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What is going on in Syria?


Two headlines on the New York Times website on May 1, 2013 illustrate the complexity of the situation in Syria and why the Harper government’s ‘Do Nothing’ policy is the wisest at this time: “Obama Considers Expanding Support for Syrian Rebels”, and “Leader of Hezbollah Warns It Is Ready to Come to Syria’s Aid.”

The situation in Syria is desperate and the violence is gruesome, to be sure. But the forces at work in that country are extremely complex and it is worth noting some of the main dynamics, at least those in the public domain.

The Assad government is hanging on to the capital city of Damascus and a few of the larger urban areas such as Homs and Aleppo – millennial cities that I have once enjoyed visiting but which are now largely rubble – while much of the non-urban north and west is held by anti-Assad forces. Who are the rebels?

The political opposition umbrella group – the National Coalition – is supported militarily by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is a hodgepodge collection of militias funded and armed by countries that include Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with the support of the United States and some European countries. But one of the anti-Assad rebel armies is the al-Nusra Front, a subsidiary of the global al-Qaeda, and it is fighting to install a radical Islamist regime in Syria. They are veterans of combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Caucuses, among other hotspots, and a designated terrorist organization.

President Assad’s precarious government, in turn, is supported by Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, Iran and Russia. Assad would love to draw Israel into the regional fight. Any provocative Israeli actions could “rally” some to his cause because they hate Israel more than Assad.

The fundamental imperative for the West at this time is to prevent a collapse of Syria. The US learned the hard way in Iraq in 2003 what happens to a divided society when there is a power vacuum in the presence of well-armed militias – and in the case of Syria, many of them are extremely radical.

Canada has no colonial history or special knowledge of this complex part of the world. The Harper government’s current policy has been to apply “targeted sanctions against the Syrian regime and those that provide it with support.” There are no plans to become militarily involved in the region, which is a wise position. There are no groups friendly to democracy to support, no easy way out, and many really nasty groups are fighting there. This is a complicated civil war that Canada is wise to stay out of.

Jean-Sébastien Rioux is Associate Director, International Policy, and Director, Master of Public Policy program at The School of Public Policy