The West Block Transcript: Season 6, Episode 31
THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 31, Season 6
Sunday, April 9, 2017
Host: Vassy Kapelos
Guest Interviews: Anthony Cordesman, Paul Heinbecker, Minister Bardish Chagger
Vassy Kapelos: On this Sunday, the U.S. launches military strikes against Syria in response to a chemical attack that left more than 80 people dead. Syria’s ally, Russia, has condemned the military strike, which could be the beginning of more.
Then, the Prime Minister says Canada supports the limited and focused strikes against the Assad regime. Could Canada have a role in ending this standoff? And what will the U.S. ask of us?
Plus, modernizing the House of Commons: the government wants to eliminate Friday sittings and dedicate one Question Period session for prime minister questions. The opposition is calling foul. We’ll ask the minister responsible about the proposed changes.
It’s Sunday, April 9th. I’m Vassy Kapelos, and this is The West Block.
Vassy Kapelos: The U.S. launched airstrikes against Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack that left more than 80 people, including many children, dead early last week. Russia, a Syrian ally, says the missile strikes were an act of aggression against a sovereign state. President Trump is calling on the international community to work together. Here’s what he had to say late last week:
President Donald Trump: “Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”
Vassy Kapelos: Joining me now from Washington is Anthony Cordesman from the Centre for Security and International Studies. Mr. Cordesman thanks for being here.
Anthony Cordesman: A pleasure.
Vassy Kapelos: From your perspective was the missile strike on Syria’s airbase the right move?
Anthony Cordesman: Well, I think it was. I think we have to remember that this was in many ways a terrorist attack directed at civilians. It came after they had agreed not to use chemical weapons after they had said that they had destroyed their stocks under international inspection as part of an international agreement. It came after Turkey had already confirmed that this was sarin nerve gas, not some sort of jury-rigged chemical weapon that the rebels might have used. And it came after the United States had tracked Syrian air force aircraft from a specific base to being over the target at the time the chemical weapons attacks began. So the option was either to act or effectively say that Assad could use terror weapons against his own population with impunity in spite of international agreements.
Vassy Kapelos: What kind of message do you think it sends Assad? What do the strikes accomplish?
Anthony Cordesman: Well I think at a minimum, if you look at this, and you’re sitting in Assad’s chair, you’re probably not going to use chemical weapons again. It also sends the message if you use excessive force against civilians, all the momentum you seem to have that would allow you to stay in power on some negotiated basis, can vanish suddenly and quickly because you have used terrorism, because you have attacked civilian targets. Now whether that leads him to show any kind of equal restraint in the kind of barrel bombings, the manipulation of ceasefires and evacuations, the street fighting that has attacked civilians, that’s another story and it may require further action, and whether it leads to any Russian action, to halt the kind of bombings that have also attacked civilian targets in support of Assad. That’s another question, and perhaps an even more serious one.
Vassy Kapelos: I’ll ask you about Russia in a second but when you say it may require more action, what do you think will happen?
Anthony Cordesman: Well I think that really at this point it depends on two people. One is President Trump and the other is Assad. And in some ways, more on Assad because if he shows restraint, if he backs away, if this can somehow be turned into a debate in the UN, over time people may move away from seeing him, as they probably should, as the person who has directed and caused most of the casualties in the civil war. And the UN quit really estimating it with some 400,000 dead. And where you have a country with more than half the population is a refugee or at risk. That really is, I think, a critical test too of Russia. If it simply turns this into a UN debating society and doesn’t put any more pressure on Assad, we may find ourselves in a case where President Trump is almost forced to keep acting in effect to escalate in response because you simply can’t let this level of civilian suffering go on indefinitely.
Vassy Kapelos: Let me ask you more about Russia. I want to read two statements that the government there made following the military strikes. President Vladimir Putin called the strikes “An aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.” And Russia’s foreign minister said “The actions taken today by the USA further destroy Russian-American relations.” What do you make of the Russian reaction so far, and how crucial will it be in determining President Trump’s next steps?
