Syria hesitant about India’s role in reconstruction after Modi’s Israel visit

The World Bank estimates that the cost of rebuilding Syria’s cities will be $200 billion, and HT has learnt India that has the capacity to take on projects worth $20 billion.
Bouthaina Shaaban, one of the closest aides of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.(YouTube screengrab)
Bouthaina Shaaban, one of the closest aides of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.(YouTube screengrab)
Updated on Aug 17, 2017 04:58 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Damascus | ByAnchal Vohra

The Syrian government is hesitant about inviting India to participate in the war-torn country’s reconstruction because of public disappointment over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel, a top aide to President Bashar al-Assad has said.

The views expressed by Bouthaina Shaaban, one of the closest aides of Assad, could be perceived as a snub by Indian policy-makers, especially since New Delhi has tacitly backed the Syrian regime since the country’s conflict began in 2011.

Sipping a glass of wine at a hotel in the “green zone” of Damascus, Shaaban speaks of the bitter taste left by the Indian premier’s visit to Israel.

“Allow me to say that the Syrian people are very disappointed with the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Israel, because Israel is an occupying and a colonial force which has deprived Palestinians of their indigenous rights. We never expected India will move from its righteous and moral stand and pay that huge courtesy to Israel,” Shabaan, a frequent visitor to India, told Hindustan Times.

“I can say that while we call for a role for China and a role for Russia, we are very hesitant to call for a role for India (in rebuilding Syria),” she added.

Perhaps indicative of Syria’s anger, Shaaban volunteered the response when she was asked about the sort the Assad regime envisages for India in post-war efforts.

“Regardless of the economic and military relations, because we know there are relations between India and Israel, the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Israel was really shocking,” she said.

It wasn’t India’s working relationship with Israel but the prime ministerial visit and the optics it entailed that had baffled Syria, she added.

Smoke billows in an eastern area of Raqqa, Syria on August 15, 2017. (AFP)
Smoke billows in an eastern area of Raqqa, Syria on August 15, 2017. (AFP)

In 2016, India abstained from a UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire following the siege of Aleppo imposed by the Syrian government and backed with Russian military might. Despite the war, high-level visits between India and Syria continued, including one by minister of state for external affairs MJ Akbar in 2016.

The World Bank estimates that the cost of rebuilding Syria’s bombed-out cities will be $200 billion. Hindustan Times has learnt India has the capacity to take on projects worth $20 billion, a tenth of the total estimate.

India’s involvement in projects in Syria ranges from a $25 million line of credit for modernising the Hama Iron and Steel Plant (Apollo International won the contract and completed the project) to a contract signed by BHEL in 2009 to part finance the Tishreen power plant through another line of credit of $100 million (the work was suspended due to the ongoing crisis and has not resumed).

New Delhi has also pledged $4 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian regime, while ONGC Videsh Limited won the bid to look for oil and natural gas in Block 24 in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province.

A team from OVL visited Syria two to three weeks ago and, according to sources, was assured by the Syrian regime of preferential treatment. But Deir Ezzor continues to be an active battleground and fierce fighting between the Syrian regime and the Islamic State and other groups is taking place in the country’s eastern front on the border with Iraq.

After a gap of six years, Damascus is ready to host its international trade fair. The capital and even the destroyed cities of Homs and Aleppo are flaunting huge signboards for the fair to be held on August 17 that promises to rebuild Syria.

Frame grab from a video provided on August 13, 2017, by Syrian activist media group Ghouta Media Center shows smoke and debris rising after a Syrian government ground-to-ground rocket struck the opposition-held Ain Terma town in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus. (AP)
Frame grab from a video provided on August 13, 2017, by Syrian activist media group Ghouta Media Center shows smoke and debris rising after a Syrian government ground-to-ground rocket struck the opposition-held Ain Terma town in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus. (AP)

Assad is relying heavily on the financial muscle of BRICS nations, but is mostly dependent on the Chinese. China has announced it will invest $2 billion in an industrial park that is expected to bring 150 Chinese companies to Syria.

While the number of Chinese firms attending the fair isn’t known as yet, seven Indian companies are expected to visit Damascus on August 17, with a few more sending representatives. Indian firms are believed to be concerned about security even though the areas controlled by the regime are now relatively safer.

In the reconstruction rush, Indian diplomats are hoping Indian companies will not be left behind and lose the first-mover advantage. In an attempt to assuage Syrian concerns, sources in the Indian government said that India’s Israel policy is not at the expense of Syria.

The page on “foreign relations with Syria” on the website of the external affairs ministry still reads “India’s traditional support for just Arab causes , notably the Palestinian cause and for the return of the occupied Golan Heights to Syria, is appreciated by Syrians”.

Shabaan blamed the West for supporting anti-regime groups and said this is because of the Syrian government’s opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. She thinks the Israeli-Arab conflict is the main reason behind the war in Syria.

As she left for another meeting, she said that while Syria was saddened by Modi’s visit to Israel, it is willing to look at a “pragmatic relationship” with India.

(Anchal Vohra is an independent journalist reporting from Syria)

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