Canada is ready to assist an international military intervention in Syria should sanctions and diplomacy fail, but the United Nations authorization that Ottawa says it would first require is neither imminent nor inevitable.
Still, the Harper government announced Sunday it was posting a warship to the Mediterranean until the end of 2012, a frigate that could be useful for evacuations or naval blockades if the violence in Syria descends into civil war.
Barely three weeks after the Harper government formally ended its role in the NATO bombing mission that helped oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Ottawa says it's prepared to offer assistance if necessary in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad's bloody campaign of oppression against his own people has killed about 3,500.
There is deep unease, however, among Canadian decision-makers and the international community about the prospect of sending armed force to Syria to protect civilians – a conflict that could easily ignite a regional war and transform into a quagmire.
Syria borders Israel and Turkey and has strong ties to Iran; and the Syrian air force is far bigger and more modern than Libya's, with a daunting array of anti-aircraft missiles.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who spent the weekend with major international military and security players at a forum in Halifax, said nobody is eager to enter the fray.
"With all of the brainpower that we had in this building in the last 72 hours, I didn't hear anybody say 'Let's charge into Syria,' " he told reporters.
"What I heard was 'Let's contemplate the next move very cautiously,' knowing … if you break it you own it."
Mr. MacKay said he hopes that China and Russia can be persuaded to agree to levy economic sanctions on Syria through the United Nations as a next step.
He told CTV's Question Period that Canada's armed forces are "prepared for all inevitabilities" but said in the case of Syria, there are a "cascading number of [international]sanctions that would have to happen before there would be any type of intervention."
The Defence Minister said a UN Security Council resolution is a "necessity in this instance" before Canada would agree to join an international effort to intervene in Syria, where Mr. al-Assad is viciously cracking down on protestors.
"I think it's fair to say that a lot of dictators are on notice, that this type of behaviour is not going to be tolerated," Mr. MacKay said.
"Now how we go about it and what comes next, is done on a some would call it an escalating scale, before making any final decisions around intervention."
The Conservative government said HMCS Vancouver, which helped patrol the waters off Libya, will remain in the Mediterranean as part of a NATO counterterrorism effort, Operation Endeavour, until relieved by HMCS Charlottetown in early 2012.
"There's no question that [Syria is]weighing heavy on our mind," Mr. MacKay said. "The primary purpose is to contribute to antiterrorist operations in the region. But there's no question having a ship in the region, in the event that Canadians need direct assistance or evacuation … gives us that capability to respond, should certain things transpire.
Asked if he would take military intervention against Syria off the table, Canada's defence minister told Global TV's The West Block that he would not.
"We, again I would say to you, are very cautious when you get into the projecting of military intervention. But to answer your question, no, I don't think we should suggest that it's not an option. It's not the preferred option, it never is."
Mr. MacKay told the Halifax International Security Forum this past weekend that the NATO-led airstrikes that helped oust Mr. Gadhafi are not a template for actions elsewhere.
Iran is a nuclear threat, Egypt is again in turmoil and Yemen teeters on the brink of collapse, but it was Syria that caused the most squirming at a weekend gathering of top global security officials.
The generals and defence ministers who met at the Halifax forum shared many congratulatory slaps on the back for their role in ridding the world of Mr. Gadhafi.
But they worked at every turn to dampen expectations Western countries would take similar action to help oust Mr. al-Assad.
Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, the Royal Canadian Air Force general who led the NATO mission in Libya, cautioned against applying the Libyan model to Syria.
"Libya should not be a blueprint for the future. Libya is just one more campaign from which we should take lessons," Lt.-Gen. Bouchard said.
"One is in the Middle East, the other is in North Africa. I don't want to sound flippant, but the neighbours make a difference," he added, pointing out the border Syria shares with Turkey is just one factor that seriously complicates matters compared to Libya.
James Appathurai, a top NATO political official, pointed out that just on process the groundwork is far from being laid. The NATO mission in Libya was backed by a UN Security Council mandate and had broad regional support.
The Syrian uprising causes discomfort among decision-makers for good reason, according to Radwan Ziadeh, co-founder of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic studies. While Middle Eastern regimes like Iran must temper despotic impulses because of the need to sell oil, Syria is far less constrained by diplomatic considerations.
"For years now, Syrian foreign policy has hinged on making trouble with its neighbours," said Mr. Ziadeh. "Syria depends on unrest among neighbours. If you want to bring stability to Iraq, to Lebanon, to Syria, to Iran, you have to change the Assad regime."
But the way to do that is far from clear.
Mr. Ziadeh said the West could be honest about the limitations of its power and the double standard it applies in these cases. The West intervened in Libya because the mission was relatively easy. It won't intervene in Syria because it would be bloody and expensive.
Senator John McCain said he favours recognizing Syria's transitional council, a move also favoured by Mr. Ziadeh and a number of other experts.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak suggested Mr. al-Assad's downfall is well underway and may be complete without much Western help.
"I think that [al-Assad]went beyond the point of no return, there's no way he will resume his authority or legitimacy over his people," Mr. Barak said during an on-stage interview at the forum.
"It's not a linear process, but now will go on an even steeper slope. People within his armed forces, civil service, start to see the end, how to hedge their personal bets."
Rocket-propelled grenades struck the headquarters of Syria's ruling party Sunday, bringing the violence that has engulfed much of the country to the heart of its capital for the first time, activists said. The attack on the building in Syria's capital of Damascus apparently caused no damage or casualties. But if true, it would mark a significant shift in the eight-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Until now, the capital has remained relatively untouched. – AP
The Arab League rebuffed a request by Damascus to amend plans for a 500-strong monitoring mission to Syria, after President Bashar al-Assad vowed to continue his crackdown and said he would not surrender to outside pressure. Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said the plan as it stood compromised the country's sovereignty but Damascus had not rejected the mission.
The Cairo-based League had given Damascus three days from a meeting on Nov. 16 to abide by a deal to withdraw military forces from restive cities, start talks between the government and opposition and pave the way for an observer team. It was not immediately clear what action the Arab League would take after the deadline passed unheeded by Damascus. The pan-Arab body had threatened sanctions for non-compliance, and it suspended Syria's membership in a surprise move last week. – Reuters