By Pallavi Ade
The pressure is mounting on Syrian President Bashar al Assad to put an end to the killings. President Assad remains defiant of calls from the international community, to a certain extent due to the support of countries like Russia, Iran, India, Brazil and South Africa, all of whom are part of the UNSC, except Iran. Among them, India currently holds the rotating Presidency of the UNSC for the month of August, which has meant Indian diplomats have lobbied extensively against any international action on Syrian regime. It has left many wondering why India, the world’s largest democracy defends one of world’s most oppressive regime.
The West has called for the removal of President Assad, a stand which India doesn’t support. India, currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, has taken the lead to prevent any kind of western-led action against Syria. It doesn’t want to let its Presidential term at the UNSC be used for any action against Syria as it views such action as having negative impact on its image in the Arab world. India with its significant Muslim population has always cautiously approached its diplomacy towards Muslim majority countries as it worries such actions will draw criticism from the significant Muslim population back home.
As India tries to fit in its role as a major global power, it seeks to design its own form of diplomacy and its approach to the Syrian crisis is part of this diplomacy. This diplomacy is a potent blend of the country’s aim to safeguard its alliances with the countries of West Asia and Middle East and the crucial ‘Af-Pak factor’.
Why does India say no?
India has age-old cultural and political linkages with the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries as a result of which it has resisted from getting too involved in their internal politics; reason being the presence of significant Muslim population back home. Indian policy makers have always worried that their harsh policies concerning MENA countries will not be well received amid the Indian Muslim population. Nevertheless as the country struggles to fit in its role as one of the emerging powers, Indian diplomats are expected to take a position on important issues like the Syrian crisis and not just be mere bystanders.
India has always maintained the policy of respecting the sovereignty of other countries and hence had opposed the recent NATO action against Libya and Iraq; the famous Indian “non-interventionism” policy. In the Syrian crisis, the Indian government has put the responsibility on Assad’s government to resolve the crisis within.
Indian politicians and bureaucrats view Western actions towards Syria as not being motivated by human rights but by their desire for a regime change. This belief was further cemented as Western governments called for President Assad to go.  India doesn’t want to support another Iraq or Libya style operation and hence its strategy is to engage with Damascus to put an end to the violence in Syria. India firmly believes that getting Assad out is not the solution and has asked his government to stop the killings and implement democratic changes at the earliest possible. This was declared when high-level diplomats from India, Brazil and South Africa visited Damascus, where they held talks on this issue with the Syrian government. 
Despite the Syrian government’s admission to the delegates that the military might have made mistakes, the killings have yet not stopped. Indian diplomats at the UN have condemned all forms of violence in Syria but still stood with Syrian government on the UNSC forum.
India who currently holds the rotating Presidency of the UNSC for the month of August, wants to use this opportunity to promote its own form of diplomacy where it engages with Assad instead of tough sanctions or use of force to put an end to the Syrian crisis; but this hasn’t yielded much success as Assad has continued the killing of thousands of innocent Syrians.
India wants to pursue an independent foreign policy where it doesn’t get used as a cannon fodder of Western policies. But it is not just this diplomatic principle that is driving India’s present approach to the Syrian crisis but it is their aspiration to fashion strong alliance with Iran. India’s relations with Iran have been bittersweet since India voted against Iran in the 2008 IAEA vote. The Iranians saw India’s actions as a betrayal of their friendship and that New Delhi co-operated with Washington to isolate Tehran. Since then Indian diplomats have attempted to rekindle this relationship. Iran is important partner for India not only for its energy requirements, but also an important ally when it comes to countering Pakistan.
President Assad belongs to the Alawite sect of Shia Islam and has always found strong support in the Shia majority Iran. The Iranian government has come out openly in support of the Assad regime. Syrian regime’s closeness to Tehran is seen by India as an opportunity to further strengthen their ties with Iran. Syrian vice-foreign minister Feysel Mekdad visited New Delhi to garner support for his government.  The Indian actions indicate the significance of Iran’s silent diplomacy in acquiring support for the Alawite regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria. It was Iran’s nudge that made Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to strike a friendlier cord with Syria, urging the protesters not to “sabotage” the state and hosted an official Syrian delegation.  Tehran has also cut back or even stopped their funding of Hamas after the Islamist movement failed to show public support for the Syrian President.  Syria is thus a good chance for India to prove to Iran that it values its partnership and that its Tehran policy is not interdependent on its Washington policy.
India is designing its policy towards Syria taking into account the post-US withdrawal dynamics in Afghanistan. With the date for US withdrawal from Afghanistan coming near, Indian diplomats are increasingly worried about protecting its interests in Afghanistan, taking into consideration Pakistan’s hostility to Indian presence. The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is now turning to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to strengthen its presence in Afghanistan. By allying with Iran, Afghanistan’s western neighbour, India wants to counter-balance the Pakistani influence there. With its historical and cultural linkages with Iran, New Delhi has always felt some degree of closeness to Tehran. With the US withdrawal coming near, Indian government is looking to build a New Delhi – Tehran – Moscow axis in Kabul to counter the China – Pakistan axis there. India’s role in the Syrian crisis is part of this wider strategy.
For India, ‘a weak Assad is better than no Assad’ as his departure would mean installation of a Western friendly government who might be hostile towards the Iranian government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. India needs the support of Iran and Russia if it plans to stay in Afghanistan for a long time.
But in its bid to forge newer alliances and rebuild the older ones, India might be distancing itself from its natural allies like Unites States and United Kingdom, who are increasingly frustrated by India’s stubbornness on the Syrian issue. India along with Brazil and South Africa are eyeing a permanent seat at the UNSC, for which it requires the support the permanent members, USA & UK. India’s present actions will definitely make these countries rethink their support for India’s UNSC bid.
Indian government is extra cautious when dealing with crisis in the Middle East and prefers to stay away from problems there; the reason being the fear of backlash among the Muslim population in India. It has kept this default position, so as to maintain good relations with the MENA countries.
India is walking a fine line in the Syrian crisis, as it tries to handle its relations with both western and eastern countries. If India wants to an internationally recognized power, it needs take a stand on universal issues such as human rights. No one is demanding that India give into the wishes of the West, but as a responsible member of the world community it cannot continue to support the atrocities of the Assad regime. What India needs to do is take a tougher stand against the Syrian government and at the same time convey to Tehran the importance of their relationship. New Delhi – Damascus and New Delhi – Tehran relations need not be interdependent; India should learn to tackle these issues separately. This month when most of the diplomatic world is on a summer holiday, Indian diplomats have worked very hard at the UNSC in support of the Syrian regime. It has not always been easy or comfortable for India, but they have still done it so as forward their agenda. As India continues to grow and becomes an influential power, its diplomatic skills are going to be put to test time and again.
(The author can be contacted at [email protected])
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