Syrian crisis first tough test of diplomacy under Stephen Harper
OTTAWA—It was a leaden grey November day, not even three months ago.
CF-18 fighter jets along with massive transport and refuelling planes flew over the Centre Block.
Some 2,000 troops gathered on Parliament Hill, where they were praised by Stephen Harper for safeguarding the lives of millions of innocent Libyans.
For a government in thrall to symbolism and ceremony, it was too good to resist — a Canadian triumph of diplomacy, shared mission and military precision.
Since that day, the United Nations estimates more than 2,000 Syrians have been killed protesting the Bashar Assad regime.
Instead of a United Nations resolution and a regime change mission largely fought by air in Libya, the world is met with a double veto by Russia and China on the Security Council blocking any move to remove Assad from power.
This is really the first tough test of Canadian diplomacy under the team of Harper and his foreign affairs minister, John Baird, since the Conservatives won their majority.
It is surely the first test of quiet Canadian influence in the world, an indication of whether Ottawa has the diplomatic resources to help the world push Moscow and Beijing off intractable positions that are costing innocent Syrian lives daily.
Baird is Harper’s fifth foreign minister and by any measure the strongest.
He is confident to the point of being brash, energetic, glib and backs down to no one.
He is to be applauded for keeping the Canadian embassy open in Damascus.
It provides eyes and ears on the ground for Ottawa and our allies.
The U.S., citing security, closed its embassy. France, Italy, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain have recalled their ambassadors from Syria, while Japan was preparing to pare its diplomatic staff.
That gives the Ottawa voice some heft.
But that can only go so far.
Baird and Canadian diplomats are being weighed down by three factors; three large boulders tied around their ankles as they try to do their jobs.
We are still paying the price of the loss of the seat on the UN Security Council to Portugal in 2010.
That is not to say that somehow Ottawa could have saved the day by convincing Beijing and Moscow to drop their vetoes.
But it is to say that we couldn’t even make the argument. Outside the council, the Canadian voice is merely part of the chorus.
“When you’re in a small room and having a discussion, it doesn’t matter whether you are a superpower or not,’’ says Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador the United Nations.
“The only thing that matters is how to get the hell out of the box you are in.’’
The Canadian voice is also diminished internationally because of a Middle East policy that appears to be fully mortgaged in Israel’s favour.
It was on display again earlier this month when Baird visited Israel, reminded his hosts they had no greater friend in the world than Canada, then scolded the Palestinians for foolishly seeking UN membership.
It would also be folly to underestimate the stain on Canada’s reputation in other capitals left by its unilateral decision to quit the Kyoto Accord, a self-indulgent move that reinforced the world view of a government worshipping at the oilsands altar.
This brings us to the first full day of Harper’s crucial trip to China, where the matter of Beijing’s human rights record and its veto of UN action on Syria cannot be buried in pursuit of energy exports, tourism and Pandas.
But on this front, the Conservatives have embarked on a maturing relationship with the Chinese leadership and have the opportunity to build on it with the new leadership going forward.
During these days of tough slogging on the diplomatic front, trade can build trust.
The Conservative goal of regime change in Syria is, of course, the proper one, but there is much work to be done to have our voice heard internationally.
A respectful chat on that issue between Harper and his Chinese hosts is a crucial step to that goal.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. email@example.com