Syria: The next war?

The conflict in Syria is reaching a critical point. What started as a series of peaceful protests inspired by the “Arab Spring” democracy movement has gradually become a violent civil war between the brutal secular regime of Bashar al-Assad and a fragmented and increasingly radicalized opposition.

The recent downing of a Turkish fighter jet and high profile defection of Syrian soldiers has raised the possibility of violence spilling over into a volatile region. Already there have been clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian regime factions in Lebanon.

Outside powers, including the United States, are reported to be stepping up their support for the opposition fighters (Eric Schmitt, “C.I.A said to aid in steering arms to Syrian opposition,” New York Times, 21 June 2012):

A small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.

The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.

The C.I.A. officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said. The Obama administration has said it is not providing arms to the rebels, but it has also acknowledged that Syria’s neighbors would do so.

The clandestine intelligence-gathering effort is the most detailed known instance of the limited American support for the military campaign against the Syrian government. It is also part of Washington’s attempt to increase the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who has recently escalated his government’s deadly crackdown on civilians and the militias battling his rule. With Russia blocking more aggressive steps against the Assad government, the United States and its allies have instead turned to diplomacy and aiding allied efforts to arm the rebels to force Mr. Assad from power.

With the situation in Syria deteriorating, Canadian military planners have begun to sketch out what sort of contribution Canada might make as part of an international intervention in the country (Murray Brewster “Canadian military planners spin Syria scenarios as UN suspends mission,” Globe and Mail, 21 June 2012):

Defence sources say the work recently got under way when it became evident that UN-led peace efforts were unravelling and that unarmed observers have suspended patrols amid escalating violence.

The sources emphasized the effort is a normal part of military planning, is not the result of government direction, and is intended to give cabinet “a range of options depending on the international circumstances.

A broad set of scenarios are under consideration, one high-ranking official at National Defence told The Canadian Press.

Another source said the different commands have not yet been asked to identify units for inclusion in any mission.

A complicating factor is the speed with which events are unfolding, notably the deployment of two Russian amphibious assault ships and 1,000 Russian marines to protect the country’s naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, and a proposal by the Red Cross to evacuate wounded from the embattled city of Homs.

A spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay said late Wednesday [last week] talk of a military assistance mission is premature.

“As always, the Canadian Forces stand ready to assist both at home and abroad, if and when called upon,” Jay Paxton said in an e-mail note.

“Canada continues to explore all diplomatic means available to support the people of Syria.”

Russian and Chinese opposition to outside military intervention make it unlikely that the UN Security Council will back any such intervention. But Turkey’s membership in NATO suggests another possible “legal” route to war: the claim of self-defence. Although intervention is ruled out by NATO at present, incidents like the recent shootdown of the Turkish fighter could eventually lead to a decision to intervene on the basis of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which calls on NATO members to respond collectively to any act of aggression against a NATO member. (And opponents of the regime may be inclined to manufacture such incidents if they feel they would make intervention more likely.)

This raises important questions for Canadians: Under what circumstances would the Canadian government support international military intervention in Syria? Is the government in favour of the current effort of some countries to back the rebels? Would further intervention limit or escalate the killing of civilians, and how would it affect the future stability of Syria and the Middle East?

The Harper government may have views on some of these questions, but for now it has shown no inclination to share them with the Canadian public.

Photo credit: DND

Tags: Canadian defence policy, Canadian foreign policy, NATO, Responsibility to Protect, Syria, War