Assad Crossed the Red Line. Now What?

Steve Saideman on the very limited options the West has for dealing with Syria.

By: /
26 August, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

With the apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians, Assad has crossed Obama’s red line, triggering renewed discussion of the possibility of Western intervention.  With a Russian veto certain at the United Nations, Obama’s staff is looking at the NATO air campaign during the Kosovo War as an example of how to get as much international support and legitimacy as possible for any military options.  While that is one problem, the bigger challenge is that, as I discussed here earlier, there are no good options. 

Pinging Syria with cruise missiles is relatively cost-free (even in a time of sequestration).  But it would be kabuki theater, as the missiles would do some minimal damage but not make a difference on the ground.  It might satisfy demands to do something about Syria, but maybe not even that.

There is some discussion of a no fly zone along the lines of what NATO did in Libya. Only, what really happened in Libya bore little resemblance to what would traditionally be understood as a no fly zone.  Sure, NATO stopped Libya from flying its planes and helicopters, but it did far more than that.  Its stance of “protecting civilians” really meant taking the side of the rebels against Qaddafi and essentially becoming close air support for their land forces.  In Syria, a no fly zone on its own would not make that much impact since Assad could still rely on missiles and artillery to do significant damage to his opposition and civilians caught in the crossfire.  And a full Libya-type operation faces a key constraint – the Syrian opposition is deeply divided except for its hostility to Assad and the West, so taking sides is really hard.

The use of ground forces would be necessary to secure the chemical weapons and probably to remove Assad.  Yet no country is willing to take that kind of risk and pay that kind of price after several wars and austerity. 

So, when the question turns to what Canada might do, the answer almost assuredly is about as little or less than what the U.S. will be doing.  Perhaps the U.S. will engage in a bombing offensive, but I find it hard to believe that Harper will be as enthusiastic this time as he was about the Libya campaign.  The probability of success is low, the budget situation back in Ottawa is still quite tight, and the prime minister’s focus has been on putting the military back in the background as the 2015 election approaches. 

Would it harm relations with the U.S. to stay out of it?  Probably not.  Given Obama’s ambivalence, it’s hard to see how anyone in the U.S. would mind other countries being less than enthusiastic.  Moreover, Obama’s diplomacy would be focused on Russia, China, and Europe. 

Harper has surprised people before – the sudden announcements of the Afghanistan training mission and the assistance to France in Mali for example.  So, predicting what he will do next can be a foolish enterprise, but if I had to bet, I would put my money on Canada avoiding a substantial role in the upcoming effort against Syria. 

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