In trying to strike a balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia, India seems to have lost the plot on Syria.
In casting its vote on Syria with the West and the Arab League at the United Nations Security Council, India may have lost a rare opportunity to impart solid political content to the Brazil-Russia-China-India-South Africa (BRICS) grouping, which has so far focussed on economic issues.
Two key countries belonging to BRICS — China and Russia — vetoed the West-backed resolution, which did not explicitly call for the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, to quit. However, it implicitly did demand the President's departure as it backed the position adopted by the Arab League, which had earlier called for Mr. Assad's exit. In the Arab League's perception, the President needed to make way for Syria's Vice-President with a national unity government overseeing the political transition.
Libya's experience weighed heavily in determining the Russian and Chinese positions on Syria. Both countries publicly acknowledged that they had been misled by the West on Libya. The western powers and some of their key Arab allies had, instead of protecting civilians through the establishment of no-fly zones, the stated intention of the resolution, manoeuvred it to institute a regime change. In the end, the Security Council Resolution 1973, on which Russia, China and India had abstained, paved the way for the grisly killing of the former Libyan leader, Muammar Qadhafi.
The debate over Syria has also demonstrated the clash of two divergent and competing ideological positions. The West is undermining the principle of national sovereignty, with the implicit backing of the doctrine of the Right 2 Protect (R2P), which allows international military intervention in a sovereign nation when the State, in the perception of the “international community,” endangers the lives of its citizens on a large scale.
Rejecting “humanitarian interventions,” China and Russia, on the contrary, have staunchly defended and invoked the principle of sovereignty, which they say the U.N. must uphold in formulating its stance towards Syria. This has been the core of their position, from which they have not budged so far, despite their recent attempts to evolve a position around which an international consensus can evolve.
The heated debates on Syria in the U.N. cannot be seen in isolation. They mask a clash of great intensity, of competing geopolitical agendas, which are being played out at several levels. For Russia and China, the insistence on regime change in Syria is part of a long narrative scripted mainly by the United States, to overwhelmingly establish its cascading control over the rest of the world in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This has taken the form of western backed colour-coded revolutions, as in the case of Ukraine and Georgia, or use of varying degrees of force, some of it covert, as seen in the case of former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Lebanon and in Libya, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. China is of the view, that in the end, Beijing could become a target of the so-called “pro-democracy,” regime change subversion and must therefore stand up to the West, as it has done on Syria, to stem the tide, even at the cost of losing some tactical ground.
Tactical versus strategic
India seems to have lost a trick by voting on tactical rather than strategic considerations with the West and the Arab League on Syria. There is an argument that India's vote was the result of a great balancing act it undertook between Iran and Saudi Arabia — the two countries locked in a bitter and escalating Cold War in West Asia. In trying to balance its interests between Iran and the pro-West Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, India sided with Iran, and despite enormous pressure from the Americans and the Gulf countries, refused to enforce oil sanctions against Tehran, which were being imposed outside the U.N. framework.
Having done so, it appeared to have gone with Saudi Arabia by voting with the West and the Arab League on Syria, apparently to protect its legitimate and growing interests with the petro-monarchies — the source of billions of dollars of remittances, a lucrative source of investment, and the anchor of India's energy security. There is also an argument that Saudi Arabia has become important as a factor in influencing Pakistan, and is therefore important to India on grounds of national security.
Finally, it is being said that by voting with the West and the pro-West Arab regimes, India has positioned itself on the “right side of history,” in the post-Cold War era — a superficial and deeply flawed presumption at a time when the locus of global economic power has already shifted East, and it may not be long before emerging powers discover that they are capable of asserting themselves, ever more strongly, on the global political stage.
It is in trying to find a tactical balance to protect its interests in the region, in a framework largely bereft of a larger strategic vision that India seems to have lost the plot on Syria. Viewed from a strategic perspective, the Indian establishment appears to have under-appreciated the importance of Iran, Syria's core ally, to India's larger national interests. Not only is Iran indispensable as the gateway for protecting India's interests in Afghanistan as well as for reasons of energy security, it is also the key for developing India's ties with Iraq in the post-Saddam era.
After the demise of the former Iraqi President, who was India's reliable partner, and the impending exit of American forces from the country, Iran has emerged as the biggest gainer and potentially the chief power broker that can facilitate India's re-entry into Iraq — a country with a vast untapped oil wealth that is bound to feature ever more prominently in India and China's energy security matrix in the future.
But by voting against the Syrian regime, India adopted a position that was plainly hostile to Iran, for Damascus is the lynchpin for projecting Iranian influence in the Levant. It is also more than likely that if a “regime change” is accomplished in Syria, with Israeli pressure already substantial on the American establishment, the Islamic Republic may soon find itself fighting for its political survival. Such an existential threat may force Tehran to review its position on the nuclear issue and impart a so far unproven militaristic dimension to its atomic programme. In plain language, “regime change” in Syria may push an isolated Iran to develop the atomic bomb and permanently change the regional balance of power — a situation that does not suit India's larger interests in West Asia.
The argument that India's vote on Syria was necessary to protect India's deepening interests in the arena of human resource, trade and energy in this vast oil bearing zone is specious, to say the least. There is no doubt that India has heavy stakes in the Gulf, which is the source of billions of dollars of remittances from Indians who work there, as well as on account of burgeoning trade. But this relationship has evolved out of economic necessity, and is reflective of a mutually advantageous win-win situation. India's vote at the U.N. is hardly going to threaten this deep-rooted relationship with the Gulf countries, especially at a time when the pragmatic Arabs have realised that the presence of disciplined Indians lies at the core of their economic development.
There is no doubt that India needs to continue building its ties with the Gulf countries in all major spheres of engagement. However, it does not mean that New Delhi, an outsider to the region, should pay a heavy price for protecting its interests by joining, however inadvertently, the Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran centred around Syria, which is a purely regional affair.
Finally, the developments in Syria give India an opportunity to bond on the political plain with Russia and China, and carry with it Brazil, which might have voted against the Syrian regime at the U.N. not entirely out of conviction. Fresh avenues are opening India's way, not only for undertaking a course correction on Syria, but for imparting a prominent political dimension to BRICS. The upcoming BRICS summit that India is hosting may emerge as the first major occasion for New Delhi to make a fresh start.