Neil Macdonald: The hypocrisy that is the West's response to Syria

Neil Macdonald asks whether Syrian lives are worth less than Libyan ones.

Late Monday, nearly a day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had issued his latest justification for slaughtering his own people like cattle, Canada's foreign affairs minister worked up enough outrage to declare himself "unconvinced" of al-Assad's sincerity.

With some understatement, John Baird went on to say that Syrians have endured "terrible crimes" at the hands of al-Assad's regime, and that the Syrian people want real change, and not vague promises.

Then Baird got tough: al-Assad, he said, "has a choice. He can reform or go."

In other words, Canada thinks a tyrant who has unleashed snipers to shoot his own citizens at random, including, apparently, scores of young children; who has ordered tanks to attack peaceful crowds; whose enforcers terrorize the population with medieval-style torture; and who regards reform-minded protesters as "microbes" to be exterminated, might still turn out to be a reformer.

And if so, by cracky, he'd better get on with it. Or else Canada may issue another press release.

This is the same John Baird whose tough-talking prime minister, on Feb. 27, declared Moammar Gadhafi guilty of brutalizing and killing Libyans, and demanded he immediately resign.

"A government's first and most fundamental responsibility is to protect the safety and security of its citizens," Stephen Harper said. "Mr. Gadhafi has blatantly violated this basic trust."

'Words are not enough'

So. To recap: Gadhafi: evil, blatant violator of trust, must go now. Al-Assad, merciless orchestrator of torture and slaughter, should reform.

A supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad holds a poster with his picture in al-Umawiin square in Damascus on June 21, 2011, in one of several large pro-government rallies across the country. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)

To be fair, Baird is not alone in his assessment. He might as well have pointed at President Barack Obama and declared: "Like he said."

It was in fact Obama's administration that concocted the "reform-or-get-out-of-the-way" talking point.

A great spinner of righteous rhetoric — Iran, North Korea, Libya, even America's old ally Hosni Mubarak during his final, flailing days — the Obama White House, has nonetheless generally avoided making an issue of the predations of Bashar al-Assad and his Baathist cronies in Damascus.

After al-Assad's speech Monday, the administration's mouthpieces fanned out with the talking point: "Words are not enough. Syrians need action."

Sound pusillanimous? I asked P.J. Crowley if he thought so.

"Yes," allowed the man who until recently was one of the most important public faces of the U.S. government.

As the U.S. State Department's official spokesman, Crowley was for years obliged to trot out the sort of two-faced platitudes that make up the foreign policies of most nations. Hypocrisy, after all, being the lubricant of international intercourse.

But now that Crowley is free of having to say what must be said, he is saying what should be said: That Bashar al-Assad must leave, and that President Obama, and Prime Minister Harper, and other Western leaders should demand it. He wrote that in the Washington Post this week, and elaborated in an interview.

A free pass

That is not to say, Crowley told me, that the West should go roaring into Syria, bombers bombing. There is a limit to Western might, and Syria is a more complicated target than Libya.

But it is to say that only a ninny would still believe there is any prospect of al-Assad reforming, as the West has so desperately hoped he would do ever since he inherited power from his despotic father, Hafez.

I told Crowley that an aide to Stephen Harper had told me that Canada is holding back on what it is saying publicly because "once you say somebody has to step down, you have to put your money where your mouth is."

Not so, replied Crowley, in the mild, diplomatic fashion he still cultivates. For example, he noted, most Western governments clearly believe that Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, ought to step down, given that he stands indicted of war crimes.

As a result, while al-Bashir is not being attacked, he is being isolated, far more effectively than al-Assad.

Calling for al-Assad's resignation is simply the right thing to do and it would likely increase regional and international pressure on him if Western powers did so, says Crowley.

As it is, al-Assad has a free pass, and he's using it.

The value of Syrian lives

What's more, says Crowley, al-Assad is almost certainly guilty of killing at least as many of his people as Gadhafi.

Which raises the nasty question: Is Syrian life less valuable than Libyan life?

That might sound like rhetorical fencing, but it certainly has great meaning to, say, the average citizen of Deraa, Homs, Hama or Jisr-al-Shughur.

But governments aren't the only ones preoccupied elsewhere. I wrote to a leader of one of the pro-Palestinian groups last week, asking what his followers are planning for ordinary Syrians. Will there be an aid flotilla of the sort even now being planned once again for Gazans? Perhaps some sort of attempt to confront the Syrian navy?

The answer: "We focus on Israel and Palestine. But we have put out statements backing what the peoples of the Middle East are doing to resist and replace the regimes that are oppressing them."

Really? I haven't seen many.

The fact is everyone seems to have a reason not to rage against Bashar al-Assad and his killers.

Saudi Arabia and other dictatorships in the region want this Arab Spring contagion stopped. Israel is principally concerned with stability on its northeast border, which al-Assad has provided (rather than Arab democracy or human rights).

The U.S. and Canada, both of which say Israel's security is their paramount concern, seem to prefer al-Assad's secular brutality to the potential of an Islamic-tinged successor.

And the West's ubiquitous social justice activists, the ones who fill reporters' email queues with daily denunciations of Israel or Western imperialism have no history at all of going up against Arab dictatorships (quite the opposite in some cases, I'd have to say).

Some human rights groups, particularly the admirable Human Rights Watch, are the honorable exceptions here. They have not looked away.

But to the rest of the world, yes, it would appear a Syrian life is indeed worth less than others. Sorry. Diplomacy, and all that, you know. But Syrians can rest assured, Canada is "unconvinced" of their leader's sincerity.

Some of the more than 10,000 Syrian refugees who have escaped the crackdown in their country by crossing into Turkey, where the government has set up camps. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.