The killing last Friday of Zahran Alloush, leader of the rebel Jaysh al-Islam group in Syria, again highlighted the dilemma that was evident during Narendra Modi’s visit to Moscow and talks with Vladimir Putin. The visit may have been rewarding in bilateral terms but it exposed the handicap from which India suffers when it comes to playing a major role on the international stage. The dilemma is worth examining because in the reckoning of many foreign observers, it suggests a serious weakness that could have a bearing on India’s aspiration for a seat at the high table of the United Nations Security Council.
There are two ways of looking at the situation. The obvious approach is that rightly or wrongly the permanent UNSC members usually have clear views on most global issues. Divisions may not be quite as stark as during the Cold War years, but the leaders of the Big Five still represent permanent interests and act to further them. That is something other countries understand and accept. It makes for clarity, and allows the rest of the international community to decide which team they wish to follow. On the other hand, an uninvolved power that can consider each situation dispassionately on its merits might have a major contribution to make to global diplomacy. In practice, however, such objectivity breeds mistrust. Whatever the public encomiums, many Western politicians privately regarded Jawaharlal Nehru as a fence-sitter, and non-alignment as opportunism. Nor is it forgotten that Nehru’s very different responses to the Suez and Hungarian crises exposed the limitations of a vulnerable nation that is economically or strategically dependent on a major power.
If there seems to be some ambiguity now about Russia’s stand on Syria, it is largely because events on the ground have become confused. Putin was — and is — quite clear he wants Bashar Assad to remain Syria’s president. That means he holds no truck with the supposedly pro-democracy groups with which the dead Alloush was identified and which Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States and Britain support overtly or covertly. He appeared ambivalent about the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (which opposes both Assad and the rebels) until ISIL terrorists bombed a Russian Airbus bound for Saint Petersburg from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort, killing all 224 passengers and crew. Russian air strikes have targeted ISIL since then but without making common cause with the anti-Bashar rebels. In fact, some of the rebels may have ISIL links.
Ahmad Tumah, the opposition coalition’s prime minister designate, doesn’t rule out Russian complicity in Alloush’s death. There is little doubt that his elimination has strengthened Assad’s hand by depriving the rebels of an important asset. Tumah fears that other rebel commanders could also be targeted for assassination.
Like Russia and unlike the Western powers, New Delhi does not think Assad’s removal would solve all problems. But unlike Russia, India is not a player despite being wooed for nearly two years by both Russia and Syria. Stressing the “cultural and historical ties” between Syria and India, Assad’s special advisor, Bouthaina Shabaan, declared during a 2013 visit to New Delhi, “We want India and the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to play an important role in the political process, convening Geneva II and finding a solution to the crisis.” Reiterating this, Syria’s ambassador to India, Riad Kamel Abbas, only last month praised what he called Delhi’s adherence to the UN charter’s call for non-interference and support for political dialogue. He, too, called on India to play a bigger role in solving the conflict. “We would really like India to play a more proactive role … India is in a rare position where it has good relations with both Syria and the big world powers,” he said.
India’s position is less straightforward than Russia’s. Damascus has been Moscow’s political and military ally (protégé?) from the Soviet era. The Syrian port city of Tartus hosts Russia’s only naval facility in the Mediterranean region. It was established during the Cold War under a 1971 agreement. Russia also has a military base in Latakia province in northwestern Syria from where it carries out air strikes against ISIL or the rebels. There are reports of the Russians building a second base southeast of Homs at the current Syrian military base of Shaayrat. The location of this second airbase in the centre of the country will add to Moscow’s ability to carry out effective strikes against Assad’s adversaries in eastern and southern Syria.
In 2011 and 2012 Russia used its UNSC veto against Western and Arab resolutions to prevent possible sanctions or military action against the Syrian government. Russia also continued to supply large amounts of arms that Syria had earlier contracted to buy. In 2015, Russia suggested that the Syrian civil war had partly been caused by the US and other Western powers pushing for a “so-called” democratic revolution by “so-called” moderate Syrian opposition groups. Instead, the Russians called for a united front with Assad’s government against ISIL terrorists.
India supports this position to the extent that it refuses to endorse the Western line that Assad must step down before peace can be established. But the plea that New Delhi can only join a military operation that the United Nations authorises is little more than a stalling gambit. If New Delhi falls in with Moscow and Damascus, it will seriously affect embryonic ties with Washington. At the same time, no Indian government can ignore the warning by the Syrian ambassador against ISIL fishing in the waters of India’s demographic mix. Noting the increasing presence of Indian jihadists in the Syrian war, Riad Kamel Abbas pointed out as long ago as September 2013 that Syria was “fighting terrorism on behalf of … friends” and expected more political support from those friends – India included – at the United Nations in return.
New Delhi hasn’t been entirely unresponsive. In February 2011, India voted in favour of a UNSC draft resolution that would implement a peace plan proposed by the Arab League only after a call for Assad to step down was dropped. Eight months later India abstained from another UNSC resolution condemning Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests. The following August, it again abstained from an UNGA resolution expressing “grave concern” over the escalating violence. When in 2013 India backed the US-Russia proposal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, it was apparently only to prevent military intervention. India pledged $1 million for the exercise. In 2013, a delegation from India, Brazil and South Africa met Syrian officials and reaffirmed their commitment to a peaceful political solution. But India has steered clear of getting involved in the conflict. It did appear at the January 2014 Geneva II conference but only under Russian pressure.
That way India may have avoided entanglements that could affect its oil supplies, foreign exchange remittances from Gulf workers, exports or multi-faceted relations with the US. But the cautious cover of the sidelines is hardly the ideal location for an aspiring global player.