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“We are not in the business of ‘civilizing’ nations”

After a recent April visit to Syria, former Indian Ambassador to that country Rajendra Abhyankar speaks to Gateway House and assesses the ground realities in Damascus and the implications of the Arab uprisings for India. How will the on-going conflict affect the region, and subsequently, India’s interests in the region? Can India play a role in nation-building once the conflict subsides?  

Q: What is the truth about the ground realities in Syria? The Western news media has blanketed the airwaves with their coverage, possibly creating biases in the world’s perception of Syria and its prospects. What are the changes in Syria in the past few months?

I went to Syria twice this past year. Within roughly sixth months, I saw a major difference. Last August, more than half of the people were still backing the Assad regime. In April, I encountered a situation which had become violent and sectarian, particularly against the Shias and Alawites. This is a serious challenge as Syria was the only country in the region where the minorities felt relatively safe.

In the past six months, Syria has had a new constitution ratified through a referendum and also elections. The criticism is that the elections should have taken place first, and then the constitution promulgated, as in Egypt. But it was the other way around here. Only time will tell which is the better way. While we were there, the election commission was registering candidates; roughly nine parties and around 1,200 candidates were initially registered. The primacy of the Ba’ath party has now been removed from the new constitution. The Assad regime has about 6 million supporters in today’s Syria, comprising the Ba’ath party members and union membership (out of the total population of 22 million people). The opposition parties are fractious and have little credibility and, except for one local group, are all based outside Syria.

Unfortunately the media (in particular Western media) has portrayed a one-sided account of the situation. No positive news coming from Syria gets any airing; only one side of the story seems to be reported. Take the example of the BBC, which carried images of the Iraq War taken in 2003 and reported it as the Houla massacre last week.

How do you think the conflict in Syria will play out – will it end like Libya or like Egypt?

I don’t think either route can be assumed. It is important for us to keep in mind that each country has its unique set of characteristics. No particular model can be replicated in Syria. The Libya model was disastrous for that country. Egypt certainly followed a different one but that too has turned out differently from what was expected. We must not, then, examine Syria within the same framework.

Do you see peace and stability coming to Syria in the near future?

I don’t see peace coming about in Syria anytime soon. It is going to be a long process, and it’s still uncertain what the outcome will be. The ban on the Muslim Brotherhood has also been lifted, and it is estimated that they may have a following of roughly 20% of the population, making them the largest single opposition party.

Given our regional interests, what should be India’s diplomatic approach to the escalating violence in Syria?

We have much vested interest in the Gulf, especially with regards to energy supplies. Another significant element is the presence of over 5 million Indian diaspora in those countries. Instability in the Gulf, arising from negative developments due to Syria, Iran or Israel, will have major implications for India.

Do the Arab uprisings then affect India’s West Asia-North Africa policy?

In the medium to long term I can see that we will have governments with Islamic orientation in West Asia. We already have some experience with that, in the Gulf, for example. But the relationships are mostly transactional. We must learn to do business with them. We should respect what the people want for the future of their own countries. Regardless of the kind of governments which come to power, I believe that an economic relationship based on mutual benefit will be the way to go.

What are your views on India carving a role in nation-building in the Arab World?

We should do so if they invite us. We will not force ourselves upon any country. We are not in the business of “civilizing” nations. If invited, we should definitely participate as we also have experience in governance, minority rights and other issues. For example, in Afghanistan we are offering our experience with regards to the interactions and linkages among the three branches of the government (judiciary, executive and legislative). I am sure we would be willing to do so with any of the Arab nations that welcome our expertise.

Rajendra Abhyankar, former diplomat, was Ambassador to Turkey from 1996 to 1998 and High Commissioner to Cyprus from 1987 to 1990. He teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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