Photo: flickr/ResoluteSupportMedia

Let me get this straight. Canada is flying bombing missions targeting ISIS positions in Syria in conjunction with a U.S.-led coalition that also includes Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar — all three of whom have financed various extremist and jihadist Sunni groups.

Perhaps, the most well-endowed supporter, Saudi Arabia, has at one point or another bankrolled fighters aligned with both ISIS and Al Qaeda in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as part of an anti-Shia alliance in the region to counter Iran.

And so, Canada is participating in a rapidly expanding conflict in Iraq and Syria against an enemy originally nurtured by a supposed ally — incidentally starting when George Bush was president.

Making this further complicated, the strongest rebel group in Syria is the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. It is now making gains militarily against the Damascus-based regime of President Bashar al-Assad, courtesy of the largess of Saudis and Turkey. This bore fruit recently with the capture by up to 5,000 Al Nusra fighters of the provincial capital of Idlib, which is west of Aleppo. It was formerly held by Assad’s troops and not easily let go.

Al Nusra has apparently morphed into the good jihadists. Are they worse than ISIS? Both are vicious and have committed war crimes. The differences are minute except that Al-Nusra is entirely Syria-focused and not as fixated on beheading captives.

But as McMaster University economist and Middle East commentator Atif Kubursi observes Al-Nusra and ISIS have now joined forces, starting with the terrifying grabbing of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk just a few miles from Damascus and President Assad’s palace. 

Kubursi says this reconciliation represents a new disturbing element in the war with ISIS in Syria. He doubts the Assad forces will be defeated on the battlefield, but he predicts a nastier confrontation among the warring sides. “[It] will deepen and prolong the destruction and suffering,” says Kubursi.

All of this creates a bit a PR problem for Stephen Harper who in his Christmas message to Canadians declared that our pilots and Special Forces are “protecting the vulnerable, promoting peace, and defending the freedom of all people.” 

The prospect of Canadian military participation in “a cauldron” of war and immense population displacement that is aided and abetted by the meddling of outside foreign players, which has recently expanded into Yemen, alarms Paul Kingston, University of Toronto professor who has closely studied this region.

Kingston predicts that this war will continue until regional and global players including the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey change the channel, so to speak. He notes the Lebanon civil war (lasting from 1975 to the 1990s) ended when the various foreign patrons of warring factions in Lebanon found themselves on the same side of the U.S.-led coalition during the 1990/1991 Persian Gulf war to free Kuwait from Iraqi seizure.

With the tacit agreement of Israel, Syria was given a license to participate in the Lebanese political arena, Kingston notes.

The result is that Lebanon has experienced relative peace ever since.

“Most civil wars end through some sort of unsatisfactory negotiated settlement and it is said among people who study conflict that the most sustainable civil wars end because the hegemonic powers intervene,” adds Kingston.

A similar scenario is playing out in Syria where the vicious civil war began in March 2011 during the Arab Spring following the brutal crackdown on non-violent demonstrators in communities across that country by Assad’s paramilitaries.

The original movement for democracy was quickly pushed aside by violent extremist Sunni elements, which had been plotting well before the Arab Spring to destabilize the Syrian regime, says Atif Kubursi.

That explains why the Assad regime in a short time faced a serious, well-armed challenge to its authority in Syria, he notes.

Assad’s final card is that for all his faults as an authoritarian ruler does lead a secular regime supported by both the Sunni majority and various minorities including Christians who would fare poorly under an ISIS or al Nusra regime.

The Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War, for one, argues that the battle against ISIS can only be won in a western alliance with the current government in Damascus. “There is no third way, you are either with the Syrian government or the terrorists,” says its spokesperson Ken Stone.

Others like Kingston emphasize that both the Assad regime with its gruesome history and the newer rebel forces are responsible for the deaths of at least 200,000 in the current civil war.

Patrick Cockburn, the well-respected journalist for the Independent newspaper reports that Assad’s air force has been “notorious” in the use of barrel bombs containing scrap metal and explosives during its “indiscriminate” bombing of rebel held positions in Syria.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch is now accusing the Syrian pilots of targeting Idlib with bombs containing toxic chemicals. “The use of poison of gas may be a measure of Syrian desperation,” adds Cockburn.

Notwithstanding all of this awful stuff, the preservation of the Syrian state with or without Assad is crucial since the alternative is a jihadist takeover, says Atif Kubursi. 

“At issue is the state. I do not fancy a collapse of the state institutions — as in Libya’s case and/or the dissolution of [Saddam Hussein’s] army in Iraq. We need a political solution [in Syria] that sees a transition to representative government while preserving the state institutions.”

Kubursi views the tentative deal with Iran (which is close to Syria) by the U.S. and EU countries over nuclear enrichment as a possible game changer.

“The dynamics of the agreement with Iran has already set the precedent that no matter how intractable a problem is, it can be resolved by negotiation and comprise,” he says.

Echoing this is the Vancouver based Middle East analyst. Graham Fuller, a former station chief for the CIA in Kabul.

“There are lots of Syrians who don’t like Assad at all but who find chaos and anarchy to be way worse than anything that the Assad regime had and Assad was never in the same league as somebody like Saddam Hussein [in Iraq], in terms of brutality in daily life.”

Finally, Fuller says that the Iranians and EU are on board with some form of partnership with Syria in order to contain ISIS.

“I think Washington has been uncomfortable in discussing this, but I know in general a number of people who are saying we may have to bite the bullet,” adds Fuller.


Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton based freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected].

Photo: flickr/ResoluteSupportMedia

Paul Weinberg

Paul Weinberg

Paul Weinberg is a freelance writer as well as author and editor, based in Hamilton, ON.