Canada in the International Community: the Harper Government and sanctions on Syria

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! In honour of this holiday, we are posting the winning entry for our online article competition, ‘Canada in the International Community’. This entry was written by David Ahluwalia. David is now in his his 4th and final year studying BA International Relations at the University of Leeds, having spent the 2011/12 year on exchange at the University of Calgary. He took the opportunity that his exchange year offered to travel around Canada, and also took a module in Canadian Politics which gave him the idea of writing about their role in foreign affairs.

“Harper administration enhances sanctions on Syrian government – but to what effect?”

Since March 15th 2011 as part of the ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrations that swept across the Middle East, we have seen the protests that took place in Syria escalate into a brutal civil war, with some sources reporting that the death toll may be as high as 28,000 as of July 2012. Women and children have not been spared, as President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces have undertaken launching devastating attacks on villages and towns across the county, as well as implementing vicious torture on innocent civilians. Those who have decided to fight back against the army (including defected soldiers) have been labelled as ‘domestic terrorists’ by Assad, in order to justify these acts of brutality.

Canada, along with many other members of the international community, has strongly condemned the actions and catastrophic events in Syria. On May 24th 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper released a statement stressing his “grave concern at the excessive use of force by the Syrian regime against it’s own people”. In turn, he announced various sanctions to be implemented, including a travel ban into Canada on all those associated with the Syrian government, freezing assets of those individuals and entities involved in the administrations’ violence, and a suspension of all bilateral cooperation agreements with Syria. These sanctions have been gradually increasing in severity as the violence has shown few signs of ending over the past 16 months. Foreign Minister Baird declared on October 4th 2011 that the importation of petroleum products from Syria, as well as providing financial aid for new investment in the oil industry in Syria, was now prohibited. Baird added “Canada stands with the Syrian people in their efforts to secure freedom and democracy. We look forward to a new Syria that respects the rights of its people, and lives in peace with its neighbours.” Further escalation of these sanctions came over the Christmas period, when a ban on all imports from Syria (except food for human consumption) was put into place.

As the atrocities continued into 2012, the Canadian government felt it necessary to further expand on the sanctions that had already been set against the oppressive Syrian regime. March 5th 2012 saw Baird declaring that the financial ban previously directed at the petroleum sector in Syria would be broadened to now include all financial and other service sectors from within Syria. The Central Bank of Syria along with further individuals also saw their assets frozen by the Canadian government. By the end of the month, the death toll figure was at just under 10,000 civilians. One of the stumbling blocks in any major sanctions or action from the international community being able to take place was that Russia, a key ally of Syria’s, was refusing to budge on their stance to not deploy sanctions against the regime. The fact that this was the sixth round of sanctions that had been administered by the Canadian government highlighted the belief that their view that Assad must be removed was still very much the case – but some have argued against the real significance of the sanctions.

Canada’s decision to impose sanctions on Syria hardly made international news — such was the amount of other states that decided to punish Syria in this way. To put it bluntly, Canada is simply not regarded as a key player in the international community. When listing the current major states in the international community, Canada may well struggle to feature in the top 10. Therefore if we were to take a somewhat cynical point of view concerning the sanctions put against Syria by the Harper government, there is a strong case that these sanctions are more symbolic rather than significant, in the sense of the sanctions from the Canadians are doing little to alleviate the situation in a noticeable manner. Obviously the repercussions of not imposing such sanctions would be far more noticeable from the rest of the international community, but this does not mean that the Harper administration is implementing such sanctions solely to keep a clean reputation over the matter. The debate therefore unfolds when we ask if the sanctioning of an oppressive regime is following a new fashion to little effect, or rather if it is reaffirming the Canadian government and nation’s belief in democracy and human rights along with the rest of the international community. The fact that prior to the sanctions Canada barely exported over $60million to Syria may well answer the question over how significant a block on financial transactions are.

Even as the violence continues and the Harper government may well undertake further sanctions, it is quite likely that until Canadian troops are deployed to Syria, Canada’s actions towards the crisis will largely go unnoticed – outside of Canada itself.

David Ahluwalia


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