Few remember that a high level delegation from India, Brazil and South Africa visited Damascus in August 2011 with a plea for peace.
Several respected diplomats made the trip. Dilip Sinha (recently retired as India’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva), Paulo Cordeiro de Andrade Pinto (Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, Brazil), and Ebrahim Ebrahim (Deputy Minister of International Relations, South Africa) met Bashar al-Assad and foreign minister Walid al-Moualem to plead for peace. It was not a fool’s errand.
Why did these countries send their delegates to Damascus to ask for a hasty peaceful solution?
They had come together in 2003 around imbalances in global trade rules at the World Trade Organisation and the danger posed by the US-led regime change operation in Iraq. Political agreement between these states on these issues led them to create the IBSA Dialogue.
The untethered ambitions of the US to drive policy based on its national interests bothered them. A new coalition of the Global South had to be formed to balance the world order.
In March 2011, the ambassadors from the IBSA bloc sat at the UN Security Council for a vote on Libya. This was the vote that authorised military action to protect Libyan civilians. India and Brazil abstained. Anxiousness over the West’s use of this resolution led them to sit back.
South Africa was going to join them, but then a phone call from US President Barack Obama led South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma to vote for the resolution. The war that followed set aside the terms of the UN and went directly for regime change.
India, Brazil and South Africa were dismayed by the destruction of the Libyan state.
Senior ambassadors for each of the countries told me shortly after the vote that no such action on behalf of regime change would ever be allowed again.
It was in this context that the IBSA team went to Damascus. It made it clear that what was needed was a ceasefire, a commitment to accountability for crimes, a national dialogue and political reform. The delegation left Damascus content. It had been reassured.
Nothing was further from the truth. Syria spiraled downward from there.
India, Brazil and South Africa did not dip their toes into the Syrian waters again.
Brazil withdrew its embassy to Beirut. India’s embassy remains, but it is much smaller. South Africa’s embassy is the only one at some strength. In October it held a seminar on national reconstruction – bringing to Damascus the experience of South Africa’s transition from apartheid.
BRICS and Mortars
China’s typical posture until recently has been to try and involve itself as little as possible in the affairs of other states. Economic development has been Beijing’s top priority, with China’s need for the US and European market preventing any antagonistic gestures.
Russia’s leadership, until 2000, had been largely pro-Western and preoccupied with pilfering the social wealth of its population.
All this has now changed. Russia under Putin rebuilt its military and its infrastructure. China’s economy menaced the United States. In response, the West began to encircle Eurasia, with NATO expansion to the Russian border and heightened military tensions in the South China Sea.
In 2009, Russia and China formed a new military alliance. It has deepened over the years with war games and arms sales. That was the same year as the first BRICS summit – when China and Russia helped enlarge and displace IBSA.
The BRICS drew from the IBSA approach to world conflict – calling for multilateralism as opposed to Western interventionism.
When the West asked for a resolution on Libya in 2011, both China and Russia joined India and Brazil to abstain. In February 2012, India’s ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri told me: “Because of the Libyan experience, other members of the Security Council will not hesitate in exercising a veto if a resolution contains actions under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which permits the use of force and punitive and coercive measures.”
In other words, it had become clear that neither the Russians nor the Chinese would permit the UN to sanctify regime change in Syria. That was off the table.
Russia’s military entry this year has finally ended the possibility of regime change. That is why at the G20 summit, Obama and Putin spent 35 minutes talking strategy on Syria.
Collaboration is necessary at the level of the great powers to bring regional powers to the table. When the Syrians will be able to have their say is not clear.
Silence from Brasilia, Delhi and Pretoria
India, Brazil and South Africa have, meanwhile, been silent.
India in particular is uniquely poised to play an important diplomatic role here. Through the conflict, Assad’s government asked for India to be given a seat at the table – especially at Geneva II.
“We would really like India to play a more proactive role,” Syria’s ambassador to India, Riad Kamel Abbas, said recently. “India is in a rare position where it has good relations with both Syria and the big world powers.”
Each of these powers dances between their economic ties to Iran and to the Gulf countries. No one can accuse India of being in either bloc. They are, truly, non-aligned.
A sigh of relief comes from these three states as regime change in Syria no longer seems possible.
But relief is not enough. The diplomatic impasse in Vienna will only be magnified when the Syrian groups enter the deliberations. The IBSA states – with their relatively unscathed reputations and close links with some of the regional powers – could make very important interlocutors for the negotiations.
It is time for another IBSA delegation, but this time not merely to visit Damascus. It needs to also go and talk to the Syrian opposition.
Bridges need to be built. The West is not capable of this, neither are the Russians. It is time for India, Brazil and South Africa to shrug off their bad experience over Libya and enter the Syrian stage. They are needed.
This essay originally appeared in AlAraby.