**This is the second of a two-part article series covering Syria-India relations. The first part covered India and Syria’s history of colonialism, independence, and the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement.
In the subsequent decades that followed the dismal defeat of the Arab countries in the 1967 Six-Day War, Syria consistently turned to India as a friend and partner. By the 1970s, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) had established its roots as a global institution. In the wake of the internal power struggles within the Ba’ath Party, Hafez al-Assad came to power in Syria in November 1970. He relied on India as a key partner that provided Damascus a window to the international community and a position that was not completely aligned with the Soviet bloc. This trend of positive relations between Assad and subsequent Indian governments continued with the transition of power to his son, Bashar al-Assad, in 2000.
Positive relations between Assad and subsequent Indian governments continued with the transition of power to his son, Bashar al-Assad, in 2000.
Nevertheless, India had its own regional geopolitical troubles to consider. In 1971, India established relations with Bangladesh, which broke off from New Delhi’s arch-rival, Pakistan. India had helped secure Bangladesh’s independence and vanquished its foe in a conventional war. Largely supported by the Soviet Union during the conflict, India looked to shore up its diplomatic relations in Western Asia.
From Father to Son
In April 1978, Hafez al-Assad, recovering from the defeat of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, arrived in India for a six-day state visit. Consumed with Syria’s military involvement in the Lebanese Civil War and riled by Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Assad looked to the east for new friendships. The Iranian Revolution brought Damascus a new ally that would be critical in saving his family’s dynasty many decades later. During these fraught years, he sought to maintain Syria’s role in the geopolitics of the Middle East and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, his regime kept strong diplomatic ties with India through the final years of his rule.
Syria under his son Bashar al-Assad also prioritized close relations with India. The 2000s were a period of hope for Syria’s political and economic reform as it cautiously entered the 21st century, neither fully in the pro-Western bloc, nor designated as a full-fledged pariah state. Many countries, primarily India, sought to help move Damascus out of international isolation by staging high-profile bilateral visits. In 2008, Assad set out on a five-day visit to meet with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Indian President Pratibha Patil in turn paid a visit to Syria in 2010 and urged Israel to return the occupied Golan Heights to Syrian control. The official trip took place weeks before the Arab Spring protests hit the country.
Outbreak of the Syrian Civil War
Former Indian Ambassador to Syria V.P. Haran described the events that led up to the onset of the brutal conflict in Syria to Inside Arabia. “Following the developments in Egypt in January 2011, there were rumors of a possible uprising in Syria. I did not sense any popular disenchantment against the regime, for the objective conditions in Syria were different from that in Tunisia and Egypt. President Assad continued to be popular, which was acknowledged even by colleagues from the West. From mid-February 2011 there were unsuccessful attempts to stoke trouble. The insensitive and heavy-handed handling of the Darra situation by local officials led to protests on March 18. Initially it was not a countrywide movement but spread slowly across the country.”
Ambassador Haran further described his observations on how the security situation rapidly deteriorated following the eruption of protests and violence: “It became clear that the trouble was being instigated from abroad. There was a massive infusion of armed extremists and resources from abroad… the situation was spinning out of control; the Syrians were the worst sufferers, be they supporters of the government or the opposition… A peaceful society was being transformed into a violent one with no clear plans for the future.”
Throughout the long decade of brutal conflict in Syria, India maintained its embassy in Damascus and continued to support Syria’s territorial integrity.
Throughout the long decade of brutal conflict in Syria, India maintained its embassy in Damascus and continued to support Syria’s territorial integrity. “Honestly, all of this also stems from the fact that in the past India could not play a powerful role in mediation and choosing sides has not helped,” Dr. Manjari Singh, an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) in New Delhi, remarked.
“Examples are numerous in this regard, its responses in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 were in favor of the Soviet Union, and this dented India’s Non-Aligned image. In the recent past, its role has been ineffective in some of the regional crises such as in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Therefore, choosing sides or outrightly calling out the regime in Syria is not in India’s interest and undermines its strategic autonomy…. it is unlikely that India will change its stance,” Dr Singh added.
Concerning the number of Indian citizens in Syria during the early years of the conflict, Ambassador Haran explained, “There were not many Indian nationals in Syria, beyond a concentration of Shia religious scholars in the Sayyidah Zainab shrine area near Damascus.” According to Amb. Haran, the Syrian government helped with the evacuation of Indian nationals and noted there were unconfirmed reports of some Indian citizens who had joined the armed opposition.
Humanitarian Assistance and Economic Development
In an interview with Inside Arabia, Ambassador Rtn. Anil Trigunayat, India’s former Ambassador to Jordan, Libya, and Malta, explained that “Today it is presumed that Assad will have to be a part of the eventual solution. India and Syria have maintained close relations. India abstained on most of the UN resolutions against Syria;” adding: “India does not endorse unilateral sanctions like those under the Caesar Act.”
The relations between the two nations also come in the form of humanitarian assistance and development.
The relations between the two nations also come in the form of humanitarian assistance and development. In September 2020, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs V. Muraleedharan held an online conference with the then-Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Faisal Mekdad. During the discussions, India signaled its readiness to help Syria with post-war reconstruction.
Another element at stake is humanitarian relations. India and Syria have both suffered terribly from the COVID-19 pandemic. Amb. Trigunayat noted that “India has been providing humanitarian assistance and has maintained its embassy in Damascus all through the Civil War. In 2018 it had provided $6 million in the form of pharma and foodstuff. In July 2020, it provided 10 million tons of medicine for fighting COVID-19. It has been setting up centers of excellence and is providing capacity-building assistance unabated.”
