The Role of IBSA States in the Syrian Civil War

India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) have been involved in the Syrian conflict since its eruption in 2011, attempting to play a significant role in resolving this crisis. The crucial challenge that faces the international community including IBSA is that the Syrian crisis has become the most daunting humanitarian issue of the present time. It has been estimated that more than six million displacements and a very high number of civilian casualties have been recorded since the start of the conflict (Ferris, et al., 2013, p.1). These numbers of displacements and causalities have created challenges for the international community and its organizations as well as for different alliances. The IBSA block has been attempting to play a significant role in various global issues. Consequently, the Syrian crisis can be considered a serious challenge for these states to demonstrate their ability to play a reliable part regarding their security concerns. In order to explicate the role of IBSA in the Syrian conflict, this essay will focus on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state as a concept that is defended by IBSA. The importance of state sovereignty has made IBSA oppose the notion of a military intervention which will be discussed in the second part of this paper. The rejection of external interference has led to a resistance to the “Responsibility to Protect” concept which motivated Brazil to coin an alternative concept called “Responsibility while Protecting”. Before discussing these two concepts, the essay will highlight political talk as a primary option championed by IBSA. For better comprehension, this article will focus on the effect of the Libyan crisis on the Syrian situation and show how IBSA members’ positions were affected by this crisis.

The respect of sovereignty has played a crucial role in the Syrian crisis and directed the situation to an undesirable destination for the countries that see the solution in overthrowing Assad’s regime. China, Russia and IBSA countries (BRICS) came to a consensus, in November 2011, emphasizing the significance of respecting sovereignty in any attempt of transformation (De Jesus, 2014, p.34). Jordaan (2015, p.9) has stated that regardless of the fact that the Syrian regime can be held responsible for the violence, when it comes to sovereignty, India emphasizes  the prerogative of the state to choose the proper way to manage its local affairs and prevent force. The Security Council (UNSC) attempted, in 2012, to pass a tough resolution that requested Al-Assad to resign, but the resolution was vetoed by Russia and China.  At the same time, South Africa and India declared their concern about the external interference in Syria, encouraging the Syrian people to choose their leadership. Both countries asserted that any solution must preserve the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country (Aboagye, 2012, p43 and, 2012).

As a continuation of their stance towards sovereignty, IBSA partners have resisted the idea of military intervention in Syria and have opposed external intervention in general. For instance, regardless of Western pressures to vote in favour of the resolutions against Libya and Syria, India abstained (Choedon, 2013, p.216). Instead of voting for a military solution, the Indian Prime Minister strongly criticized Western countries for using power to overthrow regimes. The Indian prime minister confirmed, in the UN General Assembly, that his country was against managing any society by an outside power (Choedon, 2013, p.217 and Banerjee, 2012, p.104). Although Brazil voted in favour of a resolution that put a condemnation on Al-Assad’s regime in the General Assembly, Brazilian authorities rejected military intervention. They asserted that it should be the last action in any violent crisis (Adams, 2012, p. 4 and De Jesus, 2014, p.35). Nevertheless, Brazil was criticized by NGOs for its policy that has opposed military intervention, without providing any substantial alternative (ibid, p.37). In this regard, in 2012, China and Russia vetoed a military intervention in Syria. Hirst (2015, p.13) has assured that if Brazil and its IBSA allies had been members of the UNSC at that moment, they would probably have abstained. Therefore, it seems as if the IBSA states do not have a collective policy even though they appear to have one policy. For instance, their policy is against military intervention, but during the Libyan crisis, South Africa voted for resolution 1973 which authorised the resulting military intervention. In contrast, Brazil and India abstained emphasising the need for a serious international involvement (Adams, 2012, p.3).

 IBSA appears to have a fundamental belief in the power of diplomacy instead of in external intervention and sees political dialogue and reform as possible alternatives that Western politicians deny in the Syrian situation. India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) have been attempting to solve the Syrian crisis through diplomatic means by sending a delegation to Syria. The delegation urged the Al-Assad regime to abnegate violence and implement democratic reforms (Choedon, 2013, p.216). In the ninth article of the IBSA Ministerial Joint Statement[1], they emphasised IBSA states’ constructive role in the Syrian crisis through the UNSC to achieve a permanent solution via diplomacy and dialogue. The statement has indicated that the visit of IBSA Deputy Foreign Ministers was seeking democratic changes and a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The IBSA Ministers have asserted “the initiative reflects values shared by the IBSA countries especially in relation to the promotion of democracy and human rights and the protection of civilians”.

