A Chance For Canadians To Act

How Canadian citizens and government can help stop the violence in Syria.
By: /
March 1, 2012
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In Syria, the so-called “Arab Spring” has turned into a nasty, deadly winter, with some 7,500 civilians killed at the hands of their own government. The international community may now be facing the failure of diplomatic solutions for a country in danger of slipping into a full-blown civil war.

For countries everywhere – from the 20-member Arab League to the European Union, the United States, and Canada – the question now is: What can we do about Syria?

The question is both morally and strategically important. If democratic nations sincerely believe that there is an international “responsibility to protect,” then why would that apply to Libya and not to Syria? If military intervention was necessary and defensible in Kosovo and Kuwait, if two interventions were justified politically in western countries against Iraq, then how is Syria different?

Strategically, the situation is different from Libya. Former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi could easily be portrayed as a mad man; Syrian President Bashir al-Assad cannot. At this point, however, Assad is not fully in control of his army, some members of which are reportedly unwilling to fire on civilians, and his attempts to hold on to power have resulted in a repression that most international commentators believe, in the end, will prove impossible.

How Assad will leave, if he indeed will, and how many of his own people will be killed in the meantime is the moral difficulty overhanging those in the democracies wondering what can be done.

The question of what can be done, or perhaps what ought to be done, is one not only for governments, but also for those who elect them and the think tanks and lobby groups that would attempt to influence foreign policy.

One surprise about the escalating repression in Syria has been the lack of popular noise against it. Both protest movements and intelligentsia in countries like Canada have responded to the Syrians’ attempts to create a democracy for themselves with a “seen that before” kind of complacency.

Air strikes were needed to help the Libyans, and while the future style and substance of democracy in Egypt is far from clear, the Arab Spring has appeared to have an inevitability to it that may have inured us to the real repression in Syria.

The occasional, and largely jubilant, group of Syrians and Syrian supporters demonstrating in Toronto’s Dundas Square has hardly hit the national psyche. Protests by Canadians of Tamil descent a couple of years ago had far more impact.

Until recently, the rhetoric of politicians has hardly raised the national temperature. Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, in Tunis for a meeting of the Friends of Syria, pledged foreign aid and called on Syria to allow safe access for humanitarian assistance.

But having ruled out military intervention, the White House is at last becoming more blunt. “It is time to stop the killing of Syrian citizens by their own government,” Obama said in Washington, adding that it is “absolutely imperative for the international community to rally and send a clear message to President Assad that it is time for a transition. It is time for that regime to move on.”

But how will the regime move on if no one pushes it, and how many will be killed in the process?

Military intervention is a hard choice. Syria is an ally of Iran, and a major influence on Lebanon and the proxies Hamas and Hezbollah that threaten Israel. With Libya, there was little fear of spreading the conflict – with Syria, the opposite is the case.

But none of those strategic matters lets off those who believe in a moral or legal responsibility to protect, or those whose role is to advise and pressure governments on what they should do.

Canada could, and should, have its own role. It was a major player in the intervention in Libya, and earned its military spurs in Afghanistan. What should it say and do now?

What, also, should our politicians do? Parliament is a place for debate. Would it be too much to ask that our politicians take a day to debate the latest development in the most important international political change of the century? How about a similar day in both Houses of Congress?

As for those, like the Canadian International Council, who would advise and attempt to bring solutions on foreign policy to government, their duty is to influence by the power of words – to study, write, blog, raise awareness, and possibly point the way to responsible action. Syrians want the freedom to exercise the rights we have every day to make our views known and influence policy. We should be using our rights to demonstrate what those rights may do. There will be no solution if we don’t look for one.

This article has been endorsed by the following:

Arfan Ahmad is president of the Canadian International Council’s Windsor-Essex branch.
Paul W. Bennett is president of the Halifax branch.
Duane Bratt is the president of the Calgary Branch.
Jo-Ann Davis is the president of the Toronto branch.
Joan Euler is the president of the Waterloo branch.
Nicholas Hirst is the president of the Winnipeg branch and a member of its national board.
Kyle Matthews is the president of the Montreal branch.
John Noble is the president of the National Capital (Ottawa) branch.
Daniel Sutherland is the president of the Saskatoon branch.
Mark Williams is president of the Hamilton branch.
Grant Winton is the president of the Edmonton branch.

Photo courtesy of Reuters