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The fightback by Iraqi armed forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) appears encouraging, given how easily the more numerous state troops had collapsed and fled, in early June, as the Islamists took over large swathes of territory in western and northern Iraq. Having denied the militants Samarra, Saturday’s military offensive in Tikrit — supported by air strikes — has caused the biggest reverses to the ISIL so far.
The first batch of Russian Sukhoi fighter jets have been delivered to Baghdad. While the US is providing drone cover and offering military advice, Washington — caught between fighting the Shia regime in Damascus and defending the one in Baghdad — hasn’t obliged Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with air strikes yet. Instead, Syrian forces have bombed ISIL positions on Iraq’s western border, and Iranian Shia militias are helping Iraq’s army.
Yet, no early resolution is in sight. Amid the continuing uncertainty, a few things are near-certain. The solution to this conflict has to be as much political as military. The ISIL cannot be defeated without winning over local and moderate Sunnis along with the Sunni tribes, and turning them against the Islamists.
Even if Iraq preserves its territorial integrity, it has to make way for a loose Shia-Sunni-Kurd federation hereafter. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top Shia cleric, has reportedly made his displeasure with Maliki, who is blamed for pursuing sectarian and divisive policies, clear and called for a unity government under a new prime minister by Tuesday.
In the immediate term, for India, deploying warships to the Persian Gulf and setting up camps in Iraq to expedite the departure of Indians should inform expatriates in the region about Delhi’s preparedness. However, in the long term, India has to evolve a mechanism to deal with a challenge it will increasingly face in a globalising world: the safety of its citizens abroad on business or pleasure.
That needs close monitoring of crises, anticipating developments, warning such citizens on time, and planning for contingencies. Given the Middle East’s importance to India’s economy and national security, the region needs to be kept in constant political and strategic focus by Delhi.