The challenge of being non-aligned

On July 18, 2012, a blast in Damascus took the lives, among others, of President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law Gen. Aseef Shawkat, the Defence Chief of Staff, as well as that of the defence minister.

Coincidently or otherwise a similar explosion at the intelligence headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killed the deputy head and allegedly its newly appointed head Prince Bandar bin Sultan, for long the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The Saudis have released Bandar’s picture at a Majlis, which, however, cannot be dated.
Both incidents indicated that the no-holds-barred struggle between the rival alliances of Saudi Arabia-Turkey, blessed by US and its allies and Iran, under the Russian and Chinese benediction, had now expanded. Syria was employing air power and armour, shelling even its historic cities like Aleppo, and the arms supplies to the Syrian Free Army based in Turkey and its affiliates were getting enhanced. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visiting Turkey mulled the imposition of a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, reminiscent of Western intervention in Libya that turned the tide against Muammar Gaddafi.
Indian policymakers may prefer the philosophical sophistry of non-aligned posturing; as non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council till end 2012 they were being compelled to take positions. South Block sources when quizzed advocate a secular Syria but in reality either abstain at the UN or support resolutions facing veto by the Russia-China axis. Remaining on the sidelines may not safeguard Indian interests in an evolving scenario.
Firstly, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is now welding the two regions of the Gulf and West Asia into one theatre. Unseen but critical actors are the US and Israel. Because the Shia-Sunni rivalry is playing out in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, loss of Iranian influence in Syria is bound to shift Iranian pressure to the other two countries bringing the fight to the Gulf and thus closer to where the Indian interests are directly involved in energy, Indian diaspora and trade.
Secondly, Syria is a multi-ethnic lynchpin of the post-Ottoman division of political power amongst itself, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, created artificially with boundaries leaving ethnic groups divided and stranded across five countries, including the erstwhile overlord Turkey. Thus its implosion is bound to rewrite boundaries, coalesce separated minorities or even create new nations, like after the collapse of Soviet Union.
Take Turkey itself. It is a Nato ally, moderately Islamist, pivoting away from Europe towards its southern and historic areas of influence. Syria, however, presents it many paradoxes. It supports the Sunni majority in Syria but is worried about the revival of militancy amongst its Kurdish minority as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), the militant face of Kurdish defiance of Turkish authority, has traditionally had refuge in and support from Syria. This had diminished after the death of Hafez al-Assad but stands resurrected today in response to the Turkish support to the Syrian Free Army. Turkey also hosts 15-20 million Alevis, a Shia offshoot akin to the ruling Alawites of Syria although they have evolved independently. Can Turkey live with disaffection amongst both these minorities, who could constitute almost half the population?
The Kurds of Iraq sit atop huge oil reserves but are landlocked though a pipeline through Turkey carries the Kirkuk oil to the Mediterranean. That puts them in the Turkish corner but only so long as their Kurdish brethren in western Turkey to their North and the Syrian Kurds to their West do not reshape new loyalties. The irony would be if the uprising in post-Ottoman West Asia ends up destabilising Turkey itself, reopening what was settled at the end of World War I.
The dangers of the Saudi-Iran rivalry may be dawning on both Riyadh and Tehran. Two upcoming conferences provide the avenue for cogitation. A special session of the Organisation of Islamic Conference meets at Mecca on August 15-16. King Abdullah has wisely invited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. It is followed by the Non-Aligned Summit on August 29-30 in Tehran. The first meeting addresses the Syrian question. Is it possible for the Annan Plan or its replacement to still draw Syria back from the abyss? The second meeting provides Iran a stage for either articulating a new vision of cooperation and accommodation or grandstanding when the Western sanctions are stifling its economy. It can either throw the whole region into chaos, Syria being a mere flicker of what may follow if the US and Israel are sucked in, or it can begin a calibrated climb down dressed as statesmanship.
Thus, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Tehran must do plain speaking bilaterally, urging Iran to choose the wiser path of accommodation. It is true that for India, Iran is vital for providing access to Central Asia, oil and gas and a counterweight to Pakistan in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia by deporting Abu Jundal signalled that it, too, could meet at least two of those imperatives i.e. energy and Pakistan.
Thus India is not without choices. At the NAM Summit India must rise above the tendency to brush difficult issues under the carpet or simply allow the chair to guide the debate. India is and shall always be non-aligned, if that means strategic independence. But India must oppose or even disassociate from NAM resolutions that divide. On Syria, let Dr Singh suggest a NAM initiative, including
volunteering peacekeepers if necessary, supplemented by other NAM nations to begin implementing the eminently reasonable Annan Plan. Let the NAM show it can achieve what the UNSC could not and Dr Singh disprove the Time Magazine moniker of “underachiever”.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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