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Deconstructing India’s Latest Outreach to Syria

“There are times in the life of nations when they feel confident that they can take on the world, that they are capable of meeting any challenge and achieving any ambition. Such a spirit, a national atma vishwas so to speak, provides the most enduring and potent catalyst for national development and growth.” These were the words of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a visit to India in 2008, 3 years before the start of a catastrophic war that would not only see his position as an Arab strongman questioned, but also lead to the destruction of his country.

More than a decade later, Assad, who was supposedly staring down the barrel, has regained his own atma vishwas following his military’s successful campaigns against ISIS, as well as other rebel groups who posed a threat to his reign. His biggest success, however, comes from the fact that he has charted an almost unimaginable comeback, while other states in the region fell prey to the historic event that is the Arab Spring.

Following the institution of the Modi Government 2.0, reports have surfaced of India’s desire to host ministerial talks with Assad’s government. With this in mind, it is important to trace the bonhomie between the two nations, especially since the start of the Syrian conflict.

As is the case with India and several nations in the West Asian region, Indo-Syrian ties have been based on their historical and cultural connections that have spanned decades. India’s emergence as a vital Non-Aligned Movement player further solidified ties with Syria, eventually leading to high-profile visits by heads of both states and the expansion of cooperation in various fields. Additionally, India has publically affirmed support to Syria on the contested issue of Golan Heights. As recently as 2016, India’s then Minister of State for External Affairs, MJ Akbar, visited Syria to discuss ties between the two countries, while Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem visited India in 2018. The current round of ministerial meeting plans, however, have been reported to be primarily focused on the issue of countering terrorism.

Much of the world viewed Syria as a battleground for a proxy war, with Russia and the United States being at the forefront to advance their aims in the region. India, however, viewed the conflict and the subsequent battles as being part of an umbrella fight against terrorism. In a recent interview, Syria’s former Ambassador to India, Riad Abbas, referred to Prime Minister Modi’s argument against the ‘good and bad terrorism’ analogy to make the case for a combined anti-terror effort.

There are four particular reasons for India’s apparent pivot to Syria for joint counter-terrorism collaborations.

The fallout of the kidnapping and subsequent execution of 39 Indian construction workers in Iraq by ISIS in 2018. Through this incident, India experienced a stark reminder that whatever was left of its diaspora in Iraq and Syria after the start of the conflict, was definitely under imminent threat by extremist groups.

The ongoing issue of multiple reported cases of Indians either being confirmed as participants in ISIS activities in Syria or being held back from doing so. This is particularly important, as ISIS handlers previously based in Syria and Iraq have factored in these recruitments. With the death of the so-called Caliphate in the two countries, operations and personnel have shifted to other theatres of conflict. For India, a worrisome threat would be the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan.

A sharp decline in the Indian diaspora in Syria. As of December 2018, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has recorded only 107 non-resident Indians (NRIs) present in the country. Increased support and ties between the nations would lose sheen without a substantial show of confidence in Syria’s security by Indian visitors and expatriates. It hasn’t helped that India’s previous External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, had to cancel her planned Syria visit in 2018 due to security concerns. Additionally, despite keeping its embassy open throughout the conflict, India has still not appointed an ambassador to the country.

To source oil from additional areas, India has recently tapped up the Kurdish Autonomous Region as being another potential supplier in West Asia. India has also assured Kurdish leadership of going forward with a plan of opening a consulate there soon. It would be in India’s interests that neighbouring Syria stabilise itself enough to not only avoid a spillover of conflict but to maintain the current Kurdistan-Syria status quo.

The current perceived sense of Syria’s security achievements is vital for New Delhi’s other economic and development projects in the region as well. Before the conflict in Syria began in 2011, India had identified priorities for investment in the oil sector in Syria, one of which also saw an India-China joint stake in the Al-Furat Petroleum Company, before the worsening situation halted any such plans from progressing. Work on the Tishreen Power Plant, for which India had extended $100 million to Syria as a line of credit before the war, is also a factor here.

On the international sphere, although the optics of a pro-Assad stance by India has previously been met with criticism, it may bode well for the current Indian government to strengthen ties with Syria. After all, Syria has been one of the only West Asian nations to consistently support India’s Kashmir stance. India’s choice to not consider a regime change narrative in Syria would mean the latter’s continuance of a vote of confidence on the Kashmir narrative, especially in international forums. 
Additionally, Indian efforts to support reconstruction efforts may be heralded as a benchmark in its soft power to help war-torn countries bloom back to life. As such, it will be interesting to keep track of the trajectories that the current Indian government follows in Syria.