India’s oil-rich Western neighbourhood, extending from the Arabian Sea to the Bosphorus, is engulfed in conflict arising from sectarian and civilisational rivalries, aggravated by the meddling of external powers. With an arsenal of over 100 nuclear weapons, Pakistan is witnessing a period of internal strife, largely arising from the pernicious role of its military establishment and tensions across its disputed borders with Afghanistan. This conflict, involving radical groups such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is engulfing Central Asia.
Iran is now involved in multiple conflicts, arising from its regional ambitions and its controversial nuclear programme. Its Sunni Arab neighbours allege Iran is inciting Shia populations in Eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Kuwait. Further westwards, Iranian support for the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza and the embattled Alawite (Shia) minority regime of President Bashr al Assad in Syria, has led to regional and global rivalries, exacerbating existing tensions.
Tensions in relations with Israel and the US have resulted in Iran facing growing international sanctions and American and Israeli efforts to cripple its nuclear weapons programme. Cyber attacks with “Flame” and “Stuxnet” viruses have stolen Iran’s nuclear data and crippled its enrichment programme for months.
Azerbaijan, India and Thailand have been drawn into this rivalry by Iranian-sponsored attacks on Israeli establishments and tourists on their soil. Iran is also believed to have mounted retaliatory cyber attacks on American banks and financial institutions, natural gas production facilities in Qatar and on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil company. Israel and the US are being warned that any attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would engulf the entire region in flames.
The much touted “Arab Spring”, which many believed would lead to a new era of democracy, peace and progress in the Arab world, has only exacerbated tensions and uncertainties.
Syrian civil war
In Libya, where the despotic regime of Muammar Gaddafi was removed by NATO military intervention spearheaded by France, Britain and the US, large tracts of the country are under the control of Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militias. The Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots are expanding their influence in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and the Palestinian Gaza strip. Syria, now ruled by an Iranian-backed minority Alawite Shia sect, comprising barely 12 per cent of the population, is engulfed in a bloody civil war that pits the bulk of its 70 per cent Sunni majority against the secularly oriented regime of Bashr al Assad.
The Syrian civil war has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and an exodus of thousands of refugees to neighbouring Turkey and Jordan.
Veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to fashion a ceasefire between the warring parties in Syria, as a prelude to negotiations. Led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt, the Arab League has favoured intervention and regime change in Syria. Now ruled by an Islamist dispensation, secular Turkey, which has been denied entry into the Christian-dominated European Union, is attempting to become a major player in the region by downgrading ties with Israel and embracing the cause of the Hamas in Gaza.
The US and Israel favour the ouster of the Iranian-backed Assad regime, as this would undermine the influence of Iran and the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon. The assassination of the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Intelligence chief Wissam-al-Hassan in Beirut could revive the sectarian conflict that tore Lebanon apart in the past. Most Lebanese appear to hold Syria responsible for the assassination.
Major new player
A new major player in these developments is the ruler of the Emirate of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, who holds 14 per cent of the world’s gas resources and hosts the Forward Headquarters of the American Central Command and its Combined Operations Centre, apart from owning the worldwide Al Jazeera channel, now broadcasting anti-Assad programmes. Sheikh Khalifa took active part in the NATO-led ouster of Muammar Gaddafi and was the first Arab ruler to recognise the Libyan National Council. He is spearheading Arab opposition to President Assad. He has visited Gaza and doled out $400 million to the Hamas leadership, to counter Iranian influence.
The US, its NATO allies and Israel would like to weaken Iran’s regional influence by the overthrow of the Syrian regime and the consequent isolation of Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are key allies in this effort. But, both the US and Israel are wary of arming the fractious Syrian opposition, fearing that an Islamist takeover in Syria could produce another haven for Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, akin to what transpired in Libya and elsewhere in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring”.
The Israeli bombing of a suspected Iranian missile facility in Sudan is yet another manifestation of tensions in the region. India has reacted maturely and moderately to these developments, with its response being clearly articulated by its Permanent Representative to the UN, Hardeep Puri. India joined Brazil, China, Germany and Russia by abstaining on Security Council Resolution 1973 that led to the NATO military intervention in Libya.
India made it clear that it has serious concerns about UN Resolutions lacking “clarity on enforcement measures” through military intervention. India backed a UN General Assembly Resolution supporting “efforts of the Arab League for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis” through a “Syrian led inclusive political process”.
The policy on such issues is to back any regional consensus to resolve differences without getting involved in demands for externally promoted “regime change”.
(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)