Should Canada do something to help Syria?

Syrian fighter (AP)

Syrian fighter (AP)


Syria: With evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, several countries including Canada are considering their options to help the people of that war-torn state.

What -- if anything --  should Canada do to intervene in Syria?

With guest host Andrew Nichols.

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The world focused its attention on Syria this week. Hostilities there reached a pitch ...and perhaps even a turning point, with evidence that chemical weapons have been used. Many looked to the United States to take action. Several other countries are considering their options. Canada held a an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday but the discussion led to no specific conclusions. It's not surprising that people and countries are confused about what can be done to stop the violence. It is a messy and complicated situation with many competing interests ...and no single, easy solution.

What started as pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria two years ago, has slowly and horribly degenerated into a vicious civil war. The UN estimates 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting between the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad and a range of several rebel groups. Four million Syrians have been displaced ...two million of them have left the country, and many of those are in refugee camps just over the border in the neighbouring countries.

Canada has contributed almost $50-million in humanitarian aid but Syrian-Canadians are pressuring to give much more matching funds such as Haiti received. The NDP wants Canada to concentrate on sending more aid to refugees and on re-uniting families here. The Liberals are calling for identifying moderate political groups in the country and targetting aid to them. In the confusion of this war it is not always clear what groups are fighting for which aims, and who is backing them. Everybody fears providing support to extremist factions who might ultimately make the stituation worse. The government has said it's premature to even consider military involvement and that the political route offers the most hope. It hasn't stopped calls for the creation of a no-fly zone over Syria to prevent the government forces from using jets to bomb civillians.

U.S. President Obama had to explain whether or not his 'red line' had been crossed ...the one he had earlier said would necessitate intervention. That line was defined as the use of chemical weapons.

Israel took action this week and bombed targets within Syria under the belief that weapons were being stockpiled in Syria for transfer to Israel's Hezbollah enemies in Lebanon. Syria called it a declaration of war. Yesterday two car bombs exploded in Turkey killing 46 people. Turkey blamed Syria saying it was revenge for Turkey's hosting of Syrian opposition leaders and rebel commanders.

As the political situation degenerates, what new dangers will arise to surrounding countries? How will it affect Canadians here at home?

We'd like to know what you think.

Is there a moral imperative to act ...especially when the situation is so grave and the lives of so many people are at stake? Who should take the lead ...the UN, NATO, the United States? What should Canada's role be? Is it possible to simply stand by and give humanitarian aid? Are there longer term consequences for inaction?

Our question today: "What -- if anything -- should Canada do to help the situation in Syria?"

I'm Andrew Nichols ...On CBC Radio One and on Sirius XM satellite radio channel 169 ...this is Cross Country Checkup.


  • Stephen Starr
    Journalist and author of Syria Revolt: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.

  • Faisal Alazem
    Spokesperson for the Syrian Canadian Council based in Montreal.

  • Barry Rubin
    Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal.

  • Bessma Momani
    Associate Professor in the departments of Political Science and History at the University of Waterloo and a Senior Fellow at two respected think-tanks: the Centre For International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo and Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.


National Post

Globe and Mail

Foreign Policy



We do need to help Syria but let's be smart about it. Anything we do or fail to do in/for that country is going to have serious consequences politically, diplomatically and economically.

First of all, whatever we do, we can not engage in military action in Syria. (I'm speaking of the world at large; not just Canada.)

As a former Infantryman with three tours of duty in the Bosnian War I have a bit of first-person experience at what happens when you try to militarily intervene in an internal war. It never, never, never works, no matter what country provides the boots. Didn't work in Bosnia, didn't work in Afghanistan, didn't work in Korea, didn't work in Iraq, didn't work in Somalia, didn't work in Rwanda; the list goes on. What makes anyone think it'd work this time? Putting it in the bluntest possible terms; dropping Grunts into a meat-grinder like Syria and asking them to help Syrians kill Syrians is about as smart as dropping them into Michigan and ordering them to help the Militia take over the White House. Bad move.

Secondly, we could provide arms to the Syrian rebels - let's see where that goes. We're going to have Syrians killing Syrians with US (or other allied) weapons. We'll have to hope the rebels win because if Assad gets hold of those weapons he will either integrate them into his armed forces or use them as political tools ("We have the weapons of our enemy!" etc.) Even if the Rebels do win it's still going to be difficult - mother's sons and kids' dads died at the hands of those Syrians using weapons from that country. And we have to pray that whoever takes over Syria after Assad is strung up isn't just as bad - always a possibility.

