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Zuma should be wary of Syrian quagmire

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zuma dec 12

Independent Newspapers

President Jacob Zuma. File Photo: Masi Losi

The civil war in Syria has acquired a strange resemblance to the civil war in Libya, now that President Jacob Zuma has been drafted into the plot.

On Saturday, Bouthaina Shabaan, an adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, visited South Africa to deliver a letter from Assad to Zuma, calling on the Brics nations to intervene to end the conflict in his country.

The Brics bloc of emerging nations – comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – will meet for their fifth summit in Durban next week, with Zuma in the chair.

Shabaan was quoted by AFP on Saturday as saying Assad asked for intervention by the Brics to stop the violence in his country and encourage the opening of a dialogue, which he wishes to start.

Shabaan said Zuma responded very positively.

Will we now see a repeat of Libya 2011, when Zuma led efforts by the African Union (AU) to intervene in the war by trying to start peace talks between embattled leader Muammar Gaddafi and the rebels trying to topple him?

Zuma lead a committee of AU presidents which tried to persuade Gaddafi and the rebels to enter peace talks. Gaddafi said he was ready to do so but the rebels said they would negotiate for peace if Gaddafi stepped down. He refused and was eventually toppled and killed.

Zuma had complained bitterly that the Nato alliance refused to lift the no-fly zone over Tripoli to allow him and his AU peers to return to Libya to pursue their peace strategy.

Assad’s letter to Zuma seems to be a gesture of desperation as the rebels appear to be closing in on him.

A key difference between Libya and Syria so far has been that Nato and the West more generally have so far refused to get involved militarily in Syria.

But that seems to be changing. France and the UK tried, at an European Union (EU) summit in Brussels last week, to persuade the EU to lift the arms embargo against Syria so that the rebels can access the weapons it needs to fight the Syrian military on more equal terms.

They failed as other EU leaders feared that increasing the rebel arsenal would expand the conflict, increase casualties and aggravate instability elsewhere in the volatile Middle East region.

Other EU governments also fear that the weapons could end up being used against them as al-Qaeda-linked Islamist jihadists are prevalent in the broad coalition of rebel forces trying to topple Assad.

But the EU leaders do not seem to have ruled out a possible re-think on lifting the arms embargo. German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted that the EU had already shifted its position by allowing non-lethal military equipment to reach the rebels and so might one day allow lethal weapons too.

The Syrian war resembles the Libyan one in another key factor – that the Syrian rebels are also demanding that Assad step down as a condition for peace talks.

Which, of course, he is refusing to do.

So what will Zuma and Brics do at the summit?

Will they go further than statements and embark on a serious peace mission?

If so, South Africa needs to be wary of becoming entangled in what is clearly Russia’s bilateral issue than a Brics problem. Russia is by no means a disinterested party to the conflict. Syria is strategically important as it provides Moscow with its only warmwater naval port. Russia also supplies arms to Assad.

So Russia has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to oppose any punishment or pressure on Assad and has steadfastly blocked any attempt to force Assad to resign.

Yet, as with Gaddafi, Assad’s resignation seems to be the only thing that might persuade the rebels to stop fighting to negotiate.

That would be a sensible and constructive position for Zuma to take at the Brics summit. But it is doubtful he will oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin so directly.

This could prove to be the first real test of South Africa’s Brics diplomacy. It must be handled carefully.

The Star


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