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9 March 2016, Gateway House

India and the Syrian quagmire

With a cessation of hostilities been brokered by Russia and the United States, the conflict in Syria has entered a tense pause. India has had a bystander attitude to the conflict in Syria. However, with the truce expected to be short, does India have the incentive or the option to depart from its current position, and deepen its engagement in Syria?

Editor-in-Chief, Radio France International

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The “cessation of hostilities” brokered by Russia and the United States in Syria came into effect at midnight on 26 February. However, judging from past experience, and considering that the jihadi movements are not part of the agreement, it is highly unlikely that the truce will last.

Given the frailty of the ceasefire, should India join the crowd of would-be peacemakers in Syria? What is in it for India? Not much.

Conversely, what is there to lose? Not much either. As even seasoned diplomats like Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura seem helpless to bring to an end the civil war which has torn Syria apart since 2011, no one would blame India for trying and failing.

Is India willing (and in a position) to depart from its current bystander attitude?

It is not exactly a neutral standpoint: New Delhi’s approach is widely seen as muted support for Bashar al-Assad’s government. Such was the case under the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government and it has not changed since the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) took over in May 2014. It can be explained by the good relations the two countries have traditionally enjoyed over the last five decades, especially within the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), although it must be said that Assad’s policy has little to do with NAM’s lofty ideals. The fact that India’s policy, since Independence, is to reject foreign military intervention—when it is not within the framework of the UN—and regime changes imposed by foreign powers, it is no surprise that Delhi’s “neutrality” appears to be leaning towards Assad.

India’s policy vis-à-vis Damascus has been praised by the Syrian ambassador and, in mid-January, foreign minister Walid al-Moallem came to New Delhi in the hope of mustering more vocal support. The Indian leadership, however, prudently declined his request.

India’s diplomacy, at any rate, does not enjoy much leeway as:

  • It opposes regime changes and foreign military interventions.
  • It has so far supported Russia’s position—most recently, when Narendra Modi met Vladimir Putin last December—and it is keen to preserve its bond with Moscow.
  • It worries increasingly about the spread of jihadi networks such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even at home. Containing jihadism is a top priority for India, as it is for many other countries, and this requires transnational coordination.
  • At the same time, it can hardly afford to alienate Saudi Arabia, whose current leadership has shown itself to be quite vindictive. If Syria hints it will remember who was on which side after the war, so does Saudi Arabia. Being everybody’s friend is not always a comfortable position.
  • Even if predictions of Assad’s imminent downfall have so far been vastly exaggerated, it would probably be unwise to bet on his future when the Russians, themselves, do not seem to care much about his fate in the years to come.
  • It is yet to become a major player in West Asia, and Narendra Modi has so far not laid out a clear strategy for the Middle East.

India obviously does not have the required leverage to change the reality on the ground, but it would be unwise to infer that it should distance itself from an issue which does affect the rest of the world, including itself. On the other hand, given the poor record of those who meddled in the Syrian quagmire, it is hard to contend that India has lost anything in refusing to join either of the three coalitions (U.S.-led, Russia-led, or Saudi-led) competing in Syria.

India’s options are thus limited in number and scope, but they do exist:

  • To be sure, India is peripheral to the crisis, but it is likely to be affected as such conflicts have a tendency to spill into the neighbourhood. Being part of this neighbourhood, India is a concerned party and should decisively act like one.
  • India could, for instance, upgrade its participation in the diplomatic activity around the Syrian problem by not just being one of 40 countries as happened at the Geneva II conference (January 2014). It may not be in the same league as the United States or Russia, but it is certainly more affected than Japan, Australia or South Africa.
  • Mediation seems to be out of the question as the actors do not need Delhi to pass messages. Similarly, the idea sometimes entertained in Indian circles that, in the name of the good old times of NAM—going back to the 1970s—India could have some influence on Syria is self-deluding at best. Syria’s leadership is anything but emotional in making decisions crucial to its survival, and India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been wise in resisting such suggestions. Yet, India enjoys good relations with all the countries involved in broking peace in Syria (Syria, Russia, Iran, the U.S., France, the UK) and should make use of these contacts.
  • As an “honest broker”, New Delhi might, for instance, offer to be the venue of future talks, whether formal or informal; Geneva or New York are not the only possibilities.
  • Given India’s considerable experience in peacekeeping under the auspices of the UN, it could also reiterate its offer to participate in such future operations, if so decided by the UN, as already mentioned last December by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar.

What is certain is that clinging to the status quo may be the only safe option for a given period of time, but, in the long run, for a country aspiring to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, not having a stated policy on such a major issue cannot be part of any strategy.

Olivier Da Lage is editor in chief at Radio France International. He contributes to Gateway House in his personal capacity.

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