Canada is continuing with its ‘sit-on-our-hands’ policy toward Syria. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says Canada will confine its role in the Syrian quagmire to humanitarian assistance. He has ruled out offering military assistance to the rebels on the grounds that weapons could fall into the hands of extremists.
According to Baird, diplomacy — not military assistance or intervention — is the ultimate path to peace in Syria.
He’s half-right on this one. It is not at all clear what military assistance or boots on the ground would accomplish at this stage in this conflict. The situation is simply too far gone.
As demonstrated by Assad’s increasingly desperate efforts — including the use of chemical weapons — the rebels, divided as they are, appear to be slowly gaining the upper hand. If NATO or a subset of NATO was to intervene, it likely would come under fire from all sides; extremist elements in Syria would turn their gunsights on Western troops much as they did in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.
What the rapidly-deteriorating situations in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan prove is just how prescient U.S. Gen. Colin Powell was with his ‘Pottery Barn Rule’: If you break it, you bought it. Getting in is the easy part. After that, there is no compelling model that assures long-term stability. Syria is already broken and nobody wants to own broken and bloodied crockery — including us.
The other certainty is that Israel will act in its own interests — regardless of what the “world community” chooses to do, or not do.
The assumption that a diplomatic solution is simply waiting for the parties to come to the table also requires careful scrutiny. Mr. Baird’s utterances on this matter fall somewhere between a wish and a prayer. Diplomacy has failed Syria several times over. The so-called “Friends of Syria,” of which we are a member, has proved to be a rather feckless lot. They failed to bring Syrian moderates together in any kind of meaningful or politically viable coalition. And they failed to curb the ambitions of some of Syria’s neighbors, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in particular, who have been arming Sunni extremists and stoking the fires of Syria’s sectarian and religious strife.
The UN observer mission of many months ago was an abysmal failure and the Brahimi mission has not had any greater success in trying to promote negotiations between the parties and secure a ceasefire.
The only countries that have real leverage on Assad are Russia and Iran. The U.S. has pushed the reset button on its relationship with Russia many times over, to little effect. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Russia apparently secured an agreement to organize a major regional conference on Syria under U.S. and Russian auspices that would include Assad and rebel leaders — a step in the right direction.
But don’t count on Vladimir Putin to deliver the goods any time soon. The Russian president — who showed up three hours late to meet Mr. Kerry and fidgeted throughout the welcome ceremony — is obviously a reluctant bride in this on-again, off-again wedding. Russia still has to be convinced that if it helps to get rid of Assad it will get something big from the Americans in return that will offset the loss of its major ally (and naval base) in the region. And the Americans are going to have to give something if they want something in return.
The other spoiler in the mix is Iran, which also supports Assad’s Shiite regime. In an ideal world, Iran would also have a seat at the table because it can do great mischief if its interests are not represented. But there is no way the United States would allow this — and with good reason. The Iranians can’t be trusted, as they have shown by pursuing their clandestine nuclear program. The only sliver of hope is that the upcoming national elections in Iran will bring a more moderately-inclined leadership to power — one that is prepared to dial back on Iran’s nuclear ambitions in order to escape sanctions and do business with the West.
Turkey is also a key player in any peace process and deserves a privileged seat at the table.
There are a lot of “ifs” and “buts” when it comes to Syria. If major powers like the U.S., Russia and regional players are unable or unwilling to act, an offer from Canada to hold their coats won’t do much.
With little risk that the fires of this brutal conflict will be doused any time soon, we should not lose sight of our bigger interests. And that is why we probably should stand as far away from this fire as possible — so that we don’t get burned.
Instead of dabbling uselessly in the Middle East, Canada needs to concentrate on issues and regions where we have real interests to pursue, like the Asia-Pacific. The energy boom in the U.S. is going to diminish the importance of the Middle East across the board.
The Middle East is a thankless place for those who come bearing gifts. Call it the hell of good intentions.