SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) — The Syrian government's actions in Aleppo are a "crime against humanity," and the country's growing refugee crisis deserves further attention from Canada, says former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy.
But other observers say Canada wouldn't be able to play a leadership role in providing assistance, as some argue the country doesn't have the resources or the will to contribute, while others say its steadfast support of Israel has tarnished its reputation in the Middle East.
As Syrian government forces increase attacks on opposition fighters that have populated the region, residents of Aleppo are reporting further shelling of their communities. But the international community can do little in the way of intervention, as the dual veto of Russia and China at the United Nations Security Council continues to cause diplomatic deadlock.
That has led Mr. Axworthy to argue there are actions to be taken and plans to be made outside of the Security Council, and that Canada and the international community need to act now to stem the bloodshed.
A call for more leadership
In an interview with Embassy Mr. Axworthy said he is "dismayed" by the international community's reaction to the conflict in Syria, which began in April 2011 after being sparked by uprisings in countries like Tunisia and Egypt.
President Bashar al-Assad has faced revolts against his harsh dictatorship, and has cracked down on what began as peaceful protests with a full-scale military retaliation. Massacres of entire villages, including women and children, have been reported.
"The increased aerial shelling that the government is doing in Aleppo...is a crime against humanity, and I think some countries should be naming it as such," Mr. Axworthy argued.
There has been a lot of rhetoric and condemnations by the international community, but the United Nations and countries like Canada could be taking humanitarian action in Syria that is separate from the Security Council, he said.
"I'd like to see a lot more leadership at the UN...and I don't just mean from the Secretary General; I mean from countries like our own, which have always had a strong interest in having multilateral, international responses to crises."
Many countries are lagging on this kind of support, he said, but Canada is not emerging as a leader.
"Our own government is not taking much involvement other than making the odd sort of statement. There's just not a lot of leadership being shown."
He said initiatives should be taken in areas of chemical weapons disarmament, refugee aid, and in planning for an eventual peacekeeping force.
"Whatever happens to Assad, the country is very fragmented into a lot of...fiercely competitive and antagonistic section groups," he said.
"There's going to have to be serious buffers put in to keep the peace, and we should be doing that right now. It's going to be too late."
Baird wants to do more
Foreign Minister John Baird met with representatives from the opposition Syrian National Council, and the Syrian Canadian Council in Ottawa on July 25. Mr. Baird highlighted that Canada is the third-largest donor of aid funds to Syria, with $8.5 million going to assistance in the country and to its neighbours.
"Yes, Canada can and wants to do more," he said.
"Our government wants to do more."
Anas H. Marwah of the Syrian National Council said that he has been mirroring Mr. Axworthy's plea for increased action in Syria. Mr. Marwah told Embassy that the Syrian National Council, in co-ordination with the Syrian Canadian Council, presented a proposal to Mr. Baird during the meeting that listed a number of areas that Canada could increase assistance.
The first, he said, was additional aid to refugees.
Although he acknowledged the $8.5 million already committed by the Canadian government, he said it's not enough for the urgent situation.
He also highlighted a desire for mobile hospitals within neighbouring refugee camps, but explained that money was needed to fund them.
Mr. Marwah claimed the Canadian government will be contributing an additional $2 million to the mobile hospital project, although Minister Baird's office would not confirm this.
The UN states that more than 200,000 refugees have fled the city of Aleppo alone, and according to Jordan, which borders Syria to the south, an estimated 2,000 refugees are crossing the border every day.
Denis Stairs, a foreign policy specialist at Dalhousie University, said refugee assistance should be Canada's focus.
"It wouldn't hurt if we put on a bit of a display for diplomatic as well as humanitarian reasons because our credibility as a helpful conflict resolver in the Middle East is pretty corroded at this point," he argued.
"The obvious thing for us to try to focus on would be to help out with the refugee problem."
However, Mr. Stairs said boots on the ground in Syria, even as a peacekeeping force, was "a very hazardous enterprise."
"There's no peace there to keep, and any intervention in the foreseeable future is going to be peace enforcement, and that's a very different kettle of fish."
Canadians also have little stomach for such a hardscrabble peacekeeping mission after their troops' time in Kandahar, he added. And the welcome mat might not be thrown out for the Canucks.
"I'm not sure how welcome they would be," he said.
"Our position on Middle Eastern affairs has been very partisan in the last while and ostentatiously so, so that might not make us particularly popular."
David Carment, a foreign affairs professor at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said the Canadian government's overt support for Israel and its loss of a seat at the Security Council has reduced its diplomatic clout in the Middle East.
"I don't think Canada has the level of capability to have a significant impact on this conflict, given the complexity and given the regional matrix with Israel being so close to the situation," he said.
Doubts were also raised about Canada's ability to encourage chemical or biological weapons disarmament in the region. Mahmud Naqi, a researcher on foreign affairs and weapons disarmament who works with the Rideau Institute, said it would be hard to assess and prevent risk without being on the ground.
"I'm not entirely sure there is much we can do," he said.
Syria apparently acknowledged in late July that it has chemical weapons when Syria's foreign ministry spokesperson, Jihad Makdissi, threatened in a televised conference to use them if facing foreign attack, according to the New York Times.
"These weapons are made to be used strictly and only in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic," Mr. Makdissi is quoted as stating.—www.shafaqna.com/english