Turmoil in Greater Arabia has made the clocks move faster. Every second counts — an Israeli bomb has dropped in this neighbourhood in Gaza, an Egyptian blogger has been arrested here, a town in northern Iraq has fallen to the Islamic State. The fast pace of news makes it difficult to digest the region’s rhythms of history. What is at stake here? Is this a grand battle between various Islamic sects, or do those surface fights hide greater geopolitical challenges? Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey seem stable. But have they exported their tensions to create instability in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria? Or even more diabolical, have old Cold War animosities (between Russia and the West) revived — spilling blood in an anachronistic proxy war? So much seems at stake and yet so little of Greater Arabia and its politics is understood. It is far easier to reduce everything to a cliché, to religious and social backwardness. It is exactly the least useful way to understand the region.
Citizens are welcome to their prejudices, but governments cannot afford them. In the interstate system, governments have to engage each other for interstate benefits (such as trade) and to maintain peace through international law. An erroneous view of the social dynamics in a region does not help in the formation of national and international policy. The West, for instance, approaches Syria with an anachronistic view — that it is embroiled in a civil war between Authoritarianism (the Assad regime) and Freedom (the rebels). If this view was correct in late 2011, it is certainly not the case now. But western policy has not changed, which means that the West has few options when it comes to its intervention in the region. The Islamic State, for instance, cannot be tackled by a few bombing runs by the West. It will require collaboration with the governments of Iraq, Syria and Turkey to contain the Islamic State’s rapid advance. The West’s inability to engage Syria means that it has no meaningful strategy to take on the Islamic State.
When U.S. President Barack Obama said, “America is coming to help” in northern Iraq, he misled world opinion. What the U.S. did was to bomb an artillery battery that the Islamic State had stolen from the Iraqi Army in Mosul and was now using to threaten America’s close ally, Iraqi Kurdistan. That bombing did not actually help the 40,000 Yazidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar. On the ground, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian ally (YPG) had left their bases in Syria and Turkey to rush to Mt. Sinjar. They took the towns of Gwer and Makhmur, before seizing Lalesh, home of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir’s tomb, spiritual heart of the Yazidis. When the USAID workers arrived by helicopter to Mt. Sinjar, the YPG and PKK fighters greeted them. The U.S. could not admit this in public because under pressure from its NATO ally Turkey, it has notified the PKK as a terrorist organisation. Mr. Obama’s paternalist humanitarianism comes out of a frozen sense of America’s place in the world. There is a failure to recognise that non-state actors cannot be tackled by conventional weaponry and strategy. Indeed, the old ways (the full-scale assault on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) produce more problems than they solve. It takes a hundred years to build the institutions of a state. They can be destroyed from 30,000 feet in an afternoon. A few bags of food from the sky do not make up for that catastrophe.
India and Greater Arabia
The emergence of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) powers suggests that the era of U.S. unipolarity, which opened in 1990, is now over. No longer does the U.S. have a monopoly on ideas and institutions. It is going to mean a great deal less now when the U.S. casts the solitary vote in the United Nations on behalf of its allies. The BRICS states will either use the U.N. for another agenda or it will in time produce an alternative institution (as it has the BRICS Bank beside the World Bank). India has cast its lot with the BRICS dynamic, both in economic and political policy. It is a far smarter policy to join the more egalitarian and ascendant BRICS bloc than to yoke oneself to a subordinate relationship with the U.S.’ declining power.
Israel bombs Gaza with impunity. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies had at one point assisted the Islamic State and its allies (notably the radical Islamist factions in Syria). Both of these regional actors (Israel and Saudi Arabia) receive blanket protection from the West. Both are sanctioned by the U.N. for their anachronistic claim to being states based on religion (with a poor record for minorities, including those — as in Palestine — who are under occupation). The BRICS make anodyne statements about Gaza and the Islamic State. Each of the BRICS states is committed to the theory of non-interference in each other because they recognise that they have internal problems of their own (Kashmir and Tibet being the most obvious). No country is free of problems. The interstate system relies upon the assertion of morality into conflicts outside one’s own. Racism in the U.S. did not stop it from being critical of other people’s defects. If the interstate system went silent because each state had its problem, then international law would become meaningless. The BRICS need to risk their own internal problems by being more aggressive defenders of international law and its institutions. Otherwise it will not be a worthy successor of western hegemony.
BRICS powers have an anodyne approach to world conflict, asking in each case for countries to sort out their problems. But in the case of Israel, simply asking it to come to the negotiating table has counted for nothing. What pressure do the BRICS have to actually lay the table for the Israelis and the Palestinians to begin a serious dialogue? If the BRICS states said that they would not buy Israeli weapons or indeed if they would not — like the European Union — buy goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements, then this would be real pressure on Israel to discuss its almost 50 year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, if the BRICS states put pressure on Saudi Arabia — which is reliant upon Chinese oil purchases — then it would have to genuinely lean on its partners to slow down assistance to the Islamic State.
When asked about India’s lack of a role to ameliorate the plight of Syrian refugees, a senior member of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said, “You know we have many daily flights to the Gulf, but none to Syria.” The implication is that India’s policy with West Asia is framed by its oil and remittance workers (although when the latter were being expelled, it was the oil relationship that prevented India from a more robust defence of its citizens). With Israel as well, the MEA says that since Israel is one of India’s largest arms suppliers, it makes it difficult to be as truthfully critical of Israel’s bombing of Gaza in 2009, 2012 and in 2014. Foreign policy, in this view, grows out of oil and gun barrels — from Indian national interest. But “national interest” is not a neutral idea. It is based on a moral judgment — that one would be willing to set aside the violations of human rights in the lands that supply one with essential materials. By not taking a firmer stand against those whom Indian finances by its purchases is a moral decision.
India by itself has no leverage on Saudi Arabia (being a minor purchaser of oil from Riyadh’s point of view). It has, unlike Turkey and the West, no complicity in the creation of the Islamic State. A handful of Indians have been known to join the organisation. Demonstrations on the streets of India against the Islamic State would be a bit like holding a demonstration against the terrible 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The Indian government has little that it could do to stop the suffering produced by the Islamic State. That problem is being tackled not by the interstate system, which has failed both Iraq and Syria, but by other non-state actors (in this case the PKK and the YPG). India, on the other hand, bought U.S.$10 billion of Israeli arms over the past decade. This directly underwrites the Israeli weapons industry and its military. Indian officials say that India has to be realistic and maintain its suppliers. Why these same officials do not believe that Indian sovereignty would be better sorted out by a domestic arms industry is baffling.
In 1946, Nehru told the U.N. that India sought its place in the “diplomatic sun.” India was not a major military nor economic power. But it was also not merely a moral voice, a cry in the wilderness. It would use its prestige to build a large coalition on behalf of “world peace and the welfare of mankind.” The Non-Aligned Movement (1961) was to be the instrument of that vision. It was weakened in the 1980s. Today’s instrument is the BRICS. Indian leadership in the BRICS bloc will require far more than sanctimonious (and often empty) statements. It will require the use of new coalitions to pressure states on behalf of peace and justice, the main elements of the United Nations Charter. The Indian people’s role in this is to push their government on issues where Indian leverage is meaningful. Today it is for Palestine. Tomorrow it might be for the Yazidis of Iraq.
Vijay Prashad is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, LeftWord, 2013.