September 11, 2013

Like US, can India ever take a tough stand on Syria, or any other global issue?

The following article originally appeared in the Economic Times on September 11, 2013.

As the US Congress debates the authorisation of force against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, there is a rare point of consensus in hyperpartisan Washington. Hawks and doves, realists and liberals agree that there are no good choices. A US failure to punish Assad's forces for using chemical weapons risks encouraging their crackdown, undermines American leadership in the region and around the world, and weakens an international convention. Furthermore, the longer the delay, the less effective any future action will be.

At the same time, even limited US-led military intervention, such as cruise missile strikes, is likely to cause more civilian casualties, be perceived as illegal in the absence of Chinese and Russian support at the Security Council, strengthen the hands of Islamist extremists, and risk perpetuating the Syrian conflict by emboldening rebel forces.

The shadow of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars means that American leaders remain extremely sensitive to the unforeseen consequences of any foreign intervention.

It's a Conundrum
Although Syria may be less crucial to Indian interests, New Delhi finds itself in a somewhat similar bind. A default view articulated by many Indian diplomats and commentators is that India ought to oppose any Western-led military action. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has unequivocally stated that India would not support a military option without the Security Council's mandate, a view reinforced by PM Manmohan Singh at the G20 Summit. Beyond its legality and justification — the jus ad bellum — India certainly has its reasons to oppose a US-led strike on Syrian targets.

Should American intervention contribute to Assad's fall, the primary beneficiaries could well be Sunni Islamist extremist groups, and India has long been at the receiving end of virulent militant Islamism. India has also shouldered the material costs of West Asia's destabilisation. Oil prices have risen over 20 per cent since the start of the Arab Spring. And it comes just as each rupee lost against the dollar adds an estimated Rs 8000 crores to India's annual oil import bill.

But the Syrian conundrum also raises the question of what world order India desires. While a West Asia marked by Islamist extremism and sectarian conflict is certainly not conducive to Indian interests, neither is one characterised by heavy-handed authoritarianism and chemical weapon use.
Further problems with India's position are exposed when considering the longer-term implications of the Syrian crisis. Even if Assad were to emerge victorious, he would hardly be let back into the fold of the international community. Barring the West, he appears to have burned enough bridges with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — all countries with which India has important relations — to give New Delhi reason for pause.

Finally, India's stated position of not supporting an international military intervention in the absence of a Security Council mandate is troubling. Rather than grounded in Indian interests, its policy is effectively at the mercy of the P5; so much for the worthy goal of an independent foreign policy.

India's default stance also raises doubts about India's international leadership aspirations. An absence of a cogent defence of India's position, whatever it may be, is one reason why India's concerns are not regularly taken into consideration on issues it does consider important. In other words, India's studied silence on seemingly remote matters of global importance may have come at a cost closer to home, whether on Iran, Afghanistan or Myanmar. For the time being, India can afford to live with its contradictions because its direct stake in the Syrian conflict is relatively marginal and because its ability to affect outcomes is still rather limited.