The Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Syria, Walid Mohi Edine al Muallem, visited India from 11 to 14 January 2016. Foreign Minister since 2006, he became Deputy Prime Minister in June 2012, approximately a year after troubles began. Since joining the Syrian diplomatic service in 1964, he has had a meteoric rise, which included his tenure as Syria's ambassador to the US from 1990-2000. In 2006, he succeeded Farouk al Sharaa, who was the country's foreign minister since 1984. It is important to note that Walid Muallem is a Sunni Muslim who holds such an important position in Syria, where the minority Alawites (a Shia sect), dominate the higher echelons in the government.
It is rare that a foreign minister from an Arab country in deep turmoil visits India. This is because India does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries by sending weapons or otherwise assisting either the government or its opponents militarily. India believes that the Syrians should be left alone to sort their problems out through negotiations, and that externally propelled ‘regime change’ is not acceptable. However, the Syrians are not going to be left alone to make their choices.
Before the visit, the Indian media speculated on what Syria might ask India. Will Syria ask India to join the bombing campaign against the Islamic State (IS)? Will Syria ask India to send troops to Syria to fight the IS? Will Syria ask India to join the Friends of Syria meetings in Vienna, New York and elsewhere to find a negotiated solution to put an end to the multitudinous armed conflicts in the country? As a matter of fact, all such speculations only showed that the Indian media, by and large, have been out of touch with the ground realities. There was no briefing of the media from Ministry of External Affairs either.
During this visit, Syria did not ask India to join the bombing campaign against the IS, or for troops, or to participate in the political process recommended by the UNSC Resolution 2254. The Syrian foreign minister met his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj and the Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, and mainly talked about economic cooperation and intelligence sharing in the fight against terrorism.
Syria is keen that two stalled projects take off once the ground situation improves. In 2009, the Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. (BHEL) won a 300 million Euros worth contract to build a 400 MW (2x200 MW) power plant. The project should have been completed by the mid-2012. Although the BHEL had sent the equipment, the political tsunami, otherwise known as the Arab Spring, came in the way. Another Indian company, Apollo International, which won a contract for putting up an iron and steel plant at Hama is in the same boat. Additionally, Syria is keen on getting medical aid, especially medicines and instruments, for tending to the injured. India has promised medical aid worth $ 1 million and it is understood that tenders have been floated. India asked whether Syria could help in locating the 39 Indian workers who went missing when the IS took over Mosul, Iraq. The reply was that Syria did not have any means of helping if the missing ones are with the IS.
With the NSA, intelligence cooperation was discussed. He was told that there are four young Indian men who had tried to join the IS who are currently in detention in Syria. India is keen on getting them back to the country. As India is engaged in stopping Indians from leaving India to join the IS, cooperation with Syria, where the terrorist group has its capital at Al-Raqqa, is of some importance to New Delhi. However, the Syrian assertion that the young men in question were in Syria with the intention of joining the IS will need to be verified after they return. Some time back, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs had expressed displeasure over the Syrian embassy in New Delhi's statements to the press about Indians fighting for the IS.
When Muallem was in India, the plight of the 40,000 Syrians in Madaya, a town 25 kilometres from Damascus, deprived of the basic daily necessities due to the economic blockade imposed by the Syrian government, was highlighted by the international media. There are approximately 400,000 Syrians in 15 different locations suffering from such blockades, imposed by the government or its opponents. We do not know whether the Indian side showed any interest in knowing more about this issue. Muallem’s statement during his 13 January 2016 press conference, that his discussion focussed on the "decades-long relations between the two countries," may be a hint that the past took precedence over the present. India should have asked the visitor to give an in-depth briefing on what is happening in Syria.
At the press conference, Muallem also praised Russia for bombing the IS and dispraised Turkey for its support to the terrorist group and other terrorists. In Syria’s view, all those engaged in armed conflict with the government are terrorists. This is not a sustainable view as the external powers will not agree to their Syrian clients as being treated as ‘terrorists’. Serious disagreements have already cropped up over who among Assad's opponents are to be invited for the peace process.
The moot question is about the extent to which India is seriously interested in what is happening elsewhere in the world. Any discussion in India on the turmoil in the Arab world invariably brings out the point that owing to the presence of over 7 million Indians in the Gulf and the deep energy relationship, India wants stability in the region. Is it that the post-Nehru India has turned inward and gotten progressively disinterested in the world outside? This is a matter worth examining.
It will be easier to take care of India’s interests if she takes proper interest in what is happening in the world.