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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Syrian Crisis: Iraq And The Emergence Of Greater Iran

Ironically, G.W.Bush's infantile prediction that Iraq war and "imposition" of democracy would create a domino effect in the region did come true but in a completely different manner (fool's luck ? ) and the situation has now left his successor red-faced in front of global media. Of course, President Obama has also inherited the repercussions of his predecessor , Bush Jr's decisions and actions (not necessarily in that order).  Since last few decades there has been widespread discontent among the people in the various kingdoms,emirates and dictatorships in West Asia towards the US as well as ruling regimes.  The invasion of Iraq might not have directly led to the uprising, but it did matter in the schemes of things. The immediate effect was that of anger, outrage and hostility towards the US for its intervention and more importantly for propping up the repressive and autocratic regimes in the region but gradually centered around the latter as the US reconciled its policies with the popular mood in the region.

Initially, Syria appeared as yet another domino falling in the wave of Arab Spring movement , popular uprisings against autocratic regimes in West Asia and Northern Africa (Arabian Peninsula, the Maghreb and possibly, a part of the Levant ). Yet, unlike Tunisian revolution or Egyptian revolution against Mubarak regime, the developments in Syria has been quite violent and have now taken the form of a bloody civil war.  After allegation of use of chemical weapon by government forces, a limited, surgical strike to destroy it's stock of chemical weapon  seemed reasonable enough and Obama seemed on the verge of ordering it but then retracted from the position. If this is an unprecedented situation , so is Russia and China's aggressive opposition to it. A weak global economy and probability of an attack on Syria further raising fuel  price may have factored in Obama's change of decision but Russia's opposition  and Putin's message to American people through an article in a leading newspaper is uncommon, perhaps marking a paradigm shift in global politics.

What makes Syrian Crisis different from other recent upheavals in the region is the fact that it is in essence a very complex conflict involving various factors with the Shia and Sunni sectarianism acting only as the common denominators as well motivating sentiments. However, viewing the conflict only as Shia-Sunni conflict, oversimplifies the situation. Fault lines in the region are based not just on religious doctrines but also on racial,ethnic, nationalistic and even secular ideologies. History of last 1400 years, reveals animosity between the two sects but it does not provide us with evidence of Shia-Sunni conflict taking such a massive proportion. The current animosity stems from the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979. The Iranian Shia supreme leader, Ayotallah Khomeini 's statement on his eagerness to export revolutions to neighboring countries alarmed the Arab states. Apart from being a non-Arab state, Iran also was and is seen as a Shia state capable of fomenting trouble in their regions through minority Shia populations.
 
Historically, this region has seen antagonism not just between religious sects but also tribes,clans race and ethnicity  such as those between Arabs vs Iranians vs Kurds vs Turks to name a few. The Iran-Iraq war of the 80's saw most of the Arab countries in the peninsula cut off ties with Iran and assist Iraq which also received military aid from the West and the US. The only Arab country to ally itself with Iran was Syria whose ruling class belong to the Alawite sect of Shia Islam . But more importantly, Syria was apprehensive of Saddam Hussein's designs and it had major stake in Lebanon where Iran had considerable influence over the militias involved in a civil war. Despite Cold War the mutual hostility didn't escalate to large-scale conflicts because of several reasons including shared hatred for Israel, local insurgencies (Kurdish militants were equal threats to Iraq,Turkey,Iran ) but most likely it was because all of the players were equally matched militarily, making it unlikely for any one side to prevail in a larger conflict.

However, the Iraq invasion upset the apple cart completely. Over the last two decade, two simultaneous processes have been in motion - Iran's nuclear program and spread of Salafist thought among Sunni Muslims. The Western media often associate Salafis only with radicals and terrorist groups such as Al- Qaida but the fact is that only a minuscule section of the group can be called terrorists and they are said to adhere to a more radical school called Qutbism. . Moreover, a few ideas from Salafi school may have influenced global Sunni population even if they are now unaware of it. But comparatively, it has far more influence in Saudi Arabia which is the leader of the Sunni Arab world. The Salafi view places Shias much outside the Muslim fold and this could act as a spark to barrels of gunpowder (or highly inflammable oil) that currently the region sits on . [Update: Mass execution of Shias by ISIS vindicates this view, but unfortunately it is not over yet]

Though the global Shia population within Muslim community constitutes less than 20%, their representation in the West Asia and Armenia is around 30% mostly concentrated in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.  Despite being a minority, the military strength makes up for the lack in numbers. Iran, the only country in the region to possess at least a rudimentary knowledge required to create nuclear weapons (apart from Israel,of course) is also the only Shiite theocracy in the world. Syria may be a Sunni majority  but the ruling elite belong to the Alawite sect of Shia Islam (however, Syria is a secular state, so it is more  of a strategic alliance than sectarian). Destabilization of Iraq (a Shia majority country ruled by Sunni leaders) led to emergence of several militant groups, also acting as proxies for regional powers. While the Sunni groups were backed by Saudi Arabia, Iraqi Shia militias levitated towards Iran. Caught in a game of shifting loyalties, complex sectarianism, ethnic strife and tribal warfare, the US and all parties involved have taken turns training militant groups. Even Israel was/is a participant, training Kurdish militants.

