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April 28, 2013

Syria and beyond

Reuel S. Amdur

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"Syria is a problem for nations in and out of the region. No one really knows how things will pan out." That was the dour assessment by Brian Davis at a session in Ottawa on April 16, sponsored by the National Council on Canada Arab Relations. Davis was Canadian ambassador to Syria.

“I met with Bashir Assad on four occasions, an hour and a half each time.  A corrupt mafia ran the country.  There was no rule of law—corrupt judges and corrupt courts.” When Assad came in there was hope that he was a reformer, but his reforms have been miniscule, for example establishing a stock market.

Davis noted that Syria is unlike Tunisia and Egypt.  In those countries the military controlled the régime, while in Syria the régime controls the military.  The country is a hodge-podge of disparate ethnic, cultural, religious, and economic factions.

According to Davis, “Two years ago if the Syrian government had responded positively to the original protest in Daraa, matters might have been resolved.”  However, he sees the Assad régime as incapable of any compromise, resorting only to force.  Assad and his clique “will fight to the finish.” 

He noted that the government forces are better armed than the rebels.  Government services in the country have broken down, and the economy is in ruins. 

On the rebel side, rebel forces are divided in terms of strategy and goals.  As well, so are the external political activists, and “there is no real coordination between the politicians and the armed groups.”  There are, he observed, “a fair number of jihadists, drawn like bees to honey.”  Most Syrians are moderate in outlook and want nothing to do with extremists, but extremists are there. 

For Davis, the ideal solution would be for the political and armed wings of the rebellion to get together and spell out exactly what they want.  This could bring more help from the outside, perhaps in the form of arms.  Any solution “has to involve the outside.  I don’t see any people on the ground able to solve things only internally.” 

He noted that all the surrounding countries are worried about the spillover effects.  There is always concern about Kurdish aspirations, and the flood of Syrian refugees can be a cause of imbalance.  In Lebanon, for example, Sunni refugees pose a potential threat to Hezbollah influence on government.

Davis explained the position of Russia and China as Assad supporters, due largely because of what happened in Libya.  NATO took a UN resolution for a no-fly zone and stretched it to the breaking point and beyond to drive Gaddafi from power.  Russia is also interested in maintaining its naval base in Syria.  That does not mean that Russia is wedded to Assad.

When Kofi Annan was given the task of trying to resolve the Syrian conflict, he went to talk to Iran, much to the alarm of the United States, but Davis saw the move as positive.  After all, Iran is a major supporter of Assad, and involving him might have the side benefit of opening the door for other diplomatic involvement with the country.

Canada’s position on Syria has been to impose sanctions and send humanitarian aid to Syrians inside and outside the country.  It has not recognized the Syrian National Council because it is, Canada holds, not sufficiently inclusive. 

Davis was asked why he left Canada’s diplomatic service.  It was out of frustration. The year was 2006, at the time of the war between Israel and Hezbollah.  A UN observation post in the Galilee was under assault by Israel, in spite of a number of calls from the post asking Israel to stop.  A rocket made a direct hit and killed Canadian soldier Paeta Hess-von-Kruender and three other UN observers.  Davis asked a UN general if the attack could have been an accident and the answer was no.  UN military personnel described the weapon used as “precision-guided.” 

Kofi Annan, the then United Nations Secretary General said the attack was “apparently deliberately targeting”, while Prime Minister Harper saw it as an accident, a “terrible tragedy,” whose fault lay at the UN’s feet for placing UN personnel in such a dangerous spot.  Harper also referred to Israel’s massive assault on Lebanese civilian areas as a “measured response.” 

Canada wanted to appoint Davis to the post of roving ambassador for the Middle East. He saw the position that the Canadian government was peddling as one that he felt he could not sell.  So he quit.

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