Features | Diplomacy | South Asia

India’s Syria Juggling Act

An invitation to take part in Geneva-II talks may actually force India to choose sides.

By Kabir Taneja for

In October, as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited his country’s long-time ally in Moscow, Russian authorities were announcing that they plan to nominate India to participate in the Geneva-II conference in Switzerland. The conference, which was slated to be held later this month but is for the moment on indefinite hold, was to look at a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis and discuss postwar redevelopment in that country.

India has maintained that the Syrian conflict should be resolved via dialogue. New Delhi, like Russia (as well as China and Iran), has made it clear that it does not support any military intervention by Western powers, and this stand is seen by Russia as further justification of its own Syria policy.

The Syrian Ambassador to India, Syed Kamel Abbas, has also given public backing for New Delhi to join the talks. Abbas has said that Syria “appreciates India’s position on the issue” and that Damascus would like India to be a “big member” at the negotiations. Previous to this, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s political aide, Bouthaina Shaaban, had also visited Delhi for discussions and consultations on the crisis.

New Delhi is yet to indicate whether it would like to attend the conference or not. India’s relations in the Middle East and the larger West Asian region consist of a complex web, which involves high-level interactions with all stakeholders such as the GCC block, Iran, Israel, Iraq and so on. Many of these relations – which remain warm and cordial – were developed in the 1950s, strengthened during the Cold War era, and remained robust into the new millennium.

However, the various interests in Syria currently at play do put Indian foreign policy in a bind with respect to Geneva-II. New Delhi has maintained cordial relations with the Syrian regime, particularly with the Assad family. Indian prime ministers – starting from Jawahar Lal Nehru in the 1950s and later Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 – have visited Syria to strengthen bilateral ties. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad came to India in 2008, with Indian President Pratibha Patil reciprocating in 2010, just a few months before the uprising. New Delhi also extended a credit line of over $100 million in 2009 to finance the extension of the Tishreen Power Plant in Damascus. India also committed $25 million in Syria’s iron & steel sector and over $5 million in its biotechnology and IT sectors.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

India is already occupied balancing its relations with West Asian states such as Iran, with the emerging dynamics between New Delhi and Washington. The U.S. has placed considerable pressure on India over the past two years to minimize its trade and bilateral relations with Iran, currently Syria’s biggest ally. New Delhi obliged, but only to a limited extent, as India maintains a constructive relationship with Tehran, specifically in the energy sector. Other areas such as relations with Israel and the GCC block, specifically Saudi Arabia, also require New Delhi to practice constant delicate and strategic diplomacy.

This juggling of relationships within this region underscores the fact that India still does not necessarily sees itself as aligned with one camp or the other in the larger scheme of things. India’s newfound status as a growing power has given it unprecedented leverage to increase trade and cultural ties, keeping in mind the fact that it is home to one of the world’s largest Muslim populations. Nonetheless, India’s main priority still remains securing its vast energy requirements – the nation currently imports more than 83 percent of its crude oil requirements and nearly 70 percent of its natural gas needs. India’s state oil and gas company ONGC even had investments in Syria’s modest oil and gas fields, which were later abandoned after being overrun by the rebels. In response to acquiring these resources from the region, India offered vital access that countries like Syria need in areas such as medicine, IT, agriculture, health and education.

India has developed trade relations in West Asia at a frantic pace over the past decade. Countries that are at loggerheads with each other in the region are trade partners with India, and they have themselves also made peace with the fact that India will not, in all probability, take sides in their own respective conflicts. India’s trade with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, all of which are growing simultaneously, shows that the eclectic balance of relations that New Delhi juggles in the region is based on the clarity with which it views the fact that its own national interests come first. 

In the recent past, however, India under Singh – who is known to be hands on with foreign policy matters – has appeared somewhat more susceptible to American pressure, and the Ministry of External Affairs, at times, goes that extra mile to keep relations sympatico between India and the U.S.  

Considering this, it is a possibility that New Delhi will turn down a formal invitation by Russia, if tabled, to participate in Geneva-II. The current administration in India has not always buckled to U.S. pressure, specifically when it comes to India’s immediate neighborhood where much of its foreign policy resources are allocation. However, during his second term in office, Singh has been more willing to acquiesce to Washington on global matters than he was in his first.

According to a former Indian diplomat who served in Syria, another reason why India may not get too involved in the negotiations is that it may reflect badly on its own internal conflicts, such as Maoist insurgencies, a similar situation in the North East of the country, and human rights issues in Kashmir.

Indeed, India may have more to lose than gain if it attends the Syrian negotiations in Switzerland, even though many commentators and bureaucrats think it is high time for New Delhi to start taking sides on global issues, as it becomes a significant economic and political player and begins actively looking to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). India has, in its own way, repeatedly shown where it stands on the Syrian crisis and it may, in its trademark style of shying away from actual leadership on the global stage, play safe by not getting involved in the negotiations.

Kabir Taneja is a journalist covering Indian foreign affairs and energy sector for The Sunday Guardian, The New York Times (India Ink), Tehelka, The Indian Republic and others. He is also a Scholar at The Takshashila Institution.