The Road to Syria: Are We There Yet?

By Rouba al-Fattal on April 5, 2013

It has been two years since the Syrian Government’s violent crackdown on protesters started. According to UN reports, the conflict has claimed more than 70,000 lives, displaced four million people internally and forced about million people to seek refuge in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, where many opposition leaders have taken refuge. Thousands of civilians have also been detained arbitrarily and there are reports of executions and torture. Also since the uprising many schools were damaged or forced to close and Syrian civilians suffer the lack of basic services such as electricity, clean water and hospitals. Moreover, the situation in Syria has created a fertile ground for trans-national terrorism to rise. Some terrorist groups, such as Al-Nusra Front, with links to Al-Qaeda in Iraq branched out their activities to Syria. Indeed, the actions of the Syrian Government have resulted in a serious humanitarian and security crisis in the region which is likely to become a full-blown international crisis.

The Canadian government has responded to the Syrian crisis by taking some actions that are meant to weaken the Assad regime while helping innocent civilians. Some measures, however, are stronger and more coherent than others. For once, since May 2011 Canada imposed several targeted sanctions against the Syrian regime and those that provide it with support under the Special Economic Measures Act. These measures include: asset freeze; prohibiting imports of petroleum products from Syria or new investments in the Syrian oil industry; the ban on exports of telecommunications monitoring equipment and arms to Syria; and the prohibition of export, sale, supply or shipping to Syria of a number of goods that can be used in the production of biological and chemical weapons. 

Amid growing fears that the Syrian regime will use chemical weapons against its own people or its neighbors, Canada reacted firmly and quickly. The Government has developed a contingency plan to join a NATO coalition and to deploy its Disaster Relief Team in the region ready to deal with the worst-case scenario. 

In response to the mass exodus of Syrian refugees to neighboring countries, the Canadian Government pledged $10 million to international aid agencies that are helping refugees, such as Red Cross/Red Crescent, and $15 million boost in humanitarian aid to help Syria's neighbors accommodate the mass influx of refugees. Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, also committed to an additional $13 million to Jordan to help deal with more than 380,000 of Syrian refugees who have arrived there over the last two years. 

syrian_refugees.jpgAs for accepting Syrian refugees into Canada things are going slower than expected for several reasons. Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, said Syrians may have a tough time applying to come to Canada right now because Canada’s Damascus visa office was shut down Damascus last year due to the conflict. This closure has indeed hampered Canadian efforts to resettle thousands of refugees from other areas in the region, including Iraq and Iran. The office was a central processing point for Iraqi refugee applicants. Kenney also declared that Canada is currently “making contingency plans” to resettle Syrian refugees should it be asked to do so by the UN. At the meantime, Citizenship and Immigration Canada officials have said that Canada can’t take Syrian refugees out of Turkey's seventeen camps because the Turkish government is not allowing any refugee to leave until the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has made a decision regarding their case. But the UNHCR thus far has declared humanitarian aid the priority and is still pushing for a political solution to the bloody civil war – fearing the resettling of refugees would complicate matters further. The Canadian Government is also being very careful about security screening and admissibility for anyone seeking to come to Canada. On the one hand, those screened need to have a violence-free past and the ability to integrate into their new society. 

When it comes to humanitarian aid, there are several Canadian groups with members of Syrian origins among others trying to raise awareness and funds for these efforts. One such prominent non-profit organization is the Canadian Relief for Syria (CRS), which since it began operating in late 2011, has held two fundraisers in Montreal and two in Ottawa, raising a total of $590,000. last August it was supposed to get $2 million from the Canadian Government to help sitting field hospitals and provide medical supplies to the civilian population in need. However, the Government pulled the plug on it at the last minute. The Government publically stated three reasons behind reversing its decision. First, is that CRS was not registered as a charitable organization at the time. Second, is the organization’s link to another active aid organization with charitable status in Canada, Human Concern International (HCI). The latter was once infamously connected to Ahmed Said Khadr, an ally of Osama bin Laden, who ran HCI’s Pakistan operations and was later killed in a gunfight in Pakistan. Third, is a claim by the government that CRS was going to support such things as warehouses and infrastructure, which are not supposed to be covered by this fund. However, some representatives of CRS, who happen to be medical doctors, hinted that the real reason why the government backtracked is because the doctors insisted on helping all injured patients in need despite their political affiliations, be it from the Syrian regime or the rebel side. This of course raises the moral dilemma for Canada, should the government support field hospitals in Syria if it could save the lives of members of the Syrian regime? The answer to that came implicitly from Minister Baird when he states ”the purpose of this funding was to help the people of Syria who've been targeted by the Assad regime and we'll be working to ensure that aid gets to those people who need it as quickly as possible". The problem is that there are about thousand people injured on a daily bases in Syria and the need for these organization is great because major international aid groups such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent can't operate in the dangerous Syrian war zone.

