Will India Become the Next Big Player in the Syrian War?

New Delhi has traditionally preferred to quietly support Assad, but changing alliances in the Middle East, coupled with the threat of ISIS, could put its balancing act to test.

Reuters/ Andrew Kelly

Syria recently renewed its call for India to play an active role in resolving the conflict there. While India has thus far preferred to stand on the side-lines, evolving dynamics in the Middle East could compel it to develop a more assertive approach.

It was in November 2013 that Damascus began to court India for political support."We want India and the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to play an important role in the political process, convening Geneva II and finding a solution to the crisis," stated Syrian President Bashar Assad’s advisor, Bouthaina Shabaan, during a visit to New Delhi. Shabaan also emphasized the countries' "cultural and historical ties."

Reiterating this stance last month, Syria's Ambassador to India, Riad Kamel Abbas, hailed New Delhi’s adherence to the United Nations Charter's call for non-interference and supporting political dialogue, yet called on India to play a bigger role in resolving the Syrian conflict. “We would really like India to play a more proactive role ... India is in a rare position where it has good relations with both Syria and the big world powers,” he said.

Abbas pointed out India's stake in the Syrian crisis: the rising influence of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which is a matter of grave concern to the Indian authorities. He noted the increasing presence of Indian jihadists in the Syrian war, a point he had first made in September 2013, when he added that Syria was “fighting terrorism on behalf of ... friends” and expected more political support from those friends – India included – at the United Nations in return.

New Delhi's responses to the Syrian civil war have mainly taken place in the UN Security Council, where it has tilted in favor of the Assad regime. In February 2011, India voted in favor of a UNSC draft resolution that would implement a peace plan proposed by the Arab League only after a call for Assad to step down was dropped. Then, in October that year, India abstained from a UNSC resolution condemning Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests. The following August, it abstained from an UNGA resolution that expressed "grave concern" for the escalation of violence. The reason India gave for this decision was that the resolution referred to Arab League calls for Assad to step down and for UN member states to sever ties with Syria. Another Indian show of support for the Assad regime took place in 2013, when it backed the U.S.-Russia proposal for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons – thereby preventing military action against Damascus – and pledged USD 1 million toward this effort.

Yet, India has not taken the lead in defending Assad, restricting its role in diplomatic peace efforts to joint initiatives only. In 2013, India, Brazil and South Africa sent a delegation to meet with the Syrian government and reaffirm their commitment to a peaceful political solution. India largely steered clear of getting involved in the Syrian conflict, barring a muted presence at the January 2014 Geneva II conference. It was invited there by Russia, who sees India as an influential power that has remained unbiased throughout the conflict. India, however, stopped short of utilising the platform to leverage its relations with Assad to push for inclusive dialogue with the various rebel factions. 

At the conference, then-Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid highlighted India’s stakes in the conflict, stating that India “shares deep historical and civilizational bonds with the wider West Asia and Gulf region. We have substantial interests in the fields of trade and investment, diaspora, remittances, energy and security. Any spill-over from the Syrian conflict has the potential of impacting negatively on our larger interests." 

Politically, India’s stakes in Syria can also be viewed in a wider West Asian context, wherein New Delhi must secure its interests in the Sunni Arab world.

India has thus far managed to balance its relations with Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council states — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman — but changing circumstances in the Middle East are likely to make it tougher for New Delhi to tiptoe around regional polarizations. Intensifying Saudi-Iranian rivalry, as demonstrated in Yemen, and the rising influence of ISIS in India pose an immediate challenge to the government in New Delhi. 

Moreover, the bigger geopolitical picture is changing with the end of the U.S.-Iranian nuclear standoff. The nuclear deal has opened up huge commercial and strategic opportunities for India and Iran after a decade of U.S. pressure to restrict ties. The Modi government has also emphasized his intention to bolster India’s economic and strategic complementarities with the GCC and Israel, adding another calculus to India’s Syria policy.

This changing environment could put New Delhi’s traditional balancing act to test. Given that it is assertively campaigning for permanent membership in the UN Security Council, the time is ripe for India to chart an independent foreign policy path. For as long as it shies away from playing a greater role in the Middle East, its desire to emerge as a major player in West Asia will remain unrealized.

Kanchi Gupta is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, India. She is a researcher for the West Asia Studies Programme at ORF. Her research focuses on India's relations with the Middle East.