India and Syria pledge closer ties at historic visit

Pratibha Patil, the Indian president, continues her tour of the region with the announcement of a US$100 million line of credit, promises to double trade levels in three years and backing Damascus's campaign to retrieve the Golan Heights.

Syria's President Bashar al Assad welcomes India's President, Pratibha Patil, to Damascus yesterday for a four-day state visit to Syria.
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DAMASCUS // India and Syria have promised to boost their economic ties and to work more closely in the information technology sector after a meeting yesterday between their two countries' presidents in Damascus.

The Indian head of state, Pratibha Patil, announced a US$100 million (Dh367m) line of credit, vowed to double trade levels within three years and pledged close co-operation in the high-tech sector.

The package will be welcome in Syria, which has been looking to boost the level of foreign investment as part of its economic modernisation plans. The Indian deal could also help Damascus offset the effects of a US trade embargo that has stymied access to computer technology and skills.

Mrs Patil, the first Indian president to visit Syria, said her nation, which has a vibrant technology industry, looked forward to working with Damascus in IT and other "highly specialised fields". She also announced an increase in the number of technology scholarships offered to Syrians from 45 to 90.

"We are happy with the progress in India-Syria bilateral relations over the last few years, and are committed to further strengthening our ties," Mrs Patil told reporters after her "constructive" talks with Syria's president, Bashar al Assad.

"The global economic downturn posed serious challenges since early 2000," she said. "Both India and Syria were affected, but have recovered and are confident of achieving higher rates of growth in the coming years."

Mrs Patil also assured Damascus it could depend on New Delhi's support in its long-running campaign to retrieve the Golan Heights. The territory, seized in 1967 and subsequently annexed by Israel, remains under occupation despite UN resolutions calling for it to be handed back to Syria.

Damascus and Tel Aviv remain in a state of war over the issue, which is a central issue of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.

Stressing the need for a "lasting and comprehensive" Middle East peace deal, the Indian president reaffirmed "strong support for Syria's legitimate right to the Golan Heights, and for its very early and full return".

With India pushing for permanent membership on United Nations Security Council, as part of wider UN reforms, that backing may one day prove useful for Damascus, a point clearly not lost on the Syrian authorities.

"We agree with India and all peace-loving countries on the importance of reforming the United Nations so that it becomes more democratic, representative and efficient," Mr Assad said after the meeting. "And, in this regard, we support India's efforts to gain a permanent seat on the Security Council."

Accompanied by a large business delegation, Mrs Patil's visit to Syria comes immediately after a five-day trip to the UAE. Indian officials said the UAE had also supported India's claim for permanent membership of a reformed UN Security Council.

Syria and India have long enjoyed cordial relations. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, made an official visit to Damascus in 1957.

Mr al Assad visited Delhi in 2008, during which India and Syria agreed to set up a joint IT centre for excellence.

Today, an India-Syria Business Council is due to be launched in Damascus and the two countries have also agreed on a cultural-exchange programme that will link Syrian and Indian media organisations.