South Africa at a loss over what to do about Syria

South African political analysts have explained the country’s low-key stance on Syria as a mix of overcompensation for the embarrassing Libya debacle and a awkwardness around Western powers and states with a more direct stake in Syria’s future.

Ten Western countries expelled senior Syrian diplomats in response to last Friday’s massacre in the town of Houla in the Syrian province of Homs during which 100 people died. They include the United States, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany.

Professor Yusuf Dadoo, a lecturer in the department of religious studies and Arabic at the University of South Africa, said South Africa’s stance was in line with that of other role players, such as the European Union and the United Nations.

“They haven’t gone further than vociferously condemning the [Syrian] government and they have not taken steps at alleviating the problem,” Dadoo said, unlike the nations that had recalled their envoys in a show of “assertive diplomacy”.

Professor Somadoda Fikeni of the Institute of African Renaissance Studies said that, as a result of the Libyan experience “where South Africa was heavily crucified” after signing UN Security Council resolutions that effectively authorised Nato bombing, “the country is now diplomatically overcompensating by trying to show some measure of independence” by not expelling Syrian diplomats.

Six-point plan for peace
South Africa took this stance even though Russia, a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, had condemned the killing of civilians.

Fikeni said because South Africa had supported Kofi Annan’s six-point plan for peace in Syria, which was submitted to the UN on March 16, it was being consistent in abiding with negotiated settlements and peaceful resolutions.

In reality, Fikeni said, the plan was “limping” – the UN observers and Annan were helpless because sanctions and military action would be vetoed by China and Russia. The two countries view them as a way to change the regime.

The second point of the plan urges the factions to “commit to stopping the fighting and achieve urgently an effective UN-supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilise the country”.

The spokesperson of the department of international relations and co-operation, Clayson Monyela, said South Africa’s stance on Syria was unambiguous and principled.
“We have been quite concerned with the way the [Syrian] government was reacting to demonstrations even before the violence escalated.

“In the initial stages we sent our deputy minister, Ebrahim Ebrahim, to Syria to engage with the Assadregime. When it became clear that the reforms were not coming, we spoke out at the Security Council and were in support of the resolutions that were vetoed by Russia and China.

“Where we are now as the international community is that a possible way out is a six-point plan. In the absence of dialogue [and] with the veto from Russia and China, what do you do?”

Dadoo said Syria was important to Russia and China because it was a buyer of arms. China has long-standing trade agreements with Syria and Russia has its only Mediterranean naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus.

“Russia and China view the ceding of Syria to the West via opposition to the Assad regime as an invitation to extend Nato and US power further into Asia, thereby threatening their geopolitical interests,” he said.

On Wednesday, news agencies reported that the Free Syrian Army had given the Assad regime 48 hours in which to stick to the peace plan or the army would consider itself no longer bound by the plan.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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