The realignment of political powers in the region in the last decade have included not only nation-states but also non-state entities and splinter groups. Arguably, the biggest guerrilla force in the world, the Hezbollah had always been an Iranian proxy, in the West Bank, Hamas has been beneficiary of large funds when it's traditional beneficiaries backed out. But Iraq is an asset that the US served to Iran on a platter because of the hugely foolish decision of G.W. Bush. For majority of Iraqi Shias, Iran was a natural ally, even civilian government installed now show strong inclination towards the Iran axis which now includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and non-state entities such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraqi Shia insurgent groups. The emergence of Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon Axis can also attributed to Cold War politics and the aftermath. As Soviet Union allies, Iran and Syria have had gained much in terms of military. After the collapse of Soviet Union, Russia and China have been arming and training their respective troops.
    
But more importantly,the Sunni Arab states have been existing as client state of the US and the West, their military capability is severely restricted, possessing only those weapons that the US may allow them to possess, of course after Israeli approval. Iran or its allies never had to face a similar handicap. While Russia or China may not have handed over every weapon Iran had asked for, they have nonetheless been provided much better weaponry and training. The greatest irony of all is that though US has always supported Sunni regimes, including that of Saddam Hussein, by invading and destabilizing Iraq, it gave birth to numerous radical Sunni and Shia militant groups. While Sunni groups were supported by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states, the Shia militant groups virtually fell into the lap of Iran. The Wikileaks cables revealing Saudi Arabia, Jordan,Bahrain, UAE and Egypt have been repeatedly calling for preemptive strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities and secretive alliance between Arabs and Israel  indicates the insecurity and hostility between Iran and Arabs. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition has been infiltrated in huge numbers by the jihadi elements, creating fear of Al Qaida affiliated militants taking over the country

On charges of Syrian regime having used chemical weapon on it's own population, the US and France were eager to punish Al-Assad and his regime and would have carried it out had there not been so much opposition by people across the world. The Syrian crisis had already triggered a surge in oil prices affecting the already global market, there was a fear that an attack on Syria would skyrocket oil prices. This may be one of the reasons behind widespread disapproval of any attack on Syria. There was hardly a murmur of dissent when NATO intervened in Libya to ensure a no-fly zone was established which led to Gaddafi's . ouster and execution. Interestingly, Israel had already carried out four air strikes on Syria this year the last one being in July which targeted Syria's newly acquired advanced anti-ship cruise missiles from Russia.

Obama's initial hesitation and subsequent volte face suggests there may have been indication of Iran taking a more aggressive stance,and possible mobilization of the new formation, in case of US intervention. One way or the other, the Syrian crisis marks a turning point in world history. For the first time since the Cold War, the US hegemony has been openly challenged  and forced to take a step back. The first unilateral decision the US took under the leadership of GW Bush has now left it in a situation from which Obama has been unable salvage much. If the US expects a longer ,costlier war then most likely it expects Iranian proxies to be involved .


Update 09-25-2013
According to latest news reports there has been a thaw in the relationship between the USA and Iran after the newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, a  moderate, issued conciliatory statements calling the US, "a great nation". That is certainly a long way from "Great Satan" that Iranian spiritual heads have often used in reference to the US.

Posted By danish Ahmed 5:52 AM

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Emperor's New Pagdi

The hype, hoopla and media glare around Narendra Modi's coronation as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, seems much like a real-time adaptation of Hans Christen Anderson's short story, The Emperor's New Clothes, but not in a stage drama but in real life.  It is indeed a lofty spot, virtually condensing the power of the entire opposition in one person. So one may expect that the part anointing it's prime ministerial candidate would have number of seats in the Lok Sabha, closer to that of the ruling dispensation and have presence throughout the country. Even to command a simple majority in the People's House a party needs support of at least 272 representatives. However, the BJP actually has 117 seats in the Lok Sabha. Even with all its existing allies,it barely manages to reach even half of the numbers of seats required to command a simple majority !

