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POLITICS: IBSA Opposes Measures Against Syria

CAPE TOWN, Aug 22 2011 (IPS) - Members of the emerging economy grouping known as IBSA – India, Brazil and South Africa – have joined China and Russia in opposing measures against Syria.

“The South African government is of the view that the Syrian issue is best resolved by the Syrians themselves and they must be given space to do so,” South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation spokesperson Saul Kgomotso Molobi told IPS. “The Syrian government has indicated that it has been and continues to take reforms to open up the political space.”

Molobi said the international community’s positions are informed by the interests of the leading countries rather than a desire for change in the Middle East. “The examples are Bahrain and Yemen, where despite repression there were no attempts to seriously sanction and weaken the regime. In the case of the former, all was done to bolster it through military support from the Gulf Cooperation Council.”

IBSA appears keen to play an independent role. On Aug. 10, a delegation with representatives from all three countries met with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Al- Moualem.

At the meeting, the Syrian government again outlined its assertion that the protests stem from three disparate sources – academics and intellectuals pushing for democratic reforms, sections of the population responding to economic hardship and repression in particular regions of the country, and militants fighting to overthrow the government.

Assad acknowledged that “mistakes” had been made in the government’s response to the protests and repeated his claim to be committed to reform, offering as evidence proposed new laws he says will steer the country towards multi-party democracy in consultation with the citizenry.

“The Syrian government has indicated that it has been and continues to take reforms to open up the political space,” said Molobi. “It also wants to open up the economic space. This will be achieved through various laws that are being passed, such as the multi-party law, the media law and others. A national dialogue forum has been started although it has not attracted the attention of the country as a whole. The government would like to see an elected parliament that would continue the reform process.”

Molobi said South Africa and IBSA condemned violence – “by all parties” – but conceded there has been little sign of restraint by the Syrian government since the meeting – which shelled Latakia with tanks and gunboats on Aug. 14.

“We regret the escalation of violence and call on all parties to exercise restraint since an all-out conflict will be a disaster for all,” said Molobi.

University of Cape Town political scientist Zwelethu Jolobe said IBSA’s position should be seen to some degree as a reaction to the slowly growing international response to the Syrian crisis: “Everyone is giving their two cents and they probably felt they should too.”

He said that South Africa’s previous engagement with Syria was limited to a pair of bilateral agreements on trade and education, signed over the past two years as part of South African President Jacob Zuma’s administration’s broader activity in the Middle East.

South Africa’s calculations on Syria’s present crisis, he argued, are primarily informed by the significant roles each country plays with respect to the Palestinian Authority. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress Party has strong ties with the ruling West Bank party Fatah, dating back to the days of the anti-apartheid struggle and extending to financial and political support at present.

Syria has been a strong backer of Fatah’s sometime-rival Hamas, offering financial, military and political backing as well as hosting the party’s political bureau in Damascus.

“South Africa cannot afford to have Assad’s government completely implode – it upsets a delicate regional balance with extremely high stakes, within which South Africa has invested an enormous amount of historical, emotional, political and financial resources,” Jolobe said.

The relationship between Syria and Hamas is under strain, in part due to Syria’s internal crisis. The Palestinian party has refused to make a public show of support for the Assad government and a Palestinian neighbourhood in Latakia was among those which came under attack by state security this week.

Hamas is actively exploring relocating its offices to Cairo – a country with which Jolobe says South Africa has invested far more time cultivating close ties recently.

Asked whether, given the history of international support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the ANC government’s affirmation of Syria’s “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” was somewhat implausible, Molobi responded, “The situation in Syria has different aspects to it and violence is the sad part of it. This has been perpetrated by government and non-government groups with serious results. There are no short cuts and a proper Syrian process is the only hope to bring peace in Syria and no outsiders can do this.”

While highlighting the uneven responses by the U.S. and European countries to uprisings and violent state repression across the Middle East this year is important, the people who have not retreated from the streets even after months of repression surely require more from South Africa and its IBSA partners.

Friday saw the close of another deadly week in the five-month-old uprising in Syria. Activists documenting protests from within the country said demonstrations took place in several parts of the country; security forces are again accused of firing on protesters, killing at least 10.

The protests, which activists inside the country say involved thousands of people in the capital Damascus, the eastern city of Deir ez-Zour, the southern province of Daraa, and the port city of Latakia, came a day after the European Union and the United States called for Assad to step aside.

Speaking on Syrian state television on Sunday, Assad rejected calls to step aside, while announcing multi-party elections for parliament would be held in February. A U.N. humanitarian mission finally on the ground in Syria was greeted by protesters calling for Assad to step down in the city of Homs; according to the Local Co-ordination Committees, security forces opened fire once the team had left.

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