The relationship between India and Syria has often been overshadowed by the myriad of global geopolitical dynamics in West Asia. However, this article explores the idea that Syria might hold greater significance for India than commonly perceived. Furthermore, it delves into the potential for India to play a substantial role as a mediator between Syria and the United States on one hand, Syria and Gulf countries on the other in resolving regional conflicts in the West Asia region.
As Syria enters another year of conflict and upheaval, the humanitarian situation in the country continues to deteriorate, leaving millions of civilians trapped in a dire and desperate situation added by the February 6, 2023 earthquake that struck four governorates caused about $5.1 billion direct physical damage and destroyed infrastructure estimated at 10% of Syria’s gross domestic product GDP, according to the World Bank (The World Bank, 2022).
In Syria’s intricate geopolitical landscape, a series of factors have converged to create a volatile and uncertain environment. Among these, are the resurgent security threats in the northeastern region and the outbreak of the war between Israel and Palestine. These challenges have been further exacerbated by the worsening socio-economic conditions, where the exchange rate of the Syrian pound against the dollar reached 13,700 culminating in an overall atmosphere of instability. (Syrian Pound Today, 2023) Notably, the Arab initiative towards Syria, once held as a beacon of hope, now appears to be on a dimming trajectory. Therefore, the Syrian President went to China in Sept 2023 in an attempt to revive the devastated economy of the country, and signed three cooperation agreements including economic cooperation and a joint memorandum of understanding for economic exchange and cooperation, in addition to a memorandum on a cooperation plan within the framework of the “Belt and Road” initiative. From there, Al-Assad explained during a television interview that the economic situation in Syria is bad, and adds to the sufferance of the Syrian people which has been worsening because of the European & American economic sanctions, in addition to the American occupation of Northeast lands of Syria in which deprived Syrians from oil resources and breadbasket of the economy (CGTN, 2023).
Nevertheless, amid this scene, India stands as a formidable and unique player with the potential to catalyze substantive change within the Syrian context. Taking into account India’s stance against foreign regime change intervention in Syria (MEHTA, 2017) and its steadfast commitment to a non-aligned foreign policy position presents India as an unbiased actor capable of engaging constructively in West Asia with the various stakeholders and in the Syrian crisis, free from entanglements with regional blocs or alliances.
The 2011 Crises and aftermath
India has adopted a non-interference policy and supported a peaceful resolution approach to the Syrian conflict, has called to respect Syria’s sovereignty and expressed concerns about the emergence of terrorist groups in Syria. Therefore, has emphasized the need to combat terrorism in the region. At the same time, India advocated for a political solution to the Syrian crisis through dialogue and negotiations and rejected as a part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), to carry out military intervention in Syria. (Abdenur, 2016)
Accordingly, India can build up a solid base for further relations with Syria and be a vital player in peacebuilding, through its political, economic, diplomatic and soft power to develop cooperation in the West Asia region and post-conflict reconstruction efforts. a paper titled ‘India-Syria Relations’ published by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs website in 2017, reveals some of the Bilateral cooperation projects in which projects such as the extension of the Tishreen Power Plant near Damascus, where Indian public sector company, BHEL has signed the contract in October 2009 worth $485 for installing 400 MW power plants, yet BHEL work is still suspended since 2011 due to security and logistical reason, in addition to the absence of banking channels between two countries as a result to the American unilateral sanctions. Such projects should be revived and take serious steps to pursue projects and open new dimensions of economic cooperation. (Ministry Of External Affairs, 2017)
Not to forget that India has over the past three years, provided Syria with many humanitarian aids, including the medical aid shipment of 10 tons of COVID vaccines and various medicines and two thousand tons of rice in 2021 (The Economic Times, 2021) and limb installation camps (Jaipur Feet) in Syria in December 2020 followed by October-November 2022 camp, establishing the Next Generation Information Technology Center in Damascus in October 2021 India provided 1,500 scholarships for Syrian students to study in various programs. After the February 6, 2022 earthquake, India sent 6 tons of emergency relief aid (India in Syria, Embassy of India, Damasucs, 2023).
Based on the above mentioned, India’s stance from the Syrian conflict by respecting the Syrian sovereignty since the outbreak of the crisis in 2011 and having a common vision with the Syrian state about the necessity of unifying efforts to combat transcontinental terrorism, in addition India’s contribution to alleviating the burden of the crisis by providing humanitarian aid. Ultimately forms a cornerstone for the Syrian state to trust India as a reliable, neutral party that has a clear vision of the conflict and can form the basis to consider India as a reliable party to mediate among different adversaries in the conflict.
