In his approach to the Syrian civil war, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is consistent in at least one respect. He consistently supports the dangerously inconsistent approach of Donald Trump.
When Trump and his senior officials said, as they did just two weeks ago, that they had little interest in ridding Syria of dictator Bashar Assad, Canada was agreeable.
But when Trump reversed himself, bombed a Syrian government airfield, and called for Assad’s removal, Trudeau gamely changed course too.
Assad and “his regime,” Trudeau said on April 10, must be held to account for war crimes against their own people. “We need to move as quickly as possible toward peace and stability in Syria that does not involve Bashar Assad.”
Up to then, Canada had good reason not to support regime change in Syria. It wasn’t clear that the armed opposition, a collection of jihadists, rebel groups and ragtag militias, would be any better.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government had declined to back any side in the Syrian civil war. Trudeau continued this policy.
Even reports that Assad was still using illegal chemical weapons didn’t faze Ottawa. In August 2016, a joint investigation by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded that Assad had broken his promise to destroy chemical weapons and used chlorine gas at least twice.
No one much cared.
Barack Obama, then a lame-duck U.S. president, was unwilling to go to war against Syria. Trump, at that point a contender for the presidency, was actively campaigning against such a war.
Canada, which was focused on helping Syrian refugees, was willing to let the U.S. take the lead in matters military.
It still is. The problem Canada faces is that Trump’s military approach to the world has become crazily incomprehensible. Ever since Trump authorized missile strikes against Syria in retaliation for yet another alleged chemical assault on civilians, Washington has been a snake pit of conflicting explanations.
Some administration officials say removing Assad has become a priority.
Others say it hasn’t. An anonymous senior U.S. official told The Associated Press that there is proof Russia knew beforehand about the latest chemical strike. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there is no proof.
Tillerson himself has given different reasons for the missile strike. At one point he suggested the U.S. was responding to a moral evil. At another he gave the implausible explanation that Washington attacked Assad’s forces to keep their chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands. (In fact, as the Libyan experience suggests, terrorists would be more likely to get their hands on dangerous weapons if the Assad regime were deposed).
Trump’s only explanation to date is that he was horrified by the death of beautiful babies.
For Trump, all of this chaos may make political sense. He is up in the polls since the missile attack. He has effectively spiked the guns of those who accuse him of being too close to Russia. His decision to reverse himself and attack Syria may help him repair relations with hawks in America’s formidable national security bureaucracy.
But for Trudeau and Canada, it makes little sense to follow Trump down this particular rabbit hole. Regime change is a dangerous game, particularly when it is not clear what the alternative might be.
Syria has been destroyed by war. Threatening more is unlikely to help. The best chance for peace in that country still remains a political settlement acceptable not only to the opposition but to those whose interests the current regime represents.
Canada has differed politely with the U.S. before, most notably when it chose not to participate fully in George W. Bush’s war to oust the monstrous Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.
I know Trudeau wants desperately to remain in Trump’s good books, particularly now that the North American Free Trade Agreement is about to be renegotiated.
But with a U.S. battle group steaming toward North Korea and America’s Syria policy in chaos, it might be a good time to remind the president of a legal and political truth: The U.S. is powerful, but it does not have carte blanche to make war on whomever it chooses.
Thomas Walkom is a national affairs columnist for The Toronto Star. This column was released on April 12.
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