During the recent India-Africa Summit, the visiting Egyptian president El-Sisi in his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed the importance of concerted international efforts to realise lasting peace in the violence torn West Asian region.

Couched in diplomatese, the Egyptian strongman seemed to justify his country’s surprising decision to support Russia’s military intervention in Syria even when its major ally, Saudi Arabia, or the US wanted no relief to be given to Syrian president Basher-al-Assad. Immediately after Russia launched its military strikes in Syria in early October, Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, stated they would curtail the spread of terrorism and help deal a fatal blow to the Islamic State (IS) in the war-torn country.

On the face of it, there is no reason why India should not follow a position similar to that of Egypt on extending support to Russia’s decision to get into Syria to fight the Islamic State. After all, when the Russian president Vladimir Putin, ordered air strikes against IS targets in Syria, he was doing exactly what India wanted — to nip their threat in the bud or to prevent its menacing spread into India and other vulnerable societies that could hurt its interests, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, for example.

Diplomatic tightrope

Diplomacy endeavours to find a way out in a world of sharp contradictions — especially when countries are not willing to commit themselves to a bloc or a position. So, India may agree with Russia, but would be loathe to admitting it openly lest it antagonise the US and its western and Arab allies.

The US and its allies such as the UK, Saudi Arabia and Turkey see in Russia militarily entering the unending strife in Syria an attempt to shore up the fortunes of President Basher-al-Assad, rather than taking on the abhorrent IS. Russian entry into the four-year-old war in Syria has triggered off unceasing propaganda from the western media and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

They allege that the Russians are dropping bombs not on the militants of IS, but on US-supported “moderates”. So quick and angry has been their response that Putin jocularly remarked that the allegations against Russian bombers dropping missiles began to get reported even before the aircrafts had left the ground. Since then the accusations against Russia and its “dumb” bombs that lack precision have intensified. Needless to say, the trashing of Russian air strike capability is a lot of gas.

Studied silence

Despite Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar’s recent visit to Moscow to seal defence deals, India has maintained a studied silence on Russia’s Syrian adventure as it finds it difficult to craft a policy that balances the two competing narratives. Quite evidently, India does not want its military ties with Moscow to influence its foreign policy.

This is despite the fact that India is part of BRICS and a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which have Russia and China as its members. New Delhi is not willing to compromise or degrade the diplomatic investments it has made in the US, Israel or even Saudi Arabia. It believes that the perception of proximity with the US has helped improve its profile in the eyes of the world.

However, New Delhi hopes that a political solution would be found to end this unending war in Syria that has spawned enduring sectarian hostilities and revived historical faultlines between religions. The Russians by entering Syria with their military hardware have jumpstarted this process to find a solution to end war in the region.

The recent conference in Vienna generated real hope that the threat of the Islamic State would be squarely challenged rather than dealt with perfunctorily by the US and its bombing raids.

At the beginning of the Russia’s outrageously courageous decision to enter Syria in the first week of October, there were reports that China, too, was sending warships to Syria making many foreign policy observers see it as a SCO 4+1 initiative that also included Iran. Subsequently, China clarified that it was not in favour of foreign meddling.

For quite a while, China was distrustful of India’s proximity with the US and tried to keep New Delhi away from the SCO. The common understanding is that Russia eased India’s entry into what is also known as ‘Asian Nato’ to balance growing Chinese influence in the region.

This was much before Russia’s dependence on China grew after the US imposed sanctions on Moscow and launched what the Americans like to call a “hybrid war” in Eastern Ukraine. This becomes tricky if one sees it from the prism of the SCO.

The SCO founding principle is to bring in “joint efforts” to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region. To give meaning to this goal, the SCO has also made an executive committee of regional counter-terrorism centre (RCTC), which has put in place “a system of effective response to global challenges and threats”. This resolve has been interpreted in different ways by different countries.

History of goodwill

Putin read the rise of the Islamic State as a threat to Russia and the region’s stability, and an attempt to overthrow its ally, Assad.

India has been ambivalent about Syria despite its extremely warm ties with them in the past. In 2011 and 2013 it abstained from a UN resolution against Syria. At that time, this writer during a visit to Damascus found rapturous support for China, Russia and India.

Later, the Qataris, who gave a lot of funds to Islamic militants opposed to Assad, questioned why India was supporting a country that had no migrant workers. India seemed to have a rethink and ended up attending a Friends of Syria seminar that was opposed to Assad.

Since then, India has survived in this nowhere zone — hoping that the problem will sort itself out. Russia provides India an opportunity to have a say in challenging the Islamic State ideologically and diplomatically.

Will we accept it?

The writer is the editor of HardNews