If Canada wants to assist in Syria; it should do so in what we traditionally see as our best feature: Humanitarian aid. Provide food, water and shelter for refugees; provide medical assistance. And not in dribs and drabs - organize with MSF and other capable NGO's, unleash the power of Canadian compassion and do what we can to minimize the suffering. If we do this, we will accomplish three things:
We can actually help the people who really need it - the Syrian people.  We can physically position ourselves on the ground to be able to give support inside Syria once the dust settles - which is an important diplomatic point. Countries might be quicker to take positive action in post-war Syria if there's already an infrastructure in place. Diplomatically, we can take a moral high-ground position once the UN and other bodies start debating what to do about Syria. Not doing anything gives us no valid voice on the world stage. Provide force or arms and you're going to alienate delegates of one country or another. Provide solid, effective humaitarian aid and you've got a solid bargaining chip once the shouting starts.

Edmonton, Alberta

Vague question! How do you "help" a country? Which faction do you support? Certainly Canada should not get involved militarily in any way. We have no strategic interests there. Humanitarian help should be provided of course.Beyond that we should not go. Let the Syrians resolve their own government problems.

St.John's, Newfoundland

The conflict in Syria is not about "democracy". I suggest it is a religious one pitting different Muslim factions against the current President who is of a minor Muslim sect. When and if the dust settles, there will be a new theocracy in place, one that is not democratic.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Egypt have not turned into democratic states despite the West's hopeful intentions.

At this point, Canada should provide humanitarian aid only for refugees and help reunite families.

The United Nations, if it has the will, should take the lead and endeavour to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Canada can contribute peace keepers but not for a combat role as it did in Afghanistan.

NATO should not get involved in a "regime change" exercise because such involvement seems to just replace one dictatorial body with another.

This is essentially a Syrian problem. It must resolve itself eventually through fatigue and reduced resources. Canada should only provide a helping hand where it can. We will never solve Syria's internal problems. That's the responsibility of Syrians.

Riverview, New Brunswick

Canada should not intervene in other peoples affairs.We need to rebuild our Canadian Armed Forces here.

Cornwall, Ontario

I am so pleased to hear Canadians talking about helping Syria recover after the war is over. With the Conservative govt in Canada we have become warriors and we do not need to be. I believe we are good at helping later. let the Syrians have their war and when it is done we can help. We will bring war and terrorism to Canada if we have the attitude of going to another country to fight a war.


Kelowna, British Columbia

First, Canada can teach itself about "the principles of democracy"  - 99.99% of Canadians do not know even one principle of democracy.Second, the Canadian government can help others to learn "the principles of demcracy


Let's talk about chemical weapons for a moment. Assad has the fourth largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world. Assad has been using these weapons slowly, in small amounts, desensitizing the world to this criminal and internationally prohibited act. The potential catastrophe is terrifying. When Assad nears his end, which is arguably soon, he will have nothing to lose and will likely use the rest of these chemical weapons to kill thousands of people. The world will be put to shame and history will not speak well of those who stood by and allowed this happen


I think Canada can get involved with humanitarian assistance to both Lebanon and Turkey. Military intervention is much more complicated but it is clear Assad must be displaced. As you current caller of Syrian descent states, Assad, by proxy has been involved in most of the terrorist episodes by way of Iran, and Hezbollah.

However, unless Turkey, Europe, and the Middle Eastern countries are prepared to offer up their air forces and ships for a blockade and no fly zone, Canada cannot get involved without an international effort. Add to this that Russia and China will complicate things for any combined effort.

A no fly zone would be different than Libya, as the Libyan mission was essentially a regime change mission. I know this as I was involved and have also been deployed previously in the Middle East while in the CF.

he young man who you were able to re-connect with is quite correct, any extremist Islamist element would not be tolerated by the vast majority of Syrians. If fact some of the rebel leaders have indicated they are aware they will likely have to fight forieign Islamist groups now in Syria.


Winnipeg Beach, Manitoba

This is a war between men on one side and men on the other side. Would it be time to reach out to the women of Syria ?  Drop food parcels,  drop messages of women to women,  drop balls for children to play, drop balloons, drop pictures and books, drop whatever but no weapons. It is worth a try;  it would do no harm.


