01/23/2012 02:44 EST | Updated 03/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Are Syrians Worth Less Than Libyans?


It took one month and one day for the UN Security Council to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya, which NATO then enforced. That was all. With little, if any, real debate at home, Canada dispatched 600 Canadian personnel, the HMCS Vancouver and seven CF-18s to Libya, flying 10 per cent of NATO's strike missions. In the end, our ideals and policy were vindicated. The dictator fell and Libyans were freed.

This was humanitarian intervention par excellence. The famed Responsibility to Protect (R2P) had proven relevant and effective. Gareth Evans, one of R2P's architects referred to Libya as a "textbook case for the application of the R2P."

By contrast, it has been 10 months since the uprising in Syria began. More than 5,000 Syrians have been killed and President Bashar al-Assad shows no signs of relinquishing power. The UN Human Rights Council has accused the Syrian government of committing crimes against humanity against its own people. To date, 25,000 Syrians have fled, most to Turkey, others to Lebanon.

And our response? The UN might tighten sanctions that have thus far accomplished little, and the Arab League has extended its monitoring mission that has done nothing but buy Assad more time and cover. One member said the Arab League does not feel this is the right time for "escalation" in the global response to Assad's murderous campaign.

They are right. Now is not the time for escalation; it was yesterday.

In plain sight and in open defiance of humanity, Bashar al-Assad is calling our bluff. He feels secure at the UN thanks to Chinese and Russian protection (Syria is a purchaser of Russian arms) and has learned how to circumvent sanctions (by reportedly shipping oil to Iran, which sells it on Syria's behalf on the open market). Assad even survived a Barbara Walters interview.

Is this really all we've got? In 10 months no one has come up with a better plan than evadable sanctions, toothless Arab League monitors, and a Barbara Walters special? How much longer will we wait before moved to action by the humanitarian ideals that brought liberation to Libya? Before intervention in Libya, estimates of those killed ranged between 1,000 and 10,000. Has humanity's threshold been pegged at 10,000, making Syria only halfway there?

The response, as with most in international relations, is that it's complicated. Libya was a one off; Gaddafi's reach was severely limited and intervention in that country did not affect many other geopolitical interests. By contrast, there are numerous geopolitical considerations in Syria and each one is reason enough for caution:

• Iran is a major supporter of Syria. Not only is it assisting Syria evade oil sanctions, it has also been accused of selling arms to Syria. There is also Hamas, currently headquartered in Syria, largely supported by Iran (though reports suggest this might be changing). Thus, any attempts at strong intervention in Syria risk stirring the pot with Iran, something the West and Sunni-Arab states would rather avoid right now.

• Intervention in Syria could unsettle its border with Israel. Violent clashes in June 2011 between Syrians and Palestinians and the Israeli military left 20 demonstrators dead according to Syrian television. Syrian human rights activist Radwan Ziadeh said, "There is no question the regime organized this to say it's us or chaos."

• Approximately 4 million Kurds live in Syria. Their place in a post-Assad Syria has yet to be determined. Growing tension between Syrian Kurds and the opposition can have an undesired destabilizing effect in neighbouring Turkey and Iraq, both of which have sizeable Kurdish communities.

Furthermore, given the success of Islamist parties in Egyptian and Tunisian elections, the West is surely skeptical of deposing another Arab autocracy without assurances of pro-Western forces filling the void. So much for free and fair. And then there are the logistical challenges of a more forceful intervention in Syria, especially when contrasted to Libya.

But these are not reasons enough to continue down the current path of doing "what we can" in a complicated situation. They are barely enough to placate our conscience, let alone save Syrian lives.

Right now we're all wearing a Syrian straightjacket. How and if we emerge from it will say more about our humanitarian ideals and R2P than the intervention in Libya ever will. Libya was simple to figure out and required little ingenuity. It quickly reaffirmed the foundations of our common humanity. But day-by-day, body-by-body that progress, and the ideal of humanitarian intervention, is being undone in Syria.

The playbook needs to change. Syria's opposition has called for an escalation in the global response. What that means remains to be seen. But thus far, we -- Canada, the West, the Arab League, the UN and NATO, are failing the people of Syria. They are not worth any less than the people of Libya and deserve to know that.