iran and its own ‘special relationship’ with the US, Saudi Arabia considered the new Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 as a multi-pronged challenge and chose to respond by adopting a policy of unmitigated opposition to Iran. The US, shortsightedly, also adopted a similar approach which became progressively unsustainable in an increasingly inter-connected world in which Iran has become the preeminent strategic player in West Asia to the increasing disadvantage of the US and its regional allies. There is absolutely no possibility of any improvement in any of the conflict theatres in West Asia without Iran being an active participant in any such endeavours. The region is now caught in the vise of multiple crises forcing the US to finally recognise the reality of strong Iranian regional influence.

If Iran becomes a partner then there is every possibility that negotiated political solutions can be arrived at in Syria and Yemen and of the ground situation improving in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, including in Gaza.

Saudi Arabia has to realise that the challenge posed by the Islamic State is far more fundamental and lethal to the Saudi regime, State and system than Iran. Its first and overriding priority must be to ensure the defeat of the Islamic State, both militarily as well as ideologically, though the latter will take a long time. Given current political ground realities in Iraq and Syria and the enormous assistance that Iran has been giving to Iraq in fighting the Islamic State, Iran is the best placed regional country which can help ensure the defeat of the Islamic State.

Therefore, in more ways than one, a US/Western-Iranian deal is the key to stopping the increasing brutality, death and destruction in West Asia. There has to be a fundamental change of mindset by Saudi Arabia in relation to Iran. This is unavoidably necessary to ensure that the potential beneficial spin-offs of a nuclear deal can be translated onto the ground. This is also the only way that Islam-related extremism and militancy can be curbed and ultimately eliminated. Finally, this is absolutely essential to initiate the processes of controlling and ultimately eliminating deepening sectarian divides which have become the major fuel propelling the entirely unnecessary and avoidable killing of innocent people in the thousands. The new Saudi dispensation must play a statesman-like role, completely abjuring past counter-productive policies in relation to Iran.

Furthermore, absent Saudi hostility, there is no rational reason why Iran would be interested in destabilising the regime of any GCC country, including Bahrain. Finally, Iran must be an integral part of any new regional security structures in West Asia.

If the nuclear deal does not happen and Saudi Arabia does not change its attitudes then deepening cleavages in West Asia will become far worse; possibilities of Iraq, Syria and Yemen imploding will increase; moderate President Rouhani will be discredited and internal strife will in Iran will be aggravated; and, the prized calm in the GCC countries could give way to violence too.

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#4827, 2 February 2015
New Leadership Lineup in Saudi Arabia: Reading the Tea Leaves
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman
 

In Saudi Arabia, the incumbent King has the absolute right to designate a successor who is titled as the Crown Prince. However, with an eye to ensure acceptable successions in the future given the intense factional rivalries within the royal family and the advancing age of potential monarchs, King Abdullah established the Allegiance Council in 2006 to decide upon succession matters. Also, in March 2014, King Abdullah, controversially, created a new designation - Deputy Crown Prince - and appointed his half-brother Prince Moqren, thus placing him second in the line of succession. The appointment decree was strangely worded, stating that the appointment had been made in consultation with the Crown Prince, had been approved by the Allegiance Council, and could not be changed by anybody in the future. Disgruntled members of the royal family tweeted objections and it became publicly known that unprecedentedly a quarter of the Allegiance Council did not agree. The reality is that the Allegiance Council has functioned as a rubber stamp. The fact is that in the normal course it would have been highly unlikely that Moqren, the son of a Yemeni slave woman, who never had a front rank job, would be in the line of succession, particularly as there remained an elder brother, the youngest of the powerful ‘Sudairi Seven’, Prince Ahmed. It was clear that Moqren’s appointment was designed to ensure that Abdullah’s sons would have a prominent governmental future. 

King Salman, already 79 and in poor health, is the last of the prominent sons of the founder King, and the time is inevitably coming for the crown and other important portfolios to pass on to the next generation. For years there has been speculation of when that might happen and who would be the chosen one. 

All this was settled within a few hours of Salman’s ascending the throne and even before King Abdullah was buried. The single most important decision announced by King Salman was the appointment of the incumbent Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayif to be concurrently the new Deputy Crown Prince, unequivocally making the latter the first amongst the next generation to be in line to take the crown. He is 55 years old. The other particularly significant appointment was that of his son, Mohammed bin Salman, only 34 years old, as the new Defence Minister and also the Head of the Royal Court, a singularly important post. He will also be a member of the newly created high-powered Council of Political and Security Affairs (chaired by the new Deputy Crown Prince and Interior Minister) and head the newly created high-powered Council of Economic and Development Affairs. To assign two particularly powerful portfolios and give membership of the government’s newly created policy and implementation hubs to an untried and untested rather young individual is absolutely unprecedented. He has been clearly placed in the line to become King one day. 

The many changes also affect two of the late King Abdullah’s sons who have been removed from significant jobs by making Faisal bin Bandar Governor of Riyadh instead of Turki bin Abdullah and reinstating Khaled al-Faisal as Mecca Governor less than two years after he was replaced by Mishaal bin Abdullah.

All these appointments cumulatively herald the return of the Sudairies to overriding power after the 20 year Abdullah hiatus - 10 years as virtual regent and King for another decade. The former King’s son, Prince Meteb, remains the head of the National Guard - it would have been hazardous to remove him since the National Guard has been commanded by Abdullah since 1962 and more recently by Prince Miteb, is numerically larger than the army, as strong as the army, and fiercely loyal to the Abdullah clan.

Prince Moqren was confirmed as Crown Prince but remains the fly in the ointment. This was probably done not to rock the boat immediately on taking over. In the past once designated as the Crown Prince he has invariably become the King unless he predeceased the incumbent King like Crown Prince Sultan and Crown Prince Nayef successively. However, Moqren has no supporting constituency in the country either in the royal family or in the governmental establishment or amongst clerics or the people, and it should not be too difficult to remove him if only the ailing King Salman has enough time left to consolidate his hold on power and earn sufficient popularity with the people. In the meantime he is unlikely to be given any significant role in the new and evolving set-up.

Moqren has lost his most powerful supporter Khalid Al-Tuwaijri, the erstwhile head of the Royal Court. Despised and deeply resented by the vast majority of the royal princes, his removal was the first and entirely predictable decision taken by the new monarch upon accession to the throne.

Significantly the Oil Minister Naimi has been retained, clearly indicating that Saudi Arabia will continue its policy of retaining market share even at the risk of keeping oil prices low. Despite resultant budgetary constraints this year, the new King has showered large monetary hand-outs to a vast number of people and entities totalling several dozens of billions of dollars to garner popularity. He is the first Saudi King to use social media  and has racked up more than 450,000 new followers on the microblogging site Twitter (@KingSalman), bringing the total to over 1.75 million. King Salman has certainly got off to a very deeply personally satisfying beginning.

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#4794, 5 January 2015
IPCS Forecast: West Asia in 2015
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen (North) and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India
 

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. 
Click here to read the full report.
 

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.

