Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at a press conference yesterday in London, was asked whether Russia’s involvement in Syria is helping or hindering the situation there.
Russia’s involvement in Syria, for those who may not be up to speed on the situation—and here we must presume to include those tasked with informing Trudeau what’s going on in the world—consists largely of bombing anyone in the country fighting to rid the place of dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose regime is responsible for most of the more than 200,000 deaths in that country’s civil war, and whose crimes include using poison gas against children.
Trudeau began his response, as is sometimes his wont, with a faint and partially suppressed chuckle, as if what he’s about to reveal should be obvious to right-thinking people: “Well, I think one of the most important things that we need to do is establish a level of coherence and cohesiveness even amongst very different actors to ensure that we are moving toward what all of us want, which is greater peace and stability in the region.”
How anyone other than a first-year student at a second-rate university trying to disguise the fact that he hasn’t done the class’s required reading gets away with saying something so utterly vacuous is a mystery one suspects will deepen as Trudeau’s premiership progresses.
But he wasn’t done. No one would say the “tensions” between Russia and Turkey are a positive development, Trudeau continued, referring by “tensions” to Turkey shooting down a Russian bomber it alleged had violated its airspace near the Syrian border. “But certainly it’s highlighting the desire by everyone involved to bring calm and to work toward an alignment that will allow us not to face concerning situations like this in the future.”
To recap: Turkey, a NATO member state, has just shot down a Russian warplane, something that hasn’t happened since the Korean War. It happened because Russia has repeatedly probed Turkey’s borders, as it has done from both air and sea to other NATO members, and Turkey finally had enough. These are not the actions of parties desiring calm and working toward an alignment.
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In any case, for Russia and others involved in the conflict, including Canada, there’s no “alignment” to be had. Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, has gone to war on behalf of the mass-murderer Assad. On occasion, Russia has also bombed the Islamic State jihadist group, which claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt this month, and which a U.S.-led coalition that for now includes Canada is also targeting.
But the possible outcomes of the Syrian civil war envisioned by Putin and by opponents of Assad such as Turkey and Canada are fundamentally different. There is no “coherence and cohesiveness,” however much Trudeau might wish it were so.
Trudeau was then asked if he agreed with American President Barack Obama, who after the attack said Turkey has a right to defend its territory, and with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said NATO members “stand in solidarity with Turkey.”
“I don’t think we’re entirely clear on everything that’s happened right now, and I certainly don’t think that it’s helpful to start off by me choosing to point fingers at one side or the other,” Trudeau said.
He added Canada “absolutely” supports its NATO partner Turkey. But the damage was done. Here was Trudeau seeming to forget that the “one side or the other” in this dispute includes Canada. When the head of NATO says the alliance stands in solidarity with Turkey, we’ve picked a side. Trudeau doesn’t get to stand above the fray and refuse to point fingers.
There’s a deeper issue at play here, relating to what Trudeau perceives to be Canada’s obligations to its allies.
Following the slaughter of 130 people in Paris this month—an atrocity for which Islamic State claimed responsibility—French President François Hollande said the country is at war. Trudeau responded as if nothing had changed. He had promised to end Canada’s participation in the combat mission against Islamic State before the Paris attacks, and he’s sticking to it.
France is a serious military power and can prosecute its war against Islamic State without Canada’s help (though American support is crucial). Canada is militarily much weaker. We depend on our allies.
Imagine if Ottawa were to suffer a terrorist attack by Islamic State on the scale of the Paris massacre. Imagine that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were to then address the nation and pledge a “pitiless war” against the group, as did Hollande. What sense of duty, of solidarity, would France feel toward Canada then? How would Canadians feel if France promised only to send more trainers to Iraq?
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Turkey is Canada’s ally, too. The cultural and historical ties are weaker than those with France, and Turkey’s government is drifting dangerously toward autocracy. But the NATO alliance kept the Soviet Union at bay during the Cold War because its members understood they were stronger united. Russia in recent years has once again been probing the alliance for weaknesses—launching cyberattacks here, invading countries that hope one day to join NATO there.
Russian incursions into Turkey’s airspace are part of that strategy. There should be no joy in the death of one of the downed Russians pilots, or of the Russian marine who perished in a brave rescue attempt. But the fact is Russia got what it deserved in Syria. Trudeau should have said as much.