In the winter of its Arab Spring, Syria has become the center of a geopolitical showdown. Dogged by a persevering opposition stilted by the West and the Arabs, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been under intense political pressure to end the now 11-month-old uprising. On February 16, India voted in favor of a UN resolution that passed by an overwhelming margin in the General Assembly joining the call to end the violence.
The Western-backed plan, put forth by the Arab League, received Indian support from the outset. India’s position on Syria, both in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, is a reflection of its stake in the region. Certainly, India wants a stop to the bloodshed. According to the UN, nearly 6,000 lives have been lost over the span of the uprising, 25,000 people have fled the country, and an additional 70,000 are internally displaced. Not usually mentioned by the Western press is that over 2,000 of those killed were Syrian security personnel.
Consensus on the scope of the Arab plan has proved problematic. Russia and China were keen on condemning acts of violence by all parties, laying the blame on both Assad’s security forces and the opposition. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Gennady Gatilov, called the Resolution “unbalanced” and sought to modify the Arab plan, yet it failed in reaching a consensus. Indian UN Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri also agreed in condemning the violence, irrespective of the perpetrators, but did not support Russia in vetoing the Resolution.
In the past, India has voted with Russia and China on another Arab Spring issue. Last March, India abstained on a UN Security Council chapter 7 Resolution which would have enforced a no-fly zone over Libya. Then, India stood alongside its fellow BRIC countries, joined by NATO member Germany.
Why then but not now?
The key difference is that under the Libyan Resolution, India would have authorized “all necessary measures” which includes military means for protecting civilians. That was too blunt an instrument for India’s engagement policy. The monopoly of force should be in the hands of the state, not a multilateral militia, be it NATO, imitating a made-to-order Opposition. In the case of Syria, India was more inclined to support a specific plan that sought a resolution among Syrians first before the country descended into a civil war, as happened in Libya.
The principle of sovereignty isn’t the only reason why India wants an inclusive process in Syria. As an emerging market economy, India’s development is dependent upon a stable supply and price of oil to fuel its growth. Prolonged conflict in the region is bad for Indian businesses.
India is also concerned with the increased level of sectarian and ethnic violence in Syria. Reports from cities like Homs show a pattern of community division, as groups of Allawites and Sunnis move into their respective ghettos for safety, further perpetuating the polarization of society. These shifts are only a microcosm of a larger fault line which India, as a neighbor to the Arab world, does not want to see widen. In the long-term, India would prefer more secular forms of government to emerge in the region.
Most importantly, stability matters. Days after the passage of the UN Resolution, Iran docked two of its warships at the Syrian naval base of Tartous. The presence of the vessels sent a signal to Iran’s critics. Coupled with its alleged involvement in the recent attacks on Israeli diplomats (one of which occurred in New Delhi), the interconnectedness of events only amplifies the volatility in the region. India’s willingness to pursue its own self interest, both tangible and intangible, serves as an example of calculated, thoughtful leadership.
Photo Credit: bijoy mohan