The permanent Indian representative to the UN described IBSA efforts in the Syrian crisis as having a calmative impact on solving the crisis, rather than having an exacerbated effect that may worsen the situation (cited in Haldipur 2011). India has argued that instead of “finger-pointing and intrusive monitoring”, productive negotiation would be a better method (Jordaan, 2015, p.9). Gowan has argued that the invitation to dialogue and pursuit of a diplomatic solution were the Sino-Russian’s demands. However, as a result of the insistence on finding a diplomatic solution the Europeans were unable to impose significant sanctions on the Syrian regime. For instance, on 4th October 2011, the Europeans attempted to push their resolution, which had very limited sanctions, to vote. They thought that the Chinese and the Russians would abstain, and the IBSA partners would support it. Nevertheless, the outcome was frustrating as China and Russia vetoed the resolution, and the IBSA States abstained. It is almost certain to say that all those who were against this resolution, including the IBSA Members, preferred dialogue with Assad’s regime (Gowan, 2011, p.3).

Based on their belief in diplomatic solutions, India, Brazil and South Africa have rejected not only military intervention, but also any sanction against the Syrian regime. In October 2011, IBSA countries abstained from voting in the UN Security Council on sanctions against the Al-Assad regime (De Jesus, 2014, p.34). It seems significant to say that, even though the IBSA group can abstain, and  do not have the right to veto, the Western countries regard this abstention as if it is an obstruction. Hirst (2015, p.12) has commented on this Western annoyance saying; it can be explained as having less power but does not mean having less pressure. Regardless of the power of influence that IBSA possesses, Hirst has asserted that in the absence of an alternative solution to the Syrian crisis, “the conflict in Syria or the process of fragmentation in Iraq have not been followed by concrete diplomatic initiatives on the part of the group. In this respect, it could be said that the IBSA/BRICS groups have so far preferred to function with loose strings and non-binding understandings” (2015, p.7). Generally speaking, IBSA delegations visited Syria urging the regime there to stop using violence against peaceful protestors. Notwithstanding all these efforts, as described by Human Right Watch (HRW), it did not succeed (Jordaan, 2015, p.9 and Gowan, 2011, p.3).

It has been noticed that there are insufficient solutions especially regarding the humanitarian issue in the Syrian crisis. Ferris, et al. have remarked that the effort of the Security Council to stop the humanitarian suffering in Syria is frustrating. Ferris and his cowriters asked if the UNSC was unable to halt such acts, why could the UN General Assembly (UNGA) not take the initiative and become strongly involved in these issues. The authors have demanded the UNGA to cooperate with IBSA and the other Non-Aligned countries. They stated that “this is an issue where the BRICS (Brazil, India, and South Africa in particular) and the 120 strong Non-Aligned Movements can and should assert greater leadership” (Ferris, et al, 2013, p.48). The Brazilian foreign minister and South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation met in July 2011 condemning the human rights abuses in Libya and Syria (De Jesus, 2014, p.33). However, De Jesus pointed out that many NGOs criticized the Brazilian fragility of performance in regard to human rights, particularly in Syria (ibid, p.37). It seems unfair to only criticize Brazil in this regards, as all IBSA members refuse to support Syrian pro-human rights initiatives in the UNSC (Jordaan, 2015, p.1), despite IBSA’s appearance to have a very firm position in the human rights files. For example, In October 2011, there was a draft to condemn human rights violations, and demand an end to the violence and call for an inclusive, Syrian-led political process. If adopted, the resolution would have contained symbolic sanctions. Surprisingly, IBSA partners did not support the resolution draft. Instead, they abstained preferring to coordinate with Moscow and Beijing (Benner, 2013, p.5).

