How India must fight against the ISIS without upsetting Muslims at home

India has an important role to play in acting as a catalyst for the West Asian stability through negotiations and dialogue rather than confrontation.

 |  6-minute read |   30-01-2015
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A week is a long time in strife torn West Asia. The militia of the so-called Islamic Caliphate (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) beheaded one Japanese hostage on Saturday, January 24th, and are threatening to kill the second hostage. They have also captured a Jordanian pilot and have demanded the release of Sajida Al-Rishawi, an ISIS activist, without offering to release the two hostages. On Wednesday, two Israeli soldiers were killed when the Hizbollah fired a missile on Israeli forces along the Lebanese border; several others were injured. A Spanish peacekeeper died in Israeli retaliatory fire. Hamas, the Palestinian militant organisation, has threatened to join in and another short conflict may ensue. Slightly further afield in Yemen, Houthi rebels owing allegiance to the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIP) stormed the presidential palace in an attempted coup that has led to a tenuous ceasefire, even as American counterterrorism operations continue by way of drone strikes. And, in Tripoli, gunmen claiming affiliation with the ISIS staged a deadly attack on a luxury hotel and killed nine people, including four guards. All through the Cold War, the state of the turmoil in West Asia was a fairly accurate barometer of the world’s political climate. Despite two wars in Iraq in 1990-91 and 2003 and the withdrawal of US-led NATO forces in 2011, volatility has continued to dominate the strategic landscape.

The emergence of the ISIS is only the latest manifestation of the continuing conflict in this arc of instability. The triumphant march of the virulently radical Sunni militants of the ISIS in 2014 was finally halted virtually on the gates of Baghdad. The ISIS militia, numbering between 20,000 and 30,000, now control a large area straddling the Syria-Iraq border and have seized key border crossings on the Syrian border with Jordan. After capturing Faluja in January 2014, the ISIS fighters made rapid progress in advancing along the Euphrates River in Anbar province of Iraq.

In Syria, the ISlS has consolidated its hold over the eastern provinces bordering Anbar province of Iraq. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have managed to retain control over Damascus and the area up to the Mediterranean Sea. The "Nusra Front", the Syrian affiliate of the al Qaeda, controls most of north-west Syria and is gradually gaining ground. Syrian rebels known as the "Southern Front" are continuing to fight President Assad’s forces while avoiding clashes with the Nusra Front. In the north, the "Free Syrian Army" has a tenuous foothold over a small patch of territory.

Significant help is being provided to the Shia-dominated government of Iraq by Iran and Russia. And, in a move that might be a game changer in the long run, the Peshmerga, forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that had captured oil-rich Kirkuk, regarded as the Kurd capital, have joined the fight against the ISIS in the Syrian border town of Kobani. Known as tough fighters, they are expected to drive the ISIS militia away from the areas claimed by the Kurds. So far, 500,000 to one million refugees have been added to the large number of displaced persons already struggling to stay alive in the steaming hot cauldron that is West Asia today.

isis_012915021401.jpg ISIS-controlled areas in West Asia.

After vacillating for long and admitting that he had no strategy, US President Obama decided to join the fight against ISIS by launching air strikes against ISIS forces. The United States has been joined in this endeavour by Australia, Britain, Canada and France and five Arab countries (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates). In early November 2014, President Obama approved the deployment of 1,500 additional troops to take the strength of ground troops to 3,100. For the time being, they will continue to have only a training and advisory role.

The ideology of the ISIS is primitive and barbaric. The video-taped beheading of innocent hostages exemplifies its brutality. Osama bin Laden is reported to have declined to have anything to do with them when they had approached him. Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph, has openly declared the intention of the ISIS to expand eastwards to establish the Islamic state of "Khorasan" that will include Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics, eastern Iran and Pakistan. The final battle, "Ghazwa-e-Hind" – a term from Islamic mythology – will be fought to extend the caliphate to India.

An ISIS branch has already been established in "Khorasan". Its "Amir" is former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesperson Hafiz Saeed Khan and is probably based in Pakistan. Some factions of the TTP have already declared their allegiance to Al-Baghdadi. Afghanistan's new national security adviser, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, has said that the presence of Daesh or the ISIS is growing and that the group poses a threat to Afghan security. And, some ISIS flags had appeared in Srinagar a few months ago.

The ISIS militia is slowly but surely gaining ground. It has proved itself adept at fighting simultaneously on multiple fronts. Not surprisingly, the ISIS has carried the war into cyberspace and is deftly exploiting the Internet as an effective propaganda tool to spread its message. It is using Facebook and bulletin boards to influence the minds of Muslim youth and gain recruits. The international community has not yet found an answer to this potent threat. There is growing realisation that air strikes alone cannot defeat the ISIS. In his State of the Union address on January 20, 2015, Obama asked the US Congress to authorise the use of force.

The US officials have been dropping broad hints to the effect that India should join the US and its allies in fighting the ISIS as it poses a long-term threat to India as well. India has a large diaspora in West Asia, which includes female workers. Some Indian nurses had been taken hostage by the ISIS fighters, but were released unharmed. Approximately 40 Indian workers are still held hostage. India has a large Muslim population that has remained detached from the ultra-radical ISIS and its aims and objectives, except for a handful of misguided youth who are reported to have signed up to fight. This may change if India joins the US-led coalition to fight the ISIS. However, India should cooperate closely by way of sharing information and intelligence.

A concerted international effort is needed to first contain and then comprehensively defeat the ISIS, failing which the consequences will be disastrous for the region. However, it is for the Arabs to find the resources necessary to seek and destroy the ISIS fighters on the ground. As an emerging power sharing a littoral with the region, India has an important role to play in acting as a catalyst for the West Asian stability through negotiations and dialogue rather than confrontation.


Gurmeet Kanwal Gurmeet Kanwal @gurmeetkanwal

The writer is former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi

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