As the world ponders how to respond to the growing evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on its citizens, one body remains conspicuously silent – the Canadian Parliament. Prime Minister Stephen Harper should recall Parliament immediately, as Britain has done, in order to debate this urgent question and the role Canada should play.
The Syrian crisis is complex in the extreme. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, says it is “undeniable” that chemical warheads were fired on a Damascus neighbourhood where residents purportedly supported the forces trying to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. According to NATO, information that the Assad regime was behind the attack is mounting quickly. The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday discussed a draft British resolution to authorize the use of force against Syria. The consensus is that this monstrous act cannot go unanswered, and the U.S. and Britain will lead the response.
But what is the proper response? The situation is fraught. For the international community not to retaliate in a coordinated and deliberate fashion would embolden those who would use banned weapons. But to strike at the Assad regime and weaken it in a fatal way could lead to the sudden collapse of the country and create a vacuum that would be filled by the less moderate players, including jihadists, who have infiltrated opposition forces. Above all, a Western-led military operation into a Middle East country could spark a greater conflict.
Prime Minister Harper has said that he is staying in close contact with Canada’s allies and that the situation demands a “firm response.” A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says the Canadian government will continue to work with its allies in “lockstep.” But there is one important element missing: our Parliament. It is imperative that the House of Commons return and debate the full range of options available to Canada and its allies, not to mention the degree of Canada’s participation in what now appears to be an inevitability. Should we provide humanitarian aid and indirect support, or should our forces be deployed as part of a military operation?
Parliament, under a Harper government, held debates about extending the Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2008, and Parliament voted to support the deployment of fighter jets in Libya in 2011. There is time to debate the Syria crisis and the situation is grave. Parliament should not sit idle at such a moment.