By Ranjit Gupta*
Insofar as existing flashpoints are concerned, West Asia continued to present a bleak picture in 2015. The major change in 2015 from the end of 2014 was that the Islamic State (IS) lost ground in terms of the total territory it controls, and more importantly, it lost control of several important towns mainly in the Sunni inhabited areas of Iraq as well as considerable territory and small towns to the Kurds, in both Iraq and Syria. The IS has suffered heavy casualties and considerable damage to its military and revenue generating assets. Russia also joined the battle against them. Retaliatory consequences were ‘spectacular’ attacks in Turkey and Paris, and the downing of the Russian plane over Sinai.
All these trends will continue in 2016. More frequent and more destructive attacks against Western targets can be expected, leading to the Western war against the IS to be further galvanised and become more hard-hitting. Though the IS as an idea and ideology will take decades and generations to defeat, its persona as a proto state is likely to suffer considerable further damage in 2016.
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad was clearly in a better position at the end of 2015 than at the end of 2014; and this trend too will also continue in 2016, primarily because of Russia’s continuing, and indeed expanding, military support for Assad, and the expanding Iranian military support for him. This support is playing an extremely significant role in weakening the jihadist opposition groups. The current peace processes are going nowhere – no negotiation process has any chance of success if preconditions are placed before the negotiations begin; and non-state actors are holding up the process by imposing all kinds of preconditions.
In any case, participation of the two most potent opponents – the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra – is not envisaged at all; and therefore, participation should be restricted only to states – after all they are the patrons of the different rebels groups in Syria. The objective of the negotiations has to change from determining alternatives to Assad to stopping all wars in Syria, as no negotiating process is going to make any headway unless it is in sync with ground realities. These issues require focused attention in 2016.
2015 witnessed the entirely unexpected aerial assault by Saudi Arabia on Yemen. With global and even regional attention likely to be concentrated on the war in Syria and against the IS, the war in Yemen is likely to become completely marginalised in terms of international attention; and therefore, any significant subsiding of the Saudi-led coalition’s war against the Saleh-Houthi alliance is unlikely.
However, it is also highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia will succeed in reinstating the Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi government in Sana’a. Even if it does, the war will not fade away, mainly because there is no possibility whatsoever of his continuing to remain in power without continuous military support from Riyadh, as Hadi does not have any political, military or tribal support bases in the country. This is an unwinnable war and the sooner all concerned parties realise this the better it will be for them and the region.
However, there were two very significant path breaking developments in 2015, one of which was a great surprise and could not have been predicted and the other, was expected. The first was the appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the youngest son of King Salman, as Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, with considerable additional responsibilities that have concentrated unprecedented enormous power in the hands of a young, completely new-to-government royal, which no Prince has previously enjoyed.
Since his duties also encompass being the gatekeeper to the King, even the Crown Prince has access to the King only if Prince Salman agrees. No foreign ministry, no intelligence agency, no West Asia expert or observer of the Saudi scene had anticipated this or his first significant move – the launch of an expanding war against Yemen. This highlights the perils of attempting to make forecasts. Nobody can predict whether Prince Salman’s authority can or will be diluted or get even further enhanced; but either way, there will be important consequences – either the lessening of Saudi assertiveness or increasing it. The former will improve prospects for calming regional tensions and the latter could escalate them to highly dangerous levels insofar unseen.
The second extremely significant development in 2015 was the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal between the P 5+1 and Iran, presaging the lifting of the bulk of the sanctions. Only a few weeks have elapsed and therefore, to expect immediate positive fallout is completely unrealistic; however, markedly unfortunately, there seem to be absolutely no indications at all on the horizon, of any, even potential, improvement in ground realities. However, all countries who have stakes in the region know that even today, Iran’s Comprehensive National Power is much more than that of all of West Asia’s Sunni countries combined, and will only continue to increase year by year; and it is the natural regional giant.
Confrontational policies by some regional countries will not change this reality. This deal provides Western powers in particular the first real opportunity to try and reorient Iran in more positive directions and this chance must not be lost. If this is not done meaningfully in 2016, then, in 2017, new and potentially more serious complications could arise in the region.
US and West Asia
2016 is the last year of US President Barack Obama’s presidency; and his policy towards West Asia has been very strongly criticised domestically and by the Sunni countries who are long-standing US allies in the region.
However, it is to be hoped that he will not be deterred – he has crafted a statesmanlike legacy by overturning the decades-long US propensity for military interventions in the region. President Obama’s approach is the right way forward, since the reality is that Washington’s interventions in West Asia have perhaps been the single major contributor for constant regional turmoil. Obama’s visionary approach has led to re-engagements with Myanmar, Cuba, and most significantly, with Iran. Therefore, Obama’s continuing to make negative public comments about the Iranian role in the region is disappointing – whoever Obama’s successor may be, he/she will have a considerably less charitable view of Iran and its policies.
The potential positive fallout of the path breaking nuclear deal must be realised while Obama is still at still at the helm. Otherwise, there is real danger of the US policy vis-à-vis Iran being reversed, and this will be disastrous for the region. This is a challenge that Obama must take up in 2016.
In 2016, the pendulum is likely to sway one way more than the other in the three hotspots – Syria, Yemen and in relation to the IS – but it is unlikely that ground realities would change sufficiently for final solutions in any of these three cases.
The single most important geopolitical factor in West Asia today is the spreading virus of sectarian hatred between the Shias and Sunnis because of the cynical misuse of religion in a very bitter competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional influence and primacy. This rivalry is the single major cause of the situation in Syria being what it is; Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen; a contributory factor in the rise of the IS; and also of the growing disaffection of Shia minorities in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. With the somewhat unnecessary and avoidable execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia, the situation reached the worst it could. Iran’s top leadership’s public apologies for the retaliatory attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran was a very positive gesture.
In an interview to The Economist on January 08 2016, Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, “War would not be allowed to happen. It is something that we do not foresee at all, and whoever is pushing towards that is somebody who is not in their right mind. For sure we will not allow any such thing.” This is particularly reassuring, since he is the architect of Saudi Arabia’s new and particularly assertive posture.
The most important task that could and should be attempted in 2016 is that major global powers, particularly the P5, individually and collectively, should concertedly use whatever influence they have with both these countries to tone down the vitriolic rhetoric being exchanged between them on a daily basis, and try to re-establish credible back channels between the two. They have existed in the past, but seem to have broken down; and no task is more urgent than restoring these. A workable via media between Tehran and Riyadh can only be brought about by the two countries themselves and cannot be imposed upon them by any third country. It is fervently hoped that in 2016 there will be movement in this direction.
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India