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Canada needs a radical change to its Syria strategy now

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Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Yerevan

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Who would have thought a story about refugees would captivate Canadians as much as it has over the last few weeks?

 Online metrics from Canada's largest news outlets indicate that Canadian public interest in the refugee issue before the federal elections was marginal. If we exclude the spikes of traffic and social media chatter around stories like three-year-old Alan Kurdi being washed up on a Turkish beach and the Hungarian journalist tripping a Syrian refugee, Canadians viewed the refugee crisis much like we view other foreign news stories -- with sympathy, not empathy.

Enter Justin Trudeau and his fantastically diverse cabinet with a pledge to open the door to 25,000 of Syria's most vulnerable refugees, and Canadian public interest in the refugee issue skyrocketed.

Why? Because the story had suddenly changed: These refugees were no longer strangers caught in the vicious crossfire of an unending war in the Middle East. They were now going to be our fellow citizens, our neighbours, perhaps our colleagues one day.

In his pledge to both withdraw fighter jets from Syria and take in refugees, Trudeau is reclaiming Canada's traditional global role. Our approach has always been one of open and progressive multilateralism, and it is these values that enabled Canada to be such an effective middle power on the world stage in the pre-Harper era.

Which is why it is more important than ever that in the midst of our healthy curiosity and warm welcome to incoming refugees, we don't lose sight of the critical role our government can play in fostering a permanent solution to the migrant crisis: Ending the war in Syria. It's not, after all, the dream of every refugee entering Canada to live here -- it's to not migrate at all.

But a solution to ending the war appears nowhere in sight. In part because world powers can't seem to get past the question of whom the biggest obstacle to peace in Syria is right now -- President Assad or Islamic State?

Canada's position so far has echoed America's. Given the threat ISIS poses to people globally, it needs to be tackled first. This choice also, of course, has to do with the fact that taking on Assad would essentially mean taking on Iran and its great military prowess, Hezbollah -- with Russia close behind.

But airstrikes on ISIS are clearly not working. Not only is ISIS very much still alive and well, as we saw in the attacks on Beirut, Paris and Mali, but the coalition is striking the wrong targets. According to data from Airwars, a monitoring project by a team of independent journalists, Western coalition attacks have actually killed almost 700 civilians, including 100 children.

Clearly, it's time for a new approach. Which is what the defence minister Harjit Sajjan alluded to from the Halifax International Security Forum last weekend. When asked what the Canadian government's position was on Assad, Sajjan said rather disconcertingly: "I'm of the opinion that President Assad...needs to go, given the complexity of the problem and the horrible atrocities that have been committed to his own people."

"What we've got to keep in mind here is, how did this whole problem start? That Assad's regime has killed more of its own people than even Daesh (ISIS) actually has," Sajjan added. 

Sajjan is right about the disproportionate number of civilian deaths. Assad has killed more Syrians than ISIS has -- more than three-quarters of civilian deaths have been attributed to his forces this year alone.

But -- "Assad needs to go"?  It sounds eerily reminiscent of the words former U.S. George Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And isn't Western-imposed regime change in Iraq what led to the birth and rise of ISIS in the first place?

Sajjan may not have intended to imply forced regime change per se, but words matter. "It's absolutely crucial to think seriously -- for the sake of the remaining Syrian people and for the sake of the credibility of Western countries -- to have a clear plan for the day after the Assad regime is not in place anymore," says Houchang Hassan-Yari, a political science professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.

"If America and their allies don't do that and let's say, forced Assad out, we'll go through the same problems the American invasion created in Iraq. It also reinforces the position of those people in the Middle East who believe that the West is there to harm them and that it's conspiring to create anarchy in the region."

But if regime change sounds like a bad idea, so does "bombing ISIS." The "moral" case British Prime Minister David Cameron is making in parliament this week for dropping bombs on ISIS in Syria sounds more than dubious -- and his repeated assurances on how he will avoid the mistakes Tony Blair made in 2003 don't help. As Vice journalist Tannara Yellan points out  "the concept of 'bombing ISIS' sounds like a rather neat and tidy one, but it's not based in reality: wherever ISIS is, there are civilians."

Rhetoric aside, it's likely that Trudeau and his new defence minister are well aware of the risks that come with a Western-imposed regime change -- and of bombing ISIS, which partially explains why they've decided to withdraw Canadian fighter jets.

If all regional powers deciding on the fate of Syria took the options of military action and regime change off the table, an alternative approach could be found. What's critical though is to open up the conversation and find common ground with all relevant parties - especially our adversaries. Given Iran's genuine hatred of ISIS -- and their sound military effectiveness in confronting it so far -- is it possible to consider that we have an unnatural ally in them?

Jabeur Fathally, a law professor at the University of Ottawa thinks so. "We must be careful to not close the door on any negotiation with Iranians or Russians...they are main actors in the region and we shouldn't neglect them as Harper did before. It's not productive."

Of course there's always going to be an argument against trusting Iran, but since when do we choose our allies based on morality and clean human rights records? Children are being bombed in their homes as we speak. Thousands of desperate families continue to sit on dilapidated, disposable boats floating towards European shores. We need a radical change in strategy on Syria now.

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Image: Flickr/PAN Photo

An earlier version of this article erroneously identified Harjit Sajjan ministerial portfolio. Sajjan is the defence minister. rabble.ca regrets the error.

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