In an essay in the Economic Times, I argued that India should adopt a pragmatic policy on Syria because India does have an interest in ensuring that the taboo against chemical weapons use is not eroded. Since then, the External Affairs Minister Khurshid as well as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have decided that it is the UN that should take the lead. Apparently it is not just economic policy that smells of the 1970s around here. I will have more on this later, but below is my take on the crisis.
India needs have pragmatic policy on Syria, not its traditional default option
It seems reasonably certain now that the US and its allies will launch a military assault on Syria to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. The strikes are likely to be limited with the objective of deterring further Syrian use of chemical weapons rather than to change the regime.
In some ways, the Obama administration has only itself to blame for the predicament it finds itself in. First, frightened by the possibility of being dragged into yet another Middle Eastern quagmire, Washington refused to do anything to shape the course of the brutal civil war in Syria. While most sensible strategists would indeed want to steer clear of a civil war in which there are more likely to be sinners than winners, the problem in Syria was that Washington's refusal to get involved ensured that some pretty unsavoury characters affiliated with Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda shouldered the burden of opposing the Assad regime.
The consequence is that Washington is faced with difficult choices: stay aloof and see Assad win or attack Assad and help the even less palatable Sunni extremists. The lesson should be clear: great powers will almost always have a dog in every fight, whether they want to or not. Second, Obama drew an ill-advised red line by committing the US to action if chemical weapons were used.
He probably hoped that not even Assad would cross this red line because the international taboo against chemical weapons use is fairly robust. With the exception of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons in the late 1980s, there had not been any instance of significant use of such weapons since World War II. Obama may have calculated that this would keep the US out of the war, but like many such red lines, this has now trapped him into taking action.
New Delhi has to be pragmatic in its response to any Western attack on Syria, especially in the light of its own concerns with regard to chemical weapons. As a country with nuclear weapons, India should want to prevent the spread of all weapons of mass destruction (WMD), especially chemical weapons which are seen as easier and cheaper alternatives to nuclear weapons.
Indeed, in 2003, India modified its nuclear doctrine to permit it to use nuclear weapons if it is attacked with chemical weapons. One reason was that India was already in the process of destroying its stock of chemical weapons (which is now complete), and it feared that without these weapons Pakistan or its terrorist proxiesmight be emboldened to use chemical weapons against India. Without chemical weapons, India was forced to threaten to use nuclear weapons as a riposte. There is another pragmatic reason for standing up against the use of chemical weapons. If the international community does not take action against the use of WMDs, the norm against WMDs could weaken.
The Syrian regime had already been accused of using chemical weapons last year, though the evidence appears to have been not sufficiently strong. Taking no action now will be tantamount to giving Assad a green light to continue using chemical weapons. The consequences will not be limited to Syria as other governments might consider such behaviour as acceptable.
Pakistan's respect for international norms was never very strong and a weakened chemical weapons-use norm is the last thing India needs. India's own concerns are not the only reason why it has to be careful in its response to the emerging crisis. There is also a moral concern. India has traditionally opposed Western intervention in the third world and there is likely to be temptation to continue that policy. But it is hard to take a moral stand against intervention when that intervention is against the use of such inhumane weapons.
The situation is also considerably complicated by the politics in the Middle East. The Syrian civil war is now a proxy fight pitting Tehran and its allies against the rest, which includes Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. While India does have some common interests with Tehran, these have to be balanced against the far greater interests that India has with other Gulf states and with the Western powers. It took India a decade to get over the then foreign minister IK Gujral's embarrassing embrace of Saddam in 1991. India now needs to act with deliberation, rather than let its traditional default option dictate policy.