There was some irony in Deputy Minister of International Relations Ebrahim Ebrahim favourably citing Henry Kissinger in an article in the Sunday Independent last week. Kissinger, the crusty old Cold Warrior, was never very sympathetic to Ebrahim’s ANC and its calls for international support when he was Secretary of State to US presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the 1970s.

But now Ebrahim finds himself on the same page as the ANC’s old nemesis on the Syrian crisis. Ebrahim wrote in response to a Sunday Independent editorial of the week before which berated his government for its “studied neutrality” over Syria, its refusal to take sides even to the extent of rebuking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for slaughtering his people with artillery.

Ebrahim responded by writing that “South Africa holds the conviction that foreign military intervention aimed at regime change will not be successful in providing a lasting solution to countries and regions that suffer from democratic deficits”.

“The latter approach has not brought peace, security and stable democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. Nor will it provide a lasting solution to the current crisis in Syria.”

He then quoted Kissinger warning in the Washington Post of June 2 that armed intervention in Syria would risk a post-intervention political and security vacuum, as happened in the aftermath of arming the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“Regime change”, according to Kissinger, “almost by definition generates an imperative for nation-building. And since the world has little appetite for nation-building, the international order itself begins to disintegrate. Blank spaces denoting lawlessness may come to dominate the map, as has already occurred in Yemen, Somalia, northern Mali, Libya and north-western Pakistan.

“In reacting to one human tragedy”, Kissinger cautions, “we must be careful not to facilitate another.”

There may be wisdom in Kissinger’s caution but less in Ebrahim’s. For he is responding to an exaggerated version of the position he is attacking, as his government often did on Zimbabwe.

For the editorial on Syria which Ebrahim evidently didn’t like did not urge the SA government to support, much less to join, a military invasion of Syria to topple Assad. The editorial was itself written in response to the decision by several countries to expel Syrian ambassadors and contrasted that with SA’s weak reaction.

Expelling Syrian ambassadors is a long way from military intervention. Recalling your own ambassador from Damascus is further still. There are many ways of expressing your displeasure – and of trying to influence events for the better – other than military action.

And the sooner you do so, the better. Last year, when Assad’s political opponents were facing his tanks and artillery with peaceful demonstrations, they sent a delegation to SA. They appealed to the SA government, as a member of the UN Security Council and a country deemed generally influential in Africa and the developing world, at least to voice criticism of Assad’s violent crackdown and to support sanctions and other non-violent measures to pressure him to negotiate for democracy. They stressed they did not want foreign military intervention.

SA spurned their appeal. Ebrahim himself at that time said SA would support no Security Council resolution against the Syrian government “because we don’t want to be taken for a ride again”. He meant that SA felt it had been duped into voting for UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorising military intervention to protect civilians in Libya which Nato and its allies had then abused to remove Muammar Gaddafi by force.

Whether a stronger stance by SA last year would have altered the trajectory to war is debatable. But it would have at least maintained SA’s diplomatic credibility. And who is to say, since it didn’t happen, that it might not have carried some weight with Damascus?