By Mruganka Kashyap

Edited by Madhavi Roy, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

The countdown for the much ‘hyped’ summit between the heads of state of the largest democracy, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the oldest democracy, the US President Barack Obama, has already begun. Among the host of issues to be discussed by both the leaders on September 29 on the sidelines of the United Nations summit, the fast snow balling situation in the Middle East is bound to find resonance.

The situation in Iraq, especially the precarious condition of the religious minorities like the Christians, Kurds and Yazidis has not found much in-depth coverage in the Indian diplomatic circuits. By and large, the Indian mainstream has skirted this issue and any mention of it has almost evaporated over the past month. With the creation of an anti- ISIS coalition under the supervision of the Americans and the NATO and a mention of seeking India’s aid in the aforementioned campaign by Obama, coupled with the imminent visit of Modi to the US, has sparked renewed interest in revisiting India’s role in Iraq and the Levant.

Former Indo-Iraqi Relationship-

India’s involvements and bilateral relations with Iraq began in 1947 itself. With the signing of the 1952 “Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship”, Iraq was considered one of the closest allies of India in the Middle East. India was among the elite few that immediately recognized the Baath Party led Government and thus a close alliance developed between the ‘secular’ Iraq led by Saddam Hussein and the Republic of India. Saddam’s Iraq had unwaveringly supported India on the Kashmir dispute and the 1998 nuclear tests, which were reciprocated by India’s staunch opposition to the two Gulf Wars and the non-deployment of Indian troops by the Vajpayee Government despite the requests of the Bush Administration. But the exit of Saddam, the prolonging Syrian conflict and the establishment of the IS caliphate by Sunni jihadists who have sworn allegiance to the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)/ ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) has changed all dynamics and has left Indian diplomats scurrying for a policy to define the current crisis raging there.

Factors influencing India-

India’s indifference to the plight of the minorities like the Christians, Yazidis and the Kurds in Iraq is defined primarily by the fear of insecurity when it comes to its economic interests. India imports a vast majority of its crude oil consumption from the Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The burgeoning Indian economy’s petroleum needs are estimated to be around 186.2 million metric tons per year towards 2016-17, as was outlined by the working group report for the 12th Five Year Plan. The Gulf accounts for 27% of remittances to India with 4.5 million Indians constituting one of the largest expatriate communities there. Yet, the impressive economic figures shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, includes the following countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE) is home to the growing Wahhabi doctrine of Islam, which finances and fosters the rapidly proliferating Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Despite the mind boggling progress of India, Islamic terrorism stands as one of the biggest roadblocks to the sustained growth of India. Particularly, Saudi Arabia and UAE based wealthy individuals have financed the mushrooming of madrassas that adhere to the Wahhabi school of Islamic thought compared to the majority of Muslims of the Indian sub-continent, who follow the Barelvi school of thought. This has led to growing Islamic fundamentalism and consequently a communally charged atmosphere in India. The inroads made by Indian Mujahideen and most recently by ISIS cannot be just swept under the carpet. More than India; Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives have seen a growth of funding of such madrassas that have caused a spike in brain-washing of disenchanted youth, who eagerly join the ranks of the jihadist movement. This has provided ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) backed Taliban and Kashmir separatist groups enough foot soldiers to revive their terrorist activities. It should not be forgotten that the GCC has consistently backed Pakistan on the Kashmir issue and has issued resolutions at the behest of Pakistan in the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), despite the constant displeasure expressed by India. The GCC is also the hub for many anti-Indian criminal activities. Though certain counter-terrorism cooperation between India and the GCC has taken place like the deportation of Abu Jundal, a suspect in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, a lot needs to be done to bridge the trust deficit. It was rumored in certain circles that the influence of the GCC nations played a role in securing the release of the 46 Indian nurses, who had been taken hostage by ISIS militants in Tikrit. But, India has quietly forgotten the fate of the 39 Indians who are still in ISIS captivity. India is home to the second largest Shia population after Iran and the smoldering pot of Shia-Sunni conflict perpetuated by the ISIS could open a can of worms in India. Also, domestic compulsions tie the hands of the Indian Government in framing a stronger policy towards Iraq and sending a message to the Gulf. It is quite well known in international circles that advanced weaponry and funding have found their way into the hands of the ISIS, which seem to have had their origins in the Gulf. In their quest to topple the Shia Iran aligned Alawite Assad leadership in Syria, the Sunni Gulf countries fomented and supported fundamentalists and terrorists, who are wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria today. Consequently, India has to walk a thin line while framing a policy towards the Iraqi and the Syrian situations.

