Why India Should Revise Its Minimalist Approach In The Syrian Conflict

Why India Should Revise Its Minimalist Approach In The Syrian Conflict

by Swaptik Chowdhury - Jun 9, 2017 08:44 PM +05:30 IST
Why India Should Revise Its Minimalist Approach In The Syrian ConflictPrime Minister Narendra Modi (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
  • New Delhi’s attitude of non-alignment, which has continued ever since independence, has to change.

    India has much to offer to the Syrian conflict. But it’s holding itself back - at a time when its influence on the global stage is rising.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently invited India to play a prominent role in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of his war-torn country. He argued that India and Syria were both true victims of terrorism and could thus develop a true coalition against it. However, there has been no coherent response from New Delhi, and the neutral stance adopted by previous New Delhi governments would not suffice this time around.

Historically, Damascus and New Delhi shared civilisational ties as both countries were important contributors to the Silk Route, where technological, social and cultural exchanges took place for centuries. After independence, New Delhi and Damascus shared comfortable and non-interventionist relationship based on a pro-Arab approach adopted by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The relations were also motivated by the non-alignment movement (a pet project of Nehru’s along with Gamal Naseer) adopted by India and as a counter to the recently created Pakistan.

Successive Indian governments have maintained a cordial relationship with the Assad family, which has presided over Syria from 1971. There was no significant change in the relationship even after the allegation that the Syrian President carried out chemical attacks, barrel bombing and unprecedented violence against the citizens for rebelling against his autocratic rule. Many people have argued that India may have refrained from adopting a sterner approach against the human right violations in Syria as it could have brought forth some unwanted attention to its own methods adopted in response to the Kashmir agitation and the Naxal movement.

With the changing global dynamic, New Delhi’s attitude of non-alignment, which continued ever since independence, has to change. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi harbours global foreign policy ambitions, it would be a good opportunity for him to garner some points on a global platform. There have been a few goodwill steps taken by India which includes keeping the Indian embassy open even in the midst of the Syrian crisis and sending a business delegation led by Cosmos group and ASSOCHAM (New Delhi-based commerce centre). There has also been continual exchange of high-level delegation which has two visits by Nehru (1957, 1960), by Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2003 and President Pratibha Patil in 2010, and by Shukriai-Quwatli (then president of Syria) in 1950s, Hafez al-Assad in 1978 and 1983 and Bashar al-Assad in 2008. However, the approach has always been overly cautious and minimal.

Analysts argue that India has significant diplomatic interests with all the shareholders in the complex Middle East and West Asia affairs (Iran, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, etc.) and thus warrants an overly cautious and strategic approach when pertaining to developing a policy for any specific country. But, continuing this policy will be harmful as other players are becoming more active and assertive in the region with Russia sending ground troops to support Assad’s forces and China using its veto power against the United Nations resolution for more sanctions against Damascus in the wake of chemical attacks by Assad on Syrian citizens. In such a dynamic multi-party conflict, New Delhi will be phased out of any talks if the minimalist approach is continued. Also, countries such as Tehran, Saudi Arabia and Israel have accepted the fact that New Delhi won’t ever be convinced to take sides in their conflict and they all have lucrative deals (whether trade, energy or economic) with the country.

In its current form, India has much to offer to the Syrian conflict. It can adopt an aggressive positive intervention as almost all of the sectors in the Syrian economy are in shambles, and the country would welcome any help which New Delhi could offer. New Delhi can play a massive role in developing sectors such as information technology, agriculture, health and education, and in return, it would be protecting its energy requirements in the region.

India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation along with its partner consortium had to abandon its investment in Syria’s natural gas and oil fields when fighting intensified, but with the Syrian army regaining control of most of the fields, India could enter the region with renewed confidence and promises of cooperation. Old commitments such as $25 million for the iron and steel industry, $5 million for biotechnology and IT industry, and almost $100 million in credit line for expanding Tishreen power plant in Damascus (made in 2009) can be renewed or renegotiated, giving New Delhi much-coveted soft power in the region.

In the past, New Delhi’s enthusiasm for more aggressive intervention was curbed by the United States as India always went the extra mile to accommodate the needs of one of its closest allies. However, President Donald Trump seems to be incoherently overhauling the United States foreign policy with no clear instructions for its allies. India can, therefore, utilise this chaos in the Trump White House to make strategic but more aggressive forays into the region. New Delhi has a cordial diplomatic, economic and social relationship with Moscow and Tehran, which have traditionally been ‘enemies’ with the United States and so there is a precedence for such an ‘adventure’. For Washington, this can be used as a bargaining chip with New Delhi for more active participation in the ongoing peace process in Afghanistan as Trump looks for options to reduce the presence of ground personnel in Afghanistan. Also, India would be an excellent counter to increased Chinese forays into the Syrian conflict as Beijing is looking for additional energy sources to support its production sector.

India is also worried about the refugee crisis in the region as it has a major diaspora of citizens in all the troubled regions. Recently New Delhi had to send a diplomatic mission to Yemen to airlift and protect its citizens. With a more proactive approach, New Delhi would have more control over the situation and could act with greater efficiency.

As India’s influence in terms of global and reliable economic and political power rises, it cannot afford to shy away from adopting a more proactive leadership in this conflict. This will bear fruits in the long run as India garners support for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council or when seeking approval for its continued struggle in Kashmir and North-East India.

Swaptik Chowdhury is an independent policy commentator at The Diplomat, Swarajya, The Quint, and DailyO. He tweets at @swaptiktweets.

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