With the divided U.N. vote setting the stage for a deadly civil war, India must work to bring the western interventionists and BRICS nations back to the same table.

Earlier this month, for the first time since assuming a seat at the U.N. Security Council, India showed it bore the markings of a Great Power. This was not the India that offered piecemeal support to the U.N. Mission in Côte d'Ivoire, not the India that stayed away from the crisis in Libya, and certainly not the India that withdrew its military helicopters from the Congo before crucial elections. Admittedly, some of these decisions proved wise in hindsight, especially in Libya where the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's intervention has created an intractable mess. But faced with a Security Council vote on Syria, India set aside its geopolitical interests, abandoned an old alliance with Bashar al-Assad and acted both on moral and tactical considerations.

Writing in The Hindu, Chinmaya Gharekhan (New game on West Asian chessboard, February 20, 2012) highlighted the crisis in Syria as the manifestation of a new great game in the Middle East. He argued, persuasively, that India should follow a policy of dual/non-alignment with Saudi Arabia and Iran, its master puppeteers. Why so? Because Syria, like Libya, is sliding into civil war and the stakes are simply too high for New Delhi to pick sides. India's vote, he concluded, was merely a sign of her “adapting to the circumstances” and nothing more.

I argue otherwise. Syria is headed towards civil war, not on account of some grand chess game in the region, but thanks to a double veto by Russia and China at the U.N. The resolution's failure has pushed the Syrian crisis away from the horseshoe table, into the hands of a few nations with vested interests. Sectarianism now threatens to fuel the conflict precisely because there is no multilateral attempt to resolve it. India supported the resolution with a view to managing this crisis at the U.N., and to prevent it from being hijacked by partisan concerns. It is this initiative that was destroyed by Russian and Chinese intransigence.

To be sure, India's support was tempered to preclude the use of military force in Syria. Nevertheless, the back door for regime change was left open, given that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) draft endorsed the Arab League's proposal to remove al-Assad from power. That India voted for this proposal is remarkable and explained by the Syrian government's prevarication and disregard towards protecting its people. India's position is vindicated by the overwhelming support that met the U.N. General Assembly's Resolution — virtually identical to the Security Council version — on Syria.

In essence, India's vision forward for Syria comprises three elements: Syrian-led transition, a complete eschewal of both externally and internally induced violence, and close co-operation with the Arab League. These reflect India's preference towards solutions that nudge adamant regimes without muscular invocations of the “Responsibility to Protect.”

Therein lies the rub. The vetoes have let the conflict slip into the shadows of murky politics. The multilateral support that India envisaged has morphed into an old-boys' club, indulgingly called “Friends of Syria.” The supply of arms to the Syrian opposition, if it hasn't already begun, can now be rationalised by the goodwill generated from widespread support at the UN. In short, India's vote, and that of others, will be manipulated to set in motion a prolonged and deadly war in Syria.

To prevent a free-for-all, and to resolve the crisis in an institutional setting will be Indian diplomacy's greatest challenge. In this scheme of things, there is no room for Ambassador Gharekhan's conception of “dual alignment” or “non-alignment.” The very idea confines India's options to siding with the United States or Russia, the Saudis or the Persians — or worse, neither. Set in terms of alignment, India will remain a passer-by until the more powerful player breaks the status quo to emerge victorious. That ship left its port when India voted for the UNSC resolution.

Onus on India, South Africa

The task of bringing the Syrian brief back on the Security Council's agenda falls squarely on the shoulders of India and South Africa. The United States and other sponsors of the draft resolution will now engage the conflict without going through the rigours of the U.N.'s deliberative process. On the other hand, there can be no agreement without the support of both Russia and China.

For this reason, India and South Africa should strive to forge a BRICS consensus that accommodates the concerns of Russia and China, while pushing for a second resolution at the Security Council. This is easier said than done, especially after the bloc split on the vote. Nevertheless, there is no other forum that can convince the veto-holders to reconsider their positions. The BRICS grouping should take the initiative in sponsoring a draft — one that ultimately endorses much of what the previous version had to offer — that both Russia and China are amenable to.

India's decision to vote for the UNSC resolution is laudable, and predicated upon the notion that the world can no longer play a mute witness to the atrocities in Syria. By condemning violence (on both sides), and demonstrating her commitment to help resolve differences, India sought a hands-on approach to crisis management at the international level. Here, the price of such action meant supporting a resolution backed by Western sponsors, but India did not flinch.

India's decision on Syria is commensurate with her aspirations to Great Powerdom. The pursuit of an “independent” foreign policy in yesteryears saw India shying away from pivotal issues. No doubt, these decisions were based on an evaluation of their merits. There is no reason to believe India will now pursue a different or dogmatic approach. But in the light of changed circumstances, the same decision-making criteria may well yield different policy outcomes. On Syria itself, how India brings recalcitrant veto-bearers and trigger-happy interventionists together at the same table will be a definitive test of her resolve and ambition.

Read Chinmaya R. Gharekhan’s response

(Arun Mohan Sukumar is studying diplomacy and law at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.)

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