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These are Canada’s options in Syria and Egypt. None of them are easy

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
August 28, 2013

What can Canada do about Syria and Egypt? The options for policymakers range from bad to worse.

Syria is the latest example of a failing state where the dictator is doing everything he can to hang onto power including breaking international law, most recently in the apparent use of chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, the military coup in Egypt that ousted President Mohamed Morsi is a reminder that the transition to representative government takes time and requires patience. And if we have learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan it is that the road to representative government is long, crooked, tortuous and filled with disappointments.

The costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to the United States are estimated at between $4-trillion and $6-trillion (Canada’s entire economy is $1.83-trillion ).

An estimate of the costs of intervention in Syria is contained in a recent letter from General Martin Dempsey, chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Senators Carl Levin and John McCain. Mr. Dempsey observed that “the decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly” because it “is no less than an act of war.”

To train and advise the Syrian opposition is costing $500-million annually. Establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, Mr. Dempsey wrote, would have a start-up cost of $500-million and a monthly bill of a billion dollars. Intervention employing special forces to secure the chemical-weapons stockpiles would cost at least another billion dollars a month.

Policymakers, as well as armchair generals and responsibility-to-protect advocates, should start any discussions on intervention by reading aloud Mr. Dempsey’s observation that the last decade has taught us that it is “not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state.”

They should also heed Mr. Dempsey’s three warnings:

First: “We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action.”

Second: “We must also understand risk – not just to our forces, but to our other global responsibilities.”

Third: “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”

Intervention, Mr. Dempsey says, should also be done “in concert with our allies and partners to share the burden and solidify the outcome.”

These considerations and the requirement for burden-sharing were likely discussed during the weekend conversations involving U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry with western leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

So what can we do?

The immediate consideration is humanitarian. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are now nearly two million refugees, including a million children, in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The $3-billion Syria Regional Refugee Response plan is currently only 38 per cent funded. Canada has subscribed $81.5-million towards Syrian relief.

Beyond money, we should also consider ramping up our refugee intake in a way that is both strategic and humanitarian.

Experience has taught us that successful integration of refugees depends on many factors. Some adapt better than others, and sustaining Canadian support for a generous refugee and immigration program obliges policymakers to temper generosity with pragmatism.

One group that is under stress and that may require resettlement is Egypt’s Christian minority. We have condemned the attacks on the over 60 churches but their situation is precarious. Forty years ago, in response to the expulsion of 60,000 Ugandan Asians, Canada resettled nearly 7,000.

Like the Egyptian Christians, the Ugandan Asians were a community of small business people and professionals.

Today, their success is another reflection of the positive virtues of Canadian pluralism. The Egyptian Christians would likely integrate in similar fashion, especially given the presence in Canada of their co-religionists to help in the transition.

Taking a leadership role in humanitarian relief in Syria and Egypt would give tangible substance to Foreign Minister John Baird’s ‘dignity’ agenda. It would also demonstrate, once again, the Canadian tradition as a helpful fixer.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior strategist with McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP. 

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