Don’t ignore Iran while crafting Syria solution

For India, events in Syria are interlinked with India’s own interests in Afghanistan, which calls for positive ties with Iran

The presidential election in the United States is scheduled for November 6 this year and electoral campaigns by the contestants are in full flow of rhetoric. The highlights have been a unique series of four televised one-on-one debates between US President Barack Obama and vice-president Joe Biden and their challengers Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan from the Republican Party.

The debates have been reminiscent of gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome, with television audiences slavering for the kill with an intensity which would have been difficult to match even in the colosseum.
One of the major election issues is the situation in Syria and the best response to it by the US. The all-knowing but also all-ignorant American public opinion overwhelmingly disapproves of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for his perceived Moscow connections, just as it earlier did for the same reason of President Saddam Hussain of Iraq. There are close parallels in both perspectives, and the ultimate fate of Hussain in American custody can serve as a warning parable for Mr Assad as well.
The situation in Syria is complex, complicated and confused, becoming more so by the day with a multitude of new characters coming on stage almost on a daily basis. There is a reckonable chance of events in Syria spreading to the entire Levant region in the eastern Mediterranean. A domino effect on the Suez canal is not really unthinkable.
Syria can be considered an updated version of the Cold War in Vietnam and Afghanistan earlier, where, as in Syria, Russian and American geo-political interests are ranged against each. Like all civil wars, Syria, too, is horrendously barbaric and brutal, where every single law of war has been violated on a mass scale, the latest being the reported use of cluster weapons against civilians. There is a complicated mix of protagonists in Syria each fronted by regional patrons with opposing camps — one led by the Syrian government forces supported by Russia, which is in conflict with a Syrian rebel Army led by a rebel junta supported by the US through its proxies in Turkey and Jordan. The Syrian rebel forces have been joined by assorted jihadi fighters from a variety of fundamentalist Salafi organisations. Jihadis are important allies, but are becoming unwelcome guests because of their extreme fundamentalist radicalism and also because they are often more powerful than their nominal hosts.
The opposing line-ups replicate those during the Cold War of two decades earlier, and it can be speculated whether Mr Assad too would meet an end similar to the late Saddam Hussain in Iraq, or President Najibullah in Afghanistan should the rebels finally prevail in Syria.
India is on a difficult tight rope with respect to the conflict in Syria, because this country enjoys excellent relations with the governments and personalities on both sides of the divide, whether Mr Assad on one hand or Turkey, Libya and Iran on the other. Lord Palmerston’s axiom for operational diplomacy provides the golden median for such contingencies — no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent national interests.
Libya is elbowing Syria off centrestage in the world focus, though the latter remains a major international hotspot whose potential fallout is indeterminable as yet. Iran too is in Syria as an ally of the Assad regime, but arouses strong reactions amongst the Sunni Muslim countries elsewhere, and also in the US which has designated Iran as a sponsor of terrorism. For India, however, events in Syria are interlinked with India’s own interests in Afghanistan, for which a positive relationship with Iran is essential. Thus, and notwithstanding uneasiness in many quarters about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the strident anti-Americanism frequently expressed by their leadership, India must never forget its strategic interests in its own vicinity — in Afghanistan — where Iran exercises significant influence over the Farsiwan region in the west and south-west of the country. India must keep the Iran factor in mind as it crafts its own approaches in Syria.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had suggested what could have been a comprehensive and possibly ideal solution to the Syrian imbroglio, when he visited that country in February this year — a six-point peace plan based on his own extensive experience and perceptions in international matters. However, as is the case with all such proposals, Mr Annan’s effort is based on the willingness on the part of both factions to compromise on their respective political positions, which has so far proved to be a rock on which the entire issue has been shipwrecked. Mr Annan wanted a ceasefire to be accepted by both the factions, which, in fact, did come about and was in effect by April 14. But the lull was ephemeral and lasted barely a month before Syrian government forces loyal to Mr Assad attacked the village of Houla on May 25, using artillery and heavy weapons, causing over a hundred civilian casualties, including that of many women and children. As the ceasefire collapsed, the small UN force of 250 unarmed observers already in Syria to monitor the ceasefire became totally irrelevant.
As always, the UN stands ideologically divided, regardless of the urgency of the situation. Meanwhile, sporadic massacres continue, on the part of both factions, while intense and highly partisan debates on Syria rage in the UN. The people of that country continue to exist in intense misery.
Events in Syria provide another classic instance for the requirement of peace-enforcement capabilities under a UN mandate.
India must step in and offer its good offices for initiating negotiations and diplomatic multi tracks between the contending factions and their big power patrons to try and establish peace in the region and bring about an early end to a rapidly escalating humanitarian catastrophe.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

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