These are our options in Syria. None of them are easy.

Canadians are right to be wary of military intervention in Syria, but we can and should help address the deteriorating humanitarian situation, argues Colin Robertson.

By: /
29 August, 2013
By: Colin Robertson
Vice President and Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute

What can Canada do about Syria and Egypt? The options for policymakers range from bad to worse.

Syria is the latest example of a failing state where the dictator is doing everything he can to hang onto power including breaking international law, most recently in the apparent use of chemical weapons.

UN-sanctioned inspectors are on the ground attempting to determine the facts although US Secretary of State John Kerry has declared evidence of chemical weapons is “undeniable” and that there must be “accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons”.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the US is “ready to go.”

Acting precipitously, as the US and its ‘coalition of the willing’ learned in Iraq comes with a huge cost in blood, treasure and international standing. But, as Senator John McCain argues,  if the US doesn’t make an armed response “our credibility in the world is diminished even more.”

Meanwhile, the military coup in Egypt that ousted President Morsi is a reminder that the transition to representative government takes time and requires patience. It took the Anglosphere nearly a millennium to go from Magna Carta to the extension of the franchise to first, all men and, less than a century ago, all women. In the case of civil rights for African Americans, it is just fifty years since the March on Washington that led to legislation on voting and civil rights. If we have learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan it is that the road to representative government is long, crooked, tortuous and filled with disappointments.

The costs of Iraq and Afghanistan to the US are estimated at between four and six trillion dollars (Canada’s entire economy is  $1.83 trillion). An estimate of the costs of intervention in Syria is contained in a recent letter from General Martin Dempsey, Chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Senators Carl Levin and John McCain. Dempsey observed that “the decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly” because it “is no less than an act of war.”

To train and advise the Syrian opposition is costing $500 million annually. Establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, Dempsey wrote, would have a start-up cost of $500 million and a monthly bill of a billion dollars. Intervention employing special forces to secure the chemical stockpiles in Iraq would cost at least another billion dollars a month

Policymakers, as well as armchair generals and responsibility-to-protect advocates, should start any discussions on intervention by reading aloud Dempsey’s observation that the last decade has taught that it is “not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state.”

They should also heed Dempsey’s three warnings:

First, “We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action.”

Second: “We must also understand risk-not just to our forces, but to our other global responsibilities.”

Third, “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”

Intervention, Dempsey says, should also be done “in concert with our allies and partners to share the burden and solidify the outcome.”

These considerations and the requirement for burden-sharing were discussed during the weekend conversations involving President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry with western leaders, including Prime Minister Harper. Surveys reveal that Americans are very wary of armed intervention. Canadian attitudes are likely to be similar.

So what can we do? The immediate consideration is humanitarian. The UNHCR estimates that there are now nearly two million refugees, including a million children, in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Funding for the three billion dollar Syria Regional Refugee Response plan is currently only 38 percent funded. Canada has subscribed $81.5 million towards Syrian relief.

Beyond money, we should also consider ramping up our refugee intake in a way that is both strategic and humanitarian. Experience has taught us that successful integration of refugees depends on many factors. Like the installation of democracy, some adapt better than others and sustaining Canadian support for a generous refugee and immigration program obliges policymakers to temper generosity with pragmatism. One group that is under stress and that may require resettlement is Egypt’s Christian minority. We have condemned the attacks on the over 60 churches but their situation is precarious. Forty years ago, in response to the expulsion of 60,000 Ugandan Asians, Canada resettled nearly 7,000

Like the Egyptian Christians, the Ugandan Asians were a community of small business people and professionals. Today, their success is another reflection of the positive virtues of Canadian pluralism. The Egyptian Christians would likely integrate in similar fashion, especially given the presence in Canada of their co-religionists to help in the transition.

Taking a leadership role in humanitarian relief in Syria and Egypt would give tangible substance to Foreign Minister John Baird’s ‘dignity’ agenda. It would also demonstrate, once again, the Canadian tradition as a helpful fixer.

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