A role for India in rebuilding Syria
New Delhi has renewed its pre-war Tishreen power plant commitment but steered clear of any new proposals
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Earlier this month, it was reported that India is looking into major reconstruction projects in Syria and will be hosting senior Syrian officials in the coming months to discuss these proposals. Notably, India has already renewed its commitments to its pre-war projects, specifically the Tishreen power plant, which can be looked upon as India’s premier developmental undertaking in the country. India has told Syria in recent consultations that it is willing to restart work if the Syrian regime can provide security guarantees for its people and companies. A review of the security scenarios has also been initiated to outline whether work on the plant can begin anytime in the near future. The Indian stance perhaps signals that South Block expects President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power as the end-game of the crisis in Syria plays itself out.
The contract for the Tishreen power plant, for which India had extended a line of credit to Syria for $100 million, was given to state-owned Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd in 2009. However, work was suspended once the conflict escalated. Other projects suffered a similar fate. For example, India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL), along with the China National Petroleum Corp., had acquired a 37% stake in Syria’s Al Furat Petroleum Co. OVL had also won the bid for exploration of oil/natural gas at Block 24 in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province—all investments had to be abandoned.
Generally speaking, India and Syria have maintained good ties through the war years. A steady stream of officials from Damascus have visited New Delhi for talks and consultations while business delegations from India have visited Damascus, such as one organized by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India in 2014, led by Delhi-based Cosmos Group, even at the height of the civil war. In August 2016, India’s minister of state for external affairs, M.J. Akbar, visited Damascus to hold talks with Assad. During these bizarrely “normal” consultations, the Assad regime invited New Delhi to participate in its post-war reconstruction efforts. Even though Syria has asked India to take part in the reconstruction of the country, there are, however, no immediate plans to announce new projects on a unilateral basis despite Damascus highlighting that India may lose out in the “reconstruction rush”.
Syria has also sought a bigger role for the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (Brics) grouping in both the negotiations of the crisis and reconstruction efforts. Prior to the Brics summit in Goa last year, ideas were floated on the possibility of a proposal on a Brics-led fund for Syria’s reconstruction pushed by India. However, this idea never fructified owing to the worsening situation in Syria.
Last month, India joined 32 other countries, including Pakistan, in abstaining from a UN vote calling for an immediate ceasefire in Syria, in a conscious decision to remain neutral between the Syrian agendas of Moscow and Washington. However, it also has its own interests in the mix.
The Syrian envoy in New Delhi had stated in August 2016 that “what is going on in Kashmir, is a first step in terrorism. The government of India has a right to solve it in any manner”. This coincides with Syria’s stance that it is fighting with terrorists in its own war. The Assad government had also conveyed during Akbar’s visit that as a growing power, India has a role to play in meeting the challenges of global terrorism.
New Delhi’s stance on the crisis has been constricted somewhere between a moral dilemma of standing up against violence, whether terrorist- or regime-inflicted, and the needs and necessities of the cold realities of realpolitik. Nevertheless, it has made it clear that while protection of civilians should be prioritized, Syria’s “territorial integrity” should also prevail as a critical objective—in an effort to back a unified Syria as it is in its current state, instead of a disintegrating state under various rebel factions and warlords. India believes that Russia’s current stance could see the crisis end in a relatively stable and unified Syria under Assad—an outcome that will be in India’s larger interests in the region.
At the same time, India has maintained that there can be “no military solution” to this conflict. This contradicts India’s own pitch that a military-led outcome is not desirable—that is exactly what the Assad regime is doing.
Developing nations such as India and China have largely been ambiguous over the Syrian conflict, at least in public discourse. However, both nations have found themselves in the corner of Russia’s narrative. That said, as a country that is vying to become a major power in the near future, India’s stance on issues such as Assad’s use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs on his own people requires a sterner tone.
India has a favourable relationship with the regime, both from a historical and contemporary perspective. Syria has appreciated India’s “balanced” take on the crisis, and has asked Brics to play a more constructive and active role in resolving the crisis. While it is not in India’s current interest to be directly involved in any manner, it should actively look to become a part of the international negotiations to build consensus with the global community. Previously, India had participated in the UN-sponsored Geneva II conference in 2014, wherein the then minister of external affairs Salman Khurshid had highlighted the country’s stance against a military solution. India had also committed $4 million in humanitarian aid via the Kuwait International Conferences.
As a country with ambitions to become a global political and economic power, India cannot hide behind the veil of ambiguity, diplomatic fence-sitting and pontificate its view of and to the world from the obsolete pedestal of non-alignment. This trajectory only undermines India’s own ambitions on the global stage, and as the world’s largest democracy, whether it likes it or not, India has a responsibility to speak up on globally critical events.
Kabir Taneja is an analyst and commentator on international affairs. He was a 2016 Medienbotschafter Fellow in Germany.
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