Iraq War –– Ripples in West Asia

An IDC Analysis 


New Delhi, 30 April 2003




Iraq and West Asian Neighbours 



The fall of Baghdad has had a tectonic effect, sending shockwaves through the entire West Asian region. Most of Iraq’s neighbours, which have monarchical dictatorships, are wondering whose regime change could be next?

Till the break-up of the Soviet Union some of these countries had an alternative to fall back upon for economic and security support. However, with America emerging as the sole super power displaying its overwhelming military power in Afghanistan and Iraq, and bent upon creating Islamic democracies in the region, there seems to be nothing left but to be on Yankee mercy.

The moderate Arab states that backed America’s campaign in Iraq, can expect to emerge largely unscathed or even enhanced by the outcome of the war. But other hard line countries like Syria, Iran and to a large extent Saudi Arabia are very vulnerable to the American power on their doorstep.

We give below our analysis of the likely behaviour that each of these neighbours may embark upon, either voluntarily or under duress, and how the entire region’s power politics could derive a new shape.

The politics of oil, of course, will play an all-encompassing role. The Kuwaiti Al-Rai al-Aam newspaper had reported that American forces had blown up the oil pipeline running between Kirkuk in northern Iraq and the Syrian port of Banias. The pipeline was believed to have supplied Syria with 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil a day, in defiance of UN sanctions. The report remains unconfirmed, but a diplomatic source in Damascus said that the supply of Iraqi oil to Syria appeared to have dried up. The humbling of Arabs by the United States could also make them less receptive to Bush administration efforts to sponsor democracy in the Middle East.

Iran –– The Ace of Hearts

Rhetoric apart, the Iranian Government showed considerable restraint before and during the Iraqi conflict. It chose to condemn rather than actively retaliate against several stray missiles, one of which killed a young boy, or the invasion of Iranian airspace and warnings from America not to get involved. No doubt its efforts will be directed on securing own national interest in the post-Saddam Iraq, but events of the last few days indicate that Iran would not be averse to fish in the troubled waters using the Iraqi Shi-ite majority hook, line and sinker. Most Iranians rightly feel that they are slowly being encircled and can easily be targeted because of their record of support for militant Islamic groups and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, particularly the nuclear programme. From the American point of view, despite being on the “axis of evil” list, Washington would prefer that Iranians themselves bring about a change. Yet there is a 50–50 possibility of Iran facing the American rod.

Jordan –– The Jack of Diamonds

The 41-year young king Abdullah II of Jordan must have breathed a sigh of relief that the conflict across the border in Iraq was over swiftly. However, the popular resentment, caused by Jordan’s controversial policy of allowing US troops to operate from its territory, will not disappear quickly and is bound to impact upon the nature of governance. Much will depend on the way that the postwar phase is handled. Though American victory was an accepted fact, many Jordanians were hoping that the Iraqis would inflict painful losses on the “US–British invaders and occupiers”. But the reality is slowly sinking in, leaving a sense of frustration and anger over the presence of US troops in Jordan. Historically, Jordan, wedged between Israel and Iraq, had accepted Western near suzerainty, first British and then American. Its aim in future would be to sail through this storm and emerge with least damage to its strategic interests.

The King is also banking on the promise of postwar order to bring prosperity to Jordan’s weak economy, which has suffered more than £1.3 billion in losses since the start of the war on Iraq, its main market and sole supplier of cheap oil. Washington has already agreed to give Jordan more than £700 million over one year to offset the impact of war, while Japan has pledged £64 million in grants. Jordan has strengthened security measures on its common borders with Iraq, saying it could not afford to take responsibility for the war-affected Iraqis. 

Saudi Arabia –– The King of Spades

Inspite of being termed the King of Spades in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia is likely to be the one most vulnerable to changes in the region. The Saudi authorities cooperated with American and British forces more than they admitted. In particular they allowed coalition aircraft to use bases in Saudi Arabia for combat operations against Iraq. But the war has been deeply unpopular with ordinary Saudi people. The authorities fear a backlash from the rising anti-American sentiment and may press America to close its bases in the country and move all foreign troops off its soil. The monarchy, most die-hard of all, is also concerned about American plans for a representative government in Iraq and Washington’s declared aim to spread democracy through the region. It is quite worried about the prospect of a Shia Muslim leadership taking control in Baghdad and in league with Iran, challenging the Sunni Muslim domination throughout the Arab world. Furthermore, the Saudis are also concerned that if a pro-American government in Iraq allows US companies to exploit the country’s huge oil resources, US will become far less dependent on Saudi oil for its energy needs. Saudi rulers have both internal and external pressures to ward off. How much they will have to change in the process of adjustments, the next five years will tell.

