Paul Heinbecker is a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and chief foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
It will be a tragic irony if the anti-Islamic State Coalition, including Canada, ends up strengthening President Bashar al-Assad rather than saving his Syrian victims. Prime Minister Harper has signalled his government's willingness to expand Canada's mission against Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), apparently into Syria. Many lives can still be saved in Syria, the scene of some of the worst man-made suffering in decades. But not by turning a blind eye to Mr. Assad's ongoing military atrocities.
While our collective gaze has been averted, the situation in Syria has deteriorated drastically. 2014 was the worst year yet; 76,000 people died there as a result of conflict, including 3,500 children, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights. The total Syrian death toll has climbed past 210,000. Well over 12 million people need humanitarian assistance just to keep body and soul together. 7.6 million people have fled their homes, some more than once. Harsh winter conditions have compounded the crisis. A quarter of Syria's schools have been damaged, destroyed or taken over for shelter. More than half of Syria's hospitals are destroyed.
Nearly four million Syrians have had the comparatively good fortune to find refuge in communities and camps in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan–at enormous cost to the host countries. In tiny Lebanon, refugees comprise nearly one-third of the population, the equivalent in Canada of an influx of the entire population of Ontario.Jordan hosts over 622,000 Syrian refugees and large numbers of Palestinians as well. Turkey, the largest and richest of neighbouring countries, has absorbed over 1.6 million refugees, becoming the world's biggest refugee hosting country; the number of refugees in Turkey is projected to rise to 2.5 million by year's end.
What should the international community and Canada also do to alleviate the great suffering in Syria?
1. Stanch or at least slow the bleeding. If the U.S.-led coalition can muster the will to use air power to help stop Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria, it can stop the barrel-bombing and other air-launched atrocities of the blood-soaked Assad regime. Two no-fly zones were successfully imposed on Iraq from 1992 to 2003 after the first Gulf War, and saved countless lives. Something similar could be done vis-à-vis Syria using Turkish, Kurdish and other regional air bases. Canada could provide aircraft as we are doing in the coalition effort against ISIS.
2. Train moderate Syrian forces. Canada should support the program recently agreed to by Turkey and the United States to train selected moderate members of the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, far from the front lines, in order to combat Islamic State and ultimately the Assad regime. Canada is already helping to train Kurdish Peshmerga forces but more needs to be done.
3. Contribute more generously to the UN's humanitarian-assistance programs for Syrian residents and for Syrian refugees. In 2014, only about 60 per cent of the United Nations' request for $5.9-billion (U.S.) in aid was met by international donations. "Unfulfilled" donor commitments forced the World Food Program to suspend food aid to 1.7-million Syrian refugees in December. The same month, the UN launched a new appeal for 2015, at $8.4-billion the largest ever. The United States has been by far the largest donor, and Canada ranked a reasonable fifth among donor countries, providing about $685-million (Cdn) cumulative since the crisis began in 2011. Using the UN's sliding scale for contributions, Canada's share in 2015 would be about $250-million.
4. Resettle the Syrian refugees. Canada could do more to help permanently re-settle those Syrian refugees best able to adapt to life beyond the Middle East. With no political solution in sight, and with death and devastation awaiting returnees to Syria, many have no prospect of returning home. The world has pledged to provide shelter to 80,000 refugees, with Germany leading with 30,000, followed by the United States, Brazil and Switzerland. Canada has committed to take 10,000 refugees by 2017. We could progressively increase our quota to approach the greater inflows we successfully integrated in past decades, including 40,000 Hungarian refugees in the 1950s, 20,000 Czechs, Chileans and Ismailis in the 1960s and 1970s, and 100,000 Vietnamese in the 1970s and 1980s. The Syrians are generally a well-educated people and many would make successful immigrants in Canada.
5. Do nothing to legitimize or strengthen Mr. Assad. Instead, we should be building cases against him and his fellow perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity for eventual prosecution by the International Criminal Court. If out of fear of Islamic State and of a desire to stop them, the Coalition were to ally itself, de facto or de jure, with Bashar al-Assad for fleeting tactical advantage, it would be the ultimate betrayal of the Syrian innocents. And of our own values.
The world can still save many lives in Syria. But to do so it will need to cure its collective myopia, retrieve its human solidarity from wherever it has misplaced it and generate the political will to do more than wring its already raw hands over the ongoing slaughter.