South Asian nations oppose US strike in Syria

The possibility of US military action in Syria has united South Asian governments in opposition.

    South Asian nations oppose US strike in Syria
    With shaky economies, and reliance on oil imports, South Asian nations have a major stake in Syrian events [AFP]

    Kolkata, India - South Asian nations, rarely in agreement on either regional or global issues, have come out strongly against a potential US military strike in Syria.

    India, Pakistan and Bangladesh oppose the strike that, last week, seemed imminent - until President Barack Obama's stated desire to seek Congressional approval appeared to temporarily put the cork back in the bottle.

    Sri Lanka and Nepal have also called for a "peaceful solution" to the Syria crisis.

    "As the US is preparing for aerial strikes in Syria, Pakistan believes that the action will make the situation more dire," Sartaj Aziz, National Security and Foreign Affairs adviser to Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, told Pakistan's parliament. He said that Pakistan did not support the use of chemical weapons and urged the international community to wait for the relase of the report if UN inspectors.

    Aziz said that Pakistan's stance on Syria was based on "principles of international law and the UN Charter to respect the territorial integrity of Syria; the policy of non-military intervention and interference; settlement of dispute and transition or transfer of power through peaceful means".

    India's unambiguous stance on Syria ahead of Singh's Washington visit is significant. It reaffirms the preponderance of Indian interests in deciding the course of our foreign policy while dealing with the US, which New Delhi surrendered on the Iran question.

    Jayanta Kumar Ray, Calcutta University'

    Bangladesh's foreign ministry spokesperson, M Shameem Ahsan, strongly condemned the use of chemical weapons "by any party under any circumstances", and he emphasised "the importance of the UN in resolving the Syrian crisis".

    India's foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, was equally candid in opposing any US military strike in Syria.

    "I don't think we can support any action that is not endorsed by the UN," Khurshid said. "Any attack on Syria at this point could exacerbate the civil war there. I am hoping that sanity will prevail and that people will step away from actions that could escalate matters."

    Areas of major concern

    The three nations share the concern that a US strike could have the potential to escalate into a larger conflict in the Middle East.

    India, Pakistan and Bangladesh import much of their oil from the Middle East. They all have a large number of migrant workers employed in the region. India alone has six million workers, many in countries around Syria. Pakistan and Bangladesh are Muslim-majority nations and India has 170 million Muslims, who officials fear may react adversely if their government were to support a US military strike on a Muslim country. And both Bangladesh and India are headed for national parliamentary elections in early 2014.

    Other smaller South Asian nations also import oil from the region and many of their citizens work there as well.

    India is the leading strategic partner of the US in Asia, much valued by Washington as part of Obama's "Asia pivot" strategy to counter China's rising influence.

    Pakistan has been treated by the US as a "frontline state" in both the 1980s Afghan war against Soviet occupation and also during its ongoing "war against terror" against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

    Bangladesh, meanwhile, has developed its own strategic relationship with the US, although its Awami League government has opposed the construction of US bases in the Bay of Bengal.

    Potentially contentious summit

    Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is slated to visit the US for a meeting with Obama in September to discuss issues raised during July's Indo-US strategic dialogue in New Delhi.

    "India's unambiguous stance on Syria ahead of Singh's Washington visit is significant. It reaffirms the preponderance of Indian interests in deciding the course of our foreign policy while dealing with the US, which New Delhi surrendered on the Iran question," said foreign policy analyst Jayanta Kumar Ray, of Calcutta University's Institute of Foreign Policy Studies.

    With its economy in a sharp downturn and its rupee in a nosedive over the past two months, India can ill afford a sharp rise in oil prices which could aggravate its balance of payments problem and eat into its dwindling foreign reserves - now reportedly barely enough to finance five months of imports.

    "A US military strike in Syria will invariably impact oil prices and any hike will throw our economy completely out of gear," said energy researcher Anasua Basu Roychoudhuri of the Calcutta Research Group.

    The South Asians have good reasons to oppose any escalation in that region. No country can overlook its crucial interests and support a US military adventure in Syria after Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Binoda Mishra, Centre for International Relations and Development

    Oil imports account for 34 percent of the total import bill, so an increase of a dollar per barrel raises the trade deficit by $900m. And with the rupee recently depreciating 20 percent against the dollar and other leading currencies, the oil import bill is fast becoming a huge drag.

    In desperation, India is risking upsetting the US by seeking more oil imports from Iran. India's petroleum minister Veerappa Moily said a plan to import oil from Iran has been worked out that will help the country save $22bn in oil imports. That will help reduce the current account deficit that is driving down the value of the rupee.

    Increasing oil imports from sanctions-hit Iran will help India because Tehran accepts New Delhi's payment in rupees - and that helps India save its foreign exchange. Officials calculate that importing, for instance, 10 million tonnes of oil from Iran means saving $10bn in foreign exchange outflow. During the most recent fiscal period, India imported 13.1 million tonnes of oil from Iran, down from 18.11 million tonnes in 2011-12.

    The cutting down on Iranian oil imports was attributed to an effort to placate the US - something Ray says was "suicidal" for Indian interests.

    Pakistan imports 78 percent of its oil consumption, mostly from the Middle East, and is seeking to develop a gas pipeline from Iran to its new port of Gwadar.

    Bangladesh also imports much of the oil it consumes from the Middle East.

    "The South Asians have good reasons to oppose any escalation in that region," said Binoda Mishra of the Calcutta-based Centre for International Relations and Development. "No country can overlook its crucial interests and support a US military adventure in Syria after Iraq and Afghanistan."

    Disagreements with the US

    India is upset with US plans to withdraw from Afghanistan, and for involving the Taliban in the peace process, because it sees a potential spillover in the troubled Kashmir region.

    This has reportedly figured highly in Indo-US strategic talks and will likely also be discussed this month at the meeting between Obama and Singh, while Washington is said to be pushing the export of nuclear reactors and key military equipment to encourage India to build up its defence against China.

    Pakistanis are angry about ongoing US drone attacks and their government's acceptence of them as a fait accompli has made politicians unpopular at home.

    Bangladesh's government, meanwhile, is upset with Washington for a host of what it suspects to be subtle interferences, including Washington's alleged support for Prime Minister Hasina's bete noire, Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus. Additionally, Hasina's administration has not taken kindly to pressure from the US to seek a deal with opposition leader Khaleda Zia to restore the neutral caretaker system to conduct parliamentary elections. The caretaker system is when a neutral administration takes power to oversee polling.

    Given the array of US interests in South Asia, it remains to be seen whether a rare union of opposition to Washington will be enough to convince Congressional lawmakers not to endorse President Obama's desire to get involved in another Middle East war.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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