India Needs To Work With Syria To Create Win-Win Opportunities, Says Envoy
NEW DELHI: India needs to look beyond its immediate circle of friends in West Asia to seize the opportunities Syria could offer, says its Ambassador Bassam Seifeddin Alkhatib.
“India has good relations in West Asia that is true. But so far India has concentrated primarily on three countries in the region,” Alkhatib said at a recent event in Delhi. pointing out that “A Syrian delegation is currently in Moscow on business. I would like India to invite such delegations here to do business in Syria.”
The ambassador had another observation. “The world is changing, and West Asia is changing along with it,” he said, hinting that India and Syria needed to “do something to take advantage of these changes. The withdrawal of the US from West Asia would bring in dramatic changes for the region which will affect both the position of Syria and the position of India.”
He also urged India not to be wary of China’s approach, but to build up its own relations with Arab countries such as Syria to create “win-win opportunities.”
It’s clear the ambassador wanted India to restart work on projects stalled since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. A case in point is a 2008 contract awarded to BHEL worth $485 mn, for a 400 MW power plant near Damascus.
“India enjoys a great deal of goodwill in Syria especially post its aid in the earthquake. But its inability to translate this goodwill into economic opportunity could be a problem for it not just here but in other countries in the region,” warned a senior diplomat.
Syria’s over two decades of international isolation is ending. President Bashar al-Assad has made back-to-back visits in recent months, first to Oman and then the UAE. More important is Saudi Arabia and Syria seeking to bury the hatchet after a long period of bitter hostility. Riyadh and Damascus are planning to restart consular services, and the Saudis are also supporting Syria’s re-entry into the Arab League from which it was expelled in 2011.
The winds of change are beginning to blow through the Arab world and Syria believes it’s on a good wicket. With the US seemingly stepping back from the region, and the Riyadh-Tehran accord on normalising relations, Ambassador Alkhatib evidently believes this is the right time for countries like India with long standing ties to the Arab world, to renew and deepen their engagement.
India Will Balance Ties With Syria And Israel
India may not envisage any security cooperation with Syria given the importance attached by Delhi to relations with Israel. So the need to ensure a fine balance between the two capitals. It’s also clear that India will not direct aid projects to those parts of Syria where government control is weak or contested by armed militant groups.
Prior to the civil war, India’s ONGC was in a joint venture with a Chinese firm CNPC operating the oil field in Deir-ez-Zor, in eastern Syria. The region is unstable with reports of lawlessness, kidnapping and other crimes. Oil production there has been dropping steadily, and bomb attacks on pipelines have not helped. The thaw in relations with other Arab states could see things change. India is running a technical training programme in Damascus and there could be scope for investments in the IT sector. Port development is another option with Russia already investing in the port of Tartus, to modernise and expand capacity.
India will take comfort from the fact that the worst seems to be over for Syria and with the region reopening its doors for Damascus, money for reconstruction could start flowing in. This potentially opens the doors for Indian companies to bid for projects.