India as a part of the BRICS has reframed the Syrian war as a terrorism issue with potential international consequences. Therefore, efforts were made to meet the national security of the two countries. In this regard in 2016 four Indians were captured by the Syrian military forces during restoring territories that were controlled by ISIS (Indian Express, 2016). Same year in January the former Syrian deputy prime minister and foreign minister Walid Al Moualem visited India and the case of the four citizens was discussed by his counterpart at that time Sushma Swaraj, with the request to release and send them back to India (Pethiyagoda, 2016) The same year in August M J Akbar paid an official visit to Syria and at the top of his agenda was the security cooperation and collaborative counter-terrorism efforts between two countries (The Indian Express, 2016). where Syria has suffered from the terrorism of Al- Nusra Front, ISIS and other radical terrorist groups to mention a few. Therefore, bilateral efforts through intelligence sharing, capacity building, and diplomatic engagement. In countering terrorism Intelligence Sharing is very crucial, exchanging information can help both countries in preventing and countering terrorism. Collaborative efforts in intelligence sharing can be guided by bilateral agreements and protocols. At the same time, India can assist Syria in enhancing its counter-terrorism capabilities. This can include providing training to Syrian law enforcement and security agencies in areas such as counter-terrorism operations, border security, and intelligence analysis. Joint training programs can be organized to build capacity. In addition, India can share its experiences and expertise in drafting and implementing counter-terrorism legislation. Syria may benefit from India’s legal framework for counter-terrorism, which respects human rights while effectively countering terrorist activities. One of the most important efforts is to collaborate on programs aimed at countering radicalization and preventing the recruitment of individuals into terrorist organizations. Sharing best practices and strategies in this area can be beneficial for both sides.
India as a Mediator
India could potentially play a mediation role between Syria and the United States in the context of sanctions relief, where India’s historical non-aligned foreign policy, diplomatic experience, and regional influence may enable it to facilitate this dialogue, as India is an active participant in various international organizations and have a good relations with the US so it can be a neutral guarantor in the Syrian issue to facilitate discussions between Syria and the U.S, looking at India strategic position in South Asia and growing influence in the West Asia, where It maintains diplomatic relationships with various countries in the region. Leveraging its regional influence, and international position and role, India can engage with other partners in West Asia to garner support for negotiations to lift sanctions on Syria (Singh, 2020)
At the same time, India has economic interests in the region and could potentially emphasize the economic benefits of sanctions relief for all parties involved. Where its businesses may have opportunities in post- conflict Syria, and sanctions relief could create favourable conditions for trade and investment (Pant, 2019). By underscore the humanitarian impact of sanctions on the Syrian population and advocate for the importance of alleviating suffering. This perspective may resonate with international actors and contribute to the discourse on sanctions relief. By acting as a neutral intermediary to initiate dialogue between Syria and the U.S. This dialogue can focus on finding common ground, building trust, and addressing concerns on both sides, something China can’t afford for Syria, considering the rivalry relations between US and China.
At the same time regionally, India can potentially play a significant mediation role between Syria and Arab countries which has tense relationships, particularly those in the Gulf region, where India has strong diplomatic relationships with both Syria and Gulf states, as well as its balanced approach to West Asian geopolitics, make it a plausible mediator, that India has maintained a balanced foreign policy approach in West Asia, engaging with countries with varying positions and interests. This approach allows India to gain the trust of multiple stakeholders, making it a credible mediator. where India has historical and cultural ties with Arab nations, including economic and trade relations. These historical links provide a foundation for diplomacy and trust-building. At the same time, India has maintained a strong and multifaceted relationship with Iran, having economic and strategic interests in Iran, including the Chabahar Port project. Given Iran’s influence in the region and its ties with Syria, India can leverage its positive relations with Iran to facilitate conversations and negotiations as well (Cook, 2023)
India’s tradition of non-alignment and its impartiality in regional conflicts make it a trusted mediator, sharing the same colonial history with West Asia region make India closer mediator and partner, its historical role in peacekeeping operations under the United Nations also demonstrates its commitment to conflict resolution, can motivate Syria and other parties to consider India’s mediation and role in the region. So looking at historical non-alignment policy and non-partisan stance in the Syrian conflict, maintain its credibility as a neutral mediator between Syria and the United States, at the same time between Syria and Gulf countries (Kumaraswamy, 2013)
This paper is being composed amidst the ongoing turmoil in West Asia between Israel and Palestine, with the potential of escalation to regional and international conflict (Times Now , 2023) It forms serious challenges to the new trade route initiative called India- Middle East- Europe Economic Corridor IMEC, which is supposed to be running from India through West Asia to Europe. Where it appears that West Asia region will need long time to stabilization before conditions become conducive to India’s attempt to expand its economic and diplomatic clout in West Asia, backed by US this project supposed to challenge China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but the outbreak of the unexpected 7 Oct war between Israel and Palestine had thwart the Indian ambitions to expand its economic and diplomatic clout in West Asia, which supposed to form a rival and entrant to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Therefore, it is conceivable to perceive the current timing of the West Asia conflict as a potential threat and hidden message and intention to impede and thwart the implementation of India’s economic project IMEC in West Asia. Consequently, India should consider the strategic significance of Syria, which has a geographic strategic location and approximately 183 kilometres of Mediterranean Sea coastline, acting as a gateway to the West and Europe. India, leveraging its robust relations with key stakeholders, could potentially contribute to enhanced security and economic revitalization in Syria, using India’s strong ties with the United States, the Gulf states, Iran, and Israel. India must take its own position as a superpower entering the scene through the Syrian gate subsequently to the West Asia region, using this as an alternative counter to China’s plan to thwart India’s future footsteps as a key player in the West Asia region.
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Dr. Lisa Issac, holds a doctorate in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, West Asian Studies Centre in India/ New Delhi.