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The Deep Read: How the World’s Largest Democracy Is Handling the “Syria Issue”

NEW DELHI / More than 3,000 miles separate New Delhi and Damascus, but for Indian diplomats, the two-year-old crisis in Syria must feel much closer. For India, the global community’s sharp debates over Syria have less to do with Syria – India and Syria enjoy a casual rapport – and more to do with the fragile network of allegiances and interests that India has built over the past decades, now being tested by new international pressures.

Written by Anika Gupta Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

A HISTORY OF  SILENCE

India’s recent votes on Syria suggest that the country is ready to reconsider its age-old non-aligned stance. On February 4, 2012, India broke with its tradition of non-intervention and voted in favor of a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution that called for a Syrian-led political process in response to the unfolding violence in Syria.

“Our support for the resolution is in accordance with our support for the efforts by the Arab League for a peaceful resolution of the crisis through a Syrian-led inclusive political process,” said Hardeep Singh Puri, the Indian ambassador to the U.N.

On July 19 India voted in favor of another UNSC resolution. This tougher resolution would have sanctioned Bashar al-Assad’s regime if he did not stop using heavy weapons against civilians.

Neither resolution passed – they were vetoed by Russia and China, both of which have permanent seats on the UNSC.

Even though tough provisions in the February 4 draft had been dropped in order to win New Delhi’s support, India’s votes still ignited a furor of protest in a country that has historically opposed any outside intervention in other nations’ internal affairs.

“The abhorrence for externally enforced regime change seems to have got dissipated in our political thinking,” wrote Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary of India and a longtime diplomat, in a July 23 column titled “Delhi’s Craven Policy on Syria.”

“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 SHADOW OF LIBYA

India’s vote marks a break from its own past. Despite condemning human rights abuses in the area, India abstained from the UNSC vote that imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, another major recent conflict that sparked intervention debate.

“India’s policy is reactive,” says Sujata Cheema, an assistant professor in the Centre for West Asian Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. “It’s not about taking clear-cut stands.”

India’s reasons for abstaining are grounded in decades of practicality. But times are changing.

For years now, India has agitated for a permanent seat on the UNSC. In order to win one, it will need to win the support of the United States, which might require taking stronger stances on global issues. Some voices suggest India hasn’t gone far enough.

“This [the U.N. discussion] is an opportunity to build India’s image as a globally responsible power that takes on these roles more seriously,” says Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

PARTNERS IN THEORY

It’s impossible to talk about India’s position on Syria without talking about the United States. India faces strong pressure from the U.S. about Syria, partly fueled by a shared sense of political ideology.

“India prides itself on being with the U.S. on certain international issues that concern reforms in the Middle East and democratization,” says Cheema.

The U.S. has been one of the strongest voices in favor of tougher measures on Syria, and its agents have expressed deep disappointment with the inconclusive debates in the UNSC. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., reportedly referred to the vetoes of fellow BRIC countries China and Russia as “disgusting.”

Over the past decade, the relationship between India and the U.S. has undergone a rapid transformation, reaching a watershed with the 2008 signing of the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement, ending decades of India’s exclusion from global trade in nuclear energy technology.

“Who would have believed 10 years ago that India and the U.S. would sign a nuclear deal?” says Rajagopalan. “Things have happened in unbelievable terms in a short period of time.”

But the relationship faces its stresses, too. A few years after the nuclear deal, Indian legislators passed a nuclear liability bill that U.S. industry found highly unsatisfactory, and which effectively negated some of the gains that U.S. firms had hoped to realize as a result of being able to enter India’s nuclear market.

There are murmurs, Rajagopalan says, that some in the U.S. are not sure what the partnership with India will yield. Against this backdrop, India has to prove itself the sort of global player that can’t be ignored.

ALL ABOUT THE OIL?

Energy-deficient India imports nearly 70 percent of its oil, and that figure is projected to rise as high as 90 percent in the years to come. Currently, India imports nearly $1 billion a month in crude oil from Syria’s neighbor, Iran, defying Western sanctions. Iran is one of the few nations to openly support Assad’s regime. But as a series of harsher Western sanctions against Iran come into effect, India is scrambling to find alternative suppliers.

One of the new partners it has turned to is its old friend Saudi Arabia, its largest supplier, with more than $31 billion worth of oil traded to date this year.

Saudi Arabia has spearheaded the Arab League plans that call for Assad’s ouster. As a remarkable goodwill gesture, in June 2012 Saudi Arabia agreed to extradite Mumbai terror blast suspect Abu Jindal to India. Less than a month after Jindal’s extradition, India voted in favor of the second UNSC resolution, this one taking a tougher stance against Assad’s strong-arm tactics.

“India finally started to emerge clearly on the Syria issue,” says Cheema. In short, “it didn’t want strained relations with Saudi Arabia.”

WHAT LIES AHEAD

As UNSC discussions have ended in deadlock, it’s unclear what the possible consequences of India’s position on Syria might be.

“Strategically there is concern over Russia and Iran,” says Arif Ansar, founding CEO and Chief Analyst of the think tank PoliTact, “because those two countries are supporting the regime.” But thus far India’s relationship with Iran remains intact, and much of the West and the Gulf have welcomed India’s stance.

As the rebels make inroads, it seems increasingly likely that the days of Assad’s regime are numbered. If the government falls, India will have to scramble to figure out its ties to the new ruling powers, who may not continue Assad’s pro-India policies. In that case, India’s support for the UNSC resolutions could serve as building blocks for the new relationship. It’s still in India’s best interest to maintain some influence in Syria, partly to preserve oil and gas exploration partnerships it has there.

“The big question for India is how it can balance conflicting pressures,” he adds.

Considering the many parties watching the developments in Syria, it’s unlikely that India’s interests in Syria will begin or end anytime soon, regardless of the fate of Assad. Which means India might have to keep up its difficult balancing act.

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