Abhishek G Bhaya
Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid al Muallem’s ongoing visit to India is being intently watched by the governments and media in the West and the Middle East. Muallem is the highest-ranking Syrian official to visit New Delhi since civil unrest began in the Middle Eastern country in 2011.
Muallem, who also serves as Syria’s Foreign Minister, called on India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, immediately after his arrival in New Delhi on Monday for a three-day visit. On Tuesday, the Syrian leader held wide-ranging talks with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. He is also expected to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The embattled regime of Bashar al Assad has long sought India’s support and diplomatic involvement in the conflict in Syria. India, on its part, has steadfastly opposed foreign intervention to oust the regime. India’s actions in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have tilted in favour of the Assad regime, opposing or abstaining from moves that either condemned the Syrian President or called for him to step down. The Assad government, therefore, sees India as a potentially influential, though quiet friend.
As Muallem presses India for support in an attempt to bolster Assad’s international standing ahead of peace negotiations in Geneva beginning January 25, the key question remains whether New Delhi will openly back Damascus and spell out its Syria strategy?
NEED TO BE MORE VOCAL
“[Muallem’s] visit to India is part of the Assad regime’s broader Asia strategy. The international optics of being hosted in New Delhi, including reports of Foreign Minister Muallem meeting with Prime Minister Modi, will be seen as a victory by the Syrian government. Beyond this, it will seek to not only maintain the muted diplomatic support India and China have provided at the UN, but to convince these states that the new strategic reality of Russia’s [military] intervention [in Syria] should change their calculations,” Kadira Pethiyagoda, a visiting fellow in Asia-Middle East relations at the Brookings Doha Center, wrote in The Huffington Post.
Muallem was in Beijing just two weeks back on a similar mission and the Chinese leadership has lately taken on a more active role in brokering a deal with Assad’s adversaries. Unlike India, whose officials have repeatedly denied an interest in mediating the Syrian civil war, Beijing has made clear its interest in taking on a larger, but non-military role in Syria.
“Damascus will likely ask New Delhi to be more vocal in its position. The Syrian government may try to persuade India that Russia’s intervention has made New Delhi’s existing position look more centrist, providing cover for a more active approach… Damascus might seek to convince India that the government of a post-conflict Syria will likely have remnants of the regime who will not forget who its friends were. It will highlight the US’s backing down on its precondition that Assad leave, and emphasise Russian President [Vladimir] Putin’s push to ensure Assad is allowed to run in the 2017 elections,” Pethiyagoda wrote.
OPPOSING REGIME CHANGE
It is important to note that the UNSC unanimously adopted a resolution last month, calling for a transitional government in Syria within six months and elections within 18 months to end the strife that has killed more than 250,000 and triggered the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Despite that breakthrough, several contentious issues have remained unanswered, none more critical than the question of whether Assad stays in power or goes.
Iran and Russia have backed the Syrian leader while the US, Europe, Turkey and Saudi Arabia insist Assad must step aside as part of any settlement. That position appeared to have eased after terrorist attacks in Paris last November left 130 people dead.
On the issue of regime change, both India and China appear to be aligned with the Russian and Iranian stand. “India and China have similar positions that are implicitly favourable to the Syrian regime in that they both oppose regime change by force,” says Kanchi Gupta of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. “Their positions on the conflict would be watched carefully by the West and the Gulf, and thus Syria sees greater merit in lobbying them.”
India’s careful position on Syria is born in part out of pragmatism, says Gauri Khandekar, the director of the Global Relations Forum, a Brussels-based think tank.
“If Assad goes, the Middle East largely collapses, and given the region’s significance to India’s core interests, India certainly does not want the same fate for Syria as of Iraq or Libya,” Khandekar told the Abu Dhabi-based The National daily. As the Syrian war turned slowly into a battle between Assad’s government and Islamic State-backed rebels, Khandekar says India has found even more reason to oppose regime change.
“India is in a rare position where it has good relations with both Syria and the big world powers,” Syria’s Ambassador to India Riad Kamel Abbas told The Telegraph last May. “We would really like India to play a more proactive role.”
But India has steadfastly refused to step into such a role. Responding to reports that India was considering playing mediator, Vikas Swarup, spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, categorically denied last May that India offered its services in this regard.
Some observers believe that Muallem’s visit to India itself is proof that Indian officials have chosen a side. “The fact that the Syrian Foreign Minister is visiting India is a clear indication that India supports and has given legitimacy to the Assad government,” former Indian ambassador Ranjit Gupta told Egypt’s Al Ahram news.
Indian officials have previously described their position towards Assad as similar to that of Russia, Assad’s strongest international ally. “I think we are on the same page… At a conceptual level, both Russians and we agree that the Syrian issue needs to be resolved through political and diplomatic means, and an intra-Syria solution,” S Jaishankar, India’s Foreign Secretary, said of the situation in December.
“Geopolitically, India will see Syria as an opportunity to strengthen its position as a potential security partner for Middle Eastern states (as it competes with China). India will see its position as already strengthened given that there are now clearly two opposing international poles regarding the conflict with itself at neither extreme. By maintaining an independent, middle-ground stance on Assad, New Delhi can maintain more leverage with all sides as they seek to win her over to their position,” Pethiyagoda says.
With the global and regional powers getting increasingly polarised on Syria, India, along with China, may very well prove as decisive in bringing an end to the conflict. The crisis in Syria offers India an opportunity to start asserting its status as a major global power. It’s indeed time for India to spell out its Syria strategy – loud and clear.
(The author is a Gulf-based Indian journalist)