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Nicole Fritz
The Business Day

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma, addressing a Commonwealth parliamentary conference earlier this month, called on delegates not to remain silent “when one country is being bombed to ashes before our eyes”. It was plain he was referring to Syria: not so clear was the party he believed to be responsible for the bombing. It may be he thought a US military strike was imminent and sought to urge opposition to an attack. That is the position of South Africa’s diplomatic officials and many in its foreign policy community.

They may well be correct to urge abstention — after all, the complexity of the Syrian crisis permits no easy options. And yet you wouldn’t guess that by their rhetoric. The arguments they deploy do little to elevate a debate which, if it cannot secure immediate justice for the victims of the gruesome poison gas attack in Damascus on August 21, might at least allow us to better define what “humanitarian intervention” and the “responsibility to protect doctrine” could and must look like.

Chief among their arguments is that military action can only be contemplated if authorised by the United Nation (UN) Security Council. But this ignores the immutable deadlock that characterises the council on this issue. Russia has blocked three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to conflict sites in Syria. It blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two statements expressing concern about their use. Of the August 21 attack, it has not even been able to agree to a statement of condemnation.

South Africa knows the dysfunctionality of the security council produced by the veto system and its power politics — a dysfunction which bolsters South Africa’s insistence on reform of the council. And so for it now to suggest breezy deferral to that same body as the only proper means of addressing the crisis in Syria seems disingenuous.

An ancillary line of argument is that US President Barack Obama’s support for punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime is another instance of US imperialist warmongering. Admittedly, there are reasons to treat the Obama administration’s position with circumspection, but the ready conflation of Obama with George Bush makes South Africa look like the neophyte of the diplomatic world and callously dismissive of the suffering of Syrians. Obama’s stance on Syria is not Bush’s on Iraq. US Secretary of State John Kerry is no Donald Rumsfeld and US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, who authored A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide — a critical look at the US role in the perpetration of genocide in the 20th century — is no secret front for US neoconservatives.

Of course, an appreciation of the changed context doesn’t suggest the military strikes are the way to go. There are too many unknowns: no irrefutable proof as to who was responsible for the attacks; no reliable identification as to who would benefit from military strikes. There is also no appreciable sense of what the nature and targets of military strikes would be nor of how a campaign might be waged that is punitive and yet not so upsetting of the balance of forces that more dangerous entities are ushered in.

However, it is irrefutable that the hundreds of Damascus inhabitants, many of them young children, laid out lifelessly on morgue floors after the poison gas attacks, are the very persons who should be the beneficiaries of the international community’s fabled “responsibility to protect” obligation. But how to make the doctrines of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect have any purchase in conditions as messy and obscure as those which obtain in Syria?

South Africa, which has signalled its ambitions for an elevated role within a reformed global order, should be looking not just for a seat at the table but also to provide normative leadership. In respect of the Syrian crisis, it could, for instance, be working with other emerging powers such as Turkey, India and Brazil to secure a UN General Assembly resolution unequivocally condemning the chemical attack, but without identifying the perpetrators. This would in no way legitimise military strikes but would underline just how outrageous the attack was and how unacceptable the current security council impasse is.

South Africa’s contribution to the discussion on the Syrian crisis and how it might be resolved requires an acknowledgement of the fraught complexity of the situation — a reality belied by reductive reference to US imperialism and unrealistic insistence on security council resolution.

  • Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.

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