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SITTING ON A POWDER KEG - What the Iraq crisis means for the world as well as for India

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By Harsh V. Pant The author is Professor of International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College, London
  • Published 14.07.14

The Middle East is back, and back with a bang. For some time now, the West — the United States of America in particular — had lulled itself into believing that if it would only ignore the region, its problems would go away. After all, at a time of diminishing economic resources in the West, the Indo-Pacific, with a rising China at the centre of its changing strategic landscape, was the region that deserved greater attention. The strategically diffident Barack Obama administration embraced this thinking with great enthusiasm partly for sound economic reasons and partly because it saw no need for the US to get bogged down in the millennium-old Shia-Sunni feuds.

It was in this wider context that Obama was quick to accept total withdrawal from Iraq. Behind the façade of the US not getting legal immunity for its soldiers from the Iraq government, the Obama administration was quite happy to get out of Iraq and to be publicly sanguine about Iraq’s future prospects as a stable State. A hands-off approach is preferred by many in Washington as it is viewed as the Iraq government’s job to fix it. The Nouri al-Maliki government is being pressed to take steps to make the Shia-dominated government more inclusive. If it fails to do that, there are reports that Washington might be working towards removing Maliki from office. Washington is also reaching out to Iran, trying to use Tehran’s leverage over the Maliki government to make a political resolution of the conflict in Iraq more tenable.

As the US scrambles to recover from its flat-footed recognition of the fact that the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria could no longer be ignored, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, visited Iraq to send a direct message to the Maliki government that it was time to govern inclusively or to get out of the way. But contradictions abound in the larger policy and it remains to be seen if Obama’s confused and rather late move to douse the Iraqi fire will have any real impact on the situation on the ground. Iraq’s prime minister has rejected such calls for a national salvation government to help counter the offensive by jihadist-led Sunni rebels. Instead, he is ratcheting up the military pressure on the insurgents, with the US providing 775 military advisers along with a detachment of helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles to help Iraq’s security forces. Russia is also supplying some second-hand Sukhoi jet fighters.

The entire Middle East is sitting on a powder keg, with a burgeoning civil war in Libya, a once-in-a-generation humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and a ruthless Islamist group on the verge of gaining control over Iraq. Formed in 2013 and led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS has as its proclaimed aim the establishment of an Islamic emirate that straddles Syria and Iraq. The ISIS is a highly organized, motivated, resourceful and powerful group that uses violence without any compunction. It had been gaining ground steadily over the last few weeks culminating in the declaration of a caliphate — an Islamic State ruled by a single political and religious leader — with the Syrian city of Raqqa as its seat of power. Ungoverned territories are dangerous and if the ISIS succeeds in controlling territory from Syria to Iraq, it will draw Islamist extremists who will threaten Western interests much like what happened before September 11, 2001. If Iraq collapses, there could be a knock-on effect on the rest of the Middle East as well, given the artificiality of the entire region.

India too finds itself embroiled in this crisis with the kidnapping of 39 Indian construction workers who still remain “uncontactable” in Mosul. The workers, mostly from Punjab and other parts of northern India, were working on a construction project in Mosul in northern Iraq that has been captured by the ISIS. There were also concerns regarding 46 Indian nurses, stranded in the city of Tikrit, who were successfully evacuated out of Iraq with some deft negotiation by the Indian national security establishment. In spite of some Indians making it out of Iraq, more than 10,000 Indians are estimated to be living in Iraq. If the State authority collapses completely in the country, it will be very difficult to protect them all. Meanwhile, hundreds of Indians who had illegally entered Iraq for jobs with work visas for the United Arab Emirates have been struggling to get back to India.

India had sent a senior diplomat, Suresh Reddy, who was India’s ambassador to Iraq till recently, to manage the Indian mission in Baghdad amidst rapidly deteriorating ground realities. The Iraqi foreign ministry has informed Delhi that it has been able to determine where the abducted Indian nationals are being held captive along with workers of a few other nationalities. Even as New Delhi is “knocking on all doors, front doors, back doors and even trap doors”, it is hoping to facilitate the evacuation of Indian nationals gradually. India has deployed a warship, the INS Mysore, to the Persian Gulf to help bring out the nationals although it remains far from clear as to what it can do to help those who are in the most dangerous parts of Iraq.

New Delhi will also have to assess the implications of a victory of the jihadists for Afghanistan and India’s regional security. There are reports of around 18 Indian citizens having travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight as jihadists. The Shia-Sunni fault-line is getting sharper with each passing day and the divisions are likely to become more potent in other parts of the world, beyond the Middle East.

At a broader level, there will be an impact on oil prices. Oil prices immediately rose to a nine-month high after the jihadists seized Mosul, raising the prospect of a disruption in supply from the world’s sixth-largest oil producer. As India is the world’s fourth largest consumer of oil, it has been estimated that a rise of $10 per barrel in crude oil price would reduce India’s growth rate by 0.5 percentage points. And if the oil price rally continues then it would inevitably hit India’s already serious fiscal and current account deficits.

The Narendra Modi government has faced its first major foreign policy challenge in Iraq. It has come out well, determined to meet the challenge with deft diplomatic footwork. But this should be the beginning of a complete reformulation of India’s Middle East and counter-terror policies in light of the far-reaching changes taking place in its near abroad.