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Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have agreed on an effort to foster negotiations between Syria’s government and opposition. (MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have agreed on an effort to foster negotiations between Syria’s government and opposition. (MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)

FOREIGN POLICY

All urgency, no action on Syria Add to ...

It’s red lines and emergency debates on Syria, but don’t take it as a rush down the road to Damascus.

Neither the government nor the opposition offered any bold idea or solution on Tuesday night when the House of Commons held an emergency debate on Syria.

There was no vote on steps to take, no call to back military intervention or a no-fly zone or to arm rebels.

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It underlines the real story about Canadian and western policy on Syria: the options do not include going in guns-a-blazing any time soon. And in Ottawa, the choice is between doing little to try to affect events inside Syria or picking at the edges by seeking ways to send funds to bolster “moderate” corners of the country.

The Harper government is reluctant to back the Syrian rebels because of extremists in their midst – but opposition parties in Ottawa argue it should at least do more to identify and support the moderates among them.

The a sense of urgency is fuelled by Israeli airstrikes and evidence that chemical weapons were used in a conflict that has killed more than 70,000. Chemical weapons were supposed to be a red line for the Obama administration, but confusion over which side used them has blurred it.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said he does not see Canada taking part in a military intervention in Syria, but in addition to Ottawa’s reluctance, there is no prospective military mission to join.

NATO does not want one. The United States has been reluctant, partly out of war-weariness and partly out of fear that defeating the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might trigger more chaotic war between rebel factions, including jihadists with links to al-Qaeda. France proposed arming rebels in March, then backtracked because weapons might fall into extremists’ hands.

On Tuesday, there was a signal that direct U.S. intervention is not on for now: Secretary of State John Kerry went to Russia, a key Assad backer, and agreed with President Vladimir Putin on an effort to revive negotiations between the government and opposition.

Mr. Baird supported that effort as a “political solution,” but hope is slim. Without that, the Harper government’s policy on Syria suffers from a Catch-22: it calls for Mr. Assad to go, but is so wary of jihadists among rebels it does not want to help tip the balance in their favour.

Canada is the only major western nation that has not recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition. It has not followed the U.S. decision to provide “non-lethal” aid such as communications equipment to some rebel groups.

Opposition parties in Ottawa share government concerns about extremists. Their MPs spent most of Tuesday night’s debate talking about measures to mitigate the impact of the conflict rather than efforts to change the balance: more humanitarian aid and expedited programs for Syrian refugees with Canadian relatives to come here.

But the NDP and Liberals pressed the Harper government on another point: supporting moderate elements within Syria.

Liberal Bob Rae argued the government’s caution about not helping jihadists has caused it to take a “hands-off” approach, when it should respond to the growing influence of extremists within the opposition by trying to find out who the moderates are and supporting them somehow.

The NDP’s Paul Dewar said that should include funding pro-democratic networks inside Syria and local councils that run de facto municipal administrations in parts of Syria where the Assad regime has no control. That is not swinging the balance with guns, but offers hope of strengthening moderates, he argues.

The Conservatives say some of that is happening: Ottawa provided $4.5-million to projects, mostly U.S.-led, for “non-violent” civilians in Syria, including training courses for activists and journalists, and satellite internet time for local “civilian actors.” But it is not, in Mr. Dewar’s view, a real strategy to bolster moderates.

Despite the apparent urgency, Ottawa is choosing between limited alternatives as the United States and its western allies struggle with bad options. The question is whether it can pick someone to support, despite its fears.

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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