The heartbreaking images of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body have permeated the screens of millions of people on a global scale, and prompted renewed calls for action by foreign governments to step up their commitments towards streamlining political asylum applications by Syrian citizens. While some countries have readily abided by the UNHCR’s call to accept more refugees, other countries remain enthralled in debates over how to manage the current crisis in Syria. One such country is Canada. This article seeks to provide a clear framework for increased Canadian engagement in the ongoing Syrian crisis by making a clear distinction between conflict regulation efforts and humanitarian relief, two practices whose symbiosis is essential to thwart conflicts, in Syria and elsewhere, while minimizing the negative effects of war on civilian populations.
Within the context of a conflict situation, there are two issues that need to be seen separately: conflict regulation and humanitarian relief. If one fails to recognize the differences between these two ideas, it is likely that both short and long-term efforts to ease war dynamics and post-conflict reconstruction will fail. A conflict can be seen as the ultimate symptom of the failure to find amicable ways to distribute a contested, finite resource. A resource can be anything from territory, access to political office, improvement in social and economic statuses, to access to natural resources. In this sense, regulation efforts are initiatives that are put in place to ease conflict dynamics to a tolerable-enough degree that will allow parties-at-war to initiate discussions over how a disputed resource can be redistributed satisfactorily.
Contrary to conflict regulation efforts, humanitarian relief initiatives are time-sensitive actions put in place for the preservation of human capital in a conflict zone. The ultimate goal of relief efforts is to minimize the damage inflicted upon civilian life during a time of war. When the direct effects of war are so devastating that the integrity of human capital cannot be sustained in situ, physical displacement becomes the only option available for those most imperiled by conflict. Regulation and relief efforts also differ in their targeted groups; the former set their resources to regulate the behaviour of conflict parties, while the latter seek to conserve the integrity of civilians. While it is important to establish a clear conceptual line between regulation and relief efforts, one must also understand that both practices are necessary to produce healthy post-conflict societies, and neither one should be excluded from policy debates.
In the case of Canada, key policymakers view regulation and relief initiatives as being mutually exclusive. Government officials have repeatedly called for enhanced military action to help regulate conflict dynamics in Syria while simultaneously employing insufficient policies in protecting the physical integrity of Syrian civilians. In view of the unsustainable conditions for life in Syria, fast-tracking political asylum applications and increasing the number of accepted Syrian refugees in Canada on a timely basis should be at the forefront of the Canadian government’s policy outlook. Contrary to the Canadian government’s policy angle, opposition parties have tended to favour plans to increase the number of accepted Syrian refugees in Canada, but provide lukewarm support to being militarily engaged in Syria on a unilateral basis.
The above-mentioned positions are half correct: the Canadian government is right in asserting that humanitarian relief efforts alone will not thwart the violence in Syrian soil. Tactical asymmetries between the parties-at-conflict create the necessary conditions for war protraction, and therefore for an extended timeframe within which Syrian civilians must endure life in a war-torn, precarious environment. But foregoing to move Canada’s resources toward enhancing its refugee admission capabilities does little to preserve what is left of the Syrian human capital seeking protection abroad. In contrast, the opposition parties are correct to highlight the time-sensitive nature of providing humanitarian aid in the forms of civilian support in Syria, and fast-tracking and increasing the number of approved refugee applications to Canada. However, humanitarian aid alone does not influence the conflict dynamics in Syria sufficiently and, as mentioned above, risks protracting the conflict under the false pretence that enough is being done to resolve the crisis.
An active Canadian presence in Syria that encompasses both a military component that will influence war dynamics and a humanitarian relief effort that will help in keeping Syrian civilians safe does not come without its own set of obstacles. Violence is currently being waged by a number of different factions, most notably anti-government forces (themselves a coalition of groups with divergent ideological goals), the Syrian military, and the Islamic State (ISIS). Unsanctioned military engagement by Canada and Western countries, however, will inevitably signify providing support to and aligning themselves politically with the Bashar al-Assad regime, which helps to explain why such an intervention has not yet been enacted in Syria, but was so readily put into action in Iraq. Furthermore, the legitimizing potential of a UN Security Council mandate under Chapter 7 to intervene in Syria is highly improbable due to the propensity of the use of vetoes in said chamber, which casts further doubt as to whether unilateral or multilateral military action will ever be envisaged by Canada or other Western countries.
With the question of military engagement being rendered unlikely, and in view of the increasing number of human deaths and population displacement in Syria, what policy options are left for middle powers like Canada? As mentioned above, the humanitarian relief option is one that remains fully available to the Canadian government. While this relief would be insufficient in regulating the dynamics of war in Syria, it would nevertheless have an enormous impact in preserving the country’s human capital. Such a path could lead to Canada admitting Syrian refugees as per UNHCR guidelines. A second option would require the provision of logistical support to countries that already have a high volume of refugees, or that are directly involved in the ongoing traffic of Syrian refugees, most notably Turkey, Italy, and Greece.
In closing, one must comprehend two important issues. Firstly, the dynamics of the Syrian civil war are perhaps the most complex in our world today. The number of war parties, their motivations to take arms, and their tactical know-how make of Syria a country whose violence is increasingly harder to regulate. In addition to this, the regional and international atmosphere of the Syrian crisis provides further obstacles for the introduction of external agents of peace, which limits action within the spirit of multilateralism. And secondly, and in view of the international community’s powerlessness to thwart violence in Syria, a strong unilateral policy regarding Syrian refugees remains at the jurisdictional grasp of individual states, including Canada, and they must act accordingly. Such a stance would not signify a permanent solution to the on-going crisis in Syria, but it would help in preserving the integrity of its non-combatant groups and individuals. In such a crisis, a timely, half solution is better than none.