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On Syria, ask: Why Canada, why now?

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The failure of the western world to engage constructively to end the violence in Syria, driven in part by Chinese and Russian paralysis of the United Nations’ Security Council, has produced near catastrophic impacts on Syria’s people and its neighbours in the region. Just as every deployment has its costs and risks, so too does inertia have its own costs and risks, which can be seen playing out in the Middle East as we speak.

For Canada and its allies, the need to reflect on the political and technical requirements for future deployments has never been more compelling. This need is made even more pressing by the fact that a mix of Iranian and Russian arms shipments to the Assad regime, and the deployment of Iranian non-state actors such as Hezbollah, have combined with paralysis at the UN to tip the balance towards the ruthless dictator. This is a pattern that, when extended to the challenges in the Pacific region, necessitates some very careful reflection on what circumstances, and under what conditions Canadian forces might be deployed in the future. Why Libya and not Syria? What are the exigencies and political imperatives that should define any future Canadian deployments?

Canada’s challenging but constructive combat deployments in the first Persian Gulf war, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya over the last quarter of a century all had different technical and political exigencies. Humanitarian deployments to Haiti and elsewhere also have unique sets of requirements both political and structural.

Generally Canada does not deploy alone, but does so with allies who share either a mutual treaty obligation, as was the case in Afghanistan, or deploy on the direction of the United Nations in order to enforce a Security Council resolution in an area in crisis.

Canadians may be facing a future where even aggression against allies and friends, or brutal violence by regimes against their own people, may result in the global community embracing pragmatism over principle, containment over involvement, and reflection over engagement.

What this may well mean, to the comfort of terrorists and rogue states, is that the countries of the West will not only be driven by a deafening "why now?" question in the face of almost any provocation, but more importantly "why us?" This question has manifested itself even within NATO on challenges such as Libya and Bosnia. A review of what Canada’s exigencies would be for a joint deployment in any combat theatre is of value and in need of update. It is the kind of review that would benefit from a reflective and non-partisan discussion in Canada’s Parliament.

Prime Minister Harper’s 2006 parliamentary approval doctrine that no serious deployment of Canadian troops can take place without a parliamentary vote in the House of Commons was an important foundation for the political and technical exigencies Canada needs before deploying. As was the non-partisan Afghanistan Task Force that, under the leadership of John Manley, Paul Tellier, Derek Burney, Jake Epp, and Pamela Wallin, set the exigencies for a continuation beyond 2011 of the Canadian Afghanistan deployment.

This constructive departure from history reasserted both the non-partisan and parliamentary role in establishing exigencies and criteria. In the pre-Harper era, take-note debates often took the place of actual votes. William Lyon Mackenzie King had Canada vote separately to enter the Second World War to underline the post-1931 Statute of Westminster foreign policy independence of Canada. The 2006 Harper doctrine of parliamentary approval underlined the supremacy of Parliament on combat deployments. Both are vital principles for our foreign and defence policy.

A clear set of Canadian expectations around the purpose, dynamics, operational command, shared real-time intelligence and areas of responsibility are essential for any future deployments. These exigencies are not "wouldn’t it be nice options" but important requirements for an advanced democracy that has often carried more than its fair share of military duties, risks and casualties in joint operations in defence of sovereignty, freedom, and peace.

Sen. Hugh Segal is the chair of the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism and a CDFAI Senior Research Fellow.

- Postmedia

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