The ARC of Crisis: Geo-Strategic Aspects of West Asia


Today, more than at any other time in modern history, West Asia in turmoil is a barometer of the world political climate. Developments in the West Asian countries and the state of relations among them, Often mirror the state of relations between the superpowers because the superpowers have n overwhelming strategic stake in the area. West Asia, Stretching from the Indian subcontinent in the east to the Horn of African in the west, has often been called the arc of crisis. The popular image of west Asian instability is that of a chaotic world, crumbling everywhere and always falling apart, an area governed by abrupt, sweeping changes and unpredictable development, the region appears resemble the hobbesian state of nature, characterised by a condition of all against all and perpetual anarchy. The west Asian states are confronted with several challenges to their security, most of them of their own making. Many them are perpetually locked in the internecine quarrels against eon other due to religious, ethnic or historical rivalries and inherited colonial legacies such as boundary disputes.
The Independence of several west Asian States is threatened by external intervention and their integrity by separatist movements abetted by the superpowers and nighbouring countries of opposing power blocs. Threats to the political stability of West Asian countries also flow from imbalances n internal power bases, rural and urban poverty, weak institutional infrastructures and extensive militarization. These multiple micro-social and macro political variable provide the matrix against which the West Asian conflicts and crisis must be studies.

Strategic Importance

West Asia is the unhappy battleground of the superpowers. The West Asian nations have been used as power by the two superpowers in the power game to est their hegemony, and influence is an area of immense strategic importance to both. In bet political and economic terms, West Asian has been and continues to be one of the most strategically important areas of the world.

Almost half of the world’s shipping passes through the Mediterranean sea and the Suez Canal, making the are vitally important to the western world for trade and commerce.

Nearly 35% of the oil consumed by the western world originates form Arabian Oilfields. The continued guaranteed availability of Middle East oil is crucial for Western Industry and defence. Successive American Presidents and secretaries of state have gone on record to say that the west is prepared to physically seize the oil wells of West Asia if supplies are threatened, or as a retaliatory measure is response to the future Arab use of Oil as a political weapon, the geographical location of West Asia in close vicinity to vital areas of military power already deployed or readily deployable by the two rivals, makes West Asia a pried launch pad for future operations which, both the superpowers feel should be denied to the enemy, even if it cannot be obtained to further their own aims.

Superpower Rivalry

It is by now axiomatic that the availability of military power creates a temptation to use it. An influx of arms ostensibly intended to deter hostilities, usually helps to bring them about and localized conflicts , n turn, generate a demand for more arms. In the case of West Asia too, the rapid militarization and escalation in force levels, is a major cause of instability and a states of permanent crisis. Between 1973 and 1980 most of the West Asian nations underwent phenomenal military expansion. While the Military man power of Iran and Iraq almost doubled, the Increases in their tank and aircraft fleets range from three to five times.

Both the superpowers have developed diametrically opposing interests in the are of crisis-stretching form the Indian sub-continent in the Est to the Horn of Africa in the West, with Persian Gulf constituting the central core of the arc. The United States and the Soviet Union are equally motivated, in one case by the paramount need to control strategic locations and strategic raw materials in West Asia and, in the other, to deny these to the
adversary. While the USA Is Anxious To Ensure, flow of the flow of oil to help keep the western industries going the USSR is extremely concerned about the growing threat to its southern flank, through the backdoor of the soft underbelly. The US response to the soviet occupation of Afghanistan is predicated on the ostensible assumption of a subsequent soviet thrust to the warm waters of the Gulf region in order to gain control of such choke points as the Strait of Homuz leading to the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Bab al Mandab, linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, so that they can disrupt oil supplies to the West in the event of a major crisis.

