The Arab League’s green flag to Syria opened a clearer path for more diplomacy by others such as India but it remains anchored in regional geopolitical challenges
The Indian embassy downgraded its presence in Damascus due to an inclement security situation as the Islamic State made immense territorial gains.Between 2011 and 2020, India–Syria ties remained on autopilot. Briefly, in 2015, the Indian embassy downgraded its presence in Damascus due to an inclement security situation as the Islamic State made immense territorial gains. However, there was always a tinge of support for Assad in New Delhi and amongst Indian diplomats, who also pointed fingers at external actors fomenting trouble in a state facing headwinds from extremist elements. “What he (Assad) had not factored in was that Syria’s foreign policy was resented by many in the Arab world and the West who viewed the Arab Spring as an opportunity to get rid of an inconvenient regime,” India’s former Ambassador to Syria, VP Haran, wrote in 2016. Ambassador Haran also points out various other intricacies, such as Syria’s closeness to Iran, its pro-Palestine stance, tensions with Israel, and proximity to Russia as factors that worked against a country ruled by the minority Alawites (Shias) while having a majority Sunni Arab population. Another often prevailing narrative found in India’s intellectual circles is that Iranian and Russian intervention “saved” Syria, as mentioned by scholars like Zorawar Daulet Singh. There is no doubting that Western interventionist policies such as those employed in Libya were inherently counterproductive, however, Syrian problems began with a people’s movement first, as it was across the region. The crisis of this movement was, like in other parts of the Middle East, that it was spontaneous, anti-political, and had far-and-few alternative political plans or figureheads. In short, there was never a ‘Plan B’ for after dislodging long-running autocratic rules. ‘Foreign hand’ was not the primary crisis point here. However, both Moscow and Tehran play a critical role even today, as highlighted by the fact that meetings between Indian and Iranian diplomats do take place in Damascus. The United States (US) and its Western partners, as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, aimed at eliminating ISIS, maintain if anything else, a residual presence in Syria. For both Russia and Iran, the Ukraine crisis is also an opportunity to solidify their respective interests in the Middle East at a time when US and overall Western military presence is at its bare minimum, and narratives around American power raise questions against its superpower status, specifically after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. More recently, the Pentagon has looked to strengthen its air power in the region against the Russian presence by deploying top-of-the-line F-35 and F-22 fighter aircraft, which have been flying sorties over US installations in Syria on a daily basis since March. The US has said that it had faced Iranian-backed attacks 78 times since January 2021, and had only responded to these thrice.
The Ukraine crisis is also an opportunity to solidify their respective interests in the Middle East at a time when US and overall Western military presence is at its bare minimum, and narratives around American power raise questions against its superpower status, specifically after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.The comparative between US and Russia presence also showcases their tactical aims. Both states entered the Syrian theatre under the aim of fighting against ISIS; with Moscow being ‘invited’ by Syria for military assistance. Most of the ISIS hierarchies, including founding leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his successors, were killed in US-led operations while none (as per public records at least) were targeted or terminated by Russian operations. Fast forward to the metamorphosing post-pandemic global order, the geopolitics of the Middle East is also found to be taking a dramatic shift pushed by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the incoming big power competition between the US and China, one that is already having effects across the region. After years of isolating Damascus, in May 2023, the Arab League reinstated Syria, and Assad visited both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia after a decade-long gap. The US, which strongly advised against Syria’s readmission, was relegated to the sidelines. The Arab League’s green flag to Syria opened a clearer path for more diplomacy by others such as India. The Ministry of External Affair’s Secretary (CP & OIA), Dr Ausaf Sayeed, visited Damascus in October 2022. Prior to this, the previous significant visit from India was conducted by now former Minister of State for External Affairs, MJ Akbar, who flew into Damascus in 2016 when the Assad government was in the thick of things to drum up support on its position with regard to Kashmir as it expected pushback from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In return, New Delhi gave tacit support to Assad by way of maintaining regular diplomatic channels when hardly anyone else was. During this time, Syria’s then Ambassador to India, Dr Riad Kamel Abbas, said that New Delhi had a right to “solve (Kashmir) in any manner” and “without external assistance”. Senior Syrian delegations to India, that included Assad’s close aides, continued.
The earthquake has added a further sense of urgency to address the country’s crippled economy, infrastructure, and public services to both avoid a further humanitarian crisis and—more from the West’s perspective—avoid chances of a renewed influx of refugees.The earthquake that struck both Türkiye and Syria in February, destroying vast swathes of already crippled infrastructure and killing thousands, oddly, also helped pull Syria back into the mainstream. India initiated “Operation Dosti”, an expansive mission to supply aid to both countries. While providing aid to Syria proved difficult considering many affected areas were not under the direct control of the Assad regime, the disaster in its own way did offer the Syrian presidency some leverage to manage its isolation from the international community. On the back of the above developments, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, V Muraleedharan’s visit to Syria this month became the first high-level visit since 2016. His trip also included meeting al-Assad. The reinstatement of Syria by the Arab League is a first step where the reality of the fact that the Assad family has survived its challenges is being acknowledged. The earthquake has added a further sense of urgency to address the country’s crippled economy, infrastructure, and public services to both avoid a further humanitarian crisis and—more from the West’s perspective—avoid chances of a renewed influx of refugees. The Syrian crisis, despite the Arab League’s decisions, is far from over. The country remains flooded with militias (including those backed by Iran), is often targeted by Israeli military, and Assad’s survivability puts him at a huge debt towards Russia and Iran despite views suggesting that readmission into the Arab League could water down Iranian influence, giving the Arab world more space to manoeuvre by making sure Syria does not entrench itself as a client state of Tehran. Finally, the ‘normalcy’ that India is taking advantage of is ultimately anchored in regional geopolitical challenges that are well-managed, for now, but are yet to be resolved.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +