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  • Roland Paris

Going Along to Get Along? Canada Soft-Pedals Russia’s Role in Syria

Why is Canada giving Russia an easy ride on Syria? Moscow has been running diplomatic interference for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and providing his regime with weapons. Meanwhile, Assad’s loyalists have escalated their attacks on Syrian civilians, including women and children.

Until this week, we heard barely a peep from Ottawa about Russia’s indefensible role in all of this. Foreign Minister John Baird issued statements after major incidents of Syrian violence, rightly condemning the regime’s brutality. Rather than criticizing Russia, however, these statements vaguely called on “all members of the UN Security Council” to put greater pressure on the Assad regime.

“What happened to the Conservatives’ oft-repeated commitment to moral clarity and straight talk in foreign policy?”

This week, both Mr. Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally fingered Russia, but their language could not have been gentler. They “encouraged” and “urged” Russia and other members of the Security Council to “apply binding sanctions” on Syria. Why the soft line? One possible explanation is economic. The Conservatives’ prosperity agenda is now the centrepiece of their domestic and foreign policies. Expanding trade is a key element of that agenda. Canadian diplomats are being told that “prosperity is the new Afghanistan,” meaning that trade and investment are top priorities. This includes the goal of expanding Canada’s economic relationship with the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China. Earlier this month, International Trade Minister Ed Fast led a trade delegation to Russia. Celebrating the results after his return, Minister Fast reiterated the trip’s connection to the prosperity agenda: “Our government is committed to deepening Canada’s trade and investment ties with Russia because we know that when Canadian companies succeed abroad, more jobs, growth and long-term prosperity are created at home.” Criticizing Moscow’s role in Syria might work against Canada’s effort to expand its business with Russia.

There is another possible explanation: The Harper government has adopted a particularly hard line on Iran. Russia’s hard-won cooperation in economic sanctions against Iran is important. Further, international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program will resume next week – in Russia. Condemning Moscow’s support for the Assad regime might work against efforts to establish a strong, unified position among the “sextet” of countries negotiating with Iran.

Canada is not directly part of these negotiations, but Ottawa cares a lot about their outcome, in part because of the Conservatives’ extraordinarily close relationship to Israel. On Wednesday, Mr. Baird reportedly called a meeting of sextet country ambassadors and encouraged them to adopt a tougher position against Iran – a position echoing that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Do these or other countervailing interests justify Canada soft-pedaling its reaction to Russia’s complicity in Syria? As you reflect on that question, consider this: the United States also has multiple interests in its relationship with Russia, including bilateral trade and investment and the Iranian nuclear program. Indeed, the US has much more at stake than Canada. Among other things, Russia’s support is required to maintain the flow of supplies to the 90,000-odd US troops still based in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, the US has adopted a much stronger stand than Canada on Russia’s role in Syria, taking Moscow to task for resupplying and refurbishing the arsenal of a criminal regime. “On a daily basis, on an hourly basis, we are seeing Russian- and Soviet-made weaponry used against civilians in towns all across Syria,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland earlier this week.

Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to back away from her claim that Russia was providing Assad with new attack helicopters – the aircraft in question had been repaired in Russia and were being returned to the Syrian military – the US correctly insists that Russia is facilitating the Assad regime’s killing spree.

What happened to our Conservative government’s oft-repeated commitment to moral clarity and straight talk in foreign policy? After winning his majority in 2011, Mr. Harper elaborated his thoughts on Canada’s role in the world to the Conservative Party faithful. Canada, he said, will “take strong, principled positions in our dealings with other nations, whether popular or not.”

“Those who talk the talk of human rights must from time to time be prepared to walk the walk… Heaven forbid that we should fail to do that of which we are capable when the path of duty is clear. Our government is not that kind of government. Canada is not that kind of nation,” he said.

Mr. Baird often invokes these themes in his public remarks. “We believe what’s right is right. And what’s wrong is wrong. And it is in defence of those beliefs that we act,” he proclaimed in a speech in May.

In the same speech, Mr. Baird recounted two anecdotes about his encounters with Foreign Affairs officials. In both stories, he presents himself as a champion of moral clarity and of strong, principled stands – in contrast to Canadian diplomats, whom he denigrates for seeing nuances and shades of gray.

It was shabby for Mr. Baird to publicly belittle his own departmental officials. But now, in light of the Conservative government’s reluctance to criticize Russia’s support for the Assad regime, his earlier statements seem hypocritical.

A little more truth-telling from our big-talking leaders would be welcome. Try this, for starters: Russia is making it possible for the Syrian government to continue slaughtering its own people – and that’s not okay. This post first appeared at

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