After four years in which thousands have died and lakhs displaced, Syria’s civil war has now taken a dramatic turn. Russia has decided to intervene in the war, sending combat aircraft and advisers to Syria over the past few weeks to help President Bashar al-Assad’s depleted army.

India’s position on the Syrian conflict has been mostly consistent since the beginning. New Delhi has maintained throughout that the final solution must come through dialogue. During the Geneva II talks in 2013 that sought to end the crisis, former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid was firmly against the idea of military intervention. At the time, Russia, China and Iran held the same view.

However, the contours of the conflict have dramatically changed since the Geneva talks. Now, there seems to be a notable shift in India’s stance on the issue.

Conditions apply

Anil Wadhwa, secretary (east) in the external affairs ministry, on October 11 reiterated that the long-term solution to the Syrian crisis should be political. However, he added that India was not opposed to Russia’s military intervention in Syria.

“The Indian position is that Russian military involvement in Syria is to halt the advances of the Islamic State,” Wadhwa said.

India’s backing is questionable, given that reports coming out of Syria suggest that Russian planes are hardly targeting IS outposts, but rebel-held positions instead. There have been repeated claims over the past two years that Assad’s forces have been going about their business in similar fashion.

Russia is releasing information daily about its hits on supposed IS targets. Combat jets from the US and its allies are using the same airspace purportedly to do the same job.

Complex situation

So, who is in the right and who is in the wrong? The answer is not simple.

Firstly, do Russia’s operations in Syria count as an external intervention? Assad is still the president and the Russians are operating in the country with his blessings.

The US has been arming rebel groups in Syria in the hope that better training and weapons would help fend off Assad and militias actively supported by Iran. The US’ Central Intelligence Agency has supposedly armed more than 10,000 fighters in Syria thus far, some of them belonging to terrorist group al Qaeda and its affiliates. Washington has even lost military equipment to these groups, subjecting its Syria policy to much scrutiny.

Welcome change

As doubts remain over the strategies adopted by Syria and the US, it’s perhaps too early to tell whether Wadhwa’s statement was a temporary aberration or there is a significant change in India’s approach to Syria. New Delhi has maintained cordial relations with Syria throughout the crisis. It recently appointed a new ambassador who is expected to take up the position soon.

A shift in the Indian outlook on the issue could be significant. New Delhi has consistently warned about the threat posed by the IS. However, backing Russia’s operations and simultaneously supporting political dialogue as the final solution is not feasible.

These policy postures are bound to cancel each other out at the some point and this could show the Indian government in poor light. However, a positive takeaway could be India’s move to take clearer positions on such issues, which will be a welcome and long overdue change in its traditional approach.