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What should Canada do about Syria?

Canada should not hide behind its middle power status, and help Syrians seek accountability for war crimes

By: /
1 March, 2022
Maryam and Nore Kasmeih wait for Syrian refugees at the airport, their mother came to Canada 15 years ago and their family that was in Syria has fled to Turkey. Syrian refugees begin to arrive in Canada at Pearson International Airport in Mississauga. December 10, 2015. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Even before I came to Canada as a landed immigrant 16 years ago, I had constantly puzzled about the oft-cited Canadian “middle power” status. This became a little more tangible to me, as a newcomer, integrating myself into Canadian society. I suddenly realized that what normally amounts to a political and diplomatic posture Canada projects onto the world, was deeply rooted in the general social and political culture at home. 

This is the famed (and often parodied) Canadian penchant for being inoffensive, unobtrusive, polite, kind in a “stay-in-your-lane-and-I-will-stay-in-mine” manner. This, I also found out, is complemented by the general blandness of Canadian politics—even our scandals do not have the same bite—particularly when compared to my region of origin, the Middle East, or even to our neighbors in the south. 

It all seemed to me a tad too middling; yet it served both Canada, and me, quite well. After all, one of the reasons for which I came to Canada in the first place was to enjoy a sense of normalcy and calm. If that meant going for boring stability and predictability, then so be it: I decided that I really wanted and appreciated this outlook that I observed around me. I embraced it, got accustomed to it and only sought “excitement,” whenever I felt the need for it, in sports or news from elsewhere around the world. 

I also appreciated this position Canada assumed in the international order as a “middle power.” It sounded like we, as a nation, eschewed the bravado and flashiness of more assertive nations and, subsequently, also the pitfalls of brash and aggressive foreign policy. Ours was a sane, reasonable, calm, and friendlier posture; one that gave us little if any problems, and that did not rock the boat.

My position on this “middle power” posture became, however, severely tested with the onset of the Syrian Revolution and the ensuing civil conflict. The Syrian conflict has, to date, resulted in a number of heinous war crimes committed by the regime which cost hundreds of thousands of lives, as well as causing a massive humanitarian crisis—particularly the largest displacement crisis of the past 70 years. 

Canada’s policy towards Syria focused on assisting communities in place within Syria to build resilience in the face of protracted conflict, extending support on accountability related to war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and allegations of chemical weapons use, and supporting diplomatic initiatives for a sustainable political resolution to the conflict. 

Canada also increased the intake of refugees and allowed private sponsorship to absorb and fast-track refugees’ arrivals in Canada to help alleviate some of the most pressing and urgent cases. Finally, Canada championed an innovative step, allowing refugees a say in formulating and debating foreign policy related to their issues. Canada is the first country to officially incorporate R-SEAT (Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the Table) in all its delegations and policymaking activities related to refugees since 2019. 

But these efforts, while certainly laudable and praiseworthy, stop short of doing what is necessary: that is, to actively and tangibly support the Syrian people in their quest to join in the democratic experiment. The aforementioned efforts are post-facto efforts, focusing on mitigating and managing existing conditions resulting from Syrians’ failed efforts to achieve democracy. I believe that it misses the point of a proactive and effective policy, and that it is largely driven by Canada’s posture and positioning of itself as a “middle power.”

The term “middle power” came into Canadian political discourse after World War II. Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent (1948—1957), for example, described Canada as representing “a power of the middle rank,” describing both the country’s strategic international weight among other powers, as well as its diplomatic posture and policy. Canada’s now-established international relations posture is marked by the tendency to pursue multilateral solutions to international problems, to embrace compromise in international disputes, and to help maintain international order through coalition building, mediation and peacekeeping efforts. 

I do, however, find Canada’s leading-from-behind-the-scenes position quite limited—and limiting. Canada needs to step up, to meet the challenges of an increasingly changing and more complicated international scene.

To this effect, Canada marshaled the nation’s economic affluence, considerable diplomatic skills and deft leadership (from behind or on the sidelines, opting for effectiveness and results rather than flash-and-dazzle) to help promote and preserve international order and peace. Canada’s global prestige rose and the country has garnered goodwill and a good reputation as an honest, and fair, broker; a reliable and trustworthy partner in unexciting but benevolent interventions the world over. 

Canada’s current “middle power” diplomacy can be characterized by three main aspects, namely: a commitment to multilateralist approaches, international institutions, and like-minded partners; a strong emphasis on approaches to international relations highlighting the primacy of civil society, and; a clear foreign policy line based on human security and climate protection, diplomatic solutions, peacekeeping and international justice. 

As a result, Canada was always able to stay in the middle lane, offend virtually no one in the international arena, get to work to minimize friction and become an honest broker, and bask in the goodwill projected onto it. We maintain mostly excellent relations with everyone, and receive hundreds of thousands of qualified, work-ready immigrants drawn to the country by its mix of economic success and decent global posture.

I do, however, find Canada’s leading-from-behind-the-scenes position quite limited—and limiting. Canada needs to step up, to meet the challenges of an increasingly changing and more complicated international scene. The Trump era, for one, cast serious doubts on the robustness of the international order as it stands, as well as on the seriousness of international commitments to multilateralism. How effective really is our unyielding faith in, and heavy reliance on, the persistence of a rules-based international system, if not everyone, including our allies, stuck to the rules? The idea is not to adopt a brash or aggressive international stance; rather a proactive, visible, and all-hands-on-deck posture. Canada has come of age, and does not need to act as a “middle power” in the sense this term meant in the 20th century: it can and ought to inject new meaning into this term, by being a force for a centrist approach but one that is ready to take initiatives “solo.”

One such area can, and ought to be, a more visible and tangible leadership on the Syrian war crimes front. Let us remember, for example, that a Canadian (William Wiley) was instrumental in the efforts to help secure and safely store hundreds of thousands of documents detailing war crimes committed in Syria. He did so as part of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a nongovernmental initiative–not through any official channel. 

Canada can, and ought to, follow Wiley’s lead on the efforts to establish a legal framework for the prosecution of these crimes – a special court for Syria. Canada can employ its prestige and goodwill in a multilateral effort with teeth which it, for once, can lead. Such a special court will be tasked with initiating legal proceedings and with bringing the leading perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Syria, particularly those affiliated with the Syrian regime, to justice. 

Canada can also provide necessary relevant assistance in the form of technical expertise, training, as well as tech-related solutions that may help in the efforts to train activists in the investigation and documentation of human rights violations. This is but one of the possible avenues of assuming a proactive, leading international role that elevates Canada’s global contribution and helps consolidate its international relevance and interests. Such efforts not only help solidify Canada’s leadership role internationally, but it also reflects the values enshrined in the country’s culture and espoused by its people. 

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Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

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