Zohra Dawood and Sanusha Naidu: SA’s policy on Syria must be based on logic

In a week when SA was jubilant over the election of Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the first chairwoman of the African Union Commission, Pretoria was back in the spotlight — this time regarding its stance on the proposed United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution on the situation in Syria.

Last Thursday, SA abstained from voting for the resolution proposed by the UK, France, Germany and the US, which would have imposed sanctions on the Syrian government in an attempt to stop its continuing violence and aimed at pressing President Bashar al-Assad’s government to end the worsening civil war that has killed hundreds of civilians.

The 11-2 vote saw Russia and China exercise their power of veto, while Pakistan also abstained.

According to Deputy International Relations and Co-operation Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim, the western-backed proposal "was unbalanced and targeted only the Syrian government, but not the opposition". A one-sided resolution would "only make the situation on the ground worse", he said.

A statement from the Department of International Relations and Co-operation noted that SA’s top priority regarding the Syrian crisis " is to stop the killing and end the suffering of innocent civilians …" and that Pretoria " will … support any decision of the security council that is balanced and geared towards supporting Mr (Kofi) Annan’s call for all sides in the conflict to adhere to their commitments under his six-point plan".

It seems that the South African government does not see a military solution as an option; it prefers a politically negotiated resolution aligned to the Annan peace plan.

But was SA’s abstention the right move to support a negotiated settlement based on the will of the Syrian people?

Definitely not, in the eyes of many who believe there are inconsistencies between Pretoria’s statements and its actions.

An underlying issue may provide insight into the dilemma that confronts SA on the Syrian issue.

The text of the vetoed resolution called for the Annan peace plan to be placed under chapter seven of the UN Charter, which provides for the council to authorise action that includes diplomatic and economic sanctions and/or military intervention.

Even though the UK, France and the US reassured other members of the council that the proposed resolution referred only to sanctions and not military interference and the British draft of the text did not authorise the use of force, SA found itself facing a decision similar to the one it faced when Resolution 1973 on Libya was tabled in the council.

Was abstention a safer option than taking a principled stance?

Or could it be that Pretoria is beginning to realise that multilateral diplomacy is not as easy as it seems?

Ebrahim noted that SA was not opposed to the "sanctions per se" but rather to the resolution’s one-sidedness in targeting only the Syrian government.

A relevant consideration is whether SA considers the conflict to be an internal armed conflict or a civil war.

On the one hand, Pretoria interprets those involved in the conflict as having responsibilities and obligations under international humanitarian law, while on the other hand it argues that "the international community must urgently respond to the escalating violence in Syria in a stern and balanced manner, based on the realities on the ground".

Do the opposition forces in Syria define their struggle against the Assad regime as a just war against an unjust ethnic minority government?

Is the opposition prepared to accept a "Syrian-led negotiated all-inclusive dialogue to establish a political transition"?

Damascus remains one of the last significant actors for Moscow in the region. The nature and legitimacy of the opposition at the domestic level remains fractured in terms of whether, among several other issues, there is a single opposition voice.

SA’s foreign policy decisions should in future be informed by a rational and clearly thought-through set of logical arguments. By neither aligning with the UK, France and the US nor siding with China and Russia, Pretoria’s position is informed by a set of considerations that are not clear.

• Dawood is the executive director of the Open Society Foundation for SA and Naidu is a senior researcher in the foundation’s SA Foreign Policy Initiative.

This commentary was originally published in the Business Day, 26th July 2012: http://www.businessday.co.za/articles/Content.aspx?id=177069

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