Joe Biden’s presidential election victory will usher significant changes in the US’ approach towards West Asia. The incoming Biden administration will face new challenges in the region, amid the popular call within the US to “end endless wars”. Escalating regional rivalries, protracted political instabilities, and recurring protests against foreign involvement will be major concerns for the US to preserve its interests in the region.
The war in Syria and Yemen remains a pressing issue for Washington. Iran’s influence in both Syria and Yemen has grown in the past years, and the IRGC and Hezbollah trained militia groups have been able to control some of the strategic positions in Syria. Biden’s top advisors have mentioned that the President-elect considers sanctions as a necessary non-military foreign policy tool in Syria and sanctions like the Caesar Act should be a part of a comprehensive strategy driven by diplomacy. Biden had earlier criticised Trump’s policy in Syria endangering the Kurdish allies in the region. However, it is yet to be seen how Biden would ensure the security of Syrian Kurds amid tense US-Turkey relations, which is likely to continue in the coming years. Concerning Yemen, the incoming Biden administration will likely work towards blocking the weapons supply from Iran to the Houthis. Biden had called to reassess Washington’s ties with Riyadh at the backdrop of the war in Yemen. However, in the larger context, it is more likely that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will remain working closely with the US sharing converging strategic interests in the region. The new administration plausibly will work towards healing the rift within GCC as Qatar hosts some of the Pentagon’s most important military bases. Amid growing Iranian aggression, the US’ engagement with GCC remains essential and is likely to progress in the coming years.
Biden has engaged with prominent Iraqi leaders in the past and is aware of the intricacies of a political landscape embroiled in sectarianism. After the US withdrawal from Iraq, Tehran widened its inroads in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi understands the complexities of engaging with the US, especially regarding issues like the US-Iraq strategic dialogue that began earlier in June. Strong militia organisations like Iran-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi play a crucial role in shaping regional security in the current context. The clash between Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on political issues reflects the growing tension in Iraq’s political landscape and the long-standing ideological contentions between seminaries of Najaf and Qom. Such strains certainly make it more difficult to bring political stability to Baghdad. Washington’s negotiations with Tehran remain important for Iraq to make any progress as the country remains stuck between the US and Iran. Biden will be cautious on lifting sanctions on Iran, especially when Iran’s stacked election is expected to bring a hardline government to power next year.
Like Iraq, the situation in Lebanon also hinges on Biden’s approach towards Iran. Lebanon faces severe sanctions currently, and only if the Iranian regime responds promptly to any renegotiation process the US extends, there could be eventual relief on some of these sanctions. Prime Minister Saad Hariri offers little hope in any solution as Lebanese politicians have already lost the credibility and trust in the eyes of Lebanese people. Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, the single largest bloc in the Lebanese parliament, is at loggerheads with PM Hariri. Both have accused each other of obstructing political and economic reforms in the country. Bassil, a close ally of Hezbollah, now faces sanctions by the US over alleged corruption. However, the developments in Lebanon are not an immediate concern for the US. Biden has indicated that the US and its European allies like France could work closely to see positive developments in the region. So, the progress in France’s reform programme for Lebanon and Washington’s solidarity remain essential for political stability in Lebanon.
Biden has been a critic of illegal Israeli settlements inconsistent with international law as per several UNSC resolutions. Biden has also indicated his support for the Palestinian people, which could translate under his administration to reinstating humanitarian aid to people in the West Bank and Gaza. However, it is highly unlikely that Biden would undo the progress of the Abraham Accords and the peace/normalisation treaties between Arabs and Israelis. Biden had earlier remarked that “American military aid to Israel is the best investment”. Hence, despite some relief from Trump’s unprecedented decisions, the Palestinian Authorities will be pushed to a difficult situation during negotiations in the coming years.
America’s shale revolution has enabled the country in cutting down its dependency on oil-rich powers of West Asia. However, the US remains cautious about maintaining stability along the sea lines of communication. The threats to its strategic assets in the region and vulnerabilities of energy facilities of its allies in the Persian Gulf remain major challenges for the US.