Egypt –– The King of Hearts

President Mubarak was one of the few Arab leaders who fought very hard to find a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi crisis. For Egypt the war has had a considerable economic cost, with the Government estimating that it will lose between $6 billion and $8 billion, mostly in lost tourism revenue. Although there will be some compensation –– the World Bank is finalising a $1 billion loan and the US has promised $2.3 billion in aid –– the war could not have come at a worse time. The Egyptian economy is at one of its lowest points in years, its pound having lost nearly 20 per cent of its value since the beginning of the year and causing severe inflation.

Anger about the economy has been compounded by the widespread belief that while Egypt publicly opposed the war, it provided secret support. As the war began, the largest demonstrations in a generation took place in Cairo. They also featured rare direct criticism of Mubarak, once a taboo, and demands for political reforms. Hosni Mubarak, the resilient ruler, will have to use all his finesse to placate the Opposition and turn around the economic downslide. Some Americans feel this time he may not succeed as several neo-conservative allies of President Bush, including Richard Perle and James Woolsey, the former CIA chief, have publicly expressed a desire to destabilise his rule.

Syria –– The Queen of Clubs

Not much was heard about Syria, the second most powerful enemy of Israel, till the start of the war. It was neither in the list of “axis of evil” nor the one having oil or any other natural wealth. It was just known as rabidly anti Israel and pro Russia giving help to Palestinian Terrorist groups. In the middle of the Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, accused Syria of helping to arm Iraqi forces by permitting hundreds of Arab volunteers to cross into Iraq. Subsequent unconfirmed reports claimed that Syria had helped to channel Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles to Iraq. The warnings from Washington were quickly backed by military action. Before the end of war, a bus travelling through Iraq, 100 miles from the Syrian border, was struck by a US missile, killing five Arab volunteer fighters. Reports of bombing and low-flying American aircraft near the Abu Kamal crossing have been interpreted as an attempt to deter vehicles from travelling to Baghdad. America has also closed the unauthorized oil pipeline from Iraq to Syria.

The anger of US might is breathing down Assad’s neck that compels him to refrain from undertaking any anti-American act in the face of the naked warning, “Syria is a good case where it should conclude that the chemical weapons programme and the biological weapons programme it has been pursuing are things it should give up.” Robert Baer, a former senior CIA officer, believes that the Pentagon has “pretty much decided to go after Syria”, taking advantage of the presence of American forces in Iraq. The Syrians are “easy to get, they’re vulnerable. There’s been this build-up of rhetoric and, of course, the Israelis would like us to do it”. The queen of clubs is in real trouble.

Lebanon –– The Jack of Clubs

In loudly opposing the American-led invasion of Iraq, Lebanon echoed its political master, Syria. But its stance against the war caused a diplomatic rift with Kuwait, the Arab world’s leading supporter of using military force to unseat Saddam Hussein. Kuwait is one of the largest donors of financial aid to Lebanon and has played a major role in the multibillion-dollar reconstruction programme in the past decade after the 1975–90  civil war. This diplomatic rift is threatening a $500 million loan from Kuwait to Lebanon.

With 15,000 Syrian troops deployed in Lebanon, Syria dominates the political process of its tiny neighbour. But in the long run it could be a potential winner if the developments in the region eventually lead to less Syrian control over the country. Lebanon’s chief source of instability is in the south, where fighters of the Hezbollah organisation are deployed in strength along the border with Israel. Many Lebanese fear that Israel may take advantage and mount a military operation to wipe out its arch-enemy.

Turkey –– The Queen of Hearts

Having a long time record of being a US ally in the region, Turkey acted like a reluctant maiden concerned for its chastity. Except for coming away from the war with a clear conscience, it certainly strained its ties with Washington over refusal to allow the deployment of US soldiers on its soil. When Turkey’s parliament voted on March 1 to oppose the US deployment, it not only deprived the United States of what was felt to be a crucial northern front against Baghdad, it also deprived itself of a multibillion-dollar aid package to compensate for war related economic losses, the chance to take its own troops into northern Iraq to guard against any attempts at independence by either Iraqi or Turkish Kurds and very likely the chance to have a good deal of say in the formation of a post-Saddam Iraq.

A good section of the Turkish population remains unconvinced of the need and the legitimacy of the US-led war and is angry that Washington went through with a move that could greatly destabilise the country’s borders and economy. The long term interests of the nation necessitated a more rational approach by supporting US designs as it had no political, racial or religious ties with the Arabs in general and Iraq in particular.

