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India opposes Syria action

New Delhi, Aug. 31: India cannot support military strikes against Syria without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, foreign minister Salman Khurshid said today, distancing New Delhi from strategic ally Washington in its clearest statement yet on the crisis in West Asia.

“I don’t think we can support any action that is not endorsed by the UN,” Khurshid said, when asked by The Telegraph for India’s position on potential missile strikes the US is mulling against Syria following allegations that Damascus used chemical weapons against its citizens.

Any attacks on Syria at this point could exacerbate the civil war in Syria and turbulence in West Asia, Khurshid suggested.

“I am hoping that sanity will prevail and that people will step away from actions that could escalate matters,” Khurshid said. West Asia is a critical region for India not just because it is the country’s largest source of oil, but because it is home to over 6 million Indians.

India has traditionally backed only UN-sponsored military action against sovereign countries, and its position on Syria is not surprising, even though the US is one of its closest strategic allies. But the choice of words used by Khurshid suggests his stance is not merely rooted in India’s past positions, but in a belief that any military action in Syria is against Indian interests.

Coming on the back of the British Parliament vote against the UK’s military intervention in Syria, and the loud opposition to US plans for limited strikes from Russia and China, India’s position will further weaken American efforts to build at least a moral coalition in support of attacks. Germany has also declared that it will not join any military effort in Syria. France, Canada and Australia have said they will support military strikes.

Over the past three days, US secretary of state John Kerry, vice-president Joe Biden and finally — on Friday — President Barack Obama have asserted that they are confident that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime unleashed chemical weapons against civilians on August 21.

Kerry said at least 1,429 civilians, including over 400 children, were killed in the multiple attacks reported in Damascus suburbs where the rebels who have fought against the Syrian President for two-and-a-half years are stronger than the regime.

Obama had last year laid down any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime as a “red line” that if crossed would prompt the US to re-evaluate its intervention in the ongoing civil war that according to the UN has claimed over 100,000 lives.

On Friday, Obama, who made his opposition to the controversial Iraq invasion a key plank of his campaign when he first became President in 2008, said he was considering “limited narrow action” against Syria.

Obama conceded he, like most Americans was “war-weary” after a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, but insisted that Assad must be punished for what the US claims is definite evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. Five American warships have moved into the Mediterranean, ready to propel Tomahawk missiles into Syria if ordered by Obama.

For India, the tensions in Syria and the potential of strikes leading to a spillover of the conflict beyond that nation’s boundaries in the wider region are causes for concern, Khurshid said.

“Before engaging in any of this kind of action, it is important to understand the impact it can have on the region.”

Though India does not import any oil from Syria, concerns over the possibility of strikes on that nation have already triggered an upward spiral in global fuel prices. India is the world’s third-largest oil importer after the US and China. Any spread in the Syrian conflict, currently largely limited to that nation’s borders, could also hurt the millions of Indian workers in West Asia and the Gulf.

But though no military action against Syria is good for India, Khurshid made it clear the country would reassess its stance if the UN Security Council — where China and Russia have vetoed resolutions against Syria — endorses strikes.

“With UN support, we are comfortable even with action against our friends — because it’s the UN that has sanctioned the move,” Khurshid said.

Military action against Syria taken without the UN authorisation would also prove unpopular with India’s large Muslim population — over 170 million — just ahead of crucial state polls and the general elections next year.