SA on Syria: Erring on the side of caution?

A delegation of Syrian civil society and human rights activists spent last week in South Africa trying to persuade the government that a condemnation of the military crackdown on anti-government protesters in Syria is needed.

The United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 (2011), which includes an asset freeze, a no-fly zone and arms embargo, has not been backed by South Africa, and the delegation believes this view needs to change if the Syrian people are to be spared.

The delegation met with some success among local organisations, but said the South African government itself was unwilling to change its stance.

The aim of the meeting was to convince government to “condemn gross human rights violations” in Syria, said Najob Ghadbian at a press conference on Thursday.

A member of the newly-formed Syrian Opposition Consultative Council, Ghadbian said 1 350 people had been killed since demonstrations started on March 15. Human rights groups have said a further 15 000 have been detained, tortured or have disappeared.

The Syrian delegation met numerous people in government and civil society, including Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim.

Afterwards, they said: “Minister Ebrahim expressed concerns that the UN Security Council has been misused by Western powers as a tool for hegemony, and therefore South Africa was sceptical about supporting another resolution concerning an Arab regime.”

The group noted that “the Syrian people should not be made to pay the price for international politicking and grandstanding. It is disappointing that the South African government does not seem to be reflecting the values and experiences of its nation.”

Attempts to obtain comment from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation by the Mail & Guardian were unsuccessful.

A member of the delegation, Syrian-American human rights lawyer Yaser Tabbara, last week warned that a post-revolutionary Middle East could forget South Africa if it did not act now. “The Syrian revolution doesn’t have any particular loyalties. However it will have loyalties [after the revolution succeeds] to the friends that come now,” he said.

On the ‘wrong side of history’
As a way to address South Africa’s uncertainties with a UN resolution, the delegation has been insistent about the differences between Libya and Syria.

“This has been an overwhelmingly peaceful revolution that has been remarkable in its non-use of weapons,” said Tabbara. He pointed out that the rebels in Benghazi had asked for military assistance, but in contrast Syrians “do not want any form of military intervention”.

Peter Bouckaert, the emergency director of Human Rights Watch, said South Africa should use its “leadership of the global South” to put pressure on the other members of Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China) to pass the resolution.

By taking a “clear moral stance”, he said the government would be able to press for a resolution that condemned the crackdown, as well as place sanctions on specific people in the regime.

Christina Abraham, civil rights director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, added that these actions would speed up the process of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad and would “lessen the human and economic costs of our struggle”.

Iyas Maleh, a Syrian human rights activist, said sanctions “targeting specific individuals” would put pressure on the Syrian leadership, while giving moderates support to do more. His father, Haytham al-Maleh, became a prominent revolutionary when he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for criticising the Syrian regime on television.

A crackdown on free speech has led to the banning of Facebook and other social media websites. As a result, the youth pushing the revolution have turned to YouTube, becoming journalists in the process, said Ghadbian. Some have died capturing footage of military atrocities and others have been tortured, he added.

In a recent incident, a 13-year-old boy was taken by authorities and tortured. His body was returned to his family after it had been shot, stabbed and mutilated. After being asked to film it, a neighbour put the footage on YouTube. With no independent media allowed in the country, Ghadbian said, this was the only way of getting their story out and was a way of recording every atrocity, he said.

The main Syrian ally in the Brics block, Russia, is already changing its stance, said Bouckaert. Its president, Dmitry Medvedev, has publicly condemned Assad’s violent suppression of protests. Given this, Bouckaert said, it would be a great tragedy if South Africa found itself on the “wrong side of history” as democratic governments took over in the Middle East.

Human Rights Watch supplied testimony of soldiers who defected from al-Assad’s forces.

A member of Syria’s security agencies, referred to locally as Mukhabarat, who was deployed in Syria’s third-largest city, Homs, explained his scenario: “The protesters had sat down in the square. We were told to disperse them with violence if needed. We were there with air force security, army, and shabbiha [armed supporters of the government who do not belong to security forces].

“At around 3.30am, we got an order from air force security to shoot at the protesters. We were shooting for more than half an hour. There were dozens and dozens of people killed and wounded. Thirty minutes later, earth diggers and fire trucks arrived. The diggers lifted the bodies and put them in a truck. I don’t know where they took them. The wounded ended up at the military hospital in Homs. And then the fire trucks started cleaning the square.”

A conscript doing his military service in Damascus told Human Rights Watch: “Every night they used to summon us to a stadium-like place in the military barracks and made us watch Dunya TV [Syria’s state channel] from a big TV screen. It was all scenes from Dara’a showing people killed by what they reported as foreign armed groups.

“Officers would repeatedly tell us that there is a ‘foreign plot’ going on in Dara’a. Watching Dunya TV every night between 8pm and 10pm, we had the firm belief that there is a foreign conspiracy against which we needed to fight and protect our people.”

View YouTube videos of the Syrian protests here: video one, video two. WARNING: Videos contain explicit imagery.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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