Opinion » Lead

Updated: March 24, 2012 01:55 IST

On the wrong side of history

Atul Aneja
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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.

Divergent ideologies

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.

Flawed presumption

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.

Heavy price

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.


China-Russia stand prevails in U.N.March 22, 2012

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huh?!What about the Syrian civilians?was this not about them? Sure
Russians and Chinese treat their own people so badly that they would
surely have no sympathy with the poor civilians in Syria.But we know or
should know better. Lets try to be over selves, not some cheap copy of authoritarianism Jackbooted countries. its about the Civilians ,please
lets not forget that

from:  siddhartha
Posted on: Mar 25, 2012 at 23:31 IST

India made the right decision. India was pursuing its national interest when we backed Iran and now when we voted against Syria with KSA. Russia and China will oppose the moves made by West in every area possible. They are playing a game of their own and India don't have a dog in that race. It is always better to think for self in making every decision than be a part of some lofty alliance idea by some countries who have their own interests to protect. India should stand firmly with BRIC nations wherever possible but should not be afraid to differ and pursue its own policies if necessary.

from:  Dilbesh
Posted on: Mar 25, 2012 at 13:34 IST

Nobody can deny the fact that there are instances of human rights
violations in Syria or the Assad regime is, at best, oppressive.We need
not support a west-backed regime change in Syria, at the same time we
cannot turn a blind eye on the genuine democracy aspirations of the
Syrian people.

from:  Anandu.S
Posted on: Mar 25, 2012 at 12:13 IST

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and now Syria. It seems as if a chain of
reaction is going with some western catalyst to increase the whole
process. Reaction must me stopped if it starts going awry.
What we have witnessed in newly democratized nations following the
spring of unrest certainly doesn't instils faith that replacement will accommodate a better regime. Extremist and fanatic elements which are
being chosen can only aggravate the matter, sectarian violence are
more likely to occur.
The best thing would be to engage the current regime and transition of government must be a peaceful process. Blood shedding would only exaggerate the matter.

from:  Pankaj Kumar
Posted on: Mar 24, 2012 at 17:22 IST

The point of view enunciated by the author requires a deep understanding of the issues involved. The view cannot be brushed aside by using ambivalent terms like 'national interests' and 'humanitarian situation'. The link that is being drawn with Iran is a pertinent one. If a western backed government comes into power in Syria, then Iran loses its buffer protection against Israel. Such a development will lead to major political confrontations in the region.

from:  Prateek Rath
Posted on: Mar 24, 2012 at 13:56 IST

The author's assertion that India is on the "wrong side of history" simply because New Delhi's foreign policy dispensation does not follow the prescription of some lingering Cold Warriors in the intelligentsia and media is flawed, to say the least. BRICS is more in the mind, and in any case, not a formal alliance in any sense. In fact, it is not even remotely an international system. The BRICS terminology is an outcome of elitist portals of institutions like Goldman Sachs and not the outcome of any harboiled realpolitik, nor any mutually convergent interests of the supposed constituents, as the author would have us believe. The five countries hardly share any common values or governing systems; Brazil, India and South Africa might, but that's about it. India's relations with the Gulf, such as they are, are governed by mutual self-interest, not by wishy-washy dreams of Third Worldism. BRICS solidarity as a metaphor for foreign policy is far removed from reality.

from:  Jaganniwas Iyer
Posted on: Mar 24, 2012 at 12:19 IST

I write as an observer from the West. Since the 1960s, India has been known as an independent power favoring the now defunct Eastern Bloc over the West. The reason for that alignment, it was believed, was that India had many of the same insecurities as France. In particular, India cannot accept its second-tier power status. This insecurity was much heightened by India's colonial past and resultant bitterness at its subjugation. To counter, India has always sought some forum in which it can aspire to play in the top rank of politics. For decades, that forum was India's self-perceived status as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (Egypt also claimed leadership). Since the disappearance of the NATO v. Warsaw Pact paradigm, India has had a more clear-eyed view of its role and economic interests. India's significance in Asia is sky-rocketing. But this is a result of its West-oriented, capitalist, democratic policies. To align with rivals China and Russia against the West is madness.

from:  David J. Altman
Posted on: Mar 24, 2012 at 04:36 IST

Since when has China, a country which is the main backer of Pakistan, been a friend of India? China does not even accept India's borders.

Stop making a fool of yourself.