However, it can be said that Brazil is different when it is compared with its two IBSA partners because Brazil has a greater willingness to support stronger human rights. For instance, Brazil, in a 2011 special session, voted in favour of a resolution that condemned the Syrian regime for its leading role in the conflict. At the same time, South Africa called for restraint by both the government and the rebels. South Africa has attempted to avoid criticising the Syrian Regime even regarding the massacre that occurred in the Syrian town of Alhoolah in June 2012. The South Africans did not condemn Al-Assad’s regime for this barbaric act but, instead, they urged the administration and the opponents to refrain from using force (Jordaan, 2015, p.9 and Benner, 2013, p.7). Nontheless, in respect to Brazil, Grevi has asserted that the diplomacy of this country has changed since 2011, attempting to create more distance from the dictators in South America and the rest of the world. As a sign of this change, Grevi  has argued that even though Brazilians seem not to favour more sanctions being placed on Iran and have been hesitant to condemn the Syrian regime, they have supported two UN General Assembly resolutions to condemn human rights abuses and call for political transition in Syria (2013, p.11).

Condemnation of the Syrian regime demonstrates that IBSA partners have different positions and do not have a particular or unified policy to deal with the global crisis. For example, regardless of its acknowledgment of the state’s responsibility to allow a peaceful demonstration, South Africa showed the weakest stance compared to Brazil and India. Brazil voted against Al-Assad’s regime and India called Syrian authorities to act with restraint (Jordaan, 2015, p.9). However, India was not far away from South Africa’s stance, when it showed its tolerance to the Syrian regime, in the second special session on Syria which was held on 22nd August 2011. India abstained on a draft resolution aimed to establish an independent international commission to investigate accusations of human rights abuses (ibid). Although IBSA, as mentioned by BBC correspondent Barbara Plett, has announced its commitment to support human rights, its members have been supporting repressive dictators instead of those who are demanding democratic change (Adams, 2012, p.4). Nevertheless, for better understanding of all these contradictions, especially in humanitarian intervention issues, it can be said that IBSA states plus China and Russia seem not to have reached a decisive consensus. Gowan has summed it up by saying that; “Russia and China were not ready to approve further interventions. India, Brazil and South Africa – increasingly caucusing together under the “IBSA” banner – were also keen to distance themselves from the West. This shaped the Council’s response to Syria” (2011, p.3).

IBSA joined the UNSC talks about intervention for humanitarian purposes under the concept of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). In addition, Brazil introduced a new concept called “Responsibility while Protecting” (RwP). The “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) aspect “was coined by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), established in the aftermath of NATO’s military action during the Kosovo crisis of 1999” (Foley, 2013, p.10). The importance of R2P, as asserted by Brosig (2012, p.4), has come from its ability to provide a base on which constructive debates about the intervention in Libya, and a potential intervention in Syria have become possible. R2P was the subject of what was described as a weak Security Council resolution, on 4th February 2012. India and South Africa voted for this resolution with eleven UNSC members, but it was vetoed by China and Russia. The Russians defended their veto saying that the decision was provoked by “arms, allies and power” (Adams, 2012, p.4). Brazilians, who had not been members of the Council since the end of 2011, might join their IBSA allies to vote in favour of the resolution. They will vote owing to their backed policy of R2P aiming at protecting citizens from mass atrocities (Briscoe and Peeters, 2013, p.5). However, looking at the Brazilian’s possible stance from a pessimistic point of view may provide a negative prediction. Although Brazil has a diplomacy that encourages the idea of R2P, it also strongly respects state’s sovereignty (Foucher, 2014, p.1). This respect for the sovereignty and the unity of the state’s territories might motivate the Brazilians to abandon their support of the Responsibility to Protect. In general, it can be said that not only have Southern countries become sceptical about R2P, but also there are some researchers who have become suspicious of the intentions of particular supporters of R2P after the NATO-led military intervention in Libya. Furthermore, they have become anxious that any interference to provide protection to civilians from mass oppressions may lead to more suffering and dissatisfaction (Hamann and Muggah, 2013, p.7).

