The recapture of Aleppo by the Assad government in Syria has catapulted the Syrian civil war into every living room in India and elsewhere. The humanitarian horror on TV screens is, however, only the tip of the iceberg of a complex conflict that has deep roots and presents unique dangers to Indian interests, given our geographic proximity and selective dependencies with the region. Unlike many other civil wars with a limited number of factions, Syria is characterised by a mind-numbing array of actors and contests at many levels. Unscrambling their taxonomy is vital if we are to understand their geopolitics, and what it could all mean for India.
In fact, Syria is neither an isolated theatre nor a single war. Rather, it is part of a continuous, interlinked spatial terrain of conflict stretching from the Mediterranean coast all the way up to the Iranian border. Within this space, multiple fierce conflicts have been raging since the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions in 2011 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Alongside the conflicts in the Syria-Iraq region, there is also a separate but related conflict underway in Yemen.
First, the actors. Four levels, in increasing scales of power and geography, can be identified. Numerous armed non-state actors form the first and lowest level. These include the extremist Sunni Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (till recently, Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate) and Jaish al-Islam among many others, the moderate Sunni Free Syrian Army, radical Shia militias such as the Sadrist Kataib al-Imam Ali, the Alawite Shabiha, smaller factions of armed Assyrian Christians and Turkomans, and somewhat separately, the Kurdish nationalist PKK, confined to southern Turkey. These militias are small relative to the other actors, often territorially interspersed in byzantine ways, and are typically allied with one or more of the larger players.
At the second level are the quasi-states. These are marked by a more stable territorial identity, and occupy a position between the militias and formal nation-states. The key quasi-states are Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has now projected its fighters deep into Syria, the Kurdish statelet of Rojava comprising of three enclaves on the Syrian-Turkish border with its military arm the YPG, the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, Daesh (better known to the English-speaking world as ISIS), and a rebel zone in Yemen under the control of an alliance of Ansar Allah (also known as the Houthis) and a tribal militia under the powerful ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The quasi-states and militias have seen the maximum influx of foreign fighters, such as Shias from Afghanistan and Pakistan and Sunni volunteers from across the world.
At the third level up, we finally get to what are internationally recognised nation-states and regional powers. These include the Assad government in Damascus, now controlling all of Syria’s major cities and much of its western heartland, the Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi, the official Yemeni government now based in Aden and key regional states of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Israel. Finally, at the fourth level, four great powers external to West Asia are militarily involved; namely Russia, the United States, the UK and France.
Next the conflicts. Much of the international media has been dominated by a particular narrative of the West Asian wars in which the Assad government and his Russian and Iranian backers are the main perpetrators of civilian casualties. The reality, as always, is much greyer. There is unquestionably a repressive campaign underway by Damascus, hugely aided by Iran and Russia, to destroy all rebel and dissident groups in Syria, with indiscriminate attacks in eastern Aleppo and elsewhere. Iran does seek to create a hegemonic sphere by arming radical Shia militias. And Russia, through its decisive entry in Syria in late 2015, sees an opportunity to neutralise western influence and open a new front in what is already a shadow conflict with NATO in Eastern Europe. This much is true. However, equally true are the unsavoury actions of most opponents of the Iran-Russia alliance. Most prominent are the Sunni extremist groups in Syria, who in ideological terms are little different from Daesh, and have a long history of persecution of Shias, Christians and other minorities. Rebels in Aleppo have also indiscriminately attacked the western part of the city, held civilians hostage and blockaded Shia villages. Restrictions on women in many rebel-controlled areas are much greater than under the secular Assad government. Meanwhile, Daesh, incubated in the disaster of post-2003 Iraq, demonstrates staying power with major infusions of cash from oil sales, but also allegedly from wealthy private donors in the Gulf. Turkey and the Gulf states’ backing of some of the non-Daesh Sunni militants is an open secret. The coalition bombing of civilian targets in Yemen has been unconscionable. And the US-UK-French hostility toward Russia matches Moscow’s antipathy toward the NATO alliance.
In short, this is no Bangladesh of 1971, or even the Spanish Civil War. The only moral narrative here (possibly apart from the unique Rojava experiment) is that of suffering civilians on all sides and the destruction of ancient architecture and priceless artifacts. Daesh is uniquely toxic and brutal, but it too does not operate in a vacuum. Searching for moral saviours among the combatants themselves would be futile in what are equal-opportunity battles of realpolitik and religion in West Asia.
