Originally Published 2012-08-13 00:00:00 Published on Aug 13, 2012
The challenge for India is much larger than voting choices on the international resolutions on Syria. It is about finding effective ways to cope with the expanding Saudi-Iran rivalry, which is not limited to Syria.
Cold war in Middle East
Two major gatherings of the developing nations this month, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement, will underline the deepening divide in the Middle East triggered by the Arab Spring. Both the OIC and the NAM are meant to promote solidarities of different kinds within the non-Western world. Neither has an impressive record of achievements, despite the considerable political hype attached to it.

More successful multilateral organisations in what was once known as the Third World, like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are now finding it difficult to cope with the changing international environment. If rising China’s assertiveness and the US’s pivot to Asia are straining the coherence of ASEAN, it is the conflict in the Middle East that is testing the rather limited institutional credibility of the OIC and NAM.

The two summits are likely to reveal the region’s main fault-line - the gathering rivalry between Saudi Arabia, which is hosting the OIC summit this week, and Iran, which will preside over the NAM deliberations at the end of the month.

For King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the OIC summit is about ensuring the unity of the faithful "during this delicate time as the Muslim world faces dangers of fragmentation and sedition". He is not known for being wordy. But "fragmentation and sedition" are strong words and they reflect the profound challenges that Saudi Arabia confronts today.

For the leaders of Iran, the NAM summit in Tehran is an occasion to demonstrate that it is not isolated despite US pressures and sanctions. Unlike the emergency OIC summit, the Tehran meet has been on the cards ever since the last NAM gathering took place at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt three years ago.

While Tehran has other fish to fry - including its nuclear confrontation with the international system - its immediate focus is necessarily on the regional dynamic in the Middle East that has so profoundly altered the security environment for Iran. King Abdullah has called the OIC leaders at short notice in the holy city of Mecca, barely two weeks before the NAM summit. This is only the fourth emergency summit, since the OIC was formed in 1969.

The Saudi monarchy was wary of the Arab Spring as it unfolded in early 2011 and saw it as a threat to the established order in the region. Iran, in contrast, welcomed the Arab Spring as a triumph of its own political model of Islamic democracy. Barely 18 months later, both Riyadh and Tehran are struggling to manage the consequences of even the limited change induced by the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, they find themselves locked in an expansive Cold War in the Middle East.

At the centre of the Saudi-Iran proxy war is Syria, which is likely to dominate the agenda in Mecca and figure quite prominently in Tehran.

What began as a peaceful and broad-based movement for democratic change in Syria has now acquired a sectarian character. The Assad regime is no longer viewed as a simple dictatorial system, but one that is dominated by the minority Alawites, who profess a variant of Shia Islam.

The two recent high-level defections from the Assad regime - former prime minister Riyad Hijab and brigadier general Manaf Tlass - belong to the majority Sunni community long disempowered in Syria.

The sectarian dimension of the civil war in Syria is accentuated by the fact that Shia Iran is the principal regional ally of the Assad regime. Sunni monarchies of the Gulf - especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar - as well as Sunni Turkey have become the main funders and arms providers to the Syrian opposition.

The regional division along sectarian lines has been reinforced by great power alignments in the Syrian conflict. Russia and China have cast three vetoes in recent months in the UN Security Council to prevent punitive international action against the Assad regime.

Whatever be the formal political arguments in Moscow and Beijing, many in the Middle East see them as aligning with the Shiites and Iran. The US and the Western world, at the forefront of the international campaign to oust the Assad regime, are seen, from the same perspective, as allies of the Sunnis.

In the international debates on Syria, India has tried to stake out the middle ground. India’s stakes in the Arab world, especially in the Gulf, are sufficiently high for Delhi to seriously consider the concerns of Saudi Arabia. At the same time, India can’t ignore the strategic significance of Iran for its regional policy towards Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

Delhi has signalled its broad support for the Arab League and its positions on Syria. Delhi, however, is reluctant to back, for ideological reasons, externally induced regime change in Syria.

For India, the challenge is much larger than voting choices on the international resolutions on Syria. It is about finding effective ways to cope with the expanding Saudi-Iran rivalry, which is not limited to Syria.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: The Indian Express, August 13, 2012

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