It has been noted, that during the NATO invasion of Libya,  Western powers treated Brazil and India, who abstained from that resolution, very harshly when they requested information about the result of the intervention in Libya (Benner, 2013, p.4, Lindert and Troost, 2014, p.28 and Stuenkel, 2013, p.61). Few Western experts tried to explain the reaction of Brazil to this severe Western treatment. However, it can be assumed that the Brazilians attempted to fill the gap that had occurred between the West and the South because of what had happened in Libya, by introducing a new concept called “Responsibility while Protecting” (RwP). The concept was introduced to the Security Council for the first time in November 2011 by Brazil’s Permanent Representative to the UN[2]. The RwP aimed to “offer policy suggestions intended to improve future interventions, which might advance international agreement on R2P’s controversial third pillar” (Brown, 2013, p.63). Both campaigns looked at the new concept in a suspicious way and considered it a plot. China and Russia thought “the RwP was a Western plot to trick emerging powers into accepting Western imperialist intervention”. On the other hand, Western opponents described it as “a plot to delay meaningful action against the mass atrocities in Syria” (Lindert and Troost, 2014, p.28 and Stuenkel, 2013, p.61).

Yet, Stuenkel has argued that the RwP has not achieved the success that was achieved by the R2P owing to the lack of elaboration by the Brazilians. Brazil has not created momentum and improved a diplomatic campaign to collect support for the concept. Moreover, Brazil should provide more explanation for this concept and how it could be applied to the Syrian conflict. This insufficient elaboration appears to affect the RwP in the North and South. The other IBSA members can be taken as an example of the weakness of the coordination. Instead of supporting the RwP and making it an IBSA idea, India and South Africa have been sceptical towards the concept (Stuenkel, 2013, pp.61-62).

Despite IBSA members talking about state sovereignty and the importance of using diplomatic solutions to resist any military intervention, the impact of the Libyan Crisis on IBSA stances toward the Syrian Conflict seems to be obvious. An adverse effect has been produced by the Libyan crisis and severely affected the Syrian situation. Adams (2012, p.3) has argued that when some countries in IBSA defend the Syrian regime, regardless of the principal of R2P, they use NATO intervention in Libya as an excuse for their opposition. R2P is restricted to crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing (Raymond, 2013, p.24), which all appear to be applicable in the Syrian case. In spite of this, the IBSA partners have rejected the use of the R2P concept owing to the misuse of the mandate given to NATO in the Libyan crisis (Gowan, 2011, p.1, Stuenkel, 2013, p.60 and Bellamy, 2012, p.20). Gowan has stated that the countries which veto or abstain from tough Security Council resolutions against the Syrian government, including IBSA partners, condemn the West’s exploitation of the UNSC’s mandate for humanitarian intervention in Libya as an excuse to overthrow Ghaddafi. This accusation explains their opposition to applying even light sanctions against the Syrian regime, because they think that the misuse of the Council’s mandate in the Libyan crisis has caused distrust of Western powers and their role in the Syrian conflict (Gowan, 2011, p.1). Moreover, Lindert and Troost have mentioned that in 2011, the Security Council had an historical composition whereby all the IBSA members, as well as China and Russia, abstained from resolution 1973 except South Africa. The result was assumed to be a sign of collective support for humanitarian intervention in Libya. However, these countries rejected the idea when they realized that NATO was exploiting the mandate to protect civilians as a mandate for overthrowing the regime.

The UNSC mandate exploitation by NATO in the Libyan case has driven some IBSA partners to believe the Russian assertions that the intervention in Libya was a new method of Western imperialism. This particular interference has been seen by the West as a success while considered by the Rising Powers as a fail (Lindert and Troost, 2014, pp.26-27). South Africa, which was the only IBSA member that voted for the R2P in Libya, abstained in the Syrian case. Aboagye has stated that the rationale of South Africa for not voting in favour of the R2P resolution in the Syrian case was based on “procedural remit”. The South Africans asserted that the R2P should be discussed by the UN Human Rights Council, not by the UN Security Council. South Africa has changed its stance towards the R2P owing to the disproportionality of force used in the Libyan crisis (2012, p.33). It seems that what the BRICS members have described as a misuse of UNSC’s mandate during the Libyan situation, has affected the Syrian crisis and made them more reluctant to seriously intervene in Assad’s regime. As shown above, it can be said that the Syrian people are suffering because of  NATO’s under-reporting on Libya (Brozus, and Farkas, 2013, p.64).

