Delhi’s Craven Policy on Syria
Amb Kanwal Sibal

The position India is taking on the unfolding Syrian crisis does not do honour to our diplomacy. We supported last week the western resolution providing for sanctions on Syria under Chapter V11 of the UN Charter unless its government effectively ended its military operations against the insurgents who are backed by the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.


Russia and China vetoed this one-sided resolution which imposed specific and verifiable obligations on the government such as ceasing, within ten days, troop movements towards population centres and all use of heavy weapons there, a complete pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres and withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from these centres to their barracks etc. No obligation was imposed on the armed opposition groups, apart from a general exhortation to “all parties, including the opposition (to) cease all armed violence in all its forms”. The resolution took no cognizance of the role of the external backers of the armed groups and sought no end to outside interference.

In these circumstances, the provision to extend Kofi Annan’s UN mission to Syria for another 45 days- something that Russia and China(and India) favoured- became a casualty. The West has, in reality, little attachment to Annan’s mission as it serves to delay what they want- President Assad’s quick ouster- while Russia and China (and India) support it in the forlorn hope that some negotiated way out of the crisis can be found.

Kofi Annan’s mission has been subsequently salvaged, with the Security Council unanimously approving( July 20) a compromise western resolution extending the mandate of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria for 30 days, with the possibility of extension should there be a cessation of the use of heavy weapons and a reduction of violence by all parties in Syria. The “all parties” referred to will not abjure violence as religious ideology and larger geopolitical objectives are involved. The regime will combat the armed opposition groups to protect itself and the country’s multi-ethnic secular foundations. The latest resolution is therefore an exercise in cynicism by those who remain bent on regime change and those who are willing to clutch at such diplomatic straws to uphold their position that the Syrians themselves and not external powers should decide on political change in Damascus.

If India’s conduct in the UN Security Council is questionable, it is because India is buffeted by contradictory considerations of principle and pragmatism in adopting a position. Conscious of its transformed relationship with the US, India is reluctant to oppose the latter on issues like Syria in the UNSC where its conduct is under scrutiny in the context of its permanent membership aspirations. India is exhorted by the West to assume its “international responsibilities” as a would-be global power on humanitarian and democracy-related issues, which means endorsing the policy of imposing sanctions on delinquent states as identified by them. India’s foreign investment and growth needs dispose its policy makers to bridge political gaps with the US as much as possible. India’s vast energy, trade, manpower and remittance linkages with the Gulf countries contrast with limited economic ties with Syria, placing a premium on pragmatism in defining our position.


On the other hand, strategic autonomy means taking positions in conformity with our fundamental thinking about the conduct of international relations, even if our western partners find them disagreeable. The abhorrence for externally enforced regime change seems to have got dissipated in our political thinking. Syria may be different from Iraq and Libya in method but not in objective. Western leaders are insisting on Assad’s departure and warning that his days are numbered. They are supporting the armed opposition groups; their media has launched an information war against Syria; for ostensible humanitarian reasons they are creating conditions for a large scale human disaster there. Why should we implicitly support regime change in Syria?

In our longer term interest we should not be complicit in the destruction of secular authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and their replacement by authoritarian Islamist ones. The veneer of democracy being given to these developments is false. The US, which has managed fundamentalism in the Gulf for decades and even promoted it in our region till recently for geopolitical ends, may believe it retains enough levers to manage the developing Islamist trends in the Arab world in which allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are playing a catalysing role. But India is getting exposed to a longer term threat by the lurch of the Islamic world towards Salafism.


India’s explanation India for voting for the western resolution on Syria is disingenuous, as it refers only to India’s desire to preserve Kofi Annan’s mission and ignores completely the sanctions provision that Russia and China were objecting to. Not taking into consideration Russia’s cogent arguments against the western resolution reflects a departure from our oft-stated positions, along with Russia, on respect for sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs of countries, opposition to regime change and support for multilateralism and multi-polarity.

Our compliant attitude at New York contrasts with the position taken by South Africa which abstained and criticized the western resolution as one-sided. Pakistan too abstained, and opened up space for itself, unlike us, to jointly work with Russia to draft a joint resolution on extending the Kofi Annan mission as an alternative to the UK draft. This reflects poorly on our diplomcy with Russia on Syria.

A compromise between principle and pragmatism dictated abstention by India on the vote on Syria. If we should not oppose the West when they are right because of old prejudices, we should not support them when they are wrong out of new fears.

Published Date: 24th July 2012

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