Anthony Cordesman: I think that quite frankly, U.S. and Russian relations like Russians relations with much of the west have been at serious risk ever since Russia moved into the Ukraine. The fact too is in Syria, it’s a little ironic for Russia to talk about this as somehow American escalation. Russia has effectively been bombing civilian targets. Targets associated with the rebels but not part of the rebel forces since it first intervened in Syria in 2015. If it comes down to almost constant attacks on civilian sites, Russia has not only tolerated Syria using barrel bombs, it’s used its own aircraft to do this. And if you’re talking about the use of chemical weapons, again, remember it wasn’t just the United States that confirmed this. It was independent medical experts in Syria and elsewhere. And this came after an international agreement brokered in part by Russia, where Syria had claimed it would give up chemical weapons, much less ever use them again.
Vassy Kapelos: Finally, I guess I just wanted to ask you as a Canadian and sitting here in this country, one of America’s closest allies, how prepared do you think a country like ours should be to get asked for help should further military action be required?
Anthony Cordesman: Well, I think it’s important to note that Canada has provided important help both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Having worked in both countries, it’s obvious that the Canadian alliance has been very important. Like Australia and another of other countries, I think Canada has more than pulled its weight in dealing with these crises. But I think it is true that the United States alone cannot deal with the kind of humanitarian crises and conflicts you see in the Middle East today that one country in the west can’t somehow uniquely take on the role of fighting terrorism and extremism on the level it has developed in the world. So yes, our alliance is important. The answer is extremely.
Vassy Kapelos: Thank you very much, Mr. Cordesman. Appreciate your time.
Anthony Cordesman: Thank you.
Vassy Kapelos: Still to come, why is the opposition so outraged with the government’s plan to modernize the House of Commons?
But first, what is Canada’s response to the airstrikes against Syria, and is it too late for diplomacy?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “In the face of such heinous war crimes, all civilized peoples must speak with one voice. That is why Canada fully supports the United States’ limited, focused action to degrade the Assad’s regime’s ability to launch such attacks. We continue to support diplomatic efforts with our international partners to resolve the crisis in Syria.”
Vassy Kapelos: Welcome back. That was the Prime Minister late last week stating Canada’s position on the U.S. missile attack against Syria. Justin Trudeau says the government support diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s six-year civil war. Is there a role for Canada diplomatically to end this war? And what would that involve?
Joining me now if former Canadian diplomat, Paul Heinbecker. Mr. Heinbecker, great to have you on the show.
Paul Heinbecker: Nice to be here.
Vassy Kapelos: Appreciate your time. What do you make of what you just heard from the Prime Minister, particularly his use of the words focused and limited?
Paul Heinbecker: Well, I think that’s what it was. There were, I think, 59 cruise missiles fired from the Mediterranean at a single relatively suburban airbase without a lot of people around. And I think that it was intended to be a demonstration shot. It was to show the Syrians what the Americans could do if they felt like doing it. And they picked this particular airbase because it was the place from which the attacks, the gas attacks was launched. But it’s limited, but its international impact is pervasive. The reverberations are being felt all around the world. If you look or take China, for example, you had President Xi Jinping, his government has reacted quite moderately to what took place but you can be sure that he wasn’t pleased to be sitting at Donald Trump’s table in front of the cameras when all this was unrolling and having his picture being taken. The bromance with Putin is over. The Russian—a lot of swagger has gone out of the Russian walk and they’ve been shown to be that their gamble in 2015 in taking on the Syrian issue, that bet’s been called or at least it’s been called into question. So the Russians are finding themselves going to the Security Council, which in itself is a good thing because it’s not a reaction. It’s not a military reaction, it’s a diplomatic reaction. But it’s not going to avail themselves very much. The Americans have basically made a demonstration saying that this is what we can do and it’s what we will do if this carries on.
Vassy Kapelos: And so, if you don’t think that the military action per se will continue on. Where do you see Canada fitting in?
Paul Heinbecker: I think the scene does shift to diplomacy. I say I think it does. President Trump is nothing if but unpredictable. And this may turn out to be a relatively positive act. It certainly changes the subject from the investigation by the FBI into the alleged collusion between the Trump administration and the Russians. I’m not sure that the Americans want to go any further. I think that they, at least for the time being, they’re going to assess what the consequences are of what they’ve done.
