Barack Obama may have stumbled into a diplomatic gain that forces Syria’s dictator to hand over ghastly chemical weapons, and many Syrian-Canadians are bitterly disappointed.
That’s not, of course, because they want Bashar al-Assad to have chemical weapons, let alone use them. It’s just that the one thing this diplomatic deal will not do is weaken the Syrian President’s hand in a civil war.
Faisal Alazem, the Montreal engineer who serves as spokesman for the Syrian Canadian Council, thinks many Syrian-Canadians see the diplomatic manoeuvring over the past few days as offering “a new lifeline for the regime.”
“Almost explicitly, we’re telling the Assad regime that you can kill, but don’t use chemical weapons,” he said over the phone on Wednesday morning.
There’ll be a Syrian-Canadian demonstration on Parliament Hill on Saturday, originally organized to call for international response to the “massacres” of the Assad regime. Mr. Alazem says many will now be carrying the bitter feeling that Western nations have decided to leave Syrians to their fate.
But there is a kind of win-win here for Barack Obama, Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. Not to mention Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, King Abdullah of Jordan and France’s François Hollande.
Mr. Obama was facing a major rebuke from a war-weary and, in some cases, isolationist and bitterly partisan Congress. It threatened to weaken him, just as a no vote in Parliament clipped British PM David Cameron’s wings.
Now, the U.S. President might dodge that, and still get Syria to hand over its chemical weapons. That takes away a potent danger for neighbours, notably U.S. allies Israel, Jordan and Turkey.
This potential deal, strangely, seemed to snowball from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s scoffing suggestion that sure, Mr. al-Assad could stop U.S. strikes by quickly handing over his chemical weapons, but of course, that’s never going to happen. Then – surprise! – Russia decided to take up the idea.
You can see what might be in it for Mr. al-Assad, too. He can avoid a military strike by giving up weapons he couldn’t, strategically speaking, afford to use again, anyway, for fear of Western retaliation. His air force and command systems aren’t weakened, so he gets to keep his edge in war. Russia’s Mr. Putin gets to keep an ally and a sphere of influence and yet clear out the chemical weapons that probably made Moscow nervous, too.
Never mind that it doesn’t accomplish the other goals expressed in the West. Mr. Obama said he wanted to punish Mr. Assad, and degrade his forces. Even the government of Stephen Harper, a “reluctant convert” to the need for strikes, argued they would give incentive to the Assad regime to negotiate. But this deal, if it’s really serious, and feasible, allows major players, caught in a tough spot, to claim some gain.
Mr. Alazem understands that. He just despises the bargain. If Mr. Obama takes it, he passes up a chance to weaken the Assad regime, Mr. Alazem said, just as the Syrian opposition finally expected more. “Even before any strikes were taking place, there were reports of regime officials leaving the country – because of the threat,” he said.
Western publics are thinking more about how the U.S. and Britain rushed to war over elusive weapons of mass destruction in 2003 than about Syria’s regime, which has admitted it has chemical weapons in 2013, he said. And they bought the idea that Syria’s opposition was dominated by al-Qaeda, even though moderates were long asking for Western help. Now, Mr. Obama is grasping at a Russian deal because it helps him stay out, and helps Syria’s U.S.-allied neighbours. But Mr. Alazem argues it forsakes Syrians to the benefit of Mr. al-Assad.
Not everyone is quite as pointed. Molham Aldrobi, a senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition Syrian National Council, who lives in Toronto, said in an interview from Kuwait that a diplomatic deal on chemical weapons is not a win for Mr. al-Assad – but also argued the world still has to do something more.
“There should be further steps, to punish him, hold him to account,” he said, adding that’s necessary “to be fair to the children who have been slaughtered.”
Of course, some Syrian-Canadians will be relieved if their relatives are not endangered by U.S. cruise missiles hitting Damascus. But Mr. Alazem insists most had wanted to see the Assad regime, not Syria, hit.
“They’re feeling extremely disappointed,” he said. “They’re feeling let down.”
Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa