India is on the threshold of a re-engagement with the Levant
For the prime minister, Narendra Modi, Balochistan is not a flash in the pan. The articulation of Indian concerns, stakes and interests in Balochistan is part of a pattern in his government’s evolving foreign policy after two and a quarter years in office. Balochistan is not the only conflict zone that the National Democratic Alliance government is wading into. Ending a hands-off
policy that has been in place for several years now, India is on the threshold of a significant re-engagement with Syria, Iraq and Lebanon: the first two of these three countries have a huge reservoir of goodwill for New Delhi.
In the days following Modi’s public pronouncements on Balochistan from the Red Fort, two things happened in the national capital, which promise to facilitate a greater role for India in the Levant region. First, Modi sent his new minister of state for external affairs, M.J. Akbar, to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, ending a long hiatus in high-level visits to these countries from New Delhi. Second, an Indian diplomat who played a critical role behind the scenes as rotational president of the United Nations security council in 2011 and in 2012 and helped in preventing a full-scale war in Syria – unlike in Iraq in 2003 or in Libya in the earlier months of the Arab Spring – published his insider’s account of the deliberations on the Levant at the world’s diplomatic high table.
Indians will hear more about Hardeep Singh Puri’s assessments in the book, Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos, on September 7, when the vice president, Hamid Ansari, releases the book and the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, speaks about those eventful two years for Indian diplomacy because of New Delhi’s membership of the security council after a gap of nearly two decades. Ansari was Puri’s predecessor several times removed, of course, as permanent representative to the United Nations in New York. Jaitley was leader in the Rajya Sabha of an Opposition that opposed the then United Progressive Alliance government’s votes in the security council on Libya and Syria. Therefore, some heat – but also a lot of light – can be expected during the launch of the book at the vice president’s official residence.
Akbar’s visit, although understated in its public profile, has filled a huge vacuum in Indian foreign policy. The UPA government’s neglect of the Levant was so inexplicable, yet so glaring, that when Vikas Swarup, the spokesman of the ministry of external affairs, announced the trip, he could not remember when an Indian minister had last visited the three regional powers in question, although Syria, Iraq or Lebanon are on top of every international television news bulletin the world over.
Read this exchange at Swarup’s briefing. He was at his defensive best: “Question: You know these visits, the visits [to be] made by the Minister of State Mr. Akbar to these three countries are coming after long time, i.e. a high level visit to these countries. Can you tell us when was the last high level visit by an Indian leader to each of these three countries?
“Answer: I do not have that information available straightaway, but I would also like to re-emphasize that we have embassies in all three places. The cooperation and dialogue has been continuing. In fact Mr. Walid Muallem, the Foreign Minister of Syria visited India in January this year and met the External Affairs Minister. So it’s not that we have completely neglected this region or we have not kept high-level contact… I can certainly look up when was the last top level visit to this region conducted.”
The spokesman is telling the truth, but not the whole truth. The embassies exist on paper, of course. In Damascus, for example, an outstanding ambassador, V.P. Haran, who was sought after extensively for his comprehensive understanding of Syria, was posted out to Thimphu on November 30, 2012. The embassy was thereafter without an ambassador for full three years when the world changed for the worse and Syria was the pivot of that change.
Swarup was truthful that leaders from the Levant, including Syria’s foreign minister, have been descending on New Delhi with one-sided regularity. But the question was about high-level Indian visits in the opposite direction. The spokesman could not answer because there has been none for many years until Modi decided that Akbar should go there.
When Walid Muallem was in New Delhi in January, he offered to share Syrian intelligence on the Islamic State with Indian officials. Since then, high-level operatives of Syria’s very efficient and tightly-run intelligence machine have been in India and briefed Indians on what is clearly an emerging, but often overlooked, threat to this country. Syrians believe that radical political Islam of the Daesh variety will be eventually wiped out from their midst when it will shift its focus on countries like India and Indonesia with millions of potential recruits because of their high Muslim populations.
China has intensified intelligence cooperation with Syria recently after discovering that 3,000 disaffected Uighurs have been taken by Islamic militants to Syria and accommodated near the border with Turkey with a Turkik minority. The intention, according to sources in Damascus, is to train these Uighurs as armed rebels to be sent back to the restive Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
Akbar’s discussions with Bouthaina Shaaban, the adviser to the Syrian president, and the national security adviser, Ali Mamlouk, were on parallel lines to protect Indian national security. That the entire Syrian leadership from President Bashar al-Assad to the vice foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, rolled out the red carpet for the Indian minister was proof that Damascus is sensitive to New Delhi shifting from a hitherto reactive policy in the region to a proactive role.
The tenor of Akbar’s talks in the three countries reflected a realization within the Modi government that with Turkey caught up in its post-coup turmoil and shifting alliances in the Levant, Assad is there to stay for the foreseeable future with implications for Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. Muallem had responded positively in January to the entreaties of the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, to help locate 39 abducted Indians in Iraq and free them. Akbar followed up on that issue in Baghdad and Damascus.
A decision in principle by the State-run Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited to return to Tishreen to complete a 300-million euro power project and by Apollo International to finish work on a 25-million euro steel plant in Hama reflected business confidence that the worst is over for Syria and that India should not lose out on future reconstruction as it did in Iraq after the 2003 war.
This columnist has been informed that the prime minister received a pre-publication copy of Hardeep Puri’s book and discussed it with his aides as an input into his policy shifts. At a time of deeply divisive politics in India, the book’s anecdotes on how diplomacy is made to work at the UN under seemingly hopeless circumstances are applicable to domestic political discourse.
Puri’s account of how he reconciled the intractable positions of security council members on Syria during his first-term presidency of the council holds valuable lessons for both Modi and the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, on how to take the country forward if they seriously consider the UN model. Within three days of becoming president of the security council in August 2011, after burning a lot of midnight oil in backroom consultations, Puri was able to produce a “presidential statement” at the 6,598th meeting of the council. Since the Syrian unrest began five years ago, it remains, to this day, the only viable basis for peace in the war-torn country.
But the problem was that Lebanon, then an elected member of the council, did not agree with Puri’s presidential statement. A compromise was then worked out. Puri would make his statement, which would officially make it a UN peace call. Then the Lebanese would take the floor and disagree with the presidential statement. Puri writes in his book, “Since the dissociation statement was made after the [presidential] statement had been adopted by the Council, the Lebanese statement was [merely] entered into the record” of the council’s proceedings. A stunning example of how the UN is made to work when there is a will, and a willingness, to compromise.