Vassy Kapelos: If there is some kind of diplomacy to be had, you know, I think a lot of people at home are looking at the different factions and looking at how Assad behaves and what does a diplomatic solution look like? And we hear the prime minister talking about that. How does Canada fit into the possibility of such a solution?
Paul Heinbecker: There is no diplomatic solution if there’s no military threat. Diplomacy in these circumstances not backed up by a willingness to act militarily, turns out to be a lot of fine words. That’s what we’ve been hearing for quite some time in the UN Security Council. But this issue does shift now to the Security Council and that’s where the diplomacy will take place. It’s basically a—
Vassy Kapelos: Is that possible though when Russia has a veto?
Paul Heinbecker: No, diplomacy will take place. The consequences are another thing. The discussions will take place. The Russian veto, in this particular case, it’s the Americans who have a veto. It’s the Russians who are accusing the Americans of acting illegally. And the Americans will have the pleasure of turning the tables on the Russians and blocking the Russian action the way the Russians have blocked, I think, it’s now seven separate Security Council resolutions condemning and trying to impose sanctions on Assad. So diplomacy is there. It’s not easy for Canada to insert itself into that because we don’t have a seat currently on the Security Council. But there are a number of things we can do. The Prime Minister has called for gathering evidence for an eventual war crimes trial for Assad. I think that’s a very good thing to be doing. If a coalition of the willing is called together, Canada would be able to participate in that. It seems it’s a little ironic that President Trump would be our moral standard bearer on this particular issue, but you know he is the one who acted in response to the atrocity perpetrated by the Syrians. So there will be very good substanent reasons to support American diplomacy presuming it carries on in the direction it’s going now. And there would be good reasons for us to work with others. I’m thinking other countries in the region. We have a large refugee assistance program. We can do more on that. We can try to fix the refugee system which is broken. It’s not just broke, it’s also broken. And the Canadian government can be active in that respect. There’s quite a bit of diplomatic things to be done but when it comes down to the crunch, it’s the Americans who will decide whether this will be a military or a diplomatic operation. And I think the wild card in all of this is President Trump. But the people around him, the secretary of defence, and the national security advisor particularly, are very experienced military people and they are very likely to be very sober in their judgements of what took place.
Vassy Kapelos: Thanks for being here, sir.
Paul Heinbecker: Thank you.
Vassy Kapelos: Nice to see you.
Up next, why is the opposition fighting the governments proposed plans to modernize the House of Commons?
NDP MP Murray Rankin: “This power-grab by the government dressed up in polite words like modernization has to be seen for what it is.” [Applause]
Candice Bergen Portage—Lisgar, MB: “What gives the Prime Minister the right to disrespect Parliament and ram these changes through? What gives him the right to silence anyone who dares criticize him?”
Vassy Kapelos: Welcome back. We just heard from the opposition House Leaders blasting the government over proposed changes to the House of Commons. Those changes include: having Question Period one day a week with only the Prime Minister taking opposition questions, eliminating Friday sittings and electronic voting for MPs.
Joining me now to discuss all the changes is Government House Leader Bardish Chagger. Minister, great to have you on the show, I appreciate your time.
Minister Bardish Chagger: It’s great to be here.
Vassy Kapelos: Let me ask you about these changes, and why, if you are going to make fundamental changes to the House of Commons, which will in your estimation modernize it, wouldn’t you need broad support from all opposition parties? Wouldn’t you want it from all opposition parties?
Minister Bardish Chagger: And that’s exactly why we released a discussion paper really, to say let’s start talking about making the House of Commons a 21st century workplace, to actually modernize this place and to really make it easier for members of Parliament to represent Canadians that they are elected to represent. We want to be able to have more discussion and more conversation in the House of Commons. We debate important legislation and that’s why we’re saying let’s be able to hold the government to more account and have more transparency. So if you look at some of the ideas in the discussion paper, we’re talking about a prime minister’s Question Period. This past week, we saw the Prime Minister answer all questions on Wednesday. That was in addition to the other days that he was present in the House of Commons. There are no Liberal members suggesting the Prime Minister only attend once a week. We want to be able to answer not only—so this week what we saw was private members, members of Parliament being able to ask the Prime Minister questions and to receive an answer directly from the Prime Minister. So by trying it this week, we’d love to have input as to how we—what the reactions were, and is it worth codifying it so that it’s not just this prime minister but future prime minister’s also being able to hold—be held to greater account.
