Spotlight West Asia

The Arab World: Trying Times Ahead

13 Jan, 2014    ·   4253

Amb Ranjit Gupta argues that Islamic extremism, personified by al Qaeda and its affiliates in West Asia, are the greatest forces of destabilisation

Ranjit Gupta
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow
Though the spotlight on West Asia is understandably focused currently on the unquestionably exciting prospect of a welcome and desirable reconciliation between the US and Iran, which is more than likely to happen, contemporary ground realities and trends in large sections of the Arab World increasingly suggest that Islamic extremism, personified by al Qaeda and its affiliates in West Asia, is potentially an even greater destabilising factor than the standoff vis-à-vis Iran had been. 
Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen
Though four dictators were overthrown as a result of the revolutionary turmoil in the Arab World, except in tiny Tunisia which is the only success story, the current situation in Egypt, Libya and Yemen is far more unstable than when the dictators were ruling. In Libya, a large number of armed militias have carved out fiefdoms which they control, with the central government becoming a nominal entity with its writ being virtually non-existent in vast swathes of the country. Libya is a Somalia in the making.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been Egypt’s and the Arab world’s pre-eminent Islamic entity known for its outstanding social and welfare services to the poor and rural populations in particular. It was elected to form the government which, after only one year in power, was overthrown by the army, albeit demanded by a very large number of protestors against ‘Islamic’ rule. Since then, every week dozens of its supporters and many Egyptian army and police personnel have been killed in clashes between them.
The Brotherhood has been banned once again - dubbed a terrorist organisation; this does not augur well for the prospects of political Islam which is natural and fundamental to the success of democracy in the overwhelmingly Muslim Arab countries. It is very likely that Gen Sisi, the present Army Chief and architect of the hard line against the Brotherhood, is elected the next President. All this will encourage support for extremist groups as the only alternative to dictatorial and Army rule.
Iraq and Syria
Syria is engulfed by a particularly devastating and destructive civil war. More than 1,20,000 people have been killed. Almost four million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries and five million have been internally displaced. The dismantling of the Saddam regime led to the border between Syria and Iraq becoming porous; in the last year it has become nonexistent for all practical purposes – huge spaces between Baghdad and Damascus are controlled by many different groups of Islamist fighters of various hues, pre-eminent among them being the Iraq-based Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda outfit.
Amongst Islamist groups fighting the Assad regime, the ISIL is the best armed and most effective. Some weeks ago it had established control over most of Aleppo which is Syria’s largest city and in the process routed not only government forces but also of other rebel groups, and of the Western and Gulf countries’ backed Syrian National Coalition and Syrian National Army. The ISIL consists only of foreigners, mainly Iraqis, and its brutality and single-minded commitment to the establishment of an Islamic Emirate has now caused other rebel groups, in particular the recently formed Islamic Front, and the Syrian affiliate of the al Qaeda, the al Nusra Front, to treat the ISIL as the major enemy rather than the Assad regime. It is ironical that after so much bloodshed Assad is likely to remain in power, but of an anarchic and shattered Syria. Iraq is rapidly slipping back into the anarchy that prevailed during 2005 to 2008.
After Arab Spring: Is the Situation Better or Worse Today?
Politics within all these countries is increasingly determined by the gun. Thus, the singularly inappropriately termed ‘Arab Spring’, hailed as the belated ‘Enlightenment Moment’ for the Arab World, has left it in a far worse situation than before. Islam in the Arab World and West Asia is at war with itself - between moderates and extremists; between Shias and Sunnis; between pro-West Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE) and anti-West Muslim countries (Iran, Syria, Lebanon).
Today, several countries of the Arab world have become a blood soaked cauldron of bigotry and hate torn by sectarian violence. If this fratricidal conflict continues, significant portions of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen could become like the Afghanistan of the 1980s and early 1990s – a safe-haven and breeding ground for terrorists.
Should South Asia, Especially India, be Worried?
Though the Arab countries themselves are the worst affected, adverse consequences for the US, Europe and the Indian subcontinent in particular, would also be very much on the cards. This is particularly so in the context of rising uncertainties as to what could happen in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops. Pakistan has become a dangerous hotbed of extremism also. India needs to be particularly wary.
The world needs to proactively address the current mayhem in West Asia with a sense of urgency. The imperative need of the hour is that the United Nations takes the initiative to convene a conference of concerned countries and major powers to take on extremism in the Arab World and West Asia, including confronting the al Qaeda outfits headlong, militarily if need be.