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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds a news conference at the end of a G8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 18, 2013. (YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds a news conference at the end of a G8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 18, 2013. (YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)

Is Harper’s Syria strategy wrong-headed? Add to ...

As the world has witnessed the atrocities taking place on a daily basis in Syria, it has come to realize that any solution to this Levantine quagmire must run through Moscow. In this instance, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has flubbed on two accounts.

The first rests on his refusal to invoke the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine – adopted at the United Nations World Summit of 2005 – in response to the atrocities committed by the Syrian government backed by Moscow. When we take into account the fact that Canada played a leadership role in getting all countries – including Russia – to commit to R2P, Harper’s failure on this front appears to be even more astounding.

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Mr. Harper’s government has also refused to sign on to a Swiss-led initiative calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be brought before the International Criminal Court. In the words of Carleton international affairs professor Andrew Cohen, the Harper government’s foreign policy is about “dismantling a deep-seated commitment to liberal internationalism”.

Second, Mr. Harper’s polarizing comments at the recent G8 meetings in Northern Ireland – calling the group the “G7+1” over Russia’s refusal to back down from its support for Damascus – will not advance the cause of halting the atrocities within Syria’s borders.

Moscow’s support for the al-Assad regime is fundamentally rooted in what Vladimir Putin determines to be Russia’s national interests. These interests include protecting the Port of Tartus, Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean; projecting the image that Russia is still a world superpower; and perhaps more importantly, supporting Damascus because it remains the country’s only ally in the Arab world.

Furthermore, as NATO expands to include former Warsaw Pact states – Russia’s proverbial backyard – Moscow would like to preserve friendships in the Middle East, a region subject to American supervision through decades of peace talks. Hence, any attempt to pry Moscow away from its ally in the Levant will have to bring Russia compensation of sorts, or at the very least ensure that the outcome will not be detrimental to its interests.

Moscow is particularly wary of NATO ballistic missile defense (BMD) projects in Eastern European states such as Bulgaria and Poland – designed to prevent against attacks from rogue states such as Iran – fearing that this could tilt the strategic balance of power on the Old Continent against it. If the West and Russia are to negotiate a transition of power in Syria to end the bloodshed, it may have to involve Western concessions to Moscow on the BMD front, such as allowing for Russian supervision of BMD progress in Ukraine.

If cooperation is to be the way to proceed, then attempts to isolate Moscow will prove to be counterproductive. And if anything is to be accomplished between the West and Russia, then the former will have to present a united front. Other leaders at the recent G8 meeting did not appear willing to take as stern a tone with Vladimir Putin.

Countries suffering from mass atrocities threaten to create safe havens for terrorist groups, fuel warlordism that leads to ungovernable spaces, and to be the epicentre of violence that can easily become regional. With Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon (and Hezbollah in particular), Al-Qaeda and Iran all involved in one way or another so far in the Syrian conflict – a proxy war taking place in a region with extreme global geopolitical and economic importance – Canada has an interest in bringing the fighting in Syria to a stop.

We encourage the prime minister of Canada to take pragmatic and constructive steps to achieve this goal by acting as an interlocutor between Russia and the West, thereby recommitting Canada to the enforcement of the Responsibility to Protect.

Kyle Matthews (@kylecmatthews) is senior deputy director at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. Zach Paikin (@zpaikin) is a Master of Global Affairs candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

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