A visit by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, at the fag end of   war was followed by Turkish agreement to allow US logistical and humanitarian support through its soil and a deal for a greatly reduced sum of US money ($8.5 billion) in credits rather than a package worth up to $30 billion to help Turkey’s already ailing economy, but this has been seen as simply an attempt to smooth the problems over. How bad the ties have been hurt, only time will tell. In sum total, both sides achieved considerably less than they hoped for at the start of a period that many agree was one of the bleakest in the relationship. In the light of greater US rebuff to France, Germany and Russia, it will be interesting to see how Turkey plays its diplomatic chess in the European Union. Of course the shaping of the Kurdish problem will be its immediate concern.

Israel –– The Joker of Them All

Israel ‘the dog in the Arab manger’ in supporting US action in Iraq, was not without concern over the danger from Saddam’s ‘Scuds’ and bio-chemical weapons. It greeted the TV images from Baghdad with a quiet satisfaction, sure that the threat always felt from Saddam Hussein had been expunged. But with this pleasure was a degree of wariness that the new post-Saddam era might bring demands to reach an early peace settlement with the Palestinians. For the duration of the US–British war in Iraq, Israeli officials had emphasised that it was not their conflict, while supporting the aims of toppling Saddam. Ariel Sharon’s Government was fearful of British attempts to push President Bush into early publication, and implementation, of the international peace “road map”, which envisages an independent Palestinian state by 2005. Majority of Israelis, however, believe that a successful war against Saddam removes a threat while sending a powerful message to the Arab world that the Jewish State is there to stay.

Palestine –– The Dummy

How successfully US can smooth over the Arab/Muslim world’s wrath-like anger, will depend upon whether it can bring about a quick and fair solution of the Palestinian problem. Unless USA acts fairly, the Islamic terrorism will only gain ground on the shoulders of suicidal attacks. Muslims don’t forget or forgive easily, and there were a significant number of followers of this religion in USA. The incident of an American Muslim soldier shooting in Kuwait on his own people before the start of the war, should not be glossed over. It has deep ramifications. Palestinians had not expected Saddam’s armies to defeat the military might of the United States and Britain but they had hoped for an Iraqi resistance that would give the invaders a bloody nose and rekindle a sense of Arab pride.

Most saw Saddam Hussein as their life-saver in the way he stood up for the Palestinian cause and gave his support economically, morally and militarily. They are in the vanguard of Arabs who feel most humiliated and frustrated by the recent events. The heartening development is the Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas presenting a new Cabinet to Yasser Arafat thus ending a days long standoff with the Palestinian leader over its composition. This should keep the US-backed peace plan on track. President Bush said he would present that plan only after an empowered Palestinian prime minister is installed.

Russia –– Not Too Distant A Neighbour

Whether pundits agree or not, the war in Iraq has significant implications for Russia's international role and domestic developments. There was speculation about what pushed Putin to become such an active member of the anti-Bush coalition: Was it nostalgia for lost superpower status, desire for "revenge" or an attempt to poke the United States in the eye, as many say? Yet after extending non-committal support to France and Germany in their opposition to unilateral action by USA, Putin lost no time in siding with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and supporting his scenario of going to the UN for the Iraqi peace settlement.

Russia could thus serve as a bridge between the European allies, facilitating fence-mending. But its primary concern is about the possible destabilization in an area close to Russian southern borders, the fear of the "pre-emptive war" being continued; future of its oil contracts in Iraq as also the need for greater substance in US–Russian relations. There is also a large debt owed by Iraq to Russia and the latter has said that no one at the official level had so far suggested that the Russian government write off those debts. Russia is ready to negotiate the writing-off of Iraqi debts only with the country's legitimate authorities, not with the US' transitional Iraqi administration.

The problem is that the absence of serious strategic engagement, leaves only the leaders' personal chemistry  and  the threat of a common enemy, i.e. international terrorism, but these are not sufficient to give the relationship a greater meaning. Moreover, Iraq, North Korea and Iran continue to be a source of deep disagreements between Washington and Moscow. But the most serious consequence of Iraqi war is on the material and thinking substance of the Russian military establishment. Iraq was equipped with Russian military hardware though of older vintage and its senior defence officers were engaged in training Iraqis and formulating their operational strategy as well tactics against the American military behemoth. All that seem to have failed miserably. The Russians are therefore in urgent need of a ‘military revolution’.

India –– Lessons to be Learnt

The Indian Armed Forces too need to undertake a serious study of the Anglo–American methodology and experiences in the Iraq war. A major lesson is the joint planning and execution of modern warfare and importance of CI4. (Please see ‘Iraq War – Lessons for India’ on this site for more details.) Iraq had demonstrated that not only Russia but also the West had to face new challenges of the 21st century. A new world order demands the creation of new international mechanisms and Russia and India could still play a significant role.

(With acknowledgement to of 10 Apr 03)

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