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Why Canada remains ‘on the sidelines’ when it comes to Syria

The Harper government is determined not to aid opposition forces in Syria – even though the Assad regime appears to be deploying chemical weapons against its own people and attempting to supply Hezbollah with missiles to use against Israel – for fear of turning today's rebels into tomorrow's jihadists against the West.

That reluctance, says Louay Sakka, a leading advocate for opposition forces in Syria, places Canada "two steps away" from the United States and its European allies.

While NATO nations move from moral to material support of the Free Syrian Army, and contemplate arming opposition forces, the Conservative government refuses to offer more than humanitarian aid.

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"Canada is losing its role as an active, pro-human-rights" nation, said Mr. Sakka, a co-founder of the Washington-based Syrian Support Group, the only organization authorized by the U.S. government to provide direct support to the Free Syrian Army.

Foreign Minister John Baird made it clear Sunday that the Canadian government has deep reservations about who is fighting the Assad regime in Syria and whether it is wise for Western nations to involve themselves more deeply in that civil war.

"We will be working closely with our allies," before taking any action, he told CTV's Question Period Sunday.

Such consultations go without saying. But some Western countries, including the United States, are providing rebel forces with non-lethal equipment, and actively debating whether to provide arms in the wake of reports that the Assad regime is employing chemical weapons against its own people.

There is no such debate within the Canadian government. Mr. Baird is convinced arming the rebels would be a mistake.

"We continue to oppose this," he said, because of the large number of "radical jihadists" who are "infesting part of the opposition."

"The information I have shows that it's real and it's substantial and unfortunately … it's growing," he said.

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But Mr. Sakka insists that refusing to arm the opposition in Syria actually plays into the hands of radicals by depriving moderates of the weapons and the credibility they need to lead the fight.

Such caution from Ottawa is far removed from the ready-aye-ready days when the Harper government committed billions of dollars and thousands of troops to the fight in Afghanistan, and punched above its weight in the effort to overthrow Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

The bitter months that followed the Arab Spring have left Ottawa leery of any further interventions in that part of the world. The Harper government offered France only logistical support in its effort to push back insurgent forces in Mali, and only humanitarian aid during the Syrian conflict.

Canada is "way behind" its allies in refusing to provide anything but humanitarian assistance, said Mr. Sakka, who lives in Oakville, Ont., outside Toronto. "It leaves Canada isolated," he said, not only in the Middle East, but among its allies.

Aurel Braun, who teaches International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto and is currently a visiting professor of government at Harvard University, observed that Canada "has a very long tradition of being involved, clearly and unequivocally, on the side of democracy."

In Syria, as elsewhere, he said "it's very important that Canada plays a role together with our NATO allies in the promotion of democracy."

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NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar insisted that Canada should be doing more to aid those victimized by the Assad regime.

"I don't think there is a need to arm the rebels, but there is a role for Canada," he told The Globe and Mail's Sean Silcoff. "We seem to be on the sidelines."

Mr. Dewar called for "more humanitarian support on the ground, fast-tracking the refugees, meeting with the Syrian-Canadian community and planning for what happens after. … There could be a major vacuum here, and we have seen how that vacuum has filled in Iraq and a little bit in Libya."

For this government, however, the Syrian civil war is a twice-poisoned chalice. Not only is it turning that country into yet another violent and ungovernable failed state, but it threatens to destabilize other nations in the region – especially Jordan, which is being flooded with refugees.

Mr. Baird promised to continue to support Jordan and other countries struggling to cope with the refugee situation brought about by the Syrian conflict, but it is clear that Canada is not willing to provide aid to insurgents who could one day turn their weapons against their benefactors.

In this preference for any aid short of action, Canada is displaying a caution born of bitter precedent. Though that is cold comfort for those struggling to unseat a government that now appears willing to go to any length to protect whatever remains of its hold on power.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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