Canada's Foreign Policy - Syria

The Truth Behind the Axis of Evil

Crisis in the Middle East

Under Steven Harper’s Conservatives, the Government of Canada has made some bold moves on the foreign policy front, and has demonstrated its persistent support of Israel, whilst taking strong action against Syria and Iran. In the much-maligned and hostile region of Asia known as the Middle East, there are plenty of ongoing separate wars (that can all link together) in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Palestine. In addition, there is extreme tension between neighbouring countries, such as Israel’s relentless skepticism and doubts of Iran and the purposes of its nuclear program. The presence and continuous evolution of terrorist groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda in Syria, and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) has complicated matters, and the Middle East is now arguably the world’s most dangerous area at the moment.

One of the main factors as to why Canada’s foreign policy has targeted Syria is the Syrian government’s close ties to Iran, authoritarian and militaristic rule in the country, apparent support of terrorist groups, and their anti-Israel policy. It is almost intertwined, but all four of these nations have an effect in this cyclical chain of events. Canada’s support for Israel can be highlighted as Harper's government has declared that "Israel has no greater friend in the world today than Canada" (National Post). Under Bashar Al Assad’s government, Syria has developed close ties with Iran, especially since Iran has backed Assad’s regime verbally, and by providing it with weapons, military support, financial aid, and relief from certain crippling sanctions. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at Iran on March 29, 2015 by saying that it “wants to conquer the entire Middle East” (FOX News), whilst in 2003, former United States President George W. Bush infamously labeled Iran and Syria as both being part of “the axis of evil” (National Post). Syria's ties to Iran are a very important aspect of the aforementioned cycle. According to Milad Jokar, a political analyst, "The fall of a strategic ally of Tehran such as Bashar al-Assad would be a blow to the Islamic Republic in its showdown against Europe, the United States and Israel. Indeed, the strategic alliance with Damascus allows Iran to maintain its Shia 'axis of resistance' (Iraq-Syria-Lebanon with the Hizbollah). On the one hand, these partnerships allow Tehran to counter the isolation imposed by the E.U. and U.S. sanctions. On the other hand, they allow Tehran to maintain proxies that serve as a leverage utilized for negotiations on the nuclear issue with world powers. These proxies also help Iran counter the threats of Israeli attacks. With this in mind, Bashar al-Assad replaced by an authority that would agree to isolate Iran would favour the interests of the E.U. and Washington, but also the rival Arab countries in the Persian Gulf (mainly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates), and to another extent Israel (depending on the nature of post-Assad government)."

Who is Right? Who is Wrong?

There are always two sides to every story, and everyone usually has a different perspective to share. Western media portrays Syria’s government as an anti-democratic regime which supports all kinds of terrorist groups, and seeks to maintain power by virtually any means possible, including eliminating any Syrian citizens who oppose al-Assad’s regime. On the flip side, other news outlets, such as Russia Today - RT, claim that a 2011 Doha Debates poll illustrated that 55% of Syrians wanted Assad to stay. Furthermore, in a 2012 Reuters report, three ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) leaders in Aleppo were quoted saying that the Syrian President had about “70%” support. Clearly, there are contrasting views on this matter, and it is time to dissect the reasons behind Canada’s foreign policy in regards to Syria.

The Syrian Civil War & Canada's Involvement

"History shows that, more often than not, loss of sovereignty leads to liberalisation imposed in the interests of the powerful." - Noam Chomsky

In April 2003, the United States of America first feared that Syria was secretly developing a nuclear weapon, and threatened to impose heavy sanctions on the country if it did not agree to American conditions and guidelines. Bashar al-Assad opposed the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, and this led to rising tensions between the nations as well. In May 2004, the United States imposed economic sanctions due to Syria’s supposed support for terrorism. This support for terrorism was essentially deemed to be Syria’s support of Iraqi militants who were fighting against American troops. Canada’s relations with Syria also began souring once Steven Harper’s Conservative government was elected in 2006, although Canada’s foreign policy toward Syria only altered after the unrest caused by the Syrian Civil War. According to the BBC, in March 2011, “protests in Damascus and the southern city of Deraa demanded the release of political prisoners. Security forces shot a number of people dead in Deraa, triggering days of violent unrest that steadily spread nationwide over the following months"(BBC). In order to silence and crush anti-regime protests, al-Assad deployed army tanks in the cities of Damascus, Banyas, Homs, and Deraa. The Syrian President argued that the protestors were Israeli agents backed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. This claim was understandable to some extent, as Israel had also carried out an aerial airstrike against a nuclear reactor and facility in the northern part of Syria in 2007. Israel wanted to destabilize the Syrian government, especially as they were deemed as an ally to Israel’s primary enemy, Iran, and a threat to Israel’s safety since Syria was helping Hizbollah re-supply during their conflicts with Israel. If Syria was indeed secretly working towards the creation of a nuclear weapon by not obeying the IAEA’s regulations, then some sort of disciplinary action must have been taken by the United Nations. But, Israel does not have the right to launch unexpected airstrikes against Syria, and resonate its action by stating that Syria is disobeying the IAEA and is a threat to world peace. The close proximity of the nations is not a legitimate factor for a country to attack another country.

