There is a steady political drumbeat in some quarters for the West, including Canada, to intervene militarily in Syria. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton and Republican Senator John McCain are an unlikely duo as one could find. Yet both have called for President Barack Obama to take up arms in the struggle to unseat Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.
Just before the Group of Eight summit, Mr. Obama finally relented and announced that Washington will begin arming the rebels because Mr. al-Assad has crossed a “red line” by using chemical agents against his own people.
The decision is bad one. It marks the beginning of a slide down the slippery slope to deeper military engagement. It could follow with a repeat of the battle to unseat Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, by way of a no-fly-zone.
Syria is no Libya. There are huge risks that come with deeper military engagement, and Syria is a pawn in a much wider regional and global power struggle.
Here are five reasons to stay out.
First, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is correct: Arming Syria’s rebel forces could easily put weapons into the wrong hands, including those of Sunni extremists who have entered the battle against Mr. al-Assad. These weapons could easily be turned against us.
Second, there is a danger that arming Syria’s opposition will escalate the conflict without levelling the playing field as intended. Iran has already announced that it will send 4,000 members of its Revolutionary Guard to fight with Mr. al-Assad. More may follow if Iran believes Western meddling is tipping the scales toward Syria’s Sunnis.
Russia will also be forced to up its ante. It might supply Mr. al-Assad with its latest S-300 surface-to-air missile system to help him cope with a no-fly zone. We would take heavy casualties if they did. With Iran’s entry into the conflict, we might even find ourselves dragged into a wider regional war against Iran, or even Russia, if a Russian ship or aircraft were accidentally hit by a bomb or cruise missile. Israel could also intervene because of the danger it sees from the S-300 missiles.
Third, Western military intervention, including a major effort to arm Syria’s opposition, will only drive a wedge between Russia and the West and doom the proposed peace talks. President Vladimir Putin’s resolve to keep Mr. al-Assad in power was apparent at the just-concluded G8 summit.
Fourth, even getting rid of Mr. al-Assad won’t necessarily solve anything. Getting in is the easy part. The hard lesson from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is that military intervention without a clear exit strategy simply compounds a civil war. The onus is on those who champion the merits of intervention to explain the game plan after Mr. al-Assad is gone.
Fifth, Western democracies simply don’t have the stomach for protracted, inconclusive military gambits. The West gains nothing but opprobrium from trying to militate the peace. Mr. Obama knows this, which is why he has dragged his feet. Mr. Harper knows it, too.
Canada does not have a dog in this fight. We don’t support Mr. al-Assad and we should not be siding with one religious group against another. We must give all the help we can to the victims of this conflict. But we should not be stoking its fires or trying to pick winners.
Derek H. Burney is senior strategic adviser for Norton Rose Fulbright and a former Canadian ambassador to the United States (1989–1993). Fen Osler Hampson is distinguished fellow and director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He is also Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.