India’s Great Power Perception: The Syrian Conflict And India’s Elusive Leadership

R Ranjan and M Z Haque

Aug 29, 2015, 10:25 PM | Updated Feb 12, 2016, 05:23 PM IST

If India has to establish herself as a responsible rising power, Prime Minister Modi must re-launch India’s good offices for resolving the Syrian conflict apart from exercising economic diplomacy with big powers

In the post World War II era, the Syrian conflict has triggered one of the largest global humanitarian crisis. The humanitarian effects of this conflict has now reached alarming proportions as witnessed by a range of factors, including, massive displacement of human population, the increasing exposure of people to threatening levels of war and violence and an entire generation of children being deprived basic amenities of life and access to education and healthcare. An important resultant effect of this conflict has been the increasing influx of Syrian refugees to neighboring countries with Turkey being home to the highest Syrian refugee population in the world.

As India looks forward to achieve global preeminence by influencing major decisions in the realm of international politics, the Syrian humanitarian crisis demands a responsible humanitarian and diplomatic intervention from India, which is strictly non-military in nature and in consonance with her longstanding aspiration for a permanent seat in UN Security Council.

During the tenure of the UPA Government, India made it unequivocally clear that the Syrian crisis can only be resolved through dialogue and negotiation between the warring factions and relevant international players. This finds reaffirmation in Prime Minister Modi’s latest assertion in Dubai that the solution to any conflict is through peaceful dialogue.

The Bashar Al-Assad government has repeatedly praised the Indian government for its non-interventionist stance and has welcomed the opportunity for India to take a more proactive role in resolution of the conflict as well as, requested greater humanitarian assistance for the displaced Syrian population. However, the question remains, whether India has a coherent foreign policy regarding the conflict, which complements her obligations under the third pillar of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and Article 51 of the Indian Constitution? We argue that India mustn’t avoid the opportunity of acting as a mediator in any such peace dialogue and must offer much more in terms of humanitarian assistance in order to establish herself as a responsible rising power, which is poised to become a great power.

India as a Mediator

Since the unsuccessful conclusion of the Geneva II Peace Conference, the future track of negotiating the political transition in Syria remains a matter of immense concern for a country like India, which has acknowledged that further spillover effects of the conflict will negatively affect her own interests in the Gulf region as well as within India if the soft indoctrination of its Muslim youth reaches alarming levels.

While the West has been accused by Russia for reneging on the promise to support a political transition in Syria with President Assad in power, the most judicious decision for India in the coming future would be to hold on to its previous position, which encourages the Syrian population to decide their own fate rather than an imposed directive by international players and their vested interests. At the same time, since India enjoys a cordial relationship with all international players who have a direct or an indirect interest in the conflict, it is in a unique position to re-initiate and lead talks between such players and other factions with the objective of finding a workable solution to the conflict.

India has for long practiced a foreign policy approach premised on the notion of moralpolitik. As a champion of the Non-aligned Movement, India has been historically seen as a country, which has steered clear of engaging actively in resolution of international conflicts. However, it is interesting to note that India did play an extremely crucial role in mediating some complex conflicts in the past. For example, Nehru’s involvement in the Korean War as a mediator is well documented although his attempts did not bear fruit eventually as the Americans shot down his peace proposal along with his plea for caution. Similarly Nehru’s role in stemming the secessionism in Katanga province of Congo upon the withdrawal of Belgium from Congo earned him widespread adulation from the international community. Nehru, despite being a leader of a newly independent country that was languishing in poverty, emerged as a towering figure in world affairs.

He was a visible figure in many UN attempts to intervene in international disputes including the Suez Canal and Cyprus dispute. It can be readily argued that from the vantage point of Nehru, it appeared that he empathized with the situation in underdeveloped countries and firmly believed that such issues could not be solved on a regional basis or through the resurgence of imperialism. Nehru held an idealist belief of foreign policy to the extent that he believed that such complex issues could only be solved through dialogue, discussion, negotiation and mutual respect for other’s views. To this extent, Nehru did disregard one of the basic tenets of international relations and the realist perspective.

The realists believe that international affairs remain in a constant state of anarchy with each player looking to guard their respective interests through any means available. While this notion may be true in a majority of cases, throughout history there have been several instances where diplomacy and not force has ended seemingly intractable conflicts. Most recently, this has been evidenced through the Iran nuclear deal, which in our opinion is testimony to the power of meaningful negotiations.