The Arab opinion on the regional conflicts remains divided, and popular anti-government protests frequently erupt in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Washington’s approach towards the region will largely continue depending on preserving the US’ strategic interests. Biden has emphasised on his counter-terrorism plus policy that could potentially help the US reduce military deployments in the region. Biden’s pick for US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, had earlier said that unlike Trump the incoming Biden administration would work towards “uniting with US partners in the region instead of isolation from them” and that perhaps would be one of the major changes in Biden’s approach towards West Asia.
Despite all the contradictions in West Asia, how the US will preserve its interests in the region remains a part of the larger debate.
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2020: Year of protest, politics and pandemic
Amid an economic slowdown and concerns about countries like China reigning over global supply chains, PM Narendta Modi pushed for a self-reliant or ‘Aatmanirbhar’ India through a series of welfare schemes. Most notably, as part of the Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan, a special package of Rs 20 lakh crores was announced, aimed at boosting the country’s economy and supporting the poor.
Riding on the BJP’s spectacular performance in the Assembly elections, Nitish Kumar assumed the position of the Chief Minister of Bihar once again. While the BJP returned with a tally of 74 in the Assembly, its alliance partner, the JD(U), managed to win only 43. Meanwhile, the RJD, under the young and energetic Tejashwi Yadav, became the single-largest party in the State Assembly.
In February, national capital Delhi saw communal riots amid the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, leading to 53 people being killed. Authorities suspected deliberate foul play as the violence coincided with the visit of US President Donald Trump. The CAA was passed to fast-track citizenship for persecuted minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
CONGRESS: BATTLE WITHIN
The Congress faced internal strife with the Rajasthan saga involving CM Ashok Gehlot and a rebellious Deputy CM Sachin Pilot and the ‘G 23’ letter sent to party chief Sonia Gandhi, calling for sweeping reforms in the party’s organisation and functioning. Jyotiraditya Scindia’s resignation and 21 MLAs following suit also left the Congress’ MP government in a lurch.
It was Arvind Kejriwal once again when it came to be the elected leader of Delhi. Despite the well-oiled poll machinery of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Aam Aadmi Party won 62 of the 70 seats in the State Assembly. The BJP won the rest, while the Congress failed to even open its account.
In December, the country saw massive protests, led primarily by farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh against the new farm laws aimed at reforming the agriculture sector. In a U-turn, the Congress demanded a repeal of the very farm reforms it had sworn to champion in 2019. Other parties too took their positions on the issue, as per their political convenience.
The India-China relations saw a level of deterioration that hadn’t been seen in decades. The tension reached a boiling point in June when an Indian patrolling party along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh was ambushed and brutally attacked with spikes and irons rods by China’s PLA forces. 20 soldiers were killed in this standoff between the two nuclear weapon nations.
LOCKDOWN & THE LONG WALK
PM Modi’s announcement of a nationwide lockdown on 25 March led to a great exodus of migrant workers, who walked hundreds of kilometres to reach their native villages. However, after the Centre’s directive, states organised relief camps and Shramik Special trains started plying. The Union government also allocated funds and announced free food grains to support the migrant workers.
RAM MANDIR IN AYODHYA
After decades of political and legal battle, India finally had an Ayodhya solution, courtesy the Supreme Court, which paved the way for a Ram temple. Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir in Ayodhya and the Bharatiya Janata Party put up a grand event to mark the beginning of the temple’s construction.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal chemistry was on display when US President Donald Trump made his maiden visit to India in February. A roadshow was organised in Ahmedabad where over a lakh people gathered to welcome the two leaders. At the end of the visit, India signed a deal to purchase $3 billion worth of US military helicopters.
IN RETROSPECT, LET’S INTROSPECT: 2020 AND BEYOND
PM Modi towered above his political adversaries who appeared like pygmies before him. It was a disproportionate battle. The principal Opposition party, the Congress, was still introspecting on when it should start introspecting.