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#4778, 15 December 2014
Rise of the Islamic State: Implications for the Arab World
Ranjit Gupta
Former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB)
 

Though it is going to take a long time to defeat the Islamic State (IS), and it must be defeated, some silver linings of the very dark cloud the IS represents are beginning to be hazily visible over the horizon.

Since the proclamation of the IS, strange things have begun happening in West Asia. The IS is not only against the Shia governments of Iraq and Syria but also of Iran; it is even more against the Sunni governments of the Gulf monarchies, in particular, Saudi Arabia, apart from the US in particular and the West in general; it is also fighting against al Qaeda and its clones and affiliates. The IS is against everybody. It has no allies.

It has thus succeeded in bringing about a heretofore difficult to imagine scenario: countries, entities and regimes traditionally antagonistic and hostile to each other find themselves engaged in a common war against a common enemy. Thus, we have the rather strange spectacle of seeing the US and Iran; Saudi Arabia and Iran; Saudi Arabia and Shia-ruled Iraq; the Assad regime and those sworn to overthrow it – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the US and assorted Islamist extremist groups, and, Kurdish factions perpetually at loggerheads with each other and with the governments of the nations they are part of – all of them in the same camp warring against the IS.

This could have some very positive consequences in a region where hostile and conflictual relationships are endemic:  

First, after the fall of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein-ruled government, sectarian and ethnic fissures came to the fore in Iraq in a manner that had never been the case before. Sunnis have been the traditional ruling element in Iraq throughout history, but since 2003 they have not only been deeply alienated but also deliberately humiliated. Therefore, the involvement of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds in the common fight against the IS is very encouraging and could be cathartic and therapeutic. This bodes well for Iraq’s future since it had begun to appear that its being partitioned along sectarian and ethnic divides was becoming inevitable.

This enforced togetherness may finally persuade regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia and their respective allies to work together in the common and shared interests of fighting to eliminate Islamist extremism and sectarianism.

A third potentially significant consequence is that this will ultimately help to promote disenchantment of the average Muslim, particularly in the Gulf region, whether he is Sunni or Shia, with sectarianism and Islamist extremism, and make them realize that these ideologies are very dangerous for all Muslims.

The fourth potential consequence is that as the war against the IS progresses well, combined with the possibility of a deal between Iran and the P5 on the nuclear issue, all this may lead to real possibilities of a negotiated political solution to the civil war in Syria, which otherwise seems impossible to envisage.

The fifth flows from the fact that the intense rivalry between the IS and al Qaeda for control of the global jihadist movement is already causing intra-jihadist infighting and this can be expected to escalate throughout the region and this augurs well for the defeat of pernicious extremist and jihadi groups.

One consequence of the derailing of the Arab Spring has been the enormous strain on GCC unity, primarily due to Qatar taking a very different stance as compared to other GCC countries in relation to various Islamist groups. This was hampering the fight against the IS. The GCC Summit held in Qatar last week appears to have resolved the differences.  

The IS experience should also make Arab regimes and their Western patrons finally realise that pandering to religion for short-term geopolitical gains only creates Frankenstein monsters that devour their own creators. The reality is that the leaders of the Arab world have long been in denial about their own responsibility for their problems; the outside world is constantly blamed. The fact is that in the post-World War II era more Muslims have been killed by Muslims than by all others put together. As per the Country Threat Index, among the 10 most dangerous countries in the world, 9 are Muslim countries and 6 of them are Arab countries.

These facts have to be squarely faced. Time has come for very serious introspection. The emergence of the IS has created that opportunity. Lasting peace in the Arab world will be possible only if an ideological battle is waged and won within Islam to change the poisonous mindsets that have enveloped much of the Arab world. Some positive indications are already evident in new approaches by GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both domestically and otherwise.

Arab countries being overwhelmingly Muslim countries, political Islam must be given space and legitimacy to function in domestic political processes; banning or prohibiting political Islam only leads to radicalisation of those elements of society that are more religiously inclined than others. Wide-ranging political reform processes must also start now, concomitantly with the execution of the war against the IS. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started, has demonstrated that a new path is possible.

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#4727, 4 November 2014
Islamic State: The Efficacy of Counter-strategies
Ranjit Gupta
Former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB)
 

The efficacy of the US strategy to defeat the Islamic State (IS) can only be meaningfully evaluated in the context of the current regional and international geopolitical configurations. It should be self-evident that there is no possibility at all of any political approach to successfully confront and overcome the challenge posed the IS. If the IS is not defeated, the whole system of nation states in West Asia will almost surely crumble. At the present critical juncture, given the ground realities in Iraq, Syria and the Arab world in general – and internal divisions amongst Arab states and between Arab states and non-Arab states such as Iran and Turkey – it should also be clear that there is no possibility of any regional military coalition being forged to take on the IS.

Therefore, countries of the region have little or no choice but to have the US lead the fight against the IS even though Washington’s military entanglements in the Arab and Muslim worlds have greatly adversely affected its credibility, influence and standing in the region; and have in fact been one of the primary causes of the rise of Islamic extremism. After all, the US has been the preeminent regional security architect for the past several decades and remains the major weapons supplier to regional countries barring Iran and Syria.

No other Western or non-regional country can do it or will even be willing to attempt to do it by themselves; even their involvement is predicated only on the US leading the war. Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and UK too have joined in conducting airstrikes in Iraq. In a break from the traditional policy of not supplying arms to countries in zones of conflict, Germany will be supplying arms to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have carried out airstrikes in Syria. There are varying accounts of Qatar’s involvement. After doggedly refusing to allow any support for any military action in Iraq or Syria against the IS despite intense personal efforts by US President Barack Obama and the secretaries of state and defense, Turkey has reluctantly allowed the Free Syrian Army fighters and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to transit its territory en route to Kobani to dislodge the IS from there.  

The central feature of the strategy is to carry out airstrikes both in Iraq and Syria initially to stop the heretofore irresistible advance of the IS and to degrade its capabilities. This has happened in many sectors if not everywhere. The US and its partners have by now carried out a few thousand airstrikes. However, Obama has made it clear that there will be no American boots on the ground, meaning Americans in the tens of thousands will not be there as in the past. Such involvement will only exacerbate extremism. Another caveat is that combat activity must absolutely include the active involvement of regional countries. This is what the US has been implementing. Even though it is clear that the war cannot be won through via air strikes alone, the reality is that the world has no better alternative to this approach for the present.  

So far, however, a Shiite coalition, of Iran, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias and the Iraqi and Syrian governments, has been the main force arrayed against the IS on the ground apart from particularly valiant contributions by the Kurdish Peshmerga. Thus we have the strange scenario of seeing the US and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Shia ruled Iraq, the Assad regime and those sworn to overthrow it – Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US and assorted Islamist extremist groups, Kurds of different nationality groups and factions perpetually at loggerheads with each other, all in the same camp warring against the IS, tacitly cooperating with each other even if they more often than not publicly deny any open explicit collaboration. This is a part of the ground reality even if not a formal part of US strategy.

