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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 42, New Delhi, October 10, 2015

As IS Terror grows, Russia bombs Syrian Targets; the World is Changing — at India’s Doorsteps

Saturday 10 October 2015, by T J S George

IMPRESSIONS

When 10 million Bangladeshis poured into India to escape from the brutalities of Pakistan’s army, war followed. When 12 million Syrians were uprooted and four million of them fled across unwelcome borders to get into Europe, a good number perishing in the seas on the way, no liberation war broke out because too many players were working at cross-purposes.

But with the rise and rise of the Islamic State, its barbarous beheadings and proclaimed goal of conquering the globe, the dynamics are changing. Last week Russia began aerial bombardment of Syrian targets, its first military intervention outside the old Soviet territory in 35 years. Earlier, to underline the importance of Russia’s new putsch, Vladimir Putin addressed the UN for the first time in a decade and asked for a UN-backed coalition to fight IS terror. The world is changing. Where does India stand in this shifting scenario?

President Bashar Al-Assad, Syria’s ruthless dictator, would have been thrown out along with Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Gaddafi when Arab masses rose against their tyrants in 2011. But he survived because Iran backed him. Because Shiite Iran backed him, Sunni Saudi Arabia opposed him. Because Saudis opposed him, America opposed him. Because America opposed him, Russia backed him. Because the people opposed all of them, the IS gained strength.

The growth of the Taliban and then of the IS was the direct consequence of flawed US policies. Never able to grasp the nuances of local forces at play, America helped build up Osama bin Laden himself in its anxiety to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. That short-term goal was achieved, but the price paid was horrendous as the collapse of New York’s twin towers showed.

Learning nothing, the erratic George Bush launched the Iraq war on false pretences. Again the immediate aims were met—US oil companies got control of Iraqi oil and Saddam Hussain was disposed of. But at what cost? Today Iraqi oil is the main income source of the IS, fetching $ 8 to 10 million a month. More ominously, terrorism has grown as an ideology,

making it a religious duty for many. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani put it best when he told the UN that America’s two wars in the region gave “terrorists an excuse for the justification of their crimes”.

Rouhani played a part in preparing the region for change. He recalibrated Iran’s civil nuclear programme and thereby won the support of Barack Obama who was till then the main campaigner for sanctions against Iran. Obama began negotiations with Iran despite open opposition from long-term ally, Saudi Arabia. After that, it was not too difficultn for America to realise that perhaps Iran’s stand on Syria was also worth a second look.

Two factors helped change the US position. First, it was clear that even as Iran supported Assad, it had worked out plans to hold territory and influence events if Assad fell. In other words, Iran’s support to Assad was tactical, not ideological. Russia’s approach was the same—that getting rid of Assad could wait because getting rid of IS terrorism was the first priority. Secondly, US policies were not producing the desired results. In fact they were counter-productive. A $ 500 million programme to train and equip rebels against Assad got stuck because many of the rebels passed on US-supplied tanks and weapons to the IS in return for safe passage out of the war zone.

Against this context Russia’s military move appeared brilliantly timed and politically astute. Two years ago Obama was so antagonistic to Russia that he cancelled a meeting with Putin saying that there was nothing to discuss. In the UN last week, he talked with Putin at length. Putin followed up quickly by ordering aerial bombardment of Syrian targets. Russian ground troops have reached Syria and an airbase has been set up.

Russia strengthened its political stand by declaring that its primary aim was to block the IS fundamentalists. No one dared oppose this position since many Muslim countries themselves have been shaken by the extremism of the IS. Putin’s intervention was successful enough to make the US concede that perhaps Assad could be allowed to stay on as an interim measure while the IS threat was tackled as the immediate priority.

Russia’s entry has made Syria the focus of big-power attention. China has stepped in, too, sending aerial equipment in support of Russia’s air fleet. A Chinese naval vessel has also entered the Syrian waters.

Where does India stand in this shifting scenario?