Logical Perspective-

The current impotence of India’s foreign policy in Iraq and the Middle East comes from the consistent lethargy in Indian diplomatic circles to frame a foreign policy keeping the best interests of the nation in tandem with the future needs and scenarios. India is heavily reliant on the Gulf in meeting its petroleum demands. But considering the fact that the Middle East is an unstable region, nuanced foreign policy of any nation dictates that there should be a reduced reliance on geo-politically unstable regions when it comes to a critical matter like energy security. The Chinese diplomatic push to court the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) Latin American members, the SCO and major investments in shale gas and thrust on tapping renewable energy are being done to ensure energy security and reduce the reliance on this unstable region. India could follow this example of its neighbor to the north. Granted the economic costs of shipping from Latin America compared to the Middle East cannot be overlooked, but a nuanced strategy by aggressively courting nations like Venezuela and the SCO while concurrently slowly reducing our oil dependence on the Middle East over time would have longer term benefits. Besides, investments in renewable energy and shale gas will eventually ensure in-situ energy security for India. Coming to the question of Indian expatriates, the Gulf nations cannot simply afford the removal of these expatriates who overwhelmingly contribute to the Gulf economy. In addition, the Gulf nations cannot simply miss boarding the expanding economic bandwagon of India. The ridiculous notion put forth by some pundits that the Gulf may snap business ties with India is quite far-fetched. Reduced energy dependence would introduce a dimension of economic ‘swaraj’ without the added cost of importing fundamentalism. A balanced approach would ultimately help India meet its strategic goals without antagonizing or being at the mercy of the Gulf nations in terms of its foreign policy.

Iraq basically exists as three divided entities today- the Shia majority areas, the Sunni provinces (most are in IS control) and Iraqi Kurdistan. Improving ties with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria would allow India to steer clear of the Shia-Sunni fighting scorching the Middle East. It can ensure India’s continued balancing act in terms of the US-NATO-GCC and the Russia-Iran led blocs. Iraqi Kurdistan is rich in oil reserves and the secular nature, the strong cultural, ethnic and historical links and similarities between the Indians and the Kurds could go a long way in securing a ‘truly reliable’ ally in the Middle East, once more. Any Indian intervention to rescue, rehabilitate and safeguard the Iraqi minorities, especially the Yazidis and the Syrian and Iraqi Christians will reinforce India’s humanitarian image on the global stage and revitalize India’s position as a ‘defender of the weak’; which has taken a beating over the past few years because of some ill-conceived policies. India cannot rely on back door channels anymore for securing the release of the 39 captive Indians, especially after the ISIS has become an economically self-sufficient entity, after its overwhelming blitzkrieg in Mosul and the Anbar province in Iraq. A well-executed Indian army operation to rescue the hostages and the kidnapped Yazidi women from the clutches of the ISIS would work towards the projection of Indian military might in the Middle East. It would secure the trust of the Kurds and allies like Qatar and Oman with whom India has ratified mutual defense treaties. ISIS is a direct threat more to India than the US; when we take into account the geographical proximity and the fact that India is surrounded by nations that have seen a surge in Islamic fundamentalism and have a track record of fomenting terrorism in India. ISIS has long outlined its intentions to bring the fight eventually to India. It would be more prudent to nip it in the bud in Iraq rather than wait for it to reach the Indian shores. But, India must steer clear of joining the US-NATO led anti-ISIS alliance. India’s involvement in this alliance would open a Pandora’s Box and may be viewed as joining an anti-Iranian cum anti-Shia collaboration as Iran, a key supporter of Assad and major stakeholder in the anti-ISIS fight has not been invited to join the alliance. India must not commit to an alliance that involves nations having some crisscrossing agendas.

India’s policy towards Iraq must ensure securing its own interests in concurrence with safely navigating the testy Middle East sands. A policy to ensure the long term energy security coupled with strategic security is the need of the hour. The current Indian Government is on thin ice and needs to revamp our ‘apathetic’ policy towards the religious minorities like the Yazidis and Syrian and Iraqi Christians and of course, the Kurds to secure reliable allies in the Middle East. It would ensure that India distances itself from the Shia-Sunni fighting, thus ensuring domestic tranquility while degrading and destroying fundamentalism and terrorism hand in hand. Finally to sum up, the NDA’s manner of handling of the crisis in Iraq will define India’s Middle East policy for the coming decades and will have lasting ramifications for India’s economy and its strategic security.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind