The Harper government says it does not expect to get involved in any military mission in Syria and now believes the only way to end the crisis is through a "political solution."
As MPs prepared for Tuesday night's emergency debate on Syria while Western countries try to determine which side in the conflict used deadly Sarin nerve gas, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada remains wary of backing opposition forces because of the involvement of radical jihadists.
"From our perspective, there's only one way to end the suffering of the Syrian people and that's a political solution," he said.
Israel's airstrikes inside Syria over the weekend have prompted new questions about whether the United States and its allies should now consider military intervention, but Mr. Baird said he does not foresee Canadian involvement in a Western mission: "At this stage, I don't see that happening," he said.
It was the opposition Liberals who called for an emergency debate in the Commons on Syria, arguing that despite the difficulties about intervening, Canada must find a way to support moderate elements of the Syrian opposition.
In the U.S., there are growing calls by politicians for the Obama administration to take stronger action, either through direct intervention or by arming rebel groups, prompted by evidence suggesting the chemical agent has been used during the conflict. Mr. Baird said it's still not clear who used chemical weapons, however.
"Certainly there is a significant amount of evidence that chemical weapons have been used but before you look at the response, you should bloody well take the time to get the facts," he told reporters Tuesday afternoon.
He said that Ottawa has sought to work with Syrian opposition groups, but not officially recognized them because of the influence of extremists and concerns they do not adequately represent minorities.
"We have encouraged them to do two things. One, to do more to combat the influence and involvement of radical extremists, jihadis, in the opposition movement. And, two, to ensure that there is a place for all Syrians in a post-Assad Syria, be they Kurdish, Christian, Alawite, Ismaili, Shia, others."
The obvious limits of that policy – the Harper government is against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but also does not want to take steps that help tip the balance of the conflict toward the opposition – has left the government focusing mainly on providing some humanitarian aid and help for neighbouring countries coping with a flow of refugees.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he would like to see Canada take steps to encourage stability after the Assad regime goes – but also said picking sides is "problematic."
"I think focusing on humanitarian aid, stability and protection of population without pretending that either side might represent a solution is, I think, the appropriate thing to do."