M.J. Akbar to visit Lebanon, Syria, Iraq

New Delhi: India will look to boost ties with three countries in West Asia—Lebanon, Syria and Iraq—during the eight-day-long visit of minister of state for external affairs M.J. Akbar.

Akbar’s 17-23 August visit comes in the backdrop of recent military gains by international forces against the radical Islamic State (ISIS) which had captured large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and announced the establishment of a caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Announcing the visit, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup said the three-nation trip “is a reaffirmation of our deep interest in promoting bilateral relations as also in the peace and security of a region in our extended neighbourhood.”

Akbar’s first stop will be Lebanon, sandwiched between Syria and Israel. The last high-level visit from India to Lebanon was in 2013 by then minister of state for external affairs E. Ahamed.

“In Lebanon, the minister is expected to meet the top leadership of the country. He is scheduled to have extensive discussions with the Prime Minister Tammam Salam, meet the speaker of the parliament Nabih Berry and will receive the director general of the Directorate General of General Security of Lebanon Major General Abbas Ibrahim,” Swarup said.

Akbar will then proceed to Syria where he will meet President Bashar al-Assad and Prime Minister Emad Mohammad Deeb Khamis besides minister of foreign affairs and expatriates Walid Al-Moallem, national security advisor Ali Mamlouk and interact with the grand mufti of Syria Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun.

“Discussions will focus on our bilateral cooperation and the unfolding security situation in the region,” Swarup said.

India has been looking at rebuilding infrastructure in Syria, including a power plant in the country. According to the Indian government, its economic engagement in the West Asia-North Africa region totals an estimated $200 billion.

On the last leg of his visit, Akbar will stop in Iraq where he will hold talks with foreign minister Ibrahim Al-Eshaiqer Al-Jafari “on bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest,” Swarup said.

“Our time-tested, warm and friendly relations with Iraq are underpinned by historical and religious linkages, strong people-to-people contacts, our energy security quest and capacity-building cooperation,” he said.

“The visit is expected to add further impetus to our bilateral engagement. It will also provide an opportunity to meet with other senior leaders of Iraq,” he said.

The importance of Iraq to India comes from the fact that it is the largest supplier of crude oil to India, having overtaken Saudi Arabia in June, according to a Reuters report. India sources a major portion of its crude oil requirements from the Gulf region that also includes Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar—many of whom are involved in the unrest in the region.

Recent developments in the region—that is, the takeover of large tracts by the ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the recent terror attacks in France, Germany and Belgium that have been claimed by the militant outfit’s sympathisers or supporters—have resulted in Western countries dropping their opposition to Assad staying on in power, more than five years after the start of protests to force him to step down.

The unrest began as the so-called Arab Spring or pro-democracy protests that overthrew long-ruling presidents of Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the region spread to Syria with the opposition Syrian National Council fighting to overthrow Assad.

K.P. Fabian, a former joint secretary in charge of Gulf countries in the ministry of external affairs who has also served in Iran and Qatar, said that the US and Russia, once at loggerheads over Assad, were now cooperating with each other over ISIS, given its emergence as a common threat.

“The US has considerably diluted its stand against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and ceded political ground to the Russians,” Fabian said, pointing out that Washington was once firm that Assad had to step down. Russia, on the other hand, is one of Assad’s backers.

The Shia-Sunni rivalry has also played its part in exacerbating tensions with Shi’ite Iran along with Russia backing Assad who belongs to the Alawite sect considered a part of the Shia fold.

Among those demanding Assad’s departure have been Sunni majority Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But of late, they have muted their opposition towards Assad in the light of the US and other Western countries prioritising the defeat of ISIS over de-seating Assad.

Fabian was of the view that Akbar’s visit to Damascus “would demonstrate a sense of belief that it is still important to keep in touch with Assad and that it is safe for a foreign dignitary to go there”.