Like individuals, countries too need to learn from their experiences. Particularly when they are hurting. 2020 was a weird year for all of humanity. We remained closeted, frightened of a cough and sneeze, and got our body temperatures checked more than perhaps our entire life aggregated together. It was surreal, like watching an apocalyptic Christopher Nolan film, dark and cataclysmic. But this was not on Netflix, it was for real. And it was not going away in a hurry.
It was a terribly weird year for India. For one, we remain a fatalistic country, believing in some heavenly benedictions to provide a protective shield even against the coronavirus monster. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week lockdown in March 2020 and the normally chaotic cacophonous streets of Mumbai went dead. The silence was impregnated with a visceral eeriness. The bark of a lonely dog broke through the impenetrable quietness. Everyone looked nervous, but no one thought the virus would actually come visiting them. Many opened their mobile calculators to check the law of averages to measure their chances of being infected. The PM talked of a three-week triumph over the virus, reminiscent of the Mahabharata. By December of the year, India had over 10 million cases and 147,000 innocent Indians were gone. Indeed, there are lessons to be learnt. And it is not just about better public health infrastructure.
We had the sui generis distinction of still being a fractured country right in the middle of a pandemic that was destroying the world. India was playing its favourite spectator sport; the communal trapeze-act. It was sickening. The Tablighi Jamaat (hardliner fundamentalist Islamic believers) was accused of a deliberate conspiracy to spread the virus in India. It was bizarre but the way mainstream media bulldozed that malicious propaganda down our throats, there were several takers for the balderdash. Hate had just received instant laboratory-approved vaccination. Like the mind-numbing daily 9 pm trials of Who Killed SSR, probably the year’s biggest super-hit OTT series. It was so dystopian that it was hard to believe that we had a GDP under a massive 23% contraction, young people committing suicide because of unemployment, migrants walking hundreds of miles under an unrelenting blistering sun and dying along the highway, people unknowingly coming under a goods train while they slept on railways tracks, and a virus whose feral tentacles were spreading dangerously everywhere. In a normal world, people huddle together in an hour of crisis. India was instead taking social distancing to also mean a religious segregation targeting 200 million citizens of its own. Not surprisingly by the end of the year, several BJP-ruled states were actually passing legislation on inter-faith marriages. The ‘Love Jihad’ bogey of NDA 1 was now being finally consummated in Modi’s second term as PM. Ratan Tata, India’s celebrated mega-business tycoon, had his crown jewel Titan hastily remove a television commercial that depicted religious compatibility. Love was now a four-letter word. Few spoke up. Freedom came with a precautionary warning.
The year had earlier seen communal riots in Delhi and pre-planned attacks by organised mobs on university campuses. As usual, JNU was the soft target in the latter case. In 2020, hate and violence were harmoniously normalised. The state appeared nonchalant. That the entire grotesque morbidity happened in South Delhi in a prestigious educational institution was not to be missed. The cops watched and did nothing. Even before wearing masks became a compulsory diktat that PM Modi himself advised all to adhere to, the perpetrators of that pornographic mayhem wore them. Maybe they were prescient. At Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, ugliness took on a new manifestation and India’s moment of shame was complete. A gang-rape reminiscent of Nirbhaya had the nation dumbstruck, appalled. But what was most perturbing was the disturbing role of the state; police officials hurriedly cremated the victim late at night denying the grieving family even the elementary farewell for the departed soul. Dehumanising was the norm. It seemed as if we were watching a nightmare, scripted by some malevolent psychopath. India’s institutions, practically all of them, looked exhausted, enervated. They had surrendered their independence to their political masters. The game of chess had a preordained finality.
Amidst the madness, India saw elections where all Covid protocols such as mask wearing, social distancing and hand sanitising seemed like a frivolous prescription. No one cared. The BJP continued its triumphant march at the hustings with impressive performances in the state of Bihar, Hyderabad and Kerala municipal corporations. PM Modi towered above his political adversaries who appeared like pygmies before him. It was a disproportionate battle. The principal Opposition party, the Congress, was still introspecting on when it should start introspecting. It had clearly abandoned its role of being a robust watchdog for the 12 crore Indians who had voted for it just 18 months earlier.
