National Column: PM’s Syrian strike stance a rare departure

by Chantal Hebert

It took Justin Trudeau more than 12 hours to issue a definitive statement on U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise missile strikes on the Syrian regime, but in the end he made a black-and-white choice.

Just a few hours before the U.S. strikes, the prime minister was still insisting that the international community had to do more to investigate this week’s deadly Syrian chemical weapons attack.

But in a communique issued by his office early Friday, Trudeau stated that Canada “fully supports” Thursday’s strikes, albeit as “a limited and focused action” to reduce the regime’s ability to launch chemical attacks on civilians.

He repeated as much ñ and not very much more ñ in the House of Commons.

On the need to deter Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons on his people there is unanimity among U.S. allies, but on Trump’s decision to strike a regime-controlled air base Thursday, there were shades of grey.

No major ally blamed the U.S. president publicly for taking action against the Syrian regime in potential defiance of international law, but French President FranÁois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stopped short of explicitly backing the strike.

In a joint statement, France and Germany declared Assad had brought the strikes upon himself. In a separate statement, the German foreign office described the U.S. move as “understandable” but stressed the need for the United Nations to facilitate a political resolution to the conflict.

The tone of Trudeau’s statement aligns Canada more closely with Australia, the United Kingdom and Israel, to name some of the other countries that have fully approved the Trump strikes, than with the two leading European powers. It is unequivocal. And although it restates Canada’s wish for a diplomatic resolution of the Syrian conflict, it makes no mention of the (deadlocked) UN.

The prime minister’s stance amounts to a rare but clear break from the longstanding Liberal doctrine of insisting on a demonstrated measure of multilateralism before endorsing or participating in military action against another country.

Part of the rationale for Jean ChrÈtien’s refusal to sign Canada up for the U.S.-led offensive on Iraq in 2003 was based on the contention that it was not approved by the UN nor conducted under the auspices of NATO.

Neither organization had a say in Thursday’s strikes and no U.S. ally took part in the operation. At best, most of them got a heads-up in the hours before it took place. There was not even the semblance of a multilateral umbrella.

None of the above, however, seemed to temper Trudeau’s public support for a unilateral U.S. military intervention.

In that, the prime minister will probably be supported by a majority of Canadians. Some though may find his foreign policy logic hard to follow. This is after all a leader who in opposition, as in government, has professed doubts as to the merits of conducting air strikes against Daesh in the same region. Just last year Trudeau pulled Canada’s fighter jets from that battle.

Be that as it may, the many Canadians who are still reeling from the horror inflicted on Syrian civilians this week will for the most part agree that in the face of barbaric state-sanctioned acts, the right thing to do is for Trudeau to back Trump’s decision to punish the regime militarily.

Supporting the U.S. president on this also happens to be the path of least resistance.

Canada’s trade relationship with the U.S. is at a crossroads with the future of NAFTA up in the air. Again this week former prime minister Brian Mulroney warned that Canada was not in for an easy ride at the trade negotiation table. This is not a time when Trudeau can easily afford to let much light shine between his government and an unpredictable White House.

But with that unpredictability also comes the risk that the Trump administration will treat the support of its allies for this week’s strike as a licence for more unilateral military action.

Many in the international community, in particular at the UN, have been hoping that Trudeau, inasmuch as he seems to have gotten off on the right foot with Trump, would manage to use his influence to bring the U.S. administration in the multilateral loop.

Less than 100 days into his mandate, it is Trump who has drawn Trudeau out of Canada’s multilateral comfort zone.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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