Public attention in India is now increasingly focusing on the medieval brutalities and religious intolerance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. One hears calls from otherwise well-informed Indians that India should respond to pleas from US President Obama and other leaders of the so-called ‘international community’ and join their efforts to eliminate ISIL and its leadership. The Western pleas are not surprising. A significant proportion of the over 15,000 foreign fighters in Syria are radicalised Sunnis from Western Europe, the US and Arab countries afflicted by the fallout of the Arab Spring. The origins of ISIL go back to the US invasion of Iraq, which led to the replacement of a Sunni minority, but secular government, by a motley crowd of Shia leaders, ranging from Iranian-backed radical clerics, to Westernised politicians, who returned from exile.
The uprising against the Shia-dominated Assad regime in neighbouring Syria, backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Sunni Arab states, has led to a raging and inconclusive civil war. Syria, like Iraq and Libya, is being torn apart by sectarian (Shia-Sunni), ethnic (Arab-Kurd) and civilisational (Persian-Arab) rivalries. To add to these complications, secular Turkey, which is now acquiring distinctly Islamist tendencies under President Erdogan, is seeking to restore the glories of its Ottoman Empire. Turkey has become the epicentre of the resistance in Syria. While ostensibly a NATO ally of the US, it is reluctant to join the US war against ISIL by allowing its own rebellious Kurds to join their kith and kin in Syria who are facing brutal attacks from ISIL. The Americans are bombing ISIL fighters attacking the Kurds.
While Iran would be happy to join efforts to take on the ISIL to protect its fellow Shias in Iraq and Syria, the US refuses to permit Iranian or Russian involvement, which would give both a regional consensus and international legitimacy to efforts to diplomatically, politically and militarily eliminate the ISIL. Thus, despite the revulsion in India against the brutalities and excesses of the ISIL, particularly against Shias, Kurds and non-Muslims, there is little prospect of present efforts to eliminate it succeeding, given present regional and international rivalries and contradictions. These efforts may only meet limited success, but draw us into the vortex of growing Shia-Sunni rivalries worldwide. One can only hope that Iran’s negotiations on its nuclear programme with world powers led by the US will result in a reasonable compromise later this month. This could lay the basis for forward movement in forging a broad-based alliance, backed by regional powers and the international community.
In a larger perspective, India’s crucial national security and economic interests are primarily in its neighbouring Persian/Arab Gulf Region. Over six million Indians live in the six Arab Gulf countries, from where we get 70 per cent of our oil supplies. Of the six Arab Gulf countries, there are serious challenges posed by Shia-Sunni tensions only in Bahrain, where predominant influence is wielded by Saudi Arabia. There is little doubt that the climate of Iran’s relations with the Gulf Arab States led by Saudi Arabia will improve if there is a normalisation of relations between Iran and the US. One hopes that good sense will prevail and this will happen. In the meantime, ISIL will remain focused in dealing with its problems in Iraq and Syria, before it can think about destabilising India.
The main threats to our security and to communal harmony will come not from ISIL but from the ISI and its allies like the Zawahiri-led al-Qaeda, the Mullah Omar-led Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the D Company and the Jaish-e-Mohammed. Dealing with these threats should remain the primary focus of our attention. We should, however, be ready to provide support to meet ISIL threats to Gulf Arab states in our immediate neighbourhood, who host millions of our citizens, if we are asked for such support.
The writer is a former diplomat