India builds Syria ties to boost Middle East presence

As Middle Eastern countries again accept Bashar Assad's control over Syria, India is beginning to revisit its ties with Damascus in order to build strategic influence in the region

In July, India's Minister of State for External Affairs, V. Muraleedharan, embarked on the first ministerial-level visit from New Delhi to Damascus since 2016 (Photo: DW)
In July, India's Minister of State for External Affairs, V. Muraleedharan, embarked on the first ministerial-level visit from New Delhi to Damascus since 2016 (Photo: DW)


India recently began a push to renew bilateral ties with Syria after the civil war-battered country returned to the Arab League in May during a summit in Saudi Arabia.

In July, India's Minister of State for External Affairs, V. Muraleedharan, embarked on the first ministerial-level visit from New Delhi to Damascus since 2016.

The Indian diplomat met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and announced 300 new scholarships for Syrian students to study in India.

Manjari Singh, an assistant professor at the Amity Institute of International Studies in India, told DW that New Delhi's reengagement with the Syrian government is a matter of timing.

Since 2011, Syria has been embroiled in a civil war that almost toppled Assad from power. More than 230,000 civilians have been killed, with 14 million displaced, according to a March 2023 report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).

The bombing of civilian infrastructure by Assad's forces, the use of chemical weapons and other human rights abuses led to widespread international condemnation and accusations of war crimes.

Assad's regime was on the verge of collapse in 2015, before Russian intervention in the civil war allowed his forces to gain the upper hand against various rebel factions. His appearance at this year's Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has been considered a sign that Arab countries are accepting that Assad will maintain his grip on power and want to normalize ties.

India seeks to highlight its Syria support

"India did not take this move until major regional players such as the UAE, Bahrain, and most recently, Saudi Arabia in the Middle East took the initiative to reengage with Bashar Assad's regime," Singh said.

"This has been India's longtime policy in the region; it does not engage with countries, especially ones ostracized by the majority, unless the regional players warm up to that country," she added.

Singh said that Muraleedharan's visit to Syria in mid-July was significant as it marked the convergence of interests aiming for better political and economic engagement, along with humanitarian support.

Earlier this year, India sent humanitarian aid to Syria as part of "Operation Dost" (friend) following a deadly earthquake in February, even as Western countries were reluctant to do the same.

And at the height of the civil war, India opposed foreign intervention to oust the Assad regime.

"The Indian Ministry of External affairs has acknowledged publicly Syria's appreciation of India's support during the conflict," Kadira Pethiyagoda, a geopolitics expert and author, told DW.

"While this support has been more implicit than explicit, it was important given that India is probably Washington's most valued strategic partner that has defied the US on Syria," he added.

Pethiyagoda said that India will seek to highlight the support it gave Syria's government during the civil war, given the rapprochement between Syria and erstwhile adversaries like Saudi Arabia.

India and Syria's history of support

India and Syria have had friendly relations marked by longstanding historic and cultural ties.

Analyst Pethiyagoda said the countries both have colonial experience, a secular, nationalist and developmental orientation, similar perceptions on many international and regional issues and are both members of the Non-Aligned Movement.

"The latter two similarities were of importance during the Cold War and are again important during the New Cold War and emergence of a multipolar world order," he said.

Researcher Singh said that India-Syria relations are based on reciprocation and are guided by "realpolitik," with both countries supporting the other in international forums and in contentious geopolitical issues.

Analyst Pethiyagoda said that Syria is a crucial partner for India, which is looking to make a larger impact in the Middle East with security and strategic ties.

"It will give India further leverage in its relations with other Middle East states, as well as with the US and West more broadly," he said.

Others say Syria can help India streamline overseas investment in the Levant region.

"India is aiming to invest heavily in its global value chains by building an India-Gulf-Suez Canal-Mediterranean/Levant-Europe corridor with some of the partnering countries in the region," said Amity Institute's Singh.

"Reconstruction efforts in Syria will help India to not only cater food and energy supplies to the Syrian population, but will also strengthen demand for such supply chains. Humanitarian concerns and support are another reason for India to renew its relations with Syria," she added.

"India's investments will not only help Syria in infrastructural development but will also help it to participate in New Delhi's global value chains. Another aspect is that the geostrategic location of Syria provides it a unique opportunity to raise its stakes in Indian investments," she said.

Syria sees India as a very strong emerging power, and benefits from India's support given the reputation it enjoys on the global stage as a democracy that is friends with both the West and the East.

"This is furthered given the reluctance of the US or Europe to strongly criticize India, unlike they do other great powers like China," Pethiyagoda said.

Big challenges remain

However, challenges remain for India in its attempts to bolster bilateral relations with Syria.

The conflict-torn country's reconstruction will be slow due to the vast destruction and a massive displacement of the population.

"In that context, any Indian efforts in reconstruction will not lead to immediate positive results. Similarly, it will have a bearing on Indian investments as well. This is the reason why India is basing its outreach to the country first through humanitarian efforts," Singh said.

Pethiyagoda said that the primary challenge is the continued preference of Washington to isolate Damascus.

"However, Washington has traditionally refrained from pressuring India to conform to its positions on third countries," he added.

Stressing that Syrian reinstatement in the Arab League seems promising, Singh cautioned as to how Iran's influence continues to exist in Syria.

"Any disequilibrium may cause instability in the country and in the Arab League per se, which will again have a bearing on Indian stakes in the region," she added.

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Published: 31 Aug 2023, 10:30 AM