Articles and Commentaries |
July 1, 2024

West Asia: A Region in Turmoil

Written By: K N Pandita

West Asia, a term distinct from the more politically charged “Middle East,” encompasses several sub-regions. These include Anatolia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Mesopotamia, the Armenian highlands, the Levant, Cyprus, the Sinai Peninsula, and the South Caucasus. The Isthmus of Suez in Egypt separates this region from Africa.

The term “West Asia” appears to have gained traction in contemporary geopolitical and economic discourse since at least the mid-1960s.[1] As of 2008, the population of West Asia was estimated at 272 million, with projections reaching 370 million by 2030.[2] The region is predominantly Arab, Persian, and Turkish, as reflected in the dominant languages: Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, each with roughly 70 million speakers. Smaller communities speaking Kurdish, Azerbaijani, Hebrew, Armenian, and Neo-Aramaic languages contribute to the region’s linguistic diversity.[3]

While Islam is a unifying thread across much of West Asia, the region boasts a rich tapestry of religious traditions. Christians, Jews, Baha’is, and Zoroastrians all have a presence here. Even within Islam, there’s a spectrum of denominations, with Sunni and Shia being the most prominent. Furthermore, Islamic practices can vary significantly across cultures, even within these main branches. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is a critical player in West Asian regional politics. Established in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in May 1971, it’s the second-largest intergovernmental organisation globally, after the United Nations, with 57 member states spanning four continents. As outlined in its charter, the OIC’s core mission is to represent the Muslim world, safeguard Muslim interests, and promote international peace, security, harmony, and interfaith dialogue. The organisation has emerged as a prominent voice for the Muslim world in global political discourse, offering its perspective on strategies relevant to Muslim-majority nations.

Geographically, West Asia stretches from the eastern Mediterranean, encompassing countries like Syria, Jordan, Iran, and Iraq, to the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia. Due to the enormous number of ethnicities within this region, a comprehensive profile would be pretty extensive. Iraq’s population, for instance, is comprised of 76% Arabs, 19% Kurds, and a remaining 5% of Turkmens, Assyrians, Armenians, and smaller groups.

 

Sectarian strife

West Asia is a critical region in modern history, plagued by inter-state and intra-state conflicts that significantly impact global strategic landscapes. Two key factors contribute to the high degree of unpredictability in these conflicts. Firstly, the vast reserves of hydrocarbons have exposed the entire region to the political and strategic manoeuvring of Western nations, primarily led by the United States. More recently, China has entered the fray, playing the “pro-Muslim card” in its oil diplomacy, with a visible presence in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the world’s top two oil producers.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, deeply rooted in the country’s Shia traditions, marked a turning point in contemporary regional politics, igniting sectarian consciousness. The revolution manifested the growing prominence of political Islam in West Asia, challenging the “secular” enticements of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism that had dominated the 1960s. Iranian jurists framed the revolution as “Islamic,” not a purely sectarian claim. As Talmiz Ahmad writes, “Many Sunnis initially viewed it as a successful mobilisation of Islam against a Western-backed secular regime, while others saw it as promoting the interests of ‘the poor and the oppressed.'”[4]

Drawing a parallel, Tunisian Islamist intellectual and political leader Rashid al-Ghannoushi linked the Khomeini revolution to the “global Islamic project” championed by prominent figures of political Islam like Abul Ala Mawdudi and Hassan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood). In their view, Islam provided a strong foundation for seeking freedom for their people from authoritarian and colonial control.[5]

 

Salafis and al Qaeda

In Saudi Arabia, Salafis, followers of Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings (1263-1328), are increasingly represented by a younger generation of scholars. These scholars defer to established Salafi jurists but consider themselves more knowledgeable not only in religious matters but also in contemporary issues like history, politics, and world affairs. A significant Salafi faction advocates for violence to establish their ideal Islamic society. Their ideology traces back to the “global jihad” organised in 1980s Afghanistan by a coalition of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States.[6]

To bolster this state-backed jihad, thousands of young Muslims flocked to Afghanistan’s battlefields. There, they received indoctrination in Salafi Islam alongside weapons and subversion training. The Soviet withdrawal and subsequent collapse were hailed by jihadists as a victory of Islamic monotheism over Western atheism, or more simply, Islam’s triumph over the West. The fall of an atheist power, in their view, confirmed the righteousness of their fight. Returning home, these Arab Salafis, influenced by the “Sahwa” ideology (meaning awakening or introspection), demanded reforms in 1994, envisioning a “conservative Islamic democracy.”[7]

With the backing of the religious establishment (ulema), the Saudi regime cracked down on the Sahwa movement in 1994. This forced jihadists to emerge from the shadows of Sahwa al-Islamiyya. In August 1996, Osama bin Laden, a previous supporter of Sahwa, issued his “Declaration of Jihad against the Americans occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.”[8] This declaration served as the foundation for a new “global jihad” led by al-Qaeda. Bin Laden viewed the conservative religious scholars (ulema) as instruments of the Saudi state, used to suppress “genuine” scholars who were truly committed and willing to fight for their beliefs. Two years later, in February 1998, al-Qaeda further escalated tensions with their announcement that “killing Americans and their allies, civilians or military personnel, is an individual duty for every Muslim wherever possible.” Talmiz Ahmad concludes that this declaration served as a rallying cry for global jihad, culminating in the events of 9/11 and its subsequent spread across West Asia and North Africa.[9]

