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    Middle East
     Nov 23, 2010

India key to Syria's tilt to the East
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Syria will host the president of India this week, even as President Bashar al-Assad just wrapped up groundbreaking visits to Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus. Earlier in the year, he received the presidents of Pakistan, Venezuela and Russia in Damascus and carried out equally successful trips to Latin America, visiting Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Venezuela.

This foreign-policy drive is not new to the Syrians, having started in 2005 when relations reached rock bottom with the United States, France, and many heavyweight countries in Europe. Then, Syria realized that the outside world does not stop at the gates of Washington, London and Paris and that there was an entire world out there - emerging nations with tremendous potential - willing to engage with Syria, with no preconditions.

These countries happened to share Syria's views on a basket of


global issues, were giant economies in the making, and all of them were strongly supportive of Syria's right to restore the occupied Golan Heights. Also, all of them happened to be strongly supportive of issues dear to Syria's heart, vis-a-vis lifting of the siege of Gaza and the rights of the Palestinians.

Syrian presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban wrote an article a few years back outlining this approach: "Perhaps the time has come to bring the Arabs, from a state of complete submission to the hostile West, towards the East and countries that share with us values, interests and orientation." She then asked: "What did we get from the West, to which the Arabs affiliated themselves for the entire past century, except for occupation, hatred and war?"

She made reference to former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad, one of the many champions of the East, who similarly "headed East" towards Japan, Korea and China when reforming his country between 1981 and 2003.

Although relations have improved relatively with the US under President Barack Obama and been taken to new heights by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Syria remains committed to its “heading East” policy, investing in bilateral relations with countries that are rapidly rising to rule the new world - China, Russia, Malaysia, Turkey, Brazil - and perhaps the jewel of the crown of all these nations, India.

President Pratibha Patil's visit to Syria will be the first for an Indian president in the history of bilateral relations, although India's first prime minister, the legendary Jawaharlal Nehru, made a groundbreaking visit to Syria in 1957.

A dinner was held in his honor at the Presidential Palace, and the following morning, Nehru handpicked a red Damascene rose to place on his jacket, saying that it made him feel bright and optimistic. During this brief visit, a main street in the heart of the capital was named in his honor, to "immortalize Syrian-Indian relations".

By 1960, Indian cinema had invaded Syrian culture with a groundbreaking film that topped the Syrian charts, Junglee, featuring the hit song Suku Suku, which became very popular among young Syrians. In 2003, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Damascus, injecting the relationship with new life, prompting Assad to visit India in the summer of 2008, amid a flare of media attention.

On the political front, thanks to excellent Indian relations with both the Palestinians and Israelis, New Delhi can use its considerable influence to push the stalled Middle East peace process forward.

The Russians were unable to achieve any progress on that front, despite loud promises by President Dmitry Medvedev, nor were the French. The Americans have also drastically failed in the latest round of talks that took off and collapsed last September, under the watchful eye of Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

India, which enjoys the status of a neutral mediator, can try its hand where all of these nations failed and has repeatedly expressed a desire to play such a role. From where the Arabs stand, the Israelis must be convinced of the need to engage in a serious peace process, based on a halt of settlements, an end to the siege of Gaza, and a commitment to honoring Palestinian statehood.

On the Syrian front, Damascus has said, time and again, that Israel needs to restore occupied Golan, in full, based on the June 4, 1967 borders with Israel. If it does win a permanent seat on the Security Council, India (along with Brazil) can play a monumental role in helping the Arabs to get Israel to adhere to United Nations resolutions, or thwart ones that are frowned upon by countries like Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, like UNSCR 1559.

It can help shelter Iran from a new round of sanctions and will certainly have a say on Lebanon if the tiny Mediterranean country decides to renege on its commitments to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) established to investigate the 2005 murder of prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. Only a UN Security Council vote can do away with the STL, and from where things stand in Lebanon today, the Beirut government is expected to back out of the tribunal to ward off a confrontation between the pro-West March 14 Coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition.

War or chaos in Lebanon would be very worrying to the Indian government, which has troops deployed as part of the UN peacekeeping force in the south, monitoring the Lebanese-Israeli border. Syria realizes that even if it wished, Lebanon alone cannot do away with the STL, but it can get allies in the international community, like India, to help drown the tribunal, which has been "destructive" to both Lebanon and Syria and will be used to target the legacy, arms, and reputation of Hezbollah if indictments are issued naming Hezbollah members in the Hariri Affair.

The list of topics where common ground can be reached between Syria and India is long, ranging from collaboration on information technology and investment to development of scientific research, academic exchanges and cooperation on the Middle East peace process.

In a relationship that has lasted for more than 50 years, there is trust in the air between Damascus and New Delhi, signaling that far from being symbolic, Syria's "heading East" policy is deep-rooted, well thought out and expected to reach new heights after Patil's visit.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

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