OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's sudden about-face on the Syrian gas attack last week had politics and appeasing the Americans written all over it, an expert in Middle Eastern policy says.
University of Ottawa professor Thomas Juneau said U.S. President Donald Trump's own "chaotic" position on Syria left America's allies to react on the fly last week when the man who campaigned on a promise to swear off being the world's police force suddenly started dropping bombs on a Syrian airfield.
"In this case we had no choice but to be reactive, and if anything we reacted more slowly than some of our other allies," said Juneau, a former Middle East analyst with the Department of National Defence.
U.S. President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as they exit a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Feb. 13, 2017. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
America wasn't asking for Canada's help militarily, it just wanted political backing from its allies for airstrikes which may have been illegal, he added.
The horrific images of children dying from poison gas, which reportedly pushed Trump to take the action he did, are also at play in the support Trudeau appears to have even within the Liberal caucus.
Manitoba Liberal MP Doug Eyolfson wouldn't say whether the topic was debated in Wednesday's caucus meeting, but did say he supported the U.S. decision to strike a Syrian airbase, given Assad's "heinous act."
Trudeau's preference for multilateral co-operation on international issues and affinity for the United Nations is well known, so Juneau said it was no surprise Trudeau's initial response to the attack was to press the UN to investigate. Less than 24 hours later, following a telephone call with Trump, Trudeau said publicly Canada now believed Assad was to blame and backed the air strikes.
"In the face of such heinous war crimes, all civilized peoples must speak with one voice," Trudeau said during question period last week.
This week, the Canadian government is calling outright for Assad to be removed, and for Russia to stop supporting him.
"I think Russia has a choice to make whether they continue to support the Assad regime or whether they stand with the international community," Trudeau said Wednesday.
"This is a moment of choice for (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin, and we're certainly as an international community standing strongly to encourage him to make the right choice."
That, too, is in lockstep with comments from the White House criticizing Putin for aligning himself with the world's outcasts, like Iran and North Korea.
Canada's position has everything to do with staying on side with Trump and little to do with influencing anything internationally, because the only role Canada has to play is as part of a U.S.-led coalition, Juneau said.
Debate now is turning to imposing additional sanctions on Russia to force Putin to come on side, or whether additional military interventions are needed. The White House made clear Wednesday the Americans have no intention of engaging in a ground war in Syria, but more airstrikes are not out of the question.
Stopping Assad will require military effort: Alexander
Trudeau still tends to favour a United Nations effort, but Juneau said the UN is paralyzed by a Security Council impasse as long as Russia isn't on side with removing Assad.
Conservative leadership candidate Chris Alexander, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, said Tuesday he thinks Russia can be brought on side.
"I think Russia definitely wants terrorism to be stopped in its tracks in Syria and elsewhere and I think previously showed an understanding that having a Syrian regime butchering its own people is not a good result for anyone," Alexander said.
However, he added, it is going to take a military effort to cut off the capacity for Assad or rebel forces to stop inflicting violence on the Syrian people.