**This is the first of a two-part article series, covering Syria-India relations. The second part will cover India and the Assad era.
There has been much written in recent years on Syria’s relations with Iran, Russia, and China. While the Republic of India and the Syrian Arab Republic are two vastly different nations, in terms of government, territorial size, religion, and culture, they hold many similarities in regard to diplomacy, security, and history. Ties between New Delhi and Damascus may prove to be an interesting bond for Syria in the coming decades.
Historically, India and Syria share similar experiences as former European colonies. India was a part of the British Empire. Syria was ruled by France after a French Mandate was established following the First World War. India, like Syria, has strong diplomatic and military ties to Russia. And, India also has friendly ties with Iran, another key supporter of Damascus.
India and Syria both have their own range of geopolitical and security issues, most prominently India’s border disputes with Pakistan and the crisis over Kashmir. India’s other simmering security threats include the Naxalite-Maoist rebel groups that operate in several Indian states. Syria’s geopolitical and security issues include its current conflict as well as the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights.
The two countries have also taken on costly military interventions in their smaller neighboring states.
The two countries have also taken on costly military interventions in their smaller neighboring states, with Syria leading the Arab Deterrent Force into Lebanon’s civil war in 1976, where it remained following the end of the fighting until withdrawing in 2005. For India, the Indian Peace Keeping Force sought to implement a truce and became engaged in troubled counterinsurgency operations in the Sri Lankan Civil War from 1987 to 1990.
Colonialism and Independence
Syria and India emerged from the colonial period with painful experiences under European rule. That era helped formulate each country’s national identity and chart a path for their future foreign policies within the diplomatic scope of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
India witnessed the Jallianwala Bagh (Amritsar) massacre in April 1919 amid the country’s long independence struggle. In the Middle East, the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925 against France left thousands of rebels killed and the widespread destruction of Syrian cities saw over a hundred thousand displaced.
Resistance to colonial rule gave India and Syria their own national heroes, such as Ibrahim Hananu and Yusuf al-Azma in Syria. India’s heroes date far back to the 18th century and include Veerapandiya Kattabomman, a chieftain in Tamil Nadu who rebelled against the East India Company and was subsequently executed by the British in 1799.
On the other hand, India’s soldiers were also conscripted and served within the ranks of the British Empire and participated in many of modern history’s military engagements. During WWII, Indian soldiers of the British Army, most notably the 5th Indian Infantry Division, served in Syria as the Allied forces sought to defeat the Vichy French in the Levant. An estimated twenty Indian soldiers are interred at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Damascus, located behind the Prime Minister’s office. However, it is unclear whether the soldiers served in WWI or WWII. Syria gained independence on April 17, 1946, and India soon followed suit on August 15, 1947.
Shukri al-Quwatli found his place in Syria’s history within the burgeoning independence movement that began under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. In 1915, while imprisoned by the Ottomans, Quwatli tried to take his own life to prevent the names of the other members of the clandestine Young Arab Society from being revealed to the Turks but was saved by a fellow inmate who happened to be a doctor. After the First World War, when Syria fell under French control, Quwatli, this time in exile, again worked to gather diplomatic support to end the French Mandate.
“Both India and Syria were given short shrift by Washington when it established its strategy to contain the Soviet Union.”
Following the conclusion of WWII, Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma Dr. Joshua Landis told Inside Arabia, “Both India and Syria were given short shrift by Washington when it established its strategy to contain the Soviet Union. The U.S. created what it called ‘the Northern Tier,’ bringing together Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, to ensure that the USSR could not expand southward toward the Mediterranean or oil. Both Syria and India, seeing their enemies – Turkey and Pakistan respectively – supplied with large amounts of U.S. arms and military training, turned to the Soviets for military help and defense agreements.” It was not long until Quwatli steered Syria towards a partnership with a like-minded newly independent nation in South Asia.
The Non-Aligned Movement and the United Arab Republic
Quwatli’s visit to India in January 1957 was an early example of cooperation between two Non-Aligned countries during the early years of the Cold War. Dr. Manjari Singh, an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) in New Delhi, who focuses on Middle Eastern Affairs, told Inside Arabia, “Until 1952, it was only the Syrian socialists who flagged the policy of non-alignment. However, following the 1952 Egyptian revolution, which led to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ascendance, non-alignment gained momentum.” Singh further explained that many Arab countries, including Syria, joined the movement.
“India and Syria were Non-Aligned partners. Their secular worldview (unlike the Arab Gulf countries) and non-alignment brought them closer.”
Similarly, “India, under then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, not only played a vital role as a Non-Aligned nation but was also a founding nation.” In this context, “India and Syria were Non-Aligned partners. Their secular worldview (unlike the Arab Gulf countries) and non-alignment brought them closer. Therefore, there were four underlining factors responsible for good relations between India and Syria: A common or similar perception on some global issues, NAM membership, a secular orientation, and a shared nationalism.”
Although India and Syria were on the fast track to building up bilateral ties, events in the Middle East helped propel Syria on a path that would fold Damascus into an ambitious pan-Arab project with Egypt: the United Arab Republic (UAR), which was founded in 1958. India would continue to move its relations with Syria forward, albeit within the confines of the UAR.
While heading the UAR, Nasser paid a state visit to India in 1960. The emergence of a new pan-Arab and anti-imperialist regional power could have presented India with remarkable influence in the Middle East, a key geopolitical theater of the Cold War. But it was not to be.
The United Arab Republic collapsed in September 1961, when a group of military officers carried out a coup in Damascus and subsequently plucked Syria out of its brotherly Arab union with Egypt. Despite the loss of Syria, Nasser still maintained the UAR label in defiance. India went on to sign trade deals with the UAR’s Egyptian rump state in January 1964, while Syria entered into a fraught period of coups and counter-coups throughout the 1960s.
How India-Syria relations would have fared if the UAR had survived is uncertain, but India would have had a powerful ally in the heart of the Arab World. In terms of size, territory, and diplomatic clout, had the UAR survived, it would have lent New Delhi a close friendship with a like-minded regional power within the scope of the tense bipolar geopolitics of the Cold War.
Nasser, nevertheless, again visited India for a trilateral summit with Yugoslavia after the demise of the UAR in October 1966, even visiting with Indira Gandhi at the Syrian Embassy in New Delhi. During the visit, India’s first female prime minister condemned the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and pushed for peace talks in Geneva. India, as a leading force in the NAM, sought to chart a course for the developing nations.
Quwatli and Nehru thus left behind a legacy of partnership that would continue to provide examples of Damascus and New Delhi’s relations beyond the Cold War and well into the modern era. Nehru died in May 1964 followed by Quwatli in June 1967. The history of these two titans of the Non-Aligned Movement and leaders of the post-colonial era would continue to endure for decades to come.