However, the fight against the IS cannot be compartmentalised. It occupies 2/5ths of the total territory of Syria and 2/5ths of the total territory of Iraq and is actually stronger in Syria; the border between the two countries has been erased. The IS cannot be defeated in Iraq without being defeated in Syria and therefore it will have to be confronted in Syria also. Despite recognising this as exhibited by the airstrikes in Syria, countries opposed to Assad are maintaining that they will not cooperate with Assad in fighting the IS and will continue supporting so called ‘moderate’ rebels by supplying arms. Such distinctions are completely arbitrary and subjective and have proven to be counterproductive. The US has promised $500 million worth of arms and training is going to be provided to the rebels in Saudi Arabia. This will only exacerbate and prolong Syria’s civil war and undermine the dire need of a united response to the IS.

The coalition’s policy approach in Syria maybe alright as a temporary tactic, but strategically, it is completely counterproductive.

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#4682, 6 October 2014
War against the Islamic State: Political and Military Responses from the Region
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman
 

Strange things are happening in West Asia. Those who created the modern jihad in an extremely misguided and immature tactical response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are today at war with its most extremist manifestation, the Islamic State. The latter has also succeeded in bringing about the almost impossible - uniting countries and regimes deeply antagonistic and hostile to each other in a common war against a common enemy. The US and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia and a Shia government in Iraq, the Assad regime and those sworn to overthrow it - Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US and assorted Islamist groups, all in the same camp warring against the Islamic State.

The Islamic State (IS), an extremist Sunni entity, is a particularly serious existential threat to the regimes of the GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia, as its religious roots and those of Wahhabism are broadly the same. The rulers of the GCC countries know that if the IS succeeds in Iraq, a spillover into their countries is inevitable. The IS is thus a direct, immediate and strong existential challenge to the continuing rule of these regimes, something that has not happened before. After agonizing for weeks they have become active participants in a war against a Sunni entity in Shia ruled states. This is unprecedented and something that simply could not have even been imagined only a few months ago.

The IS is fanatically anti Shia; it is also the most potent threat to the pro-Iranian regimes in Iraq and Syria and to the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria. For these three reasons the IS is now the single most active and potent direct threat to Iran’s influence and standing throughout West Asia. Iran is Iraq’s ally and is the first and only regional country that has provided actual assistance on the ground.

The IS thus simultaneously poses the biggest strategic threat to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, though for entirely different reasons. For the first time since the Islamic Revolution in Iran these two countries face a common threat. They are the two key players if the war against the IS is to succeed. They have to find a way to cooperate. This is going to be difficult particularly as Saudi Arabia continues to attach priority to regime change in Syria which is absolutely unacceptable to Iran. A particularly important meeting was held between the Saudi and Iranian Foreign Ministers in New York on 21 September 2014. Statements made by them indicate that both countries recognize that they have to work together to confront the common enemy.

The Iraqi central Government has been opposed to the Barzani run Kurdish regional government and Iran has traditionally been opposed to the Barzani faction of the Iraqi Kurds. Shia militias have been fighting against the Kurds. The Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey have never managed to put up a single united overall Kurdish front; indeed in Iraq they are divided in two rival groups. But in recent weeks all of them are now fighting together in many theatres against the Islamic State.  

On 22 September, the United States launched air strikes against the ISIL in Syria and aircraft from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also took part in the airstrikes while Qatar “played a supportive role”. Arab states have continued to be involved in such air strikes since then. Iraq welcomed these airstrikes with great excitement and enthusiasm.

President Assad reacted by saying that Syria “supports any international effort in the fight against terrorism”; Syrian Foreign Minister was supportive saying that “Syria had been informed before the strikes by the United States”. Analysts on Syrian State television said that these “air strikes did not constitute aggression as Syria was informed in advance.” They have other reasons for feeling rather pleased because the US airstrikes inflicted significant casualties on the Khorasan group and the Jabhat Al Nusra, also fighting against the Syrian regime. Significantly, Syrian opposition National Coalition President Hadi Al Bahra said “tonight the international community has joined our fight against the ISIS in Syria.”

Syria is very keen to be formally a part of the coalition against the IS but unfortunately the US and GCC countries are adamantly opposed to this even as they are tacitly cooperating with the regime directly and through Iran, in coordinating the airstrikes against the IS. Iran would have been happy to attend the meeting in Jeddah on September 11 and in Paris on September 15 to join the international coalition to fight the Islamic State but was not invited due to US opposition. There was no blistering condemnation from Iran which would have been the automatic reaction in the past. Iran has merely said that such actions do not have international legality.

After doggedly refusing to allow any support for any military action in Iraq or Syria against the Islamic State despite intense personal efforts by President Obama and the Secretaries of State and Defense, hours after the first airstrikes in Syria Erdogan said in New York that Turkey was now considering a role that "includes everything. Both military and political…Of course we will do our part." The next few days should see greater clarity about Turkey’s involvement.

Click here for other commentaries under this column

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#4633, 1 September 2014
The Islamic State: No Country for the Old World Order
Ranjit Gupta
Former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB)
 

Following spectacular successes in routing government forces and other opponents in both Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced the establishment of an Islamic State (IS) on June 30, 2014 to the absolute astonishment of a stunned world.

The IS controls 2/5ths of the Syrian territory and 2/5ths of Iraqi territory. It holds assets worth over $2 billion – cash taken from banks and government treasuries of the towns it has taken over in Syria and Iraq; ransom money from those kidnapped (including almost $135 million reportedly paid by European governments or companies to secure the release of their kidnapped nationals); revenues of about $2 million per day from sale of oil from the four oilfields in Syria and one in Iraq that it controls; from fees and taxes; from funding from entities and individuals in Gulf countries, and looting from businessmen and common citizens in territories that it controls etc. It is virtually self-sufficient, economically and financially. It is very well-equipped militarily, having captured huge amounts of sophisticated weaponry. It has about 10-12,000 fighters in Iraq, mostly Iraqi, and perhaps thrice as many in Syria, majority Syrian, with at least one-third being foreigners, including many from Western countries. The world has not seen any terrorist entity like the IS.

There is no option but to defeat the IS. Otherwise Iraq and Syria will unravel and instability will cascade throughout West Asia with disastrous consequences for the world at large.

Positive omens are emerging in Iraq. The formation of a national unity government is finally under way and once Sunnis start being given their rightful role, objectives publicly supported by both Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Sunni population will almost surely reject the IS’s medieval ideology and brutal rule and defeat them as they had done earlier in 2008, in Anbar Province routing the Al Qaeda in Iraq – the IS’s original avatar. The Baa’thist and other Saddam era army officers and personnel who had temporarily allied with the IS are beginning to leave. The IS cannot be sustained without the support of the Sunni population at large. The US air strikes enabled the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Special Forces, who, unprecedentedly, worked together for the first time, to recover control of the Mosul dam, and on August 31, the town of Amerli that had fallen to IS control in June.

Even the traditional enemies of the Kurdistan Regional Government's leader Masoud Barzai, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, pitched in to help, and escorted the Yazidis to safety. The Sadrists, who had fought bitterly against the Americans, have publicly requested US help and cooperation but without putting their troops into Iraq.

Significantly, GCC countries that have in the past, with considerable justification, been accused of financing the spread of Islamic extremism, have finally accepted that this virus is the greatest existential danger to them. It is significant that the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, had an excellent visit to Saudi Arabia last week. Repeatedly affirmed by King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that the Islamic State is now its and the GCC’s preeminent enemy and defeating it is their top strategic priority. A variety of proactive measures have been initiated.

