It was an unexpected encounter, revealing just how complex the present situation in Syria has become.
My wife and I were at a coffee shop when some Muslim friends I have known for a time approached asking for a word. It was all about Syria, and their thoughts were given all the more urgency with the recent reports of the use of chemical weapons in recent days. Then came the pitch: Since I used to be a Member of Parliament in Canada, could I perhaps use some of those contacts to demand Western military action in the Syrian conflict?
Let me say at the outset that I agreed with their sentiments and that we have doctrines like Responsibility to Protect and Will to Intervene for a reason. But, as so often with everything lately, we have such principles but no plans. Western governments remain fatigued from more than a decade of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their citizens are reticent at the moment to pick up arms again.
And so I phoned a government MP well versed in foreign relations and asked what, if anything could be done, and passing along the conversation of the coffee shop. He began as Canadian governments always do: "Glen, we need to let the UN lead on anything like this; it must be an international response." Fair enough. He then introduced a number of complexities that made any such action a dicey affair. He pointed out how Muslim/Arab communities in Canada continue to press for action in places like Egypt, Syria, and even Gaza, but continue to be restrained in their outright denunciation of governmental powers in such regions until it is too late and things have blown up. He has a point.
It remains a difficult thing for Canadians to embrace when hearing little concerning the injustices of the governments of such regions. Certain voices indeed have been raised from within the Muslim/Arab communities, but the lack of overall response until it is too late remains a mystery.
But is that enough to refuse any kind of intervention? Clearly not. Yet there are other realities that must be faced. While everyone believes it has been President Bashar al-Assad's regime that used the chemical weapons, in the absence of such proof, Western opponents will vilify any military intervention in the region, saying it was used as an excuse. We must wait until the UN investigation team finishes its work.
We know from intelligence reports that Al Qaeda has been active in the neighbourhood and that any kind of military response from the West, America especially, could have unknown consequences. And who would replace Assad if he were deposed? No one is certain and that is a key factor in the delay: Syrians, even in Canada, remain largely divided.
An interesting possibility came from an unlikely quarter. This week Israeli President Shimon Peres suggested that the West look to the Arab League to set up a temporary government to end the bloodshed. Despite the criticisms he endured from other players in the region, his rationale was clear: "Foreigners will not understand what is going on in Syria," so it would make sense that the UN task the Arab League with establishing a provisional government.
Yet the League itself remains somewhat divided. A little talked-about leaked report from the Arab League Observers Mission Report to Syria from last year raised some troubling dynamics. Armed opposition forces had attacked Syrian security forces and citizens, prompting an escalated attack from government forces. The Mission had witnessed acts where these opposition forces had bombed a civilian bus, and the bombing of a train.
Then the Mission report turned its sights on the media, concluding: "Many parties falsely reported that explosions or violence had occurred in several locations. When the observers went to those locations, they found that those reports were unfounded." It went on to say that many of the media reports had been exaggerated.
So, if the Arab League were to take a leadership position of Syria's present tragedies, it would have to take into account the competing narratives coming from the conflict. Some have been critical of the report in general, including other Arab entities. But the findings came from the Arab League's own Mission and those findings would surely play into its actions. And who would depose Assad in order to bring it about? The League itself? Not likely.
For the average Western citizen this is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. Yet even the professionals -- politicians, diplomats, NGOs, researchers -- remain remarkably undecided and confused for what has clearly become one of the most frustrating developments in recent years.
My Muslim friends made a compelling case that day. Yet when I asked them if they thought the situation would escalate if the West responded, they grew sullen and silent. The way ahead is not clear and even the experts remain perplexed. In moments such as these, all of those policies developed by the West to address situations such as Syria remain largely left on paper -- the victim of a noble principles encumbered by on-the-ground complexities.