September 2013 Commentary

Fed Up with the Middle East

by J. L. Granatstein

The international stage has been in flux this past week as nations try to deal with events in Syria. The Basher al-Assad regime appears to have used nerve gas against its own people and deserves punishment. But what kind of punishment and by whom?

To no one's surprise the Canadian government has condemned the Syrian government but said it will not participate in any attack on Assad's forces. The Canadian Forces has very little to contribute in any case, and our friends to the south will not miss us.

The Secretary-General of NATO condemned the use of nerve gas, but made clear that NATO as an alliance would not be involved. The German government has stated it will not participate in an attack on the Damascus government. Neither action was unexpected. But most extraordinarily, David Cameron's coalition in Britain put a proposal for action before the House of Commons, failed to lay on the whips, and lost a close vote. Prime Minister Cameron ought to have resigned office for his utter incompetence and inability to count votes but, completely discredited, stays on. Of the European states with available, capable forces, only France seems ready to join in a hard-edged response to Assad.

Then there is the United States. President Obama wants to do something to hit Assad for crossing his no nerve gas "red line".  But Obama can see the opinion polls that show very little support for the U.S. to get into another Middle East war and so, amazingly, he is going to Congress to get permission to act. It's not really a war, the flood of leaks are suggesting, but only a short, sharp series of air and missile strikes against helicopter concentrations and command and control centres. While the leaks might well be deception measures designed to spook the Syrians, they are at the very least giving the regime's military time to prepare itself--and letting Syria's ally in Tehran increase its rhetoric of retaliation against Israel. That the Israelis only crime in this instance is their geographic proximity to the Syrians matters not a whit to the mullahs in Iran.

So there will be no American boots on the ground, no casualties, no blood spilled except that of Syrian soldiers (and some civilians too, no doubt). Maybe, maybe not, depending on how events unfold once the U.S. attacks commence. But the American public has no appetite for another war of any type right now. And Washington, while wanting to punish Assad, seems unwilling to act forcefully enough bring him down. President Obama, losing what remains of his fast-disappearing credibility every day, will get Congress' permission to attack, but there may well be strings attached to constrain the U.S. military's action. No one in Washington really knows what to do.

The Syrian morass is difficult to be sure. The West has no dog in the fight, and there are no good guys in white hats to support. If Assad falls, the regime that replaces him could be much worse. If he stays in power, his revenge against his enemies will be terrible.

But public opinion in the Western democracies is becoming increasingly clear. The Middle East is viewed as a swamp of religious extremism and mindless hatred. The Shiites kill the Sunnis, the Sunnis kill the Jews, and no one much likes the Christians, so their churches can be burned at will and their adherents attacked, raped or killed. Canadians, Americans, and Europeans can all feel sympathy for those slaughtered in Homs, those who suffer from suicide bombers in Baghdad, and those whose shops are looted in Cairo and Egyptian small towns. But the hard truth is that we don't know how to help. Who should be punished, chastised, or boycotted? Who ought to pay the price for attacks on one religion or another? What targets can be struck in Cairo or Baghdad or Damascus that will send the appropriate message? The difficulty is that the impossibility of sorting out the factions fighting to control Syria is replicated throughout the entire region. Why, Westerners naturally ask, why should we get involved? Why risk the lives of any more of our sons and daughters in such an area of unending conflict?

Why indeed. The killing is deplorable, but until the rulers and the religious leaders of the Middle East recognize that toleration of religious difference is a useful principle in the modern world, there is no hope. Regrettably, there is no chance whatsoever that this will take place in our lifetimes. 

J.L. Granatstein is a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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