By Suhasini Haider
Sometimes, history can come a full circle across geography. In the same week that the US announced it was going to talk to the Taliban, United States President Barack Obama signed the order authorising the supply of arms to Syrian rebels. In the case of the Taliban, the US agreed to the talks despite Taliban leaders rejecting all Washington’s ‘red lines’ that called for them to accept the Afghan constitution and renounce ties with al-Qaeda.
In the case of the Syrian rebels, the US didn’t even ask for the rebels to renounce ties with al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups like the Jabhat al-Nasra, who are an active part of the fight against the Assad regime, before it sanctioned hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and weapons.
Yet, in the past 12 years, US-led wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries have left more than a million people dead, just to fight al-Qaeda.
While the US has failed to join the dots between its misadventures of the past in Afghanistan and the ones it is now making in Syria, India cannot ignore the consequences for the region. And as US secretary of state John Kerry travels to Delhi for the Indo-US strategic dialogue on 24 June, it may be time for India to ask the US some tough questions.
To begin with, the question on arming Syrian rebels, despite all the warning signs — in the past month, a rebel video of a jihadi fighter eating the heart of a Syrian soldier, and the public execution of a teenage coffee seller in rebel-held Aleppo, for ‘frivolously’ invoking the name of Prophet Muhammad, have frightened many.
Women and minorities clearly have little place in the rebels’ plans for a Sharia-ruled Syria. And regular calls from al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri, calling on cadres everywhere to join the fight against Assad, add to the worries.
The next big question that India must ask the US is what the regime change in Syria will achieve in a volatile region, particularly given the past record.
President Obama may have announced he was ending America’s wars abroad, but the wars within those countries are raging bigger than ever.
Afghanistan sees daily incidents of violence, and so does Iraq, which saw its deadliest month in years in May 2013, with more than 1,000 civilians killed.
In Libya, militias that the US armed and trained to oust Gaddafi now terrorise the locals, killing 32 demonstrators in Benghazi on 8 June. For women, the situation is much worse in Baghdad, Tripoli and Damascus than it ever was before US involvement.
Third, there is the question of timing. After months of saying it would only provide non-lethal aid to manage the humanitarian crisis in Syria, why has the US chosen to arm the rebels at this stage?
The US’ official justification citing Assad’s ‘use of chemical weapons on a small scale’ seems vague, and has already been compared by the Syrian government to the elusive hunt for WMD in Iraq.
Obama has ignored the reports of UN human rights investigators this month, who concluded that rebels had used chemical weapons against Syrian forces as well.
Many will counter-question if India has any business asking these tough questions of the US. In the past two years India has been silent or inactive on the dramatic events of the optimistically-named ‘Arab Spring’, voting to abstain more often than not at the United Nations.
But the US’ decision to arm rebels in Syria is too similar to its disastrous decision to arm rebels in Afghanistan-Pakistan two decades ago, that had such deep repercussions for India, for New Delhi to ignore.
While the sudden announcement of talks with the Taliban in Doha is disturbing for South Asia, the US’ actions in Syria could ignite the entire region of West Asia where about 6.5 million Indians work.
India has often voiced its demand for a seat at the UN Security Council. It is time to think about what it would do with that seat, and where it would make its opinion count, if the seat was granted.
With the US’ twin decisions on Syria and Afghanistan promising to alter power structures in India’s near regions, now would be a good time to start.
Suhasini Haidar is foreign affairs editor, CNN-IBN