Reality Check: Elizabeth May debates the crisis in Syria and fighting ISIS

Green Party leader Elizabeth May says it’s Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad who is responsible for a humanitarian crisis that has seen millions of Syrians flee for their lives and bombing ISIS isn’t going to stop the desperate situation.

When Thursday night’s French-language debate turned to the topic of combating ISIS, an international mission that Canada has now been involved in for just about a year, May turned the focus away from the militant group and to the “deadly record” of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Her comments were a rebuttal to Conservative leader Stephen Harper asserting that under his leadership Canada will maintain a “balanced” approach to dealing with the refugee crisis by continuing a military role in the mission against ISIS. In recent weeks, he’s said it’s impossible to deal with the refugees without taking action to stop the violence that’s causing them to flee. In his view, that’s ISIS (also known as the Islamic State).

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“The civil war is not caused by the Islamic State. The humanitarian crisis is caused by Bashar al-Assad, with his deadly record. He has killed eight times more people than the Islamic State.”

May was absolutely correct to say that Assad is responsible for the deaths of far more Syrians than ISIS, but he’s also been killing them for longer and with much more sophisticated ways.

Whether it’s eight times as many is hard to determine, as there aren’t official counts. But, as an example, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the U.K.-based monitoring group, found Assad and his allies killed approximately 7,894 people between January and July, but ISIS was responsible for just 1,131 deaths. Combined, those numbers are just a small percentage of 250,000 to 300,000 deaths (depending on the group making the estimate) since the civil war started in 2011.

“Comparative death is always a dangerous game to play,” said Janis Stein, a political science professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. All the groups fighting in Syria kill, she explained, but they’re all fighting for different agendas.

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The Green Party leader also argued ISIS is not the only terrorist group fighting in Syria and slaughtering civilians, pointing to al Qaeda (through its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra) and Hezbollah (an Assad ally) as being other major players in the four-and-a-half-year civil war.

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“If you assume it’s one crisis you’re making an error,” Stein said. “You have to deal with it piece-by-piece because it’s not one crisis.

The focus on ISIS, she said, is “in large part because the Islamic State is most threatening to the Sunni Arab world, which is the majority of the Arab world.” And it’s the Arab world she said is ultimately going to have to play the larger role in bringing peace to Syria – not the West.

“We actually can’t fix it and we deprive both Arab leaders and Arab citizens both the opportunity and the responsibility to build their own systems” when the West “tries to run the politics of the Middle East.”

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University of Ottawa’s Thomas Juneau is “not optimistic” that the civil war is going to come to any sort of peaceful resolution in the immediate future, but he believes it is the right decision for Canada to be involved militarily in the fight against ISIS. And he doesn’t see it as giving Assad an upper hand or allowing his brutality to go unchecked.

“Assad is gradually losing this war. He’s not about to collapse, he’s still got a way to go, but there’s no way that he can win [and] there’s no way that he can recover control of all or even most of Syria,” he said.
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But if Assad’s regime were to fall now, without ISIS being degraded, it would create an opportunity for it or other groups, that no one really wants to see in control of Syria, to seize power.

May said it’s “absolutely necessary to do useful things” to bring an end to the suffering in Syria, but “it is not useful to bomb the Islamic State.”

What she thinks is more necessary than taking part in combat mission and airstrikes against ISIS is to cut of fit’s financial lifeline.

Juneau agrees with that point. But he notes the U.S., which is leading the 60-nation coalition against ISIS, has made some progress in doing just that by trying to stop the black market sales of stolen oil and antiquities.

“The U.S. is increasingly getting neighbours, regional states, to be involved in that. Saudi Arabia has been under a lot of pressure to do more and to some extent it has. But it’s not like we’re not already doing that. We are.”

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