India can’t be heard in the Syrian din

India’s voice, feeble enough to begin with, has sunk to an emaciated whisper, because it was attending the G-20 Summit more as a supplicant for a bailout rather than as a fully empowered participant

As events in Syria are overshadowed by “breaking news” elsewhere, what lessons can and should India learn from Syria? Clock and calendar alike are moving on, re-emphasising the iron fundamentals of international geopolitics — when the chips are down, you’re on your own.

Also, as things have turned out so far, the United States remains the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, though it is not yet sure for how long.
US President Barack Obama’s calibrated orchestration of a threat scenario of unilateral airstrikes by the US to “punish” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people can be seen as the latest update of “Ultima Ratio Regis (The King’s Last Argument).” A doctrine of pre-emptive intervention, “Ultima Ratio Regis” originated with King Gustavus Adolphus in 17th century Sweden. It is now being revived by the US. Also, it seems to be working — both
Mr Assad and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has accepted with hasty alacrity US secretary of state John Kerry’s almost toss-away remarks about placing Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision. As a result, the American airstrikes seem to be on hold for the time being. However, it can be quickly revived at a very short notice.
From its bitter experiences, the US has learnt that “boots on the ground” — placing American troops in the muddy swamps and jungles of faraway places — have always been the least desirable option for the forces of the developed world committed to expeditionary missions to Third World countries, with prospects of heavy casualties. Hence, in the case of Syria, the US has selected airstrikes on Syrian chemical weapons sites as its preferred option. In any case, an American offensive heavy in air and missile firepower is likely to be unstoppable. But then again, the aftermath of unilateral intervention has always been unpredictable, as Vietnam and Afghanistan have demonstrated.
However, India must not forget that notwithstanding all his alleged shortcomings, Mr Assad, ironically, is also a rare personality in the Islamic world. He is a leader of Syria’s secular Ba’ath political party and has strong secular credentials similar to American hate figures, like Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Mohammed Najibullah of Afghanistan. Lynch mobs or kangaroo courts eliminated both, Najibullah and Saddam. In fact, Mr Assad could be an asset, which Indian opinion must support in international bodies.
Secularism has long been a traditional feature of the Arab Muslim world. It is quite distinct and contrary to the bitter Shia fundamentalism of Iran and the Hezbollah, or the equally fanatic Sunni fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, none of which except Saudi Arabia are really Arab in character. The traditionally secularist interpretation of Islam in the Arab Muslim world is fast withering in its own home, where, notwithstanding the initial liberal euphoria of the much heralded Arab Spring, the forces of fundamentalist jihad are gathering strength and regaining power.
The widespread enthusiasm that brought the Islamist Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to office in Egypt demonstrates the changing face of the new Arab Islam. Watching from the sidelines, the situation evolving in Syria obviously does not augur well for India and is a disquieting pointer of an increased Islamo-fascist religious turmoil. It has the potential of sympathetic detonations that could ignite a powder train reaching all the way down to South and Southeast Asia and beyond. Right squarely in the centre, athwart this smouldering fuse, sits India, a hugely multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural country, which is determinedly secular by choice.
The spread of rabid fundamentalist organisations within India — like the Students Islamic Movement of India, the Indian Mujahideen and others — is a threat not only to India’s peace and security, but also to its secular nature. It is evident from the revelations of Abu Jundal (an alleged operative of the terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and a key handler during the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks), Abdul Karim Tunda (accused of masterminding over 40 bombings in India), Indian Mujahideen member Riyaz Bhatkal and other terrorists from Pakistan now in Indian custody that there may be more attacks all over the country.
Other than being an anxious, sympathetic and ineffectual bystander, India does not muster the requisite gravitas to influence events abroad, whether in Syria or elsewhere. Nevertheless, India has tried within its capabilities to exert whatever influence it can. One example could be of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement that came on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit at St. Petersburg. Dr Singh said that any action the international community may be contemplating against Syria must be carried out under the mandate of the United Nations.
Of course, India’s voice, feeble enough to begin with, has sunk to an emaciated whisper, because it was attending the G-20 Summit more as a supplicant for a bailout rather than as a fully empowered participant. It was, therefore, hardly surprising that whatever India said on behalf of the “emerging economies” was almost peremptorily brushed aside.
Since India is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and has to live up to its commitments, it eliminated its own chemical weapons. But India will never be totally sure whether Pakistan and China have followed suit. “Plausible deniability” is part of China’s “Wei Ki”, the original “Chinese chequers”, from which China derives the classical fundamentals of its doctrine of “strategic encirclement”. Therefore, the only way forward for India is to concentrate on developing effective defences against chemical, biological and radiological weapons, which can really be considered as another, more extreme and virulent form of chemical weapons.

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

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