Sunday, September 28, 2008

Caught in Crossfire: Civilians in Conflicts in the Middle East

Ithaca has just published my edited volume on Caught in Crossfire: Civilians in Conflicts in the Middle East. It has contributions from Avraham Sela, Meron Medzini, Dalia Gavriely, Samir Khalaf, Stuti Bhatnagar, N. Janardhan, Amira Hass, Girijesh Pant and William Haddad.

For details click here

Monday, September 22, 2008

Iran undermines Israel's regional interests

Electonic Briefing Paper published by Pretoria-based Centre for International Political Studies carries my brief commentary on how Iran has been challenging Israel's regional interest. For the full text please click here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Islam and Indian foreign policy

Islam and foreign policy
New Indian Express (Chennai), 19 September 2008

Is there an Islamic dimension in India’s foreign policy, especially towards the Middle East region? The obvious answer would be elusive. For many, such a question is preposterous and an affront on India’s secular fabric. To suggest that religion played a role in shaping India’s policy towards the citadel of Islam is not merely unacceptable but is nothing short of a rightwing conspiracy.
The foreign policy could be indifferent to Islamic influences if India fulfils three basic conditions; one, Muslims living outside the Middle East are not stirred by political developments in the Islamic heartland; two, India does not have a sizeable Muslim population and that India is not wedded to democracy and pluralism.
None of these conditions are true. For a Muslim, whether religious or secular, the Middle East is not like any other piece of territory. The city of Jerusalem is not Berlin which could be divided along ideological lines and unified due to political expediency.
Even non-practising Muslims do not deny, let alone reject, the religious sanctity of Al- Aqsa situated in the old city of Jerusalem.
Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, Indian Muslims have strong emotional bonds with the region and its holy places. These feelings transform into political voices especially during violent upheavals in the region. Actions by non-regional or non-Islamic powers generate far wider interest and anger than Islamic players.
For long rightwing parties such as the erstwhile Jana Sangh and later the Bharatiya Janata Party, have been critical of the Congress policy towards the Middle East.
The pro-Arab bias did not go down well with a section of the population. Critics of the Nehruvian policy at times depicted India as the ‘chaprasi’ of the Arabs or the ‘14th Arab state.’ They felt that the Congress government was pro-Muslim domestically and pro-Arab externally.
At the same time, it is impossible to overlook the anti-minority attitudes of the Hindu right. Driven by their anti-Muslim mindset they looked to Israel as an ally. The pro- Israel bias of the Hindu right is often attributed to its anti-Muslim agenda. Many scholars and political pundits have argued that the rightwing parties are pro-Israel because they are anti-Muslim.
To suggest the converse, however, is not politically correct. Not many would accept that the Congress party was pro-Arab because it was pro-Muslim. Suggestions that the Congress party viewed the Middle East through an Islamic prism are vilified as conspiracy, blasphemous and of late, part of the neo-con agenda.
That India’s policy is devoid of any religious inputs have many takers. Driven by the need to ‘secularise’ the foreign policy some even ‘secularise’ the foreign policy of the BJP. They argue that while in power even the Hindutva forces did not ‘communalise’ foreign policy. Their desire for closer ties with Israel, the argument goes, was accompanied by a significant improvement in relations with principal Islamic countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. For them, not just Nehru but even the BJP is secular when it comes to foreign policy!
Such revisionist portrayal may be self-satisfying but a closer examination of India’s stand on a host of issues pertaining to the Middle East would reveal an indelible mark of Islam. During the nationalist phase this was marked by the political rivalry and competition between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. It is often forgotten that the Congress party needed the substantial support of Indian Muslims. This was natural and inevitable. Otherwise, the Congress party could not call itself ‘Indian’ and ‘national,’ Hence since the days of the Khilafat struggle when Indian Muslims rallied around the Caliph then the Ottoman emperor, Indian foreign policy has had an Islamic flavour.
The opposition of the Indian nationalists towards the demand for a Jewish national home in Palestine was also partly, not wholly, influenced by the Islamic factor.
Though couched in nationalist terms and humanitarian considerations, religion did play a role in Indian leaders adopting a not so sympathetic view of Jewish political aspirations. On the eve of Partition, some like historian and future diplomat K M Panikkar felt that after Independence India would be less burdened by the Islamic factor and would be ‘free’ to adopt an explicitly pro-Israeli position.
This never materialised principally because the erstwhile Congress-Muslim League rivalry transformed into an Indo- Pakistani competition for the support of Arab and Islamic countries.With the Kashmir issue dominating its diplomatic battle, India feared that establishing normal ties with the Jewish state would be counterproductive.
The manner in which influential sections of the intelligentsia respond to admissions of Islamic inputs exposes their duality.In the summer of 2000 Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh told an audience in Jerusalem that the prolonged absence of diplomatic relations was due to domestic compulsions involving Muslims.
In September 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the media in New York that India’s Iran policy would also be guided by the Shia factor. This was parroted when National Security Adviser M K Narayanan justified the stopover visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in April this year. Of late even the communist leaders have joined the chorus. During the Lok Sabha vote in July over the nuclear deal, communist M K Pandhe warned Mulayam Singh Yadav that the Muslims would abandon the Samajvadi Party if he voted with the government.
However, the manner in which Indian intellectuals read and respond to these observations vastly differ. Both Jaswant Singh and Manmohan Singh discussed an explicitly domestic issue on foreign soil and unabashedly admitted Islamic inputs in key foreign policy issues.
The Indian intelligentsia vilified Jaswant Singh for communalising India’s Israel policy. Their response to a similar move by the Prime Minister was a deafening silence. If Jaswant Singh ‘communalised’ foreign policy, so did Manmohan Singh. If the Prime Minister merely highlighted an objective reality, so did the BJP leader.
This duality goes a step further. Having vehemently denied any Islamic influence in India’s foreign policy, the same section does not hesitate to recognise and condemn the ‘Jewish lobby’ upon the American policy.
They have openly and warmly embraced the arguments that the Jewish lobby has dominated American policy towards the Middle East and in the process undermined American interests. Similar suggestions of Islamic influence let alone domination upon India’s Middle East still remain taboo.
That three per cent Jews influence American foreign policy towards the Middle East, but 15 per cent Muslims of India do not. Therein lies their ‘progressive’ world view!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