In the final analysis, when it comes to the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), although all IBSA partners voted in favour of the resolution in 1970, as it tended to refer the regime in Libya to the International Criminal Court for killing its people, and imposed sanctions on the regime there (Adams, 2012, p.3), the IBSA was very hesitant in the Syrian crisis. In addition to the divergent positions, IBSA partners have different explanations when they have consensus on a particular issue. For example, on 4th October 2011 India, Brazil and South Africa abstained from a Security Council resolution intended to restrict the Syrian regime’s killing. Brazil justified its abstention as a protest against the division amongst the UNSC permanent members. Meanwhile, the explanation of South Africa related to the templates of the solution that indicated that it was along similar lines to Libya (Adams, 2012, p.3). While India seemed to implicitly justify Assad’s violence saying, according to (, 2011), even though governments must respect the grievances and the aspirations of their people, they also have to protect them from armed rebels.

It has been noticed that there is a kind of hesitation regarding some IBSA members’ stances. Brazil can be taken as an example in this issue as according to Briscoe and Peeters, Brazilians attempt to observe a good relationship with superpowers and leading regional players. As a result of this concern, Brazil avoids having firm stances on some international security issues, especially those of human rights or democratic affairs. What has been mentioned above may help to understand the Brazilians’ hesitation toward the Syrian conflict regardless of the bloodshed that may be considered as an internal affair (Briscoe and Peeters, 2013, p.5). Moreover, Gowan has mentioned that the frequent vetoes of China and Russia and IBSA’s abstentions of any strict Security resolution against the Al-Assad regime drove Western powers to say that these stances have affected the UNSC and made it appear ineffectual.  Western officials have reached the conclusion that the BRICS, in general, tend to challenge the West rather than seek a solution to the Syrian crisis through the Security Council. This kind of behaviour may indicate that giving the IBSA states more power in the UN would be a risky matter (2011, p.2). Furthermore, Lindert and Troost have reported that Brazilian officials tended to be keen to put an end to this conflict through their solemn condemnation of the violence there, which can be used as an excuse for more international intervention. Nevertheless, the pressures of the Chinese and Russians in addition to the effects of the Syrian pro-Assad diaspora in Brazil have weakened the Brazilian enthusiasm. Brazil appears to have reached a level whereby it has decided not to be involved in the crisis resolution efforts when they declined the invitation to participate in the January 2014 Geneva Dialogues on Syria (2014, pp.18-19). In general, it appears that the IBSA does not have a clear policy toward the Syrian crisis, and it can be affected by their two active partners in BRICS- China and Russia. Adams (2013, p.87) has asserted that “It is still not entirely clear what kind of world the IBSA countries want and how they are going to help remake it”.

In conclusion, it appears that the IBSA block seeks to play a significant role in the Syrian crisis. India, Brazil and South Africa aim to avoid military intervention in Syria and try to use other alternatives. This essay highlighted some of these options and other related issues. The diplomatic solutions and political dialogues were discussed in this paper as important aspects that can assist to approach an end to this conflict. The humanitarian sides are significantly considered in the IBSA policy, and it has been shown in this paper how the IBSA members pay much concern to this issue. The article highlighted the concept of “Responsibility to Protect” which seems not active in the Syrian crisis owing to the Sino-Russian’s veto that was supported by IBSA. Brazil attempted to fill the gap between the South and the North by introducing a new concept called the “Responsibility while Protecting” which was rejected by both campaigns. All these issues that were discussed in this essay demonstrated the effect of the Libyan crisis on the way that IBSA has been dealing with conflict in Syria. To summarize, it can be said that IBSA states have much concern about the Syrian Crisis, but they appear to be affected by their partners in BRICS -China and Russia. This matter and the Sino-Russian’s effect tend to show IBSA as a coalition without a stable stance towards the Syrian civil war.

Fahd Alghofaili


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[1] The IBSA Ministerial Joint Statement was issued in New York, 23rd September 2011 on the margins of the 66th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.

[2] The Responsibility while Protecting was introduced for the first time on 21 September 2011, by the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, in a speech to the UN General Assembly (Benner, 2013, p.1).