The Canadian government’s new policy for meeting the threat of the Islamic State and the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Middle East has been generally well received. And with good reason: It is a thoughtful and constructive response to a complex and difficult challenge.
There continues, however, to be criticism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s alleged failure to justify the decision to stop Canada’s participation in the coalition’s bombing campaign. But surely those critics miss the very point: by relinquishing the role of front-line combatant, Canada has enhanced its capacity to “wage diplomacy,” and to deploy its considerable diplomatic resources in an effort to find both interim and more durable solutions in the region.
In short, withdrawing from the bombing campaign is the single step required if we are to achieve our humanitarian and diplomatic goals. It is difficult, if not impossible, to engage in effective diplomacy while actively participating in the conflict. Witness Lester Pearson’s Nobel-worthy intervention in the Suez Crisis. Had the Canadian government joined the French and British military coalition, Pearson’s prospects in bringing the protagonists to common ground, while inventing peacekeeping along the way, would surely have been remote.
And there is much for our diplomats to do. Last weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said chances that a much-anticipated ceasefire will take hold in Syria are less than 50 per cent. We need to drive those odds up, and engage under United Nations auspices with all of the parties to encourage even a temporary halt to the hostilities. Aleppo is under siege, and tens of thousands of fleeing civilians have nowhere to go. Europe’s countries are closing their borders. Even the United States is now assisting efforts to stop refugees fleeing from Turkey to Greece. It is urgent that the parties be persuaded to stop the war so that solutions to this catastrophe can be found.
If the weapons can be silenced, the short-term goals will be clear: Provide security for civilians; monitor compliance with the ceasefire; and ensure the delivery of the very humanitarian aid to which Canada has now committed. Our withdrawal from the bombing enhances our ability to contribute both to diplomacy and delivery. It also enables Canada to credibly offer our military to supervise the ceasefire and provide protection to the civilians that may be consigned to “safe zones” created within Syria itself. This approach, long advocated by neighbouring Turkey, holds promise as a way to protect the many lives in peril.
Canada should lead the efforts to persuade the Security Council to create those protected areas and to impose a no-fly zone in their vicinity. Canada should then volunteer to provide security forces to monitor the zones, ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance and provide physical protection for the thousands of displaced persons who would be housed within them. Any such protection role for our armed forces would be impossible to imagine if we were still engaged in active combat with the coalition.
The re-emergence of Canada as a source of diplomatic activism comes at an auspicious moment. The Syrian conflict has gone on for far too long, and it has become quite impossible to stand by without making a serious effort to stop the slaughter. Now that we are no longer actively engaged in combat, we are well positioned to complement the efforts of the United Nations to negotiate a pause and to provide protection for civilians.
And by casting Canadian troops in a protective role, with or without blue helmets, we would be showing the value that Canada can add, well beyond a token contribution to the bombing campaign.
Canadian diplomacy will make a difference only if we engage fully, embracing the constructive, multilateral dimension to our foreign policy that the Harper government so viscerally rejected. There are many UN member states who would welcome our return, recognizing the contribution of which Canada is capable, and that we have so often made in the past.
Our government recently announced its intention to seek election to a Security Council seat in the near future. What better time and place than now, in Syria, to show that we are worthy of that seat.
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