Even though India was economically backward during Nehru’s reign, it managed to assume leadership-oriented roles because of her ability to reflect upon and provide constructive solutions to international political issues. The positioning of non-alignment worked for, India at a time when there were two competing superpowers vying for the top spot in global hegemony coupled with the emergence of post-colonial nations, which wanted to maintain independence in their foreign policy divorced from influence of traditionally imperial powers. At the same time, this was in furtherance of Gandhi’s vision that India must play an important role in world affairs whilst being conscious of getting entangled in conflicts of big powers. All this is not to suggest that Nehru’s policies were entirely correct. In fact Nehru’s idealism in global affairs coupled with his hubris did result in some foreign policy disasters. However, the centrality of his idea for resolution of conflicts still holds value today in a multipolar world.

In recent times, India foreign policy with respect to frozen conflicts appears to be one cocooned in ambivalence. It is not truly an exercise of non-alignment policy neither is it in pursuance of any allied stance on such issues. Issues such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Israel-Palestine conflict and the Syrian conflict deserve a renewed focus and approach in India’s foreign policy. It appears as if India is attempting to maintain a very delicate balancing act, wherein it can accommodate the interests of the so-called great powers. However, it would be in India’s own interest to look back at her role in the 1950s and use the limited benefits of the non-alignment policy, which has allowed her to maintain cordial ties with competing interests in the region, to establish her as a responsible rising power.

After a considerable period, India has a leader, who is not afraid of venturing outside her traditional sphere of influence and project India’s capabilities. However, even though Prime Minister Modi may not have the same persona as a Nehru, his appeal in the international community is soaring constantly. If Prime Minister Modi truly believes in the ancient Indian belief vasudhaiva kutumbakam (world is a family), he must re-launch India’s good offices for resolving the Syrian conflict apart from exercising economic diplomacy with big powers. It must be added here that if India is able to take leadership on this issue, it will play a significant role in her bid for a permanent seat at UNSC.

India’s Humanitarian Responsibility

Any such projection of a responsible rising power must also involve considerable efforts to ameliorate the condition of several Syrian citizens, who face the fear of persecution and have been displaced from their homes. It must be added here that India has already pledged a total of $4.5 million in humanitarian aid to Syria, including an additional $2.5 million pledged in 2013 for supply of life-saving drugs, foods and other essential items. . To this extent, India’s support for the strife torn region must be commended.

However, given the unprecedented nature of the conflict, the aid pledged by India is actually a piecemeal required to serve the humanitarian cause. A more pro-active role is required from India and amounts larger than previous amounts of financial aid must be expended considering the recent UNHCR report, which has claimed there is an urgent requirement to raise more resources as the number of displaced people continues to rise with the latest figure touching 4 million making it the single largest refugee crisis in nearly a quarter of a century. Further, although India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has traditionally observed the principle of non-refoulement.

However, the lack of a national framework on refugee protection has resulted in accordance of differential treatment to asylum seekers belonging to different regions. This is evidenced by the fact, as mentioned to us during an interview with Dr. Waiel Awwad, that lesser than 200 Syrian refugees came to India but stayed on only for a while before moving to countries such as Australia to seek asylum. The Syrian conflict necessitates that Indian policymakers take a more sensitive approach to the issue of displacement of the Syrian population and develop a framework, which is conducive for settlement of such refugees in India. It must be noted that there may be legitimate security risks in initiating a measure of this nature but proper screening and vigilance by competent authorities will certainly address such concerns.

From a Lumbering to a Responsible to a Great Power

To India’s credit, it has since the Nehruvian era, emerged as a forceful voice in the international arena. Many developing and least developed countries continue to rely on India for advocating their collective stance. This is particularly true in the international economic sphere, where India hasn’t moved away from flexing her muscles and acting as an international veto player in matters of great import for developing countries. However, India’s advances in this arena have only allowed her partial success in the perception game. This international veto player status prompted Stephen Cohen to label India as a country that can’t say yes and relishes getting to a no. It may be true that several domestic constraints have acted as obstacles for India’s foreign policy. However, If India wishes to be regarded as a “Responsible Great Power”, it would be prudent of her to assume leadership roles in international affairs that are not restricted to the global economy and devise methods to achieve a workable solution on protracted and destructive conflicts.

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