By Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty*
Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015, may well be the beginning of the end of the so-called Caliphate or the Islamic State (IS), declared by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the putative Caliph, in June 2014, in parts of Iraq and Syria. There are concomitant fears that Russia may be sucked into a quagmire that ends in a humiliating withdrawal, similar to the American one from Vietnam and later by the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.
Hawks and neo-cons in the USA who form the “hate Russia lobby” in Washington, would be salivating at the thought of erpetuating Russia’s problems in Syria. An astonishing, but unverified, story floating in cyberspace would have us believe that the recent skirmish between the American and Iranian Navies in the Persian Gulf, led to the arrest by Iran of a high level Islamic State (IS) leader who was being transported to Syria in one of the American Navy speedboats, intercepted by the Iranian Navy. If this is true, then the role of the USA in the illegal and illegitimate campaign of regime change deserves global condemnation.
The pressure on the IS, consequent to the Russian intervention, has led to partial dispersal and IS affiliates have reared their heads in parts of Egypt (Sinai Peninsula), Libya and Turkey. The IS has been pushed back from almost 40% of territory that it had managed to control. Latest information trickling out of IS-controlled territory indicates that it is also running low on funds since it has slashed monthly salaries of its employees.
The IS was making money by selling oil, mainly to Turkey. There have been reports that Turkey has actively encouraged this conduit because President Erdogan’s family was allegedly benefiting from this trade in oil. Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s murky role in sustaining the IS and other rebel groups, many allied to the Al-Qaeda and opposed to the Assad regime in Syria, has been exposed. Using terrorism for geo-strategic objectives has certainly been an American tool for quite some time. Hence American backing for Turkey and Saudi Arabia funding and supporting terrorist groups in Syria, can only be attributed to policy options directly associated with regime change.
Nearer home, the IS has sprung roots in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both Bangladesh and India have seen the seed of IS sprouting on its soil and cannot remain sanguine that IS-inspired terror will not spread in the two countries. In India, IS cells have been found, leading to several arrests. Further East in Asia, the IS has developed cells in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The recent suicide bombings in Jakarta were claimed by the IS. Recruitment and radicalization is being conducted aggressively by the IS via social media and the Internet.
Both Bangladesh and India must cooperate in monitoring this media and the Internet to prevent IS cells from popping up in various parts of their countries. Recent deportation of Bangladeshis from Singapore is another dangerous signal that expatriate citizens are easily targeted for radicalization, not only by the IS, but also by anti-Bangladesh forces, in tandem with their sympathisers within the country, to destabilize Bangladesh. The recent discovery of a huge cache of weapons in Sherpur, Bangladesh by the RAB is a major success for the continuing counter-terrorism campaign launched by the Bangladesh authorities.
This effort deserves to be applauded by all. The IS has positioned itself in opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The impending American withdrawal from Afghanistan is yet another instance of a great power trying to salvage a situation from the much trumpeted ten year “War on Terror”. It will be a supreme irony, if the Taliban or the IS take over parts of Afghanistan, a SAARC member country. The South Asian region will again be faced with a regime determined to rule Afghanistan as per an archaic religious paradigm which cannot co-exist with 21st century norms. With Pakistan continuing to use terrorism against Bangladesh and India, in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives, both countries have to pool their intelligence resources to coordinate the fight against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, religious extremism and the IS.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has thrown a lifeline to the besieged regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. Russian air strikes have achieved a significant measure of success against the Islamic State (IS), than the year-long bombing campaign by the US-led coalition, comprising NATO, some GCC countries and Turkey. The American-led bombing campaign was half-hearted and did not prevent the IS from expanding its territorial space. The primary US objective has always been to topple the Assad regime in Syria. The IS, as the most fanatic and capable among several rebel Sunni groups opposing Assad, was viewed, before the Russian intervention, as a necessary evil to apply pressure on Assad and ensuring his downfall. Hence the American ambivalence or reluctance to take on the IS head on persisted.
The Russian intervention and the terrorist attack in Paris changed this script substantially. With this intervention, Russia has ensured that it has become the principal actor in Syria again, since the Russian initiative to remove chemical weapons from Syria. This helped prevent the so-called Obama red line being crossed which had decreed that any use of chemical weapons would lead to American bombing of Syria. It was revealed later that the chemical attack was actually a Turkish conspiracy, assisted and executed by Turkish Intelligence using Turkish-supported Syrian rebels. The purpose was to draw in the Americans into a bombing campaign against the Assad regime. In the end it failed because of Russia’s pro-active diplomacy.
The Paris attack has helped focus minds of Western nations on the IS.Its only when Western cities and interests are hit that it suddenly becomes an international issue. It is always interesting to note that attacks in the West are terrorist strikes but elsewhere, when Pakistani terrorists launch attacks in India, they are routinely described by CNN and BBC as “gunmen”. In Indian eyes such terminology is blatantly partisan and a deliberate attempt to shield Pakistan. This attitude further emboldens the power centre in Pakistan, the Army, to continue functioning as a terrorist state. The Pakistan Army and its Intelligence arm, the ISI, gets renewed comfort that their proxy war, via terrorism in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India, will be tolerated by the Western powers and China, in pursuit of their geo-political objectives. Nothing else can explain the Obama Administration’s proposal to provide continued lethal military assistance to Pakistan.
Russia seems to have successfully built a counter coalition to the US-led coalition, with Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Shia Hizbollah of Lebanon to save their ally Assad whose government was increasingly besieged by the IS rebels. The primary Russian goal is to keep its ally Assad in power, for the time being, degrade the IS, enable Syrian government forces to take control of key corridors and ensure Russia’s interests are protected in any future political arrangements in Syria.
Russia’s military intervention has brought diplomacy back in play regarding a political solution in Syria. Talks had started in Vienna between the US and Russia to which the Saudi and Turkish Foreign Ministers were also invited. No deal could be reached on the fate of Assad but the Vienna talks were the first step to start a peace process. Iran has been invited to join the talks this time. The arrogant decision, no doubt at the insistence of Saudi Arabia to exclude Iran from the earlier peace talks in Geneva was not repeated.
There is long and tortuous road ahead for the current round of UN-led negotiations in Geneva. There is no alternative to diplomacy and engagement. Its augurs well that the US has backed away from demanding Assad’s immediate removal. The devil will lie in the details of negotiations to bring Syrian rebel groups and the Assad government together in an anti-IS coalition backed by the major and regional powers. Getting all sides together is a good beginning. Hard line Jihadi rebel groups, hitherto supported by the US-led coalition, are unlikely to give up their fight against Assad. Partition of Iraq and Syria may well be the final denouement bringing the wheel of history a full circle since the Sykes-Picot agreement after World War I that created the modern state of Syria.
*Pinak Chakravarty is a Distinguished Fellow with ORF’s Regional Studies Initiative, where he oversees the West Asia Initiative, Bangladesh and selected ASEAN-related issues. He joined the ORF in October 2014.
This commentary originally appeared in the Daily Sun.