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South Africa Opposes Syria Strikes

  • Anita Powell

South African president Jacob Zuma opens the South African Parliament as he speaks in Cape Town, February 14, 2013.

South African president Jacob Zuma opens the South African Parliament as he speaks in Cape Town, February 14, 2013.

Continental powerhouse South Africa says it opposes Western military intervention in Syria, a stance that appears to mirror that of other African nations and align with United Nations Security Council members China and Russia.

"South Africa does not believe that bombing the already suffering people and crumbling infrastructure of Syria will contribute to a sustainable solution," said South African President Jacob Zuma on Thursday in Pretoria. "The U.N. Security Council cannot and must not be used to authorize military intervention aimed at regime change. A regime change agenda through outside military intervention undermines any hope of sustainable all-inclusive political solution."

In recent years, South Africa has deepened ties with China and Russia, longtime supporters of the ruling ANC party during the anti-apartheid struggle, who thrice used veto powers to block resolutions targeting the Syrian government since the 2011 uprising against the ruling government of President Bashar al-Assad.

But Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of the Johannesburg-based Africa-Middle East Center, says South Africa is not purposefully trying to align with China and Russia, but is maintaining its long-held stance against unilateralism.

"For South Africa, it is a matter of principle that it sticks by its position," he said. "There actually has not been much coming out officially from various other countries on the continent. And that is because I think that many of the other African countries are particularly concerned about negative reactions that they might get from the United States."

The U.S. and Britain are discussing possible military strikes after alleged chemical attacks on civilians last week by the Syrian government. Syrian officials have denied the allegations, and U.N. investigators are looking into the situation and are expected to file a report later this week.

Assad has previously reached out to the African Union for support in resisting U.N. pressure. He has also asked for support from BRICS, the group of large emerging economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The bloc earlier this year affirmed its support for dialogue and opposition to intervention.

Researcher Tom Wheeler of the South African Institute of International Affairs says there has been no compelling reason for Africa to get involved in arguments over Syria.

"The reaction in Africa, and in South Africa, has been almost zero," he said. "I think it is rather outside our area of concern. The events in Egypt have, if anything, overtaken any involvement in the Syrian issue."

But Jeenah says there is another reason African nations may be reluctant to support military intervention: In recent years, Africa has seen more foreign military intervention than any other continent.

"It is a history that is there, unfolding in front of us over the past couple of years," he said. "So the French involvement in West Africa, the French involvement in Mali, intervention in these countries, and of course Libya and the NATO bombing of Libya and NATO causing regime change in Libya, looms large in the memory of African states, of the African Union, and certainly of South Africa."

The Security Council is expected to debate the proposed British resolution soon, after the inspectors in Syria turn in their chemical weapons report.