Vancouver, British Columbia

Canada has no business, militarly, in Syria. Humanitarian aid is the only action we should be contemplating. This is a civil war and we have no right or responsibility to interfere.

If the Americans want to make the same mistakes they made in Iraq, Egypt and Libya I will be disappointed, but that's on them.  Canada should not be compounding the error by getting involved militarily.



Canada and the US routinely prop up murderous dictators when it suits them It was only a few short years ago that Canada collaborated with the US to have Maher Arar sent to Syria to be tortured. We obviously knew then that the Syrian government was corrupt. That would and should have the opportunity for Canada to condemn the corruption. To condemn the Syrian government at this late date is too little too late. It would rightly be seen as hypocritical. We no longer have the moral authority to do so


Chatsworth, Ontario

Canada -and all western powers - face the challenge of meeting a moral imperative. To fail to provide effective humanitarian relief is unacceptable. The greatest mistake now would be to let the voice of the common man be silenced. Is military intervention unavoidable at the red line? Is now that time? Perhaps - but the people must come first. Gain their trust and there will be no radical regime when the dust settles.


I don't think we should ignore this conflict. We should help.  But is it only the old people who have noticed that going into another country with tanks and bombs does not get the long term peace we want.  We should quickly hire a task force of people knowledgeable in peace studies. Royal Roads college for instance has an entire faculty in peace studies. Get the task force to study the situation and come up with some actions that Canada can take that will really work. These would include appropriate humanitarian foreign aid, non violent conflict resolution processes, adherence to international law and international co-operation and collaboration.  Let's help, but not do something that will wast lives and resources and not give any permanent peace.


Victoria, British Columbia

his is clearly a propaganda war. We don't know who is using the "chemical weapons", and could easily end up arming a mujahedeen-type outfit that will haunt us for decades.I am also getting increasingly puzzled by even some of the "established facts". For example, I do not understand why a "pressured" Syrian regime (needing all the arms that they can get) would be sending arms to Hezbollah in another country - I really hope that one of the experts on the program can ratioinalise this.


Toronto, Ontario

I'm a Syrian Canadian based in toronto. Watching his country being burned down and people torn apart remotely. Deceived by the expected west's reaction. After turning a blind eye on the countless massacres committed by the ruthless regime. Few demands, ask Canada to facilitate family re-unification and acceleration of processing of immigration cases for Syrians.  Provide more medical and humanitarian support via well-known NGO's who are doing a great role in saving human lives. Exercise extra political pressure to put an end of the regime and work on promoting the national coalition of the Syrian Opposition Forces. Support the Syrian people in liberated areas which constitutes over 60% of the country by providing education, civil support, health-care, rebuilding, and economic aid. There are over a tens of Syrian organizations which were founded in North America just for the Syrian cause working directly with people on the ground.


Canada should absolutely not "intervene" in Syria, nor should it provide arms or intelligence to rebel forces. The rebels have been committing many acts of brutality themselves, and several of these groups are very hostile to the West. Many people in Syria still strongly support Assad. War or military aid will not bring peace to the country, it will merely allow more violence to take place and will further threaten a much wider, regional war.


I am currently listening to your episode on Syria, and am having a lot of difficulty with the cynicism with which most callers are treating this question. Two years of abject violence seems to be of no consequence to people.  I am also disappointed in the lack of creativity people are bringing to the table.

The current regime is a murderous one.   And it would not survive without the support of Russia.  Why is this not being discussed?  A completely non-violent form of intervention might be for Canada to refuse to participate in the Socchi Olympic Games next winter.  Russia no longer deserves the honour to host the world. It is enabling the Assad regime, and Russia should pay a price for that.

There are non-military ways to bring an end to Assad's ruthless dictatorship  We should be concentrating on alienating his international supporters, namely Iran and Russia. A threat to boycott the Socchi Games could possibly put and end to this insanity. Putin would not want that kind of embarrassment, and might be convinced to stop supporting Syria's current regime.

Are there any other non-violent ideas out there?  Doing nothing to help out should not be an option.


Toronto, Ontario

First of all, Canada needs to pay for the refugees we have helped to create! Syria is only the latest Arab/North African country that the West is out to destroy -- and Canada is helping in spades, with all the political parties contributing to this illegal and immoral war against the whole Syrian nation. The next country awaiting this "treatment" is Iran, with Iraq and Libya (a country that had the highest living standard in all of Africa!) having been effectively destroyed and dismantled, and their leaders assassinated by the West.

