The Saga of Relationship between India and Syria

India and Syria have relationship dating back to  ancient civilizational days.  Both countries were on the silk route through which civilizational exchanges took place for centuries. The first Christian presence in India was that of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The ancient Syriac language was also brought to Kerala by St. Thomas in the 1st century A.D.

On July 14, 1957, Indian first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Damascus on his way to the United States. During the visit, a main street (where Umayyad Square is currently located) was named in his honour in order to “immortalise Syrian-Indian relations.”

India and Syria also have educational exchanges. Each year five scholarships under the CEP programme are offered to Syrian students for pursuing higher studies in India, as well as 14 scholarships to Syrian scholars under the General Cultural Scholarship Scheme (GCSS). Syria also offers five scholarships to Indian students for studying Arabic language and literature.

Bilateral Relations

In November 2003,  Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee traveled with a delegation including his Minister of External Affairs, National Security Advisor and senior officials for a 3-day official visit to Syria, which was the first visit of an Indian prime minister after 15 years. On the trip Vajpayee and Assad jointly inaugurated the Syrian National Biotechnology Centre, that was established with Indian assistance, where Vajpayee announced a special grant of US$1 million for the centre. The two countries also decided to set up a Joint Hydrocarbon Committee. Vajpayee also announced a credit line of US $25 million for the development of bilateral trade.

The Indian Minister of State for Information & Broadcasting, Arun Jaitley, visited Syria in January 2000.  Murali Manohar Joshi participated in the funeral ceremonies of the former President Hafez Al-Assad in June 2000. The Minister of State for Science and Technology, B.S. Rawat visited Syria in November 2000. Jaswant Singh also visited Syria in January/February 2001 andYashwant Sinha visited Syria in August 2003. Syrian Deputy PM & Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara visited India in August 2002.

Syria also supported a resolution of India-Pakistan issues bilaterally through dialogue based on the Simla Agreement (1972) and the Lahore Declaration (1999), while Vajpayee reiterated India’s “principled support for the Palestinian and Syrian causes and for the legitimate rights and aspirations in the framework of the UNSC Resolutions as well as the ‘land for peace’ principle.

In 2008, Indian President Pratibha Patil  paid on a visit to Syria and called on Israel to return the Golan Heights: “”India has consistently supported all just Arab causes. I would also like to reiterate our strong support for Syria’s legitimate right to the Golan Heights and for its very early and full return to Syria.”

Business Relations

The Business Relations between India and Syria have bright prospects and harbour great potential. Indian exports to Syria consisted primarily of man-made fabrics and yarns (21%), machinery and transport equipment (20%), pharmaceuticals & chemicals (8%), manufacture of metals (6%), jute and jute products (4%). Its imports consisted of rock phosphates, pulses, spices, raw cotton and raw wool however, more scope was seen for increasing exports of traditional items like jute/jute products, non-basmati rice, tea, coffee, and other agricultural goods.

In 2009, Indian Petroleum Minister Murli Deora and Syrian Minister of Petroleum and Natural Resources Sufian Al Alaw signed an agreement at the Petrotech India 2009 conference paving the way for ONGC Videsh to explore for oil and natural gas in Syria.

In 2006, Syria received investments from India worth $84 million out a total of $800 million. India was, therefore, the third highest investor (behind Iran’s lead) in the country and ahead of Germany’s with $24 million (while the EU as a whole put in $155 million). At the time, the trade balance was in favour of India, though it was speculated that this could change with the new oil and gas contracts.

Many Indian companies have also for important contracts from Syria. KEC (I) Ltd. completed a contract of around US$48 million for building electricity transmission towers/network for the Jordan-Syria sector. BEML is a regular supplier of earthmoving equipment to Syria and concluded an order of around US$6million. IRCON got an order of around US$9 million for electric sub-stations. ABB India won a contract of around $51.5 million to supply 9 power sub-stations. The ONGC Videsh-led consortium was awarded an exploration contract (block 24, which is potentially rich in oil).