Why Syrian question matters

Why is it the Syrian question profoundly concerns India – unlike the dozens or hundreds of military interventions the US has made through modern history? Source: Reuters / Bassam Khabieh

Why is it the Syrian question profoundly concerns India – unlike the dozens or hundreds of military interventions the US has made through modern history? Source: Reuters / Bassam Khabieh

It needed an extraordinary strength of conviction on the part of Manmohan Singh to say what he said about the Syrian crisis, and Vladimir Putin took due note of it.

Indian diplomacy can look back with satisfaction at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The summit’s declaration echoed India’s concerns over the spillover effects of volatile currency withdrawals on the emerging economies. It recognized the principle of levy of taxes on the “multi-national companies” where they make profits - upholding a principle India espouses.

Third, the BRICS, which met on the sidelines of G20, decided to create $100 billion fighting fund to steady the currency markets of member states that face the prospect of destabilization due to an expected pullback of US monetary stimulus. Now, much work needs to be done to make political statements a technical reality, but in multilateral diplomacy too, every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

However, towering above all this has been the Syrian question. The beating of war drums in the Eastern Mediterranean by the United States and a clutch of four or five allies could be distinctly heard in the northern Russian city at the Gulf of Finland. A profound sense of disquiet was palpable that something of momentous consequence to regional and global security and the functioning of the international system is unfolding. And India upfront articulated its concerns and found itself on the “right side of history.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the world leaders that whatever international action is over the Syrian conflict situation should be under the framework of the United Nations and the world community should wait for the report of the UN inspectors on the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. He stressed that there has to be certainty first as to what really happened in Syria. The prime minister voiced India’s strong opposition to armed interventions aiming at “regime change.”

On an issue of supreme importance to the US foreign policy that may well come to define Barack Obama’s presidential legacy, India and America find themselves poles apart. It needed an extraordinary strength of conviction on the part of the Indian prime minister to say what he said – and Russian President Vladimir Putin took due note of it – since, conceivably, the Indian stance might well cast a shadow on Manmohan Singh’s upcoming meeting with President Obama in Washington some two weeks from now.

Uncharitable critics in India who are wont to throw mud at the government on any and every issue in an election year have leveled accusations that the ruling Congress Party is “appeasing” the Muslim electorate in the country or, are ostensibly taking to the heights to belittle the resonance of the Indian stance on Syria by pooh-poohing that what happens in that remote Middle Eastern county on the Mediterranean is not really India’s “business.” Both accusations are churlish. The Syrian question finds the Muslim world curiously divided with Saudi Arabia enthusiastically supporting a US-led military intervention and even offering to bankroll the operation. So, what is the “Muslim opinion” one is talking about and how does the India’s principled stance become an “appeasement” of the Indian Muslim electorate? It belies logic. India is with Pope Francis rather than King Abdullah the Custodian of the Holy Places.

Now, why is it the Syrian question profoundly concerns India – unlike the dozens or hundreds of military interventions the US has made through modern history? Indeed, the spectre of the rise of radical Islamists, inevitable spillover of the conflict to the region as a whole including Persian Gulf where around 6 million Indians work and live and contribute to India’s invisible earnings to the tune of $15 billion annually, near-certainty of cascading rise in oil prices that could put additional burdens on the Indian economy – these are “bread-and-butter” issues for the Indian people. Besides, weakening a pillar of international law, which is what a US attack amounts to, if Syria unravels as a secular, multi-ethnic state, it puts another question mark on the viability of plural societies; a precedent is created in the Greater Middle East, which tomorrow could come handy for “conflict resolution” in the Hindu Kush. In sum, this is one of those agonising moments when it is prudent not to ask for whom the bell tolls. 

The writer is a former diplomat.

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