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Cauldron of Conflicts | West Asia at War

The Middle East – or West Asia, depending on where one sits – is the cradle of civilisations,

the birthplace of three major religions, the cauldron of conflicts. It is the setting, according to veteran Indian diplomat Talmiz Ahmad, “for the interplay of the four regional people — the Arab, the Persian, the Jew and the Turk”. Here there are deep civilisational affinities – bonds of philosophy, faith, art and literature; there are multiple identities – of ethnicity, of faith, sect, nation; and there are ancient rivalries and atavistic enmities. Autocratic monarchies co-exist with artificially carved-out modern states; revolutions come in their socialist or religious avatar; the amorphous “street” has a power of its own. It has served as a hiding place for those who would destroy the world and as a graveyard of empires drawn by avarice and ambition. Here the spring has come and gone, or perhaps is coming again. Little wonder that for centuries the area has drawn to itself romantics and adventurers, fortune seekers and conspirators. All one needs to do to understand this magnetic pull is to spend a night at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem or at the Shepheard’s Hotel by

the Nile in Cairo.

West Asia is also a paradise for the serious diplomat; its complexity and unpredictability offers endless potential for analysis and debate. Talmiz Ahmad has dealt with the region in various diplomatic capacities for decades, including twice as India’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Bringing his long years of practical experience to bear on wide academic reading, Ahmad has produced a highly readable and incisive account of this tormented landscape that extends from Afghanistan to the Maghreb. His conceptual paradigm – and there can be

many for such a complicated region – is an interesting one, in as much as it best captures the pervasive zeitgeist — the spirit of resistance. Resistance to colonial intervention fired by nationalism and socialism; resistance to the formation of Israel; resistance, on the basis of radical Islam, to Western influences; resistance to US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and the resistance of the people to authoritarian rule.

Following this conceptual framework, Ahmad’s sweeping survey traces the region’s early clash with the West, beginning with Napoleon’s arrival in Alexandria in 1798. The imperialist ambitions of the French, the British, and the Germans, fuelled by the discovery of oil, made for a volatile mix in inherently unstable societies. The colonial design was to find its apogee in the Mandate system. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled after World War I, France and Britain jostled for strategic and economic gains in its wake. The British needed oil from Iran

and Iraq, cotton from Egypt, control over the land and sea routes to India while French interests lay in North Africa and ‘Greater Syria’. In this jostling, contradictory and sweeping agreements and commitments were made: the promise of an ‘independent’ Arab kingdom to Sharif Hussain of Mecca as reward for an Arab revolt (popularised in the legend of Lawrence of Arabia), the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved out territories between France and Britain after the War and the Balfour Declaration that promised a ‘national home for the Jewish people in Palestine’. Ahmad lucidly explains how these contradictory commitments were clothed in a self-righteous mission of trust under the Mandates of the League of Nations and how they played out in the decades that followed. His residual assessment is that despite the “dubious circumstances of their birth” the states that were carved out “by discredited colonial masters with little local knowledge and even less sensitivity to the area’s conditions” have endured with their borders intact. Despite the

fact that the territories were “surgically dismembered to suit imperial interests, or later, to facilitate colonial governance through cynical divide-and-rule policies” and at least in two cases – Iraq and Transjordan – rulers with no local links were placed over resentful populations (to give effect to the promise to Sharif Hussain), national identities – such as Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese or Jordanian – today supersede Arab or tribal or Islamic identities. The Balfour Declaration – and the ensuing Israel-Palestinian conflict – has however left its own tragic and continuing legacy.

The unquiet decades that followed World War II have been examined in considerable detail: Arab nationalism that led to the rise of Nasser, the Ba’ath party, and the liberation movement in Algeria; the Suez crises; the gamechanger that was the Six-day war in 1967 and the wide-ranging implications of the comprehensive Arab defeat at the hands of Israel. Ahmad draws clear conclusions from the last event: in the wake of the War, all prospect “of Palestinian redemption was permanently lost… with the Arab states resolutely moving away from the vision of transnational Arab fraternity”. Admirers of Anwar Sadat may find his assessment of the peace-making Egyptian president a trifle harsh particularly when he says “as Sadat bowed in prayer at Al-Aqsa in 1977, he bowed not before Allah, but before the State of Israel”. Ahmad apportions the blame to other rulers too:

For the Arab…the experience of defeat and disaster has to be endured with the torment of tyranny… Whether monarchical or republican, every ruler who occupied the throne in WANA (West Asia and North Africa) has inaugurated a long reign of terror against his own people. (p110)

Ahmad is equally harsh on Israel who

in victory has displayed no magnanimity, no sense of accommodation with its foes; decade after decade, leader after leader, it has insisted on its maximalist claims — insensitive about the privation it inflicts on its Palestinian cousins, unmindful of the hoary wisdom that for triumph to last, it should be clothed in modesty. (p110)

There is much more of interest in this volume to grip any student of West Asia: the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Saudi alignment with the West and its sectarian rivalry for political influence with Iran — all leading inevitably to the rise of Al-Qaeda and the horrific drama of 9/11. These developments are not seen only in themselves but as a reflection of American policies deployed in the Middle East particularly in the crucial post-Cold War years: the war for the evacuation of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, the “dual containment” policy followed at Israeli behest that targeted both Iran and Iraq, the loss of US interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and the pro-Israeli tilt of US leaders at Oslo and Camp David. The blunders did not end with 9/11: In the decades that followed, the author argues, the US conducted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq inspired by neo-con policies without sufficient understanding of the political and cultural landscape of the region, without clarity of objectives or strategy and the impact of its own past policies in creating ‘jihadi’ warriors

or in supporting autocratic rulers. As the US under George W Bush blundered into the Middle East like an ungainly behemoth, then senator Joe Biden called it the “most ideological administration in US history, led by neoconservatives who believe that the only asset that matters is our military might”. As president, Biden has followed that thought in pulling out of Afghanistan, but not neatly enough. This US administration’s policies in the

Middle East still seem locked in a halfstep, defined by contradictory impulses: the Middle East is not a region from which you can easily disengage and still retain influence. In Israel, for instance, Biden has virtually continued Trump’s policies and further reduced America’s chances of kick-starting the moribund peace process with the Palestinians; in Iran, the chances of revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be peaceful are dim and in Saudi Arabia, the withdrawal of the “blank cheque” given by Trump to Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) – which seemed likely when Talmiz Ahmad finished his book – is not a real option anymore after Biden’s fist bump in Riyadh with the Crown Prince.

The same uncertainty in American policy, according to Ahmad, dogs the I2U2 (or Quad 2.0) of which India is part. He argues that this “minilateral” lacks a common strategic motivation and is not going to be able to contain China or Iran in the region; to be fair, the I2U2 seems aware of its own limitations and is focussing on low hanging economic projects. Going against the commonly held view, he argues that the ‘Abraham Accords’ enjoy no popular support in West Asia and that Israel will “remain an outsider in West Asian affairs until it reaches a settlement with the Palestinians”. When – if at all – that eventuality will come to pass remains a wide-open question; the Palestinian question has long lost its centrality in

West Asian politics and transactional impulses rule the roost. Stability and peace are likely to remain strangers in West Asia. All the more reason that Talmiz Ahmad’s authoritative book be considered essential reading.


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