On April 4, 2017, the world witnessed children as well as adults choking to death in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria. A total of 85 people (including 20 children) were killed in a chemical attack on this town, which is located in Idlib (a province in northern Syria which is controlled by an alliance of rebel groups).
Following the attack, a series of condemnatory statements from the foreign offices of different countries were issue. However, India maintained silence, thereby signifying its ‘balanced’ stance on the issue of the ongoing civil war. However, the question here is whether India genuinely maintains a balanced stand. If not, what is India’s stand?
“We are relaxed and happy with India’s stand from the beginning of the Syrian crisis,” Riad Abbas, ambassador of the Syrian Arab Republic in India, said in a press conference. But, is the Indian stand really ‘balanced’?
The very fact that India hosts an ambassador from a conflict-ridden area, who represents only one side of the belligerents, reflects India’s inclination towards Assad. It is also important to note that India hosted the Syrian deputy foreign minister Walid Muallem in January 2016. India also granted a medical aid of $1 million – which would, in turn, be utilized by the Assad regime. India has also allegedly shown its support of the Assad government’s view that equates ‘rebel groups’ to ‘terrorists’, supports Russian air-strikes, and at the same time, supports United Nations (UN)-led peace talks.
In October 2016, while accompanying Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on his tri-nation visit to Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, the then-secretary (East) of the ministry of external affairs, Anil Wadhwa, said, “The Indian position is that Russian military involvement in Syria is to halt the advances of the Islamic State (ISIS).”
While countries like the United Kingdom and the United States (among others) have severed diplomatic ties with Syria under the Assad regime, India still maintains good diplomatic relations with Syria. Thus, the assumption that India’s stand (in terms of the Syrian civil war) is ‘balanced’ or ‘ambiguous’ is deeply flawed, as is shown by the instances of Indo-Syrian engagement cited above.
One may argue that India’s supposedly ‘balanced’ stand may well avert misunderstandings during what is increasingly turning out to be Russia’s face-off with the US – both of whom are strategically important to India. However, Russo-US relations have almost no connection with the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Besides, under Modi, India has actively engaged with the US, while its ties with Russia have significantly deteriorated. Recently, India irked Russia by inviting the Ukrainian deputy Prime Minister during the Republic Day celebrations in January, 2017. On the other hand, Modi was apparently among the first to congratulate Donald Trump on his presidential victory. These developments among others clearly indicate a shift towards the US. Thus, given its preference for the US, even if India adopts a clear, outright stand on the Syria issue, it can hardly ruin its relations with the US or Russia.
In light of the above facts, India’s stand on the Syrian issue can be potentially interpreted as a covert support of Assad’s regime. However, is this stand in consonance with India’s history in world politics?
India’s intervention in Bangladesh in 1971 (against atrocities by Pakistan’s army) and in Sri Lanka in the 1990s (against atrocities perpetrated on the Tamils) have had humanitarian causes behind them. Ever since independence, India has been known to take ‘moral stances’ in the global political stage.
India’s current stance, however, seems to be in contravention to its previous stands. While India may not oppose the Assad regime, it can at least condemn the chemical attack.
Even though India may have strategic interests in Syria or may intend to combat terrorism, supporting the Assad regime is not the way. The silence that India has maintained till now is as bad as the act of condoning the chemical attack. Due to this, India can be portrayed in a poor light at the global stage.
This is not an issue of allies, interests, ideologies or ramifications. India must take a moral stand in an issue which concerns the loss of lives of innocent citizens. It can only do so if it departs from its current stand.