With the apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has crossed Barack Obama’s red line. There is now renewed discussion of the possibility of Western intervention. With a Russian veto certain at the United Nations Security Council, Mr. Obama’s staff is looking at the Kosovo example to see how to get as much international support and legitimacy for any military options.
Hitting Syria with cruise missiles is relatively cost-free (even in a time of sequestration). But it would be kabuki theater, as the missiles would do some minimal damage but not make a difference on the ground. It might satisfy demands to “do something,” but maybe not even that.
There is some discussion of a no-fly zone – an option that would theoretically not allow us to avoid using ground troops, as we did in Libya – but people are confusing what really happened in Libya with a no-fly zone. Sure, NATO stopped Libya from flying its planes and helicopters, but it did far more than that. Its stance of “protecting civilians” really meant taking the side of the rebels against Moammar Gadhafi and becoming the source of close air support that any land force would want and need. In Syria, a no-fly zone on its own would not make that much impact since Mr. Assad could still rely on missiles and artillery to do significant damage to his opposition and to the civilians. A Libyan-type operation faces a key constraint: the Syrian opposition is deeply divided and much of it hostile to the West, so taking sides is really hard.
The use of ground forces would be necessary to secure the chemical weapons and probably to remove Mr. Assad. Yet most countries are unlikely to take that kind of risk and pay that kind of price after several wars and a 5-year period of austerity.
We not only face some huge questions about how to respond to the Syrian use of chemical weapons, but about who will be joining the United States. If we are to learn from the 1999 Kosovo action (aside from how to act in concert without a United Nations resolution) and from Libya, the first lesson is that getting a NATO decision is really difficult, and that even when you reach consensus in NATO’s Brussels headquarters, that does not mean that everyone will contribute. Previous efforts to help Syria’s neighbour Turkey (a NATO member), which is how a NATO decision would be justified, have often foundered on the sad reality that many NATO countries are fairly antagonistic towards Turkey.
France and the United Kingdom might be likely to join such an effort because of historic interests in the region, large immigrant communities with ties to those being harmed. While both are in the middle of significant austerity-induced military cuts, they still have the capabilities to help out. Germany is far less likely to join in despite still having a fairly robust (in European terms) military. Germany opted out of Libya, which had far fewer risks, so it is hard to see how German leaders would be more enthusiastic about a more complex Syrian mission. Also, Germany has elections coming up. Poland, which ducked out of the Libyan effort but did operate in dangerous places in Afghanistan, apparently is more willing to participate here.
So, when the question turns to what will Canada do, it is hard to believe that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be as enthusiastic this time as he was two years ago. The probability of success is low. The Libyan mission should remind people that these efforts take much time and money. Given that the budget situation back in Ottawa is still quite tight, and Mr. Harper’s focus has been on putting the military back in the background as the 2015 election approaches, it is not clear why the Prime Minister would decide that Canada will make a meaningful contribution.
However, there is a wild card in the Canadian outlook. Mr. Harper’s enthusiasm for Israel and antipathy towards Iran are both well known. Given that Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian militia, has sided with Mr. Assad, it might be the case that Syria is viewed through the same lens that led to Canada’s closing of its embassy in Tehran and of Iran’s embassy in Ottawa. Another added layer of complexity is that many of the forces arrayed against Mr. Assad within Syria are hostile to Israel and to the West, so it is not clear what would be best for Israel, except perhaps a stalemate. Would the West be so cynical as to do just enough to keep the civil war going? Would Mr. Harper support such an effort? It is not clear, but with a majority in parliament, the Prime Minister has a far freer hand now than he did when the Libyan effort started.
Would it harm relations with the United States to stay out of it? Probably not. Given Mr. Obama’s ambivalence, it is hard to see how anyone in the U.S. would mind other countries being less enthusiastic. Moreover, Mr. Obama’s diplomacy would be focused on Russia, China and Europe. Finally, Canada would not be alone, no matter which course of action it follows, as some NATO members will participate, some will opt out, and others will contribute in a most token way.
Mr. Harper has surprised people before, with the sudden announcements of the Afghanistan training mission and the military assistance to France in Mali last year. So predicting what he will do next can be a foolish enterprise, but if I had to bet, I would put my money on Canada not taking a substantial part in the upcoming effort against Syria.
Stephen Saideman is the Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton University.