India must think before it acts on Syria

Delhi must vote with its BRICS partners the next time a resolution comes up in the U.N. Security Council. That is the only way to help the West pull back from a sectarian war

August 07, 2012 01:19 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:41 pm IST

120807 - Lead - Does india have a foreign policy - prem Shankar Jha

120807 - Lead - Does india have a foreign policy - prem Shankar Jha

On July 15, an estimated 7,000 rebel fighters owing allegiance to the Free Syrian Army invaded Damascus, the capital of Syria. In a Sturm und Drang operation, captured on amateur video by an observer whose harsh breathing reeks of fear, they raced towards the city in brand new pick-up trucks over barely marked desert tracks from Iraq and Jordan, waving Kalashnikovs in the air. Two days later, at 10.00 am, as a bomb planted in the defence headquarters killed four top generals in the Syrian armed forces and severely injured several of their advisers, they embarked on a reign of terror in Midan, killing anyone who was wearing a uniform or appeared hostile to them. Residents interviewed by the Syrian media after the army took Midan back said the attackers were Arabs, not Syrians, for they spoke a different kind of Arabic.


The Arab League and the western powers convened a meeting of the United Nations Security Council within hours. But instead of demanding that the insurgents abide by Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, their draft resolution condemned Syria for using heavy weapons — in this case helicopters — against the marauders. Russia and China’s veto did not surprise anyone. But India’s decision not to vote with its BRICS partners and to toe the western line instead did.

Why did India do this? For it must surely have known even then that Damascus was only a curtain raiser for the battle that is now being joined in Aleppo. According to Syrian estimates, 12,000 FSA fighters have infiltrated Aleppo. Half of them are foreigners from Libya, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Sudan — in short, al-Qaeda.

If there is a bloodbath in Aleppo, the West is bound to table yet another resolution in the Security Council, this time seeking permission to use “other means” if necessary to topple Bashar al-Assad and “save civilian lives.” Will India again vote with the West? Before it does so, it would do well to remember that its own nation building project is still incomplete. So whatever conventions it allows or helps the West establish on the Right to Protect or Intervene may well come back to haunt it in the years that lie ahead.

New Delhi needs to bear this in mind because there are striking parallels between what Damascus is facing today and what Delhi faced in Kashmir in the 1990s. In 2011, Syria had been under the autocratic rule of the Ba’ath party for 48 years. In 1990, Kashmir too had been under autocratic rule for all but seven of the previous 40 years. However, in both countries the autocracy was a stable one. Young people in particular chafed under the Ba’ath party’s rule in Syria exactly as they chafed against “Delhi’s rule” in Kashmir. But while nearly everyone wanted a change, almost no one wanted it at the cost of a violent disruption of their lives. In neither case, therefore, was the state the first to resort to violence: On the contrary, both insurgencies had to be stoked, so the first to pick up the gun were the insurgents. In Syria this was done by Salafi/Takfiri Islamists who crossed the border from Jordan in March 2011 and holed up in the Omari mosque in Dera’a before launching targeted provocations, and attacks on police stations and government offices.

A third parallel is the intervention of hostile foreign powers bent on converting a domestic upsurge demanding political empowerment into a movement for secession or regime change. In Kashmir, Pakistan did this by disarming the JKLF cadres still in training in Muzaffarabad in 1990 and creating the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. In Syria, Turkey and Qatar are funnelling money and battle hardened jihadis to start a sectarian war that will overwhelm the state.

Last and most important, like New Delhi, Damascus has been trying to prevent civil war by offering the insurgents the alternative of the ballot box. Mr. Assad began, on his own, by lifting all controls on the Internet in January 2011. Over the next six months, he first tried to negotiate peace with the Sunni zealots in Dera’a by sacking the governor and releasing 260 prisoners and 16 clerics, and promising to repeal the Emergency Laws and the ban on political parties that had been in place for 48 years. He fulfilled his first promise five days ahead of schedule on April 20 and his second three months later in July.

