Earlier this year, Syria’s deputy prime minister (and Foreign Minister) Walid Muallem paid a three-day visit to New Delhi. While Muallem was the highest-ranking Syrian official to travel to India since President Bashar al-Assad’s visit in 2008, a steady stream of Assad aides have paraded through New Delhi since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. These officials want New Delhi to more explicitly support the Assad regime and then to marshal additional support within the BRICS countries.
These meetings raise an interesting question: What exactly is India’s policy toward the civil war in Syria? And what role could and should India play in the ongoing effort to seek a diplomatic resolution to the conflict?
The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward: New Delhi maintains friendly ties with Damascus. While some Indian officials have hinted that regime change would be destabilizing, in general (and consistent with its philosophy of non-alignment), India has refrained from taking strong, public, or official positions on the Syrian conflict.
But the second question is much more interesting. More than seven million Indian citizens are currently working in the Gulf region, and their safety remains a top concern. A complete meltdown in the Middle East could force the Indian government to launch an operation to evacuate a population the size of Denmark and integrate it back into Indian society. Thus the case can be made for more proactive engagement by India for domestic political and economic reasons. To understand why India remains hesitant to do this, India’s policy on Syria must be placed in a broader context, including India’s key interests in the broader Middle East, Indian’s historic and current relations with Russia, and the continued terrorist threat to India.
Ties that Bind: India’s Political and Economic Interest in Syria
India’s current stance on the Syrian crisis comes off as a little contradictory. While stating that talks should be the primary way to bring the conflict to an end and denouncing use of the military option, India has also shown support of the Assad government’s view that equates rebel groups to terrorists, support for Russian air strikes, and at the same time support for the UN-led peace talks.
While the Modi government in India has maintained significant political and economic interdependence with Syria, the most direct Indian statements about the civil war come from V.P. Haran, who served as India’s ambassador to Syria from 2009 to 2012. In a recent interview, Haran said it was a conflict directed and instigated by outside powers, especially Gulf states, al Qaeda, and Al Jazeera. However, at the end of the interview, he admitted that Assad had “not managed the crisis well.” While these statements are telling, it is not clear if these represent the Indian government’s views or Haran’s own personal views, since he retired as ambassador to Bhutan in late 2014.
India’s ambiguous stance also extends to military action. In 2013, India’s ministry of external affairs said in a statement that there couldn’t be a military solution to the Syrian crisis. However, India has shown some public support for the Russian air campaign in Syria. Last October, while accompanying Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on his tri-nation visit to Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, then-Secretary (East) of the Ministry of External Affairs Anil Wadhwa said, “… the Indian position is that Russian military involvement in Syria is to halt the advances of the Islamic State (ISIS).” This sentiment has been echoed by Indian elites. For example, Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, a former Indian diplomat, praised Russia’s air campaign for being far more effective against the Islamic State than the U.S.-led air campaign.
The Modi government has also been clear that it wants to expand its economic and strategic complementarities with the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Israel. In fact, in many ways, India’s business investments have mirrored its government’s diplomatic stances. India had invested in Syrian oil assets as part of a conglomerate that included Chinese and Syrian partners. (The investment was abandoned in 2013.) In May 2014, an Indian government-backed business delegation visited Damascus for an event organized by the Indian embassy in Syria. The delegation held talks with Syrian Prime Minister Dr. Wael Nader al-Halqi, whose advisors asked the visitors to look into the possibilities of providing healthcare equipment and rehabilitating damaged hospitals. While it seems that some aid may have been provided to the Syrian government since then, Muallem’s visit to India officially secured $1 million in medical aid for his country.
Along with this, India and Syria also revisited a host of long-pending developmental projects, including the $320 million Tishreen power project overseen by Indian state-owned Bharat Heavy Electrical Ltd. (BHEL). Along with Tishreen, impending completion of the Hama steel plant, which is funded by an open credit line for pre-approved loans, was also discussed. India has said that it intends to complete these projects provided Damascus gives assurance of safety.
