As an old student of Indian foreign policy, I have always viewed “nonalignment” as a tool of pursuing India’s national interests. Nonalignment can never be a goal, which, unfortunately, many Indians mistakenly, rather dogmatically, believe in. That being the case, how does one view India’s foreign policy-decisions over the last two years vis-à-vis West Asia (Middle East), the region that has been witnessing what is called Arab Spring? After all, nonalignment as a strategy always has elements of both idealism and realism. Viewed thus, India’s West Asia policy seems to be more realistic than idealist. There is nothing wrong in being a realist, but the problem arises when the realism comes out of sheer blackmail.
With each passing day, I am getting convinced that India is being increasingly blackmailed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar as far as its policy towards Syria is concerned. And in this, India’s options have been further constrained due to the pressure of the Western countries in general and the United States in particular.
Before explaining this point, let us see what Arab Spring has meant to the region. It has resulted in new regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. India has supported all these changes, though in the case of Libya, it had given confusing signals when strongman Colonel Gaddafi was alive and strong. Arab Spring failed miserably in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia intervened militarily to crush the protestors for change and democracy.
There are two ways of looking at Arab Spring. If it is supposed to usher in democracy in the Arab world, then it has not exactly been a success story. Democracy is not exactly a number game where the majority has got every power to the extent of being sectarian and the minority none. True democracy means rights of equality and justice. In this too, Arab Spring has been a story of huge disappointment. Its promoters have shown double standards. While justifying changes in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and now Syria under the pretext of furthering democracy, the Western countries have closed their eyes towards Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Sheikhdoms, which are certainly not citadels of democracy and have directly or indirectly furthered the cause of Wahabism or Islamic fundamentalism all over the world. The West supports all these oil Sheikhdoms and closed its eyes when Saudi Arabia militarily intervened last year in Shia-majority Bahrain to defend its Sunni ruler. In fact during the last fortnight alone, there have been massive crackdowns on the protestors for change in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. But neither the West nor the western media nor the Indian government has said a word on these popular uprisings.
The concrete effect of the Arab Spring has been that extremist elements within the Sunni community and their great promoters in the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and now to a considerable extent in Turkey, have become powerful and the forces of multi-ethnicity and secularism are getting weaker. Syria seems to be a victim of this process.
There is no denying the fact that Syria is not a democratic country. A country which has been ruled over the last 40 years by one family is not going to be an ideal democratic country all of a sudden in the absence of democratic institutions such as independent judiciary and media. Syria, like all other Arab countries, does not have a democratic culture as such. But one great asset that Syria has is its secularism and multi-ethnicity. As I have visited Syria, I can vouchsafe that it is arguably the most secular country in the Arab region. Here, and this is most important, you find the women as liberated as they are in any Western country.
The continuing survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria is not only due to the support of the minority Alawite sect, making up about 12 percent of the country’s population, of which the Syrian strong man is a member. It is also due to the backing of the Christian community, which makes up about 10% of the population. They have a deep and understandable fear of the sort of instability and sectarian recriminations that followed Saddam Hussein’s fall in Iraq. The majority of Iraqi Christians there were eventually forced to flee the country after suffering high levels of violence and intimidation. There are other minority groups, such as Syrian Kurds and Druze, who have either continued their support of Assad or have resisted the urge to join elements of the protest movement for similar reasons. Though Sunnis (59 percent of the population) account for the overwhelming majority of Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, there are other Sunnis within the Baath Party’s rank and file that would have few prospects in a post-Assad Syria and so have not opposed the status quo. The interior minister is a Sunni. The country’s Sunni merchant class and business community, located mainly in Aleppo and Damascus, have also remained largely on the sidelines of the protests, fearful of the socioeconomic vacuum that an abrupt change in leadership would create. Kurds, also Sunnis, add to another nine percent of the population, but being different from the Arab Sunnis, they have been more comfortable with Assad.
All this explains why the West and Sunni Arab states have failed to project an opposition leader as an effective alternative to Assad so far. But if the Assad regime is tottering now, it is mainly on account of the blatant military support (through arms and ammunitions provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States (Americans are systematically violating their own laws that guide arms-trade) that is coming through Jordan, with which Syria has an open border, to the foreign mercenaries (from al- Qaida, Libya and Turkey) who are fighting against the Syrian military. In fact, it is now an open secret that the recent assassination of the Syrian defence minister (who incidentally was a Christian) was managed by the Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. On July 18, the Saudi services, with logistical support from the CIA, had managed to blow up the headquarters of the Syrian National Security during a Crisis Cell meeting: Generals Assef Chaoukat, Daoud Rajha and Hassan Tourkmani were killed instantly. General Amin Hicham Ikhtiar died soon after from his wounds. This operation, called “Damascus Volcano” was the signal for the attack on the capital by a swarm of mercenaries, mainly coming from Jordan. Incidentally, in a retaliatory attack, the Syrian regime, on July 26, organised a bomb attack in Riyadh through its secret agents that killed Prince Bandar; but that is a different story.
Against this background, the point that one is making that the ongoing war in Syria is not exactly a war for democracy that the Western and Gulf leaders are trying to make us believe. If the Sunni Gulf states will like a Sunni regime in Damascus, the United States (and other Western countries) wants Assad to be overthrown as he is seen to be a surrogate to Iran. The Western target is Iran; Assad’s Syria is a collateral victim. That is precisely the reason why Russia and China are blocking the Western and Arab moves in the United Nations for a more direct militaristic approach to a regime change in Damascus. But India has been voting along with the Western and Saudi-Arab sponsored resolutions. Last time (July 18) one such resolution was so mind boggling that even Pakistan abstained in the United Nations Security Council!
What explains Indian behaviour? Surely, it is not the promotion of democracy (incidentally, India is a founder member of “Community of Democracies”); we have seen how sectarian and communal the campaign in Syria is. The real reasons, in my opinion, are the following.
First, there is that huge importance of the oil factor. All the authoritarian and sectarian Sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf producing oil happen to be Sunnis. The growing Indian economy needs their oil. Since they want the non-Sunni Assad to go, India has to concede. Second, it is in these regimes that about six million Indian expatriate workers not only earn their livelihood but also enrich the foreign exchange reserves of the country. Third, there is a bigger picture and that is the calculations that supporting the Americans in the United Nations will eventually strengthen India’s claim for the permanent membership in the Security Council. After all, that was what President Obama had suggested during his visit to India two years ago.
All these factors are realistic, not idealistic. I strongly believe that the importance of these factors has been strongly conveyed to New Delhi by the Americans and the Arab Sheikhs. And that is what I mean as blackmails. However, I have a bigger problem. In a nutshell, the Syrian example underscores the extreme fragility of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of the sovereign countries. Today, it is happening in Syria because the regime there is not Sunni; tomorrow it may happen in Kashmir because a Muslim-majority area cannot be a part of a country where Hindus constitute the numerical majority, even if the Hindus and Muslims have the same rights under a democratic constitution.
By Prakash Nanda