Will Russia’s Syria stance prevail at the 5th BRICS Summit in Durban?

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As the 5th BRICS Summit in Durban approaches, the haggling behind the scenes about the content of the final declaration is reaching its final stage. Human rights NGOs are sending petitions to policy makers in Brasília, Pretoria, Delhi and elsewhere, op-eds are penned that urge BRICS policy makers to take a stand on climate change, energy efficiency, human rights and many other worthy causes.

One of the most hotly contested articles in the declaration - aside from the likely creation of the BRICS Development Bank - will be the BRICS' stance on the crisis in Syria. Hitting out at the "western media war" against the Syrian regime, President Bashar Al-Assad's special envoy recently traveled to India urged the BRICS nations to speak out more forcefully to put an end to the raging violence in her country and for creating a political dialogue to help the Syrian people decide their own future. She went so far to "thank the BRICS group of emerging powers for its support", which had "prevented western military intervention and the 'destruction' of the country." She has also been to China, Brazil and Russia to put forward the Syrian government's case.

South Africa, Brazil and India in particular face a difficult dilemma. While the three would individually opt for a more moderate stance and perhaps even be able to find compromise with the United States on drafting an UNSC resolution on Syria, Russia (and China) will seek to impose a harsher critique of the West's decision to arm the Syrian rebels, thus intervening in Syria's internal affairs.

On the one hand, it is quite natural for Russia to prevail on the Syria question during the 5th BRICS Summit in Durban - after all, the issue strongly affects Russia's national interest (Assad is an important ally). South Africa or Brazil, at the same tie, are much less affected by the crisis. On the other hand, policy makers in Pretoria, Delhi and Brasília are likely to feel uncomfortable signing a declaration that essentially aligns them with Russia's rather rigid stance that rejects even the mildest criticism of the Assad regime. A resolution urging the Syrian government to end all human rights violations and cooperate with the UN commission of inquiry and the Arab League observer mission was approved by India and South Africa before being vetoed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov argued that there is "absolutely" no chance of Moscow telling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stand down.

Given Russia's strong interest in the region, and the likelihood of China supporting the Russian position, the BRICS declaration is unlikely to diverge much from the Russian position - rather, it is likely to be fairly watered down, calling on both sides to create a national dialogue. In any case, the BRICS are unlikely to call for the authorization of cross-border humanitarian aid, and they will most likely not urge Assad to provide access for providers of humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas. (Currently, UN agencies are not allowed to work across borders without Syria’s consent, unless the UN Security Council authorizes such efforts.)

Exactly a year ago, during the 4th BRICS Summit, the final declaration said this regarding the conflict in Syria:

We express our deep concern at the current situation in Syria and call for an immediate end to all violence and violations of human rights in that country. Global interests would best be served by dealing with the crisis through peaceful means that encourage broad national dialogues that reflect the legitimate aspirations of all sections of Syrian society and respect Syrian independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Our objective is to facilitate a Syrian-led inclusive political process, and we welcome the joint efforts of the United Nations and the Arab League to this end. We encourage the Syrian government and all sections of Syrian society to demonstrate the political will to initiate such a process, which alone can create a new environment for peace (...).

Those who hope for something more specific from the 5th BRICS Summit Declaration are likely to be disappointed. In Durban, Russia's and China's forceful stance on Syria is likely to prevail against South Africa's, Brazil's and India's moderates.

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Photo credit: Freedom House/flickr