India and ILSA

On September 11, 2008 South Asia Monitor carried my commentary on India, Iran and the US Sanctions: Time for Stock Taking. For the full text click here.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Lebanon Syria normalisation

A New Dawn in Lebanon
New Indian Express (Channai), 2 September 2008
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman made history when he visited Damascus on August 13.

The visit not only marked an end to recent tensions in the region but also transformed the very nature of relations between the two Middle East neighbours. Despite some scepticism the visit is truly historic and signals a formal end to Syrian denial of and disregard for Lebanese independence. During the visit Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Suleiman agreed to establish normal diplomatic relations and initiate the process of border demarcation.

Even though Syria and its leadership have to take a lot of concrete measures, a good beginning has been made.

First and foremost, Suleiman’s visit and his earlier meeting with Assad in Paris a few years ago clearly indicate a fundamental change in Syrian attitude towards Lebanese existence as a sovereign entity.

Syria had a historic grievance against the French when the Mandate authorities carved out Mount Lebanon and its surrounding areas to form an independent Lebanese state in 1943.

Such historic claims over others are not new to the Middle East. For long, other countries such Egypt, Jordan, Iran and Iraq had coveted their weaker neighbours. What however made the Lebanese case rather unique was the steadfastness with which Damascus maintained its opposition to recognising Lebanon as a sovereign entity .

For over six decades Damascus had political influence, economic interests and strategic presence in Lebanon but not diplomatic representation. When the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Damascus found an opportunity. In the name of preventing a virtual blood bath, the Ba’athist leadership consolidated its presence. As the factional fight ended in 1989, Syrian presence and influence was legitimised and guaranteed.

