By Richard Forbes.
It’s fair to say despite political unrest in Syria, the UK and Sweden, a slow news week had crept passed us Canadians by hump day. We – exhausted with the antics of our southern neighbor’s president – were resigned to enjoying the finer things in life beyond Donald Trump. Speaking of chutzpah: “Did you hear about Bombardier?” one woman is overheard gossiping in a local café. She continues, offering her ladies group a salacious ‘lowdown’ on Bombardier’s executives who had given themselves raises using public loans.
Also this week: Montreal removed its prohibition on pinball machines in bars, the Leafs made the playoffs, a re-run of Dragon’s Den aired (showing conservative frontrunner Kevin O’Leary buying a third of a company selling wine for cats) and Lisa LaFlamme dedicated whole swaths of CTV’s news broadcasts to remembering the Battle of Vimy Ridge. By Thursday, there was so little news to report, the most critics could complain about was the prime minister voluntarily answering more questions during Question Period than normal while seeking the bipartisan counsel of former PM Brian Mulroney on NAFTA and Ottawa signaling its intentions to liberalize interprovincial trade – which as far as points of criticism go is pretty weak gruel, Manitoba-grade oats or not.
Determined to pull us back from this blissfully slow news cycle however was the man some Americans call ‘commander-in-chief’ and the screeching sound of fifty nine tomahawk missiles whizzing off American warships into a dark sky.
Their target? A Syrian government airfield. The seemingly spontaneous order was a ‘limited’ response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a recent sarin chemical attack attributed to his government. The intention of the order, Trump said, was to undermine the Assad regime’s capacity to carry out further air raids of a similar nature. Defending his administration’s air strike, Trump told reporters that “years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behaviour have all failed,” adding at a torpid pace, “-and failed, very, very…dramatic.” Continuing his penchant for primitive hyperbole, the president also called on “all civilized nations” to join him in ending “the slaughter and … bloodshed” and “terrorism … of all kinds… and all types…”
Presumably a “civilized nation,” Canada heard the president’s call but rightful remained skeptical at the president’s assurances that he, rather than past administrations, would change the Assad regime’s behaviour and, less believable still, that the end of terrorism is realizable only through cruise missles and tactical bombing runs.
The air strike was, perhaps, a conventional act as far as American foreign policy is concerned but for Trump it was an improvisation running contrary to his isolationist “America First” doctrine. Yet with no further action planned and the status of recognition afforded to the Assad regime unchanged, it appears as though this whole attack may have been a meaningless act made with no long term goals and no plan – a knee jerk reaction and a demonstration of the infinite vanity of Donald Trump, wistful for a cheap bump in the polls. For Washington and its hawkish centre-right, the targeted strikes are a nostalgia trip to the glory days of American interventionism and an example of what we might have expected of a new Clinton administration in contrast to the preceding administration’s more cautious and sage leadership. To that end, Trump’s air strikes are a perfectly good example of the futility of such internationalist activity, even limited: the Syrian air force has already resumed operations out of the same air field the US bombed the day previous; indeed, the Syrian government has been accused of bombing the same Syrian town targeted with nerve gas in last week’s gruesome chemical attack.
For Canada, the unilateral action of our southern neighbor is far less nostalgic, paralleling other emergencies such the Iraq War that would pit our relationship with the United States against our respect for international law and the United Nations. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, however, maintained he supported Trump’s actions this Friday, calling them, “limited and focused action” – albeit ineffectual – “to degrade the Syrian regime’s ability to conduct chemical weapons attacks.”
With the White House operating without a plan themselves, Canada’s response in turn will be tested by how little it can commit to the Trump presidency while still voicing support for our ally – giving Canada the latitude it may need to oppose or distance itself from the United States’ activities at a later junction. The ideal situation – pursuing a no-fly zone and a ICC referral for Syrian war crimes via the UN Security Council – as was the case in Libya, may be off the table indefinitely now that the United States has angered Russia (a veto-wielding UNSC member) with its latest bombing run. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has requested an emergency UN Security Council meeting, he’s also signaled he believes Trump’s actions were illegal and calls the chemical attack, a “made-up pre-text.”
It’s unclear to what extent this air strike truly alters US-Russian relations, however. While the press have been quick to praise the president for divorcing himself from Putin, whether that divorce is real or a smokescreen ought to be questioned.
Putin, an ally of Assad, was warned before the strike, giving the Kremlin time to communicate Trump’s plans to Syria. Moreover, the cruise missles targeted the hangers (many only damaged, not destroyed) but not the attached runways – leaving Syria’s flight capability unhindered. These limitations of Trump’s military intervention reflect his poor planning and an absence of a long term plan for the region, but it also could suggest cooperation with Russia that undermines the purported aims of his military order. Trump has not wavered on his resistance to humanitarian assistance to Syria or refugee resettlements: his strike, strategically compromised, was as little an act as necessary to garner support and praise from war-hawks at Capital Hill and beyond without changing the situation in Syria in any practical regard.
Besides Russia, Canada was also kept in the loop about the intervention: U.S. defence secretary Jim Mattis reportedly calling Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan about an hour before the strike. The opposition’s talking point on Syria, however, appears to be to impugn the government’s status in Washington – as childish a focus as that may seem. Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose writing, the prime minister “seems to have been out of the loop on this action by the United States.” Adding, “Conservatives have always rejected the Liberal ‘go along to get along’ approach at the United Nations,” as if Canada’s preference for multilaterialism diminishes Canada in the eyes of our neighbor.
What the Tories haven’t explained is how military superpowers operating outside international law and multilateral forums of engagement wouldn’t diminish Canada’s diplomatic role as a middle power or how, for that matter, unilateral military intervention by one superpower would produce lasting stability in a region that diplomacy can’t. Indeed, this latest military adventure in Syria has proven itself incapable of effecting a change lasting even twenty four hours! A diplomatic answer to the Assad regime is the only avenue worth pursuing; large scale military intervention would come with unintentional entanglements. International diplomacy also offers a multilateral theatre where Canada can play a more prominent role in ongoing discussions than being party to the sideshow of Donald Trump as we were last Friday: restricted to the role of mere bystander and reluctant supporter.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.