If submitting to China is being on the right side of history you can keep your history.

from:  Ram Kumar
Posted on: Mar 24, 2012 at 03:54 IST

@ Gopal Vidya:
A sustainable foreign policy has to be grounded on sound principles and values, not political and economic expediency/opportunism. US imperialism and its appendages ( EU,the zionist occupation called israel and the arabs of the gulf) in terminal decline seek to restructure the ME region and indeed Eurasia to their benefit. They must be defeated and booted out in the interests of the people of the region. India along with Russia, China and Iran has a key role in this noble and historical work.

from:  Sohail Zahid
Posted on: Mar 24, 2012 at 00:31 IST

"The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon
they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world
around us..." stated Tony Blair just days after 9/11 as an
introduction to the Global War on Terror (Operation Infinite
Justice) by invading Afghanistan in the first instance.
The West is out to tear down the fabric of the world and reform it
to its advantage. India will not be woven into this fabric. It
will be kept in a state of perpetual chaos for that is what the
"New World Order" orchestrators plan. Our myopic leadership fail
to see that Saudi Arabia is the bane of Pakistan, Afghanistan,
Bahrain et al. The Arab League are mere vassals of the
imperialists. Their "monarchs", Kings", "sultans" or whatever,
totally dependant on the West for protection against their own
people. BRICS must jointly oppose the nefarious intentions of the
"New World Order" protagonists. The non aligned countries must
consolidate and coordinate to counter the hegemonist.

from:  rajagopal raman
Posted on: Mar 24, 2012 at 00:31 IST

Author's argument is flawed on many counts. Recent Arab revolutions were not instigated by west. Hosni Mubarak was a staunch US ally. The United States supported the revolution because it had grassroot support. Same is the case with Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. Russia and China have their own commercial and geopolitical interests in backing Syria. India's voting against the current Syrian regime is based on humanitarian considerations and also showing its support to Saudis and the west, which is logical thing to do. Iran is important to India's energy security and also as a long-term regional ally. However, a confrontational policy adopted by the current Iranian regime is not beneficial even for Iran, why should India support them? Author's saying that regime change in Syria will push Iran for nuclear option, does not make sense. Iran is pushing in that direction either way. A section of Indian strageic community portray independent thinking to being anti west, it is not always prudent.

from:  Surinder
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 23:09 IST

The humanitarian aspects of the Syrian crisis is more important,
however India should not blindly follow the west. It is a known fact
that the Syrian situation is created by foreign intervention by
supplying arms and funds to the opposition. India by siding with the
west without considering the facts on the ground will make it stand on
the wrong side of the history.

by voting with the west against our allies / friends will cost us
dearly, it would take years to build the trust but one false step can destroy it, very recent example of India taking the wrong step is
voting with the west against srilanka.

from:  Jameel
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 21:01 IST

I am shocked, reading couple of comments here. We should be embarassed that India is no more an important voice in the international scenario (like until the beginning of 90's) and are just acting like the boot lickers of West, who are only promoting their interests and propaganda, not democracy.

from:  Rajesh
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 20:51 IST

I do not believe that the Syria issue should be viewed from the angle of political correctness or some simple economic calculations. Also I do not agree that Syria is a pure regional issue between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The fact remains that unarmed and innocent civilians including women and children are being killed everyday. Unfortunately the massacres indulged by the government or instigated by some extremist elements does not have seem to weighed in on the authors arguments. The value of life and the human rights perspective must weight more than the combined weight-age of political or economic issues. China and Russia seems to have learnt some irrelevant lessons from Libya episode. While vetoing the proposals of west and Arab league they have not come up with any positive proposals themselves. I would have appreciated if their stance is first to secure a cease-fire and try to work out a peaceful settlement in parallel.

from:  B. Shankar
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 20:37 IST

India has been in the wrong side of the history for a long time. India supported dictators like Ben Ali of Tunisia, Maummar Gaddafi of Libya, Boutiflika of Algeria, Hosni Mubarack of Egypt, Sadam Hussein of Iraq and Ahmedinejad of Iran for economic and trade reasons, ignoring the oppressed people of these countries, under the pretence of non-alliance and non-interference, indirectly supporting all these dictators. India is waking up from the strangles of non-alliance and non-interference in favour of intervention to protect human rights and to stop crimes against humanity included in the UN Charter, as evidenced by Indian votes against Syria and Sree Lanka. BRICS is an association of emerging countries for trade and economic purposes constituted by countries with diverse and conflicting political and military agenda, similar to Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and not political or military alliances against any country.