Damascus ended up having thousands of troops in Lebanon but never an embassy . Its emissary in Beirut was ironically called ‘Governor’, thereby symbolising Syrian claims over Lebanon.

Such was its influence, Syria set the Lebanese domestic agenda and according to seasoned observers Bashar Assad was personally looking after the ‘Lebanon file’ prior to his election as president in June 2000. Disregarding popular sentiments in Lebanon, he ensured the re-election of President Emile Lahoud in 2004 through a constitutional amendment. Subsequent disputes over this election led to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. This was followed by the killing of a number of politicians and other Lebanese personalities who were critical of Syria and its domination. The needle of suspicion continues to point towards Damascus.

Popular revulsion over Hariri’s assassination eventually made the Syrian military presence untenable and forced it to pull out its troops from Lebanon in April. Despite this, as highlighted by the prolonged delay in the election of Lahoud’s successor, Syria continues to wield considerable clout in Lebanon, especially through its erstwhile proxies such as the Hezbollah.

Syrian recognition however was not forthcoming. Keeping up the pressure, in May 2005 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1680 that explicitly called on Damascus “to establish full diplomatic relations and representation” with Beirut. The resolution was endorsed by 13 members of the Council while China and Russia abstained.

Syria also faced criticisms from its erstwhile friends such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Hezbollah’s military activities culminated in the second Lebanon war of 2006 that brought further death and destruction.

Syria was not prepared to abandon the Hezbollah.
Syrian inflexibility over Lebanon dis pleased many Arab countries and resulted in their boycott of the Arab summit hosted by President Assad in March this year. Soon accusations were flying between Damascus and other Arab capitals. However, the Syrian leadership recognised that reconciliation with the wider Arab world depends on meaningful progress on Lebanon.

For its part, France the former colonial power, has been active in promoting Lebanese-Syrian reconciliation. As part of the Mediterranean summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy hosted Lebanese and Syrian leaders in July . Though his dream of a photo opportunity involving Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Assad did not materialise, the Suleiman-Assad meeting broke the ice. This paved the way for Suleiman’s visit to Damascus a month later.
A modicum of relations with Lebanon would not only enhance Syrian influence in that country but also would increase its regional status.

For its part, this is a historic moment for Lebanon. The Syrian recognition is far more valuable than India’s recognition by Great Britain, Pakistan by India, Bangladesh by Pakistan in 1974 or the Israeli recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993. Indeed one could even suggest that this is far more historic than the unlikely recognition of the breakaway Taiwanese republic by the People’s Republic of China.

To be meaningful, however, the Syrian recognition has to be formal and substantial. Recognition and normalisation would have to be accompanied by a formal Syrian renunciation of its territorial or other claims over Lebanon. Such an abandonment of past claims would have to be internalised through significant revision in the educational system. Otherwise, recognition would be no more than a political gimmick and would be a Damocles’ sword over Lebanon. Since Syria took more than six decades to recognise the independence of Lebanon, such a decision would have to be endorsed and guaranteed by the international community, especially the United Nations.
Likewise demarcation of borders would not be easy . For long Damascus has argued that the disputed Sheba farms currently held by Israel is a Syrian territory. However, during Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, both Syria and Lebanon claimed this to be a Lebanese territory. Syria even claimed that it had ‘transferred’ this to Lebanon. So far Syria has not provided any legal documents substantiating this claim. Given the recent tension and acrimony, Damascus would be in no hurry to resolve the problem.
Syrian recognition, normalisation of diplomatic relations and the presence of a full-fledged embassy would not however change the fundamental problem facing Lebanon. It is haunted by factional interests and infighting among the three principal groups, namely, Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims. Hence, Lebanese ability to enjoy the fruits of this historic moment ironically depends on the leeway and space provided by Damascus. Hence, at least in the short run, Lebanon would continue to be at the mercy of Syria.