Thus, despite various moves against the Assad regime by the international community, New Delhi continues to engage with Damascus. After delaying the appointment of an ambassador to Damascus owing to security concerns, India announced a new diplomat in October 2015 to take over the leadership role from a temporary chargé d’affaires who was handling the mission in Syria (though they still did manage to organize celebrations for International Yoga Day in Damascus last year). Overall, economically and politically, India has maintained its historic ties with Syria and the Assad regime.
Historic Relations: India and Russia from Libya to Syria
Historically, Moscow and New Delhi have aligned on a host of international issues from the conflict in Kashmir to Russian actions in Ukraine. To date, Moscow remains one of the biggest exporters of defense equipment to India and perhaps is still New Delhi’s only all-weather strategic ally. Yet the relationship goes beyond arms sales. More often than not, India and Russia have seen eye to eye on global political issues.
Like Russia, India strongly condemned the 2011 air campaign led by European powers against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Perhaps vindicating India’s views, the post-intervention governance vacuum led to the implosion of the Libyan state. India fears a repeat of Libya if regime change in Syria is pursued without due political deliberations.
Joining Russia, India’s Ministry of External Affairs abstained as a non-permanent member from voting on the United Nations Security Council resolution to impose a no-fly zone above Libya. Justifying its vote, India issued a statement that read:
India views with grave concern the continuing violence, strife and deteriorating humanitarian situation in Libya. It regrets the air strikes that are taking place. The measures adopted should mitigate and not exacerbate an already difficult situation for the people of the country.
Russian strikes on the Islamic State, specifically the advertised pinpoint hits on infrastructure such as oil refineries and trucks, are met with applause in Indian media discussions and social networks. Strikes on other parts of the armed opposition and on civilian targets are not often discussed in India.
A shared fear of Jihadist Threat to India: From Lashkar-e-Taiba to the Islamic State
In seeking to understand ongoing ties between Damascus and New Delhi, one cannot overlook their shared experience of being targeted by jihadist groups.
India’s terrorism problem stems largely from the notable issue of Kashmir. Organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (responsible for 2008 Mumbai attacks) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (responsible, along with Lashkar-e-Taiba, for the 2001 attack on parliament in New Delhi) see Kashmir as ground zero for Hindu–Muslim confrontation.
While Pakistan-supported militancy remains the greatest threat to India, New Delhi now has ISIS to worry about as well. Online radicalization of youth, mostly from the middle class, is the main domestic challenge. ISIS online propaganda already shows both Pakistan and India as part of the territory it wants to “take over” by 2020. In fact, there are already reports of ISIS Khurasan taking shape in Afghanistan, with a recent video showing 10 former Pakistan Taliban commanders pledging allegiance to ISIS.
Even though reports of ISIS flags being waved in Kashmir have been frequent, these flags do not necessarily indicate direct linkages with the organization. Most of the threat that ISIS poses is inspiring lone or small groups of operatives using Internet propaganda. However, this does not mean India can let its guard down. Over the past two months, India’s National Investigation Agency has made a host of arrests against suspects for pro-ISIS activities. The National Investigation Agency is also known to be running an expansive screening program for males traveling to and from the Gulf region, where millions of Indians live and work.
The Potential Peace broker: India’s Role in the Syrian Conflict
Despite the controversy, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Muallem’s increased international attention of India’s usually under-reported voice in the Syrian conflict, highlighting the potential for its role in a diplomatic solution.
Since the unsuccessful conclusion of the Geneva II peace conference, the future track of negotiating the political transition in Syria has stalled. Yet continued further spillover effects of the conflict will negatively affect India’s own interests in the Gulf region.
India could potentially leverage its soft power from longstanding relationships among almost all international players in the conflict, including the United States and its European allies. In recent years, India has nurtured a growing strategic relationship with Washington after the trailblazing civilian nuclear deal and repeated engagements between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi. Given the high costs to India, economically and politically, it seems that it has little to lose and much to gain by more proactively and decisively engaging in Syria. Not only would it help resolve a major national security and economic threat to India, but it would further establish India as a global power.
Kabir Taneja is a journalist and researcher specializing on foreign affairs, energy security, and defense. Previously he was a scholar at The Takshashila Institution (Bangalore, India) and visiting scholar at Fridtjof Nansen Institute (Oslo, Norway).