Mr. Assad also set up a drafting committee to frame a new, democratic constitution for Syria, but neither this nor his other reforms made the least dent on the hardening resolve of the West and its Arab and Turkish allies to force Mr. Assad and his regime out of power and install the puppet Syrian National Council in its place.

Despite this, Mr. Assad persevered with his attempts to make an orderly transition to democracy. As the task of framing a new constitution neared completion, he announced that the draft would be placed before the people in a referendum. Six weeks before the referendum, he offered an amnesty to all rebels and invited them to join in the voting. They could well have done so for the draft constitution not only required an election within three months of its passing but also contained a clause that would bar Mr. Assad himself from contesting the presidential election after his current term ended in 2014. But, egged on by the “Friends of Syria,” of whom India was regrettably one, they chose to boycott the elections and let the violence continue.

Sneering scepticism

The world learned virtually nothing about Mr. Assad’s efforts because the international media, which reported several of his pronouncements, did so with sneering scepticism and no attempt at analysis. But on February 26, 2012, 57 per cent of Syria’s electorate crowned Mr. Assad’s efforts with success by turning out to endorse the new constitution. The large turnout showed that the vast majority of Syrians still wanted a peaceful transition to a secular democracy, and did not mind Mr. Assad remaining in power to manage the transition. For the Free Syrian Army, whose leaders knew (just as LTTE leader Prabakaran did when forced to negotiate with New Delhi in 1987) that the return of peace would erode most of the support they enjoyed among the people, the only alternative that remained was to bring in foreign fighters in the name of jihad.

The result has been a dramatic rise in casualties after February. At the end of October 2011— eight months after the uprising began — the U.N.’s tally was between 6,000 and 7,000 deaths. By February, the figure had risen to 10,000-11,000. Today the minimum estimate is in excess of 20,000 dead. Christians and Shias have been the main victims in recent months. 50,000 Christians have been driven out of Homs, leaving less than a thousand behind. As a result, the number of doctors in the city has fallen from 850 to less than 50, and functioning hospitals from 45 to 5.

Attack on Christians

The killing of Christians has now spread to Damascus. When the Syrian army retook Midan, the FSA ‘rebels’ dispersed but did not withdraw. Instead they selectively attacked and killed the wealthy, educated Christians of Damascus. The first targeted attack took place on July 23. Another occurred over the weekend of August 4-5. U.N. officials in Damascus have reported a ‘terrible killing’ in the Christian quarter of Damascus. Another exodus is therefore in the offing: the Archbishop of the Syrian church told a U.N. official ‘ que dieu me sauve ’— only god can save us.

It is inconceivable that Mr. Assad initiated this escalation because his successful referendum in February and Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan, which held the rebels equally responsible for the civilian deaths and did not endorse the western demand for Mr. Assad to step down first, had given him everything he wanted. From that point on, he had nothing to gain and everything to lose from violence. The western powers have their reasons for studiously ignoring his lack of motive, but Delhi needs to remember that they are not India’s reasons.

When the next resolution condemning the Syrian government comes up in the Security Council, there are two good reasons why India must vote against it. The first is to stand by the principle of national sovereignty that underpins the U.N. Charter and reassure its BRICS partners that it is not a fair weather friend.

The second is to give the West an escape hatch to avoid compounding its own mistakes. The recent horrifying rise in sectarian killings; the growing terror of Syria’s Christian population, the beheading of an international staff member of the Red Cross in Yemen, and the creeping spread of sectarian violence in Turkey, have triggered a spate of reappraisals in the New York Times , The Guardian , The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other publications. These reveal a nagging anxiety that the West’s intervention is not preparing Syria for democracy but dragging the entire region towards a no-holds-barred Sunni-Shia jihad that will douse the candle of reason with blood for generations to come.

India has a unique moral position in the world today: it is a working democracy; it threatens no country and is almost completely free from sectarian conflict. A vote by it against military intervention in Syria will therefore carry disproportionate weight. It could give the West a face-saving way of pulling back from a sectarian war in which it will find itself aligned with the killers of Christians and the destroyers of the World Trade Centre.

(The writer is a senior journalist.)

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