And then suddenly out of the blue, farmers from Punjab and Haryana took to the streets. A cocky government neglected them, treating their remonstrance with supercilious disinterestedness. It even called them terrorists. But the protests ballooned. Once upon a time, UPA’s political arrogance over the Lokpal Bill had torpedoed its otherwise noble intentions. The NDA’s hubris, discarding parliamentary protocol and constitutional traditions on the farm Bills, was coming to bite them. Clearly, they had not learnt any lessons from Congress’s blunder.
But India must learn from 2019. We must not ever forget that we do not live in an economy; we live in a society. And too much democracy is not a bad thing.
The author is a former Congress spokesperson. His latest book is ‘The Great Unravelling: India After 2014’. The views expressed are personal.
IPAC: A KEY OPPORTUNITY FOR INDIA TO STEM CHINESE GEOPOLITICAL OVERTURES
Half a century has gone by but little has changed in India’s dovish approach to China’s overbearing and increasing influence. Neither has the Chinese line of thought budged from following the aphorisms of Sun Tzu, an ancient military strategist who encouraged the nation to appear weak when strong and strong when weak.
Since its inception in 1949, this one-party communist state has engaged in maleficent practices of political repression, mass surveillance, censorship and human rights abuses. And yet, the communist state has commanded a key place in the diplomatic sphere of the world.
The country with a known record of human rights violation was once again appointed to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2020, even after 39 nations lambasted China at the UN General Assembly for its abuse of Uyghur Muslims, an ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region of the country and its conduct in crushing dissent with force in Hong Kong.
The economic reforms introduced by China in 1978 brought in a cascade of significant achievements for the country and made it the world’s fastest growing consumer market while developing the world’s largest banking sector and raking in the highest exports. Today, China has become the second largest economy in the world with a GDP of $13.6 trillion, trailing only behind the US. From a defence perspective, China is a recognised nuclear weapons state that has the world’s largest standing army and the second largest defence budget.
With a place in the UN Security Council, a growing economy, rapid infrastructural development and expanding military, China is now characterised as an emerging superpower. Such an incremental rise in its economic, defensse and technological prowess makes it an imposing political entity in the eyes of the world’s leading democracies, including India. In 2013, China initiated the Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure project to build overland routes for road and rail transportation through the land locked regions of Central Asia—a move aimed at the creation of a Sino-centric international trade network.
Though China contends that the project has provided markets for commodities, created employment and stimulated industrialisation and technology transfer for host nations, many critics believe that the initiative is a form of neo-colonialism. The allegation has some basis since the funds that China gives to nations under BRI often involve the practice of debt diplomacy, a practice in which the lending nation seeks to saddle the borrowing nation with enormous amounts of debt in order to leverage power over it.
With its increasing financial, military and technological power, China has escalated conflicts with other nations over the last few years. Those nations having an interest in the South China Sea and nations such as India with whom it shares a border are often at the receiving end of China’s threats and aggressions. The recent clashes in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley where 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives in a confrontation with Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) demonstrates how fast hostilities between the two nations can boil over into armed conflicts.
Keeping in view China growing political, economic and military assertions that pose an imminent threat to democratic ideals globally, an international group of parliamentarians from 19 democratic nations—known as the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC)—was formed in June 2020.
Till now, India is not a part of this alliance of democratic nations that has representation from legislators from the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany and UK, amongst others. Joining such a global alliance could provide India a platform to bring international attention to the many issues that involve China. From aggressions on the border, to the South China Sea and the plight of Tibetans, several issues of Chinese expansionism with global significance have a direct impact on India. As a democratic nation that aims for peace and progress globally, India has a responsibility to voice its concerns with China’s growing aggression on international forums. Taking a leadership role in global issues involving China will also serve to strengthen India’s position as a growing power that stands for human rights and democratic ideals.
Asia lacks a multinational, democratic alliance to collectively respond to threats that China poses to all other nations in the region. India can play a pivotal role in leading Asian nations into global alliances such as IPAC that are attempting to build coalitions that can preserve democratic values around the world.
The writer is the founder of Red Lantern Analytica, an international affairs observer group based in New Delhi.
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