India has decided to attend the ‘Friends of Syria’ [FOS] meet in Tunis today. The decision signifies three things. First and foremost, India is a ‘Friend’ of Saudi Arabia. Second, India is willing to be seen as ‘friendly’ toward FOS, which of course will please the US and Israel. Third, India’s longstanding ‘friendship’ with the secular-minded Syrian regime is a thing of the past.
Each of these vectors has subplots. The Saudi angle rests on two pillars. One, ‘green money’. Delhi has been swift to cash in on the ‘Friendship’ with Riyadh by demanding an increase of 5 million tonnes of crude additionally from Saudi Arabia in the current financial year. Delhi has couched this demand in terms of India’s need of additional crude imports but also coyly hinting that greater access to Saudi crude can help it meet the Saudi and US demarche that India should cut back on oil imports from Iran.
The Saudi King Abdullah had offered additional crude supplies as part of the growing strategic ties between the two countries during the recent visit by Defence Minister A.K.Antony to Riyadh. Antony discussed Indian help for Saudi military build-up; helping train the Saudi army in mountain warfare (Saudis are involved in a ‘low-intensity war’ in the mountainous border provinces which Yemen claims as its territory); training Saudi National Guards to control mob violence (saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite dominated eastern provinces are increasingly restive with demand for political reform); and, Saudi investment in India’s defence production industry.
Equally, Indian elites have been traditionally susceptible to Saudi influence, which percolates via the ulema who have substantial clout over the Muslim electorate during the Indian elections. Also, a trend in the recent years has been that Indian political parties (especially in Kerala) access the expatriate communities in the Persian Gulf for the activities known euphemistically as ‘fund collection’. Two million relatively affluent Indians live in Saudi Arabia alone. Finally, the Haj quota provided by Saudi Arabia lends itself traditionally as an instrument of patronage by the Indian political establishment.
Over and above, weaning the worldly-wise Wahhabi regime away from the Pakistani embrace has been a perennial obsession with the Indian strategists.
However, somewhere deep within their conscience, the mandarins in Delhi seem to feel unsure where a co-habitation with the FOS can lead India. They are aware that the FOS is strikingly similar to the Libyan Contact Group and all indications are that it is being formed with the intent of arming the Syrian opposition. The path to a full-fledged civil war is opening.
And the historical truth is that India has never been associated with the Western doctrine of unilateral military interventions to bring about ‘regime change’ (except, arguably, in East Pakistan, Goa and Sikkim). Therefore, the mandarins have pleaded that a only a middle-ranking official will represent India at the FOS meet, while the MInister of State in charge of West Asia, E. Ahamed (who, incidentally, belongs to the Muslim League, which is a constituent in the Congress-led Kerala government) will discreetly keep away from the limelight in Tunis.
It is a lame excuse. For, ultimately, India is turning its back on the Bashar regime in Syria. It is a poignant moment because the secular-minded Baathist regime in Syria has been traditionally one of the stanchest supporters of India in the Arab world. Even during the darkest years of the insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir, the Syrian regime was supportive of the Indian concerns when the issue came up in the Organization of the Islamic Conference [OIC] — ironically, Saudis consistently sided with Pakistan during those occasions and were even instrumental in forming an OIC ‘Contact Group’ on Kashmir issue.
Happily, the J&K situation has improved and US and Saudis are favorably inclined on the Kashmir problem and Pakistan can’t do much about it. So, India can now dispense with the Syrian friendship.
However, underlying all this is India’s gravitation toward the US-led axis in the Persian Gulf region. Despite the reports that the US is about to arm the Syrian opposition and notwithstanding the tensions stemming from the US-Iran standoff, Delhi is pressing ahead with its naval exercise with the US in April.
Although the slant of the naval exercise is being interpreted as directed against China, the fact remains that it comes at a time when war clouds are gathering in India’s extended neighbourhood in the West Asian region and the US Navy is expected to be the principal player in the maelstrom.
On a broader plane, India is breaking loose from its two BRICS partners — Russia and China — and going along with the West in what is arguably shaping up as the most crucial issue in international security today. Will this prompt Washignton, finally, to secure a permanent seat for India in the UN Security Council? I doubt it. Washington will prefer to think this is a favor shown by the Indian leadership to Abdullah and Barack Obama is a mere collateral beneficiary.
Russia and China have refused to identify with the FOS meeting. Moscow, in particular, has entered into consultations with the regional powers over the Syrian crisis. The Russian president yesterday spoke to the UAE counterpart. This is in addition to his earlier conversations with the prime minister of Iraq, Saudi king and the Iranian president.
Moscow is also working on the ‘big picture’ of the Western strategy to dominate the Middle East. Clearly, Moscow sees the western intervention in Syria as a prelude to stepping up pressure on Iran.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke to his Chinese counterpart Yang Yiechi on Syria in a phone call on Thursday. Moscow and Beijing have jointly warned that foreign intervention in Syria can have “dangerous consequences.”
All in all, therefore, India’s decision to identify with the FOS is momentous. It signifies that India is stepping down from the fence and is willing to be counted as one of the flock siding (or, at least the very least acquiescing) with the western strategies in the Middle East. This gingerly walk that India is taking today will immensely please the US and Israel.
How the foreign-policy establishment is going to explain their decision will be interesting to know. Probably, it won’t feel the need to explain. Mandarins seldom feel they owe an explanation, anyway. They can always shove it under the rubric of ‘national interest’.
– February 24, 2012