Five steps to take if Canada is serious about peace in Syria

This week’s visit to Europe by Justin Trudeau provides an opportunity to raise the issue, but there’s even more Canada should be doing.

By: /
February 14, 2017
SyriaMabley
A woman walks along a damaged street in Aleppo, Syria, February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Newly uncovered evidence is again demonstrating the gruesome brutality and viciousness of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. In this regard, Michael Petrou's recent column on the Syrian conflict represents a call to arms for all concerned Canadians interested in seeing the rule of law and democracy installed in Syria.

Petrou calls on the Trudeau government to spend some of its diplomatic capital and take a firm position against the excesses of a regime that has gone relatively unchecked by the international community.

As a former diplomat who orchestrated Canadian efforts in the early days of the Syrian conflict, I stand firmly with Petrou on this issue.

It is not as if our Western governments were not aware of the notorious Saydnaya prison in Syria and the hangings and torture that have taken place there. Last week’s Amnesty International report alleging 13,000 deaths from 2011 to 2015 merely confirms what we knew even before the start of the Arab awakening in Syria through anecdotal and eye witness evidence. When the rebellion began, diplomatic channels established through the Global Security Reporting Program at Global Affairs Canada were providing weekly if not daily updates on events in Syria.

Canada has already established itself as a leader in supporting the forces of freedom and democracy in Syria. Its unofficial role in the early days of the conflict — when I was personally involved — established it as one of the few Western countries prepared to assist and advise the rebels and take a stand against the barbarism of the Assad government. Our welcoming of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees has rocketed Canada to the top of the refugee humanitarian agenda. Taking a political position to support the Syrian opposition would not be a departure from our previous position. It would be a logical progression. However, it will require a decision to lead, and some daring.

Is this not what former Vice-President Joe Biden's last minute visit to Ottawa in December was all about? As progressive regimes in Europe and the United States are falling prey to narrow, right-wing nationalist political parties, and while the Russians return to the ideological nostalgia of a lost empire by acquiring Crimea by force, Canada is increasingly alone as one of the last G8 progressive regimes. Biden's message confirmed this new Canadian responsibility. It also translated an American regret that the Obama administration during its eight years in power was unable to push through any new progressive foreign policy with the exception of the Iranian nuclear agreement. Leading from behind has revealed itself to be a policy that has allowed free reign to the worst dictators today — Assad and Vladimir Putin.

Now it is Canada's turn to defend the values of freedom and democracy at home and abroad. The progressive mantle has been transferred to us and that is the key factor in the push to move on this file.

Let us take a principled stand in Syria and act to oppose the hangings, the torture and cruelty of the Assad regime. Canadians, emboldened by an imaginative Syrian refugee policy during the first 12 months of the new Liberal government, are beginning to demand more than just talk and lip service about Syrian excesses.

Yes, we can do more. But what could 'more' mean? What would a principled Syria policy look like? It would certainly not mean supporting any extremist groups within the Syrian opposition. After all, separating extremists from the democratic youth opposition seeking a free and stable Syria is not rocket science. Many of us diplomats, journalists, activists, etc. — who are well-informed sources close to the Syrian opposition groups — already know who they are. And we already know who should be in the dock of the International Criminal Court.

What more could Canada do? Here are five suggestions for what to do next:

1. Host consultations.

Invite Syrian opposition leaders and democratic factions to Canada for consultations regarding their current needs and priorities. Our guests would include political and military leaders, including members of the youth opposition. There needs to be a lot of media coverage and the goal should be to increase public and elected officials' knowledge of the current situation.

2. Strengthen Canada’s policy on Syria.

Elaborate a coherent and clear Syria policy for Canada, which will provide material assistance in a timely fashion to the democratic opposition in Syria. Such a policy would lay out possible actions for Canada, such as providing material and humanitarian assistance to the Syrian opposition and giving them a diplomatic platform to raise international visibility and credibility. It would also serve as the framework under which all of our Syrian-related foreign actions can be subsumed and be defined instead of relying on a patchwork of periodic criticisms not followed up by any concrete action or proposals for action. (We would certainly avoid the spectacle of the Canadian foreign ministry having to beg the Friends of Syria group to attend an international meeting.) Such a policy would be a logical extension of the decision to accept tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

3. Bring up Syria whenever possible.

Raise the Syria dossier at every appropriate occasion and international meeting to convince Canada's allies to support us in achieving the objectives of our Syria policy. Trudeau’s visit to Europe this week would be an excellent opportunity. This is the diplomatic track. We might be happily surprised by the results.

4. Name a new ambassador — to the opposition.

Appoint an ambassador to the Syrian opposition. The post will sunset once the dictator has been removed and when Syria is on the road to freedom and political stability. This person will be the principal liaison to ensure that the Syrian opposition has what it needs to carry on the struggle to final victory.

5. When it comes to war crimes, start naming names.

Act on Petrou's suggestion that Canada present a case against the Syrian government, naming individuals responsible for carrying out crimes against humanity. McGill professor and former war crimes prosecutor Payam Akhavan endorses this measure (as he recently expressed in The Globe and Mail) and the Canadian government has been financing war crimes experts since 2012 who are actively collecting information (proof) inside Syria as we speak.

Although Canadians do not naturally crave the international spotlight, leading is not new to us. There are many examples to draw from: the 1979 Iranian hostage caper; our work to obtain the release of Nelson Mandela from a South African prison; diplomatic actions to secretly disseminate dissident Czech views against Soviet repression; Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's bold decision to not accompany the U.S.-led coalition to invade Iraq; and finally, our assistance to the Syrian opposition — including, with the support of Canadian civil society institutions, cyber tools — thereby saving hundreds of peaceful Syrian dissidents from a grisly end in Saydnaya prison.

Can Canada lead again and become once more the conscience of humanity?

Yes, we can.