Posted by Joshua on Thursday, May 26th, 2016
India and the Syrian Conflict
by Amb. Niraj Srivastava
For Syria Comment, May 26, 2016
It was reported in the Indian media that on May 20 the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a new 22-minute Arabic language documentary online featuring purported Indian Jihadi fighters in its ranks. The video included interviews with five Indian Jihadis known to have joined the ISIS since 2014. In one of the interviews, Fahad Tanvir Sheikh, an Indian student from Thane, says that he will return to India to “avenge the Babri Masjid, and the killings of Muslims in Kashmir, Gujarat, and in Muzaffarnagar.”
Al Masdar News has also reported that in a video released on May 20, ISIS “showed off their large Indian force operating against Syrian government forces in east Homs countryside,” and called on Indians to leave their country and join the Jihad in Syria against the “infidels.” The agency, however, stated that it was not clear how many Indians were fighting with Islamic State forces in Syria.
The above developments have brought the ISIS, and the ongoing conflict in Syria, uncomfortably close to India. So far, the Syrian conflict had been seen in India as an event taking place in a distant land. But the release of the above video suggests that the ISIS is perhaps planning to draw more Indian nationals into the Syrian imbroglio, as well as expand its operations in this country. This cannot be good news for India, which may have to track the activities of ISIS more carefully, both here as well as in Syria.
India’s position on Syria, as on Libya, has been that it is for the people of Syria to decide who should govern them. The destiny of Syria should be decided by Syrians. India had abstained on the vote on Libya in the UN Security Council in March 2011, when it was a non-permanent member of the Security Council.
The Feb. 27 partial cease-fire in Syria and the resumption of peace talks in Geneva between the opposition and the Assad government had raised hopes of finding a political solution to the bloodbath in the country, which has so far resulted in the deaths of nearly half a million people and displacement of almost half of Syria’s pre-war population of about 23 million. However, developments in April and May 2016 belied any such hopes, pointing, instead, to further complications.
First, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), representing the opposition groups in Syria, walked out of the Geneva talks on April 18, ostensibly due to cease-fire violations by the Assad regime. It had also failed to reach an agreement over the formation of a transitional governing body before elections are held in Syria to form a new government. The HNC did not want President Assad to be a part of any such body while the regime insisted that Assad’s role in it was not up for discussion in Geneva.
Second, fighting flared up in Syria around the same time, particularly in Aleppo. Russian and Syrian aircraft bombed the rebel-held areas in the east while the Nusra Front directed artillery fire at western Aleppo. Some of the bombs and shells hit hospitals on both sides, resulting in the deaths of several doctors, patients, and innocent civilians. Fighting also broke out in parts of Idlib, Homs, and Hama. It had continued for almost two weeks before a fragile truce was brokered by the US and Russia on May 4. By that time, nearly 300 people had been killed, most of them civilians.
Third, it is also clear that the two sides used the two-month truce to strengthen their military capabilities as well as their positions on the ground. More sophisticated military hardware continued to flow to the Russian and Syrian forces, whose ranks were also augmented by paramilitary fighters from Iraq, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. On the other hand, the rebels received TOW anti-tank missiles and possibly shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS), which were probably used to shoot down two Syrian air force aircraft in March and April.
It is evident that the Syrian and Russian militaries launched a determined assault in April on Aleppo and the other areas to regain territory held by the rebels, but did not fully succeed. On the other hand, it is also clear that the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and their allies have not given up their goal of “regime change.” In defiance of their stance, the Syrian government held Parliamentary elections in April in areas controlled by it. The elections were won handsomely by the ruling Baath Party. Both sides are still pursuing a military solution to the conflict, although talks might continue in Geneva to find a political settlement, which would be more durable.
Another significant development has been the deployment of more US “boots on the ground” in Syria, contrary to earlier US statements. On April 25, President Obama announced the deployment of 250 troops, including Special Forces, in addition to the 50 deployed in Nov. 2015. The stated objective of the deployment is to fight ISIS in Syria. But the troops could also be used to target other groups, including the Syrian military.
Significantly, the US, Britain and France recently turned down a Russian proposal to the UN Security Council to designate the Saudi and Turkey-backed groups Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, which have links with ISIS and Al Qaida, as terrorist groups. On May 3, Secretary Kerry also warned Assad of the consequences of a “new US approach” if he does not accept a political transition by Aug. 1, 2016, without specifying what that “new approach” would be.
Meanwhile, as mentioned above, there is no softening of the positions of the other leading players including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, all of whom appear intent on regime change in Syria. They will also benefit if Syria breaks up. Netanyahu, in fact, held a meeting of his cabinet on the Golan Heights on April 17 during which he declared that Israel will never give the Golan Heights back to Syria. Turkey has regularly called for setting up “safe zones” or “no-fly zones” in Syria, which it could easily annex if Syria disintegrates.
On May 17, the 20-member International Support Group for Syria (ISSG) met in Vienna under the Co-Chairmanship of the US and Russia. The Group agreed to strengthen the cessation of hostilities, facilitate full humanitarian access to relief agencies in Syria, and ensure progress towards a peaceful political transition by Aug. 1, 2016, under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The political transition will be overseen by a transitional governing body formed by mutual consent of the main parties concerned.
The actual implementation of the above recommendations may be problematic, due to the reasons cited above. Fighting continues to rage in some parts of Syria. Humanitarian access has improved, but more needs to be done. The most difficult part may be the constitution of the transitional governing body. As mentioned above, the HNC does not want President Assad to have any role in it, which is entirely unacceptable to the regime. It is not clear how this deadlock can be overcome. Significantly, no date has yet been set for the resumption of the Geneva talks.
As things stand, the situation in Syria remains fluid and uncertain. Though Russian and Syrian aircraft continue to bomb ISIS and Al Nusra strongholds around Aleppo and other strategic areas, there seems to be a stalemate on the ground. All the players are keeping all their options open—including the military one—which makes it difficult to predict future developments in that country. But one thing appears certain—the conflict in Syria is not going to end anytime soon. It is likely to continue beyond the US presidential elections in Nov. 2016. India will have to ensure that its nationals do not get sucked into the Syrian conflict and that ISIS is not allowed to expand its footprint in this country.
Niraj Srivastava is a retired Indian diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Denmark and Uganda, and has spent more than ten years in Arab countries including Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. He has also taught undergraduate students at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. His other postings include the United States and Canada. He is currently an independent international affairs consultant based in New Delhi, India. The views expressed are personal.