For the first time since the end of World War II, countries that have held opposing views on most regional issues in West Asia are all together, without exception, strongly opposing the IS. There are hundreds of US military advisers in Iraq and more will be deputed; US airstrikes have been increasing. Significantly, traditionally non-interventionist Germany, other EU countries, and Australia and Canada have announced weapons supply to the Kurds. Russia has provided Sukhoi fighters and a lot of other weaponry. Extensive help has been available from Iran – not merely weapons and funds but officers and small units of the Al Quds Force. Iran, for the first time, is supplying weapons to the Kurds. Iran and the US are cooperating although there is understandable defensiveness for both sides about admitting it publicly.

Though there is a lack of clarity on how exactly the US intends to prosecute the war against the IS, on Aug 29, US Secretary of State John Kerry publicly announced intentions of proactively leading an effort to establish a truly multinational coalition of states and entities against the IS and seeking UN Security Council endorsement.

Though the US, French and British leaders publicly maintain that they will not cooperate with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in combating the IS, in due time, ways will be found around current anti-Assad reservations. Meanwhile the US has started reconnaissance flights over Syria. Encouragingly, supplying arms to ‘moderate’ rebels by Western and GCC countries and Turkey is under review as these arms have in the past fallen in the hands of the IS. The Assad regime has also started confronting the IS more assertively.

Having said all this, the world must brace up to the reality that far more brutality, death, destruction and violence in West Asia lies ahead than has already been witnessed as the war against the IS truly gets under way.

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#4591, 4 August 2014
India and the Conflict in Gaza
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB)
 

The creation of Israel in Palestine was a Western venture to expiate their guilt for their historical ill treatment of the Jews, and, at the time it was finally done, also to implant a permanent base for safeguarding their own interests for the future in the vital West Asian region. The Western ‘divide and rule’ policies and the arbitrary drawing of boundaries were at the heart of imperial control of colonised peoples and territories. The legacy thereof continues. Unfortunately, history and international relations are not about fairness but about the exercise of power in one’s own interest.

Meanwhile, Israel has become fully integrated economically and politically into the international comity of nations. Many non-Western countries, including China and India, have developed a strong relationship with Israel. The leading Arab country, Egypt, and Jordan have had diplomatic and stronger than merely normal relations with Israel for decades; Turkey had exceptionally close relations with Israel until a few years ago; so did Iran under the Shah; Oman and Qatar have had quasi-diplomatic relations with Israel; Tunisia and Morocco have had interactions with Israel; several GCC countries, and Saudi Arabia in particular, have encouraged an increasingly close working relationship between their intelligence services and that of Israel’s, especially over the past three-four years.  

The current hostilities in Gaza are essentially a war between Hamas and Israel and not a war between Israel and Palestine; that is how governments of many Arab countries as well as the Palestinian National Authority are viewing the conflict; and they, not excluding Fatah, are also treating it as an intrinsic element of the current strong confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, and its Arab opponents. Egypt and Saudi Arabia consider Hamas a terrorist organisation. In strong contrast to each of the earlier such confrontations, except for Qatar’s support, Hamas is politically isolated in the Arab world this time. Another stumbling block is that Hamas does not officially recognise the existence of Israel. The uncomfortable truth is that each of these parties, without exception, is cynically pursuing its own broader geopolitical agenda.

The minimum fundamental requirement for meaningful forward movement on the Palestinian issue, including the lifting of the Israeli economic blockade of Gaza, is substantive unity amongst the Arabs. The Arab world has enormous financial clout which has never been concertedly used for the Palestinian cause. In the absence of this, the rest of the non-Western world cannot meaningfully pressurise Israel. 

It is all these factors that have made possible Israel getting away with the extreme brutality of its current onslaught on Gaza.

This broad brush backdrop must be kept in mind in evaluating India’s policy in relation to ongoing events in Gaza.

What is the objective of a foreign policy? It should primarily be to promote and protect the country’s national interests, national security and national welfare. An important guiding principle must be to avoid taking stances that will have zero impact on realities on the ground but which could adversely affect important bilateral relationships. Though difficult, emotion and ideological biases must be eschewed.
  
The establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 was a right decision courageously taken by the Narasimha Rao Government as part of a sorely needed revamp of India’s economic and foreign policies. Since then, Israel has emerged as a particularly important defence equipment supplier and a multi-sectoral hi-tech partner of vital strategic significance. However, this has not come in the way of India maintaining excellent relationships with Arab countries in general; and with the GCC countries, in particular, the latter developed mainly in the past decade and a half. This relationship is in fact India’s most spectacular foreign policy success. Meanwhile, India continues its strong traditional support for the Palestinian cause consciously, deliberately and rightly. There is no contradiction in simultaneously pursuing these approaches that are politico-strategic imperatives for India.

In the context of the current crisis in Gaza, India has maintained complete continuity with past stances in relevant international fora and in statements made by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Nevertheless, India’s reactions and policies have come in for strong domestic criticism focused on two counts: first, regarding mention of the use of rockets by Hamas in the MEA spokesperson’ statement of July 10. In 2008, when Israeli retaliatory actions killed 1417 Palestinians in a much shorter conflict, it was mentioned in the MEA spokesperson’s statement on 27 December, 2008. Both times, these statements accorded factually with observable ground realities.

Another reason for criticism is rejection of a demand for a Parliamentary Resolution; there was neither a demand nor any initiative for a resolution when the UPA government was in power. It is wrong to politicise issues of national interest. Adopting resolutions on foreign policy issues should be avoided as it does not promote solutions but only constrains governmental flexibility and options. However, discussions in the parliament should not be prevented. 

There have been demands to stop buying military equipment from Israel. This would hurt Israel only marginally but will be an utterly devastating self-inflicted wound on ourselves; and no Indian government has or should consider such an utterly absurd and irresponsible proposal.

India’s stance is highly unlikely to adversely affect relations with important Arab countries as these are based on symbiotic mutually beneficial pragmatism, not emotion.

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#4548, 7 July 2014
India in Iraq: Need for Better Focus
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB)
 

Though Iraq has been a particularly good and politically supportive friend and had episodically been the top oil supplier to India in the past, relations perforce started losing momentum in the wake of the US policies after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait; finally, India lost interest in Iraq after the US invaded it in 2003 – so much so that there was no Indian ambassador in Baghdad from 2005-2011.

Iraq has suddenly dominated Indian public attention for the past month with India’s 24x7 TV news channels orchestrating a shrill campaign highlighting the woes of the families of 40 Indian construction workers abducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after they took control of Mosul and of 46 Indian nurses posted in a hospital in Tikrit; and pillorying the government’s alleged "failure" to protect and/or rescue its nationals.

The Indian public needs to be made aware of ground realities because of which these things happen.

