America’s troubled anti-IS coalition: Can BRICS be a possible middleman?

Jhinuk Chowdhury
Jhinuk Chowdhury is a former journalist based in India and is currently working as an independent writer. She has worked as a business correspondent for the leading Indian daily – The Times of India – covering human resources, IT, jobs and careers. You can follow her on Twitter @jhinuk28.
America’s troubled anti-IS coalition: Can BRICS be a possible middleman?
As the anti-IS coalition struggles to stay together can BRICS be a balancing factor that can keep the members unruffled against a common threat?

The US-led anti-IS coalition has been in news more for its internal dissent than for the fighting or gaining an impressive victory over the militant group.

The purportedly united league, comprising over sixty members including the major Middle Eastern countries apart from the Western nations, seems to be at discord about which the real enemy is – the ISIS or the Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey is yet to commit access for the United States to its air bases to carry out attacks against IS. It apparently even conditioned toppling of the Assad regime as a pre-requisite to Ankara’s support of the US-led coalition.

The incident of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani sets a good example of how rambled the alliance is, with the Turkish government not too gung-ho about assisting the town from falling.

Whatever the regional cacophony, the fact is the Islamic State is a threat that has transcended beyond just the Middle Eastern borders to threatening not only the West but also the larger Asian region including India and China.

Apart from the thousands of Chinese and Indian workers living in Iraq and many of who are still stranded in the war-torn region, both countries have reported radicalized youth joining the Islamic State. India was recently alarmed with an incident of an ISIS flag being carried by masked men in its northern region of Kashmir. The ISIS has highlighted India as a target in its grand plans.

Reports have also appeared of jihadists from China’s Xinjiang region fighting alongside the ISIS which considers China as a country where the largest numbers of Muslims are being persecuted.

There’s clearly a need for credible middlemen that can bring all the important players of the anti-Islamic State fight together and pressurize the US and its allies to leave “other” issues for later.

Can the BRICS - representing 25% of the world's land area and 40% of the world's population and hold a combined GDP of $20 trillion create that platform? After all leading members of the bloc including India, China and Russia have built significant influence in the Middle East. It perhaps is a good time to reap those benefits for a greater share in the global political center stage.

As BRICS expert Helmut Reisen, who headed research at the OECD Development Center until 2012 before founding his Berlin-based consulting firm ShiftingWealth, says, “IS is a barbarian assault on civilization. Much is at stake, including the reputation of the BRICS to be able to assume and share global responsibility. Turkey´s President Erdogan has certainly not won international esteem by first staying passive with respect to Kobani. If the BRICS stayed passive as well in the face of IS, they might share Erdogan´s loss of reputation, including in West Africa where threats similar to IS abound (witness Mali or Kamerun, Boko Haram).

Reuters/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany

So far nothing significant has been heard from the leaders of South Africa or Brazil busy with its presidential runoff.

Though Russia reportedly agreed to intensify intelligence sharing with the US-led coalition, apart from supplying the Iraq government military helicopters and fighter jets, Syria remains a point of rift for Moscow, who is a long-term ally of Assad. Russia strongly condemned the US airstrikes on IS positions in Syria. It suspects that Washington by supporting moderate Syrian rebels who are against the Assad regime and is using the anti-IS coalition as a pretext to overthrow the current Syrian government.

The only super powers which can perhaps talk to each of these diverging players, including a Turkey or a Saudi Arabia on one side and an Iran or a Syria on the other, are China and also India – itself a victim of terrorism other than enjoying a trade relation of over $180 billion with the region.

Talking to Syria, Iran and Turkey at the same time

Iran, Syria on one side and Turkey on the other are clearly determining the course the anti IS fight. A significant influence that can act as a common connect here is perhaps China. It has been heavily investing across the Middle East, crediting a thriving trade relationship of $28.3 billion with Turkey, to becoming the leading buyer of Iranian oil and single largest investor in Iraq.

Firstly, Iran, many agree, is a very important chapter in the anti-ISIS fight. Tehran’s nuclear weapon development is considered an equally grave threat to the regional stability as the IS. The current US strategy of arming moderate Sunni Syria rebels, observers feel, is actually giving a pretext to Iran to brace up its nuclear defense.

An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna's Islamic Youth Council, consisting of former members of militias from the town of Derna, drive along a road in Derna, eastern Libya October 3, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

That said ISIS is as serious a threat to Iran as it is to any country. As experts wonder the right way to work with the country at least at the level of common interests in the fight against ISIS, probably Beijing – with its nuclear relations with Tehran and naval interests - can act as the much needed bridge.

An additional point of consideration is the influence of Tehran - a long-time patron of the Shiite political parties of Iraq which has been sheltering many of its exiled leaders - over the Iraqi government. Many feel at the root of the current Iraq crisis is the discord between Shias and Sunnis in the country which the ISIS is leveraging. Sunnis, according to experts, find themselves under represented in key positions in the country especially the Shia dominated Baghdad government. Can China work with Tehran to bring these two groups to negotiate possible authority distribution?

Secondly, an over focus on the Turkey-Syria discord can derail the fight against the extremists. China is the only country that’s capable of talking to both. Beijing won a lot of Assad’s heart when along with Moscow it objected to any external intervention to overthrow his regime during the Syrian civil war.

Yes, it brought China in an opposing position with Turkey which favored the anti-Assad movement. But it was also the same China which supported Ankara in its bid for non-permanent membership at UNSC in 2009-10, a position Turkey aims to renew in the 2015-2016 term and expects similar hand from Beijing.

A Lackluster response

But alas! All China has offered, despite its obvious capabilities, is verbal support emphasizing that any action by the coalition should respect international law and the sovereignty, autonomy and territorial integrity of the participating countries.

It is content that the crisis in Iraq, its fifth largest overseas oil supplier, is not likely to touch the southern part of the country where most of its businesses are concentrated, except for the state-owned oil giant, Sinopec that owns a part share of an oilfield in Iraqi Kurdistan.

New Delhi, on the other hand, stuck to its policy of not joining “any coalition” while agreeing to take up the issue of radicalized Indian youth joining the IS fight.

This is a fitting moment for the major BRICS players to create a counterweight in the global political center-stage, more so for a China that envisages assumption of world leadership. What about America you may ask. Well, that’s the key, the BRICS can work as an independent balancing factor weighing on the US to take all important players along (whether or not they are on its side) and ensure the goal of quelling the extremist threat is not sacrificed over a nation (and this includes the US) specific vendetta or interest.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.