India’s role in the Muslim World: A Foreign Policy challenge


Supposing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seated across the table with External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, were to say: “The murderous regime in Syria has killed 30,000 of its own citizens. India by itself has no clout in Syria. There is nothing you can do on your own. It is time therefore that you become part of the solution by falling in line with us. Assad simply cannot have a role in the solution having murdered so many. You must make a choice: does the obstructive role being played by Russia and China deserve your support? And you know as well as anyone else that the regime’s days are numbered.”

What would be Krishna’s response to this imaginary statement? Well, imaginary the statement may be but, with moderated tonal quality, it may yet reflect sentiments the Indian side has heard from their US counterparts in recent exchanges on West Asia. Do Indians listen in silence to this case for the prosecution? Or do they dwell on the case for the defence? Being reminded that India has no hand to play, must hurt.

What exactly is the situation inside Syria? When I was there, which is several months ago, the world media had conceded outright victory to the Syrian opposition and safe havens were being considered for Assad and his family. The Assads are still around, although speculation is rife of him being considered for “targeted killing” as distinct from “political assassination”. Wondrous play on words!

There is a difficulty analyzing a dynamic story like Syria where so much technical, military, human resource has been injected from outside. We may have forgotten but once we described this as cross border terrorism. The facts on Syria this reporter internalized in August, 2011, can be only partly relevant a year after the first external probes began to find local hospitality. And then external and internal amalgamated into scores of opposition groups.

The earlier case was based on personal observation and interviews. Contrary to conventional wisdom a year ago, Assad could not fall because he controls (loosely now) a Ba’ath power structure not dissimilar to the one Saddam Hussain supervised in Baghdad. It took Shock and Awe, invasion, occupation, half a million Iraqi lives, thousands of US and British soldiers dead: only then was the US able to leave Iraq the wreck that it is today. Does the West have the stomach to repeat that in Syria when Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya continue to be weeping sores?

Such a question would be particularly valid at this juncture when the world is waiting for a new administration to emerge in Washington. But the reality is that Foreign Policy – and National Security establishment in Washington, barring extraordinary change at the top, moves seamlessly from one administration to the next: faces change, but attitudes do not.

Election season or no election season, the US establishment focused on West Asia is pushing ahead regardless, holding the hand of France, Saudis, Qatar, Turkey, orchestrating the eventual fall of the Syrian regime.

In high stake poker there is always a little bit of bluff and bluster. There may be some here too, particularly to play on Russian nerves. As a scholar told me in Moscow recently: “Putin will not let down Assad, but fewer are the chances of his letting down Russia!”

Mikheil Saakashvili’s eclipse in Georgia must have provided relief in Moscow from the relentless Western pressure on Syria. For the time being, Moscow and China will stand their ground because the cost of an alternative policy will be too high in the region.

The Saudi interests are clear: a fear of encirclement by Shia populations. But surely Saudi Wahabis will remain a minority even in an augmented Sunni ocean, the kind of Sunnism that obtains in the region stretching from Morocco right upto the borders of Saudi Arabia.

Two Saudi Crown Princes have died in the past year. The current one is ailing and King Abdullah is in and out of hospitals. A durable Saudi strategy must await the impending succession to be over.

The lightening shift in Turkish policy in the region has astonished observers. Well known journalist Mehmet Birand told me last year. “We were a docile ally of the US in the past and now a dissident country in the Western Alliance.” No longer can he say that. Tayyip Erdogan won three straight elections incrementally increasing his vote from 36 to 42 and in 2011 to 49 percent. His declared ambition was to have “zero problems with all our neighbours”. With neighbouring Greece on its knees, Turkey’s rise seemed unprecedented.

Why has Erdogan staked so much on the Syrian expedition?

  • Firstly, does he see Democratic Turkey as a model for the Muslim world in transition?
  • Secondly, is this vision accompanied by echoes of an Ottoman past which, he must know, is anathema to the Arabs?
  • Third, is his Akhwanul Muslimeen core, earlier toned down to be acceptable to the Army’s Kemalist secularism, resurfacing with the Akhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) on the rise elsewhere in the Arab world?
  • Four, is he not opening up fronts with 18 million Kurds, 20 million Turkish Alawites, and Russia’s Slav and Orthodox Church links in the Balkans which had been tamed in the recent past. Forcing a Moscow-Damascus flight, carrying some Russian families, land in Turkey on suspicions of arms being shipped has caused President Putin to postpone his visit to Ankara.
  • Five, what is the design in provoking direct confrontation with Iran?
  • Six, is the biggest incentive for the shift the large off shore gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean? This deserves to be focused on.

Whatever the combination of motives, the gamble for Turkey is a huge one.

Iran, ofcourse, must continue to live dangerously between negotiation on the nuclear issue and the risk of being attacked. “Attack Iran” lobby has not weakened in Israel or the US.

In all of this, where does India stand? In the fictitious script Hillary Clinton says India has no clout in the region. Possibly true. But how did Nehru and Indira Gandhi have influence in the area. It will be argued that that was during the Cold War, when India led the Non Aligned which became redundant in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse.

But with Western decline, a new world order may well be taking shape. In shaping the new equilibrium New Delhi does have a leadership position in groupings like the Non Aligned which will meet in Cairo in coming years. Only by reinventing its leadership role in such groupings will New Delhi insulate itself from the ignominy of being told that in so and so part of the world India does not matter.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)