from:  Davis K. Thanjan
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 20:34 IST

I disagree with the author on a few points and I totally accept India's decision to vote against Syria. First, no stategic, political, economic or trade and energy should come above the humanitarian situation in Syria. The gross violations of human rights and freedom by Assad's regime, which killed about 10000 of its own people, using heavy machine guns and bombs to suppress the revolution, should come to an end. Second, Russia and China's interests in the region are totally different to that of India's. By supporting Syria, Russia would like to reduce the west influence, and hold to its position for supporting Assad's for a long time now. China is in a view, that could be labelled as 'pro-democratic', as author pointed out. By voting by our conscience, although against major players in BRICS, we stood stand by truth and justice. We maybe on wrong side of history, but the decision is right and now we see a new emerging independent India on geopolitical stage. Satyameva jayate.

from:  Sandeep Namburi
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 20:26 IST

1. The Syrian rulers days are numbered. As democracy comes to many of these countries, we voted with history and not against! 2. More importantly we voted for our national interests. China and Russia (and every other country) always vote that way. Stop criticizing the govt for looking after the interests of India. That's what they were elected to do. 3. Finally, stop making a big deal about every vote as if it makes any difference!

from:  Gopal Vaidya
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 20:13 IST

All the strategic/tactical mumbo jumbo no situation does the act of killing of its own citizens by the powers that be can be defended by any logical explanation however well thought and well meaning that may be. As an Indian I am proud that India is against the current regime in Syria which is killing its own people. Nonetheless, it is always enlightening to hear out the other side and know the strategic and tactical forces at play. But seriously between saving people from being murdered by their own army vs tactical gain.....should not be a hard choice to make!! That's just my 2 cents..

from:  Vishal Sharma
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 19:45 IST

The threat of regime change is welcome. This may make tinpot dictators think twice. India should support any move that
pressurises the Syrian leadership whose time is very clearly up.

from:  Karthik Bala
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 19:28 IST

How tragic that this Machiavellian piece completely ignores the thousands killed in Syria! Should we sink to such cynical depths even when discussing so grave an issue - a possible genocide currently underway?
Our country should be an enlightened democracy which addresses each issue on its own merit. We should aspire to moral leadership, not subservience to the powerful. We should be peacemakers, not sidekicks in a gang war.

from:  Ganesh R
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 19:01 IST

When Syria ceased being a democracy and became a pseudo dictatorship,
it has lost the sovereignty that protected the country from handling
internal matters. Especially when the dictatorship started
suppressing any dissenters with brute force.

To be a true superpower as it wishes to be, India has to give up its
stance of being neutral on international issues, economic or otherwise
and truly reflect what the citizens would have opined on the matter in
international forums.

from:  Krishna
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 18:48 IST

It is strange that you pity only "the grisly killing" of poor Muammar Qadhafi but do not say a word about thousands of Lybians ferociously killed by Qadhafi and his regime.
It is also strange that you do not mention the interest of Russia regarding Syria. Russia sells weapons to Syria and defends its own political interests in the area. This is the real motivation of Russia's opposition to the UN's resolution regarding Syria. Did you forget the 8000 Syrians killed by the Assad's regime???

from:  Stephanie
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 15:03 IST

India's foreign policy seems to be run by individuals who are very much illiterate and do not have a clue of the real issues involved.India's action will result in millions of Indian expatriates working in the Gulf countries and elsewhere being replaced by other expatriates workers. This process has allready started with many firms replacing Indian workers with those from other countries resulting in a serious loss of foreign exhange. One should look at the details of India's earnings from export of goods and services to Iran versus the gulf countries, and will realise the stark contrast. India can afford to lose Iran but not the Gulf countries. Indian foreign policy experts should pay attention to this issue in more details

from:  Hassan
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 06:01 IST

Pretty good article. Somehow Indians are caught in still old mind. British came to India for business and ruled. Americans are interested in making an possible ways to keep us as an ally and not an equal partner. Just not possible for them before of their quarterly results attitude or thinking. On the other side Chinese are way over in terms who is good for in 2030 and how I nuture with return for today. We lack leader/visionary who can nail nations straight in face. I mean 1 billion people, self dependent, 80% internally driven economy with a must growth of minimum 6%, strategic location, history, diversity, values country - India. We should stand up in the face of earth and tell anyone, anywhere in globe what is right for all is good for all loudly. That alone serve our interest.

from:  shiva iyer
Posted on: Mar 23, 2012 at 01:24 IST
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