Can Canada do anything about Syria?

Canada may have no military role to play in whatever action the world takes in Syria, but there is more to be done on the humanitarian side, experts in national security and foreign affairs said Friday in Ottawa.

With no resolution in sight and no military role for Canada, what else could we do to help?

Syrian refugees pass through the Turkish Cilvegozu gate border last month. Canada may have no military role to play in whatever action the world takes in Syria, but there is more to be done on the humanitarian side, experts in national security and foreign affairs said Friday in Ottawa. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

Canada may have no military role to play in whatever action the world takes in Syria, but there is much more to be done on the humanitarian side, experts in national security and foreign affairs said Friday in Ottawa.

Talk of a U.S. military strike is on hold as American and Russian officials meet in Geneva, Switzerland, to try to start down the road to a peaceful solution in the long-running, bloody fight. And both Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have made it clear Canada has nothing to add militarily to any possible U.S. strike.

But there are options other than a military mission, a panel of experts concluded Friday at the University of Ottawa.

They also urged caution, given the split among rebel groups in Syria and the jumble of outside countries with interests in the conflict.

While everyone is outraged at suffering on all sides of the battle between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the country's rebel forces, that doesn't mean Western countries can do anything about it, said Margaret Bloodworth, a former national security adviser to Harper.

"Outsiders can play a role, but we should be very humble about what role we have, and certainly we cannot impose what we think the solution should be," Bloodworth said.

She is now a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa's school of public and international affairs, which organized the panel discussion.

Bring more Syrian refugees to Canada

But there is work to be done through humanitarian aid rather than with military action, she said.

"I don't think we [in Canada] have enough weight to play any major role in bringing parties together," Bloodworth said.

"We have done a lot on [the] humanitarian [side]. I think we can do a lot more.... We could do more on refugees. There are two million refugees now."

A Syrian rebel provides cover for a fellow fighter. A chemical weapons plan would need to be carried out amidst a brutal civil war. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters )

The federal government has said it will help resettle 200 Syrian refugees, and allow another 1,100 privately sponsored refugees to be placed in Canada. But that's a minute fraction of the number of refugees flooding from Syria to neighbouring  Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

The resettlement announced so far is "shameful," said David Petrasek, a former special adviser to the secretary general of Amnesty International

"In 1956, we took 50,000 Hungarian refugees. We're a wealthier country today. I find that [1,300-refugee resettlement] a very inadequate response. It's not a good response to what to do about Syria, but it is something our government could be doing," Petrasek said.

Use international law

A referral to the International Criminal Court requires sponsorship by the UN Security Council — which has so far seen China and Russia weaken any statement against Syria — but Petrasek said there's nothing stopping Canada from joining with other countries to use international law to exert pressure on Syria.

"It would not have the legitimacy of an [International Criminal Court] process, but there are other options," he said.

"Despite the talk of the current government, and despite their many condemnations of the abuses in Syria ... Canada has refused to sign onto petitions launched by 60 UN member states."

Petrasek said Canada could also demand concessions regarding the thousands of political prisoners in Syria and broaden its sanctions against the regime.

"None of them are a good answer," he said, but not seeing a way out of the conflict "cannot paralyze us."

Expect a long road to the end

The world is a long way off from a resolution, warned Roland Paris, director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa. Ensuring the weapons have been dealt with means having Syria identify, disclose and secure an estimated 1,400 tonnes of chemical agents scattered across the country, he said. That will take a great deal of time.

"The opportunities for distraction and deflection and reneging are many. These concessions were made under pressure and I think the pressure will be very hard to maintain over the long haul," Paris said.

U.S. President Barack Obama threatened a military strike after his country's officials said they have intelligence showing Assad used several chemical weapons attacks on his own people.

Bloodworth warned that anything Western countries do could end up making the conflict worse and referred to conflicts in the Middle East that date back to borders imposed on some countries after the end of the First World War.

"It is a very complex situation, of which we know very little," Bloodworth said. "It's better to be talking, even if people are still throwing weapons at one another, than not talking."

Petrasek said the conflict is really several wars wrapped into one.

"It's the Syrian people who have risen up against a dictatorial regime ... it's a sectarian civil war, it's a regional Sunni versus Shia battle, it's Iran in its ongoing conflict with the [Persian] Gulf monarchies, it's Israel and Hezbollah. It is perhaps the harbinger of a new Lebanese civil war, but being fought in Syria. It's Turkey's ongoing conflict with the PKK, the Kurdish armed group. It's the Syrian Kurds who are fighting the Syrian Arabs. It's the U.S. and Iran, and I could go on and on."

UN inspectors expect to deliver their report this weekend on whether chemical weapons were used in an Aug. 21 attack.

With files from The Associated Press


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