Revisiting Damascus

As the Middle East is reshaped,Delhi must engage with the trends coming to the fore

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: July 24, 2012 12:52:27 am

As the Middle East is reshaped,Delhi must engage with the trends coming to the fore

As the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria heads for the bitter but probably inevitable end,the many traditional assumptions in India’s political discourse on the Middle East are becoming unsustainable.

For example,“secularists versus Islamists” has long been an important framing device in India’s policy debates on the Middle East. Delhi’s political classes were far more comfortable with the Arab nationalists,who shared India’s vocabulary on modernisation and anti-colonialism,than either the conservative monarchies or the radical Islamic republics.

Iraq’s Saddam Hussein,Syria’s Assad and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak did not view relations with Delhi through the prism of Islamist internationalism,make provocative noises on Jammu and Kashmir,or acquiesce to Pakistan’s anti-India propaganda in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

No wonder India has been so reluctant to see them go. The Indian establishment was among those sceptical of the Arab Spring and concerned about the rise of Islamist parties to power.

But Hussein and Mubarak are gone; and Assad’s future is on the line. Iraq is now run by a newly empowered Shia majority; the Muslim Brotherhood has won the presidential elections in Egypt and moderate Islamists have come to power in Tunisia,where the Arab Spring began last year. In Syria too,after Assad’s fall,it is likely that Islamists of one kind or another might gain much political ground.

Proving right,of course,does not make Delhi’s challenges in dealing with the changing Middle East any better. Nor does the clear hindsight that it is the secular but autocratic rulers who have prepared the ground for the Islamist resurgence in the region.

Second,the crisis in Syria also complicates India’s identification of the Arab-Israeli conflict as the principal political faultline in the region. While the disputes between the two sides are real and important,they have taken a back seat amidst the current turbulence in the region.

While Syria is one of the Arab frontline states against Israel,the internal conflict in Syria today is being accentuated by an intra-Arab dynamic. It is the Arab League,led by Saudi Arabia,that was the first to call for a regime change in Syria earlier this year. This week,the Arab League has offered “safe passage” to Assad if he is willing to resign and leave.

When Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Syria last February,the Saudis pulled all the stops to get a similar resolution approved with an overwhelming majority in the General Assembly.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are said to be the principal financial supporters of those battling the Assad regime in Syria. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia issued a call over the weekend for a massive donation campaign across the kingdom to support the Syrian rebels.

Beyond the schisms in the Arab world that have come to the surface,the Syrian crisis also highlights a deepening sectarian divide within the region that transcends the old divides — “Islam versus the West” and “Islam versus Israel”.

The Syrian crisis is in part a struggle between the disempowered Sunni majority and the ruling minority led by the Alawites,an offshoot of Shia Islam. The Alawites know that retribution is inevitable if they cede power to the majority and therefore have every incentive to fight to the bitter end.

The Syrian conflict is further complicated by the competition between regional powers for greater influence. Shia Iran has long been a staunch ally of Damascus and has much to lose if Assad is ousted from power.

Turkey,whose clout is rapidly growing,was until recently empathetic to both Syria and Iran. But as the crisis in Syria has unfolded,Sunni Turkey has become increasingly hostile to the Alawite rulers in Damascus.

Third,the tensions rising out of the shifting regional balance of power have become far more important than India’s traditional focus on great power interventions in the Middle East. Yet our policy debates on the region hold on to the tropes of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist rhetoric.

For all the tough talk from the West on Syria during the last many months,neither the United States nor its European allies are willing to risk a direct military intervention in Syria. The reluctance is rooted in the recognition that Syria is not Libya. Unlike Muammar Gaddafi,Assad has a large,loyal and well-equipped armed force.

While there are calls for intervention from the left and right of the political spectrum in the US,Obama,the realist,has been unwilling to plunge Washington into another shooting war in the Middle East.

Finally,the Syrian crisis has also thrown into bold relief some of India’s concerns about territorial sovereignty and intervention. Since the end of the Cold War,India has been reluctant to support the international community’s tendency to intervene in the internal affairs of other states.

The deepening divisions between the Western powers on one hand and China and Russia on the other,are making international military interventions endorsed by the UNSC less likely. That does not mean interventions will not take place. The Western powers will adopt indirect interventions and the regional powers are already deeply involved in the Syrian crisis.

India’s old formulaic discourse is no longer capable of dealing with the multiple tragedies and manifold transformations playing out in the Middle East. India will have to approach the Middle East on the basis of its own internal dynamics rather than preconceived ideas and preferences.

India now has every reason to engage with,in an intense and uninhibited manner,the many Islamist trends that are coming to the fore in the Middle East. With a relentless focus on India’s interests,Delhi must find ways to contribute to the emergence of a stable regional balance of power over the longer term.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi
express@expressindia.com

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