Motlanthe’s Syrian debacle

Syria has a long history of arbitrary arrest, unfair trails and prolonged detention of suspects. Thousands of political prisoners remain in detention, with many belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party, yet ANC Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe insisted on meeting with President al-Assad over the weekend, as a precursor to talks with Hamas leaders in what can only be seen as a clumsy and badly articulated foreign policy. That South Africa’s foreign policy has tended to support repressive regimes around the world is not all that surprising given the liberation movement’s Cold War legacy. It should be noted that even our Nobel laureate, President Mandela has been silent on atrocities in Myanmar and Darfur, and the idea of spreading human rights around the world has fallen on deaf ears in the ANC over the years.

What should the people of South Africa make of the current administration’s avowed support of military regimes with poor human rights records? Human rights in Syria has been described as particularly “poor”.Since 1963, emergency rule has remained in effect which gives security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention.The country is governed by a one-party state without free elections, allowing authorities to harass and imprison human rights activist and other critics of the government

According to Human Rights Watch President Bashar al-Assad had failed to improve Syria’s human rights record in the 10 years since he came to power. Syria now appears to be attempting to broker peace deals amongst Arab states, in particular with a view to acting as a counter to US-lead negotiations around Israel and Palestine Is it fair to say that any liberation struggle which lacks a freedom charter is doomed to failure as a political movement? The close association of Hamas and the Baathist Party in Syria is surely not conducive to talks. If ever there was a reason not to negotiate, then the record of Baathism in the Middle East is merely fuel to the Israel right-wing conservatives. The example of Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein is a case in point.

Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Syria and the two countries are at loggerheads over the demand by Syria for return of a strategic piece of land called the Golan Heights, captured during the six day war and which give any intruding force the military advantage overlooking Jerusalem.

Tying Palestinian sovereignty to the Golan Heights merely restates the politics of the six-day war and the reason why the conflict is unlikely to ever reach a peaceful conclusion. As long as there is Syrian aggression and dictatorship, Israelis are unlikely to accede to a regime which refuses to tolerate religious and political differences. In fact the current stalemate appears to be driving political extremism on the divisive issue of the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Something which Baathists are unlikely to agree to, given that Jews are a repressed minority in Syria, with only 70 elderly left of a total population of 70 000 before the creation of the state of Israel.

Would South Africans have reached any consensus on the divergent issues which affected the country prior to 1994 if the ANC was organised along religious, not secular lines? Would any sane person have accepted a struggle which did not have as its basis recognition of fundamental human rights and freedoms? The answer can surely only be a resounding no, which is why our Deputy-President needs to be solidly chastised for sacrificing the principles of our own democratic revolution on the alter of a self-serving international political agenda. Time for the ruling party to join the ranks of the opposition.

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