The 39 construction workers are in a war zone and their exact whereabouts are not known. Since neither the territory, nor the captors, nor the evolution of developments are under Indian control or influence, the government is inevitably completely dependent on others – governments of friendly countries who may have local influence; central and regional governments in Iraq; national and international humanitarian and relief agencies; tribal leaders; militants themselves or other individuals or entities who have influence with the militants etc for their safety and return to India. Efforts have been continuing on a 24 hour basis with such entities – that is the best that any government can do. That is how the rescue of the nurses was secured. India and Indians have always enjoyed enormous goodwill in the Gulf region in particular and in the Arab world in general. This is one of the reasons why Indian nurses were not ill-treated and released. If, despite all efforts, the workers are harmed the government should not be blamed.

Not a single country, even those with extremely competent intelligence agencies and foreign ministries, and those that intensively interact with Iraq on a daily basis, had anticipated the blitzkrieg of the ISIL in taking over the Sunni provinces of Iraq. The consul general of Turkey in Mosul and 23 other consulate personnel were abducted and are yet to be rescued. 100 Kurdish school children have been missing for weeks. Numerous others of many nationalities are missing. Therefore, there was nothing that the Indian government or the embassy could have done to prevent the abduction of the Indian workers.

Suggestions that they could have been evacuated in anticipation of events made in hindsight completely ignore how the real world functions. They themselves would not have wanted to leave having made large payments to recruitment and travel agents in India. Suggestions that the commando operations can be mounted to rescue them are completely irresponsible.

Exactly 10 years ago something similar had happened. Three Indian truck drivers were kidnapped in Iraq in July 2004 while working for a Kuwaiti company that ferried supplies to the US military in Iraq. An Indian diplomatic team was sent to Baghdad and successfully negotiated their release – they had been captive for 41 days. While negotiations were underway, India witnessed similar frenetic TV coverage as now. However, within a few months of their release, the drivers were back in Kuwait. When interviewed on TV, the same family members who had earlier complained about and criticised the government aggressively said that the men had to earn a living for their family members!

This team had learnt to its great surprise that as many as 20,000 Indians were working in Iraq, many of them in various US military camps, the attraction obviously being the high salaries being paid for duty in war zones. In the context of the kidnapping of the drivers, the government banned the movement of Indians to Iraq for employment, which continued till May 2010. This was lifted after a public demand and hence the trouble now.

All this highlights the sad fact and national shame that 67 years after independence, millions of Indians have to go abroad to work in conditions that are conducive to their easy exploitation. In the short term, it is difficult to see how this can be prevented. However, one domestic issue needs to be addressed proactively with a sense of priority which unfortunately no government in the past has done: the nexus between the recruiting and travel agents in India and employment agents in the Gulf countries – the main reason for the exploitation of Indian workers. This unsavoury nexus must be broken and stricter regulations must be stringently enforced.

Last week the ISIL announced the establishment of an Islamic Emirate, which in due course, they hope, would include India. However, there is no reason for major concern because the ISIL is going to be extremely busy in Syria and Iraq to stave off defeat ultimately. However, the Caliphate could be an ideological beacon for misguided or unemployed Indian Muslim youth; however, ultimately causes and remedies thereof lie with the Indian government and civil society, not outside India.
 
Ranjit Gupta is a retired Indian Foreign Service Officer, and has served as an ambassador to Yemen (North) and Oman.

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#4483, 2 June 2014
Looking West: Bridging the Gulf with the GCC
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman
 

For a potential global power like India clearly relations with China and the US are exceedingly important. Relations with Japan have acquired great strategic significance. Israel is a very valuable defence and high technology partner and the relationship deserves high priority cultivation. Russia and the EU will remain important partners. Africa and ASEAN countries have their respective intrinsic importance. The new government has already exhibited phenomenal foresight in inviting the heads of State or government of SAARC countries to the Prime Minister’s swearing in ceremony, thereby emphasising the primary importance of the immediate neighbourhood.  

The media and think-tanks have been busy making recommendations. However, no mention has been made at all of the absolutely enormous strategic importance of the six GCC countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - to India. In fact, if the baskets of strategic interests that India has vis-à-vis different regions of the world are compared, the GCC countries would be near the top of any theoretical hierarchy, ranking different regions from the perspective of India’s national well-being and national interests for the immediate future. This region is also the heartland of Islam. The Western media and even many governments have deliberately projected a negative image of the new Prime Minister as being anti-Muslim. This falsity must be contested. This further underlines the importance of the relationship with the GCC countries. The Islamic dimension has acquired strategic significance from an altogether different context also arising from violence associated with Islamic extremism. Therefore, there can be no two views that India needs to have the best possible relations with the GCC countries; this is of the highest strategic importance. Every country has a list of priorities and clearly for India nurturing this relationship must rank amongst the very top. This is substantiated in the following paragraphs.

For India to become a global power it must grow at 8-10 per cent annually for the next three-four decades. The assured availability of adequate energy resources will be the key factor. Two-thirds of India’s total oil imports are from the Gulf region, with half of the total being from the GCC countries. Despite having a special relationship with Pakistan, none of the GCC countries ever stopped oil exports to India or even threatened to do so through the different Indo-Pakistani wars. They voluntarily stepped in to make up the shortfalls whenever supplies were temporarily disrupted, eg in 1990-91 and in 2003. Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of oil and Qatar the largest supplier of gas to India.

India’s total trade with the GCC countries in 2012-13 at US$159.14 billion made them India’s largest regional trading bloc by far. This has been India’s fastest growing trade relationship. The UAE is India’s largest trading partner – just India’s exports to the UAE are more than India’s total trade with each of the countries of the world except with China, the US and Saudi Arabia; Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trading partner and also the largest supplier of oil to India – just India’s exports to Saudi Arabia are more than India’s total trade with such important countries such as France, Thailand, Italy, Russia, Israel, etc.

The GCC countries are home to more than seven million Indian passport holders. They are the source of very substantial inward remittances, totaling about US$30-35 billion last year. For a democracy, the domestic political implications of the safety and welfare of such a huge Indian passport-holding community being located abroad in a cohesive politico-geographical but a potentially volatile area, is, by itself standalone, an extremely important factor.

Despite Pakistan’s strenuous efforts, anti-terrorism cooperation from Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been particularly noteworthy. Both these countries have made combating violent Islamic extremism a priority policy objective.

Some GCC countries have absolutely huge Sovereign Wealth Funds, some of which they wish to invest in India – but India needs to create an investment friendly environment which the new government is already committed to doing.

It merits mention that in the overall process, the potential hurdle of the special relationship that has existed between the GCC countries and Pakistan, particularly between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Pakistan, has been skillfully bypassed. Neither has India’s close defence relationship with Israel been a hurdle.

It is possible to create virtually irrevocable symbiotic strategic bonds with the GCC countries by India contributing to providing food security for the GCC countries - a preeminent strategic priority for them. GCC countries, flush with funds, could get strategically involved through large scale investment in India’s agri-food economy. In return, India would benefit enormously in the food sector too apart from ensuring its energy security. A detailed proposal has been submitted to the Ministry of External Affairs. 

