India’s newly appointed Minister of State for External Affairs, MJ Akbar, is preparing for a vital visit to Damascus in Syria, Baghdad in Iraq and Beirut in Lebanon. Of course, perhaps the most important visit of these three troubled capitals of West Asia is Damascus where Akbar will make a courtesy call on President Bashar al-Assad, a man India still holds in high regard thanks to the strong bonds built between the two countries over the past many decades.

The groundwork for Akbar’s trip was laid when he had not even joined his new position. Earlier in January, deputy Prime Minister of Syria, Walid al-Moualem, visited New Delhi and met with Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and other officials to discuss a host of security, bilateral and economic issues. Moualem had invited Swaraj to visit Syria, perhaps hoping for a larger Indian presence in bringing an end to the country’s crisis.

Syria remains the world’s most violent and dangerous conflict zone at the moment. As a beleaguered Assad regime battles ISIS and various other militant factions which include groups led by Al Qaeda , New Delhi is seemingly happy to offer its long-standing support to it.. Because of unprecedented support shown by Russia, combined with the rise of ISIS and the global outcry to tackle the same, New Delhi seems to have concluded that Assad is in a much more comfortable spot than he was in just a year ago.

India would not want to see Syria go the way of Libya after a poorly executed Western military intervention in 2011. The political vacuum created thereafter turned Libya into a fertile ground for Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS to set up significant presence.
Moualem was the highest-ranking official to visit India since Bashar al-Assad’s visit in 2010. During his visit, he asked India to resume its already committed aid for infrastructure projects in the country, such as the Tishreen power project being implemented by Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd for which India had already released $100 million before the crisis erupted. Even now, New Delhi has said it is ready to resume work if Damascus is ready to guarantee security (which it can’t). Moualem also secured $1 million in medical aid from India. New Delhi has previously provided medical aid to the Syrian government both directly and via the United Nations, according to some officials.

The rising threat of ISIS

For lack of a better word, India’s stance on the Syrian crisis can be termed as sporadic. In 2013, the Ministry of External Affairs in a statement said, “there could be no military solution to this conflict”. However, India has engaged with the Assad regime in a sly yet subtle manner throughout the conflict. During President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Jordan, Israel and Palestine last year, India’s then Secretary (East) at the Ministry of External Affairs said that while India supported the Geneva round of talks for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis, its stance on Russian military intervention in Syria was acknowledgement that Moscow was doing so to “halt the advances of the Islamic State (ISIS)”. Thus India has advocated both an anti-military interventionist peaceful dialogue process and a Moscow-led military intervention.
Previously, in 2014, India was also perhaps the only country to send a business delegation into Damascus at a time when violence in the country was at its peak. Syria even then had invited India to participate in its post-war plans to rebuild and had reminded New Delhi that if it waited till the end of the conflict to commit further funds, it stood to lose out on lucrative contracts to others.

During this period of heavy fighting in the country and the ups-and-mostly-downs of the Vienna peace talks, Damascus sent its advisors, in particular political and media advisor to Assad, Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, to New Delhi regularly in order to shore up support not just in India, but also within new representative multilateral groupings such as BRICS, BRICS Bank, Asian Development Bank and the like.

It is highly unlikely that Akbar’s visit to Damascus and meeting with Assad will in any way open any new front between India and Syria, whether political or economic. New Delhi is happy, for now, to see Assad in charge in the Syrian capital as it is well aware that without a concrete succession plan in place, his removal will throw Syria into further chaos, if that is even possible, and unsettle the larger Gulf region with its domino effect. With Iraq already the second largest hot-bed for ISIS, India’s main concern is the lives and well being of more than seven million Indians working in the larger West Asia region who could potentially be at risk.

This visit will also give the Indian government a closer look at the war against ISIS, an issue which has now started to ring alarm bells at home with the recent attacks in Bangladesh and the reported rise of Wilayah Khorsan (also known as ISIS Khorsan) in Afghanistan along with sporadic cases of Indian citizens being radicalised in the name of ISIS. A recent charge sheet filed by the National Investigation Agency in Mumbai named one Shafi Armar aka ‘Yusuf al-Hindi’ as ISIS’s recruiter in India, along with three other people. Whatever may be the reality of the ISIS threat in India, this highlights increased efforts and a sense of urgency within India by agencies to weed out even nascent signs of activities supporting people to join ISIS here or in the Gulf.