Event ReportsPublished on May 11, 2015
Only a military approach is not enough to solve the problem of Islamic State. A crucial part of the overall strategy to deal with the IS should include creation of an inclusive state apparatus inside Iraq and Syria, felt speakers at a conference on "Transformations in West Asia: Regional Perspectives" organised at ORF.
Military approach not enough to deal with IS

Observer Research Foundation and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Government of India, hosted the annual conference on "Transformations in West Asia: Regional Perspectives" at ORF, New Delhi, on 27 and 28 April 2015.

The conference, which brought together leading academicians and policy-makers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Yemen, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and India, discussed and analysed the crucial developments in the West Asian region.

This conference was the second edition of the West Asia Conference, envisaged as an ongoing Track II dialogue by ORF and the MEA. The first edition was held in March 2014.

The conference looked at the developments in the region through five main parameters -- the Arab Spring, four years later; the role of extra-regional powers in West Asia; regional conflicts and rivalries, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Libya; challenges from the rise of terrorism and extremism; regional perspectives on the nuclear framework agreement between Iran and the P5 +1.

ORF Director Sunjoy Joshi, in the opening remarks, said this interaction has come at a very critical juncture. In the last few years, as many as four Arab states -Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Iraq- have ceased to exist in the traditional sense of statehood and have the potential to remain unstable for decades to come. Instability in these states will have impacts on the security of the entire West Asian region and beyond. Besides, the spread of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq and the involvement of foreign fighters, as well as proxy wars being fought by other states through the different factions have complicated the efforts of the international community to respond to the crisis. The nuclear framework agreement with Iran poses a number of questions for strategic alignment in the region and for nuclear proliferation globally.

Delivering the opening remarks, Mr. Anil Wadhwa, Secretary (East), MEA, elucidated India’s stake in the peace and stability of the region. He said India shares deep historical, cultural and civilisation links with the Arab world. "For India, West Asia is part of extended neighbourhood. Continued peace and stability in the region is in our strategic interest," he added.

Mr. Wadhwa said India’s policy in the region remains guided by the traditional long-standing ties with the region and is non-prescriptive and non-judgmental. So far, despite a number of challenges, India’s bilateral relations with virtually all the countries of the region have progressed structurally and we have managed to insulate our core interests from the negative fall-out of regional developments.

He highlighted India’s deep engagement with the West Asia, as the region is home to more than 7 million Indians, who contribute around US$ 40 billion in remittances annually. India’s economic and commercial engagement with the region is around US$ 186 billion per annum (2013-14), making it the largest trading regional block. The region as a source for more than 60 per cent of our oil and gas requirement is critical for our energy security. The Maghreb region is a major source for phosphatic and other fertilizers, a significant factor in India’s food security.

The sizable sovereign wealth funds of Gulf countries can offer a significant platform for operations of Indian companies, particularly in infrastructure. There are increased air connectivity and tourism prospects between the two sides (e.g. 700 flights a week between India and UAE).

Speaking on the broad theme of "The Arab Spring: Four Years Later" the speakers pointed out that "the main objective of the Arab Spring was to bring good governance and eradicate the deprivation faced by the people of the region." The main slogan of the Arab Spring was "bread, freedom and social justice." However, different countries have faced different impacts of the Arab Spring. Since every Arab country has its own political history, the outcomes are bound to be different in each country. As a result of the reverberations of the revolutionary movement, there is currently no secure environment available to bring about economic and political reforms, which constituted the major components of the Arab upheavals. V Speaking on "The Role of Extra-Regional Powers in West Asia", the speakers emphasised that there is an increasing role of non-Arab players in the region. They added that there is also a sort of resurgence of the Cold War with the increasing involvement of Russia in the region. The speakers also emphasised that the role of the United States is weakening in the region.

On "Regional Conflicts and Rivalries", the main focus was on Iran. Since the revolution of 1979 in Iran, the country has tried to export the revolution to the neighbouring countries. Tehran also tried to assert its influence by proclaiming itself as the defender of Shiite minorities and establishing presence in some countries to gain strategic advantages by attempting to control critical choke points like the Bab al-Mandeb. It was pointed out that this control could provide Iranian marine forces access to open seas and control of the navigation of oil, increasing its regional influence manifold. The active role of Saudi Arabia in Yemen is an effort to counter Iranian ambitions in the region.

Given the recent developments in Yemen, some added that the Houthis pose a serious threat to the country. Despite their small proportion in terms of numbers, the rebels possess arms and arsenal that can do significant damage in the country. They are trained, uncontrolled and have access to weapons and ballistic missiles. They control Yemen’s military aircrafts and have a military build-up on the border with the Saudi Arabia now.

Speaking on the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen, the speakers said that "the role of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), particularly Saudi Arabia, is commendable to prevent the swift advances of the Houthis in the country. The coalition is carefully targeting military installations of the Houthis and most of the weapons have been destroyed in the air strikes. They hope to reinstall the legitimate government of President Hadi.

The session on the "Challenges from the Rise of Terrorism and Extremism" in the region focused on the rise of the Islamic State (IS).The speakers pointed out that the al-Qaeda and the IS are major threats in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. However some discussions derived that the al-Qaeda has wider influence than the IS. The IS has limited their activities to the areas under their control whereas the al-Qaeda has global presence.

On the question of who constitutes the IS, the speakers said that former bureaucrats and military men of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party are the principal components of the group. Second, tribes in the country along with a large number of foreign fighters, have strengthened the group. Moreover, the sectarian policies of the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki created space for the IS to capitalise on the sentiments of the Sunnis. However, it would be simplistic to view the IS simply as a terrorist group given its emergence as a political entity in some parts of Iraq and Syria.

Therefore, only a military approach is not enough to solve the problem of IS, but an inclusive state apparatus inside Iraq and Syria should be a crucial part of the overall strategy. There are many limitations to the aerial strikes and these will change little on ground. A comprehensive ground strategy is vital to defeat the IS. The IS gained support on ground because of their ability to provide services which the State did not provide.

On the Iranian nuclear framework, there were a number of varied view points. Many speakers said that the main issue of concern was not the nuclear deal with Iran but the prospect of a bad deal. Some added that they are in favour of nuclear disarmament in the region and so support the deal because it could bring peace to the region. Some participants expressed concern that the Lausanne nuclear agreement with Iran only focused on the nuclear aspect. The deal needs to have a political component in order to keep Iran’s interference in other regional states in check. They said that was necessary for Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and the United States to improve their intelligence gathering to follow up on Iran once the deal is concluded.

India welcomed the nuclear agreement and hopes that the deal will bring normalisation of ties between New Delhi and Tehran and the world in general.

In the concluding remarks, Mr. Pinak R Chakravarty, Distinguished Fellow, ORF thanked the speakers for providing candid insights on the developments in the region and their global implications.

(This report is prepared by Sikandar Azam, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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