Why New Delhi Remained Silent on Syrian Crisis
by Ramtanu Maitra on 04 Sep 2013 5 Comments
At the time of writing, the West’s fifers and drummers are out announcing the “necessity” of an imminent air attack on Syria’s vital installations to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and the Syrian people who back the regime, for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people and the terrorists. The terrorists were assembled by the Saudis and Qataris, in cooperation with Turkey, Britain, France and the United States, to violently dismantle the Syrian regime.


Britain’s Guardian reported on Aug. 26 that “warplanes and military transporters have begun arriving at Britain’s Akrotiri airbase on Cyprus, less than 100 miles from the Syrian coast, in a sign of increasing preparations for a military strike against the Assad regime in Syria.” From Paris, France’s Socialist leader President Francois Hollande thundered on Aug. 27, stating that his administration was “ready to punish those who made the decision to gas these innocent people,” and adding that “everything leads us to believe” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are responsible.


In Washington, where the Nobel Peace Prize-winner and alleged anti-war President Barack Obama rules the roost, the word is out that the administration has laid the groundwork for potential military actions in Syria in the coming days. One unnamed senior US official told NBC News on Aug. 27 that the US could hit Syria with three days of missile strikes very soon. What Washington also assured us is that the cruise missiles that may be launched from US ships in the Mediterranean is merely to send a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not to topple him or cripple his military. No mention was made of the “collateral damage” those strikes may incur, or what good those air strikes would do to end the two-year-long strife, the thrust of which has been promoted virtually from outside of Syria.


Indian Diffidence


Opposing the war parties’ loud announcements is Moscow, where high-level officials and analysts have cautioned the West of “dangerous consequences” in case of a full-fledged attack. China, eager to keep its distance and not to rock the boat too abruptly, has continued to rest its confidence on “peaceful negotiations” carried out under United Nations authority. Britain’s parliament  has  subsequently prevented Britain to join the US-led alliance to launch a military attack on Syria, France’s Hollande and America’s Obama administration are pressing for a  military strike. Nonetheless it is almost a certainty that some sort of military attack will be launched on Syria, but the time table for such an attack continues to remain foggy. While the major European nations thus have begun to lend support, or express concern over such an attack on Syria by outside countries, New Delhi has remained mute.


It is disturbing to note that a nation of 1.2 billion, with decades of friendly relations with Syria, now finds it difficult to issue statements which could be as vague, yet for the record, as the ones issued by China. But, there are reasons why Manmohan Singh and his IMF-World Bank colleagues do not want to say anything that could raise eyebrows in Washington. Having tanked the Indian economy, Manmohan Singh & Co are now busy tanking whatever respect India had built up over the decades in the global arena.


How difficult would it have been, during these two and half years, for New Delhi to issue statements expressing opposition to the plan to dismantle the Syrian regime using violent Jihadi-terrorists from Arabia and Libya; and clothed, fed, armed and put on stipend by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and  the present members of the “war party”? Not much, it seems. Particularly since India has faced, and will continue to face, the same Wahhabi-Salafi brand of terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeast, if not in the south of India, as well.


Many in India are also aware that the Wahhabi-Salafi brand of terrorist, now in full play working to usher in democracy in Syria on behalf of its benefactors, was created by the “war party” members in order to give the Soviet troops a bloody nose in Afghanistan in the 1980s. They are aware that after battling them briefly, the war party has since joined hands with these terrorists to change “unwanted” regimes in Arabia and North Africa. There are other reasons, as well, why India should have been a lot more forthright and let the war party know of the discontent many of the 1.2 billion Indians feel over this issue.


India-Syria Relations


For instance, on Feb. 25, 1952, India and Syria signed a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce, which is still in force. The Indian signatory was India’s first premier, Jawaharlal Nehru. The preamble to the Treaty said “the Government of India and the Government of the Republic of Syria being equally desirous to strengthen and develop the traditional bonds of friendship existing between them and urged by a common desire to co-operate in establishing peace between the two countries for promoting the prosperity and welfare of their respective peoples have resolved to conclude a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce and to this end have appointed as their Plenipotentiaries…”


One may note that in 1952, when India signed that document, it was an economically weak nation and did not have standing as the ostensible “third largest economic power” in the world or the voice of the Third World. Things have changed since and India has become pragmatic, looking for “what is in it for me” in dealing with many of its foreign policy decisions. But that happened almost overnight. Going back, one finds India’s relations with Syria did not go sour in the interim.