During the last few decades, it had been a cardinal point of both soviet and us policy that their struggle for influence and gain in West Asia could be wand that they aged by proxy and that did not wish to become directly and personally engaged n confrontation and conflict. However, of late, with the rapid escalation in force levels and the acquisition of new sea and land bases by both sides, the prospects of a direct soviet-American confrontation are growing more and more dangerous. The soviet union has acquired base facilities at secretary (In South Yemen, off the Horn of Africa) Massava (in Ethiopia, on the Bed Sea facing Saudi Arabia and Yemen) and dahlak archipe logo (off the Eritrean coast of Ethiopia).The soviet naval capability in the area includes 20 to 25 naval ships. This can be easily reinforced by a formidable by formidable land based capability from Afghanistan and the Soviet borders with Iran. The United States, under the Reagan administration, is planning to enhance its land based and sea based capabilities in the region to meet the growing Soviet threat. The US carrier task force includes about 30 to 40 naval ships and 15 to 20 ships with pre-positioned equipment off Diege Garcia. The US base in Diego Garcia, leased from the British, has been expanded to facilitate the operation of strategic bomber aircraft including B52s. In a marriage of convenience with Egypt, the US has acquired base facilities for its rapid deployment force in Ras Banas, Qena and Caire West.

The West Asian nations and the littoral states of the Indian Ocean do not necessarily share these mutual threat perceptions of the two superpowers. But they do have a shared belief about the escalation in the force levels and consequently tensions in the area, they view the proposed us and soviet interventionist polices in the Gulf region with grave against their territorial integrity political independence and natural resources. They are convinced that no nation has the right to arrogate to itself the power do decide their interests lie. They deeply resent the neo-colonialist attempts to destabilize the entire region by ll –conceived power games.

Conflicts and Crises

Today, West Asia is a house divided, and Islamic World divided against itself inspite of the strongest possible motive for unity – shared hostility towards Zionism. The West Asian crescent, comprising 60% of the world ‘s muslim population forms a complex political jigsaw puzzle-as soon as some places are put together through laborious ad painstaking effort, some others quite unpredictable fall apart.

Israel’s misconceived security perception bordering on the paranoid have led her to pursue a bellingerent foreign policy, not in the least conducive to peace in the region. Israel’s determination to annex and colonise the whole of the west Bank and Gaza, as well s East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, is totally unacceptable to the Arabs and the Muslim world. Israel’s chauvinistic excursion deep into Lebanon in 1982, all the way upto Beirut, has created more problems than it has solved. The PLO, whose evacuation from Lebanon was secured by Israel at great cost, is once again back n strength, The Israeli army has at last pulled out of lebano but ha reserved the right to reenter Lebanon if Israel’s security is threatened. The Lebenese army is deeply embroiled in faction fights amounting to a civil war and terrorism is much is evidence. Lebanon today is more strife riven and unstable than at any other time in its bloody and chequered history.

Ever since the 1978 Camp David agreement concluded an Egypt Israel peace treaty, the US government has been bolstering Egypt with extensive military assistance. The USA clearly expects Egypt to assume responsibility for ensuring stability in the region as well as to be strong enough militarily to defend herself against threats form radical Arab states like Libya, Egypt has acquired the position of a US ally and US Egypt relations have reached, if not surpassed, the intimacy of soviet-Egypt relations during the sixties. With her Eastern flank with Israel secure, even though it is a tenuous peace, Egypt can now concentrate on playing the role of a moderate on playing the role of a moderator in West Asian polities and Arab affairs.

Iran-Iraq War: Senseless Bickering

Nothing has polarised the Arabs more than the Iran-Iraq War, now in its sixth year. Syria and Libya support Iran, not for sympathy with the Ayatollahs, but out of enmity towards other Arab nations. Jordan is dangerously linked to Iraq and is beginning to lean, Like Syria, towards the USSR. Saudi Arabia, Oman and the smaller Gulf states are seeking to follow policies of moderation in an environment largely for physical control of the controversial shat-al-Arab waterway (Iraq’s only outlet to the Persian Gulf), has followed a grotesquely seesaw course, marked by quicksilver upsurges, alternating with long stretches of dreary sabre rattling. The war has left the economies of Both the nations in a shambles, drastically affected oil production and has endangered world shipping in the area.

