It is now nearly a month since the first news of major violence unleashed by the earlier not so well known outfit—the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—started trickling in. While nations within the region and outside powers suddenly woke up to this latest bloodletting, the overwhelming feeling one gets is that everyone is viewing the events only in military-tactical terms, with scant regard to the long-term perspective and finding a lasting solution to the bigger problem.
Political leaders are still unsure of what exactly is the ISIS aiming for. Is it breaking up Iraq; ethnic/religious cleansing; creating chaos; changing the existing map of the Middle East by force; or acting at the behest of their mentors to establish supremacy and wield power in the region? The answer is perhaps a mixture of all.
Overshadowing all these is the control over oil and to restore the status quo after destroying the ISIS, which is looked at as the biggest and most dangerous terrorist outfit of the world. This aim would be difficult to achieve on account of two main reasons. Firstly, while the Western powers do have the military wherewithal, they do not have the political will to get involved except in a perfunctory manner by giving moral, diplomatic and material support to the government of Iraq.
Secondly, although the belligerents are the ISIS and the current government in Iraq, in actuality they are merely providing cannon fodder to the two major players of the Middle East—Saudi Arabia and Iran—who are vying for leadership of the region, using the Sunni-Shia divide. The US, besides diplomatic involvement, is providing military support to Iraq, in terms of weapons and equipment, advisers and special forces operatives, aerial assets; and by positioning a naval carrier task force in the region. The paradox is that it is also supplying weapons and equipment to the Sunni rebels fighting Assad in Syria, many of who are fighting alongside the ISIS cadre. Thus, it is ironical that fighters on both sides are using American arms against each other! Russia, too, has provided fighter aircraft to the Iraqi air force, in addition to regularly providing military hardware to Syria.
The concern of India is two-fold. One is uninterrupted flow of oil and the second is the safety and security of the large number of our citizens working in the conflict zones, whose regular remittances add to our economy. India can play an important role, as an honest broker, in stabilising the situation, as it has good relations with Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, it is unfortunate that India has no long-term strategy for the region or for that matter for any other part of the world! Its ministry of external affairs and the national security adviser are seemingly happy to react to situations instead of following well-reasoned foreign and security policies. While making arrangements for evacuation of our nationals is important, surely India can play a more substantive role of stabilisation, too.
It is quite apparent that the long-term agenda of ISIS and its backers is not merely the capture of territory, but creating conditions for changing the power structure of the region. Consequently, a deeper look at three major aspects is needed.
The first is the Shia-Sunni divide that has continued for centuries. It is essentially about political power now and not merely religion. Even though 60-65 per cent of the Iraqi population is Shia, it needs to be appreciated that political power has mostly been held by Sunnis historically. This is the ancient structure of power that the US-led invasion of 2003 destroyed, resulting in the present-day violence and instability.
The second issue is the impact of artificial borders in the region, which were drawn after World War I. The huge conglomeration of territories and peoples that formerly comprised the Ottoman Empire was divided into several new states. The partitioning resulted in the creation of the modern Arab world and the Republic of Turkey. Both the French and the British, who had the mandates from the League of Nations had carved out countries keeping their respective national interests in mind and the need to control oil. Ethnic, religious and social factors were not considered. A look at the maps, showing straight lines as borders, confirms it.
The third issue relates to the struggle for power by Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Persian Empire founded in 550 BC by Cyrus the Great still spurs Iran to aspire for a leadership role in the region. Iran has maintained a distinct cultural identity by retaining its language and adhering to the Shia interpretation of Islam. Over centuries, Shia Islam became the glue that held Persia together and distinguished it from the Ottoman Empire to its west and the Mughals in India to the east, which were both Sunni. Its dreams of achieving regional dominance have come to the fore after the withdrawal of the US from Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is assisting Assad in Syria as it helps stretch its sphere of influence from western Afghanistan to Beirut, making it a dominant regional power.
Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab state in the Middle East, is the main opponent of Iran. Most Saudis are Sunni Muslims. With the world’s second largest oil reserves and the sixth largest natural gas reserves, Saudi Arabia is a major regional power. Its economy is largely backed by its oil industry that accounts for over 95% of exports and 70% of government revenue. It considers Iran as its bête noire, both because it is non-Arab and because it is a Shia nation. Saudi Arabia fears that its Shia minority in the Eastern Province might rebel under the influence of their Iranian co-religionists. The Shia presence from Lebanon to Syria, Iraq, Iran and Bahrain is unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. Its long-term aim, as also of the ISIS, is to establish a Sunni Caliphate beginning with Iraq and Syria.
It has close ties with the US (and other western nations), resulting in a dilemma for the latter in supporting the Sunnis or the Shias!
While the focus is currently on ending the violence within Iraq and destroying the ISIS cadre, this is purely a tactical phase. There is need to take a more pragmatic and long-term view so that not only the violence and bloodletting come to an end but a permanent solution is found to the imperfections and negatives dogging the region. The start point is to correct historical wrongs, which are the real reasons for the violence within Iraq and the power-play within the larger region.
Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff.