Not having learnt its lesson over Iraq, the United States seems all set to kindle the fires of another West Asian conflict and possibly plunge the world into an even more dangerously widespread conflagration. The bellicose tone of Donald Trump’s 55-page US National Security Strategy document, especially over Iran and China, and his proposed action in Syria threaten peace and stability throughout the region. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has already warned Moscow will not accept any US-imposed changes to the Iran nuclear pact. He has also denounced Washington’s plan to set up a 30,000-man border security force in Syria’s Kurdish territory. That plan has produced dire warnings from Turkey whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatens to “strangle” the US-backed force “before it’s even born”.
India is not a direct player in West Asia. But, the closely inter-linked issues and parties in this explosive scenario have ramifications New Delhi cannot avoid. India’s vital interests in oil-rich and strategically located Iran will suffer if the US tries to carry out the NSS document’s threat to “neutralise Iran’s malign activities in the region”. That needs reiterating because of the massive egos of our policy-makers. It should surprise no one if the NSS’s praise for India as a “leading global power” and its “leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region”, coupled with American action against Pakistan, tempts New Delhi into adventurist policies to contain China or punish Iran. Neither would be in India’s national interest, no matter how compelling the so-called “bromance” between Narendra Modi and Trump who might well call each other by their first names or even nicknames.
The US and Turkey are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Russia has been an unwavering supporter of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, while the US and its Arab allies provide funds, arms and training to rebels against his regime, some of whom claim to be battling the so-called Islamic State. The US is especially supportive of rebel Kurds, who say they need Mr Trump’s border security force to which Mr Erdogan is implacably opposed, fearing it will encourage Turkey’s own Kurdish militants. For Mr Lavrov, the Trump decision is a prelude to the partition of Syria, as Iraq was de facto partitioned with an autonomous Kurdish state.
Mr Assad’s opponents at home and abroad accuse him of war crimes and of using chemical weapons against his own people. Human rights activists have urged the United Nations to charge Russia and Iran, allies of the Syrian regime, with war crimes after thousands of Russian air strikes reportedly killed more than 4,000 Syrian civilians. A group calling itself the Syrian Network for Human Rights claimed in early 2017 that it “found a similarity between the violations committed by the Russians and the (Syrian) regime”. Moscow dismisses these reports as “provocations” and fictitious, denies the figures, and maintains it is targeting only Islamic terrorists. But, identities can be blurred in a war zone and even the US-led international coalition’s air strikes targeting the so-called Islamic State are also reported to have killed more than 1,000 civilians. Russia’s political position was clear from the several times it foiled Western attempts to condemn Syria’s president, including vetoing UN resolutions condemning the chemical attack.
In November, Mr Trump and Vladimir Putin jointly pledged renewed support for the UN’s Geneva process, which has so far failed to resolve the conflict. Although, Mr Trump’s criticism of Russia has been relatively muted of late, the NSS singles out Russia as an adversary, and Russia’s foreign ministry last year described American-Russian relations as going through the “most difficult period since the end of the Cold War”. Meanwhile, Mr Putin has hosted summit conferences to bring together Mr Erdogan and Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, having already hosted Mr Assad at the same venue. It would seem that with the near-collapse of the Syrian opposition since Moscow’s armed intervention in 2015 and the military defeat of the so-called Islamic State in all the major towns and cities that were under its control, Mr Putin might claim to have won the peace in West Asia. But, it’s feared that Mr Trump’s intervention can only aggravate the Syrian situation, revive the militant Islamic State, and inundate Europe with another influx of destitute refugees.
Iran and Syria are weak and vulnerable targets. China is not. So, while the US president may be egging on India, Japan and Australia to take provocative action, there is little chance of him seriously alienating China. Last year’s 10-point US-China trade deal, which allows the Chinese to feast on American beef while Americans munch Chinese cooked chicken, Mr Trump’s calls to Beijing to rein in North Korea, and his eulogies for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which India alone opposes indicate that US self-interest will always temper outright hostility. Western commentators have noticed that Mr Trump no longer rants and raves about China as a “currency manipulator” and “unfair trade partner”. The reasons why India must seek a rapprochement with China, a close neighbour and one of its biggest, if not the biggest trade partner, are already well known.
Nor can India afford not to stand by Iran. Although, Mr Trump has agreed to uphold sanctions relief for Iran as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that all UN Security Council members as well as Germany signed in 2015, and which allows sanctions to be lifted in exchange for sharp restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme, he makes no secret of his dislike of the arrangement. In fact, promising to fix what he calls “terrible flaws” in the deal, he says this is the “last time” he will waive sanctions. Russia and some EU leaders, have urged the US to respect the integrity of the original arrangement. Indians may not care much for Iran’s theocratic orthodoxy, but that cannot stand in the way of a cooperative partnership.
The latest $2 billion Indo-Iranian pact for the Chabahar-Zahedan railroad is intended to accelerate development of the Chabahar port on an extension of the Arabian Sea and only 100km from Pakistan’s Chinese-developed Gwadar. It has to be seen as part of an overall long-term strategy to counter Pakistani hostility, keep an eye on Chinese designs in the Arabian Sea, develop ties with Afghanistan and give India a means of connecting (via the new railway) with Central Asia and ultimately Europe. In May 2016, for instance, India signed a series of 12 memorandums of understanding which centered upon the port of Chabahar and a trilateral transit agreement with Iran and Afghanistan, which will allow Indian goods to reach Afghanistan through Iran. It also links ports on India’s west coast to Chabahar and covers the road and rail links between Chabahar and the Afghan border. India has too much at stake in Iran to follow Mr Trump’s whimsical lead.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.