Don’t repeat history in Syria, or be paralyzed by it

The Globe and Mail

August 29, 2013

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But those who draw the wrong conclusions from it equally end up in error. The challenge governments face in reacting to the crisis in Syria is to draw the right lessons, and not be paralyzed by that history.

While the Kosovo, Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, Congo, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Sierra Leone conflicts all have points in common, each is different. Syria is not Iraq, and Barack Obama, who wants out of Middle East conflicts, is not George W. Bush spoiling for a fight. The Syrian conflict issui generis, and requires a singular response. If we must prepare for war, let it at least be for the next one, rather than the last.

Syria and its neighbours are being sucked ever deeper into the vortex of violence and the costs of not acting are becoming ever clearer to the rest of us. Responding to the crisis presents the international community with compelling strategic and moral imperatives, as well as legal and operational challenges.

The most compelling strategic factor is the absolute necessity to demonstrate that the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction is intolerable and to punish the perpetrators accordingly, especially the command structure that gave the orders. The use of such weapons is proscribed by international law and targeting civilians is, in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, a moral obscenity. The perpetrators must be prevented from doing it again and others must learn that such chemical weapons end up destroying those who use them.

The second strategic necessity is to understand that the longer the conflict continues, the greater the cost of standing by. Lebanon is at the brink of war. Jordan is straining under the burden of Palestinian, Iraqi and now Syrian refugees. Sectarian violence, already bad, is worsening in Iraq. Even in secular Turkey, sectarian tensions are rising. The otherwise powerful Israelis are only too aware that they are not immune.

Beyond the immediate region, jihadism is feeding on this conflict, and no one, not even the Russians, will gain if the Syrian civil war is allowed to continue until it burns itself out.

The moral imperative is to stop the destruction and at least mitigate the slaughter of the innocent. More than 100,000 Syrians are dead, millions have fled the fighting and an entire generation of children will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. And the situation is likely to go on getting worse, with thousands more dying and millions more fleeing.

Together, the strategic and moral imperatives clearly call out for a strong response, both to punish those who used chemical weapons and to reduce the regime’s capacity to slaughter civilians.

Britain is reportedly advocating an authorizing resolution at the United Nations to protect civilians, if only to make the Russians face the opprobrium of blocking such action. But absent an unlikely change of heart by Moscow, there will not be a Security Council mandate for action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Russians have made clear that they will veto such a mandate; the Chinese will likely follow suit.

Here, however, the Kosovo experience provides guidance. When a Security Council mandate was blocked by the Russians in 1999, a coalition of the willing formed and acted anyway, taking the view that when international law prevents action to save the innocent from destruction at the hands of their own government, the law is an ass and can be ignored. That action was not legal, but it was widely regarded as legitimate. The Kosovo conflict was soon brought to an end and Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic faced justice at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Without a seat on the Security Council, what should be done by Canada, the country that brought the world the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect?

Diplomatically, we should make clear our political support for vigorous, effective military action against Mr. Assad’s regime.

We should also assist the United States in creating a coalition of the willing, built on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. To the extent that we have any residual influence in the Arab world and Turkey, we should urge participation by those countries in the coalition.

We should urge Washington to make its evidence of Mr. Assad’s guilt public forthwith, since it will (rightly) not get the benefit of the doubt after its Iraq experience.We should support efforts to gather evidence of war crimes in Syria, so that perpetrators on all sides are eventually brought to justice before the International Criminal Court.

We should both augment our aid to refugees and displaced people in situ and increase our intake of those refugees who have the skills to succeed in Canadian society, easing a bit of the pressure on Syria’s neighbours.

Militarily, we should share our allies’ burdens. If the nature, timing and duration of military action makes doing so feasible, we should contribute such of our military assets as would be useful.

Most fundamentally, let us not repeat history. But equally let us draw the right lessons from it, and not be paralyzed.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

With a distinguished career in Canadian diplomacy — including posts as ambassador to Germany, permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) and adviser to various prime ministers, Paul Heinbecker is one of Canada’s most experienced commentators on foreign policy and international governance. Paul is also the director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University.