In the end,India had to jump off the Middle East fence. It came down on Saturday night at the United Nations Security Council debate on Syria by casting its lot with the Gulf Arab regimes,where Indias national interests are heavily concentrated.
After months of ambivalence about the escalating violence in Syria and a prolonged effort to appear even handed between Bashar al Assad regime and the opposition to it,India on Saturday voted for United Nations Security Council resolution that backed on Arab League plan for political change in Damascus.
By any measure of Indias interests,Delhi could not have voted against a resolution that was sponsored by all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council Bahrain,Kuwait,Oman,Qatar,Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
As a collective the GCC is host to more than 5 million Indian workers,a major source of hard currency remittances,the principal provider of oil and an important destination for Indias exports. Among the other Arab and Muslim states sponsoring the resolution were Libya,Morocco,Jordan and Turkey. India could have gone against this formidable coalition in the Middle East only at great cost to itself.
While India was with the majority of 13 in the Council,the double veto by Russia and China prevented the Council from approving the resolution.
India rarely finds itself in the multilateral forums on the Western side against its Eastern partners,Moscow and Beijing. Last March,India voted with Russia and China in opposing a UNSC resolution authorising the use of force against Libyas Gaddafi regime.
The inevitable regime change did happen in Libya,and India found itself isolated as China quickly adapted to the changed situation. Having learnt a lesson,India was determined not to repeat the mistake again. To be sure,India had the option of staying on the fence,by abstaining on the UNSC resolution on Syria. India has often resorted to abstention on the many difficult issues in the Middle East that had to contend with in its return to the Security Council after a gap of nearly two decades.
This time though India judged that tilting to one side was better than sitting on the fence. That judgement was rooted in Delhis decision to look beyond the traditional framing of the issues in terms of defending third world sovereignty against Western intervention.
Indias vote on Saturday night does not mean Delhi has accepted the Western discourse on Syria as supporting human rights and democracy against an oppressive regime.
Syria today is not about a morality play,either the Eastern or Western kind. It is about rapidly evolving power play in a region of vital importance to India.
For Delhi,Libya was a painful reminder last year that the Middle East has moved beyond the old slogans. The political legitimacy for the Western intervention in Libya did not come from the UNSC but the Arab League,which backed the ouster of the Gaddafi regime.
India,which was trapped in an outdated discourse in dealing with the Libyan crisis,has now adapted to the new circumstances in Syria. If the Arab League saw Gaddafi as a mere nuisance,it views for the Arab League,it now views Assad with absolute hostility.
While even the United States and Israel have often sought to engage the Assad regime in search of a peace deal in the Middle East,the contradiction between the leading Arab states,especially those in the Gulf,and Syria,the principal ally of Iran,has become irreconcilable. In the raw power struggle unfolding between the Sunni Arab states and Iran,Syria is the battleground. Delhi had to take sides sooner than later. Once that moment had arrived,tilting towards the Arab mainstream presented itself as the only viable alternative.
With Russia and China blocking the resolution on Syria,great power rivalry has become an added dimension to the regional power play in the Middle East. The stage is now set for a prolonged confrontation between the Syrian government,emboldened by the Russian and Chinese support,and the opposition forces backed by the Arab League.
As more blood flows in Syria and the conflict acquires a regional and global dimension,Indian diplomacy in the Middle East has its tasks cut out. Protecting Indias interests in the Middle East amidst the current turbulence there and insulating the subcontinent from it will demand much skill from Delhi.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi