A wider view of India’s Syria vote

India’s vote in support of the latest UN Security Council resolution on Syria has occasioned much speculation and commentary. The vote has been seen as a shift from New Delhi’s earlier opposition to efforts by the US and its allies to obtain a resolution on Syria and as an attempt to edge closer to these powers. Interestingly, this view of India’s vote is held by those who approve of the vote and those who don’t. But it is misleading, not least because it assesses India’s actions at the Security Council solely by whether it is measuring up to the Western powers’ standard — some would say double standard — of “responsible” behaviour. India’s desire for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council is well known, but there is more at stake in the crisis unfolding in Syria.
Over 6,000 people have been killed in the past months, the great majority of these being civilians. The opposition groups, too, are becoming increasingly well-armed and are willing to stand up to the security forces though they are far from being a cohesive political or military entity. The observer mission from the Arab League has folded up owing to the rapidly worsening security situation. Yet, Bashar al Assad’s regime shows few signs of imminent collapse. The compact between the ruling Alawite minority and the bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo, which underpinned the Assad family’s rule in the past decades, has not yet dissolved. Other minority groups like the Druze and the Christians are concerned about the possibility of a radical Sunni takeover of Syria and have refrained from withdrawing their support to the current regime. And, of course, President Assad has few qualms about continuing the crackdown on the Opposition.
The crisis in Syria is also likely to be exacerbated by external players. Turkey has been vociferous in its opposition to Assad’s crackdown and active in bringing together the various Opposition groups, all with an eye to presenting itself as the beacon of progressive and democratic values in West Asia. Saudi Arabia, which is recovering from the loss of a key regional ally in Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, sees the toppling of the Assad regime as a necessary balancing blow to Riyadh’s principal adversary, Iran. By the same token, Tehran is keen to ensure the survival of Assad. Syria is an indispensable bridge to Lebanon, which is currently dominated by the Iranian protégé Hezbollah. Iran has already provided military assistance to Damascus and is unlikely to look on tamely if President Assad is further embattled, especially at a time when Iran, owing to its nuclear programme, finds itself under pressure. President Assad, for his part, may pick a fight with Israel either as a diversionary move or as a parting shot.
The situation is volatile and the crisis may well be prolonged. From the Indian standpoint, this is problematic for a variety of reasons. Given India’s dependence on West Asia for its energy needs and the huge presence of Indian expatriate workers in the region, protracted instability is highly undesirable. It is, therefore, no coincidence that India adopted a more active stance on the Syria crisis.
Along with Brazil and South Africa, India called upon the Syrian President to immediately end the violence and to introduce “political reforms with the aim of effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the population”. President Assad had assured these countries that he would move in this direction in the coming months. But it is clear that no credible measures have yet been introduced. Besides, the Arab League monitoring group has provided a more detailed picture of the situation inside Syria. It is in this context that India has come out in support of a Syrian-led political transition. Whilst the Arab League plan envisages the stepping down of President Assad as a step towards wider reforms, India has only observed that the League should promote dialogue among Syrians and that outcome should not be prejudged.
New Delhi clearly does not favour any form of external intervention aimed at regime change. Here, there are wider issues in play than India’s material interests. Following Libya, Syria risks becoming a testing ground for new ideas and principles on international intervention. The operationalisation of issues like “Responsibility to Protect” needs more discussion and consensus building. Admittedly, the escalating loss of lives in Syria makes such exercises seem academic. But the fact remains that we operate in an international system that is undergirded by the idea of sovereignty — a principle that cannot be jettisoned casually.
The Western powers that led the intervention in Libya did a grave disservice to the principles they espouse by distorting and misusing the Security Council’s mandate. These powers now grumble about Russian and Chinese vetoes on Syria. But the damage has been done and they are unlikely to get the benefit of doubt any time soon.
So, while India voted in favour of the resolution, it insisted that the resolution should explicitly rule out any leeway for the use of force. Besides, there is concern about selective application of international norms and the organised hypocrisy of the great powers.
The crisis, however, is far from its climax. Meantime, it will put to the test India’s ability both to preserve its interests and to take a strategic view of changes to the normative framework of international politics.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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