Canada, the U.S. and Syria: If Not Assad, Then Who?
Despite mixed messages from the U.S. about whether it favours "regime change", Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is clear that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go. But who should be the new leader? Many say there is no preferable candidate, and that pushing out Assad would only help ISIS. Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin are in the ONW Salon.
The recent brutal use of chemical weapons against civilians has had a number of consequences, and the situation is evolving almost hourly. Most importantly, and most tragically are the victims of the actual attacks. The images of children incapacitated by the chemical attack have ricocheted around the world.
But as people around the globe react, there also appears to be an emerging shift in the geopolitics, or at least an attempt to shift tactics and possibly strategy, on how much of the Western world deals with the problem of Syria. Assad's brutal repression of his own people, the battle with rebel forces and the attempts by DAESH to form a caliphate, have all led to a brutal conflict that has created millions of refugees whose plight is destabilizing the region and putting enormous pressures - political, civic and social - on European countries as well.
The world has failed in any attempt to contain or remove Assad. Backed by Russia and Iran, he has held on. With the election of Donald Trump, it appeared that things would continue, with Trump advocating detente with Russia, ignoring Assad and building an alliance with both of them to fight DAESH.
However, as a result of the bombing, and the very difficult position Trump is in domestically with a mounting crisis regarding Russia's role in the 2016 campaign, a turn has happened. Trump's team is pushing for removal of Assad now, and more importantly in some ways, pushing Russia to take a stand, with most of the rest of the Western world and the region against Assad. In just a few days, we have seen allies, like Canada, supporting this view.
It's as if the world is seizing on Trump's turn in an effort to put the pressure on two of the world's bad actors, Vladimir Putin and Assad. It will be interesting to see if Putin believes that backing Assad is still in his, and Russia's, interest.
What is also clear from experts in the field is that replacing Assad is a medium to long term objective, and unlikely to happen immediately.
As the ONW Salon question points out, as in most of these cases, it is by no means clear who might replace him, and there is little international or Syrian consensus on an acceptable alternative.
The story of the Syrian war is the first politically caused humanitarian disaster of the 21st century. And we seem to be learning nothing from it. Given that Iran, Russia, Turkey, the United States and others are all militarily involved in this multi-sided war, there is no military exit strategy and no win in this sea of war.
All nations, for the humanity of Syrians and the stability of so many countries, need to push the United Nations to hold talks for a permanent settlement. The format of those talk and possible pre-conditions – the fate of al-Assad, for example – are tough issues.
But 500,000 civilians are dead. Millions more have left their homeland to seek refuge. How many more have to die before we have political leaders with the courage to call for peace? Canada, with other nations, can be a voice to end this madness. But alas.
Bashar al-Assad attacking his own people with barrel bombs and gas is shocking. What is also shocking is that in about 36 hours our Prime Minister went from calling for an international probe into the incident to being so sure about it that he was cheer-leading Trump’s rocket attacks.
These rocket attacks have achieved nothing, militarily. But one good ole bombing and some jingoistic tough talk and suddenly we have alleged liberals, here and in the United States, praising Trump.
Regime change is a failed doctrine. It has brought instability to the world. Enough.
The recent events in Syria mark a significant milestone for both President Trump and PM Trudeau. As Richard notes above, the brutal nerve-gas attack that killed more than 70 people in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun was atrocious and has resulted in political/military action causing political reverberations ever since.
The cruise missile attacks by the US were required to send a solid message to Assad and, by extension and more importantly, to Russia.
For President Trump, this proved his resolve and his Commander-in-Chief chops, since he campaigned on not getting involved in other nations' problems while only focusing on making America great. This also tested PM Trudeau, as he had to come out and support the U.S. retaliation and he had to do so unequivocally.
The question today about Canada's position to take out Assad is easier said than done, since doing so will require Russian support and that is not going to happen anytime soon. The fact that Iran and Russia both support Assad makes this a geo-political time bomb for the U.S. - and for Canada. I give credit to the PM and Foreign Affairs Minister Freeland for suggesting publically their desire to remove Assad, but saying so wont make it happen.
Notwithstanding the support Assad has with Russia, the question of who will replace him becomes increasingly important, as there is no one pegged for that position, especially anyone who will have the support and the U.S. and its allies.
However, increasing pressure on Russia and the threat of more retaliation from the U.S. may very well help get rid of Assad.
As is often the case, I share Tom's diagnosis of the causes of the Assad/Syrian conflict. But as both he and John note, these are complex matters, with a lot of forces involved.
To simply rule out regime change as part of the solution is as problematic a view as anyone who thinks that now that Trump has taken out an airfield, the situation in Syria will now improve.
This is a complicated problem that will take years to fix. An international consensus, involving the UN and possibly NATO countries, is part of the solution. Russia and the U.S. are both part of the problem and will likely have to be part of the solution. Pressure will have to be brought to bear on Putin. But if coordinated international efforts with some broad consensus are possible, with sanctions and other consequences for bad behaviour for those who oppose and obstruct or worse, then you can begin to imagine the kind of negotiated peace talks that Tom suggests.
There is a broad consensus on two things. First, peace and stability are years away and there will be much suffering in the meantime no doubt. And, if that works, it is not clear who might emerge in power in Syria and with whom power will be shared.
But it won't be Assad's chemical warfare-fuelled regime that emerges in charge of the reconstruction of Syria. That is now clear. The longer-term effort towards a solution peace will not be possible with Assad in power.
So Trump has fired cruise missiles in retaliation for al-Assad’s gas attack. So Trudeau has followed Trump's team in calling for regime change. Yes, the Syrian situation is serious and will take years to fix. So we need to start now.
None of this political posing and pandering puts us one step closer to ending the carnage in Syria or the refugee crisis in Europe. It does nothing to actually put al-Assad out of office. It does nothing to undermine ISIS. It does nothing to end the distribution of black market oil, or the finance and arms support for ISIS. It does nothing to build a credible alternative government committed to law, order, peace and reconciliation.
“Regime change” is a mirage, an empty slogan shouted by politicians to distract from the absolute failure of their policies. Moving back from that failed policy starts with people who truly love humanity calling for the UN to lead us down an alternate path.
Canada isn’t a military powerhouse, but our values and arguments can be even more powerful – especially if we can link with other like-minded nations. Let’s start now.
Tom, say what you want about President Trump, but he did what former President Obama couldn't/wouldn't do, and that is to show force to a regime that has been committing brutal, humanitarian crimes for decades and has had big brother Russia protecting it. This show of force - albeit limited - was a significant sign to both Assad and Putin that there will be consequences. Having Canada and other NATO allies supporting it also goes a long way in this political stand off.
Peace is always the preferred option, but you need two to sit down for peace to happen and it doesn't look like that is in the cards, at least for now. Canada is always in the best position to initiate peace talks given our history and our peacekeeping nature, but this is beyond us and we wont be able to do it without the U.S. backing a peaceful settlement. It doesn't mean we shouldn't try, but we need to establish the need for a regime change and identify whom that might be with. Especially since Syria is and has been the base for ISIS - making a regime change is necessary. But that makes it more challenging, as does having Russia opposing such a change.
This unfortunately won't be the end. In fact, the U.S. retaliation will have consequences. But we will see how the U.S./Russia meeting goes as Secretary Tillerson visits Russia.
Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance. He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues.