Getting complicated

Getting complicated

The US and its Sunni Arab allies and Israel want to eliminate Russian and Iranian influence from Syria and Lebanon.

As the Narendra Modi government prepares for the first visit of an Indian Prime Minister to Israel, expected to take place in early July, and for the visit of Turkish President Recep Erdogan later in April, it would be aware that the situation in West Asia, already complex, may become more complicated with the US attack on Syria’s Al Shayrat airbase on April 6.

As yet, India has done well to navigate through numerous regional contradictions to secure the country’s interests in the region. These stretch from energy security to the wellbeing of the diaspora, to trade and remittances, to remaining vigilant on terrorism and extremist ideologies emanating from the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. In the coming months, the Indian policy makers will have be especially nimble and adroit to avoid regional pitfalls.

On April 4, chemical munitions containing Sarin gas were dropped on the Khan Sheikhoun village (under rebel control) in Syria’s Iribil province bordering Turkey. As reports spread of the use of a chemical weapon, banned under international convention, the US was quick to claim that it had evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had acquiesced in, if not ordered, the attack which caused 87 deaths including those of women and children.

Russia refuted this assessment but US President Donald Trump went on American TV to announce that he had ordered the launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Shayrat airbase which, he claimed, was used for the chemical attack. The US forces gave prior warning to the Russians of the decision so that they could move their personnel from the airbase.

Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted that a Syrian air raid had hit a rebel ammunition store with deadly chemicals; hence, their release. Whatever may be the truth, the unilateral US action has gravely damaged any prospect of an improvement in US-Russia relations in the immediate future. It has also ensured that tensions and conflicts may sharpen in Ukraine, West Asia and in Afghanistan.

The US and its allies have long held that the Syrian crisis cannot be resolved without the departure of the Assad government from the country. Clearly they want a united Syria under a democratic and moderate system in which the will of the Sunni majority prevails. These fond wishes ignore the region’s harsh realities and historic contradictions and reveal simplistic and naive thinking as demonstrated by the events in Iraq after the US invasion of 2003. More import­antly, the US and its Sunni Arab allies and Israel want to eliminate Russian and Iranian influence from Syria and Lebanon.

As long as Russia perceives that its interests will not be secure, including the continuance of its Syrian naval and air bases, it will not give up on Assad. During US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow which took place after the US attack, Russia maintained its support for Assad and asked for a full investigation to establish facts.

It went further to mock the US by reminding it of its invasion of Iraq which was premised on the killed Iraqi president Saddam Hussain continuing to possess chemical weapons. This claim proved hollow. At the UN, Russia vetoed a US resolution to condemn the Assad government.

Iran has equally deep interests in Syria because of sectarian and regional geopolitical reasons to continue its support for Assad. The question is will Trump now become more assertive in the Syrian civil conflict. If in the coming months the US follows up on the Shayrat airbase attack with more active support of the rebel Free Syrian Forces, its tensions with Russia will only increase leading to imponderables. The danger is that this may lead to a shift of focus from the IS which despite major military reverses, is still a global threat, including for its theological persuasive powers.

Erdogan’s visit

Erdogan’s visit will provide Modi one more opportunity to discuss the West Asian situation post the US attack with a major player in the Syrian civil war. Modi will meet a more confident Erdogan fresh from his success in a referendum which will amend the country’s constitution to invest the presidency with far greater power than at present.

Turkey is Syria’s neighbour and wants Assad to go. It has been accused of indirectly supporting the IS. It has allowed oil from Iraqi and Syrian oilfields under the IS control to be quietly and illegally routed through its territory to international markets. It has allowed people from Europe and elsewhere who responded to the IS propaganda to proceed to Syria and Iraq to join the group.

Above all, Ankara is focussed on preventing its Kurdish population from gaining control of an enclave. At the regional level, Turkey wants the elimination of Iranian influence from the region.

India has carefully avoided getting involved in the contentions of the regional powers or the great powers in West Asia. In this context, it has done well to reiterate its Syrian policy recently. This advocates a “political process” to achieve a “comprehensive political solution” through a Damascus-led effort which would address the legitimate aspirations of all the Syrian people.

India has pursued its interests by building bilateral ties with the countries of the region. Modi has visited Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran. All these bilateral trips have been successful though the two important Arab countries and Iran are engaged in bitter competition in Yemen and Syria.

In Israel, Modi will have to carefully find a balance between India’s traditional support for the Palestinian cause and the Israel’s positions on this issue as well as its hostility with Iran. The correct path will be to focus on bilateral cooperation which is now significant including in the areas of defence and security.

The Trump administration may soon seek to influence India to see West Asia through its prism. This may unfold as senior US officials begin visiting Delhi. While India-US ties need to develop comprehensively India has to preserve its independent foreign policy outlook.

(The writer is retired Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)