For instance, in 2008 when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited India, the Manmohan Singh government acted to further strengthen relations between the two countries by enhancing trade and encouraging people-to-people contacts. Hosting the Syrian president, then-Indian President Pratibha Patil stated: “Our civilizational and historical links are well known and well documented. We look forward to intensifying our relations with Syria, as we believe that our historical links are just as important to our peoples as our common endeavors in the path of modernization.” Al-Assad reciprocated by inviting India to play a more active role in the Middle East peace process because India is one of the few states that was considered credible by both sides engaged in the dispute.


Then, in November 2010, Indian President Pratibha Patil visited Syria. During that visit, following a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad at the presidential palace in Damascus, she expressed her support for Syria’s claims to the Golan Heights. “India has consistently supported all just Arab causes. I would like to reiterate India’s unwavering support for a lasting and comprehensive peace to the Middle East problem, based on relevant UN resolutions. I would also like to reiterate our strong support for Syria’s legitimate right to the Golan Heights, and for its very early and full return to Syria,” she told reporters during a joint address with Assad.


In return, al-Assad, expressing his hope of strengthened Syrian-Indian relations, said: “We have reiterated our two countries’ condemnation of terrorism in all its forms. And, on the second anniversary of the terrorist Mumbai bombings, marked yesterday, we renew our support of India in fighting terrorism and in order to arrive at a safe and stable world.”


Also in 2010, visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem asked India once again to play a bigger role in the peace process in the Middle East and said that New Delhi should use its growing relations with Washington to promote stability in the region. “India must play its role in the international arena. The situation in the Middle East directly influences India. It is in India’s interest to see a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Walid al-Moualem told reporters in New Delhi.


“India needs to invest in its relations with the US to convince the US administration that stability in the Middle East is in the interests of the US and Israel ... India should also persuade other Non-Aligned Movement countries to back the peace process in the Middle East and the establishment of a Palestinian state. India can do a lot in this field,” the Syrian Foreign Minister continued.


Finally, as recently as March 2013, during her three-day visit to India, a Syrian politician and political advisor to al-Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban, asked New Delhi to take the lead in drafting a strong statement in support of Syria at a conference of the five nations, BRICS - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, scheduled for later in the month. Shaaban, who has been “sanctioned” by Washington for her close association with the al-Assad regime, said she had handed Indian officials a letter from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that urged India to call for a peaceful resolution to the strife within Syria that did not impinge on her country’s sovereignty.


Why India Is Mute


Both Walid al-Muallem and Bouthaina Shaaban were partly right, but also partly wrong. The Indian government’s present disregard of what is happening in Syria - including the possibility of missile and air attacks by western nations - is because Manmohan Singh’s IMF-World Bank coterie is looking to Washington to help get it out of the financial jam it’s gotten the country into and, in the process, secure another five-year term when India goes to the polls next spring. Some may say “fat chance” to such wishful thinking, and for good reason; but the World Bank-IMF-Harvard-led leaders in the UPA have decided to give it a good old “college try.”


In the process, issues that matter to India have been given the proverbial go-by. The steady inroads that Washington has made into India’s foreign policy-making process are becoming increasingly evident. In February 2012, India voted in favor of a United Nations resolution backing an Arab League peace plan that called for ending the violence and a peaceful, negotiated settlement in Syria. In the official statement, India opposed use of force and favored a political dialogue. In July 2012,  India - along with the United States, two former Colonial powers (France and Britain), and 7 others - backed the United National Security Council resolution calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.