When relations are excellent, there is an understandable tendency on the part of the political leadership to take the relationship for granted. The new government can ill-afford to do so. No Prime Ministerial visit to the UAE has taken place since 1982. This glaring lacuna must be set right in 2014. It is important that there should be a bilateral meeting with the Saudi King or head of delegation at the annual G20 meetings on a regular basis.                                                                                                                

 

 

 

 

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#4425, 5 May 2014
Elections in Iraq: Uncertain Prospects
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman
 

The US’ unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003, the subsequent overthrow and execution of then President Saddam Hussein, and the complete dismantling of the Ba'athist state apparatus left an already emaciated Iraq – to over a decade of Western sanctions –  in complete shambles. The US military occupation and rule could not prevent Iraq from degenerating into a completely fractured country with deep ethnic, regional and sectarian fault lines. The death toll in sectarian conflict and terrorist attacks is consistently rising, and has reached its highest levels since the worst of the sectarian strifes in 2006 and 2007; UN estimates suggest that 8,868 people were killed in 2013. According to the Ministry of Interior of Iraq, 1,666 people have died in the first quarter of 2014, and in April alone 1,009 people were killed. The figures might be higher given that data from the terrorism infested, Sunni controlled Anbar region haven’t been included.

It was in this backdrop that the 29 April parliamentary elections – the first after the withdrawal of the US troops three years ago – were held. Given the grim, chaos infested aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, it is a major accomplishment that the elections were held at all. Despite the aforementioned contexts, in many parts of the country and especially in Baghdad, violence was surprisingly low on the Election Day. According to Iraq’s Independent Election Commission, there was a 60 per cent voter turnout and this should be considered a matter of considerable satisfaction, if not celebration.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in power since 2006, is running for a third term. This year there was no Iranian push for a single Shiite coalition. Instead, there are at least three major Shiite lists, associated with Maliki, Ammar al-Hakim and the Sadrists respectively, apart from other smaller entities. There are many Sunni entities in the fray but they appear unable and unlikely to put up a united front. In fact, compared to the 2010 elections where there were 86 competing groups, there are 107 political groups in 2014. Also, contrary to 7,000 candidates in the 2010 elections, the 2014 elections have over 9,000 candidates. The increase in the number of candidates and lists can be attributed to defections and disintegrations among the bigger alliances. In 2010, Kurdish support finally tilted the scales in Maliki’s favour but given the Maliki’s steadily deteriorating personal relationship with the central government and the Kurdish Regional Government, this seems unlikely this time unless Maliki can pull off a magical eleventh hour coup. However, given Maliki’s hold on various constitutional entities, he could manipulate events and entice support to stay in power. 

Given the multiplicity of parties and factions in the country, it takes months to cobble together a government, and therefore, the world will have to wait for the final outcome; but it is difficult to envisage the wily Maliki being outwitted. Iraq needs a strong leader for the immediate short term and for all of Maliki’s increasing authoritarianism and undoubted shortcomings as his many critics rightly contend, it’s likely that no other contender would have done any better in the utterly chaotic situation the country was in. Regardless of what happens, there must be no foreign interference – the root cause of why the situation is so bad in the first place.

The US and Iran are the two most influential powers in contemporary Iraq. Though Maliki has not been the first choice of either party in the past, and he has shown that he is by no means a pawn of either; ironically both consider him an ‘ally’. It is important that whoever emerges as the Prime Minister has the tacit approval of both the US and Iran; absent that, the situation within the country could become much worse. Having said this, it is not unlikely that this time around too, their backstage influence would likely be used ultimately in Maliki’s favour. 

Maliki successfully managed to hold an Arab League Summit in Baghdad in March 2012 – for the first time since 1990, and only the second time in the country's history. Significantly, the Emir of Kuwait personally attended the Summit, and was the only GCC leader to do so. Since then the relationship between the traditionally antagonistic countries has improved dramatically.  

Earlier this year, Iran and Iraq announced that they have agreed to implement the historic 1975 Algiers Agreement to regulate their land and river borders and, most importantly, to dredge the Shatt-al-Arab river. Bilateral trade stood at $12 billion in 2013, making Iraq one of Iran’s s, and Iraq is the most significant export market for Iran’s non-oil trade. Furthermore, Iraq had stepped forward proactively to fill the breach when India’s imports from Iran significantly declined due to sanctions. This is pragmatism not subordination.

Saudi Arabia is and will remain antagonistic towards any Shia dispensation in Iraq. Turkey’s relations with Iraq have deteriorated a great deal, partly due to its direct oil and other dealings with the Kurdish Regional Government and partly due to Iraq being perceived as a willing and cooperative conduit for men and arms to aid President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Otherwise, Iraq has good relations with all other countries including India. 

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#4373, 7 April 2014
Nuclear Iran: Will Obama Succeed?
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman
 

Even though Iran had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1967, it had been pursuing a clandestine nuclear programme since the mid-1980s, which became public knowledge in 2002 through defectors. The program was put on fast forward during President Ahmedinejad’s period. 

On-off negotiations with the IAEA and Western countries, an escalating sanctions regime particularly since 2006, Iran’s economy sliding into deep depression rapidly, rising possibilities of Israeli military action, etc., failed to persuade the contending parties to reach any solution. A progressively deteriorating security scenario - post Arab Spring - in West Asia seemed poised to worsen further. 
Oman as a Mediator
Oman has traditionally had a close relationship with Iran both during the Shah’s time and after the 1979 Revolution and has acted as a conduit between the US and Iran. According to well founded speculation Oman had been mediating secret interaction between the US and Iran for several months before Rouhani’s presidency. Sultan Qaboos visited Iran during 25-27 August 2013, three weeks after Rouhani became the President adding credence to reports that he had carried a communication from President Obama to Rouhani. 

Developments under Rouhani
A moderate cleric, a quintessential insider and personally close to Supreme Leader Khamanei, Dr.Hassan Rouhani, with a more conciliatory approach to the world and greater transparency on the nuclear program, was elected Iran’s President in June 2013 by an absolute majority after a 72% turnout. 

Providing further reassurance to the US, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who spent 12 years studying in the US and is well known and liked in the West, was appointed Foreign Minister; he was made responsible for negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. The choice of new incumbents for the Head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Ambassador to the IAEA and to the UN reinforced the positive message.

Syria, US and Russia: The Iran Angle
Despite intense criticism both domestically and internationally, Obama held back from military intervention after the August 21, 2013 chemicals weapons attack in Syria. On 9 September 2013 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed that Syria should agree to place its chemical weapons under international control, dismantle them, and agree to the destruction of the entire stockpile. Syria immediately accepted the proposal and acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention on 12 September. 

On 14 September, the US and Russia reached an agreement relating to the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. The implementation of the agreement is underway under the auspices of OPCW and monitoring of the United Nations. Since Syria is Iran’s closest ally, Obama’s commendable restraint was the absolutely essential reassurance that Iran needed at a critical juncture that the US is sincere in the overtures being made to reach a solution to the nuclear issue. 

As Eisenhower after Korea and Nixon after Vietnam had done, Obama in his second term is determined to avoid new military engagements abroad and focus on rebuilding the nation’s economy and international esteem. All American troops are likely to be withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of this year. In his 2014 State of the Union address he said “In a world of complex threats, our security depends on all elements of our power …including strong and principled diplomacy”.  The Obama Doctrine according priority to diplomacy bodes well for a troubled world and is also in sync with the American people’s views. 