The Syrian civil unrest in 2011 led to eventual intervention by many Western powers, including Canada. Canada has rigorously supported the rebels who are fighting to topple the al-Assad regime, by providing them with financial support, arms, weapons, and humanitarian aid. A statement on the official government of Canada website regarding this issue states that, “Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, Canada has worked to support the Syrian people. Canada has been active in calling on the international community to come together and defend the rights of the Syrian people to determine its own future” (Government of Canada). In March 2011, Canada’s foreign policy with regards to Syria reached a breaking point when al-Assad blamed Israel for the domestic civil war breaking out. In addition, the IAEA nuclear watchdog had also reported Syria to the UN Security Council over its alleged covert nuclear program, after traces of radioactive carbon were found. Syria’s support for Iran was another sticking point, as was this statement, “The Government of Canada’s policy opposing Syria's support for terrorism has always been constant” (Government of Canada). Canada’s involvement was not solely limited to providing humanitarian aid either though. Apart from contributing “$403.5 million to international humanitarian assistance in response to the Syrian crisis since January 2012” (Government of Canada), Canada has fully supported the rebels in this civil war. The Canadian government has also condemned Bashar al-Assad on numerous occasions, and this can be highlighted when the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, barks, "Assad must go. Change will happen. Syrians will have their day - and Canada stands with the Syrian people in their push for a better, brighter future. The Government of Canada has made a clear choice to support the Syrian people in their quest for democratic change, while taking strong action to isolate and weaken the Assad regime” (Government of Canada). In order to further weaken the Syrian government, Canada also imposed eleven rounds of heavy duty sanctions on Syria on May 24, 2011. According to the official Government of Canada website, “Sanctions related to Syria were enacted under the Special Economic Measures Act in response to the humanitarian crises and resulting breach of international peace and security in the region.” These prohibitions include restrictions on imports and exports, arms embargo, asset freezes, and financial aid.


Did you Know? Food For Thought...

Despite having to deal with sanctions from the international community, the UN, and many Western powers, Iran managed to go from 150 centrifuges in 2003, to successfully building and developing a whopping 20 000 centrifuges since then, according to a special report on ABC News’ This Week With George Stephanopoulos. 


Yet, supporting the rebels has posed an even greater threat than the so-called “evil of axis”. Whilst the rebels were engaged in the civil war, a part of the Syrian al-Qaeda was also attempting to oust the al-Assad regime during the fighting. With all of the support received from Canada and other Western powers, this strand of al-Qaeda grew, strengthened, and developed into the devastating powerhouse terrorist organization now known as ISIL, which has established itself mainly in Iraq and Syria. ISIL continue to try and take control of parts of Syria, whilst the Syrian armed forces defiantly push back. Canada has agreed to launch airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting ISIL fighters, militias, and bases, but this entire situation could have been potentially avoided altogether. Egypt and Libya are two very recent examples of countries going through extreme chaos and turmoil after Western intervention played a major role in civil unrest. In Egypt, the 2013 coup d’état has led to vehement protests ever since the removal of President Mohamed Morsi. There continues to be discontent amongst Egyptians, and pro-Morsi supporters have not stopped clashing with the supporters of the opposition, and the current government. Human Rights Watch is now blaming the current military government of Egypt for the country’s atrocious human rights record. Libya is another case of a total disaster after the death of their leader. Despite Western intervention to oust Muammar Gadhafi, Libya has failed to stabilize whatsoever, and the catastrophic situation has worsened since Gadhafi’s death. In fact, Libya is in such a desperate situation that there are two parties who are currently attempting to take charge of the country and rule simultaneously, and both have failed miserably to date. Based on recent history and this alarming trend of obvious regression in sensitive and unstable countries after the removal of their leaders, Canada and its allies continue to intervene and add to the unrest, instead of helping cool the conflicts. There may be a legitimate case for Canada and other Western powers to try and take action against some of these leaders or “dictators”, but timing is key, and none of their recent attempts have accomplished anything but worsen the various situations.


