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'India should only be involved in Syria if invited'

Last updated on: June 08, 2012 14:16 IST

After his visit to Syria in April, Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar (India's former ambassador to Syria) spoke to Gateway House's Hari Seshasayee and Azadeh Pourzand about the ground realities in Syria and the implications of the Arab uprisings for India.

Can you give us an idea of the ground realities, especially coming from your recent visit to Syria? Our main source of information currently is the English-language media. What have been the changes over the past few months?

I went to Syria twice this past year. Within roughly sixth months I saw a major difference. In August, I would say more than half of the people were still backing the regime. In April, I encountered a situation which had become violent and sectarian, particularly against the Shias and Alawites. This is a serious challenge as Syria was the only country in the region where the minorities felt relatively safe.

In the past six months, Syria has had a new constitution ratified through a referendum and also elections. The criticism is that the elections should have taken place first, and then the constitution promulgated as in Egypt, but it was the other way around here. Only time will tell which is the better way.

While we were there, the election commission was registering candidates; roughly nine parties and around 1,200 candidates were initially registered. The primacy of the Ba'ath party has now been removed from the new constitution. The Bashar al-Assad regime has about 6 million supporters in today's Syria, comprising the Ba'ath party members and union membership (out of the total population of 22 million people). The opposition parties are fractious and have little credibility and, except for one local group, are all outside Syria.

Unfortunately the media (in particular Western media) has portrayed a one-sided account of the situation. No positive news coming from Syria gets any airing; only one side of the story seems to be reported. Take the example of the BBC, which carried images of the Iraq War taken in 2003 while reporting on the Houla massacre last week.

With Libya and Egypt as recent examples after the first phase of conflict countries in the region, which route do you see Syria following?

I don't think either route can be assumed. It is important for us to keep in mind that each country has its unique set of characteristics. No particular model can be replicated in Syria. The Libya model was disastrous for that country. Egypt certainly followed a different one but that too has turned out differently from what was expected. We must not, then, examine Syria within the same framework.   

Do you see peace and stability coming to Syria in the near future?

I don't see peace coming about in Syria anytime soon. It is going to be a long process, and it's still uncertain what the outcome will be. The ban on the Muslim Brotherhood has also been lifted, and it is estimated that they may have a following of roughly 20 percent of the population, making them the largest single opposition party.

Given our regional interests, what should be India's diplomatic approach to the escalating violence in Syria?

We have much vested interest in the Gulf, especially with regards to energy supplies. Another significant element is the presence of roughly 5 million from the Indian Diaspora in those countries. Instability in the Gulf, arising from negative developments due to Syria, Iran or Israel, will have major implications for India.

Do the Arab uprisings then affect India's West Asia-North Africa policy?

In the medium to long term I can see that we will have governments with Islamic orientation in West Asia. We already have some experience with that, in the Gulf, for example. But the relationships are mostly transactional. We must learn to do business with them. We should respect what the people want for the future of their own countries.

Regardless of the kind of governments which come to power, I believe that an economic relationship based on mutual benefit will be the way to go.

What are your views on India carving a role in nation-building in the Arab World?

We should do so if they invite us. We will not force ourselves upon any country. We are not in the business of 'civilizing' nations. If invited, we should definitely participate as we also have experience in governance, minority rights and other issues.

For example, in Afghanistan we are offering our experience with regards to the interactions and linkages among the three branches of the government (judiciary, executive and legislative). I am sure we would be willing to do so with any of the Arab nations that welcome our expertise.

Hari Seshasayee and Azadeh Pourzand are researchers at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai

Courtesy: Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations

Hari Seshasayee and Azadeh Pourzand