Towards a geopolitical breakthrough? 
All the above factors have made a substantive thaw between Iran and the West. There has been an unprecedented meaningful interaction between the two sides. On 26 September 2013, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met the Foreign Ministers of the P-5+1 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. On 27 September, President Obama spoke on the phone with President Rouhani and discussed Iran’s nuclear program and said that he was persuaded there was a basis for an agreement. 

Significantly choosing to speak in English, Iran’s Foreign Minister outlined a detailed proposal to representatives of the P 5 +1 on Oct 15-16 at Geneva. All parties declared they were very satisfied with these first formal negotiations since the Rouhani’s election. After intense 4 day negotiations, on Nov 24th morning agreement on an interim framework toward reaching a long-term comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear program was announced. This came into effect from 20 January and is valid for six months. Under this deal, the IAEA has confirmed that Iran began curbing uranium enrichment, suspended its most sensitive nuclear development work, and placed its nuclear sector under heretofore unprecedented international scrutiny. 

In return the EU and the US have eased some sanctions allowing limited increases in exports of oil and petrochemicals and released $4.20 billion of Iran’s frozen oil assets. The atmospherics of negotiations during January-March have remained very positive. In the meantime the Iranian Foreign Minister had a rare and encouraging one-to-one meeting with the US Secretary of State and similar meetings with the other five Foreign Ministers at Munich on the sidelines of the annual Security Conference in early February. The UK has posted a CDA in Tehran; Foreign Ministers of Belgium, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the EU Foreign Policy chief Katherine Ashton have visited Iran. 

Negotiations are going to be difficult and challenging and success cannot be assumed but the world is on the anvil of a spectacular geopolitical breakthrough. 

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#4318, 3 March 2014
Saudi Arabia-US Estrangement: Implications for the Indian Subcontinent
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman
 

The Arab Spring strongly compounded Saudi Arabia’s progressively increasing disillusionment with the US when, to its utter consternation and deep anger, the US failed to prevent the overthrow of Mubarak, a faithful ally for more than three decades. US criticism of Gen Al Sissi’s overthrowing of the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Morsy and cutting off economic and military assistance added fuel to the fire.

The West’s holding back of arms supplies to rebels fighting against the Assad regime in Syria and the US decision not to take military action against it for breaching a publicly announced red-line, the use of chemical weapons, added to Saudi Arabia’s growing anger. After these disappointments, the sudden opening of negotiations on the nuclear issue with Iran, the rapidity with which an interim agreement was reached and the continuing pursuit of a thaw in relations with Iran represent in Saudi eyes a willful disregard of its security concerns and sensitivities. Saudi Arabia has maintained that no agreement will constrain the nuclear programme and Iran would still be able to make the bomb very quickly should it finally decide to do so.

From 2009, Saudi Arabia started sending signals from the King downwards and has more than once since then stated publicly that in the event Iran acquires the capability to make nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will do so also.

Pakistan-Iran relations have been witnessing a serious downturn in the past few months – Iran has threatened military intervention to secure the release of its security personnel and in the context of the continuing killing of Shias; Iran has cancelled the much flaunted gas pipeline, etc. A flurry of exchange of visits between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are coincidentally taking place during this downturn. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud’s sudden visit to Pakistan in January 2014 followed very soon thereafter by the new Pakistani Army Chief’s visit to Saudi Arabia and now Prince Salman choosing Pakistan as the first country to visit after becoming Crown Prince and Defence Minister has prompted a lot of speculative commentary in the Western strategic community. Those who closely follow Saudi Arabia’s relations with South Asia believe that the Saudi Arabia-funded Pakistani nuclear programme and payback time may be approaching. Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan was given privileged and complete access to Pakistani nuclear installations in 1999 (and again in 2002) and soon thereafter Dr AQ Khan visited Saudi Arabia. US experts such as Bruce Reidel and Gary Saymore, who should know, say that a secret and long-standing agreement exists that Pakistan would provide the Kingdom with nuclear technology and weapons should Saudi Arabia feel threatened by a third party nuclear programme. This would inevitably invite strong reactions from the US and Iran and would also almost surely evoke strong opposition from China which would not want to jeopardise its overarching relationship with the US for an issue far removed from its core national interests. Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have strongly denied any such intention and also reports that Pakistan will, at Saudi request, be supplying sophisticated weapons to rebels in Syria – this would greatly anger Iran but will hardly make a difference in Syria. However, both these contingencies are unlikely to happen. 

It is far more likely that these visits are in the context of the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia. These are delicate and sensitive times in Saudi Arabia – Crown Prince Sultan and Crown Prince Nayef passed away in quick succession in October 2011 and June 2012 respectively; the King is in his mid-nineties and his health is fragile; Crown Prince Salman’s health is not particularly robust; Saudi Arabia is approaching uncharted territory in relation to the succession to the throne. Massive unemployment, the popular appeal of the Arab Spring, Sunni Islamic extremism, Shia restiveness particularly in the oil-rich eastern provinces, are factors that present serious putative security concerns. Given the one-of-its-kind rather unique Saudi-Pakistan relationship, assertively Sunni Pakistan may be the perfect security partner to help meet internal threats. Western security partners cannot be used while Arabs will always be more problematic and risky. 

Crown Prince Salman also paid a highly satisfying three-day visit to India during which an MoU on defence cooperation was amongst agreements signed which build upon the relationship spelt out in the Delhi Declaration of 2006 and the Riyadh Declaration of 2010, both landmark, path-breaking documents signed personally by King Abdullah with the Indian Prime Minister. These established a wide-ranging strategic partnership. An Indian defence minister had paid a first-ever visit to Saudi Arabia in 2012. In contrast to Pakistan, the interaction with India is in the context of tentative beginnings of a potential reorientation of Saudi foreign policy to move away from complete and total dependence on the US. Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, had given a thought provoking speech in Manama, Bahrain, on 5 December 2004. The subject was ‘Towards a New Framework for Regional Security’. He said, inter alia, that "the international component of the suggested Gulf security framework should engage positively the emerging Asian powers as well, especially China and India." Since then, this theme is increasingly reiterated by leading Saudi personalities.

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#4285, 3 February 2014
Syria Today: Is Regime Change the Answer?
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman
 

There are three aspects of the Syrian imbroglio: First, what was originally a political struggle has become a progressively more devastating civil war. Second, those fighting against the Assad regime have fragmented into several distinct and contending elements - the Western and Gulf countries’ backed Syrian National Coalition, now the weakest of the opposition groups in terms of fighting ability; a large array of Islamist groups, many armed and funded by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, significant numbers of whom have come together under two different Islamist fronts; the Nabhat Al Nusrah, an effective fighting unit largely composed of Syrians but an affiliate of Al Qaeda; and, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an Al Qaeda outfit, consisting mainly of Iraqis, the most extremist, brutal and effective fighting unit, whose agenda goes much beyond the mere removal of Assad and is the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamist Emirate. The involvement of so many different groups makes the possibility of any solution very difficult. Third, the active involvement of foreign countries – France, Iran, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UK and the US; this has led directly to Syria getting to the point where it is now. The enormous complexity of the situation should be self evident.