Terrorist Group? Fact of the matter is...

Some will say that Iran and Syria are threats to world peace because they helped fund and arm Hizbollah, but there is a counter-argument to that as well. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led to the creation of the Lebanese based Hizbollah. Hizbollah was created to counter and offer resistance against the Israeli occupation of the southern part of Lebanon. And let’s not forget – Israel has some previous too. In 1967, the Six Day War (June 5-10) ended with Israel taking over Palestinian territory. Since then, numerous ceasefires and peace talks have all failed, and part of that reason may be due to the Israeli governments showing no interest in reaching any sort of agreement. This was apparently depicted when Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stated, “If I'm elected, there will be no Palestinian state” (Haaretz). In fact, whilst Hizbollah remains classified as a terrorist organization by Israel and Canada (what a coincidence), the United States of America actually de-listed it as a terror threat in 2015. It is unfair to pin all of the blame solely on Israel, because in a war, all of the parties involved play an active role in the bloodshed and destruction caused. Nonetheless, the unbreakable bond between Canada and Israel essentially means that any course of action that the al-Assad regime takes, whether it be on the Syrian domestic front or on any foreign affairs matters, will be strongly condemned by Canada. As a result, Syria's public backing of one of Israel's most fierce enemies, Hizbollah, definitely does not sit well with the Harper administration. Canada's interests in the region, and its relations with its closest allies are major  factors as to why Canada is involved in the Syrian civil war.


Canada's Significant Interests

Canada’s involvement in this civil war can be linked to its most significant interests. These include the geopolitical battle of the region involving Russia, economic relations, humanitarian efforts to promote human rights issues, and even a calculated risk for the Conservatives to prosper in federal elections.

Geopolitics – Canada has generally always employed the same foreign policies and views as the United States with regards to Russia’s constant involvement in the region. In essence, a lot of the tension in that region boils down to the Western powers always wanting to get the upper hand against Russia. Frankly, one of the most important factors that defines Canada’s significant interest in this event is that this conflict can be viewed as a broader struggle between the Western powers, including Canada, and the ever present powerful Russia. In summary, both sides are simply attempting to advance their national interests. In Canada’s particular case, these interests include continuing to try to isolate Iran, whilst also attempting to bolster strategic and economic alliance with the likes of Israel and Qatar. These nations invest heavily in Europe and offer a very valuable alternative to Russian gas. In fact, 25% of Europe’s gas energy comes from Russia. As a result, these viable alternatives allow Canada and its allies to place sanctions against Russia. For example, another geopolitical battle recently occurred in Crimea, and after the Russians invaded and took control, Canada and other Western powers condemned Russia, and imposed sanctions against Russia for the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although the sheer strength and power of Russia means that it is difficult to weaken it, the alternative options to Russian gas allowed the sanctions to be imposed at a much quicker rate.
(In Crimea, the geopolitical situation played a massive role in Russia invading and capturing the land. Putin’s government did not want to allow the Western powers to have access to Crimea, as it is located in a prime spot for them to deploy secret agents and drones to spy on Russian intelligence. As a result, Russia took decisive action before the West could react.)

Economic advantage – As previously mentioned, the Middle East has gradually developed and turned into an incredibly valuable and resourceful trading partner for the Canadian economy. In fact, according to the Canadian Arab Institute, 1.4% of total Canadian trade is now conducted with the Middle East. This highlights an increase of 0.6% since 2002. Trading with GCC countries has been the primary reason behind this growth, with total two-way trade increasing by a staggering 325% over the past decade to a total of $6.8B in 2011. Furthermore, according to the Canadian Arab Institute, “bilateral trade with the GCC rivals that of other notable priority markets for Canada. For example, in 2011 the GCC trading bloc held a higher percentage of total bilateral trade with Canada than the more highly sought after emerging markets of India and Brazil.” In addition, Canada’s economic ties with Israel are also another element that cannot be overlooked. On the official Government of Israel website, there is a section that states, “The Government of Israel’s economic mission to Canada - The Mission’s mandate is to promote trade, investment opportunities and joint ventures between Canadian and Israeli companies.”

