July 25, 2017


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There is a role for Canada in action against Assad

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/8/2013 (1427 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Nearly two and a half years in, world leaders and their militaries are suddenly poised to take action in Syria. All of this because U.S. President Barack Obama made reference to the creation of a Kosovo-inspired international military intervention in the face of overwhelming evidence that chemical weapons were used on civilians. After 100,000 deaths and the exodus of nearly two million refugees, Assad appears to have finally crossed Obama's famous red line.

Following this shift in U.S. language and action, it is welcoming to see the Canadian government thoroughly engaged in preparing next steps. Minister John Baird has committed to working "in lockstep" with allies as the prospects for a political solution seem to be evaporating. There is a role Canada can play around diplomacy of securing greater support for intervention.

John Baird


John Baird

Regardless of slight prospects for agreement in the Security Council, however, once it is clear chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime the Security Council should be asked for a mandate under the UN Charter's Chapter 7, providing for military action.

While we can expect Russia to use its veto, it gives them an opportunity to express their position of opposition and sets the stage to legitimize the need to move outside of UN system.

When the veto is used or threatened, a coalition led by the U.S. should follow through on taking air action. In either case, it is crucial the initiative enjoy broad international consensus, and especially the support of the Arab League.

If we are to learn anything from the intervention in Kosovo, it is this type of ad-hoc coalition building is an imperfect means of addressing mass atrocities. It is an ideal time to remind world leaders the rudimentary nature of the Kosovo intervention served as the catalyst for the creation of the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). There was a growing desire to establish a stronger framework to guide international actions when faced situations like Syria.

With that understanding, R2P can and should be used as the basis for action in Syria. Although the 2005 agreement anticipated a Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention, member states surely did not intend urgent humanitarian responses would be hostage to vetoes unreasonably exercised out of self-interest by one or more of the permanent five Council members.

The very purpose of R2P is we should all protect innocent lives without reference to purely national interests or crass gamesmanship.

As Allan Rock and I outlined in an op-ed earlier this week, any military action towards Syria should be accompanied by a clear and defined mandate with a focus on preventing the further use of chemical weapons by Assad.

This means first disabling Assad's capacity to launch chemical attacks and secure sites where chemical weapons are stored. A no-fly zone should be established and Assad's artillery power eliminated, ending shelling of civilians.

During the Kosovo mission, a committee of foreign ministers convened daily to vet targets proposed by NATO's generals. That process served to ensure military measures did not exceed NATO's mandate. A similar approach could be helpful in Syria.

From personal experience, there is one final lesson to be learned from the Canadian experience in Kosovo. While it is laudable UK's David Cameron has decided to call back Parliament to discuss the possibility of intervention, Canada might be limited in that regard due to prorogation. In recognizing the importance of having parliamentary support for any involvement, however, an emergency session could be called. The alternative would be to call together party leaders to discuss what is in the best interest of Canadians. Each leader should then be given an opportunity to share with their respective caucuses. In 1999, facing a similar challenge, we established a special parliamentary committee to which we would report. Regardless of approach every effort should be made for parliamentary participation.

Ultimately, it is worth mentioning the objectives of the Kosovo mission were ultimately met. This is not to suggest the fight won't be hard in this case. The Assad government has already promised to fight back by any means necessary.

The "Kosovo Model" was never perfect, but the killing of civilians was stopped and a gateway was created toward the building of peace and bringing Slobodan Milosevic before an international tribunal to answer for his war crimes.


Lloyd Axworthy is president of the University of Winnipeg and a former Canadian foreign minister.


See also: All the options may be "on the table," but none of them is good, Gwynne Dyer argues.


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