Unspoken, unnoticed, India’s Syria policy recently took a circle to return to where it all began at the ‘Friends of Syria’ meet in Tunis on February 24. The visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was projected by our spin-doctors as a ‘snub’ to Washington, but in reality, South Block obediently follows the footsteps of the United States and Gulf Cooperation Council states in West Asia.
The ‘Friends of Syria’ was a coalition of Western countries and Saudi Arabia and Qatar that rooted for ‘regime change’ in Syria. This was more or less the coalition that launched the intervention in Libya. India didn’t belong there. So, South Block did a ‘course correction’ by abstaining on the resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 1 over alleged human rights violations by the Syrian Government. India came out strongly supportive of the mission by the joint UN envoy Kofi Annan. An ‘inclusive’ Syrian-led, Syrian-owned dialogue—it became the Indian mantra at the UN Security Council. India took a middle line between Damascus and the so-called Syrian Opposition (propped up by Saudi Arabia and Qatar).
This phase ended unceremoniously with India voting in favour of the resolution sponsored by the United States and Turkey at the UNHRC demanding an international inquiry into the recent violence in Houla. India effectively rejoined the ‘Friends of Syria’.
The Indian vote is based on political expediency insofar as the US-Turkish resolution presumes that the Syrian Government is responsible for the Houla massacre, and in spirit it contravenes the Security Council resolution on Syria. Besides, India too has its mass graves—some 6000 of them in J&K alone—but will we allow our national sovereignty to be transgressed by an ‘independent, international inquiry?’ Evidently, this is a case of double standards.
How did it happen? Suffice to say, India buckled under the combined pressure from Washington and the alluring charm of the oil monarchs of the Persian Gulf. The US makes no excuses for weakening Syria, which strengthens Israel’s military dominance and might isolate Iran.
It’s geopolitics, stupid! President Barack Obama is robustly following up the regional strategy crafted by the George W. Bush Administration in the Muslim Middle East. Clearly, from the US viewpoint, West Asia is an important vector in its ‘defining partnership’ with India. The West Asian region is central to the US’ global strategies and India is a ‘pivotal’ country in what Indian and US pundits nowadays call the ‘India-Pacific’ region.
BUT the invidious charm of the Gulf Arab regimes needs explaining, as it also holds implications for India’s party politics. A cataloguing of India’s political exchanges with the Gulf monarchies during the past five-month period alone tells an incredible story: Joint Commission with Saudi Arabia (January 6); travel advisory on Syria (January 7); Foreign-Office consultations with the UAE (February 8); Defence Minister visits Saudi Arabia (February 13); EAM’s visit to Cairo (March 2); visit by MoS for External Affairs E. Ahamed to Saudi Arabia (March 13); visit of Deputy Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia (March 30); state visit by Emir of Qatar (April 4); joint visit by EAM and MoS Ahamed to the UAE (April 14); visit by UAE Foreign Minister (May 16); visit by Crown Prince of Bahrain (May 29) and travel advisory on Syria (May 30).
This is truly extraordinary. The US has nothing like this traffic with the Central and South American countries. Nor has Russia with the CIS countries. Of course, India is a ‘stakeholder’ in the Persian Gulf. But then, India has no such traffic with its South or Central or South-East Asian neighbours despite being a stakeholder. Simply put, the dense traffic with the GCC states is unique; it is a privileged ‘elitist’ traffic with oligarchs flushed with petrodollars.
The Indian vote at the UNHRC happens to be the residue of this intriguing intercourse. In sum, the Gulf monarchies are influencing the parameters of India’s West Asia policy. Bereft of principles and solely based on expediency, India appears like a camp follower. Storm clouds are gathering over Syria. The systematic assault by the US and its Saudi and Qatari allies on Annan’s mission, debilitating and discrediting it at every point, is entering a crucial phase and an overt intervention in Syria is likely. Indeed, top US officials have spoken of intervention even without a UN mandate.
The Syrian crisis is heavily laden with geopolitics. India has no common cause with the US, Saudi Arabia or Qatar, which have their scores to settle with Damascus. Nor is India interested in inciting sectarian strife in the Muslim world. The Saudis and Qataris don’t have the foggiest idea as to what might follow a regime change in Damascus. (Libya’s anarchy underscores they couldn’t care less, either.) The Saudi-Qatari assumptions regarding the Syrian regime’s political and social base stand exposed. And so indeed their arrogance that money can buy up anything, including Syrians —leave alone their masquerading as champions of democracy and human rights. The spectre that haunts the region is a Syria plunging into protracted civil war that could be far more catastrophic for regional security and stability than the bloodbath Lebanon went through for over a decade. We should not behave like hirelings at the service of ‘green money’.
Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.