The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Syria visit to seal solidarity

New Delhi, Nov. 10: The Prime Minister will visit Syria later this week, the first such trip in 15 years, to reaffirm Delhi’s independent foreign policy and its strong ties with the Islamic and Arab world.

The visit is particularly significant, coming as it does after the US-led war in Iraq and Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s India tour a few months ago that had triggered apprehension in parts of the Arab world.

Syria is also one of the nations topping the US’ hate list. The George W. Bush administration has been hinting at a Damascus hand in al Qaida operatives managing to enter neighbouring Iraq to attack American soldiers deployed there. It has also been talking of Syria’s lack of democracy.

Vajpayee, the country’s first Prime Minister to visit Syria since Rajiv Gandhi’s trip in 1988, will kick off his three-nation tour tomorrow, starting with Russia. Tajikistan and Syria will follow. He had visited Damascus as foreign minister in 1979.

Vajpayee will hold wide discussions with the Syrian leadership, including President Basher al Asad, on bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest and concern. This would help the Prime Minister assess the situation in Iraq, which Delhi, among other nations, describes as far from stable.

India wants to play a significant role in Iraq’s economic reconstruction. As Syria could in future prove to be a transit point for Indian goods and investment in Iraq, emphasis will be laid on improving economic and trade ties with Damascus.

Vajpayee will also get the opportunity to discuss developments in the Organisation of Islamic Conference as Syria is one of its key members and even enlist its support in the fight against terrorism. The country’s young leadership has joined the growing voice in the organisation for serious introspection among Muslim nations to improve the lot of their people.

Indian officials said getting the Arab world to agree to Delhi’s description of a terrorist would be difficult as most of the region’s nations see terrorism through the prism of the Palestinian cause. Delhi is trying to convince them that the Palestinian struggle is unique and should not be allowed to be used by others, particularly Pakistan, to justify their support for terrorism, in Kashmir and elsewhere in India, at Islamabad’s instance.

Pakistan-sponsored terrorism will also figure in Vajpayee’s discussions with the leadership of Russia and Tajikistan.

In Moscow, he is scheduled to come out with a statement with President Vladimir Putin, urging the international community to unite in the fight against terror and drugs and narcotics.

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