Syria: Abandoned
BETHAN NODWELL
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 3)

For months, the Syrian crisis has dominated both the world and the international press. In the face of widespread, almost universal opposition, the Syrian President, Bashir al Assad, has remained defiant. While the recklessness grows, the international community deliberates, talks, debates – but does little. Because the Syrian crisis is extremely complicated, any policy options have potential repercussions, each with further unforeseeable consequences.

The world’s hesitation to get involved is understandable. This is a quintessential Catch-22 for the West. Is it better to be despised for doing nothing, or  despised for intervening?

The Syrian conflict received global attention in March 2011 when, inspired by the Arab Spring movement and hoping for political change within their own borders, peaceful protesters took to the streets.

In what may have been expected by experts, but not anticipated by the people in the streets, the Syrian protesters were greeted with artillery and air strikes. The Assad regime would not fall in the same way as the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. Assad labeled the protestors “terrorists” and with that, began what has developed into a full blown civil war.

The international community, having seen the likes of this before, is somewhat prepared. A relatively new United Nations international security and human rights norm called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), developed in part by noteworthy international intellectuals and experienced diplomats, comes to the fore. According to a DFAIT document, “The [R2P] report presented the idea that sovereignty is a responsibility and that the international community had the responsibility to prevent mass atrocities. Economic, political, and social measures were to be used along with diplomatic engagement. Military intervention was presented as a last resort. R2P included efforts to rebuild by bringing security and justice to the victim population and by finding the root cause of the mass atrocities.”

Responsibility to Protect is a “norm” not a law. The United Nations may not be legally bound to uphold R2P, but it could be said they have a moral responsibility. Thus, when Libya began to unravel in 2011, R2P was used as grounds to pass through UN Security Council Resolution 1970. Despite the UN’s reputation for being sluggish and bureaucratic, this happened swiftly and effectively. Within 60 days the ­conflict was concluded and Canadian government threw an $850,000 congratulation party for the Canadian military and their families.

However, despite the well-deserved adulations, there was negative fallout. The aftermath of Libya is still affecting the will to intervene in Syria today. UN Security Council permanent members, Russia and China, felt betrayed because what was supposed to be a mandate to protect civilians turned into a “regime change” mid stream. Muammar Ghaddafi was tortured and killed on the spot when found by rebel fighters, who themselves fled to neighboring countries with the firearms loaned to them by the allied forces. This caused deeper problems for the country of Mali when Libyan “freedom fighters turned Al Qaeda terrorists” stormed the Northern Tuareg region.

Lesson learned: next time, better follow through. The campaign however, is considered an overall success.

Here we are in May 2013, and Syria continues to disintegrate as we witness widening atrocities from the sidelines. Canadian Foreign Affairs teams are busy now, but Canada is in no mood to get involved in another crisis in the Middle East. Who can blame them? This is a “hot mess” bursting with damned if you do, and damned if you don’t scenarios. As President Barack Obama said in a Guardian interview this year: “I think it’s fair to say that the United States often finds itself in a situation where if it goes in militarily, then it’s criticized for going in militarily, and if it doesn’t go in militarily, then people say, ‘why aren’t you doing something militarily?’”.

Canada faces this same conundrum. Whether this situation can be resolved solely through diplomacy is questionable.

What is not questionable is that there is a full-scale war being waged against the Syrian population. The conflict has so far amassed 70,000 dead, with hundreds of thousands of refugees and millions of people displaced.

Stephen Cornish, Executive director for Médecins Sans Frontières in Canada stated in his Globe and Mail article on May 6th:

“I cannot overstate the scale and severity of the humanitarian emergency I witnessed. The Syrian conflict is already the world’s largest refugee crisis. We can do more to save lives and reduce suffering, and we must do it now.”

We could be increasing our support to the bordering countries for humanitarian assistance. Refugees could bear witness to Canadian flags flying proudly over medical and food stations as a beacon of safety and hope.

Kyle Matthews, senior deputy director of the Will to Intervene Project at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, told FrontLine that “the longer we let this go, the more radicalization we will see in the area, creating a generation indifferent to the international community and leaving [the West] with no influence in the future.” If western countries choose a policy of inaction, there will be natural consequence. Islamists will fill that void. Inaction is an investment into the future jihadi college fund, recruiting the bright stars of a dark tomorrow.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been working long hours on this issue. “Canada has been one of the leaders in providing humanitarian assistance, not just in pledging but in delivering on those commitments,” he said to reporters on May 7. Canada has donated millions of dollars already and continues to increase its pledge. Baird showed diplomatic grace and restraint when he did not “name and shame” countries, however, he did stress that international pledges need to be honored, now.

Former Canadian representative to the United Nations, Paul Heinbecker, has advocated enforcing a no-fly zone. This would prevent Assad’s audacious attacks on the civilian population. No-fly zones do not mean boots on the ground and are widely acknowledged as a key factor to the favorable outcome of the Libyan campaign.

In a CBC interview in late 2012, former Crown Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno Ocampo, suggested a fresh means to manage Assad. It requires the UN Security Council to reach a consensus and then send a recommendation to the ICC which would then collect evidence and assemble a case against Assad. NATO can then be requested to issue and execute a warrant for the arrest of Assad. Arresting Assad and bringing him in to face charges at the ICC is a key element to the aforementioned missing follow through. Laktar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, would then have significant consequence with which to influence Assad if he continues to be hubristic and uncooperative in a necessary negotiation process.

Experts fear the Syrian situation will only get worse when or if Assad is removed. There is concern for major repercussions against minorities, sectarian violence, domination of Islamic extremists, a pattern we have seen in both Egypt and Libya. In addition, there would be a formidable challenge in securing Syria’s stores of chemical and ­biological weapons. This is no small task.

One of the burdens that comes with being a world leader is the fact that how we “feel” about a particular issue doesn’t really matter. What matters is our word. Canada made a promise to uphold the “Responsibility to Protect” norm, and we must hold true to our commitment.

Syrians are much like us. A middle-income country that, up until three years ago, was a multicultural, sectarian country. Syria’s problems will become the problems of our allies – and the domino effect is clearly looming.

The insightful words of Dr. Samantha Nutt, Canadian humanitarian and medical doctor, from her 2011 book, Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies & Aid, are worth keeping in mind, “War profits from our disinterest… If the untold loss of life and the threat of planetary obliteration is not enough to rouse us from our domestic bunkers, consider this: war is never as far away as we believe it to be.”

This kitchen fire in Syria has the potential to expand into a blazing house fire, consuming us all.

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Bethan Nodwell is a military spouse with a passion for politics, international relations and the defense industry.
© FrontLine Defence 2013

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