Syrian activists hope South Africa can pressure Assad

South Africa's history of overturning a cruel government make it an attractive ally for human rights activists in conflict zones like Syria. But will South Africa take the leadership they expect of it?

As Syrians continue to take to the streets, facing a brutal government crackdown, a delegation of Syrian human rights activists has come to South Africa to build up international support for their pro-democracy cause.

The choice of South Africa is significant. South Africa is currently a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Its history as a nation that overturned decades of racist apartheid rule through persistent pressure gives it credibility on the international stage. And as a new member of the BRICS economic club (so-named for its members Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), South Africa is part of a group of economically vibrant countries intent on balancing the power of US and Europe.

Iyas Maleh, one of the Syrian delegates and the son of a prominent Syrian human rights activist jailed last year for criticizing the Bashar al-Assad regime, says that Syrians look up to South Africa both for its history and for its growing influence.

“We see South Africa as an up-and-coming power that has a future role on the international stage,” says Mr. Maleh. “The Syrian government always uses the excuse that their enemies [the US] are behind all this. At least if they can hear from a friendly country, from a country with a history of human rights, it will let them know the human rights situation is important. We want South Africa to take a leading role in condemning the violence of the crackdown.”

The Arab Spring – that ripple of revolution that started in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and Bahrain, and then erupted violently in Libya with an armed rebellion – has left South Africa befuddled, and scrambling for a consistent foreign policy position. As a country that itself toppled a harsh authoritarian minority government, South Africa has a soft spot for revolutionaries. But as a liberation party worried about outside manipulation, particularly from the West, South Africa has often found itself moving slower than other countries in deciding whether to support a tottering regime or not.

In the case of Libya, for instance, it has done both. As a member of the UN Security Council, South Africa voted for Resolution 1973, allowing member nations to impose a no-fly zone to prevent the Muammar Qaddafi regime from massive armed retaliation in rebel-held cities. And yet South African President Jacob Zuma has argued that his vote for a no-fly zone did not mean an endorsement of regime change, as NATO planes bomb Mr. Qaddafi’s forces, command centers, and Qaddafi’s palace itself.

“Ever since it joined the BRICS, South Africa has taken one adventurous position, and that was Resolution 1973 in Libya, and they are still apologizing for that,” says Naeem Jennah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Center in Johannesburg. “In the Arab World, the respect that was given to South African on the global scene is decreasing because of that.”

On Friday, thousands of Syrians took to the streets again in the city of Hama, where the Syrian security forces have already killed some 22 protesters and wounded dozens more, firing live ammunition into crowds. US and French ambassadors visited Hama on Thursday to show support for the demonstrators, who themselves have not been violent.

It is that kind of open support that many Syrians look to South Africa to provide. But the visiting Syrian delegation, simply by meeting with senior members of the ruling African National Congress – including South African Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim on Friday afternoon, is showing that South Africa still has a credibility on the global stage that non-Western nations see as appealing.

“What we’re seeing is the rise of the influence of countries in the developing world – South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, India, and of course China, and possibly Egypt in the future,” says Mr. Jennah. “Particularly in the [South African President] Thabo Mbeki administration, it was the desire to move to a world that was much more multilateral, rather than have one superpower in charge.”

Maleh reaffirmed that Syrians had no desire for foreign intervention. “We don’t want international military intervention, like with Libya,” he says. “We want people to stand in solidarity with us, and not deal with a government that has lost all credibility.”

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