In the course of one week in November 2015, militants from Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate – also called ISIS, ISIL and Daesh – struck multiple targets in Beirut, Paris and Mali. Earlier, on October 31, ISIS claimed to have brought down a Russian civilian aircraft flying from Sharm al-Sheikh to St. Petersburg.
The ISIS militia, numbering between 20,000 and 30,000, now controls approximately 300,000 square kilometre of territory straddling the Syria-Iraq border. Its brand of fundamentalist terrorism is gradually spreading beyond West Asia and the militia is slowly but surely gaining ground. In Africa, ISIS fighters and their associates have been active in Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, South Sudan and Tunisia in recent months. Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group in Nigeria, has pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Recent acts of terrorism have steeled the resolve of the international community. Significant help is being provided to the government of Iraq by the US and its allies. The Peshmerga, forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which had captured oil-rich Kirkuk, have joined the fight against the ISIS and recaptured the Syrian (Kurdish) border town of Kobani.
The US began launching air strikes against the ISIS militia about a year ago, while simultaneously arming anti-Assad forces like the Free Syrian Army with a view to bringing about a regime change in Syria. The US has been joined in this endeavour by Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and Netherlands as well as five Arab countries (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates). The air strikes have resulted in substantial collateral damage. It is being gradually realised that the ISIS militia cannot be defeated from the air alone.
Putin’s Russia joined the fight on September 30, 2015 with the twin aims of defeating the ISIS and destroying anti-Assad forces. However, the initial air strikes launched by the Russian Air Force were directed mainly against the forces opposed to President Assad of Syria. Russian ground troops are also expected to join the fight soon. The Russians have also descended on Baghdad to establish a military intelligence coordination cell jointly with Iran, Iraq and Syria – a move that has not been appreciated by the Americans.
In a rare show of unity after the Paris attacks, the United Nations Security Council passed a unanimous resolution stating that “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security,” and called upon all member states to join the fight against the ISIS.
Diplomatic moves have been initiated to coordinate operations and work together for peace and stability in the region. The US and Russia agree that the objective of their interventions should be to end the civil war in Syria through a political deal and that both Iraq and Syria should retain their territorial integrity. They also agree that the ISIS extremists must be completely eliminated. Iran has agreed to join the negotiations to resolve the conflict in Syria. However, while the political objectives are similar, the methods being used to achieve them are different and are designed to extend the influence of each of the protagonists in the region.
Implications for South Asia
Al-Baghdadi has openly proclaimed the intention of ISIS to expand eastwards to establish the Islamic state of Khorasan that would include Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics, eastern Iran and Pakistan. The final battle, Ghazwa-e-Hind – a term from Islamic mythology – will be fought to extend the caliphate to India. An ISIS branch has already been established in the Subcontinent. It is led by Muhsin al Fadhli and is based somewhere in Pakistan. Some factions of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan have declared their allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Afghanistan’s new National Security Adviser, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, has said that the presence of Daesh or the ISIS is growing and that the group poses a threat to Afghan security. And, some ISIS flags have been seen sporadically in Srinagar.
Instability and major power rivalry in West Asia do not augur well for India’s national security and economic interests. Combined with the increase in force levels in the Indian Ocean, the heightened tensions in West Asia may ultimately lead to a spill-over of the conflict to adjacent areas. India now imports almost 75 per cent of the oil required to fuel its growing economy and most of it comes from the Gulf. The long-drawn conflicts of the last two decades of the 20th century had forced India to buy oil at far greater cost from distant markets, with no assurance of guaranteed supplies. The 1991 oil shock had almost completely wrecked India’s foreign exchange reserves. The situation could again become critical. Oil prices had shot up to USD 115 per barrel in June 2014, soon after the Caliphate was proclaimed, but have since stabilised around USD 50 to 60 per barrel.
Since the early 1970s, Indian companies have been winning a large number of contracts to execute turnkey projects in West Asia. The conflict in the region has virtually sealed the prospects of any new contracts being agreed to. Also, payments for ongoing projects are not being made on schedule, leading to un-absorbable losses for Indian firms involved, and a dwindling foreign exchange income from the region.
India also has a large Diaspora in West Asia. A large number of Indian workers continue to be employed in West Asia and their security is a major concern for the government. Some Indian nurses had been taken hostage by ISIS fighters, but were released unharmed. All of these together constitute important national interests, but cannot be classified as ‘vital’ interests. By definition, vital national interests must be defended by employing military force if necessary.
US officials have been dropping broad hints to the effect that India should join the US and its allies in fighting ISIS as it poses a long-term threat to India as well. India had been invited to send an infantry division to fight alongside the US-led Coalition in Iraq in 2003. The Vajpayee government had wisely declined to get involved at that time as it was not a vital interest.
It must also be noted that India has the world’s third largest Muslim population. Indian Muslims have remained detached from the ultra-radical ISIS and its aims and objectives, except for a handful of misguided youth who are reported to have signed up to fight. This could change if India sends armed forces to join the US-led coalition to fight the ISIS militia.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed at the G-20 summit in Antalya last week that the war against terrorism must isolate and contain the sponsors and supporters of terrorism. He clearly implied that India is willing to join the international coalition against the ISIS and other non-state actors. Besides contributing to the global war against terrorism, India’s participation would help to isolate the Pakistan Army and the ISI – the foremost state sponsors of terrorism.
Direct Indian military intervention against the ISIS militia would depend on the manner in which the situation unfolds over the next one year. It could become necessary if ISIS is able to extend the area controlled by it to the Persian Gulf as that would affect the supply of oil and gas from the Persian Gulf to India – clearly a vital national interest. For the time being, India should cooperate closely with the international community by way of sharing information and intelligence and providing logistics support like port facilities if asked for. India should also provide full diplomatic support and work with the United Nations for evolving a consensual approach in the fight against the ISIS.
A concerted international effort is needed to first contain and then comprehensively defeat the ISIS and stabilise Iraq and Syria, failing which the consequences will be disastrous not only for the region, but also for most of the rest of Asia and Europe. Helping the regional players to gradually eliminate the root causes of instability will not be an easy challenge for the international community to address. As an emerging power sharing a littoral with the region, India has an important role to play in acting as a catalyst for West Asian stability.