 

Conflicts

West Asia occupies a critical position on the world stage, holding immense strategic, political, economic, and religious significance. Its energy resources and strategic location make it particularly important for the United States and emerging powers like India and China. The region boasts a rich history, having served as the cradle for numerous civilisations. However, for the past two centuries, it has become a battleground for the interests of major foreign powers. In present times, West Asia faces growing instability due to a multitude of conflicts. The ongoing tensions between Israel and Hamas, the hostility between Iran and Israel, the civil war in Yemen, and the presence of Iranian-backed militias in Lebanon all contribute to the region’s volatility.

 

The Sykes-Picot Agreement

After the downfall of the Ottomans, their former territory was divided among the victorious allied powers, chiefly Britain and France. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a 1916 unofficial treaty between the United Kingdom and France, with assent from the Russian Empire and Italy, to define their mutually agreed spheres of influence and control in an eventual partition of the Ottoman Empire. The primary negotiations leading to the agreement occurred between 23 November 1915 and 3 January 1916, on which date the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot initiated an agreed-upon memorandum.

The agreement effectively divided the Ottoman provinces outside the Arabian Peninsula into areas of British and French control and influence by the Sykes-Picot line. The agreement allocated to Britain the control of what is today southern Israel and Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq, and an additional small area that included the ports of Haifa and Acre to allow access to the Mediterranean. The Arabs were not consulted abut the border change. Consequently, hostile tribes and factions were lumped together, a breeding ground for perpetual conflict.

 

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Historical Impasse

The Palestinian territory holds significant religious significance for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with Jerusalem serving as a holy city for all three. It enshrines some of their most sacred sites. In 1917, during World War I, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration. This declaration announced support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, then an Ottoman territory with a relatively small Jewish population. The declaration significantly boosted global Jewish support for Zionism and became a cornerstone of the British Mandate for Palestine, which later gave rise to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The Balfour Declaration is widely considered a primary cause of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a dispute that has tragically claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions. The conflict’s intractability often stems from the British government’s perceived contradiction of its previous assurances to the Arabs of Palestine regarding their role in governing the new nation.[10] Palestinians aspire to establish an independent state, ideally encompassing at least a portion of historical Palestine. However, achieving this goal remains elusive due to several factors such as Israeli defense of its borders and its control over the West Bank, the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and internal political divisions within Palestine.

 

The Syrian Imbroglio

Syria is home to diverse ethnic groups and religious denominations such as the Syrian Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Assyrians, Circassians, Armenians, Greeks and Mandaeans, with Arabs being the largest ethnic group. Syria’s religious groups include Sunnis, Alawis, Shiites, Christians, Jews, Mandaeans, Druze, Salafis, Ismailis and Yazidis. The largest religious group is Sunni Muslims. In 1963, there was a Ba’athist coup d’état after which the Ba’ath Party maintained its power. From 1963 to 2011, the country was in a state of emergency, which meant that citizens did not have constitutional protections.

Several political scientists, military experts, and journalists have stated that the Syrian Civil War is primarily rooted in a feud between Russia and the United States and their allies in the region over natural gas pipelines passing through Syria on their way to European markets.[11] The ongoing conflict in Syria is widely described as a series of overlapping proxy wars between the regional and world powers, primarily between the United States and Russia as well as between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Iran, a Shia country, sees Assad, a Shia, as its closest ally in the Arab world. Russia has carried out airstrikes against the protestors and supports the Syrian government in the UN. Syria has Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base and an airbase, apart from other military interests. Foreign Shia militias are recruited by Iran from Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq to fight in Syria.  A coalition (SNC) of anti-government factions, based in Turkey, aims to set up a civil and democratic state in Syria. Several Gulf States have recognised the Coalition (SNC) as the legitimate government of Syria. The USA gives weapons, training, and military assistance to the rebels. Following the defeat of ISIS, the United States exited Syria. The Syrian government and rebel groups opposed ISIS and, after the latter was defeated, took over the territory that ISIS had previously controlled.

 

Iran-Israel feud

The downward spiral of Israel-Iran relations began with the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iran’s new Islamist regime viewed Israel as a Western colonial outpost and Zionism as a version of imperialism. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led to Iranian support for the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon. After the end of the Cold War, Israeli strategy shifted from engaging with states on its periphery to building on its 1979 peace agreement with Egypt. Towards that end, it chose to perpetuate Iran’s isolation, viewing opposition to Iran as promoting nascent Arab-Israeli cooperation. A significant concern of Israel is Iran’s nuclear programme, which it considers an existential threat. Periodic statements by Iranian leaders of decimating Israel reinforce such concerns.

