by Tim Harper
On the morning after a summit which some fear may have emboldened the Assad regime to again use chemical weapons against its citizens, John Baird sat in his office sipping a Coke and contemplating the meaning of such inaction.
First, there are the global fault lines laid bare by the Syrian crisis.
Canada's foreign minister acknowledged the growing strains in relations between Russia and the West, the difficulties at home and abroad for U.S. President Barack Obama, the inefficiency of the United Nations, a Syrian opposition which is becoming a "convention for jihadis" and the danger of Syria's chemical stockpiles falling into the hands of Al Qaeda.
But his immediate priority, he says, is the fear that Syrian leader Bashar Assad, after testing the West, will believe he has the green light to gas his people again.
Canadians may not back military action right now, Baird says, even if it does not involve a Canadian military commitment.
"But what will people say," he asks, "when they see 25,000 children, men and women foaming at the mouth, their nerves jerking as their lungs dissolved?
"You know I've been briefed on this, the effects of the gas ... you almost want to cry."
Canada is among 11 countries to back what is now an uphill climb for the U.S. president to win congressional approval for a limited strike on Syria.
Obama looks more isolated, with France now saying it wants to wait for the report of UN inspectors before joining any U.S. effort.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Baird have thrown in their lot with Obama, and their convictions were hardened at last week's G20 summit in St. Petersburg.
Baird accepts the evidence that Assad was behind the Aug. 21 gassing while acknowledging that evidence is not 100 per cent. "Nothing in life is 100 per cent," he says.
The delivery systems and the warheads used in the attack are those not available to the opposition, with the exception of one rudimentary, garage-style delivery system which could have been used by the regime to plant doubt about the rebels, he says.
Baird acknowledges there are those who see a weakening of Obama, both at home and abroad, but he is resolute in his defence of the U.S. president.
"There is no doubt a fatigue with war, particularly in the U.S., because of Iraq, because of Afghanistan. You have people on the far right and the far left taking similar positions (against a strike).
"For people who want a weak America in the world, I say they better be careful what you wish for."
For those who cast doubt on Washington's intelligence, Baird says:
"Does anyone believe that President Obama is trigger-happy? Does anyone believe he has been looking for an excuse to get into this conflict? I don't know anyone in the world who will say he has been looking for an excuse to get involved in this campaign."
Baird stops short of saying the world is slipping back into Cold War positions, but he calls the relationship between the West and Russia "very strained."
Vladimir Putin, he says, is intent on returning Russia to past political and military stature.
Syria is Putin's sole ally in the region, home to a Russian naval base, and is a key intelligence post, Baird says. But there is more to Russian obstructionism: Moscow's own concerns with volatility in the Caucasus region and unhappiness with the way the NATO campaign in Libya was handled.
They are using the UN veto as a lever to further these interests.
In a meeting Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whom Baird calls "Sergei" and describes as "smart, tough, professional," the Russian went into great detail, telling Baird that Canada signed on to a United Nations charter that included five vetoes, one of which has regularly been used by Washington. The other vetoes belong to France, Britain and China.
Harper and Baird have often been open with their disdain for the UN and the gridlock that often paralyzes it.
On Friday, before leaving Russia, Harper said he and his allies were not prepared to "accept the idea there is a Russian veto over all of our actions."
Baird was more circumspect Saturday, praising the UN work on the ground in this conflict but adding, "This experience has not been a good day for the UN. It can be quite dysfunctional."
In 1999, Canada and other nations went around the Russian UN veto against attacks on Serbian forces in Kosovo.
"You don't need the stamp of the UN for something to be right,'' said Baird, insisting the use of chemical weapons is beyond accepted norms.
All the countries saying they want UN backing are basically saying "this is OK if Russia says it's OK, but it's not OK if Russia won't say it's OK," Baird says. "What's your personal opinion?"
Canada's arm's-length relation with the Syrian opposition appears to have been sound policy.
Baird now says there are estimates that up to 50 per cent of the opposition are "bad guys."
Recruits from some 60 countries have joined the fight, and Baird, who initially worried that minorities in a post-Assad regime would not be protected, now raises the prospect of a wholesale slaughter of minorities in a post-Assad Syria.
And, as abhorrent as it is for Assad to have stockpiles of chemical weapons, the shifting of those stockpiles into Al Qaeda hands would be catastrophic, he said.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. email@example.com Twitter:@nutgraf1