Exactly one year after the drumroll began for international intervention in Gaddafi's Libya, the stage is being set for the same in Syria. Armed with reports from human rights groups, the US, the UK and France, assisted by the Saudi-led Arab League, are bringing in UN resolutions that call for President Bashar al-Assad to go.
Amidst the clamour for action, India has chosen to give up its pro-Syria stand of the past year, and vote instead with the West and the Arab League at the UN, also attending their "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia that discussed options to the Assad regime. While India's UN mission explained the votes as principled support for the political process in Syria, the fact is, India's actions have been based on neither principle nor pragmatism.
To begin with, if democratic principles were in order, why did India choose non-intervention during the Maldives crisis the same week as the Syria vote: welcoming new president Mohamed Waheed Hassan and refusing to back the country's only democratically elected leader, Mohammad Nasheed?
The other principle - citing mounting casualties - seems strange as India stood by Damas-cus last year, when the bodycount was already in the thousands. Then, India had pointed out that the violence there wasn't one-sided: that Assad's forces are battling an armed insurgency, not just peaceful demonstrators. By UN estimates, more than 1,000 of the 7,000 people killed in the past year were Syrian security force personnel.
Not just that, the US is now talking about further arming the opposition, much as they did in Libya. As the UN sees a familiar path of votes, sanctions, calls for a no-fly zone and possible armed intervention, it is important to remember just where that led it in Libya. There, the UN principle of R2P or res-ponsibility to protect quickly turned into authorisation to kill, with an estimated 30,000 Libyans killed in the six months of war that involved 10,000 Nato air bombing missions.
In Syria, the added worry is the future of minorities, with the Muslim Brotherhood-led opposition making it clear that Alawites, Christians and Druze would have little place in their future. Meanwhile, like in Libya, the shadow of al-Qaida's presence in the opposition persists. In a truly strange turn of events, the US now finds itself on the same page as the very terror group it has battled around the world - shortly after President Barack Obama exhorted the world to stop Assad's brutal "killing machines" this month, Ayman al-Zawahiri also issued a statement calling for an end to the "butcher Assad's pernicious, cancerous regime".
By pushing for regime change in the Syrian conflict and assuming Assad's exit itself will change the lot of his people, the international community risks the same mistake it made in assuming that Libya post-Gaddafi would be a better place. In fact, much of the commentary this month has focussed on how much more difficult Libya has become, now ruled by militias every bit as brutal as Gaddafi's men. (Time magazine's cover story is entitled 'Why Libya is becoming more dangerous after Gaddafi's fall'.)
As we mourn the deaths of reporters covering atrocities in Syria like the Sunday Time's Marie Colvin and New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, we must also consider their view on what happened in Libya. In his last piece, Shadid described "a government whose authority extends no further than its offices, militias whose swagger comes from guns far too plentiful and residents whose patience fades with every volley of gunfire that cracks at night".
Similar chaos could be in store for Syria, but by then it will already be too late. While the UN high commissioner for human rights has made a detailed case on the horrors of Syria, there's less concern over the new Amnesty International report chronicling the situation unravelling in Libya.
In going along now with the West's inconsistent logic over Syria, India has taken a false step. Firstly, in ignoring the larger power struggle at play - that points to the isolation of Iran next. Already pressure is building on India to cut its ties with Tehran, and reconsider its plan to facilitate payments to Iran for oil via Russia and a rupee account.
Secondly, India's actions have tossed aside the alternative BRICS grouping it worked so hard to build in the past few years. Both Russia and China have expressed their surprise at the turnaround on Syria, with diplomats questioning whether India succumbed to pressure in a week when foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai was in Washington and defence minister A K Antony was in Riyadh. The break in BRICS may lead to some awkward moments for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he hosts its summit in March.
Finally, in terms of pragmatism, India has little to gain by turning around on its Syria policy this late in the day. With thousands already dead, Assad's opponents in the West and Gulf are only likely to ask just what took India so long. A post-Assad dispensation, much like in Libya, will hardly consider Indian interests in the future. In the test between precedent, principles and pragmatism, India may just have made the worst choice - none of the above.
(The piece first appeared in The Times of India on Feb 27, 2012)