What should Canada do when Bashar al-Assad wins the Syrian civil war?
That question changed from an “if” to a “when” this week, and became one of the more awkward and pressing ones on the Trudeau government’s foreign-affairs agenda. The catastrophic Trump-Putin news conference left a lot of things uncertain, but both Presidents made it abundantly clear that there is no longer any major military country willing to support the ouster of Mr. al-Assad, seven years after his people rose against him.
The United States sent messages last month to rebel forces in southwestern Syria, telling them they should no longer expect air strikes or other support and protection from the U.S. The Trump administration appears eager to withdraw its last 2,000 special forces from Syria. Russia, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel have all clearly agreed to let the Assad regime remain in power.
This doesn’t mean Syria is at peace. Mr. al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies are now violently cleansing the southern three-quarters of the country of any resistance. A detailed report this month by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons proved the Assad regime had killed dozens in an April chemical-weapons attack in Douma. The retaliatory coalition air strikes were perfunctory, and few doubt that Mr. al-Assad would be willing to resort to more atrocities and crimes against humanity.
The northern quarter of the country remains largely held by Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who were partners of NATO countries in the fight against the Islamic State. Canada has provided some low-level assistance to these forces, including air strikes until 2016, training, medical support and pledges of weapons. SDF leaders appear to be preparing to negotiate an agreement that would turn Syria into a federal state, with some autonomy for Kurdish regions, under the Assad regime’s control.
President Donald Trump is likely preparing to hand Syria to Mr. al-Assad, so that he can announce before the November elections that U.S. soldiers have returned home victorious after having achieved the defeat of the Islamic State and the end of the Syrian war and its attendant refugee crisis.
An Assad victory would accomplish none of those things. The Islamic State was not a dark alternative to his regime – its emergence was a pure product of his regime’s unwillingness to cede control. The millions of refugees will not return in any significant numbers; it was his brutality that drove them away.
“The United States must accept that ignoring Syria will lead not to a clean victory for Assad that establishes a stable peace but to more chaos down the road,” Jennifer Cafarella, a military-intelligence specialist with the conservative Institute for the Study of War, wrote this week in a warning to Mr. Trump. “A future in which Assad reimposes control and prevents jihadist threats to the West is a fantasy. He deliberately fuelled the rise of both ISIS and al Qaeda in order to use them to hold the West hostage while he destroyed what threatened him most: the moderate rebels that wished to negotiate a peace.”
This puts Canada and other coalition members in a very difficult position. There is no way any civilized country should recognize the legitimacy of Mr. al-Assad, whose repeated use of weapons of mass destruction against his own people has made him by far this century’s most serious war criminal. If he holds power, though, it will become even more important to help the Syrian people.
“The end of the war is not imminent. When it comes, Western states that have opposed Assad will face a dilemma,” said Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa. Mr. Paris served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s foreign-policy adviser as his Syria position was being formulated. “Assad will still be in power. He fought a war to remain in power, and he has largely succeeded. He’s not going anywhere.”
“The typical approach to post-conflict peace-building as it’s been practised over the past 25 years involves building up the capacity of a legitimate state while helping to restore civilian infrastructure and services. That formula is problematic when the state is led by a murderous war criminal backed by Iran and Russia.”
What he and other informed observers recommend is that Canada focus on providing humanitarian assistance in a way that doesn’t legitimize the regime. It will be needed more than ever. Millions of Syrians will not be able to call Syria home – and the rest of us shouldn’t call it a country – as long as the strongman is kept in charge.