Former Canadian ambassador Paul Heinbecker spoke at the CDA Institute Roundtable “Saving Lives in Syria: Assad, ISIS and the Canadian Military Mission,” held in Ottawa on 02 June 2015. These roundtable discussions are normally held under the Chatham House Rule. But, with Mr. Heinbecker’s permission, we have decided to eschew that rule in this instance in order to present an excerpt of his talk. The full presentation can be found here. The CDA Institute thanks Lockheed Martin Canada for its generous sponsorship of the 2015/16 Roundtable Discussion Series.

Today I am going to talk to you about the catastrophe unfolding in Syria.

I am going to suggest five things the world, with Canada’s participation, can do to alleviate the suffering: first, impose no fly zones in northern and southern Syria, second, train vetted Syrian resistance forces, third, contribute more generously to the UN’s humanitarian assistance programs for Syrian residents and for Syrian refugees, fourth, permanently re-settle many more of those Syrian refugees best able to adapt to life beyond the Middle East, and fifth, do nothing to legitimize or strengthen Assad.

Prime Minister Harper has expanded Canada’s mission against ISIS, into Syria. “In the face of this menace,” he is reported to have said recently in Kuwait City, “the worst thing we could possibly do is nothing.” The Prime Minster has been considerably more circumspect, however, when it comes to Syria and the vast destruction of citizens actually being perpetrated there, the lion’s share apparently by the Assad regime. Many lives can still be saved in Syria, the scene of some of the worst man-made suffering in decades, but not by turning a blind eye to Assad’s ongoing military atrocities. Ignoring such atrocities would be the opposite of the “moral clarity” claimed for the Harper government’s mission by Foreign Minister Nicholson. It would also send a terrible signal to other potential perpetrators.

Prime Minister Harper is not alone, of course, in his selective outrage. The sheer scale of the Syrian tragedy appears to have numbed the world’s conscience – 220,000 dead, combatants and civilians, and one million injured, many horribly, according to recently resigned UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos. Perhaps people feel that the conflict has become too complex and is too far gone for anything worthwhile to be done. Maybe humanity is just fatigued with a war for which there has been no entry strategy, never mind an exit strategy. Possibly, with the advent of ISIS, some people think it safer not to get too involved in the Middle East and shrug at the infinitely greater jeopardy lived, and died, by others. Maybe some people just care less when it is Muslims who are suffering. Whatever the explanation, the world has forsaken the innocents of Syria, whose desperate situation worsens. The Responsibility to Protect has given way to the Disposition to Ignore.

While we have averted our collective gaze, the situation in Syria has deteriorated drastically. 2014 was the worst year yet; 76,000 people died this past year as a result of conflict, including 3,500 children (London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.) Well over 12 million people need humanitarian assistance – a 12 fold increase since 2011 – just to keep body and soul together (UNOCHA), 5.6 million of the most vulnerable are children (UNOCHA), 4.8 million people are cut off from food and medical resources by the fighting and by sieges. More than half of Syria’s hospitals are destroyed (UNHCR). Physicians for Human Rights reported more attacks on medical facilities in April this year than in any of the previous 15 months. A quarter of Syria’s schools have been damaged, destroyed or taken over for shelter (UNOCHA). 7.6 million Syrians have fled their homes, some more than once (UNOCHA). Harsh winter conditions, now eased, compounded their misery.

Nearly four million Syrians have had the comparatively good fortune to find refuge in communities and camps in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – at enormous cost to the host countries. In tiny Lebanon, refugees comprise nearly one-third of the population, the equivalent in Canada of an influx of the entire population of Ontario. According to the World Bank, the cost in terms of lost economic activity to the Lebanese economy of the Syrian crisis is vast – about $8 billion. Jordan hosts over 622,000 Syrian refugees and large numbers of Palestinians as well. Turkey, the largest and richest of neighbouring countries, has absorbed over 1.6 million refugees, becoming the world’s biggest refugee hosting country; the number of refugees in Turkey is projected to rise to 2.5 million by year’s end. Beyond the negative impacts on the Turkish economy of lost trade and tourism revenues – only the brave and the bargain hunters holiday on the periphery of a war zone – Turkey has spent more than $6 billion on direct assistance to the refugees it is hosting (UNHCR).

In the main refugee-receiving countries, the extraordinary hospitality of the local populations is fraying under the pressures of the disproportionate burden they are bearing. Competition between refugees and locals for housing, jobs, health care and education is destabilizing. Many locals feel Syrians are responsible for reductions in their incomes and for rises in rents, food costs, unemployment and crime. After years in exile, refugees’ savings are long since depleted and people are resorting to child labour, begging, theft and sex work to survive. Millions of children are suffering from trauma and ill health, and their educations are disrupted. And they are the lucky ones. They are safe from the fighting.

What should the international community do to alleviate the great suffering there and how can Canada help in the larger effort?

First, stanch or at least slow the bleeding.

If the US-led coalition can muster the will to use air power, including in Syria, to help stop ISIS, it can stop the barrel-bombing and other air-launched atrocities of the blood-soaked Assad regime. Human Rights Watch has used satellite imagery, witness statements and video and photographic evidence to identify at least 1450 locations in rebel-held territory, where the Assad regime has used barrel bombs and the like. This past weekend the regime killed 75 people, mostly civilians, with barrel bombs (Al Jazeera). Reports of chemical weapons use continue.

In the recent past, No-Fly Zones in one form or another have been successfully employed: in Bosnia (NATO’s Operation Deny Flight), in Libya (Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector) and in Iraq (Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch). The no-fly zones were successfully imposed on Iraq from 1992 to 2003 after the first Gulf war, and are credited by some (President George H.W. Bush) with saving many lives, a claim that can neither be confirmed nor infirmed. Something similar could be done in the North and South of Syria using Turkish, Kurdish and other regional air bases, and ship-based aircraft.

The idea is controversial. In the first place, there is little prospect of Russia acquiescing in a Security Council resolution authorizing intervention. President Putin appears resigned to back the murderous Assad’s fight to the last Syrian. Second, some argue that the No Fly Zone in Libya was an error, that the people of Libya would have been better off without it. NATO’s imposition of the Security Council mandated No Fly Zone might have cost as many as 155 people their lives, killed by NATO fire. But that number pales in comparison to the number that Gaddafi would have slaughtered in Benghazi alone if NATO had not acted. Gaddafi was threatening “rivers of blood.” And going “door to door” and “showing no mercy.” READ MORE

Paul Heinbecker is former ambassador to Germany and the UN, and currently with Laurier University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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