Davidson, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Syria from 2008 to 2012, added that Syria is rich in historical and cultural significance, home to some of the most welcoming and generous people he has ever met, and a place that had received hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees since 1948 and as many as 1.5 million Iraqi refugees over the past two decades.
“They have been enormously generous, and I don’t think they’re often given credit for that,” he said in a presentation Monday night on the University of Alberta’s North Campus sponsored by the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies and the Canadian International Council.
Davidson, a senior naval officer in the Canadian Forces prior to his diplomatic career, drew on his experiences as ambassador to share personal insights on how the current situation in Syria came to be and what might happen next.
Though the war in Syria has been exacerbated by the funding and influence of foreign powers and, more recently, the influx of jihadists such as the Islamic State, Davidson said the conflict has its roots in a long history of political oppression and the Syrian government’s ruthless response to peaceful calls for greater democracy and civil rights during the Arab Spring of 2011. Davidson noted that, had Syrian president Bashar al-Assad heeded the public’s calls for a free election at the time, he probably would have won. Instead, he responded to public demonstrations with escalating violence.
“I put the fault for what has happened squarely at the feet of the Assad regime,” Davidson said. “They have no other objective than to hold on to power.”
“The fighting will not stop until the sponsors want it to stop,” he said.
The presence of ISIS and other jihadists certainly makes things much worse for Syrian citizens trapped in the midst of the fighting, but is a peripheral issue to the full-blown civil war now entering its fifth year, according to Davidson.
“Take ISIS out of the equation and there still won’t be peace in Syria.”
Davidson said the immediate prognosis for the country is not encouraging, noting that civil wars in the region tend to last 10 years on average and that negotiated peace in such conflicts is rare. In the meantime, aftershocks from the Arab Spring movement continue to resonate through other countries.
“This will not be the last major conflict in the region,” Davidson said. “There’s no history of democracy, but an appetite for it, and fatigue with suppression of civil and human rights. Something has been brewing a long time. Jordan is very worried. Saudi Arabia is a space to watch.”
With no reason to assume that players in the conflict want to or are able to achieve solutions, Davidson said it’s imperative for western countries to continue supporting the work of the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations in helping Syrian refugees, an endeavour in which Canada has shown distinction.
“Canada’s humanitarian response has been exemplary,” Davidson said. “It’s something we all should be deeply proud of.”
University of Alberta