When you think of Brazil, the first things that come to your mind are football, the feisty Carnival of thousands parading to the beats of samba, beautiful beaches and even more beautiful women.
Some may even be reminded of Lula — the former Brazilian president who was once called “the man” by his North American counterpart, Barack Obama, for his brazen everyman style (thanks to his frequent tirades against “western imperialism” to his refusal to honour Zionism to a conciliatory approach towards Iran). Most recently, Brazil has been creating a buzz in the world financial market with its booming economy. Riding on this wave of optimism, the fact that the South American country will host, in less than two years, the Fifa World Cup, and in 2016 the Olympic Games, adds a ‘cherry on top of the cake’ for the upbeat Brazilians.
With so many things going on — and so well — for the country, the state of Brazil has been cautious, perhaps understandably so, in designing its foreign policy and reacting to geopolitical affairs in the Middle East. Brazil’s foreign policy regarding the Arab Spring, especially Syria, has been, at best, muted.
But this is where foreign policy analysts are sceptical of the wisdom of this stance: if Brazil wants to shed its ‘developing country status’ and beat other BRIC countries in achieving a ‘world superpower’ status, it will have to be more visible and outspoken in international affairs, particularly those of the Middle East.
When the Arab Spring began in December 2010, Brazil may not have gauged the gravity of the situation in the region, and failed to condemn dictators like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
“The foreign ministry of Brazil stumbled badly,” Marcelo Coutinho, a professor of International Relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, wrote for an influential local newspaper a couple of months back. “In a hundred years, the history books will speak of events that changed a core part of the world. Brazil will appear in a footnote on the wrong side of these transformations.”
President Dilma Rousseff, who assumed office in January 2011, has strongly held on to the principle of non-intervention, whether it was in the wake of Qaddafi threatening to wipe Benghazi from the map or Assad bombarding cities across Syria. She seems to have taken a more conservative approach to foreign policy matters than her outspoken predecessor Lula. Speaking at the opening session of the 67th United Nations General Assembly meeting in September, Dilma reiterated that the solution to the Syrian crisis could never be a military one, but “had to be negotiated and achieved through peaceful means.” She blamed the thousands of deaths over the 20 months of conflict on both the Syrian government and the opposition.
Clearly, Brazil did not want to take a categorical stance on Syria, much less side with western powers looking to remove Assad from power. Whoever follows the Syrian conflict closely knows that blaming both sides for the deaths is inaccurate, and the onus for the slaughter of the Syrian people lies with Assad.
Brazil, which aspires to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has occasionally cast itself as a mediator in the Middle East, attempting to help find a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear crisis in 2010, for example. Of course, the Obama administration was not thrilled by the Iran-Turkey-Brazil deal back then and has been disappointed with Brazil’s response to the Arab Spring so far. But last October, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after a meeting in Washington DC with Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, said, “Brazil’s involvement in a peace process in Syria is welcome.”
But what Brazil hopes to achieve through negotiations — a long-lasting peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis — seems far-fetched at the moment. The situation on the Syrian ground remained abysmal even at the time of the four-day truce around the Islamic festival of Eidul Azha, with nearly 150 people dead on the first day. According to the Local Coordination Committee, a network of local groups organising and reporting protests as part of the Syrian uprising, the regime’s army violated the ceasefire 1,455 times.
Ironically, a considerable number of leftists belonging to the ruling party, intellectuals, syndicate directors, student movements, and even congressmen, who once fought against their own oppressive military dictatorship (1961-1985), support the Syrian regime. They view Assad as “anti-imperialist”, a better option than Nato, specifically the US and the United Kingdom.
But the non-interventionist stance or pro-Assad bent is not shared by all in Brazil. Clóvis Rossi, a famous Brazilian columnist who often writes about the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime and the lack of sympathy from Dilma’s administration regarding these, wrote, “For the Brazilian democracy, today and always, we have nothing to do with the killings in Syria. I disagree: what affects humankind, in Syria or Brazil, affects me too, it is my business.”
According to Aldo Cordeiro Sauda, a political scientist, trying to justify the unjustifiable under the pretext of respecting Syria’s right to sovereignty, the so-called anti-imperialists “pretend they don’t see the Russian military bases on the Syrian beaches where billions of dollars in arms sent by Moscow are unloaded.”
“They even go beyond by presenting Assad as an anti-Zionist hero. Doing this, they conveniently forget that under Assad’s regime the Syrian borders were the safest ever to Israel,” he says.
For its own domestic order, it would serve the Brazilian government well to heed to the sentiments of the large Arab community, which is estimated to be somewhere between seven and 12 million in number, while formulating its foreign policy with regards to the Middle East. Their numbers have been steadily growing due to the continuous influx of immigrants from the Middle East, particularly Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine since the 19th century. And many of these immigrants have attained positions of power, like Gilberto Kassab (outgoing mayor of São Paulo), Fernando Haddad (mayor-elect) and Paulo Maluf (famous politician) to name but a few.
Samir Rahme, 55, a Syrian-origin doctor based in São Paulo, is vexed at his government’s response, or the lack thereof, to the Assad regime’s atrocities. “Brazil’s inaction towards Syria is almost cowardice. Even with all this killing, the government doesn’t assume a more energetic posture towards the Syrian regime,” he says angrily.
Rahme is among the first generation born in Brazil, to a family that migrated from Yabroud, some 80 kilometres from Damascus, in the 1920s. But he has strong views about the state of affairs in Syria, and fears that a religious war between Sunnis, Shias and Alawites might erupt if the Assad regime falls, or worse, the state could fall into the hands of Islamists. “That would be a catastrophe,” he says.
But this in no way means that Rahme is a supporter of Assad. “He is going to finish like Qaddafi,” predicts the doctor, referring to the unceremonious end of the Libyan leader who was killed after being caught in a sewage pipe near the town of Sirte.
Dead against any military intervention, he wishes everyone “could sit down and talk,” something very unlikely to happen at this point in the conflict. “The man [Assad] is a doctor, he studied in London,” he says. “But all this background didn’t do him any good. He is just really dumb, willing to kill everyone to stay in power. Everyone hates him now.”
Not an enviable position to be in, the Brazilian government is caught between radical left-wingers calling for non-cooperation with Nato over Syria and a segment of the population that wants it to outrightly condemn the Syrian bloodbath. On top of that, the pressure to prove itself as an important international player keeps on intensifying as the civil war in Syria drags on and the body count mounts.
It seems President Dilma’s non-interventionist stance will not work for long.
Kety Shapazian is a Brazilian journalist based in São Paulo where she works for Diário do Comércio.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 9th, 2012.