Essentially, six core geopolitical contests are playing out in the region. Three of these involve Iran-against Saudi Arabia, Israel (which is also focused on Hezbollah) and the US-UK. The Shia-Sunni rivalry, so prominent in the atrocities and media narratives, is in many ways a byproduct of the Saudi-Iranian contest that originated post-1979 (though it is increasingly taking on a life of its own). The fourth contest is the international community’s war on Daesh, prosecuted mainly by Iraq and the YPG, with crucial western air support. The fifth is a major Turkish drive to expand its influence in northern Syria and contain Kurdish aspirations for self-rule. To this stubborn set of conflicts has been added a sixth layer-the Russia factor. Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria was a game-changer, as it saved the Assad government and brought all the tensions of the Russian-NATO rivalry into the heart of West Asia.
The capture of Aleppo has strongly tilted the balance of power towards the Russia-Iran alliance. Particularly disadvantaged is Saudi Arabia, with its push to dislodge Assad in tatters at a time of budgetary pressures and a level of internal discontent. Recent Turkish and Egyptian realignments also provide an additional setback for Saudi goals in the region. Meanwhile Daesh is steadily losing territory due to gains on the ground by the Iraqi army, Shia militias and the YPG.
This is the regional context as India fashions a response to the West Asian crisis. And respond it must, given its deep ties to the region. Proximity is itself a dependence-geography matters. Then, Saudi Arabia and Iran are among India’s top sources of imported oil. Qatar dominates vital gas supplies. There are also 7 million Indian expatriates in West Asia, who send home about $40 billion annually as valuable foreign exchange and provide for their families. Last but not the least, the toxic effects of Daesh (and globalised Sunni extremism generally) on Indian Muslim youth remain a concern, although very few Indians thus far have actually been radicalised by the group.
Indian policies toward West Asia must be formulated at two levels. First is the level of strategic calculus. Strategically speaking, India has no favourites in the fights of West Asia (except in support of the widely-backed war on Daesh). Nor does it have the capacity to influence or resolve these conflicts. But India is also not a natural adversary of any of the countries in the region.
High dependence combined with low influence constrains India’s options. The choices then are either to greatly reduce dependence or expand it in a way that serves Indian interests. The first option is impractical and can be ruled out. It is the second option that must be retooled. Indian dependence is currently selective and skewed towards the Gulf states and Israel. A shift towards omni-directionality will minimise risks no matter which way the wars end. It will also enable wider opportunities if and when peace and high economic growth return.
This implies that relations with three states in particular-Turkey, Iran and Iraq-need to be strengthened while maintaining the strong partnership with the Gulf and Israel. Indo-Turkish ties have traditionally been distant, and there is tremendous scope for improvement. Indo-Iranian ties suffered due to western-led sanctions, but Iran now presents opportunities for cooperation in the areas of Afghanistan, natural gas and bilateral trade.
Strategic dialogue on a frequent basis with both the US and Russia on developments in West Asia should be given priority. American policy is particularly uncertain. The incoming Trump administration appears to be more willing to use force in West Asia. However, its stated aims to repair ties with Russia and simultaneously take a harder line on Iran are contradictory in terms of their regional implications.
Many of the possible scenarios for West Asia in the coming years are not positive. For India, the three most negative scenarios would be an inter-state war between either the US, Saudi Arabia or Israel against Iran, instability in the wake of a fall of the Saudi monarchy and the nuclearisation of Iran and/or Saudi Arabia.
Detailed contingency planning is essential to prepare for such dystopic scenarios. This includes plans for bolstering energy security, evacuation of Indian nationals, resolving mass hostage situations, and managing diplomatic fallouts. It requires a faster ramp-up of Indian strategic petroleum reserves and diversifying oil and gas imports to the extent possible. Strengthening intelligence capabilities at home to counter Daesh recruitment, while respecting the human rights of India’s Muslim communities, is obviously also needed.
Finally, at the second level India should never lose sight of the humanitarian angle in what is at its heart a terrible human tragedy. India must always stand for a negotiated settlement to all disputes and welcome any accords that reduce violence in the region. It must consistently oppose framing the conflict as a clash of civilisations. More concretely, it could offer greater medical assistance to grievously wounded civilians and aid the restoration of valuable cultural treasures which, after all, are the common heritage of all humankind.