Those advocating regime change need to seriously ponder over the fact that that the internal situation today in both Iraq and Libya is far worse than it was when Saddam and Gaddhafi were in power. Intrusive military interventions by foreign countries in Libya and Iraq are not examples to be emulated but shunned.  Indeed, externally encouraged efforts towards regime change in Arab countries must stop forthwith. Given the current ground realities in Syria and its diverse ethnic and sectarian makeup, regime change in Syria could lead to a much worse outcome than in those two countries, even the breakup of the country with deeply destabilizing consequences for the Levant as a whole.

In the past year Assad has regained a lot of lost ground. All other opposition rebels are now spending greater effort fighting the ISIL considering it a more detestable and dangerous enemy than the Assad regime. The very recent Turkish air strike on a convoy of the ISIL and Premier Erdogan’s visit to Iran suggest that Turkey is rethinking its policy in Syria. There is increasing reluctance of Western countries’ to aid rebels fearing that arms will fall into the hands of extremist groups. Thus, Assad is much stronger today vis-a-vis both his domestic and international adversaries than in June 2012 when the first Geneva conference “agreed on guidelines and principles for a political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people”. It is now increasingly highly unlikely that Assad can be defeated on the battleground. Therefore, he is hardly likely to agree to his handing over power in a conference room. Pursuing regime change now is a no brainer. 

Humanitarian issues such as ensuring that aid should reach the millions in dire distress and urgently attending to the desperate conditions of the 4 million plus internally displaced should be accorded top priority. The second priority must be addressing the growing violence much of which, for all practical purposes, has now morphed into pure terrorism. Geneva II can be said to represent the beginning of a peace process and an encouraging sign is agreement that the next meeting will be held starting Feb 10th.  

Another hopeful feature of Geneva II was, in the words of UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, “there is of course agreement (amongst the fighting entities) that terrorism …is a very serious problem inside Syria but there's no agreement on how to deal with it”. Another good omen is that both sides of internal Syrian conflict observed a minutes silence together to remember those killed. Now that a door has been opened, the warring parties within Syria need to pursue these two issues on a priority basis. However, the boycott of hard line extremists suggests that in the unlikely event of any agreement, its implementation would be sabotaged. This is a risk that will have to be taken and should not become an excuse for no action.  

Iran was not represented even though the UN Secretary General had invited it; the invite had to be withdrawn due to strong US opposition. Iran commands the greatest influence with Assad; Iran and Russia acting in tandem are the only two countries that can persuade Assad to make meaningful compromises. Iran’s participation therefore is absolutely vital to the success of any conference on Syria. 

An agreement amongst the main players – the patrons of the different contending parties within Syria: the P- 5, EU, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - on a common approach is a prerequisite. Therefore a separate conference involving them should be held soonest possible complementing a resumption of the Geneva II talks on February 10. A priority subject should be taking on the ISIL and similar extremist groups head on. 

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#4253, 13 January 2014
The Arab World: Trying Times Ahead
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman
 

Though the spotlight on West Asia is understandably focused currently on the unquestionably exciting prospect of a welcome and desirable reconciliation between the US and Iran, which is more than likely to happen, contemporary ground realities and trends in large sections of the Arab World increasingly suggest that Islamic extremism, personified by al Qaeda and its affiliates in West Asia, is potentially an even greater destabilising factor than the standoff vis-à-vis Iran had been. 
 
Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen
Though four dictators were overthrown as a result of the revolutionary turmoil in the Arab World, except in tiny Tunisia which is the only success story, the current situation in Egypt, Libya and Yemen is far more unstable than when the dictators were ruling. In Libya, a large number of armed militias have carved out fiefdoms which they control, with the central government becoming a nominal entity with its writ being virtually non-existent in vast swathes of the country. Libya is a Somalia in the making.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been Egypt’s and the Arab world’s pre-eminent Islamic entity known for its outstanding social and welfare services to the poor and rural populations in particular. It was elected to form the government which, after only one year in power, was overthrown by the army, albeit demanded by a very large number of protestors against ‘Islamic’ rule. Since then, every week dozens of its supporters and many Egyptian army and police personnel have been killed in clashes between them.
The Brotherhood has been banned once again - dubbed a terrorist organisation; this does not augur well for the prospects of political Islam which is natural and fundamental to the success of democracy in the overwhelmingly Muslim Arab countries. It is very likely that Gen Sisi, the present Army Chief and architect of the hard line against the Brotherhood, is elected the next President. All this will encourage support for extremist groups as the only alternative to dictatorial and Army rule.
Iraq and Syria
Syria is engulfed by a particularly devastating and destructive civil war. More than 1,20,000 people have been killed. Almost four million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries and five million have been internally displaced. The dismantling of the Saddam regime led to the border between Syria and Iraq becoming porous; in the last year it has become nonexistent for all practical purposes – huge spaces between Baghdad and Damascus are controlled by many different groups of Islamist fighters of various hues, pre-eminent among them being the Iraq-based Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda outfit.
Amongst Islamist groups fighting the Assad regime, the ISIL is the best armed and most effective. Some weeks ago it had established control over most of Aleppo which is Syria’s largest city and in the process routed not only government forces but also of other rebel groups, and of the Western and Gulf countries’ backed Syrian National Coalition and Syrian National Army. The ISIL consists only of foreigners, mainly Iraqis, and its brutality and single-minded commitment to the establishment of an Islamic Emirate has now caused other rebel groups, in particular the recently formed Islamic Front, and the Syrian affiliate of the al Qaeda, the al Nusra Front, to treat the ISIL as the major enemy rather than the Assad regime. It is ironical that after so much bloodshed Assad is likely to remain in power, but of an anarchic and shattered Syria. Iraq is rapidly slipping back into the anarchy that prevailed during 2005 to 2008.
After Arab Spring: Is the Situation Better or Worse Today?
Politics within all these countries is increasingly determined by the gun. Thus, the singularly inappropriately termed ‘Arab Spring’, hailed as the belated ‘Enlightenment Moment’ for the Arab World, has left it in a far worse situation than before. Islam in the Arab World and West Asia is at war with itself - between moderates and extremists; between Shias and Sunnis; between pro-West Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE) and anti-West Muslim countries (Iran, Syria, Lebanon).
Today, several countries of the Arab world have become a blood soaked cauldron of bigotry and hate torn by sectarian violence. If this fratricidal conflict continues, significant portions of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen could become like the Afghanistan of the 1980s and early 1990s – a safe-haven and breeding ground for terrorists.
Should South Asia, Especially India, be Worried?
Though the Arab countries themselves are the worst affected, adverse consequences for the US, Europe and the Indian subcontinent in particular, would also be very much on the cards. This is particularly so in the context of rising uncertainties as to what could happen in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops. Pakistan has become a dangerous hotbed of extremism also. India needs to be particularly wary.
The world needs to proactively address the current mayhem in West Asia with a sense of urgency. The imperative need of the hour is that the United Nations takes the initiative to convene a conference of concerned countries and major powers to take on extremism in the Arab World and West Asia, including confronting the al Qaeda outfits headlong, militarily if need be.

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