There is a recurring tendency in the West to believe that invoking liberal internationalist principles can resolve even the most vexing crises abroad. This was the unstated assumption in a recent article criticizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s disavowal of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in Syria. While Mr. Harper has repeatedly used undiplomatic language to refer to countries he dislikes, the claim that Canada should invoke an interventionist principle to solve a sectarian and proxy war in the Middle East is both wrongheaded and dangerous.
Born in 2001 and endorsed by the United Nations in 2005, R2P seeks to protect civilians being mass-murdered by their government. Gareth Evans, a former practitioner and renowned scholar of international affairs, lists five necessary criteria that must be met to justify R2P: Harm to civilians is occurring; the primary purpose of intervention is to halt this harm; all other avenues have been exhausted; the means used are proportional; and, crucially, any sort of intervention does not cause more harm than good.
The unfortunate reality is that Syria fails the third and fifth test. With nearly 100,000 people dead and crucial red lines crossed, President Bashar al-Assad is undoubtedly a war criminal. The conflict, however, has transformed from a Syrian crisis with regional implications to a regional crisis with Syria at its core. The opposition is also neither credible nor secular. Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra is the predominant actor within the rebels and is widely considered their most lethal force. Reports have also recently emerged that al-Qaeda in Iraq is also involved in the conflict. With gruesome tales of beheadings and cannibalism in the opposition camp, a Syria led by such Salafists is hardly a welcome result, particularly for Canada’s allies.
The opposition is not representative, either. Syria’s Kurds, urban Sunnis, Christians, Alawites, and Druze do not support the rebels and Mr. Assad is still backed by entire swaths of Syrian society. A senior official within the Democratic Union Party of Syria (PYD), the main Kurdish political organization, told the authors explicitly: “Syrians do not need nor want foreign intervention.” The Alawites, a group of Shi’a Muslims from which the Assad family originates, fear that if the regime collapses, they will be massacred. Syria’s Christians fear a similar fate to what happened to Iraq’s Christians after 2003, when their population was reduced to almost half of what it was before the start of the war. These fears are not illegitimate as this conflict could potentially drag on like Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war did or Iraq’s still ongoing sectarian conflict has.
With Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Hamas, and the United States on one end funneling aid and arms into Syria, and Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, and China backing Mr. Assad, Syria is a more dangerous and complicated war than both Iraq and Libya were. With 300,000 reserve troops, 60,000 air defense troops, and a deeply entrenched military-intelligence complex loyal to the regime, Mr. Assad is not going anywhere and so, only a political solution between the parties will end the conflict. Indeed, Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed UN Security Council Resolutions on Syria precisely because they think R2P was used to dupe them into abstaining from the UN vote on the Libya intervention.
It is in Canada and the West’s interest to have Syria stabilized sooner rather than later, but R2P will exacerbate the regional crisis rather than mitigate it. Canada could invoke R2P tomorrow and nothing would change: Russia and China would intensify their support for Mr. Assad, and Iran and Hezbollah would continue to fight until the bitter end.
As a respected international mediator, Canada can take the lead in bringing the disparate parties on the ground together to find a political solution at Geneva later this summer, all while providing humanitarian relief and refugee assistance. Jordanian sources have told us that close to 1,000 U.S. troops, F-16s, and Patriot missiles are stationed in Quweira in northern Jordan, 150 km from Damascus. If a humanitarian corridor is established there encompassing a wide variety of refugee relief and public health programs, Canada can provide additional relief to allies and vetted opposition forces. This is both a more feasible and constructive approach than invocation of R2P.
We urge the Prime Minister to take these cautious steps but to abide first and foremost by the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. The Middle East has suffered enough of that.
Omer Aziz (@omeraziz12) is a writer, Commonwealth Scholar of International Relations at Cambridge University, and affiliate of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Renad Mansour (@renadmansour) is a Fellow at the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies and a PhD candidate in International Relations at Cambridge University.