Secondly, we need to focus on the outrageously biased Western media coverage -- our own included -- from the region, which consists mainly of interviewing "rebels," whoever they are, and broadcasting their stories and images, with tiny cautions affixed that they are "unconfirmed." Some of these images are so "unconfirmed" that they turn out to be photographs of battles elsewhere, such as the famous instance of a photograph on BBC of a small boy walking by white clad bodies, this supposedly after a "massacre" in Syria, but which turned out to be a photo from a different time and a different place, Iraq! (It took the photographer to recognize this recycling of his picture, to expose this "story," forcing BBC to apologize.) As it stands, anybody can say anything about the Syrian government without it being challenged, and in that way Canadians are being totally misled, as they have been about other wars of aggression we participated in, such as the bombing of Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and most recently Libya.


Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

The Syrians are in the midst of a civil war; it's a typical scenario of tin-pot dictator oppressing people, killing their citizens, in an attempt to cling to power. A people who have never known democracy and mix politics with religion fighting to win their freedom (to who or what no one knows). The loss of life is a tragedy. As usual the big international players (US, China Russia) are in there like stink - at least with their opinions as to what to do and who should do it/not do it?And the UN, talking as usual. Otherwise the day-to-day, blow-by-blow news coverage by our national if-it-bleeds-it-leads network comes across as if they have X number of minutes to fill and have nothing else to talk about. News junkies or whatever, nobody can be that interested in Syria. Frankly, I'm tired of hearing about the whole mess. It will eventually resolve itself, until then, play some music, find something Canadian to yak about and report on the outcome when it happens.

W. Michael 

Sackville, Nova Scotia

Prevent the USA from getting involved.  The USA debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya speak for themselves.  150,000 died in Iraq, 3000 died in 9/11.  Bush and Blair should be shackled in Guantanamo.  Canada has Syrians here but that does not mean we are responsible for a terrible Middle Eastern dictatorship.  When we are neglecting our own citizens in Canada?

Canada should shout out injustices.  We could help make the abuses of dictatorships known.  We have ignored them in the past to protect our business and diplomatic interests.  Earlier, we could have helped more vigorously to expose the abuses of the Syrian dictatorship.  We could have shouted louder about the killing in Tibet, the millions killed in Africa, the sexual abuse of children in India, the murder of aboriginals in South America, the suffering of the poor in the USA, the background of the drug killings in Mexico, but we didn't bother to take the trouble.  Let us deal with serious matters earlier...we could have clamped down on Germany in the 30's and saved tens of millions, we slept then had to suffer our inertia later.

If Canada has energy to spare let us forget about intervention in Syria!  Let us spend upon our own seriously neglected children, especially our aboriginals.  With tens of thousands needing soup kitchens why would we go to war in a distant land that has nothing to do with us?   Compassion at home before war in a distant land where intuitions and assumptions and beliefs about what makes a community are basically different , we cannot change another culture. Who do we think we are anyway?


Victoria, British Columbia

There will be no negotiated settlement. And despite the Syrian people majority desire for peace and democracy, the armed radical and other sectarian groups have no such beliefs and will attempt to impose their will. These are the realities of the region and we should not kid ourselves.

We should continue humanitarian aid. Optionally, we should impose and/or support a no fly zone. If we are to arm the rebels - assuming we know who the good ones are - it should be limited up to anti-tank weapons. As learned painfully in the last decade, we must not provide anti-aircraft or powerful artillery that will then disappear only to reappear in use against us.


Toronto, Ontario

I think it is naive to imagine that killing more people will save lives in Syria.If there is intervention it has to be something to starve the materials of war.


Keep out of it, foreign intervention always has later negative impacts -- whether against the intervenors or the aided 'winners'  Concerning the actual situation in Syrian cities, it is the 'rebels'  that choose to fight in the populated areas, so any  govt response has to be  where they are. One thing, curiously,  that i continue to find uninvestigated (or commented upon) is WHO, no doubt outside Syria, grossly miscalculated the 'Arab spring' wave and gave the go-ahead for the uprising in Syria. They are as much responsible for the deaths on both sides as is the very repressive Syrian government dictatorship.


Montreal, Quebec

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