OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, on the eve of a trip to the Middle East, says Canada is concerned the Syrian uprising could destabilize the region and cause further political instability.
Baird made the comments in an interview with Postmedia News Thursday, as he prepared to fly to Lebanon and Jordan, where he will meet with senior political leaders and tour a refugee camp teeming with Syrians who have been displaced by the crisis.
“I want to go and to see first-hand the situation on the ground and also have discussions with leaders in the area,” said Baird.
“Obviously, we want the violence to stop and we want to tackle the humanitarian crisis. We’re also tremendously concerned about the crisis destabilizing Syria’s neighbours, particularly with respect to Jordan and Lebanon.”
The move is the latest of the Harper government’s diplomatic measures — mainly a series of escalating sanctions — aimed at punishing Syrian President Bashar Assad for his brutal crackdown on protests that have left thousands of Syrians dead.
Baird flies to Lebanon Friday for talks with that country’s prime minister, Najib Mikati, and with Fouad Siniora, a member of the parliamentary opposition.
During their evening meeting in Beirut, Baird is expected to commend the Lebanese government for its “generosity” in accepting Syrian refugees who have been displaced by the uprising.
He will also express Canada’s concern that the unrest in Syria could spread into Lebanon.
Baird told Postmedia News that as the sectarian violence escalates in Syria, “the fear is that you could see inter-Islamic fighting take place outside the country … the same kind of thing we see destabilizing Syria, the fear is that it could spill over.”
“Obviously, Lebanon went through a difficult phase for about 15 years. And Jordan certainly has had its challenges in recent years.”
On Saturday, Baird is to travel to Jordan, where he will visit a refugee camp near the Syrian border filled with displaced Syrians. Later in the day, in Amman, he will meet with Jordanian Foreign Nasser Judeh and with King Abdullah II.
Baird is expected to thank Jordan for its actions and also announce new Canadian measures associated with the humanitarian and security crisis that has gripped the region since the violence began a year and a half ago.
Baird said Canada has been “horrified” by the actions of the Assad regime and has worked “constructively” with other countries to tackle the issue through diplomatic means.
He said he has been disappointed by the failure of the Security Council of the United Nations to take action, and he was particularly critical of the Russians.
“Frankly, the actions of the Russian government have allowed this regime to soldier on.”
Baird defended Canada’s decision to not intervene militarily in Syria, as it did in the civil unrest last year that swept through Libya.
“Just because a military solution was used, and worked, in Libya, doesn’t mean it can be used and work in every crisis. Every situation is incredibly different. If there was a simplistic solution with this, we obviously would have been supportive of it long ago.”
Meanwhile, Baird also stressed that countries should start preparing for the complex questions that lay ahead once Assad is removed from power.
“We should be thinking about the post-Assad era and what does that mean. What does that mean for Syria? What does that mean for the region? What does that mean for minorities in Syria?”
Although there are continual signs that Assad’s grip on power is weakening — as ministers and military leaders defect from the regime — the level of violence in the civil war is heightening and it’s unclear how long it will last. Rebels have commandeered tanks from the Syrian army, and the Assad regime has responded by using attack helicopters and fighter jets.
This week, Amnesty International declared that both sides in the battle for Aleppo, the country’s most populous city, might be criminally accountable for failing to protect citizens.
All this has many people worried about how much worse the humanitarian crisis will get. So far, it is estimated that Jordan and Lebanon have accepted, between them, about 200,000 displaced Syrians. Another 50,000 are believed to have gone to Turkey.
The United Nations refugee agency says its total figure of the displaced is 115,000, but adds that this only counts Syrians who have officially registered as refugees, and not the many thousands more who have drifted into communities.
As the crisis drags on, the UN is worried about whether countries will become overwhelmed by the steady stream of refugees.
In late July, Baird said Canada is prepared to provide more humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and civilians. He made the comment after a meeting in Ottawa with Syrian opposition members and activists.
“Canada can and wants to do more. Our government wants to do more,” said Baird at the time.
“There’s obviously significant needs in the medical area and a significant need to help document the crimes that are being undertaken in the country.”
Canada already had pledged $8.5 million in humanitarian assistance since the uprising began in March 2011, making it the third-largest donor after the United States — which has committed $60 million — and the United Kingdom with its commitment of $27.5 million.
The UN has said $382 million is needed to stem the crisis, but only one-quarter of that had been pledged.
Canada’s aid to Syria has been split between four experienced humanitarian partners: the World Food Program, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Britain said on Friday it would increase non-lethal aid to Syria’s opposition, including the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote in the Times newspaper that he had also instructed a senior diplomat to give Assad’s foes “a tough message that they must observe human rights standards, whatever horrors are perpetrated by the regime.”
Hague said the extra money for non-lethal aid totalled $7.8 million and was separate from Britain’s existing humanitarian programs in Syria.
“This is not taking sides in a civil war,” Hague wrote of the contacts with the opposition. “The risk of total disorder and a power vacuum is so great that we must build relationships now with those who may govern Syria in the future.”
Assad’s offensive in Aleppo follows a successful drive to expel rebels from parts of Damascus they had seized after a bomb blast killed four of his senior aides on July 18.
His grip on the country has been eroded and his authority was further shaken by his prime minister’s defection this week.
Source: National Post