West Asia is at strategic crossroads today. Dramatic changes are taking place in domestic and regional political environments in most of the countries of the region. Despite imperative need for peace and stability, the region continues to slip into deeper conflicts and instability; the emergence of new non-state actors and increasing violence have added to the existing problems and challenges leading to an uncertain future.
The West Asian region continues to be in a state of flux for more than four years since the beginning of the Arab Spring. The pace as well as nature of transition in the countries which witnessed regime change during this period has been different but all these countries have witnessed unprecedented violence and mayhem. Moreover, there has been a clear lack of consensus among different groups struggling for power about the future roadmap for their countries. Chaos and confusion continues unabated as leaders, parties and people ponder over the probable alternatives available to them. The current trends— involving widespread use of force, increasing violence, failure of the state mechanisms, humanitarian crises, spread of terrorism, growing sectarian conflict, intervention by regional and extra-regional players and changing regional geopolitics— are not encouraging.
Ideology combined with popular aspirations for liberty, dignity and equality played an important role in the beginning but the absence of viable alternative mechanisms and incapacity of states to manage the resulting disorder have led to further escalation of the conflict. The resolution of various intra-state conflicts seems like a distant dream. Ideological differences are, in many cases, clearly evident in providing stimulus to conflicts within as well as among states. Ideological conflicts, in the absence of a democratic order, tend to give rise to an atmosphere of intolerance and provide an impetus for violence. Ironically, such violence is legitimized as being sanctioned by the very ideologies that are in contention.
In the West Asian region, the ideological differences stem primarily from different interpretations of Islam by different schools of thought within Islam. The assertion of the “Takfiri” strain within the fold of Sunni sectarian version of Islam— which regards people from other sects as apostates and fit for physical elimination— has made violence inevitable. The appearance of Da’esh or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or IS) points to this reality and expansion of its ideology beyond is a matter of concern for all the stakeholders.
The mixture of ideology and geopolitics has also hampered peace building in the region and impacted inter-state relations adversely. An example of this is ideological differences among Sunnis and Shias assuming the shape of a regional conflict between the Shia- and Sunni-dominated states in the region. These differences were always there in the region, but the ongoing political turmoil has sharpened these divisions— due to unthinking manipulation of these fault lines by competing elites in these countries in their quest for power. Ideological differences have slowly and steadily escalated into major sectarian conflicts throughout the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran are now perceived to be representing Sunni and Shia interests respectively though the other countries have also been playing their part in the ideological competition. The sectarian conflict has been witnessed in the form of proxy wars in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen etc. with Riyadh and Tehran supporting the opposite forces.
While the peoples’ aspirations remain unaddressed, their attention is diverted to the ideological competition. The rise of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt by electoral means indicated popular acceptance of political Islam as an alternative to existing political systems in the region. This created a political tremor in the region and raised the level of expectations of leaders advocating different ideological positions in the region such as Wahhabism, Salafism etc. The success of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its continuation in power for a year unleashed political Islam as a potent force in the entire region. The subsequent military intervention in Egypt leading to the end of Islamist rule— rather than reversing the trend— turned the attention away from a democratic alternative and galvanised an armed movement in favour of rule by one ideology or other.
In the regional security paradigm, the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) has become a major threat to regional peace and stability. The declaration of a ‘Caliphate’ over an area carved out from the geographical spaces of Iraq and Syria shows a dangerous trend that has the potential for changing the entire political landscape of the region. While some countries of the region are reluctantly fighting against it, the IS continues to spread its reach and ideology to other countries in the region. Besides, the Al Qaeda continues to grow in Yemen where it finds a suitable environment for growth in the absence of a strong central authority and a weak security apparatus. These developments not only pose a long-term threat to the regional security but also to the world at large since citizens of many countries outside the region have since joined IS.
Signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), colloquially called as Iranian Nuclear Deal, on 14 July 2015 is another important development which is likely to have its impact on the regional strategic landscape. With the sanctions likely to be lifted gradually, the deal has the potential to change the regional balance of power with Iran realising its full potential. That is unlikely to be received well by countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Heightened perceptions of mutual insecurity among leading countries in the region can give rise to increasing defence expenditure, arms race and continued proxy wars. With the nuclear deal signed, the GCC countries are already concerned about its security implications for them. Though the GCC countries have been assured by the US of continued security engagement with them, their apprehensions, nevertheless, remain high.
Among the countries of West Asia there is a complete absence of consensus over the ways to resolve major conflicts in the region or to combat and neutralize the threat posed by IS. Rather, the regional powers remain polarized and are intentionally or unintentionally fuelling the conflicts. This is witnessed most prominently in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The differences have both political and ideological undertones, thus drawing them away from reaching any consensus and thereby making it even more difficult to find a solution.
The most emblematic feature of the regional scenario of the recent past has been increasing role of Asian countries, particularly, that of India and China. Given Asia’s interest in and involvement with the region, the security and stability of West Asia has become a vital imperative for Asian countries. Simultaneously, the US interest in the region is perceived to be declining and its policy approach towards the region seems to be undergoing significant change. These new developments have led some regional experts to argue that there is an urgent need for a re-constructing of the West Asian order based on trust, interdependence and a spirit of tolerance and accommodation.
India has expressed its concerns about recent developments taking place in the region. The spread of IS remains a major concern for India as some Indian youths have joined the IS. The capture of some Indian citizens by the IS in Iraq and recently in Libya is also a matter of concern for India. India has huge stakes involved in the region. Its energy dependence on the region, increasing trade and commerce, safety of around seven million Indian citizens working in the region are some of the major concerns for India.
The hydrocarbon resources of the region have always drawn attention of the international community. The major Asian economies, both developed and still developing, have collectively become the largest purchasers of hydrocarbons from the Gulf region. Their demands are projected to keep increasing substantially in years to come. The Gulf region’s role as an energy supplier for Asia will, therefore, continue to grow incrementally for the foreseeable future, even as America’s and Europe’s requirements of oil and gas from the Gulf region are projected to diminish significantly. Therefore, the impact of the conflicts in the region on oil prices cannot be ignored. The current crisis has had some impact on the oil prices. A sudden spike in crude oil prices was witnessed immediately after the outbreak of the protests in 2010-11. The oil prices have moderated since then and may fall further in the short to medium term with Iran likely to ramp up its oil production in coming months. Whereas this has helped India in reducing its current account deficit and improving macro fundamentals of its economy for the moment, any deterioration of security situation in the region may impact oil prices unpredictably in future. Prolonged conflicts throughout the region have the potential to affect the production, supply as well as the market prices of crude oil in the long run besides increasing the chances of sudden spikes every now and then. Amid such a scenario, the politics among the countries over oil also adds up to the existing uncertainty.
Against this backdrop, IDSA proposes to organise the Second Annual West Asia Conference on January 19-20, 2016 to deliberate upon the above mentioned issues and trends which have emerged in the region in recent times. The challenges likely to be faced by India due to the plausible political, economic, and security scenarios in the region will also be discussed during the conference. Besides, likely future trends and prospects for the region as also ideas that can help in conflict management and possible ways of resolving regional disputes will also be discussed. The conference will focus on the following issues:
Day - 1
- Changing Security Paradigm in the West Asian Region
- Conflicting Ideologies and their implications for the Region
- Resurgence and Spread of Extremism and Terrorism in West Asia: Rise of ISIS and its Impact
Day – 2
- Strategic Transformation in West Asia and Involvement of Extra-Regional Powers
- Energy and Changing Geopolitics of West Asia
- India and the region: Building Partnerships and Managing Challenges
- Future Trends and Prospects for Cooperation in the Region.