The Middle East is fast changing and how the region looks like five or ten years down is difficult to predict. Terrorist groups like the Islamic State are taking advantage to reestablish territorial control. We are witnessing “an online Jihadi renaissance.” The US wants to withdraw from `mindless’ wars of the region but they are getting dragged even more deeper. Russia has been an inadvertent beneficiary of America’s incoherent policies in the region which offered new opportunities to reclaim past Soviet-era influence. There is a reshuffle of the existing regional alliances. With growing uncertainty and ineffectiveness of American protection, the Saudis and Emiratis are seeing wisdom in reaching out to Iran. The Saudi leadership of the Umma is itself facing new challenges.
India has done well using its economic strength to revive close relationship with Saudis and Emirates while maintaining strategic ties with Iran. But it is walking on thin ice. It will have to be more tactful in maneuvering through these turbid waters. India will be served better if it can have a Special Emissary to single-mindedly pursue its interests in the region.
By Prasad Nallapati
The Middle East is undergoing remarkable changes. The long-held equations and alliances are breaking down as major powers are reprioritizing their interests in the region. New power blocs are emerging heralding hitherto unseen, vigorous competition. How the region looks like five or ten years down is very difficult to predict.
Regrouping of Islamic State
It is an advantage to the Islamic State with major powers fighting for spoils of the war in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Experts monitoring the terrorist group like Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Institute stated on January 5 that they are “witnessing an online jihadi renaissance” with social media postings recording much higher activity compared to six months ago. “A terabyte-sized library of the IS propaganda is circulating lately indicating that the jihadis may be entering a new digital empowerment phase.” Michael Krona, author of “The Media World of ISIS”, wrote in his Tweet, “The amount of 30 second extracts from videos shared by IS supporters in chats and channels is staggering currently.”
Even as the Europol and Telegram App launched a massive drive since last October to takedown hundreds of IS channels on the instant messaging application, the Jihadi group proved to be resilient to find new and more vibrant platforms to host their messages. They moved to new applications like TamTam and Hoop, which are also trying to chase them out. They, however, continue to find ways to post their messages and It may just be matter of time for it to re-establish on new platforms.
The IS is even reestablishing on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. According to intelligence sources in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan, the IS has been rebuilding during the past one year and has now established de facto control in the delta area in the Diyala province between the Great Zab and Tirgris rivers, which is a no-man’s land between Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. The IS has its central command in Iraq located south-west of Kurkuk in the Hamrin mountains and around the town of Hawija, which was the last major urban stronghold liberated from the IS in 2017. In Syria, the group has been most active in Deir al Zour province.
The IS has claimed responsibility for more than 1600 military operations in Iraq and Syria between March and December 2019. It has begun `revenge’ operations starting from December 22 for the killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and claimed 106 attacks within one week during December 22-28. There were 267 total casualties in the month of December in Iraq, the largest since May when there were 298. Military vehicles are their targets and even dared to attack a military base. These figures sound impressive, but they are nowhere near their peak levels.
All counter-IS missions of the US and the NATO in Iraq have now been temporarily suspended following the killing on January 3 of Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, head of the Qud’s Force of the Iranian Republic Guard Corps, by American forces and retaliatory attacks by pro-Iranian militias on US bases.
World Powers Repositioning
The US has long been trying to pull out of the Middle East. But, as much as they wanted to do so, they are getting even more dragged into it. Obama administration had passed off the lead to European allies and Turkey to contain the flare-up there while negotiating a nuclear accord with Iran. President Trump has been bullying Tehran into a more binding agreement but without success. The killings of Baghdadi and Soleimani are not giving him any comfort. More US troops are heading back to the region now, though much of it is being paid by European and Gulf allies. It will have repercussions for proposed US withdrawal from Afghanistan as well despite being close to reaching an accord with the Taliban, aided by Pakistan.
Russia has been an inadvertent beneficiary of America’s incoherent policies in the region. It is now on the verge of reclaiming its Soviet-era `glory’. Gen. Soleimani of Iran laid the `golden path’ for Moscow’s re-entry into Syria that helped to resuscitate President Assad’s regime and lead a mediatory role. This has opened more opportunities for President Putin in Libya, Yemen, and now in Iraq. Regional leaders on both sides of the aisle are beelining to seek Moscow’s help.
Turkey is deeply in bed with Russia with Turk Stream gas pipeline and S400 anti-missile air defense systems. The two made deals in Syria and Libya. Iraq also seems to be eager to return to erstwhile Soviet-era alliance. It has asked the US to remove its military bases from the country and begun negotiating for Russian S300 air defense systems and other military supplies. Russia, however, still faces several hurdles in gaining a firm foothold in the region as the US has yet several aces up its sleeves.
China is quietly expanding its economic and military power in the region partly on its own and partly piggybacking on Russian influence. Its ability to successfully package its pro-active political `neutrality’ helped building close ties with all regional players, which was further strengthened with military and economic deals. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) holds more promises to them.
Regional Powers’ run helter-skelter
Regional powers are running helter-skelter as they have no clue to what the new developments are meant for them. The Saudi-led alliance were upset with Obama’s appeasement of Iran and gone full throttle with Trump administration as it reversed the policy. But it is now at crossroads, where Iran has not only expanded its influence across the arc from Iraq to Lebanon, but also is able to threaten the Kingdom itself. With growing uncertainty and ineffectiveness of American protection, added by its prohibitive cost as Trump demanding to pay for it, the Saudis and Emiratis are seeing wisdom in reaching out to Iran. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an alliance led by Saudis, itself is in tatters with Qatar treading its own independent path, and Oman and Kuwait remaining ambiguous.
