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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference at 10 Downing Street in London on June 16, 2013. (Anthony Devlin/Reuters)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference at 10 Downing Street in London on June 16, 2013. (Anthony Devlin/Reuters)

Globe Editorial: First Take

In a Syrian civil war with ‘thugs’ on both sides, what matters now is peace Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s charge that Russia is siding with “thugs” in Syria was an accurate expression of the West’s frustration over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparent indifference to the slaughter occurring in the Middle East country. But while a fair comment, it was also beside the point. Canada and the rest of the G8 should be searching for common ground in the international effort to end Syria’s civil war. It matters little which side is more thuggish; what matters is ending the killing, preventing Syria from collapsing and stopping religious extremists from getting a foothold in the country.

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As U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC on Monday, there is “no palatable option” for the international community in Syria. Maintaining the Assad regime has become untenable in the wake of evidence that it used chemical weapons against rebel forces. There have also been slaughters of civilians by Assad regime, and there is much concern over the fact President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are being reinforced by Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters.

But arming the rebels, as the United States has now said it will do, is also extremely problematic. Most G8 leaders are opposed to providing arms that might fall into the hands of Islamist fighters bent on exploiting the civil war to establish a foothold in what has been a secularist country. There have also been allegations, some of them based on Internet videos, that the rebel forces have been excessively brutal, a point Mr. Putin has been quick to make as he continues to back the Assad regime.

It was in this context that Mr. Harper weighed in. “Mr. Putin and his government are supporting the thugs of the Assad regime for their own reasons that I do not think are justifiable,” he said in Dublin on Sunday

It is true that Mr. Putin’s reasons for backing Mr. al-Assad are cynical and self-serving. His desire to not see the West arm the rebels has nothing to do with concerns about the weapons falling into the wrong hands and everything to do with standing by an otherwise isolated friend who may yet remain in power.

But there is common ground, and plenty of it, that can be reached by the international community with regard to ending the war in Syria: saving lives; stability in the Middle East; protecting Israel’s borders; stemming the flow of refugees out of Syria; stopping Islamist militants from extending their influence; and protecting oil supplies. Russia has the same concerns, and its intransigence could be rendered impotent by the imposition, without United Nations sanction, of a no-fly zone that would severely impede the Assad regime’s ability to control the country, and thus force it to negotiate.

These are the things G8 leaders should be focusing on, rather than falling into the trap of debating the relative moral qualifications of the two sides in a bloody civil war. Such bickering, and the delay in taking action that it causes, only serves the worst elements fighting in Syria today.

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