India will not remain unaffected by the growing Shia -Sunni violent confrontation and other rivalries in the Arab world, as well as by the growth of Salafi fundamentalism to its west. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid paid a visit to Iraq on June 19-21, as the first Indian Cabinet Minister to visit the country in over two decades. While New Delhi had a friendly relationship with the minority Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein dispensation, there were naturally some anxieties about how the new dispensation would react to overtures from India. Mr Khurshid was, however, enthusiastically received by the Iraqi Government, which expressed warm feelings for India and readiness to expand cooperation in the energy sector, while recalling Iraq’s old connections with India, in areas ranging from education to defence. The Iraqis are unhappy with the direct dealings of US oil companies with the minority Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq. Moving dexterously, China has emerged not only as the major buyer of Iraqi oil, but has also been awarded rather lucrative exploration rights.
Iraq, which has the second largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, has set ambitious targets to increase its oil production from its present level of 2.6 million barrels per day to nine mbpd in 2019. With Saudi Arabia producing oil to almost its full capacity, Iraq, with its huge surplus capacity, will be a crucial player in meeting future oil demands. But, Iraq is located in a dangerous neighbourhood, where old Arab-Israeli rivalries are giving way to a deadlier Shia -Sunni conflict, across the Muslim world, stretching from Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Maghreb. Under Saddam Hussein, sectarian differences were set aside, as Shia -dominated Iran and Iraq fought a bloody conflict.
Today, Iran and Iraq collaborate closely, as they confront an Sunni -dominated Turkey, once the occupying power in the Arab world, and which has now joined hands with an alliance of Sunni Arab states, backed by Egypt’s just-ousted Muslim Brotherhood Government of President Mohamed Morsi and the members of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Even in the Gulf, the Shia -Sunni sectarian divide in Bahrain pits the Shia majority population backed by Iran, against the ruling Sunni monarchy backed by Saudi Arabia, with some valuable assistance rendered by the Pakistani mercenaries.
The epic centre of this bloody sectarian conflict today is Syria, where the Sunni majority has, since the 1970s, been ruled by the secular and modern minded but ruthlessly authoritarian Alawite (Shia) minority, with Kurds constituting a 10 per cent minority, at the receiving end of discriminatory treatment. Shia-Sunni rivalries exploded into a no-holds-barred conflict in April 2011, in which an estimated 1,00,000 people have since been killed. Both Israel and the US have viewed the growing ties between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia with considerable concern. Iran has been providing arms to members of the elite Revolutionary Guards to bolster the Syrian regime. Iraq is providing over- flight facilities to Iran and strengthening its border defences with Syria, to block the movement of Al Qaeda-linked Sunni fighters endeavouring to reinforce the resistance to the Assad regime.
To add to Israel’s discomfiture, the Hezbollah, which is the only Arab force to have successfully resisted Israel’s military might, has moved in significant numbers into Syria. In recent days, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah have scored notable successes in ousting Sunni insurgents from urban centres like the city of Qusayr.
Externally, the US has been reluctant to get directly involved in Syria, as it has seen how a military intervention without a clear political game plan can produce disastrous results like the Anglo-French misadventure in Libya. Even in Syria, the European meddling has been largely orchestrated by the Anglo-French duo, with Germany and others reluctantly expressing token support. While President Barack Obama has recently agreed to provide some military support to the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, (Recognized by the Gulf Arab states), military support is being provided to the ‘Free Syrian Army’, which operates across the Turkey-Syria border, primarily by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Diplomatic efforts by the US to get the UN Security Council to condemn the Syrian regime and call for its ouster, have been thwarted by Russia, discreetly backed by China, which simultaneously makes some noises about the need for political change, to ensure that it does not earn the wrath of Saudi Arabia and its allies. Russia, with a naval base in Syria, appears determined to ensure that it remains a player in developments in West Asia and to back a traditional ally. It also has concerns about the impact of rap- idly growing Salafi fundamentalism in Chechnya and its other Caucasian republics.
The Syrian sectarian conflict seems to be heading towards a messy stale- mate. While Israel has bombed sup- plies of Russian missiles being transported to the Hezbollah through Syria, even Israel, like the US, cannot be comfortable with the armed insurgency in Syria being taken over by Al Qaeda- linked, Salafi-oriented fighters. The real challenge that the US faces is the prospect of the armed insurrection falling into the hands of the rabidly fundamentalist ‘Al Nusra Front’, made up of 6,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Palestine, Kuwait, Chechnya and Bosnia. The Syrian conflict is bound to be deadlocked, unless all parties display a sense of realism and statesman-ship. Such a stalemate could involve a de facto partition of Syria, with the Alawite Shias controlling the coastal areas and northern Syria coming under Kurdish control. This will be akin to the situation in Iraq, which is being torn apart by rivalries between Arab Sunnis and Shias, while the Kurds seek and assert greater self-rule.
Ever since the Iranian Revolution and the emergence of Salafi – oriented, Saudi-backed armed groups in Pakistan, and following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan has been torn apart by continuing violence against its estimated 20 per cent Shia minority. Even moderate Bareilvi Sunnis have been targeted by these extremist groups. In Afghanistan, Taliban rule resulted in a bloodbath of Shia Hazaras living along the Iran border, provoking a warning of intervention by Iran, whose diplomats were massacred in Mazar-e- Sharif, by the Taliban. In Bangladesh, the fundamentalist Hefazat-e-Islam, has attacked the homes, businesses and places of worship of Hindu and Buddhist minorities, demanded the introduction of ‘Blasphemy Laws’, advocated curbs on the rights of women and called for the adoption of ‘Islamic Education’.
These events were accompanied by demonstrations in Kolkata, where the secular Awami League Government in Bangladesh was denounced, with the slogan “Islam is in danger in Bangladesh”. India will not remain unaffected by sectarian rivalries and the growth of Salafi fundamentalism to its west.
– OE News Bureau