So much for the 'new dawn': SA silent on Mideast atrocities
In the face of a murderous Assad and possible war in the region, our response has been tepid and fearful
Two events of global significance occurred this week.
On Tuesday, in the US, President Donald Trump signalled his decision not to apply a further waiver on sanctions against Iran, thus resiling from the nuclear deal and suggesting a new era of confrontation between the West and Tehran. And the prospect of a wider conflict in the already combustible Middle East.
On Monday and several time zones away, in Russia Vladimir Putin was inaugurated for his third term as president, extending an effective 18 years in power for another six years.
In his last term, Russia forcibly annexed Crimea, fomented unrest in Ukraine, interfered in the US 2016 election, weaponised a nerve agent against a former double agent and his daughter in England, and assisted the lethal war Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has waged against his own people, recently by bombing an opposition-supporting town there with poison gas, for the second time in one year.
Both these events make the world a far more dangerous place today than it was perhaps one week ago.
As it happens this column is being dispatched from the Middle East where I am currently visiting a belt of Gulf countries, Jordan and Israel. The consequence of an unbounded Iran plus a belligerent Russia using its military presence in Syria to project its failing power in the world, should give pause to those who think that these faraway issues will have a small impact on our lives.
Just look at how, on Monday, the US benchmark price of crude oil jumped to $70 for the first time in three years, in response to Trump’s tweet that he would announce his decision on the Iran deal the next day.The combination of Russian military operations in Syria, Iran-backed support for Hezbollah operating there in support of Assad and his minority regime as well, and neighbouring Israel now striking targets in Syria in response to Iran sending ever more sophisticated weapons to its proxies, is like gelignite being applied to a veld fire.
In the days when the US still sought a constructive and central role in the Mideast, and where containment rather than confrontation was its core mission, a key American policy maker in the region was Dennis Ross. I met him on a few occasions, and he was low-key and modest, in direct contrast to the blowhards now in charge of US national security issues.But just the other day, even he was alarmed enough to sound an ominous warning in The Wall Street Journal. Ross wrote: “The prospects of a wider war pitting Israel against Iran, Hezbollah and Lebanon are increasing – thanks to Russia.”
And that was inked before Trump denounced the Iran nuclear agreement. In its absence, one side-effect will be to remove an international constraint on Tehran and allow it to move unchecked into further confrontations, not least with its other nemesis in the region, Saudi Arabia.
Where, you might ask, is South Africa’s voice in all this?
It is perfectly true that today we hardly occupy great weight in world affairs, and our moral and international capital was severely depleted, almost to the point of intellectual bankruptcy, during the locust years of Jacob Zuma.Still, there was some prospect that with the “new dawn” of Cyril Ramaphosa and the ascent of the smart and worldly Lindiwe Sisulu as his International Affairs minister, that our place and prospects in global affairs might be reset. Alas it appears to be a false sighting.
Just last week, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley provided a roll call of our votes in that forum. It makes for depressing but predictable reading. South Africa, she advised on its 2017 voting record there, was in the top 10 countries least likely to vote with the US. And we were in the exalted company of such bellwethers of international respectability as Zimbabwe, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea.
Fair enough, that did not happen on the Ramaphosa-Sisulu watch, even though both were senior members of the administration which approved such votes.
But since Syria is front and centre of a possible wider war in the region and the world, let’s consider, aside from predictable denunciations of Israel, what South Africa’s new team has said about events there.
Perhaps the most egregious violation of human decency and affront to even the most basic norms of international law occurred last month in the one of the few opposition-held redoubts in Syria, the town of Douma. More than 40 Syrians were killed when poison gas was dropped on them and, according to video footage, “men, women and children were lying lifeless with foam bubbling over their lips”.
Even Trump, who tweets his every impulse to an amazed world, seemed to get it right and before he ordered a fusillade of missiles to be fired at Syrian chemical weapons facilities, tweeted about Assad: “A gas-killing animal who kills his people and enjoys it.”
What then did our Department of International Relations, now under “new dawn” leadership, have to say in response to the international outrage on this latest atrocity?Actually, no condemnation and no real concern about this affront. The statement, with all its spectacular equivocation, read: “The alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria cannot be a justification for military air strikes in a territory of a sovereign state without authorisation of the UN Security Council.”
Pity about the foaming mouths of dead innocent civilians.
And the entire tepid response of South Africa was prefaced with the spectacularly helpful suggestion that “when the Syrian crisis broke out, South Africa has consistently and constantly called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict”.
If the results were not so tragic this would be a huge, sick joke: 500,0000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict broke out, mostly at the hands of the Syrian government. Suggesting that the UN Security Council act makes South Africa complicit in an ongoing massacre of civilians: South Africa well knows that Russia has exercised no fewer than six vetoes to prevent any concerted international action against Syria. But, of course, according to our International Relations Department, the poison gas action is merely an allegation.
Perhaps some vaguely moral or even half-awake operative in Pretoria could be reminded that when last April the Assad regime used sarin and chlorine nerve gas, in addition to its normal bombing campaign against its own civilians in Shaikhoun, the sainted UN did actually investigate. It found the Syrian government to be responsible. But as with the old Simon and Garfunkel song, South Africa’s moral outrage was “the sounds of silence”.
It is one thing to act in our own best interests – most countries do that – but we seem to allow impulse and gestures, anti-American, pro-Russian/Iran/Syrian sentiment to determine our place in the world and our responses to its dangers.
What a fearful position for a once-admired international actor to occupy.