West Asia, indispensable mess

The Syrian civil war is now a microcosm of everything that is wrong with West Asia. It’s about Shia versus Sunni, Persian versus Gulf Arab, Israel versus Syria, United States versus Russia and China, al Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood, and so on.

Yet, as the impact of even the talk of a US strike had on oil prices and the rupee shows, India’s economic fortunes and, as its establishment really fears, it’s experiment in secular democracy are intricately linked to West Asia.

So New Delhi prefers secular dictators to the Muslim Brotherhood, wants the US to keep the Straits of Hormuz open but its troops off Arab soil, prefers Iran to Saudi Arabia but buys its oil from the latter. The contradictions in India’s West Asian views are plenty, but nothing compared to the gap between what it wants in the region and what it can do.

Since it has minimal influence and maximal dependence, India focusses on preserving its economic interests and limiting fundamentalist Islamic influences.

This largely worked when West Asia had a rough and ready equilibrium, especially the Persian Gulf. The US occasionally  intervened to keep the Gulf stable, Israel and Egypt kept the peace in the Levant, and all was well despite the odd eruption.

But equilibrium is now a receding state of affairs. The dictators are gone or struggling. Iran, Turkey and others are vying for regional hegemony. Sectarian tensions are everywhere. The borders of much of West Asia are being rewritten, largely in blood. An independent Kurdistan is a possibility today. So is an Alawite enclave north of Lebanon. It goes on. And the biggest change is a US which sees decreasing reason for it to invest blood and treasure in securing the region. Shale gas, terrorism, and war weariness are all taking their toll.

India is fretting about this, but has no clear response to how to handle this. Indians worriedly ask any senior US person if their country will remain committed to West Asia and worry more when they get a vague answer.

No one has a clear idea of what India can do. But it has a fair amount of goodwill, plenty of history and a belief among many oil rich countries that we are their future market. That’s a start. But India needs to become a lot more knowledgeable about the Arab world, prepared to take more risks and generally develop a rep for being something more than “a land of servants.”

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