Hundred years ago, John Buchan wrote a thriller featuring the secret agent, Richard Hannay. Tasked with stopping the Germans from using a charismatic mahdi—the “Greenmantle’’ (also the title of the book) to stir up religious fervour, anti-colonial sentiments, and revolts against the British in the Middle East and India, he is warned that “there is a hot wind blowing from the east and the dry grasses await the spark”.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, shortened to Islamic State (IS) by its own revised nomenclature—the toxic armed force of disgruntled Sunni Iraqis and Syrians, and murderous hotheads spawned by the al-Qaeda (introduced originally into Iraq by, who else, the US)—are closing in on Baghdad. It is generating the hot wind India will have to brave, but apparently not alone. IS’s global jihad is to be unleashed ambitiously in all countries “in the east and the west”, including India, China, Iran and, deliciously ironical this, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates—the financiers of radical Islamism and, of course, the US and Europe. “The earth is Allah’s,” declared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the megalomaniacal “caliph” heading IS in his Ramzan message. “If you hold to (this belief), you will…own the world.”
IS does not represent a run-of-the-mill Islamic militancy. Its purposeful publicising of beheadings and massacres is to instil dread; mindless cruelty is its calling card. How completely it is eradicated will determine the sort of heat India and other countries will face. The IS ideology cannot be allowed to creep into India and infect an already paranoid Indian Muslim community. It will require a ramping up of the surveillance effort by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the intelligence cells in the provincial police organisations, and more intrusive monitoring of the activity of Sunni trusts and of money flows into them from Arab sources. And the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) has to vastly expand its intelligence collection effort and capacity for pre-emption operations in West Asia, which will require a larger cadre of Arabic-speaking staffers than presently exists.
However, it is precisely the alienating of just about every country and regime in sight that offers the means for the eradication of IS. It will necessitate a comprehensively coordinated regional and international effort to constrict the space IS operates in, and to mount a multi-directional war of all against the IS to eliminate it. India can take the lead by calling for meetings of foreign ministers and intelligence chiefs of the targeted countries to hammer out a definite strategy to destroy this uber-militant group.
Until now the problem was limited to the IS battling the ineffectual Nour al-Maliki government in Iraq, on the one hand, and the Bashar al-Assad dispensation dominated by Alawis, a syncretist Islamic sect denounced as heretical since the 11th Century in Syria, on the other. With Shia interests under siege, Iran quickly dispatched elements of its Pas Daran (Revolutionary Guards), the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and war material to Damascus to counter Riyadh and Qatar fuelling the Sunni revolt. And, just like that the oldest rift within Islam sprang full blown into renewed sectarian strife for supremacy in the Islamic world, which has morphed into a global jihad.
The US has compounded the mess with its confused approach. It first disrupted a stable order in West Asia by violently displacing Saddam Hussein, and then owing to fatigue, mounting casualties as an occupation force, and mounting bills, pulled out. Faced with an unravelling Iraq, Washington is now dithering between doing too much and doing too little and has ended up acting schizophrenically. It has deployed Special Forces units in Iraq and decided to channel $500 million worth of arms to the Syrian rebels linked to the IS. But separating the situations in Syria and Iraq seems stupid considering the IS supremo is equally antagonistic towards the US, Syria and Iran. Meanwhile, Russia has stepped into the breach with transfers of combat aircraft and heavy armaments to the al-Maliki regime that Washington denied it. Separately, Washington is thinking of concerting with Tehran to disable the IS short of a drag-out Battle for West Asia, which must be giving the Sauds sleepless nights. But the US and Iran getting together will complement India’s initiative, were the Modi government to take it, for collectively countering the caliphate-seekers.
The fact is the IS successes can roil the uneasy Sunni-Shia equilibrium obtaining in India by prompting home-grown Sunni malcontents into lighting the sectarian as well as communal fuses. An US-Iranian condominium to halt the marauders from fatally bloodying Iraq is in India’s seminal interest. The trouble is such a team-up is prevented by Israel’s antipathy to Iran. Other than extricating expatriate Indian workers, New Delhi should try and persuade Israel to desist from vetoing US participation, alongside Tehran, in restoring sanity in the region. Meanwhile, the thaw in Iran-Turkey relations with the visit to Istanbul mid-June by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has firmed up the south-western front against the IS.
The downstream danger of the IS ideology creeping into India should be communicated to Tel Aviv. Facilitating an Israeli-Iranian rapprochement won’t be easy because of Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions. Then again, Indo-Israeli and Indo-Iranian relations are instinctively friendly and have evolved, in separate ways, into something special. Prime minister Narendra Modi can personally telephone president Rouhani to explain his two-pronged initiative, and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu to help realise an US-Iranian entente, given that many Israeli strategists apprehend the IS infiltrating the Palestinian Authority. Tel Aviv ought to be told that any IS-inspired conflagration could disturb internal order in India and affect relations with the Jewish state. Even a failed attempt at Israel-Iran bridge-building combined with the anti-IS initiative will have cascading positives. It will enhance the country’s international stature and seed Modi’s reputation as international statesman.
The relations between Israel and Iran can be more easily fixed than the Sunni-Shia fissure. In the event, stoking Israeli-Iranian rapport as a permanent heat shield to deflect any hot winds from the Arab quarter should be India’s priority.
The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com