Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing the complexities of implementing his laudable campaign pledge to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year. The commitment to grant safe haven to these individuals is consistent with the thematic messaging that permeated the Liberal party’s election campaign, including compassion and respect for human rights.
However, any policy attempting to claim a human rights mantle in this effort should not be focused solely on providing assistance to victims after the bloodshed. One critical way in which Canada can contribute to ending the atrocities in Syria, rather than exclusively dealing with their aftermath, is by helping to disrupt the Iran-Syria nexus.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has waged a ruthless and relentless struggle to remain in power in Damascus. He has been propped up by the Iranian regime, which has provided him with funds, weapons, advisors and military personnel as part of its own ambitious campaign to strengthen regional proxies and realize its hegemonic ambitions. The egregious human rights violations of these two players need to be addressed as part of a balanced human rights policy in Canada.
Trudeau should therefore ensure that both Syria and Iran remain listed as state sponsors of terror pursuant to the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. Canadian sanctions under the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA) against the two states should similarly continue. If the Liberal government wishes to lift nuclear-related sanctions against Iran in credence to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, sanctions should instead be imposed on Tehran for its human rights abuses. This is consistent with a motion unanimously adopted in 2014 by the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights, which called for the imposition of SEMA sanctions on Iranian human rights violators.
Moreover, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) cannot be given a pass by Ottawa. The IRGC, it must be recalled, has been found culpable for terrorist acts around the world and is the vanguard for the regime’s violent repression of Iranian citizens. One of its branches, the Quds Force, is a listed terrorist entity in Canada. In 2012, the Liberal Party of Canada urged the Conservative government to go further and designate the IRGC in its entirety as a terrorist group. Interim Leader Bob Rae lamented at the time: “For years, the Liberal Party of Canada has joined with communities across Canada calling on the Harper Conservatives to list the entire IRGC as a terrorist entity, and this government still refuses to do so.”
Under Trudeau’s leadership, Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau called for the entire IRGC to be placed on Canada’s list of terrorist entities as recently as March 2015. Now in power, the new Liberal government should make this a reality.
In fact, there is more reason than ever to issue a blanket designation of the IRGC. Ali Alfoneh, my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has noted that of the recent IRGC fatalities in Syria, an increasing number are coming from IRGC ground forces rather than the Quds Force. The implication is that Iranian intervention in the Syrian civil war is blurring the distinctions between the branches of the IRGC and, in Alfoneh’s words, “effectively turning the entire Guard into an expeditionary force.”
Lastly, it behooves policymakers to understand that renewing economic ties with Iran translates into contracts with the IRGC, which controls at least one-sixth of the Iranian economy. Money in the IRGC’s coffers means greater resources to torture Iranian citizens and facilitate Assad’s ethnic cleansing of Sunni Muslims.
Trudeau is not faced with an either/or scenario. Taking aim at the heinous violators of human rights is a necessary augmentation to rebuilding the lives of their victims. Maintaining a tough stance against Iran and Syria, two of the prime contributors to the Syrian refugee crisis, is entirely consistent with a Liberal vision for a more caring Canada.
Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defence