Home / News / World /  Syrian deputy PM meets Sushma Swaraj, seeks aid to finish infra projects

New Delhi: Syria sought India’s help with completing infrastructure projects, including a power plant in the war-torn country, as its deputy prime minister and foreign minister Walid al-Moualem—the highest-ranked Syrian official to visit India since the outbreak of civil war—met Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi on Tuesday.

India, on its part, said it is ready to complete the Tishreen project being implemented by Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd, if the security of its personnel can be guaranteed, people familiar with the developments said.

India has already given a $100 million line of credit for the project. The remaining $140 million will be disbursed as soon as work restarts, one of the persons cited above said, on condition of anonymity.

“The construction has been incomplete because of the unrest in Syria," the person added.

The engagement with Syria is part of India’s wider strategy of engaging countries in the region that are key sources of energy and remittances for India. According to the Indian government, India’s economic engagement in the region totals an estimated $200 billion.

As part of the effort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to visit Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran this year. Swaraj will visit Israel and Palestine between 16-19 January, according to a press statement by the Indian foreign ministry.

Al-Moualem’s visit comes amid rising tension between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran over the execution of a Shia cleric by the Saudis earlier this month.

The execution led to Iranians ransacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia has cut off economic ties with Iran.

On Tuesday, during his talks with Swaraj, Al-Moualem also requested India to complete the Hama steel plant, which is being set up by India at a cost of $25 million, said the second person cited above who too spoke on condition of anonymity.

Traditionally, India and Syria have enjoyed friendly relations with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad visiting India in 2008 and then Indian president Pratibha Patil visiting Syria in 2010.

However, the Syrian civil war, which broke out in 2011, cast a shadow on ties. The unrest began as the so-called Arab Spring or pro-democracy protests that overthrew long ruling presidents of Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the region spread to Syria with the opposition Syrian National Council fighting to overthrow Assad.

The fighting expanded to include many factions and groups ranged against each other, fuelling a civil war.

In 2014, the Sunni hardline Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—believed to be a splinter group of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group—took over large swathes of Iraq and Syria.

In June 2014, the group announced the establishment of a caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The group has been responsible for the beheadings of US journalist James Foley and others from the West, resulting in the US announcing a coalition of forces to fight against the group.

The rise of the ISIS has been a challenge for India as well with reports of young Indian Muslims travelling to Syria and Iraq to join its ranks.

This was one of the issues discussed between Al- Moualem and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval on Monday soon after the former’s arrival.

According to an Indian official, Al-Moualem briefed India about the latest proposals to bring peace to his country that include a UN-sponsored dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition on 25 January.

The UN Security Council in December unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing a peace process in Syria to end the civil war through talks but the draft has been silent on the role of Assad in a political transition.

It called for a Syrian-led political process facilitated by the UN to establish within six months “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance", setting a schedule for drafting a new constitution, with free and fair polls to be held within 18 months under UN supervision with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to vote.

India supports a Syrian-led political solution to the civil war.

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