Vassy Kapelos: I guess the question the opposition has though is around the codification process, and they feel that none of these changes, because they are so fundamental, should be done without their support. Do you agree with that assessment?
Minister Bardish Chagger: So what we are saying is let’s have a conversation. Let’s have a dialogue and let’s talk about some of these ideas. We had a day where we debated and discussed standing orders. Members of Parliament from all sides of the House were able to share new ideas, innovative ideas as to how to bring the House of Commons into the 21st century. The discussion paper that I released was in addition to the work that the Procedures and House Affairs committee was already doing. So it was really to grow the discussion and to share some of the ideas. What else we spoke about in the discussion paper was to not abuse omnibus legislation or the proroguing of Parliament. Something I heard at the doorsteps was Canadians actually saying members of Parliament need to work better together. And that’s why we’re saying let’s all come together, let’s have some conversations, let’s look at the ideas that we have shared and maybe even some new ideas.
Vassy Kapelos: So ultimately what happens though after the conversation? And when does the conversation end and your government have to decide, okay now we’re doing something about this?
Minister Bardish Chagger: And that’s why we would like to get this discussion rolling. We’ve seen some of that conversation taking place. Some of those ideas are being shared, members of Parliament, whether in government or the opposition, the third party all have a role to play. We know that the committees do very important work. One of the things that this government did was commit to Canadians that we would increase resources for committees. A difference between debating legislation in the House of Commons and in committee is different in the sense that committees can actually bring experts. They can actually travel the country. And committees also provide an opportunity for members of Parliament from different parties, to really build relationships and work better together. And that’s what we want. We want members of Parliament to be able to be the voice of Canadians that have elected us. We know that something we committed to Canadians in the campaign was that their voices would make it to Ottawa and be heard within the House of Commons. And that’s why I believe that we really need to talk about some of these ideas.
Vassy Kapelos: I just want to be clear though, I mean the talking has been at a stale—I mean there’s been lots of talking but things have kind of been at a stalemate for a few weeks now. So are you prepared to push those changes through without the support of the opposition if they keep holding it back as they have been?
Minister Bardish Chagger: So what would be nice is that all members of Parliament be able to come together and really be able to provide some constructive feedback on some of the ideas that are being explored—
Vassy Kapelos: But if that doesn’t happen, what will you do?
Minister Bardish Chagger: Something that is clear is that we will not give a veto to the Conservatives over our campaign commitments. The campaign commitments we made to Canadians during the election was in direct response to the Harper government’s approach in the House of Commons. We knew that the abuse of time allocation. They prorogued Parliament to avoid a confidence vote. The introduction continuously of omnibus legislation did not improve the way the House of Commons worked. And it did not allow members of Parliament to really represent the voices of Canadians, so we will not give a veto to the Conservatives. What I would like is to be able to have more of a discussion because the ideas that we share to Canadians, I know that if we look at more perspectives and share different perspectives, that we will actually be able to perhaps improve those ideas.
Vassy Kapelos: Okay. Thanks very much for your time today, Minister. I appreciate it.
Minister Bardish Chagger: Thank you for having me.
Vassy Kapelos: That is our show. Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. A century ago, Europe had been at war for nearly three years with no significant lead for either side in the First World War. In the spring of 1917, Canada was tasked with capturing Vimy Ridge in France. The battle at Vimy is the most well-known Canadian military action during that war. More than 10,000 Canadian soldiers were killed and wounded in this battle. As we leave you today, we pay tribute to those brave Canadian soldiers who fought in World War I. And we end with video of the opening of the Vimy Monument in France, which was unveiled in 1936.
I’m Vassy Kapelos. Thanks for joining us.