In August 2012, when the Saudi-drafted resolution on Syria was presented at the UN General Assembly, India abstained. India was among 31 countries that abstained from voting on what the Manmohan Singh administration had described as a “strongly-worded resolution.” India hemmed and hawed at length, but the bottom line was that the Manmohan Singh administration once again made evident that it no longer functions on the basis of principles - a  point of strength of India in the earlier days when it was  the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement - but on the basis of pleasing the “powerful.” Again, Russia and China were among the 12 countries who voted against the resolution, but to no avail. Nonetheless, India’s vote in favor of the UNSC resolution on Syria and its disapproval of the Chinese and Russian veto marked a sharp shift from New Delhi’s earlier non-committal position on the Arab Spring.


Are there are reasons why the Manmohan Singh government could not stand up and make clear that India will oppose all outside intervention in Syria? Some point out that the disastrous results of earlier interventions in Iraq and Syria by the war parties are all out there in the open for New Delhi to see. Why, then, does Manmohan Singh chose to sit around and say nothing? It is not only that the Manmohan Singh government is spineless, which it is; but surely there are other reasons, selfish maybe, but concrete.


One Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) research scholar, Monish Tourangbam, put the issues in context in a February 2010 paper, where he implied that the Manmohan Singh government is using narrow self-interest in deciding issues that involve the sovereignty of a nation and life or death of hundreds of thousands. Tourangbam states: “The Arab League is steered by Saudi Arabia, which along with the western nations wants the ouster of the Assad regime. The latter is seen as an ally of Iran, which presently is at loggerheads with the US-Israel combine regarding its nuclear aspirations; and the tussle between a Sunni-Saudi Arabia and a Shiite-Iran for regional dominance is clearly known.”


It’s Foreign Exchange, Stupid


“Over a period of time, India’s relations with Iran have increasingly come under serious strain, with more restrictions being put on Tehran’s commercial activities. Thus, in the days to come, New Delhi’s dependence on Arab countries for more oil and natural gas might increase.  Moreover, around 6 million Indian expatriates live and work in the Gulf, and send huge remittances back home. This makes India the highest receiver of remittances in the world, of which half comes from these Gulf countries. As such, it makes sense for New Delhi to find some common ground, though not fully, with these countries, which were behind the Arab League resolution,” Tourangbam continues.


Is that the only reason that a 1.2 billion-people nation was turned into a mere blip? Probably not. How about Indian migrant workers in the Takfiri-infested Gulf countries? In these days of dwindling foreign exchange reserves, the World Bank-IMF-led Indian economic gurus - such as Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Raghuram Rajan, who has brought his IMF-taught library of economic knowledge to head the Reserve Bank of India - do not seem to have a better plan to earn dollars than to make sure that dollars sent by these migrant workers keep on coming. If the Saudis, Qataris, Bahrainis, Kuwaitis and the Emirate crowd get angry over India’s position vis-à-vis Syria or Iran, these migrant workers can be replaced by others from Bangladesh, Pakistan or elsewhere. The lack of foreign exchange reserves to buy oil and gas from the same Gulf region would also upset the foreign investors. So, what does the IMF textbook say? It says stay with us and let the devil take the hind part. It is kind of a desperate situation, isn’t it?


Then, there is the financial, if not future economic, crisis that is now in full bloom in India. As The Economist (Aug. 24-30) points out, India’s dependence on foreign capital is also high, and has risen sharply. “The current account deficit soared to almost 7 percent of GDP at the end of 2012, although it’s expected to be 4-5 percent this year. External borrowing has not risen by much relative to GDP - the ratio stands at 21 percent today - but debt has become more short-term, and therefore riskier. Total financing needs (defined as the current account deficit plus debt that needs rolling over) are $250 billion over the next year. India’s reserves are $279 billion, giving a coverage ratio of 1.1 times. That has fallen sharply from over three times in 2007-08 and leaves India looking weaker than many of its peers.”


Already, Indian Minister of Commerce and Industry Anand Sharma has made public his intent to sell some gold to reduce the country’s current account deficit. That is not just a bad sign; the statement shows that the Manmohan Singh government does not have many other plans. Manmohan Singh is going to the United States in September. Some observers believe that India may talk to Washington about an IMF loan if the financial situation continues to travel southward. New Delhi, of course, denies such a plan. But, denial notwithstanding, isn’t it “logical” not to antagonize the US over Syria at this crucial juncture?

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