Syria: why SA abstained

2011-10-11 00:00

LAST week, while South Africans were focusing on Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s anger over the Dalai Lama’s visa application, a UN Security Council resolution in response to the crisis in Syria marked by a violent government crackdown on protesters was put before the council vote.

China and Russia vetoed the United States-sponsored resolution, while South Africa chose to abstain. What does this mean about our strategic positions in the council?

It is important to recall that in 2007-2008, South Africa was heavily criticised internally for siding with China and Russia, but was praised for voting with the Western powers on Resolution 1973 on Libya a few months ago. Of course, we critics tend to assume that the positions of the Western powers are automatically moral and justified, while those of the East are inherently problematic. Our view of morality is relative rather than absolute. The West is our standard of what is correct regardless of whether Western choices coincide with our own values; however, this is a subject for another column. The point is that South Africa’s decision to abstain on the Syria resolution poses a dilemma for the template that we use to make a judgment on the correctness of its voting positions in the UN Security.

The resolution has long been in the making. The Syrian crisis is part of a series of uprisings against dictatorship and underdevelopment in the Arab world, which has been dubbed an Arab Spring. Like the Libyan and Bahraini governments, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad responded by sending in soldiers armed with heavy artillery to crush all protests. It is thought now that hundreds have died as a result and many more have been injured and dislocated due to government repression.

In Libya, a similar government response turned a revolution into a full-scale rebellion. Until recently, it looked as if this was unlikely to happen in Syria. But a fortnight ago, the opposition announced a common front to co-ordinate the fight against the Al-Assad government, including bearing arms. The formation resembles the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) in that it began in exile and in the areas where the revolution started.

Both the Western and Eastern powers have vested interests in Syria. China and Russia have long-established economic interests that they want to protect. This is the reason they prefer a political solution and reject a move that might lead to war or military intervention from outside. Chinese companies lost a lot in the Nato bombing in Libya, especially now that the NTC is said to have given contracts to French and United Kingdom companies in return for their assistance in unseating Muammar Gaddafi. China and Russia would not want to lose again in Syria in what they see as calculated moves from the West to undermine their rise in global power.

The Western powers also have vested interests. They are going through very difficult economic conditions that threaten the survival of global capitalism. They are not only seeking to protect their global hegemony, but they are interested in seeing the rise of regimes in the Arab world with which they can do business. For this reason, they are willing to turn the Arab Spring into a home-grown regime-change movement. They have made up their minds that they will support the opposition, not only because they desire democracy, but because they are at loggerheads with the current regimes in Syria, Iran and Libya.

The South African government’s explanation is that it supports action on Syria, but the sponsors of the resolution refused to exclude military intervention during negotiations, leaving South Africa with no option but to abstain. By abstaining our government avoided creating an impression that it is callous about the mayhem in Syria. The international community cannot avoid discussing more frankly how it should respond to the Syrian crisis to find a widely supported and inclusive solution.

The Brics need to make a decisive move to push the Syrian government to begin an inclusive dialogue process leading to real change. The Syrian government would be foolish not to reward the avoidance of a military intervention by ensuring that there is a clear political solution in place. If they fail to do this they will discredit the emerging powers’ position that a home-grown political solution can be found.



• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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