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Is Canada poised to replace the US in the settlement of the Middle East issues?

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Stana Dubajic •

With the current US administration visibly divided over all major international issues, coupled with the fierce fight of the American political establishment to discredit Donald Trump’s presidency, and the diplomatic Cold War with Russia, the questions arise as to which Western country will replace Washington in the settlement of the Middle East issues.

Traditionally Middle East was for over a century under French and British influence. According to many Middle Easterners, numerous regional problems of today are a by-product of the Franco-British colonial policies, which effectively drew the map of the modern Middle East as we know it today. One of them is the Balfour Declaration, which paved way for establishing the Jewish state of Israel in Palestine.

The Cold War era saw the control and rivalry in the Middle East shift to two other powers – the United States and then-Soviet Union, today’s Russia. The Russian role became more prominent in recent times after its military intervention in Syria in late 2015, while American declined following Donald Trump’s assumption of presidency in early 2017.

In European Union recent troubles, including the refugee crisis and related problems, economic stagnation, frequent terrorist attacks and need for strengthening European security, have pushed the two EU powers―Britain and France―in the backseat. The UK’s Brexit vote added additional burden to the pile of EU problems – hence the retreat of the two from their previously more active role in the troubled region.

Meanwhile, quietly and unassumingly, Canada has been making significant diplomatic efforts in approaching and strengthening ties with a number of Middle East countries, in the past few years. In keeping with the Canadian diplomatic traditions, the focus was on the bilateral trade, developmental and humanitarian issues.

Unlike the US increasingly viewed as a hostile country by the Arab youth, with its already tarnished image – due to interventions from Iraq and Afghanistan, to Libya, and Syria – Canada’s image in the region, on the other hand, is highly positive. This image stems from the role that Canada has over past few decades played in resettling refugees from across the world, from Somalia and Bosnia, to Iraq and Syria.

For example, in the period 2011-2015 Canada has admitted 260,000 immigrants, while the number for 2017 has been increased to 300,000 immigrants. Moreover, in 2016 alone Canada has broken its own record of resettling refuges in the past forty years, by accepting 46,700 – of which more than 33,000 from Syria.

According to the Canadian government, over the course of three years, between 2016 and 2019, Canada is planning to invest $2 billion in the Middle East. The investment will go to supporting regional security and stabilization, provision of vital humanitarian assistance, helping host communities build resilience and increasing Canada’s diplomatic engagement in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Important part of Canada’s new Middle East engagement strategy is addressing the ongoing crises in Syria and Iraq, as announced by Prime Minister Trudeau in 2016. In this context, Ottawa has offered Jordan bilateral development assistance to help the Kingdom achieve long-term objectives in education, economic growth, municipal governance and help in dealing with the refugee crisis.

Minister of International Development and La Francophonie Marie-Claude Bibeau, also announced early in 2017, that Canada will provide $239.5 million over the next three years to help meet growing humanitarian needs in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. The funds will be distributed in the following way: $108 million for humanitarian assistance in Syria, $52 million in Iraq, $28.2 million for NGOs working in Jordan and $51.3 million for humanitarian assistance projects in Lebanon.

The only stable country in the war-torn region, Jordan is the first and only Arab country, so far, to have a free trade agreement with Canada. While the trade volume between the two countries is still relatively modest, since the Canada-Jordan Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2009 (effective in 2012), the trade has tripled.

According to the Canadian embassy in Amman statement, “A moderate Arab state with a constructive foreign policy on key regional issues, Jordan is a natural partner for Canada and an effective interlocutor between the Arab World and the West.”

Moreover, Canada and Jordan have common interests on matters such as trade, landmines, peace-keeping operations, and the protection of civilians and denunciation of all forms of terrorism, the statement further says.

On his recent tour in Canada, late last August, Jordan’s King Abdullah II noted that Jordan and Canada have both been members of the Global Coalition against ISIS, and work together in response to the global threat of terrorism. He also noted that the two countries have closely cooperated in response to regional refugee crisis, while thanking Canada for the “support you have given us in the difficult challenges… and help… not only with the refugee crisis but to also look at the way we develop our initiatives and economic partnerships”.

As Jordan has recently claimed a great success in helping mediate between the Russian and American leaders which led to the signing of the July 7, 2017 Trump-Putin deal on the establishment of de-escalation zones in southwestern Syria, along Jordanian-Israeli borders, the Hashemite Kingdom is starting to play a more assertive role as a mediator in rekindling the Israel-Palestine talks.

During his tour the Jordanian monarch stated his belief that both countries are equally concerned “to help end the central and most divisive crisis in our region, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with a just and comprehensive settlement based on the two-state solution.”

Perhaps, these meetings and announcements are an indicator that the two countries are actively working on finding a solution to the problem that has plagued the region for a long time, while being exploited by numerous actors for diverse aims over the years.

Since Jordan has established and maintained good relationships with two major regional rivals Russia and the U.S. and brought them successfully to the negotiating table leading up to signing of an historic agreement on Syria, it is safe to say that the ‘peace deal’ of a century, promised by Trump on his campaign trail, might as well be within reach.

To be sure, engaging an international player, such as Canada―free of American, British or French regional political baggage― to push for a peacefully negotiated two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian issue could well prove to be the badly needed diplomatic master stroke.

Stana Dubajic is an independent geopolitical researcher and analyst, based in the Middle East and the Balkans

Photo: His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan meets with Governor General of Canada David Johnston in Ottawa (Photo courtesy of Royal Hashemite Court)