A guitar lies beside a gun on a table while Syrian rebels rest in Aleppo on Saturday. (Reuters)
Washington, Sept. 21: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with US President Barack Obama on Friday will be an exercise in English language to find synonyms that equate a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’.
Syria is expected to be the most contentious issue when the two leaders review the global situation in the White House, both at their morning summit and later at a working lunch.
Talking points being drafted for the Prime Minister’s espousal during those conversations are aimed at papering over differences with the Americans and to give the impression that there is a grand convergence of views on the larger objectives of how to bring peace to Syria, according to sources in New Delhi.
What will enable Singh to emerge unscathed from these differences — which Obama is likely to stress — is an admission attributed to external affairs minister Salman Khurshid on September 3 that there was not much that India could do directly on Syria and “we are keeping ourselves informed so that at least Indian lives will not be in danger”.
India is no longer a member of the UN Security Council and what it says or does on Syria is really a voice in the wilderness with little impact on any international effort to manage the crisis. All the same, Americans, who are used to their friends functioning as an echo chamber for their views and policies, would have preferred India to toe Washington’s hard line against Assad.
To partly meet those routine expectations here, the Prime Minister is expected to tell Obama that “India has consistently called upon all sides to abjure violence so that conditions can be created for an inclusive political dialogue leading to a comprehensive political solution, taking into account the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”
Obama is unlikely to be satisfied with such good intentions on the part of Singh. The President has already and repeatedly called for Bashar al Assad to give up power and make way for regime change.
At internal meetings in New Delhi preparatory to Singh’s visit, some views were expressed that there should be a change in India’s stand and call for Assad to step down in view of the huge loss of lives since the ‘Arab Spring’ came to Syria. But at the political level, there were no takers for such a shift which would have been interpreted as a compromise with the US.
In conversations on background, American officials expressed irritation over a recent reply in Parliament by the minister of state for external affairs, E. Ahamed, to Rajya Sabha member Piyush Goyal that India supports the six-point plan by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan for resolving the Syrian crisis.
“The Annan plan died long ago,” said one US official, unwilling to be attributed. “Even Annan does not probably believe in it any more. India’s continued use of it is a fig leaf for Assad to continue his crimes against his own people.”
What annoyed the US more was Ahamed’s assertion in the same reply that “India, along with Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) and with Russia and China (BRICS), has made efforts for peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis.”
At a time when emotions are raw among politicians here over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brilliant public relations coup in reaching out to the American people through an op-ed article in The New York Times over Syria, anyone standing with Russia — and to a lesser extent with China — on developments in Syria is not exactly seen as a friend in need.
Standing with BRICS, where Russia is the pre-eminent power, as Ahamed did, is being interpreted here as supporting Moscow’s views on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Russian position on the use of chemical weapons in a Damascus neighbourhood last month is diametrically opposite to the US position.
Even after the US, Britain and some other western powers proclaimed on the basis of their evidence that Assad had used chemical weapons, New Delhi took the view, in the latest instance on September 3 when Obama was sounding the bugles of war, that “we will prefer to await the full results of the UN inspection.”
Adding to US suspicions that India cannot be counted on to support the Obama administration’s Syria policy, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) said: “Pending their elimination, it is vitally important to ensure safe and secure custody of chemical stockpiles and prevent their access to terrorists and non-state actors. We stress that the international legal norm against the use of chemical weapons anywhere and by anyone must not be breached.”
India’s refusal to name the Assad regime even in passing while referring to “non-state actors” and use of chemical weapons by “anyone” is being interpreted here that India shares Russian doubts about who used chemical weapons even as the Americans are in no doubt about responsibility being with the government in Damascus.
Sources here suspect the influence of Rakesh Sood, the Prime Minister’s new special envoy for disarmament and non-proliferation, behind what they see as a wishy-washy stand by India on chemical weapons in Syria.
It was a poorly kept secret in New Delhi during work on a comprehensive Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that Sood was against India signing the CWC and getting rid of its chemical weapons stocks. He was then a pioneer in South Block, setting up MEA’s disarmament division, of which he was the first head, a post Sood held for an unusually long eight-year period till 2000.
After India signed and ratified the CWC, Sood did not forward the instrument of ratification to be deposited with the UN. Prakash Shah, who was India’s permanent representative to the UN from February 1995 to July 1997, told this correspondent there was near-panic in New York with South Block’s delay in depositing the instrument of ratification.
With the clock ticking over a requirement that 65 countries should complete the process for the CWC’s entry into force, Shah rushed to New Delhi but Sood had locked up the document in his cupboard and ostensibly gone on a holiday. Cellphones were not ubiquitous then as they are now.
He said that with the approval of Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, who was also external affairs minister, Sood’s cupboard in South Block was broken into and Shah rushed back to New York with the instrument of ratification. On April 29, 1997, India became one of the last countries that completed the process, minutes before the CWC entered into force despite Sood’s extraordinary influence over policy and opposition to the effort.