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Why India refused to back US on Syria

By B S Prakash
Last updated on: April 21, 2018 12:48 IST
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'How can we forget the hoax perpetrated on the UN and on all of us when it was stated in the security council, no less, that Iraq had nuclear weapons?' recalls Ambassador B S Prakash.

A boy sits along a damaged street in Douma, Damascus, Syria, April 16, 2018. Photograph: Ali Hashisho/Reuters
IMAGE: A scene from Douma, Damascus, Syria, April 16, 2018. Photograph: Ali Hashisho/Reuters

"How can India be so mealy-mouthed about condemning the use of chemical weapons? I am shocked by your indifference," my friend from California was saying.

He is a good man, though a full-blooded white American. We became friends during my period as consul general in San Francisco, the heartland of American liberals.

He had full credentials for that appellation: studied at Berkley, protested on the streets during the Vietnam war, now a successful doctor but with a heart that still bleeds for the not so successful in life, and a practitioner of yoga, the sitar, and yes, a strict vegetarian.

Now on a visit to India for some philanthropic work, he was expressing his disappointment with India's approach to the Syrian crisis and particularly for our non-enthusiasm about the Western punitive bombings recently.

He loathes Trump, of course, like most liberals, but believes that America has a duty to humanity.

Was he applauding Trump for his surgical strikes?

I think he is too sophisticated for that, but was arguing that the use of chemical weapons could not go unchecked.

"Even the French joined us, well, actually Macron egged on Trump," he said. "To stop the spread of such weapons: it is an international obligation, the will of the international community. And yet..." He shook his head.

"Go easy, there..." I replied wearily. "You know, I respect you, but you accept too many axioms, too readily. Our perspectives are different, and we don't take the New York Times as the last word in truth," I said.


"Oh, there are so many easy assumptions..." I started.


I did not want to dwell on all our differences on Syria.

There was no point now again going into how the Syrian crisis had started, the original sin, as it were.

Was it the popular rebellion against President Assad, during the heat of the illusory Arab Spring, and the brutal reprisal by his forces that had brought so much death, destruction and refugees?

Or was the initial revolt exacerbated by some Western and Arab foes of his encouraging violence?

Years ago, we had disagreed over the causes and effects in a complex situation like Syria. There was no point in rehashing it.

I started with "chemical weapons", a red flag to the liberals.

"Granted, the use of it is abhorrent, but how has it come to be that no magnitude of ordinary killings, or deaths by 'conventional weapons' invokes the 'drawing of red lines', but the poisoning of one ex-Russian agent in the UK in the most 'controversial' and suspicious manner results in declarations that 'lines have been crossed'," I asked giving vent to my anger at the questionable and totally disproportional sanctions imposed by the West against Russia in that case.

"Who has laid down that all hell will come down, only when chemical weapons are used, that too allegedly, without objective verification as to who, where, and why has used it."

Even assuming the worst case that they have actually been used, are there not alternative theories that they may have been planted, used to discredit regimes, and other variations of this sort?

"We are talking about Syria and the will of the international community to stop spread of chemical weapons," he reminded me.

"What is this so'called 'international community', but a convenient and self-selected label for the traditional Western alliance?" I responded, frustrated at this ploy by some to appropriate all the convenient slogans for themselves.

"Is it truly universal without China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran? Is it not misleading to arrogate to yourselves, the assumption of the will of all, even when there is explicit dissent?"

"Finally, how can we forget the hoax perpetrated on the UN and on all of us when it was stated in the security council, no less, that Iraq had nuclear weapons, that its WMD capability was a given, a 'slam dunk' as the then swaggering CIA boss George Tenet had declared."

"If there was indeed an internationally credible system, the perpetrators of that conflict -- the warmongers in the US establishment -- would have been declared 'war criminals' and taken to the International Criminal Court, incidentally another organisation that India has no belief in," I concluded, breathless.

I am now a retired diplomat and the old pleasures of arguing against Americans, however liberal, is a bit of an addiction.

"But you surely agree that all of us, civilised nations, especially democracies, have to take action, to intervene, to protect the truly vulnerable?" he asked, true to his humanitarian instincts.

This was familiar territory and for cynics like me the whole argument has been acronymised as the R2P debate (short for Responsibility to Protect).

"I don't know, honestly," I replied. "Yes, the suffering of multitudes of poor and weak people is indeed a tragedy and it is cruel to be mere spectators. But who is protecting the Houthis in Yemen, being bombed by your friends the Saudis?"

"Who helps the Congolese who have suffered but remained friendless for 50 years? And who is responsible for the mess in Libya after the French and you saved them from Gadhafi?"

India treads carefully on R2P issues. That is "the official India, the NGOs are different."

"Whew. Even the Chinese do not say all that," retorted my friend, amused.

"Yes, they are more pragmatic and opportunistic. We are by nature more argumentative, and also, perhaps more articulate," I added against my better judgment of keeping quiet.

"Incidentally, what has India said actually, on chemical weapons?" my friend wanted to know.

I recalled what I had read in the newspapers. I grinned and told him that what we had said was the mother of all truths.

Our position was that the use of chemical weapons anywhere and at any time and by anyone, under any circumstances was 'unacceptable'.

"Take that. Isn't it sufficient condemnation?" I asked with a wink.

"Sounds like something from the Upanishads... er... unexceptionable but vacuous," said my friend, laughing.

I was done with our fight. Besides his knowledge of the Upanishads is better than mine.

"You can call it Gandhian or quintessentially Indian," I conceded.

B S Prakash is a former Ambassador and a long-standing columnist.
You can read Ambassador Prakash's earlier columns here

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