If Syria implodes, India will be hit

Columnist  | Shankar Roychowdhury

Opinion, Oped

India has the requisite resources and troops for these operations, in which our armed forces are enviably adept.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Photo: AFP)

In Syria, we’re locked and loaded,” said US Permanent Representative to the UN Nikki Haley, confronting the Russian delegation at the UN General Assembly debate after the US-led cruise missile strike on Syria. Vintage American gunfighter talk – almost straight out of the “The Gunfight at the OK Corral”.

American diplomacy has never been inhibited in larger-than-life proclamations of “manifest destiny,” whether at the General Assembly or pushing foot-dragging “coalitions of the willing” into conflict zones in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, and now in Syria. The Reagan doctrine of America leading the “free world” against the “evil empire” (then Soviet Russia, now Vladimir Putin’s Russia) requires the United States to be in a state of constant military alert. Wherever America has intervened militarily in pursuit of this grand strategy, “regime change”, the replacement of the existing regime by another more pliable one, has always been the objective. Saddam Hussein in Iraq is one example, “terminated with extreme prejudice” in 2003 at the end of a hangman’s rope after Iraq was invaded and occupied over alleged “weapons of mass destruction”, that were never found, almost 12 years after the US had earlier defeated the Iraqi Army in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm.

Now in 2018, Syria, under Bashar al-Assad is under attack by another American-led “coalition of the willing” — this time Britain, France and Germany. Is he also on a target list and likely to meet a similar end if events in Syria turn out unfavourably for him?

The “war” in Syria entered its eighth year on March 15, 2018. It is rooted in the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring that swept across the Arab world in 2011, and the present situation there is now totally obscured in gun-smoke. The ethnicities, religion, affiliations and political objectives of the various warring factions which lay waste to the country are hard to determine or differentiate. They range from Ba’athists, Alawites, various factions of the Syrian Army, Islamic jihadis, Syrian Kurds, Israelis, possibly Mossad and of course the ubiquitous CIA.

In the process, Syria has been turned into an unrestricted “weapons loose” free-fire zone like Korea, Vietnam, Serbia and Yemen. Historical ruins at Antioch and Palmyra have been demolished and irreplaceable artefacts vandalised by armies of jihadis and looters, just like the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed by Wahabi extremists and radicalised Taliban elements in Afghanistan.

What is amply clear to India, as a concerned third-party observer, is that the Syrian conflict is an extension of the Cold War between Russia (then the Soviet Union) and the United States, both of whom have ground troops and air power assets directly involved in the fighting. In the process, Syria has turned into an unending purgatory for its citizens, 50,000 of whom have reportedly perished in the crossfire, with another million or more languishing in refugee camps.

India is not directly involved in the Syrian war, but nevertheless has a fairly substantial indirect interest because the fallout from Syria is more than likely to directly affect this country in major ways.

The possibility of conducting large-scale humanitarian evacuations of Indian nationals in the conflict zone by sea or air always exists. India has the requisite resources and troops for these operations, in which our armed forces are enviably adept.

Another issue with a far more lethal potential is the possible fallout in India and South Asia of a fratricidal Arab conflict in North Africa and the Middle East. Al Qaeda appeared in Iraq soon after the execution of Saddam Hussein, and subsequently morphed into an even more venomous strain – Daesh, or Islamic State.

Daesh is already operating in the Indian subcontinent, with the support of the Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence, and contesting for its share of the ultra-jihadi terror space in India, challenging even established “locals” like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Hizbul Mujahideen in Kashmir and the Jamat-ul-Mujahiddin Bangladesh on their home turf. The black flags of Khorasan have already appeared in Pakistan.

A scattered few have even ventured out momentarily on Indian territory, on the streets of Srinagar, flown by pro-azadi street mobs as they throw stones at the Indian Army, police and paramilitary forces instigated by the Hurriyat.

With the benefit of experience, India has legitimate concerns that should events ultimately not go favourably for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, leading to factional fighting and a violent implosion of that country, it is quite likely that another terrorist group will be born, this time possibly Shia, based on Hezbollah. Iran may decide to intervene and send troops to the aid of their Shia co-religionists in Syria. The Shia-Sunni pandemic smouldering in the world of Islam can intensify and spread to the subcontinent, on India’s doorstep.

At this precise juncture, by what can only be karmic happenstance, comes the pronouncement of judgment after eight long years on the Mecca Masjid and Samjhauta Express blast cases, acquitting the main accused, Swami Aseemanand, for lack of evidence. The Supreme Court grants bail, after eight years in prison, to Lt. Col. Shrikant Purohit, a serving intelligence officer of the Indian Army who had been tasked to obtain information about Abhinav Bharati, a Hindu group allegedly involved in the Mecca Masjid and Samjhauta Express bomb blasts.

The officer had been detained by the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) of the Maharashtra police and severely tortured in police custody.

A public uproar greeted these revelations. The Indian Army has outwardly maintained a stone-faced facade, but a sense of outrage and a feeling of resentment is gathering within the organisation at this latest manifestation of total disregard shown by the political class to increasing incidents of harassment and discourtesy to the defence services, in this case by the treatment of a serving Army officer by the Mumbai police to serve ulterior political motives.

Undoubtedly this is an undesirable state of affairs, but one that seems likely to continue.