A new global alliance is emerging challenging the Saudi leadership of the Muslim ummah, although it is not so coherent as yet with each member nurturing its own independent ambitions. President Erdogan of Turkey is at the centre of this coalition seeing an opportunity to reclaim the past glory of the Ottoman empire. He successfully blackmailed Europe threatening to unleash refugees, maneuvered through Washingtonian power centres playing Trump versus the Congress and shared spoils with Russia. Turkey has extended its influence across Syria, Iraq and now Libya. The other powers of this coalition, besides Turkey, are Qatar, Malaysia and Pakistan, although the latter was temporarily browbeaten by Saudis to abscond from their recent summit in Kuala Lumpur. One common factor of all these new coalition members is their use of various Islamist terrorist and militia groups to further their respective regional and global ambitions. Malaysia has given shelter to Indian fugitive Islamist preacher, Zakir Naik, whose sermons have apparently driven several in India, Bangladesh and other countries to terrorism.
ME and Indian sub-continent
Pakistan, after initial bickering over joining anti-terror alliance led by Saudis, has been playing its hands very well. It adapted a clever ploy of mediating between Saudis and Iran on one side, and US and Iran on the other. It has successfully used its Taliban card to bait American urge to withdraw from Afghanistan. It found a tool to blackmail the Saudis, by joining the Turkey-Malaysia-Qatar coalition, to support its strategies against India. This may, however, boomerang if something goes wrong.
India has done well using its economic strength to revive close relationship with Saudis and Emirates while maintaining strategic ties with Iran. But it is walking on thin ice as the emerging situation in the Middle East will throw up several challenges creating more odds than favours. It, however, does have some wild cards. Drawing upon its ancient Chanakya wisdom, India may perhaps be able to convert some of these odds to its advantage.
First, President Trump’s whimsical attitude toward Iran upended Indian strategic calculations of building Chabahar port facility that would have given it an advantage to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. After long uncertainty, which attracted Iranian ire, India is now able to obtain a US concession to go ahead with it. But the factors that undermine the project remain unaltered making its economic and political feasibility questionable. The low-intensity warfare between the US and Iran continue unabated and is likely to remain so for at least another five years, as Trump is expected to retain power in this year-end election.
India, therefore, will find it difficult to undertake the project on its own and run it successfully. It needs to take on board other stake holders. Japan had developed cold feet after initial enthusiasm. The only country that can really help realize the project is Russia. India and Russia have jointly conceived the North-South Corridor between the two countries, transiting through the Caspian Sea, Iranian territory to Bandar Abbas port, and the Arabian sea. Russia may not be averse to the idea as it dovetails the corridor and gives it access to a warm water port.
The partnership will strengthen Indo-Russia relations, which are under stress due to growing Indo-US military ties. The current US sanctions on Russia may create some complications but India may get the concessions it obtained for the port extended to this partnership as well. If there are short-term hurdles, India and Russia may work out a behind-the-scenes understanding and wait for right time. Iran too will be happy to have Russians on board.
At the same time, commercial viability of the project is something that should not be lost sight of. The initial projections given by Iranians to India on its feasibility are not based on sound economics and new opportunities are to be explored for its viability. If it is not geared to profitability, it has no future. It cannot operate it just for Indian exports and imports to and from Afghanistan. India needs to attract more users while also developing the hinterland and inland passages. This will bring more partners from the Middle East and Central Asia making it a viable proposition.
Second, India may strive to strengthen current ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand and facilitate a more meaningful dialogue between them and Iran on the other based on shared and balanced political and economic interests. The Gulf countries are now led by younger leadership who strive to develop their countries on modern economic lines rather than past conservative religious dogmas and oil dependency. The Chabahar port and the North-South Corridor connecting Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia can offer attractive investment and trade opportunities to these countries. Growing youth profile of their populations and their aspirations make old rivalries untenable.
This would effectively neutralize the retrograde third coalition between Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and Qatar, which clings on to Islamist terrorism as a means to serve its tactical and strategic interests.
Such an understanding between the Saudis and Iranians would not only bring political and economic stability to the region, but also help remove the suspicions among other regional players like Israel which may in turn lead to a meaningful resolution of the Palestinian issue.
Third, the Islamic State, the al-Qaida and other Islamist groups in the region and their surrogates in other parts of the world will continue to find fault lines to create fear and instability for gaining supremacy. No country or a group of countries is in a position to decimate this threat without the military involvement of the US. It was the latter’s air power that has degraded the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Hence, it has to be a coordinated effort by the US, Russia and other regional powers.
There are increasing contacts between these Islamist terrorist groups and local Indian sympathizers leading to establishing local franchises threatening instability in the country. Relations between security agencies of India and regional countries helped in neutralizing some of these threats and these ties can be nurtured further to effectively deal with terrorist tendencies in the country.
India, therefore, has very high stakes in the stability of the Middle East and will have to take a more pro-active approach in coordinating with other stake holders to safeguard its interests. This can be better facilitated by creating a separate institution of Special Emissary for the Middle East, represented by a senior and respected personality, who will be able to establish better rapport and coordinate with senior leaders of the US, Russia, China, Europe and regional powers on major issues of regional interest for India.
Although it has limited cards, India has greater credibility in the region than even China due to its traditional and long-standing ties with prominent players there. Its unique relationship with both the US and Russia gives added advantage to punch above its weight.
(Prasad Nallapati is President of the Hyderabad-based think tank, Centre for Asia-Africa Policy Research, and former Additional Secretary to the Govt of India)