Foreign and Expatriates Minister Fayssal Mikdad, of Syrian Arab Republic is on his first visit to India. While this is the minister’s first visit, by no means is he the first foreign minister from Syria to visit India. His predecessor—the late Walid Muallem had also visited India a number of times since the civil war began in Syria.
And throughout the Syrian civil war, India has stood by that country in spite of sufficient pressure to scale down its engagement with and assistance to it and even snap ties.
Exercising its strategic autonomy, India has consistently opposed unilateral regime change by force and external intervention, and opposed or abstained from moves that either condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or called for him to step down.
India's Extended Support To Syria
Withstanding pressure from the US and powerful Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, India together with Brazil and South Africa through the IBSA Dialogue Forum platform, even sent a mission to Damascus in 2011 when all three countries found themselves serving on the Security Council as rotating members.
Following a severe police and army crackdown on protesters across Syria, an IBSA delegation met with Syrian officials to express grave concern and condemn the use of force by all parties. Thus, India has also consistently called for peace and dialogue and an end to the violence by all sides. More recently, India reopened its embassy in Damascus and sent back its ambassador there.
Now, as Syria emerges a survivor, or even a winner, India’s position stands vindicated. After almost a decade of bloodshed, a sectarian and fratricidal civil war which attracted jihadists from across the world, Syria has emerged victorious.
The regime of Bashar al-Assad has prevailed over all the different forces that had allied against it – the Free Syrian Army, and the numerous jihadist groups like Al-Nusra Front, with support from states like the US, Turkey, Qatar, and the ISIS. A UN report says that more than 40, 000 fighters from 110 countries traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the ISIS.
Syria’s Resurgence in the Arab World
Syria was thrown out of the Arab League as the Arab states severed relations with it, the Western powers rallied against it and America imposed sanctions on the country. Yet, like the proverbial phoenix, Syria is rising again.
Quietly, countries like the UAE and Oman re-established diplomatic relations with it after breaking ties in the wake of the civil war and calling for Assad’s ouster. In 2019, 39 countries participated in the Damascus Trade fair in spite of the sanctions.
Arab dignitaries began visiting Damascus beginning with the 2018 visit of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, Syria is being reinstated in the Arab League with Assad was even a guest in Abu Dhabi earlier this year.
Syria and Political Islam
A major reason for the Arab reconciliation process with Damascus is that Syria has emerged as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood, and religious fanaticism in the region.
The one big threat that most leaders in the Middle East now face is that of a resurgent political Islam with the active support of countries like Turkey, and Iran. During his meeting with Assad, now President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan stressed that "Syria is a fundamental pillar of Arab security and that the UAE is keen to strengthen cooperation with it to achieve the aspirations of the brotherly Syrian people towards stability and development."
Always a champion of secularism and Arab nationalism, Syria has been at the forefront of the fight against religious radicalism since decades. It has now emerged even more battle-hardened and will make for a valuable ally in the fight against terrorism, something India remains committed to (it just convened a No Money for Terrorism conference).
It is possible that Syria is now destined to play an even bigger role in the region, which is now coming around to understanding the futility of religious and sectarian politics. Powers that had once stoked are now trying to blunt the religious radicalism.
If earlier Syria had been at the forefront of Arab nationalism, then now it is the front line state in the region against Islamic extremism and terrorism. At the same time, Russia, which had been widening its footprint in the region, remains distracted by the Ukraine conflict.
Kashmir Terror Threats Have Turkish Ties
Like India, Syria has been a victim of cross-border terrorism – most of the jihadists who flocked to the country from other parts of the world used Turkey as a passage. Turkey has become the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood whose ideology provides the base for ISIS and other Islamist groups.
It is also the twin face of the subcontinent’s Jamaat-e-Islami, which has shaped Pakistan’s politics and has wreaked havoc in Kashmir. Turkey and Pakistan are forging ever-closer ties.
It is well-known now that ideologues of Kashmiri separatism have been allowed to set shop in Turkey. A recent threat issued to journalists in Kashmir is also believed to have emerged from the Turkish soil.
India Syria’s Enduring Alliance
Syria enjoys a strategic geo-political location: on the shores of the Mediterranean with important sea ports and border Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Jordan. It has consistently backed India on the Kashmir issue in the United Nations. It is one of those countries with which there are no irritants in bilateral relations.
Syrians have been amongst one of the most progressive states in the Arab world – with high levels of education and women’s participation in daily life. In spite of its closeness to Iran, Syria has, over the years, resisted its religious orientation, and there is every reason to believe it will continue to do so.
India, which has remained engaged in Syria over the years with humanitarian aid, reconstruction work, capacity building measures of Syrian civil society through scholarships, training, etc., has done well and should continue to do so. A strong pluralist Syrian state is in India’s interest, and forging close ties with it will serve both countries well.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)