India and the Syrian Civil War
Image Credit: Freedom House

India and the Syrian Civil War

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After four years of neglect,  Syria is once again getting mainstream attention in India. Pictures of Aylan Kurdi, the refugee crisis in Europe, and the rise of ISIS have given Syria considerable prominence in Indian public discourse in recent weeks,

India’s stance on the Syrian crisis has been subtle yet expected. New Delhi under the previous government of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) maintained its opposition to external military intervention in Syria, and asked for all parties involved to engage in dialogue for a political solution.

“There can be no military solution to this conflict,” said an Indian Ministry of External Affairs statement in 2013.

India and Syria have historically maintained cordial relations, formed during India’s post-independence outreach to the Arab world and beyond as part of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru championed along with then Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Nehru visited Syria in 1957 and 1960, hoping to consolidate India’s regional interests with the Ba’ath Party after then Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli had visited Delhi as part of his outreach to the Eastern bloc and NAM states. The local press heralded Nehru’s arrival in Syria with much gusto, writing about more than 10,000 people at the airport chanting “welcome to the hero of world peace” and “long live the leader of Asia,” as described by researcher Dr Rami Ginat in his works.

Later, after much internal turmoil, new Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad visited India in 1978 and 1983. More recently, former Indian Prime Minister  travelled to Damascus in 2003, while Bashar Al-Assad reciprocated with a trip to New Delhi in 2008. In between, high-level delegation visits were frequent, with former Indian President Pratibha Patil visiting Syria in 2010.

It is safe to say that the Indian polity has maintained good relations with the Assad family that has presided over the country since 1971 as head of the Syrian Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. But as the conflict in Syria began to emerge in 2011, during the period now largely known as the Arab Spring, global calls for the ouster of the Syrian regime multiplied. To stay in power, Assad resorted to unprecedented violence against his own people, including the use of chemical weapons.

Reeling under sanctions but surviving thanks to weak and at best ad-hoc policies applied by the Western powers, and with the help of allies such as Russia and Iran, and to some extent China, Assad has managed to retain control in Damascus. Moscow, which has long-standing political and military ties with Syria, sees the country as a critical ally and market in the region. During the buildup to the Geneva II conference to discuss solutions to the crisis in 2013, Russia called for a role to be given to India. India’s then Foreign Minister, Salman Khurshid, attended the negotiations and maintained India’s stance, which was in line with that of Russia and China.

Speaking in Geneva, Khurshid said, “India has important stakes in the Syrian conflict. 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.” Together with its consortium partners, China among them, India had to abandon its oil investments in Syria due to security concerns in 2013.

The same year, the Syrian Ambassador to India, Riad Kammel Abbas, referred to India as a friend of Syria, and said Damascus would like to see India take part in the negotiations. In a more recent interview with The Hindu newspaper, Abbas reiterated that India’s stance of not joining the chorus for regime change was appreciated. “Frankly speaking, I have already said this that if everybody has done what India has done; we wouldn’t have any problem in Syria. And [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi has made it very clear that there’s no bad terrorism and good terrorism. There’s only terrorism,” he said.

Consequently, India’s position on the Assad government leans more towards support than strict neutrality. While no means an absolute show of encouragement for Assad to remain in power, by continuing to maintain cordial relations during a civil war in which the president has been accused of using chemical weapons and barrel bombs on civilians perhaps does not augur very well for the standing of the world’s largest democracy. India’s policy on Syria could be seen as practical or realist, but even though it might make sense in the world of realpolitik, its stance could perhaps become hard to justify if its policies come under any sort of questioning in international forums.

For example, in the midst of the Syrian crisis, India has maintained a diplomatic presence in Damascus with its embassy remaining open under a chargé d’affaires. It has even organized yoga classes in the besieged country, courtesy of a Delhi Police officer tasked with protecting the Indian embassy who is reportedly also a yoga hobbyist. Currently, however, India has no plans to appoint a new ambassador to Syria, deeming the situation as being too dangerous.

Meanwhile, in May 2014, a business delegation mounted by the Delhi based commerce chamber ASSOCHAM and led by Cosmos Group visited Damascus to discuss trade opportunities. During this visit the Syrian government also highlighted India’s potential role in the rebuilding process after the civil war ends, a prospect that at present is nowhere in sight.

Recent reports of Russian troops fighting in Syria alongside combatants loyal to the Assad regime could be a test for India’s opposition to any kind of military intervention. If Russian troops are indeed actively taking part in Syria, would New Delhi rebuke Moscow, its oft-cited “all-weather ally”?

India continues to make a strong case for its UNSC candidacy and negotiations for the reforms that would required could begin soon.

As India works towards a UNSC seat with full veto powers, it is perhaps the right time for the country to take a few steps back from its traditional approach to foreign policy, which hides behind the Non-Aligned Movement ideal, an idea that has passed its expiry date. Both economically and politically, taking decisive stands on global affairs should come naturally, and this of course still includes practicing ambiguity where it is needed for the national interest. However, India needs a deep-sea shift in its thinking to coincide with the seriousness with which it is looking to change the UNSC itself.

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