India must determine what the Syrian conflict would mean to it

After three years of a brutal civil war in Syria, the world is watching the Geneva-II talks, where for the first time, the regime and the opposition are to negotiate. Also, for the first time, India has been invited to this important forum to deliberate on Syria’s future.

In popular debate, India is cursorily grouped with either the American or Russian camps, but India’s own assessment of the conflict is little discussed. While India has an official position for the negotiations, it has largely viewed the conflict from a global perspective.

However, the negotiations and the conflict will continue for a while as both are stalemated. It might now be time for India, as one of the players on the table, to look closely at the conflict, to determine where the tide is turning and what it would mean for the country.

The narratives of the conflict are many and muddled. However, this is no simple fight for democracy; the problem is religious, ethnic and economic as much as it is political. The democracy narrative traces the roots of the conflict to the March 2011 military crackdown of pro-democracy protesters in Daraa which triggered widespread rebellion in Syria. However, the demands for political reform were limited; instead, what drove many was economic frustration. Syria had faced a four-year drought which reduced two-million people to extreme poverty, unemployment and starvation. Overlaid was the long-simmering tension of religious and national identity; many in Syria’s Sunni majority could not accept the rule of Bashar al-Assad with his Alawite, Shiite and Christian associations.

Over two years, all these motivations have spawned a large “opposition” to the Assad regime, which is in reality a tremendously fragmented entity comprising multiple, mutually hostile groups. The opposition also carries out brutal, armed attacks on civilians and rival groups, meaning they are not quite “the good guys.”

For the United States, bringing down Mr. Assad would champion its pro-democracy record, dispose of an anti-U.S. regime and constrict Iranian and Russian influence in the Middle East. It would also appease its ally, Israel. For Russia and Iran, Syria is the last foothold in the Middle East; almost every other regime supports America.

In joining the diplomacy on this issue, India faced an impossible balancing act, given its friendly relations with every rival — the U.S., Russia, Iran, Israel, Syria — a fact that amazes observers. Adroitly manoeuvring out of the tight spot of having to pick a side, India took a position in alliance with BRICS which eventually sided with Russia, an apt choice given Indian priorities.

Syria is home to few Indian expatriates, nor does India source any oil from Syria; the impact of the war on those issues is indirect. An important Indian priority that is commonly discussed is the opportunity for India to conduct itself as a responsible global power, fit for a seat at the U.N. Security Council.

Ironically, what should be a chief concern, but remains undiscussed, is the fact that Syria is coming close to shifting from an India-friendly regime to a possibly hostile, Islamist regime. For all his flaws, Bashar al-Assad runs one of the few secular regimes in the Middle East. India supports Syria’s right to the Golan Heights, and in exchange, Syria endorses India’s position that Kashmir is a bilateral issue.

Such support is rare in the Arab world; while officially the Arab League does not take a stance on Kashmir, it tends to empathise with Pakistan. Mr. Assad also supports India’s bid for a Security Council seat. Islamic fundamentalism has grown rapidly among the rebels over the last two years. Fuelled by international support, al-Qaeda offshoots Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL grew in rank and were joined by several others — the Islamist Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Al-Mujahideen. While moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army exist, the conflict has quite definitively become about religion for the rebels. Some experts estimate that if the status quo continues, rebels will control about two-thirds of territory and oil resources. Syria’s slide into a religiously driven conflict and a possibly radical regime is not good news for India.

The atrocities and destruction from the war must stop, and India has to do its part. However, can it afford to let Bashar al-Assad go?

(Tanvi Ratna is a foreign-policy analyst and member of the Citizens for Accountable Governance. Twitter: @tanvi_ratna)

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