Rocky road to Damascus

No country is ever immune to charges of double standards in its foreign policy, and this year's popular uprisings across West Asia and North Africa often collectively referred to as the "Arab Spring" or "Arab Awakening" have exposed many such contradictions in both rhetoric and behaviour. Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was forced to defend her government's reluctance to intervene in Syria, where, according to UN estimates, the eight-month government crackdown has resulted in more than 3,500 deaths and over 23,000 refugees fleeing to Turkey and Lebanon. Citing the need to protect US allies and forces, secure energy supplies from the region, and combat terrorist groups, Clinton resisted calls by many compatriots to replicate the kind of military intervention that unseated the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Left unsaid were the complications Damascus can still cause for US interests in neighbouring Lebanon.

The US-Syria relationship has long been somewhat anomalous in a region characterised either by tight US alliances or sharp adversarial relationships with Washington. On the one hand, relations between Washington and Damascus have been shaped by the history of the Cold War, longstanding differences over Israel, economic sanctions, charges of sponsoring terrorism or regime change, and Syria's periodic attempts at developing weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, the two countries have maintained fitful diplomatic relations with one another, collaborated on specific regional diplomatic or security challenges, and even aligned against Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.

The last few days have seen a shift in the fortunes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, with the nearly unanimous decision by the Arab League to suspend Syria marking an apparent turning point. This move was followed by further international sanctions against the country, and a public statement by Jordan's King Abdullah urging Assad to step down. Pro-Assad elements responded to these developments by attacking several diplomatic missions in Damascus. While the US may still be hesitant to use force in a bid to actively depose Assad for the very reasons Clinton outlined, these recent events and the flurry of diplomatic consultations taking place in their wake suggest that Assad will only find himself further isolated.

India too has staked out a default position on Syria. In August, when India presided over the UN Security Council after a gap of almost two decades, it opted for an exceedingly cautious approach to the Syrian protests, and subsequently abstained during a key October vote. More than the vote itself, India, as on other occasions during its current UNSC tenure, presented a weak justification for its decision, citing reports of violence perpetrated by protesters against Syrian security forces as a reason to take a more measured stand. At a similar juncture in the Libyan uprising, Indian officials had pointed to the lack of adequate information as the basis for Delhi's decision to abstain at the Security Council.

There are several reasons some defensible for India's position. As with Libya, the security of Indian citizens and interests cannot be easily jeopardised. The government also appears far too preoccupied with a plethora of domestic concerns to risk what it sees as unnecessary controversy over a foreign policy issue. Finally, based on experiences in its own neighbourhood, India is suspicious about the feasibility of spreading democratic values. National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon said, "A people cannot be forced to be free or to practice democracy."

And yet there are several reasons for India to reconsider its traditional stance, even if ideological or humanitarian reasons were to be temporarily set aside. The Arab world's overwhelming support for Syrian opposition groups renders weak the logic of remaining sensitive to the Muslim electorate at home. In any case, supporting the removal of an authoritarian secular leader of a majority Muslim state should never be reflexively construed as an anti-Muslim decision. Moreover, with considerable diplomatic capital being invested in a bid for permanent UN Security Council membership, India should be better attuned to the expectations which that privilege entails. Abstaining on key decisions as a UNSC member is hardly a marker of leadership, and weakens Delhi's claims to what it sees as its rightful position in global affairs. Finally, India's own growing security amid increasing regional instability means the possibility of India having to intervene in another country is today far greater than that of India being at the receiving end of such an intervention. With an eye on the future, setting a precedent for intervention on dire humanitarian grounds may be prudent.

According to Christian mythology, it was on the highway to Damascus that the Apostle Paul saw the proverbial light, resulting in his conversion to Christianity. As the US and other countries calibrate their own approaches to the Syrian crackdown, India should be prepared for a rocky diplomatic road ahead, one that hopefully leads to further enlightenment concerning the onerous burdens of global leadership.

The writer is programme officer with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the US, express@expressindia.com

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