Syrian rebels bad news for our energy security

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Strategic asset Rebel fighters who now control the oilfields in Syria are reportedly using the fuel as leverage for their own agendas. Photo: AFP

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid recently attended the Geneva II negotiations in the Swiss town of Montreux, representing New Delhi’s views on what now seems to be a civil war for the long haul in Syria. During his speech, Khurshid made a very pointed and poignant case of India’s interests that were in the firing line as the crises sees no resolution in the near future.

“India has important stakes in the Syrian conflict,” said Khurshid. “It shares deep historical and civilisational bonds with the wider West Asia and the Gulf region. We have substantial interests in the fields of trade and investment, diaspora, remittances, energy and security. Any spillover from the Syrian conflict has the potential of impacting negatively on our larger interests.”

Asian economies such as India, China, South Korea and others are going to be the main beneficiaries of the oil and gas from West Asian countries in the years to come. The US can already be seen as a weak influence in the region under the Barack Obama administration compared to the past. Being at odds with regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, not having a clear policy on how to handle the Syrian opposition, in turn strengthening President Bashar al-Assad’s stance, Washington has only managed to strengthen Islamist elements such as the al Nusrat and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in the Syrian opposition. Groups such as the ISIS are looking to create an Islamist State and are known to have affiliations with al Qaeda, while others such as al Nusrat formerly did, but remain aligned to the tactics of violence and destruction.

One of the main reasons why Asian countries may become prominent voices here is because the US is on its way to achieve energy self-sufficiency. This means, unlike in the past, Washington will not have to rely on West Asia’s massive oil reserves to power its economy, and more importantly, its military, which is the world’s single largest consumer of oil. This, along with hardships in America’s domestic politics, has made Washington rethink its level of military engagement in the region, which rallies around the security of its strategic regional ally, Israel. “No American boots on the ground,” has been a common voice coming from the White House when it has been pressured to act on the Syrian crisis.

However, countries such as India and China are set to grow at more than 6 percent over the coming decades and with India importing 83 percent of all its oil requirements, it is crucial for it as a buyer and countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran as sellers to have a secure environment for such trade to take place.

Even though there is a formal opposition against Assad in form of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), it is difficult to say that all the warring factions on the ground in Syria are putting their weight behind the group in order to bring the conflict to a negotiated end. Although a negotiated deal of some sort could be achieved between the Assad government and the opposition under the guidance of United Nations peace negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi, there is no guarantee that the current levels of militarisation on the ground will subside, with the country being awash with callous infusion of weaponry.

The fragility of the situation in Syria is not necessarily constricted within its borders. The rebels in the conflict are supported by various factions, including the West providing weapons, Saudi Arabia providing similar military support, Iran doing its bit for the pro-Assad side and so on. Syria has become a hotspot of extremist elements, and the UN, along with the international community, is lagging behind in minimalising damage, both humanitarian and long-term economic.

As the crisis now enters its fourth year, the Syrian government has sent envoys to India numerous times to seek New Delhi’s backing. While visiting New Delhi in November, Assad’s senior adviser Bouthaina Shaaban asked for the brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group of countries to play a larger role to change the ‘unipolar’ system of the world to a ‘multipolar’ one. Moscow has come out on top in the Syrian negotiations as a voice to which Assad’s regime listens to. In fact, it was Russia who first invited India to participate in the Geneva II negotiations.

Khurshid’s reminder to the world about India’s interests was justified. Last April, ONGC Videsh lost control of its oil investments in Syria after the rebels ran over the Deir Ezzor region of the country. Fighting within rebel groups has taken over the region, and according to some reports, the fighters who now control the oilfields are using the fuel as leverage for their own agendas, including trading it with elements of the Assad regime in return for ceasefire agreements.

The threat of this war spilling over into other neighbouring countries is real. However, experts believe that conflicts such as this one have a tendency to remain within territorial borders and not try to stretch beyond the means of the groups involved. Some organisations involved have larger aims than just displacing Assad’s government in Damascus.

ISIS, which first showed up brandishing black flags on public buildings in towns such as Aleppo and Anbar, is also taking its fight for an Islamist State to parts of neighbouring Iraq, which today stands as India’s second largest supplier of crude oil. ISIS’ aim is to create a new country all together, and it has been orchestrating a bloody campaign in Iraq, which sees daily bombings and assassinations.

Due to the longevity of the crisis in Syria, terror groups such as the ISIS and al Nusrat have given birth to new groups, which have shown ambitions going beyond the current geographical boundary of the conflict. New offshoots such as the al Nusra al Maqdisiya al Dawla al Islam are rumoured to be the first fronts of ISIS looking beyond the Syria-Iraq sphere.

The creation of such groups is not good news for India, which already deals with cross-border terrorism from Pakistan and is keenly observing with slight fear on how the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan will act out in the country’s fragile socio-political environment. Regional neighbours such as India and Iran would have to face grave challenges if Afghanistan was to fall into Taliban control again, specifically with an unstable Pakistan going through serious internal threats to its very identity by the Pakistan Taliban.

India is well aware of the dangers of the impending troop withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year. However, New Delhi must work hand-in-hand with the UN and the larger international community to make sure the fallout of the Syrian civil war does not shake the fragile foundations of the extended neighbourhood of the Arab world. With countries such as Iraq, and now Syria, being hotspots of unaccountable larger scale weapons in the hands of stateless fighters, the security paradigm for Asian economies could be seriously disrupted if Syria becomes a factionalised State with parts of it being under the influence of non-State actors for a long time.

South Block should hold talks in this regard, in public view, with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are also using the civil war to further their vendetta against each other, to contain the creation of groups that may get empowered by large pro-Islamist financing and look to destabilise societies beyond their current sphere of influence.

Meanwhile, the international community should also provide aid, including military, as deemed fit to the governments of countries like Iraq to fight the spread of not just groups like the ISIS, but its various offshoots that are being born on a daily basis.

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