Turtle Bay

New U.N. bloc finds constraining the West preferable to restraining Syria

As the U.N. Security Council huddled behind closed doors last week to consider a statement condemning Syria for the violent repression of protesters, India’s U.N. ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri, offered up an unexpected argument: The Syrian government had also been a victim, he said, citing the deaths of Syrian security forces. For months, India, Brazil ...

PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images
PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images

As the U.N. Security Council huddled behind closed doors last week to consider a statement condemning Syria for the violent repression of protesters, India’s U.N. ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri, offered up an unexpected argument: The Syrian government had also been a victim, he said, citing the deaths of Syrian security forces.

For months, India, Brazil and South Africa — collectively known as IBSA — had helped stall a push by the council’s European governments to use the full force of the Security Council to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end the crackdown that has led to more than 2,000 deaths. They have joined China and Russia in making the case that a sharp increase in international pressure on Syria will only exacerbate the violence.

Brazil’s U.N. envoy, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, has led the group’s diplomatic efforts on the council, putting forward a series of amendments aimed at softening a tougher European-backed resolution censoring Syria. At one stage, she pressed her British negotiating partner to drop a provision calling on Syria to permit press freedom. South Africa’s U.N. ambassador, Baso Sanqu, joined ranks with Brazil and India to argue that the West had squandered the council’s trust by overreaching in Libya.

The reluctance of IBSA’s members to confront Syria’s comes as other key players in the region, including Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, have begun to take a harder line on Damascus. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu traveled to Damascus on Tuesday to deliver a tough message to the Syrian leader to stop the killing immediately. Turkey is at “the end of its patience,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

In the end, Brazil, India, and South Africa agreed on August 3 to support a substantially weaker council statement condemning Syria’s conduct, but only after Damascus ordered tanks into the town of Hama, killing more than 100 civilians. The IBSA governments   sent three top level envoys on a joint mission to Damascus, where they held meetings today with President Assad. They issued a statement noting Syria’s pledge to implement political reforms, called on government forces and protesters to show restraint, and urged the Syrian leadership to comply with last week’s Security Council statement.

But in New York, IBSA’s diplomatic strategy has been marked by efforts to shield Syria and restrain the United States and its European partners. They argue that the council’s Western powers have been too ready to impose sanctions or use force to resolve crises, and have devoted too little to diplomacy. One frustrated Western diplomat quipped that the group’s acronym, scrambled, spells BIAS, a reflection of the group’s pro-Syrian slant during talks.

The bloc’s defenders say that their caution over Syria reflects deep and justifiable ambivalence over the West’s leadership on the world stage, particularly what they view as its reflexive use of economic sanctions and military force to solve political crises. That concern, they say, was reinforced earlier this year after U.S. and European diplomats parlayed a Security Council resolution — portrayed narrowly as a measure aimed at protecting civilians — into a much broader mandate for regime change, targeting members of Col. Moammar al-Qaddafi‘s family and key installations, including a government controlled television station.

The South African government, the only member of the group to have voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the use of force against Libya, has been on the defensive back home, facing criticism from within the ranks of the ruling ANC, according to diplomatic sources. It has hardened its opposition to tough action on Syria. On Tuesday, Sanqu told the council that invoking the protection of civilians as a pretext for military action in Libya would havea detrimental impact on the council’s ability to take similar action elsewhere.

Throughout the several days of negotiations, the IBSA countries portrayed the conflict in Syria as one between opposing armed camps. Brazil introduced a set of elements that included no condemnation of Syria and would have placed the violence against civilians on the same levels as attacks against security forces. It called for the council to “condemn all forms of violence including the use of force against unarmed civilians, sectarian violence as well as hostility against security forces.”

India reinforced that position in public. “Let’s look at the facts,” Puri told reporters during a break in the talks. “This is no longer an issue, and has not been for a while, of only a state against innocent, helpless civilians. There has been violence perpetrated against the security forces and against public infrastructure … 350 security forces personnel have died, buildings have been burnt.”

It is true that the Syrian forces have faced pockets of armed resistance. But the circumstances surrounding their deaths remains uncertain, according to U.N. officials. While some may have died in clashes with armed opposition elements, many have been executed by their own when they tried to defect. The vast majority of the killings, the U.N. contends, have been carried out by government forces against unarmed civilians.

Human rights groups say that they are deeply disappointed that the three countries have not been more assertive in their defense of human rights in the Security Council. They say Brazil, under President Dilma Rousseff, a former political prisoner who fought against Brazil’s military dictatorship, has become much more supportive of human rights issues at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, supporting critical statements about human rights abuses in Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Sudan. On Monday, a top South African official, Ebrahim Ebrahim, urged Damascus in a meeting to extend freedom to the press and even suggested that the U.N. Human Rights Council take up the matter of Syria. But they have opposed it in New York.

“Given their credentials as leaders in the global South, the IBSA countries could change the dynamics of response to human rights crises like Syria” said Peggy Hicks, the director of Global Advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “Their engagement on Syria though has fallen well short of the mark. The IBSA states seem willing to look for a lowest common denominator, rather than use their credibility and own experiences to push for an effective, non-politicized response to the crisis.”

Hicks and other critics of Syria say the group will be put to the test again on Wednesday, when the U.N. delivers a report that is expected to conclude that Syria has ignored the council’s demand to halt its repression of protesters, permit access to humanitarian aid workers, and cooperate with a U.N. investigation into alleged crimes committed during the crackdown. Britain and France are expected to follow up the meeting by introducing a more forceful resolution demanding Syria comply with the council’s demands.

In many ways, the three countries still identify with the broader bloc of developing countries at the U.N. that feel “they don’t get no respect” and “suspect the big powers of trying to pull the wool over their eyes and claim their dominance,” Jeffrey Laurenti, an expert at the Century Foundation. Laurenti said that they have performed less as “naysayers” than “footdraggers,” slowing a diplomatic process that has moved well beyond their own comfort level. “They are prickly about anything that suggests the West is trying to override the sovereignty of another developing country,” he said.

Bruce Jones, director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said the Syria debate highlights the struggle of newly emerging powers as they make the transition from outsiders to insiders, with new responsibilities to confront threats to international peace and security. That transition, he said, has landed them in the awkward position of defending an unsavory Syrian government. “I think these are very responsible governments, but they are new to the big leagues in foreign policy and they are grappling with the inconsistencies in their policies,” Jones said.

Jones said that the expectation that these newly emerging powers support democracy, human rights, press freedom are unfair, noting that the United States and other Western democracies have often placed their own national security interests above human rights. He cited the case of Bahrain, where the United States has done little to rein in a powerful government.

“There is no reason why they should be taking on the cause of democratic promotion as a core element of their foreign policy. We don’t do it,” Jones said. “I’m happy to be critical of their policy in Syria, but we should cautious to cast large scale disdain on their foreign policy as if we were pure as the driven snow.”

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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