The superpowers are corertly involved in this war. Arms supplies are being channelized into the gulf through client states in the region. There have been instances of chemical agents having been used though hotly denied, and the war has escalated to a point where cities and civilian targets are being freely bombeds…. Since both Iran and Iraq have adopted rigid positions for ending the war, none of the numerous radiation bids, including one by the non Aligned nations, have succeeded. International peace initiatives cannot succeed as long as the two warring states maintain their recalcitrant attitudes and it is difficult to predict an early end to this senseless war. The mediatory bid of the UN Secretary General in Sept 87 has also failed to evoke a positive response.

The Palestinion Imbroglio

Perhaps the most thorny problem in West Asia today in the deadlock over Palestine. Though the world generally accepts the Palestinian’s right to an autonomous state, the issue is far from being resolved due to the following four main reasons:

  • The phenomenal disunity among the Arabs, resulting in the lack of a common platform and approach to the issue.
  • The Palestine Liberation Orgainsations (PPO) refusal to accept the right of Israel to exist.
  • The factionalism within the PLO, with different groups pulling in different directions.
  • Israel’s refusal to accept negotiation offers till the PLO accepts her sovereignty and her security against Arab adventurism is guaranteed.

Yasser Arafat is once again regaining control over the PLO, though the organization is badly battered and is in a state of disarray, spread as the factions are in many countries. With some effort, the PLO, can be persuaded to play what is commonly called its ‘Last card’ that is the recognition of ISRAEL. The new government in Tel aviv is also more amenable to negotiating peace with the Arab nations, to solve the problems of Palestine and Jerusalem, than its hawkish predecessor. The time is now ripe for the superpowers to work together to reconcile the differences between the Reagan Peace Plan, the fez plan and prince Fahd’s Fight Point Plan to hammer out a lasting solution to the middle east problem.

Implications for India

Instability and superpower rivalry in West Asia does not augur well for India’s security. Combined with the escalation of force levels in the Indian Ocean, the heightened tensions in West Asia can ultimately lead to a spill over of the intra-regional conflicts to adjacent areas, directly affecting India. Eventually, India’s Pre-eminent position among the non-Aligned community is likely to be threatened by her need to align herself with one of the two superpowers, to safeguard her interests in the face of growing threats. This may lead to a general collapse of the Non-aligned movement.

Like the west, India too is dependent on Gulf Oil to a large extent for the development of her industry and economy The long conflict in the region has forced India to buy her oil at far greater cost form distant markets, with no assurance of guaranteed supplies. Since the early 70s, India has won a large number of contracts to execute many turnkey projects n West Asia. The perpetual state of conflict in the area has virtually sealed the prospects of any new contracts. Also, payments for the ongoing projects are not being made on schedule, leading to economic hardship to the Indian firms involved and a dwindling foreign exchange income form the region.
The Gulf war has adversely affected a major portion of the sizeable remittances of non resident Indians, as well as new employment avenues for Indian workers. The downtrend in the quaint of remittances is reflected in a decline in India’s foreign exchanges. All in all, India’s developing economy can ill afford the impact of the strife torn West Asian situation and it is in India’s interest to work for a speedy resolution of the varbus crises. India is one of the few countries whose mediation is acceptable to both sides in the Gulf war. As a founding member and erstwhile chairman of the Non- Aligned movement, India has a crucial role to play in West Asia to realize her foreign policy goals.

West Asia has had more than its fair share of political and military trouble over the last four decades. The two superpowers have chosen this area as a testing ground for their political ideologies, an their weapons and are leaning dangerously towards direct confrontation. Te promotion of intra-regional conflict, the exploitation of domestic dissensions and the use of surrogate states to further their own airm and objectives, are short sighed polices which can only have tragic endings. However, the machinations of the superpowers would not be possible without the active cooperation support of the West Asian countries who seek to serve their own vested interests. The West Asian nations will have to rise above their petty squabbles and unite in their efforts to ensure the elimination of all manifestations of superpower military and naval presence in the area, to bring back a semblance of stability to the war-ravaged region. In the long run, a stale and trouble free West Asia is the best form of security, both for the superpowers and the west asian nations. It is imperative that the West Asian nations bury the hatchet once and for all and begin anew the rehabilitation and development of their shattered economies, to secure for all their people peace prosperity and dignity.