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India's silence on Syria will antagonise its friends

By Seema Mustafa
September 05, 2013 15:24 IST
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A Syrian child affected by the conflictA very delayed and subdued reaction, at a time when the non-aligned world had expected a big country like India to come out in support of rights and justice. It was yet another example of the mealy mouthed approach that has come to define Indian foreign policy, says Seema Mustafa.

British Prime Minister David Cameron inadvertently forced India to take a declared position on the United States proposal to invade Syria, limited or otherwise. After a long bout of silence, New Delhi was shocked on the eve of general elections, to find that the British government had listed it as one of the countries supporting US military action against Syria.

The mandarins controlling foreign policy realised that the silence, made even more fashionable by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was not working to India’s advantage and fielded the MEA spokesperson to clarify that the government was certainly not supporting the proposed limited strike on Syria.

A very delayed and subdued reaction, at a time when the non-aligned world had expected a big country like India to come out in support of rights and justice. And yet another example of the mealy mouthed approach that has come to define Indian foreign policy, where old friends have been discarded but new friends still not really found except for the US and Israel who continue to cast a heavy shadow on most Indian foreign policy and even defence responses.

The injustice of the US strategy for Syria can escape only the most hardened and blinkered governments. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is a fine example these days of a sovereign country that will not allow unilateral will to be imposed on weaker nations, whereby military might becomes the sole criteria with rights, laws, international covenants, and indeed the United Nations itself being willfully flouted.

China is supporting Russia, and one would have expected India to take the lead in raising a voice against unilateral military action that has already turned West Asia into a cesspool of chaos and conflict instead of this self imposed silence that really did translate as support for the US President Barack Obama.

From being a player and a country well respected in West Asia, India is now seen by even the so called friendly regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and of course the Arab League as a supporter of US imperialism and Israeli Zionism. Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt (once a very close friend) and of course the hapless Palestinians, have all raised quiet diplomatic fingers against the Indian silence, that in the current scenario favours American unilateralism.

From a reliable friend India has reduced its role to that of a bystander, unreliable when the US pressure escalates from a nudge to a push as happened in the case of Iran.

For years New Delhi blocked overtures from Iran to join the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline that would dramatically increase our energy resources, citing security reasons at one point, and price at the other. It had no hesitation, however, in joining the US backed Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India pipeline that would go through even more ‘insecure’ territory, and thus be a non-starter from the word go. Iranian ministers and officials continued trying to convince India to avail of their country’s tremendous energy resources, but with no luck as Dr Singh made it clear down the line that he did not want the US to be offended.

Now that growth has dropped, the rupee has crashed, and the price of oil and gas is being reviewed and increased within weeks at a time, it was ironic to hear Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily speak of increasing energy cooperation with Iran. This was a sign of his desperation, but clearly he has been directed to keep his mouth shut, and hunker down instead of trying to ease the situation by taking up the old Iranian offers.

There seems to have been no discussion, or even an attempt to understand the fall out of US interventions in West Asia on India. A country that is obsessed with terrorism, to a point of arresting innocents as terrorists, does not seem to realise that the US backing of extremists in Syria will have an impact on India and South Asia.

The well-armed extremists now being led by the al Qaeda who are currently engaged in fighting the Basher al-Assad regime, will turn their attention to other countries and causes later. And given the fact that the al Qaeda and the Pakistan terror groups and the Taliban all have close links and shared cadres, India will most certainly be amongst those who will feel the heat. But somehow our mandarins are trained not to think so far ahead, and confine their strategic wanderings to Afghanistan, Pakistan and at the outer limit, China at best.

Apart from this very ‘practical’ facet that feeds into New Delhi’s ‘pragmatic’ foreign policy, India has in the past years lost ground in the world outside the US influenced block. Geo-political positioning around the Syrian conflict had given clear indication of a US decline, with its unilateral position being for the first time really challenged by other countries, including European nations. There were murmurings, but barely audible, when the US invaded Iraq. These became a little louder, but barely so, when the American troops and NATO allies bombarded Libya.

But this time around even the NATO coalition is breaking, with the Cameron government unable to go along with its larger ally because of a ‘no’ from the British people and their Parliament. Except for France, all other NATO member nations are facing pressure from their people, with even hard nosed Germany unable to support Obama in his continuing misadventures in West Asia.

India was thus, expected to take a position even earlier and it is sad that the response has come as really a ‘denial’ to Britain’s mistake. Silence had been misconstrued, and given the fact that elections are imminent, the Congress party clearly felt that it could not continue to hide under ambiguity.

The US is on the decline. It has become the ‘most hated nation’ in most parts of the world, and governments responsive to their people will find it difficult to continue supporting Washington on all and every issue. Russia under Putin is asserting itself. China is not very keen to cross swords at this stage of its expansion, but has made it apparent that it will not hesitate if required to pick a side.

And given the continuing cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, it is not difficult to guess where its ‘pick’ will lie. Even ‘puppy’ Britain cannot move for fear of alienating its vocal and assertive people, with West Asia leading the anger against the Americans. Old friend Pakistan has turned against the US completely, with Afghanistan without the Hamid Karzai government, constituting hostile territory as well.

Even a so called limited strike on Syria will open yet another Pandora’s Box in the region, with consequences that will strike at the heart of US plans for the region and the world.

The government of India thus needs to open her windows and doors, and air policy in the gush of fresh air and thought.

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