Ever since the Ottoman Turks seized control of Constantinople in 1453, Istanbul—as Constantinople was renamed—has remained not only as a major power centre across the “Islamic Crescent” extending from Pakistan to Turkey, but also as a bridge between Asia and Europe. I had occasion to be in this magnificent port city, to meet scholars, diplomats and scientists not only from Turkey but from across the Islamic World, at a conference where the predominant focus of attention was on the tensions, turmoil and rivalries afflicting the “Islamic Crescent”. The Palestinian issue, which generally unites Islamic countries, seems as intractable as ever, with the Palestinians themselves divided between the mainstream Fatah in Ramallah and the Islamist Hamas controlling the Gaza strip.
Within Turkey, there is huge controversy over the support that the Islamist-inclined Erdogan government is providing to several radical Sunni groups, some linked to terrorist organisations like the al-Qaeda, to overthrow the minority Alawite (Shia) government in neighbouring Syria, as millions of Syrian refugees pour into neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, in a bloody civil war where over 110,000 have perished. The Syrian opposition is backed and armed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey while the Syrian regime finds a sympathetic ear and support from Shia-dominated Iran and Iraq, apart from militants from the Shia militia, Hezbollah, in neighbouring Lebanon. Moreover, the Saudis are furious at Turkish support for the ousted Islamist President Morsi in Egypt. The Western world led by the US, meanwhile, has had to pull back from its earlier unqualified support for the Syrian opposition, because of the opposition’s links with the al-Qaeda.
There are real fears that a continuing civil war in Syria could lead to the Balkanisation of the country into Kurdish, Shia and Sunni dominated enclaves. In the meantime, Iraq is being torn apart by continuing sectarian violence, as the Kurds in the country’s North have virtually proclaimed autonomy by dealing directly with American oil companies and permitting the construction of an oil pipeline to the sea through Turkey. But no event has shaken the Middle East as much as the prospects of a rapprochement between the Americans and their NATO allies on the one hand and the new dispensation of President Rouhani in Iran, on the other. With American support for its efforts to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria fast fading, after the Americans and Russians fashioned a deal to end Syria’s Chemical Weapons programme, the Saudis are furious with American efforts to make peace with Iran—once described by King Abdullah as a “snake”. Joining the Saudi Royalty in expressing anger at US moves to mend fences with Iran is none other Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel—confirming the emergence of a growing, but covert Israeli-Saudi partnership to contain Iran.
India has done well thus far by not getting itself drawn into the vortex of emerging rivalries in its western neighbourhood. In Pakistan, Shia leaders like Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari were viewed with suspicion by the Saudi rulers. The approach of Nawaz Sharif, whose ruling dispensation has close ties with extremist Sunni groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and owes a debt of gratitude to the Saudi monarchy for protecting him from receiving a possible death sentence from General Musharraf, will naturally be different. Sharif is already trying to wriggle out of commitments made by Zardari on the construction of an Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. India has crucial ties with Saudi Arabia and its Arab neighbours, where an estimated six million Indians reside and from where it gets the bulk of its energy supplies. But, at the same time, Iran will remain an important partner in dealing with emerging developments in Afghanistan and for transit to Central Asia. Hopefully, these developments will be handled with greater finesse than the government displayed on its participation in the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka.