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In this photo taken on a government-organized tour for the media, a Syrian boy pushes his bicycle as he passes by Syrian government army soldiers, at one of several suburbs of Damascus that saw heavy fighting between troops and defectors before Assad's forces retook the areas in late January (Muzaffar Salman/AP)
In this photo taken on a government-organized tour for the media, a Syrian boy pushes his bicycle as he passes by Syrian government army soldiers, at one of several suburbs of Damascus that saw heavy fighting between troops and defectors before Assad's forces retook the areas in late January (Muzaffar Salman/AP)

Campbell Clark

For Canada, Syrian bloodbath differs from Libya Add to ...

There will be more blood. Syria’s brutal crackdown is getting more vicious. But Canada has not treated it like Gadhafi’s Libya.

Syrian Canadians have pressed for some of the steps they saw Ottawa take when Libyan rebels fought a dictator’s brutal crackdown. Canadians watching smoke rise from Homs ask why this bloodbath is different.

There are reasons. Ottawa views Syria as a tinderbox in an explosive region, and still without a unified opposition serving as the firm hope for transition.

For Ottawa, divided opposition in a country with sectarian mistrust and many foreign interests is a quandary. Syria holds fears worse than Libya: chaos there could destabilize Lebanon and Iraq, and spill over to Israel’s borders, even Turkey’s, and raise even higher tensions with Iran.

Bashar al-Assad’s announcement Wednesday of a vote on a new constitution only emphasizes the conundrum. Even if it really meant rights and democracy, Syria’s opposition won’t believe it now. But it isn’t yet a united alternative.

The difference in responses to Libya and Syria are stark, even though the Harper government condemned both Colonel Moammar Gadhafi and Mr. al-Assad in no uncertain terms. It’s not just unwillingness to intervene militarily. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird noted that the UN Security Council won’t approve that. Allies know a Libya-style air war won’t work in Syria, where rebels don’t hold territory to serve as a base.

Syrian-Canadian groups have also pressed Stephen Harper’s government for other steps like those used for Libya, like recognizing the opposition Syrian National Council as the voice of Syrians.

Ottawa, like many allies, did that with Libya’s National Transitional Council. It allowed governments to promise money and help for transition. The message was clear: the future is here. Mr. Baird has met Syrian Canadians, but didn’t promise SNC recognition. France has, but the U.S. only called the SNC “a leading” representative.

For Canadian officials, the SNC is one major voice in an opposition more divided than Libya’s at its most fractious. There are rival umbrella groups, and the Free Syrian Army is a patchwork under no single control. Disputes are getting sharper.

Canada, and many of its allies, is reluctant to fully back a group that might not emerge as the main voice. Recognizing such a group might even discourage unity. High-level regime defections, as in Libya, might create momentum for a unified opposition, possibly behind the SNC, or not.

Ottawa doesn’t yet see Syrian opposition as breaking into base sectarian lines, but it’s a risk. Mr. al-Assad is from the small Alawite minority; the SNC is criticized for being dominated by the Sunni Muslim majority and Muslim Brotherhood. There are many dividing lines.

Backing Libyan rebels held risk, but Libya wasn’t a geopolitical lynchpin. In Syria, chaos and partition could destabilize neighbours and spill beyond.

Lebanon’s political system codifies a sectarian cold war heavily influenced by Syria, notably through Hezbollah; chaos or partition in Syria could destabilize it. That raises Israel’s border concerns. Iran, in hot confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, views Syria as a key client. Iraq’s tenuous patchwork of factions have links to Syrian ones. And Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish groups have met, which must heighten Turkey’s worries about its Kurdish separatists.

Groups like the Syrian Canadian Council want Canada to support other steps like establishing a humanitarian zone near the Turkish border. But the al-Assad regime opposes it, so enforcing it amounts to invasion and occupation.

Canadian officials talking to other capitals about Syria face few easy options. Western allies and Arab nations at a Friends of Syria meeting next week will make proposals for humanitarian aid and diplomatic pressure.

There’s some hope Bashar al-Assad’s outside backing from supporters like Russia will melt from fear that he won’t last. But the path forward depends on his opponents in Syria.

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Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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