Then there is the question of pan-India support a PM aspirant and the party should command. In a highly heterogeneous, multicultural and pluralist nation like India, it is imperative that the leader of the nation enjoy support from all communities  and groups which of course  can be verified by looking at the number of seats the party hold across the length and breadth of country. How does Modi's BJP now fare in different parts of the country ?

South India -  In the South, Karntaka is the only state which has seen BJP win seats (has received severe drubbing in Assembly election but I am taking into account Lok Sabha seats only), it draws blank in populous states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.

North East - Barring 4 seats in Assam, the party has not won a single seat in any of the other six states of the region. 

East - Except for Darjeeling  held by Jaswant Singh, (not on good terms with the Sangh) the BJP is as conspicuous by its absence in West Bengal and  in Odisha it has been wiped out by its erstwhile ally the BJD. What remains to be seen is, if the JD(U) does the same thing in Bihar or actually becomes the victim. 

North - One might suppose, that the saffron brigade is popular in the North, except Jammu and Kashmir but it has not won a single seat in Delhi and Haryana. It is doing relatively well in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarkhand  but is no longer a major player in UP.wich used to be its bastion.

The BJP draws bulk of its power from the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. Undoubtedly. both Gujarat and Madya Pradesh are big states but India is bigger still !  A motley collection 
of parties like the Left Front, SP,JD(U),TMC, BJD can easily cobble up a number greater than that of BJP seats in Lok Sabha now but does that mean they should declare a Prime Ministerial candidate too ?  And I  am not taking into account parties like DMK, AIDMK, BSP,TDP and other regional parties which haven't indicated willingness to join the NDA but there is a low probability. 

The best thing about Indian elections is that  the results are notoriously unpredictable. I won't be as arrogant to say if the equations and seat tally would remain same. But with the current tally of seats and the fact that there are nearly a dozen of states from where BJP hasn't won a single seat, shouldn't the BJP feel embarrassed making such an announcement ? Not really,denial and self-deception are inbuilt defense mechanism of our psyche usually preventing us from falling to depression and despair but in case of over-ambitiousness, it can make us imagine things that are not really there. In BJP's case, the popularity of Modi among the urban middle class, mostly on social media and 24x7 TV news (not even in print media) may have blinded it to the fact that social media represents only a section of a segment of the voter population.In fact some of the most vocal fanboys of Modi are not even based in India. If the number of one's Twitter following reflected eligibility to take the top job ten Shashi  Tharoor should have been Indian Prime Minister few years back (and me, a corporator if not the mayor of my city  :P)

Of course, I haven't said anything which hasn't been said before,so isn't the BJP leadership aware or are they being  over-optimistic ?
The fact  is that Modi enjoys tremendous support among the cadres and the mother organization of the Sangh Parivar- The RSS. As a matter of fact, the loyalty of his acolytes is so great that he has been considered by part of media as more popular than LK Advani or even AB Vajpayee ever were. However, I am inclined to take this with a pinch of realism, Modi's main propaganda platform, the social media, did not exist during Vajpayee's. Further, wind has it that , given track-record of Modi's autocratic ways , senior national leaders are not eager find themselves in a situation with Modi  in absolute power. Sure enough, the senior leaders did not show much enthusiasm during the press conference.

In the beginning I have given the analogy of the short story, "Emperor's New Clothes" but a closer analogy to the ceremony would be that of a gathering of family members and relatives in honor of a senile but billionaire heir-less great grand-uncle whose monetary assistance  helps the family/clan to survive. Since everyone in the room depends on the old man's wealth, everyone just humors him along, regardless of whether his statements make sense or not!  Similarly , Narendra Modi may enjoy huge fan following but that hardly reflects  number of Lok Sabha seats it can capture, but any BJP leader pointing out this flaw in thinking is likely to come under vicious attack from the party's workers as LK Advani appears to have learnt. But that doesn't change the fact that currently there is very little reason to present Modi as "PM-in-waiting", unless of course, they are just feeding Modi's king-size ego, especially when he appears to be in a power trip. Megalomania is not much different from senility   

Posted By danish Ahmed 1:30 AM

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Juvenile Delinquent Or Psychopath Gone Lucky ?

The Juvenile Board’s decision of sending one of the key accused in the Nirbhaya gang rape and murder case, to a reform house for 3 years, has left overwhelming majority of Indians outraged. The brutality, with which the victim was violated shook the nation's conscience, with this juvenile being the most violent of all, according to media reports. One cannot imagine how the family members of the victim would feel to first having seen the intense agony one's daughter goes through and then see the perpetrator go to a reform home for 3 years. In this case, justice itself becomes casualty as the outcome has been determined not by the merit or demerit of the case but by a mere technicality.

Posted By danish Ahmed 7:07 AM