The ‘Friends of Syria’ [FOS] grouping, sponsored by the Western powers and their Arab allies, is scheduled to have its first session on Friday. By a clever political ploy, Tunis has been chosen as the venue of the meeting, as the Mediterranean capital invokes the fragrance of the Arab Spring. Although, Syria’s crisis is more geopolitical than a whiff of Arab Spring, which is itself in great distress today.
Seventy countries have been invited to the Tunis meet. India qualifies for FOS membership, arguably, since it voted not once but twice in favour of the Arab League resolutions on Syria — in the UN Security Council and the General Assembly. Whether or not, or at what level, India proposes to attend the Tunis meeting — that is, whether India is willing to be a part of the FOS — will be keenly watched.
Equally, it is not yet known where China stands apropos FOS. Vice-President Xi Jinping was in Ankara yesterday and the Turks are openly enthusiastic about the FOS. (By the way, Turkish government allowed an Uighur demonstration to be staged near Xi’s hotel, which suggests a lot about Turkey-China partnership.)
Xinhua news agency has come down heavily on the western powers over Syria. In a commentary today with Beijing dateline, It just stops short of warning the FOS against taking any decision to arm the Syrian opposition. It repeats that the western strategy in the Middle East remains geopolitical and Syria, Lebanon and Iran are inter-connected theatres. (Lebanon refuses to attend the FOS meeting.)
The most important part of the Xinhua commentary is its support for the reform programme of President Bashar Al-Assad.
On the other hand, Russia’s rejection of the FOS meeting doesn’t come as surprise. But what merits attention is Moscow’s comprehensive rejection of the western move and the warning that FOS bears similarity to the infamous Libya Contact Group that provided the platform for the NATO military intervention to over throw the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
The Russians have put forward a new proposal that the UN secretary-general Ban KI-Moon should depute a special envoy to Damascus with a view to negotiate with the government and the opposition the modalities of rendering humanitarian assistance. This move pre-empts the FOS seeking a pretext for proposing ’humanitarian intervention’ in Syria.
From the high-level participation by the western countries in the FOS meeting — US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is travelling to Tunis — it must be surmised that a further push for accelerating a regime change in Syria is in the offing. But Washington is not yet ready to announce the policy shift to commence direct American military assistance for the Syrian opposition, although it could be fast nearing that point.
All in all, therefore, Delhi’s stance apropos the FOS will signify a defining moment for India’s West Asia policy. Some Indian pundits have simplistically sketched the Syrian crisis as posing a dilemma for Delhi to choose between Riyadh and Tehran. This is a limited perspective of Middle East through the prism of Sunni-Shi’ite discord, which doesn’t tell the whole story. Whereas, there are many dimensions to the Syrian situation.
To begin with, the analogy of Libya ought to worry Delhi. Syria’s descent into anarchy is bound to destabilize the entire region. Beyond that lies the precedent of unilateral military interventions in selective theatres to bring about regime changes. It has grave implications for international security in general.
Delhi also cannot be oblivious to the double standards. The most important aspect of the West Asian regional upheaval could be the resurgence of radical islamist groups. Even senior US officials haveacknowledged the presence of al-Qaeda in Syria. As a country in the ‘extended neighbourhood’ of West Asia, India becomes a stakeholder. Any association with FOS is undesirable at this stage. India should remain a mere unpretentious friend of Syria.