India’s recently anointed Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar is currently on a nearly week-long visit to West Asia from August 17. A visit seen by some as using the minister’s astute understanding of the region’s complex interplay of religious and social forces to get a closer assessment of the ground situation in the Middle East. Some see it possibly as a precursor to the long awaited Indian move for a more ‘substantial’ role in the Middle East. On August 20, during his tour, Akbar was in Damascus where he met with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
During the meeting Assad reportedly said that India as a growing power has a role to play in meeting the challenge of terrorism and the two countries agreed to upgrade their security consultations. Assad also invited India to play an active role in the reconstruction of the Syrian economy. Both leaders agreed that as secular nations, India and Syria believe in faith equality.
The geopolitics in the Middle East has hit a troubling note post the failed coup attempt in Turkey. A week before Akbar, Chinese Rear Admiral Guan Youfei was in Damascus to meet Syrian Defence Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij. Guan is head of the Office for International Military Cooperation under the Central Military Commission that oversees China’s 2.3 million-member armed forces. The Chinese military, it appears, wanted to use Guan’s trip to better understand the current state of events in Syria, where over 300,000 people have died and over four million of its citizens have been displaced in the fratricidal many-sided conflict. According to Xinhua News Agency he also met the following day with a Russian general who is coordinating Russia’s military assistance to the Syrian regime.
Xinhua went on to say that Guan expressed China’s willingness to boost military cooperation with Syria, and reportedly the Chinese Defence Ministry said that both sides agreed to expand personnel training and humanitarian aid via the Chinese military. Chinese military advisers are on the ground in Syria helping train soldiers in the use of weapons purchased from China, which include sniper rifles, rocket launchers and machine guns.
The Chinese outreach comes even as Russia, as distinct from its ‘drawdown’ a few months back, is reportedly prepared for a longer stay in Syria. Iran, on the other hand, is pushing the limits of the terms of its nuclear deal by allowing Russian warplanes to use its Hamedan air base in western Iran as a launching pad for strikes in Syria. A top Iranian lawmaker was quoted as saying that Russia would use the base primarily as a refuelling transit point for sorties over Syria. There is also a pending Russian request to launch cruise missiles over Iranian airspace.
Though the Iranians have been quite open regarding the involvement of their Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Iraq, in a recent interview published in the Mashregh News, a retired commander of the Revolutionary Guard was reported as saying that the Iranians are reorganising their militias into a so-called ‘Liberation Army,’ which would include foreign fighters and will be deployed to fight abroad. This is a move sure to rile the Saudis. Iran is backing President Assad in Syria, advising Shia militias in Iraq, and supporting Houthi fighters in Yemen.
The Saudis, after flexing the muscle of their 34-nation Islamic anti-terror coalition, are increasing the intensity of their fight in Yemen for an early closure. They are supported in the conflict by the Gulf emirates. The US, which had being providing material and intelligence support to the Saudis in Yemen, have indicated that they are scaling down their advisors involved in Yemen with the Saudis and the US Congress has been making noises about stopping weapon sales to Saudi Arabia because of the human rights excesses by the Saudis in Yemen.
Post the Putin-Erdogan talks and the fall of Manbij on the Turkey-Syria border to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, Turkey with a purged military and reeling under Islamic State (IS) orchestrated terror attacks, has just declared that it will play a “more active “ role in Syria. With Turkish Special Forces already operating on Syrian territory and strategically important city of Aleppo surrounded by the Syrian government forces, it remains to be seen if Turkey acts in concert with the Russian plan or has one of its own.
India’s policy on the Middle East has so far served Indian domestic interests well, despite some observers criticising the government for not addressing the humanitarian issues in the region. However fast changing geopolitical developments, falling price of oil, energy security, regional security implications and the impact on Indians working abroad in the Middle East would compel the government to make sure its current policy adapts to these changes.
With an impending visit to Israel and Palestine by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it remains to be seen how M J Akbar’s ongoing assessment of the Middle East geopolitics influences India’s Middle East policy.
*Monish Gulati is the Associate Director (Strategic Affairs) at the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected] This article was published at South Asia Monitor.