Humanitarian Efforts – There is no questioning Canada’s track record of always helping out and reaching out to countries in need and providing financial, medical, and all sorts of required assistance, but some important information appears to be consistently swept under the carpet and overlooked by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Despite the United Nations (UN) having lambasted the Canadian government’s efforts to provide equal treatment to aboriginals, and having labelled “insufficient and inadequate” on May 12, 2014 (as per the CBC), Canada has generally always helped other nations in times of need. Despite Canada’s position and stance on the Syrian civil war, the official website of the Government of Canada cites that, “Canada has committed more than $700 million in humanitarian, development and security assistance in response to the Syrian crisis”. Similarly, in response to the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, Canada provided over $1 billion dollars in aid and assistance over the course of seven years. Canada’s response to situations of this nature has always been swift and beneficial, but there are certain aspects of this Syrian dilemma that needs to be examined further. For example, whilst Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been criticized by human rights activist organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for crimes against humanity and for failing to improve the country’s woeful human rights record, there are other elements than can also be dissected. Canada constantly stresses that it is a staunch activist for human rights, yet whilst it has consistently condemned Syria, Israel has ironically virtually been granted a free pass. Interestingly enough, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights, Ben Emmerson, noted that Israel is the world’s worst violator of human rights on March 29, 2015 (as per FOX News). This effectively means that the global international watchdog organization clearly sees Israel as an even more serious perpetrator than the likes of Syria, Iran, Colombia, North Korea, and even Saudi Arabia. Whether this comes as a shock to Canada remains to be seen, but it is extremely unlikely that it will strain or even hinder the two countries’ relationship. Whilst the government of Canada may try and make itself look as if it is generous and caring by helping out in difficult situations, it cannot cover the real significant truth – that the humanitarian aid is only part of a larger scale geopolitical plan, and that the actual people affected are nowhere near as important as the diplomatic ties between nations.

Federal Elections – On February 19, 2015, the Jewish Defence League publicly backed the current government, who will be seeking re-election in the 2016 federal election. Afterwards, Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann stated that, "Israel and the Jewish community have no greater ally than Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada." Since Israel is the world’s only Jewish-majority state, and Canada has a population of 377,825 Jews (as per the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs - Toronto has 188,710, Montreal has 90,780 and Vancouver has 26,255 Jews, the Harper government may be employing a tactic to gather many votes of Canada’s Jewish population, and support of major organizations and media outlets who are controlled or owned by Jews. In fact, Rabbi Reuben J. Poupko, with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Montreal, states that, "the 2011 federal election results revealed that Canada’s Jewish population already have in large numbers moved away from the Liberal party and joined the Conservatives." Whilst this is not definitive evidence, it could be inferred that Canada’s extremely generous foreign policy towards Israel has a domestic role to play as well, as it is apparently helping the Conservatives win federal elections by wooing Conservative voters. Whilst this may have a detrimental effect to some Arab voters, for example some Syrian-Canadians, the Harper government has clearly decided to take a calculated risk based on their analysis. With the federal Conservatives having been in office since 2006, there are evident signs that they are succeeding, despite their somewhat controversial foreign policy. Whilst Canada has always had a good relationship with Israel over the years, the current Canadian government has illustrated unprecedented levels of generosity to Israel, and their hostile attitude toward Syria has been a feature of the Harper government.

"The high participation rate (73%) in June’s presidential elections, despite the war, was at least as significant as the strong vote (88%) Bashar received. Even the BBC could not hide the large crowds that came out to vote, especially those that mobbed the Syrian Embassy in Beirut. Participation rates are nowhere as near in the US; indeed no western leader can claim such a strong democratic mandate as this ‘dictator’. The size of Bashar’s win underlines a stark reality: there never was a popular uprising against this man; and his popularity has grown." (Russia Today RT) – Tim Anderson, Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney

Works Cited

  • Blaze Carlson, Kathryn. "'No Greater Friend': The Bond between Netanyahu and Harper Goes beyond Statecraft." National Post, 7 Dec. 2012. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.
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  • Kinninmont, Jane. "The Royal Institute of International Affairs. Chatham House Notes." Journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs 9.3 (1930): n. pag. 2014. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
  • Mas, Susana. "Canada's Aboriginal Well-being Efforts 'insufficient,' UN Envoy Says." CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 12 May 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.
  • Momani, Bessma, Padraig Landy, and Agata Antkiewicz. "Canada's Economic Interests in the Middle East." Canada's Economic Interests in the Middle East. Canadian Arab Institute, Apr. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.
  • Ravid, Barak. "Netanyahu: If I'm Elected, There Will Be No Palestinian State - Israel Election 2015." Haaretz, 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
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