Iran’s hostility to Israel also extends to the Arab states who are trying to befriend Israel. Consequently, Tehran has raised militant outfits and deployed them as its proxies against the Arab states: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, Shi’ite militias in Syria and Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force—a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces, manages these proxies. To support these proxies, Iran has made massive investments in raising vast stockpiles of rockets, missiles and drones. The use of proxies provides Iran deniability and shields it from accountability for its destabilising policies.[12] In 2019, the US State Department designated the IRGC as a whole as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO).

 

Hamas-Israel bellicosity

Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement), is the largest and most capable militant group in the Palestinian territories. It emerged in 1987 during the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, as an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch. The group is committed to armed resistance against Israel and the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state in Israel’s place. Hamas has been the de facto governing body in the Gaza Strip since 2007. It was designated as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department in October 1997.

In attacks on Israel as well as against ISIS and other Salafist armed group members based in Gaza, Hamas uses improvised explosive devices, short- and long-range rockets and mortars, small arms, and also man-portable air defence systems, antitank missiles, and unmanned aircraft. It also resorts to kidnapping, cyber espionage, and computer network exploitation operations. The October 7, 2023, attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians resulted in the deaths of 1,189 Israelis, with several Israelis also taken hostage, which led to the present Israel-Hamas war.[13] Israel’s military retaliation has killed at least 36,096 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.[14]  Despite efforts by the US towards that end, there appears to be no end to the conflict. West Asia thus remains mired in a cycle of violence, fuelling regional tensions and rivalries between regional entities. As the hub of international trade and transit, the region’s instability adversely impacts global trade.

 

India-West Asia relations

India has significant stakes in the region, including energy, trade, and the large India diaspora. West Asia accounts for 70% of India’s imported energy demand. It is the gateway to landlocked and energy-rich Central Asia. The proposed North-South International Corridor will pass through some West Asian countries, bringing prosperity to their peoples. Economic links between India and the GCC nations are strengthening and increasing mutual reliance. India’s third and fourth-largest commercial partners are the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. India has the world’s third biggest Muslim population, with Saudi Arabia as an important pilgrimage destination. Six West Asian nations (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain) account for over 70% of all Indians living abroad. Their remittances help stabilise the Indian economy.

India has invested in Iran’s Chabahar port, which will serve as a commerce bridge connecting India, Iran, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. India has strong defence and security relations with Israel, which benefits its security and military modernisation efforts. West Asia is an essential aspect of India’s Indo-Pacific maritime realm. Naval cooperation is already gaining traction, with Oman granting Indian naval warships berthing rights in the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy. And finally, close collaboration with West Asian states is significant for India to fight radicalism and growing terrorism.

 

Conclusion

West Asia is the most militarised region of the globe. Energy resources and religion are at the root of conflicts. Several peace formulae have been proposed over the years but have failed. For durable peace, the foremost condition is that all denominations must accept that everybody has a right to live and prosper. External forces must curtail their interference in bilateral or multilateral engagement in disputed areas. Iran must disband or withdraw its proxies from the entire region. Many world powers and the UN strongly recommend the formula of creating two states in Palestine.

For India, peace in the region is a vital concern. India has good relations with the Arab states and Israel and is thus in a position to play a positive role in any future peace initiative to bring about a lasting solution to the many conflicts plaguing the region.

 

Author Bio: Shri K N Pandita has a PhD in Iranian Studies from the University of Teheran. He is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University.

 

References:

[1] The Tobacco Industry of Western Asia, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, 1964.

[2] Data for “15 West Asian countries”, from Maddison (2003, 2007). Angus Maddison, 2003, The World Economy: Historical Statistics, Vol. 2, OECD, Paris, ISBN 92-64-10412-7.

[3] Laing-Marshall, Andrea (2005). “Assyrians”. Encyclopedia of the World’s Minorities. Vol. 1. New York-London: Routledge. pp. 149–150. ISBN 978-1-135-19388-1

[4] Turmoil in West Asia, IDSA Monograph Series No. 50 April 2016, p 8-9

[5] Brigitte Marechal and Sami Zemni, The Dynamics of Sunni-Shia Relationships:

Doctrine, Transnationalism, Intellectuals and the Media, Hurst & Company, London, 2013, p. 228.

[6] Turmoil in West Asia, loc, cit. p.25

[7] Guido Steinberg, “Jihadi-Salafism and the Shias”, in Roel Meijer (ed.), Global

Salafism, Hurst & Company, London, p.117

[8] Turmoil in West Asia, loc cit. P 25

[9] Loc. cit p. 26

[10] For a full description of Israeli oppression of Palestinian Arabs see ‘1948 Palestinian expulsion and flight’ on Wikipedia

[11] https://byjus.com/free-ias-prep/syrian-civil-war/

[12] US States Department official website: https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2021/iran/

[13] AFP – Agence France Presse May 28, 2024: https://www.barrons.com/articles/new-tally-puts-oct-7-attack-death-toll-in-israel-at-1-189-3e038de6

[14] For a fuller description of the Israel-Hamas wars including the tragedy of 7 October 2023, see ‘Hamas attack October 7 a day of hell on earth in Israel’ by Samual Forey, Le Monde, October 30, 2023

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