By: Lee Berthiaume
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and members of the Syrian opposition movement are dismissing as propaganda Syrian government claims that al-Qaida was behind two suicide attacks in the capital Damascus on Friday.
The remarks came as Baird announced a freeze on Assad regime assets held by Canadian financial institutions and amid reports Canada is leading the push to recognize the main Syrian opposition movement as the country’s legitimate representative.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have died in Syria since mass protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime erupted in March.
The violence took a fresh turn on Friday after reports of two suicide bomb attacks in the capital Damascus, which killed 40 people and injured 100 more. They were the first suicide bombings in the country since the uprising began.
Syrian officials have argued they are fighting terrorists and not a popular uprising, and that the conflict has killed 2,000 security personnel.
They held up the suicide attacks on Friday as proof of their claims, saying the bombers were affiliated with al-Qaida and targeting the country’s intelligence agencies.
Speaking to reporters outside the House of Commons on that morning, however, Baird questioned the credibility of that explanation, citing previous Assad denials that any violence was taking place within the country.
“If it wasn’t so serious it would almost be comical,” he said.
The foreign affairs minister was appearing to announce the asset freeze and other sanctions against the Assad regime, including a prohibition on all imports from Syria except food and all exports of equipment, including software for the monitoring of telephone and Internet communications. He also said the government was banning any new Canadian investment into the country.
“Canada will continue to put the squeeze on the Assad regime,” Baird said. “Assad will fall, the government will fall, it’s only a matter of time.”
On the asset freeze, Baird could not say how much money and property Canadian banks were holding for the 33 senior Syrian government and military officials and 10 primarily state-run companies listed under the sanctions.
“The financial institutions will be required immediately to review their accounts to find out how much is available and the RCMP will work with that,” he said. “Until those reviews have taken place, we can’t say to what extent their assets are here.”
The foreign affairs minister also reiterated the government’s call for all Canadians still in Syria to leave by any means necessary.
Members of the Syrian National Council also criticized the Syrian government’s claims al-Qaida was responsible for the twin suicide bombings. They alleged the Assad regime was simply trying to stoke Western fears that Islamist and extremist elements would emerge should there be a change in government.
“The regime itself is responsible for these explosions in order to divert the world’s attention from the violations of human rights that the regime itself is committing against the civilian population,” said Ahmad Ramadan, a member of the SNC executive committee.
The Arab Spring has seen the emergence of Islamist parties in Egypt, Libya and other countries in the region, but SNC officials, who met with Baird earlier in the day, downplayed the likelihood of that happening in a post-Assad Syria.
During his comments, Baird voiced support for the SNC, saying it had made progress in establishing its credibility as a possible partner as Canada and its allies push for Assad and his government to step aside. However, he fell short of fully endorsing it.
Ramadan said the minister had reassured them such recognition was on the horizon, but that their lack of a presence on the ground in Syria was a key stumbling block.
“We have been told that it is coming,” Ramadan said. “Mr. Baird told me they will be working on this.”
Ramadan and others members of the SNC from around the world were in Tunis last week to discuss the situation in Syria and find ways to increase their own legitimacy while encouraging the international community to become more involved.
Hans Abdah, a member of the SNC general secretariat, said Canada’s ambassador to Tunisia, Ariel Delouya, was one of only four foreign ambassadors present at the meeting, providing an indication of Canada’s desire to see the SNC become a full-fledged partner.
The SNC is calling on the international community to establish safe havens within Syria where protesters and those opposed to the Assad regime can be safe.
Baird, however, shied away from questions about possible Canadian and international military involvement in Syria, and Ramadan would not dismiss the possibility.
“We are asking the international community to do whatever it can to stop the killing,” he said.
Source: PostMedia News