IS in Iraq: Threats, Challenges and Opportunities for India


As the situation in Iraq escalates, Ranjit Gupta highlights the various reasons for the Gulf region, consisting of Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to be considered as India’s top foreign policy priority, something that he has been advocating for years, but is likely, he believes, to remain a forlorn hope

The unfortunate reality in contemporary Iraq is that under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s eight year exceedingly partisan rule, the Sunnis have been completely alienated; the relationship between Shia and Sunni has never ever been as poisonous as it is today. A Sunni backlash was inevitable and was manifested in the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate on June 30 by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the ISIS, an extremist militant group even more radical and brutal than al Qaeda. Considerable portions of Western Syria and large portions of Iraq’s Sunni provinces are part of the territorial domain of this Caliphate. Most Syrian oil fields are now under its control; it has captured considerable sophisticated weaponry from the Iraqi army and security forces, which had fled abandoning their weapons in the face of the ISIS onslaught during June. It has more than $2 billion worth of assets and is becoming economically self-sufficient.

A Temporary Phenomenon

Though this event has been a headline grabbing development, it is a temporary phenomenon carrying the seeds of its demise within itself due to its extreme brutality and medieval mindset. The same happened when the Sunni population of Anbar province joined US and Iraqi government forces in defeating and expelling the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the ISIS’s original persona, in 2008. The ‘Caliphate’ will probably be around for some time trying to consolidate its hold over those parts of Syria and Iraq that it controls; and in fending off determined military onslaughts from the Iraqi government and its foreign allies as they seek to defeat and eliminate it. This will be destabilising for some time but will not result in a ‘transformation of the geopolitical order’ within the Gulf Region.

For the most of July, it has been far more active in Syria. For the first time in decades, countries which have been on opposite sides of the fence on a whole host of issues in the Gulf region are together in opposing the ISIS and the Caliphate. Most Muslim organisations and entities around the Muslim world, including theological ones, have condemned it. This bodes well to ensure that the Caliphate will be contained and ultimately dismantled, but there will be much violence and bloodshed in the process.

The formation of a government of national unity under a prime minister other than Nouri al-Maliki is a virtual precondition for the restoration of the Central Government’s authority in Iraq, and hopefully this will happen. Meanwhile, a kind of de facto partitioning of Iraq into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish areas has happened and may continue to be the reality on ground for some time. However, these disturbed conditions in Iraq are unlikely to spill over into its neighbours. However, the bottom line is that an alarmist scenario is overdone.

Three Crucial Issues

Potential threats, challenges and opportunities that developments in Iraq pose for India need to evaluated in the context of this backdrop. There are three issues – the safety and welfare of Indian nationals in Iraq; oil supplies from Iraq; and the attraction posed by the Caliphate for Indian Muslim youth.

There are believed to be approximately 10,000 Indians working in Iraq. Of them, more than 3500 have already been evacuated, including the 46 nurses who were in a hospital in Tikrit. Most of the remaining are in Shia dominated southern Iraq where there are no safety problems. The current location and welfare of the 39 ISIS-abducted construction workers is not known, but the government’s efforts to bring them back have been continuing on a 24x7 basis. That is the best that any government can do. However, two things need to be mentioned: first, large numbers of nationals of many countries are in similar or worse situations, including the Turkish Consul General and the Consulate staff; secondly, the government had banned Indians going to Iraq for employment in 2004, which remained in force till May 2010. Despite the situation in Iraq being very troubled, the ban was lifted owing to public pressure. The ban was imposed when three Indian truck drivers bringing supplies from Kuwait were kidnapped in Iraq in June 2004 and Indian TV channels shrieked their tops off about the government’s incompetence in ensuring the safety and welfare of Indians. They were rescued after 41 days and brought back to India, but believe it or not, the same truck drivers were back in Kuwait a few weeks later and their families, who were the government’s harshest critics earlier, said that they had to work overseas to look after them. A new ban has now been imposed.

All this highlights the sad fact and national shame that 67 years after our independence, millions of Indians have to go abroad to work, particularly to the Gulf region, in conditions that are conducive to their easy exploitation. Every now and then, the government comes under great pressure to evacuate them when conditions determinate in the host countries of their employment. In the short term, it is difficult to see how this kind of temporary emigration can be prevented. The nurses and many others who have returned have complained of non-payment of salaries. Such genuine issues need to be addressed proactively with a sense of priority which, unfortunately, no government in the past has done. The nexus between the recruiting and travel agents in India, who charge huge amounts for jobs, and employment agents in Gulf countries, mostly Indians, is the main reason for the exploitation of Indians workers. This unsavoury nexus must be broken – stricter regulations, but more importantly the stringent enforcement of these laws and rules is absolutely necessary. The media has never highlighted this fundamental issue in a sustained manner. Governments forget the Gulf region when the crises abate.

Iraq had episodically been the top oil supplier to India in the past. Due to disturbed conditions in Iraq during the past three decades, India was forced to import more oil from other countries. Currently, Iraq holds the second rank largely because supplies from Iran were curtailed due to sanctions.

This status is unlikely to be adversely affected because the oilfields and the port from where the oil is exported are in the government controlled, Shia majority southern provinces. The situation in Iraq is highly unlikely to escalate to an extent for it to have an effect on oil production in southern Iraq or in neighbouring Gulf countries. Nevertheless, the government is already diversifying sources of supply.

It may be prudent to initiate exploration of possibilities of increasing the gas component of our hydrocarbon imports. India should seriously consider getting involved in the proposed oil and gas pipelines linking Iran with Oman, and get Iranian and Qatar gas through an undersea pipeline to India, thus avoiding the potential Strait of Hormuz chokepoint. Such an arrangement would be less vulnerable to internal disruptions in the Gulf region.

The Caliphate’s ultimate objective is to have all Muslims of the world under its umbrella. The map of its projected domain includes most of India. They have mentioned every Muslim ‘cause’ in the world in their Charter including Kashmir; but the most strident criticism is reserved for Muslim countries. It is entirely possible that small numbers of Indian Muslims have gone to Syria and Iraq to join Islamist fighters. In the context of 170 million Muslims in India, this should not be a cause for any significant concern. The far more and extremely impressive fact is that no Muslim community of the world has kept itself further away from militants in the Arab and Muslim world than India’s Muslims. I, as an Indian, take great pride in this fact and have full confidence in the sagacity of India’s Muslim community. However, the Caliphate could serve as an ideological beacon to radicalise misguided or unemployed Indian Muslim youth; but both the causes and remedies for that lie with the Indian government and civil society, not abroad, and ultimately with the leaders of India’s Muslim community.

To conclude, seven million Indians live and work in the Gulf region. They sent back $35 billion as remittances in 2013 and 35 million family members are dependent on them. India is dependent for 70 percent of its oil and gas supplies on the Gulf region, which is also India’s largest trade partner ($181 billion in 2012-13). Islamic extremism has been surging in the region and it is important in this context to note that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have provided excellent anti-terrorism cooperation. For all these reasons, the Gulf region consisting of Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, must be considered as the top foreign policy priority for India. I have been advocating this for years, but this is likely to remain a forlorn hope.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.