Regarding India’s economic and commercial investments in Syria, Dr. Singh highlighted the millions of USD in credit that India had extended to Syria, including the development of heavy industry, technology, and energy sector, such as the Tishreen power plant.
In October 2021, Indian and Syrian officials announced the opening of a new IT center in Syria to help young Syrians with career training in computer programming and cyber security.
India’s Geopolitical Conundrum
In a 2017 interview, Assad commented on India’s relations noting how both countries achieved their independence in the 1940s and highlighting their cooperation on terrorism. Recently, at a July 2021 meeting for the Non-Aligned Movement, India’s State Minister for External Affairs pushed for the movement to engage in greater cooperation in the fight against international terrorism.
New Delhi also expressed alarm following the Turkish military intervention into the Kurdish region of northeast Syria in October 2019.
India’s former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs MJ Akbar made a trip to Damascus in 2016 and Assad raised the possibility of closer bilateral security cooperation. New Delhi also expressed alarm following the Turkish military intervention into the Kurdish region of northeast Syria in October 2019 and urged Turkey to act with restraint. India is warily watching Turkey as it pulls closer to Pakistan, understanding that close relations between the two countries could become another front for India and Syria to build greater ties.
Like Syria, Indo-Russian relations include strong cultural, economic, and military ties. Most recently, the purchase of the S-400 air defense systems, along with other armaments, will be a critical component of the strengthening of these bilateral relations in the coming years, also offering a reality check on future relations with the United States.
The full extent of what India’s future role in the Quad— also known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialog formed by the U.S., Australia, Japan, and India— will be is still uncertain. Russia will be watching the direction of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy very closely.
Moreover, following a recent Indian official visit to Tel Aviv, India’s relations with Syria could be tested if India were to further develop the so-called West Asia Quad – made up of the United States, Israel, the UAE, and India. Conversely, it could serve to enhance New Delhi’s own position as a mediator between the competing blocs.
“India has strategic partnerships with both the United States and Russia and discusses the developments in the region as well as in Syria, but it has maintained its principled position and that is unlikely to change,” Amb. Trigunayat remarked. He further noted that India could become a reliable partner for Syrian reconstruction efforts.
However, India still faces some risks with its relationship with Syria amid the political tensions in the region. One example is India’s friendly relations with Israel. During the May 2021 clashes between Israel and Hamas, India faced difficulty in establishing its diplomatic footing towards the crisis. Still, India appears to be gradually shifting away from its old positions towards anti-imperialism and finding a warm embrace in the West.
Indeed, some have described India’s diplomatic recalibration as multi-alignment. Dr. Singh explains that Indian policymakers are cautious of changing their stance on Syria, as this means they would also have to choose sides in the Israel-Palestine issue. She concludes that India must be very careful as it does not want to “strain relations with Israel.”
India must be very careful as it does not want to “strain relations with Israel.”
How India will feel its way forward in the coming years as Syria’s attempts to reintegrate itself into the international arena remains to be seen. With the United States attempting to scale back its military engagements in the Middle East, the region’s security and diplomatic relationships will be in constant flux. Syria has been consistent in its position towards supporting India’s heavy-handed security measures in Kashmir, most recently noting that governments have the right to decide on how to best protect their people.
Relations with the Arab Gulf nations will be the primary guide as India pursues its economic and diplomatic agenda in the region. Amidst tensions in the Gulf with regards to Iran and Syria, India could potentially serve as a mediator between the contending factions.
“It is likely that New Delhi will maintain its independent position with Syria without becoming influenced by either the United States or Russia. Even New Delhi’s blooming relations with the GCC countries may not change its Syria policy as it is a carefully crafted policy tailor-made for the region,” Dr. Singh told Inside Arabia,
Future of Syria-India Relations
On the future of Syria-Indian relations, Ambassador Haran said, “Given Syria’s geostrategic location, India is interested in the early return of peace and normalcy in Syria. Continued instability in Syria could affect the stability of the West Asian region in which we have enormous economic interests.”
Amb. Haran points out that after conditions improved, the modernization of Hama Steel Plant was completed, and work has commenced on the Tishreen Power plant near Damascus, both of which are Indian assisted projects, executed by Indian companies. He added that he had no doubt that friendly relations would continue.
Syria-Indian relations could be tested by future relations with the United States as Washington disengages from the Middle East.
Syria-Indian relations could be tested by future relations with the United States as Washington disengages from the Middle East and focuses on the Indo-Pacific. U.S.-India ties have become substantially heightened in recent years. In addition, on the horizon for India are the 2024 elections, which could see the Indian National Congress (INC) Party take back power from the ethnonationalist ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of PM Narendra Modi.
Whether the INC reverts to a more traditional Indian foreign policy of Non-Alignment or attempts to calibrate towards a loftier and Western-oriented approach could potentially see New Delhi alter its relations with Damascus. However, any future policy changes will depend on the outcome of the elections. Likewise, a sudden regime change in Damascus could force New Delhi to recalibrate its diplomacy, especially if a hardline Islamist group were to someday seize power.
Still, India has a deeply ingrained position towards geopolitics and international security in terms of state sovereignty and regime change. Therefore, any potential disruption of Syria-India ties is highly unlikely. In October, the Non-Aligned Movement celebrated its 60th anniversary in Belgrade, Serbia. For its part, Syria is now on a steady path towards reestablishing trade and political ties with the rest of the Arab World.
The United States will undoubtedly continue to seek out India’s partnership as Washington moves to confront China. Yet, as history demonstrates, New Delhi will certainly run its own path by not adhering to U.S. demands to isolate Syria. India and Syria’s long friendship looks set to endure.