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Ignatieff: Syria is ‘a dog’s breakfast,’ but inaction is worse

People inspect damaged areas in Deir al-Zor, Syria, on March 3, 2013.


Michael Ignatieff holds a joint professorial appointment at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto and at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Here, he speaks to Syria Live.

Q: At a conference at the University of Denver in January you talked about foreign intervention in Syria as a means to securing some leverage with a post-Assad government. Is this happening now?

A: I think we don't know exactly whether we are moving from non-lethal to lethal assistance or whether we're moving from humanitarian aid to training and military advice.

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I think there's a sense everywhere that the stalemate is increasingly bloody, increasingly costly and is really putting the future of Syria as a state at risk. I think the conventional wisdom everywhere is that intervention is risky and may have unintentional consequences. Iraq and Afghanistan have left everybody with a bad taste about intervention.

Syria is showing us that doing nothing can be just as bad.

Has the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P - the international protocol requiring countries to intervene if the state is committing crimes against humanity) been shown to be impotent as a result of the lack of any "action" in Syria?

I don't think the future of R2P rises or falls on what happens in Syria or any other conflict. The language is out there and is clear. A tyrant who butchers his people forfeits his right to rule, or suspends his right to rule. If he won't protect his people then someone else should – that's what the doctrine says. It states the principle of conscience that remains viable. The question then becomes whether we're inching towards taking that responsibility seriously.

What has changed for the U.S. to announce it will supply non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels?

I think the calculation is that if they don't assist someone to win, the U.S. and its allies will lose all ability to shape a post-Assad environment. They're worried enough as it is that the uprising has been taken over by anti-Western jihadist elements. I think they want to find someone they can work with in order preserve the unity of Syria, because that's now in question. The very future of the state is in question. And I think beyond that, there is an increasing concern about the cost to Lebanon, to Jordan, to Iraq also the cost to Israel what a failed state in Syria could be.

Will Washington's new departure change the course of the conflict in any way?

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We don't know the full story of what's going on. There appears to be training in what must be Turkey. Two things have to happen. Aid has to start flowing to the liberated areas and the military balance has to be tipped with weapons. But as long as Assad can fly [government warplanes] it's not sure what was committed at Rome [on February 28] will change this balance.

Canada was gung-ho about helping rebels in Libya but thinks it's too risky to fund rebels in Syria. Canada has still not recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people when the U.S. and many European countries have. Is there something Ottawa sees that much of the Western world doesn't?

I think they're right to be cautious. This is a dog's breakfast. It's very hard to figure out who the good guys are, other than the oppressed and butchered Syrian people. So it's right to be cautious. I think the time has come for Canada to support the most legitimate elements of the Syrian opposition – those that are recognized by other countries. I think that Canada, as a member of NATO could play a very useful role in being part of the team that brings help to the liberated areas. What would really be damaging for the future would be if ordinary Syrians said "we freed our province" or "we freed our region, our town from air strikes and occupation and Assad's troops and you did nothing to help us set up a free Syria."

The amounts of money flowing into [liberated Syrian areas] are small and we should be doing more to assist.

Do you see a Western-led military intervention taking place in Syria at any time in the future?

Short of the use of WMDs, no. But I don't think a no fly [zone] is off the table. No fly is possibly the next step. It doesn't necessarily involve offensive military weapons, it means "you fly, you die" for Assad's planes.

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The issue is whether that would ever receive UN Security Council approval. It's a big step and I think NATO may not be ready to go there yet. I think troops on the ground are impossible to envisage, but I do think in the wake of Assad's fall the international community will want to consider, should consider now, some form of UN-mandated deployment to prevent revenge killings, to protect Alawis and other minorities.

The international community has an enormous responsibility to prevent the very worst happening after the fall of Assad. Surely the Chinese and the Russians understand that the collapse of Syria as a state into warring, armed militias is not in anyone's interest, but that's after.

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About the Author

Stephen Starr lived in Syria for five years until February 2012 and covered the revolt as a freelance journalist. He is the author of' Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising'. More


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