Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy on Syria has announced that the international conference on Syria, scheduled for July may now be postponed. With the Syrian government and rebels now being injected with fresh flow of arms from their respective allies – Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on one side and the US, EU and Arab Gulf countries on the other, peace seems as elusive as ever. Caught between these two proverbial elephants are the Syrian people. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is assuming staggering proportions with the UN calling it the ‘worst humanitarian disaster’ since the Cold War. What can India and the other ‘rising democracies’ do in this instance?
The last United Nations General Assembly vote in May on a resolution condemning the Syrian government saw a shift by a section of the international community regarding its support for the Syrian opposition. India, Brazil and South Africa(IBSA) abstained from voting on the recent resolution, sponsored by Qatar and supported by most of the Arab and western states which support the Syrian opposition. The convergence of the position of these three states is significant. Together they form the IBSA Dialogue Forum, a grouping for south-south cooperation. Priding themselves as being ‘rising democracies’ (as distinct from the BRICS grouping – neither Russia nor China are democracies), India, Brazil and South Africa are amongst the world’s emerging big economies, representing important continents of the developing world. Their main areas of convergence are that they are democracies from the global south, and all three wish to see reforms in the UN system; all three aspire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The IBSA Forum will this year celebrate a decade since its founding. The sixth trilateral summit, scheduled to be held in June this year now stands postponed, but held it will be.
Syria, in a sense, is thus a test case for the IBSA countries on the international arena. In spite of their common aspirations, they often have different foreign policy priorities conditioned by their different geo-political locations. Yet, on Syria the IBSA states seem to be coming together. This convergence of their positions also represents a deviation from the traditional voting patterns. These states have otherwise had a history of voting together with the Arab states on major issues connected with the Arab world, as for instance on the issue of Palestine.
But the approach to Syria has been one of ‘strategic ambiguity’. The IBSA countries do not feel aligned with the Western ‘interventionist policy,’ as all three have had a history of oppression. The IBSA Dialogue Forum itself emerged not only after the failed Cancun Conference of the World Trade Organisation in 2003, as is always pointed out, but also in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the Anglo-American alliance. The rising democracies felt the need to challenge the existing world order, to in future prevent states from unilaterally effecting ‘regime change’ in states not disposed favourably towards them.
All three states understand that Basher Al Assad is no angel and, like his father Hafez al Assad did, has long ruled Syria with an iron fist, and that political reforms had long been due. Yet, neither India, nor Brazil or South Africa support unilateral military intervention in Syria by any western power.
Hence, while all three states in principle support multi-lateral humanitarian intervention in any country, they would prefer that such initiative follow from the UN. In this regard 2011 presented a very opportune moment when all the IBSA states found themselves at the same time on the UN Security Council. IBSA sent a mission to Syria in August 2011 – its most ambitious international initiative till date. Amidst a severe police and army crackdown on protesters across Syria an IBSA delegation met with Syrian officials to express grave concern and condemn the use of force by all parties.
India and South Africa, which were the two IBSA states on the Security Council as non-permanent members in 2012 January were able to coordinate their position again with regards to the Arab League proposed resolution after it was sufficiently watered down, and voted in favour.
This convergence of position has not always been typical of the IBSA states. In August last year, on a UNGA similar resolution as the recent one, India abstained. Brazil and South Africa voted in favour, but became some of the countries that have moved away from condemnation of the Basher al Assad’s regime.
However, with the conflict dragging on and with human rights violations being committed by both the Syrian regime and the rebel forces, there is a huge humanitarian crisis at hand. Through the IBSA platform the three countries can make perhaps a stronger and more meaningful intervention, which would also lend greater credibility to its claims in this tenth anniversary of its founding.