The Government has also felt the effect of the Syrian crisis here at home. There are reliable reports of the increase in the “radical discourse” in Canada. Several terrorist groups have been linked to recruiting young Canadians to fight with the extremist rebels in Syria. “CSIS knows of some 50 or so young people who have left Canada to join one of these groups," said Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former CSIS agent who is now president of Northgate – a private security consulting firm. It seems that social media is playing a growing role in reaching out to vulnerable young Canadians and radicalizing them. A Quebec mother, who had lost her son to such groups, said that before her son left Canada she did not recognize him anymore. The Government is working out plans to deal with radicalization here at home and abroad.

Despite all these efforts, however, the Canadian government has not recognized the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the country’s chief political opposition organ, even as many Western capitals have done so. Minister Baird said “we're prepared to engage with them, but we're not prepared to recognize them as the sole, legitimate voice, government-in-waiting of the Syrian people". Canada also did not join the US and other governments even after the House Foreign Affairs Committee introduced legislation to train and arm vetted Syrian rebel forces, and the Obama administration lent its support to British and French plans to arm Syria’s rebels – saying it would not stand in the way of any country seeking to rebalance the fight against an Assad regime supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Nonetheless, Ottawa took a very different stand when Libyan rebels took up arms against Moammar Gadhafi, by joining a NATO air-strikes mission and recognizing the rebels’ political coalition as the representatives of the people. 

This begs the question, why is Canada being more cautious on supporting the Syria rebels when it did so in Libya, and is it right to be that reluctant? The answer to these questions is complex since there are several issues which factored into the decision. For one, The Government is fearful the conflict could spill over borders in a way that would endanger Israel’s security. It is also worried that new unforeseen dangers will emerge from a fragmented Syria, particularly when risk assessment reports remain inconclusive at the moment. Moreover, Canadian officials have questioned whether the SNC represents all Syrians, emphasizing the need for any future government in Syria to be "truly representative" of all the ethnic and religious populations that live there. There are legitimate fears as well about extremist Islamic forces fighting among the opposition inside Syria. These so-called “rebels” are in fact vicious Al-Qaeda terrorists with no intention of instituting anything resembling “freedom” or “democracy” in Syria. On the other hand, legitimate Syrian rebels who are fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and form a new democratic government argue that if the international community helped arm them, extremist elements would be quickly sidelined. That said, there is a strong political movement in the Canadian political class that calls to leave the Arabs and Muslims drain themselves in civil clashes, rather than continuing to cultural clash with them or to intervene to separate them. From a legal perspective, Canada also could not just arm the rebels because it abides by international rules which ban the exports of arms to conflict zones. In May 2011, few months after the conflict erupted in Syria, the Council of the EU imposed several sanctions against the Syrian regime, which was extended until May 2013. The Canadian government followed suit with Europe and also imposed sanctions including a ban under the Export and Import Permits Act on the export from Canada to Syria of goods and technology that are subject to export controls (this includes the export of arms). In addition, the Canadian Government has been abiding by its political culture that is imbedded in seeking international consensus. In the case of Libya, that consensus was there with the UN Security Council approval of a NATO mission. However, in the Syrian case the international community remains fragmented. Even if the US, France and the UK agree on arming and training the Syrian rebels, many other countries in Europe and beyond disagree with that strategy.  

Ottawa also recognized that the Syrian opposition is plagued with short-term self interests with ties to local, regional and international currents creating fundamental problems that cannot be overlooked. First, the differences among these factions are often greater than their differences with the regime. Second, the opposition lacks a clear roadmap on how to rebuild post-Assad regime that could reassure the Syrian people as well as friends of Syria. Third, there are conflicting visions about methodology, some believe in dialogue with the current system, others in military action, while some prefer to combine both. Even proponents of dialogue are split between: dialogue with Assad himself, with figures close to the Assad regime, selection of Baathist figures who did not have any executive role. Fourth, opposition groups are being subjected to pressure from the various regional powers (including Iran and Saudi Arabia), who decided to exercise their conflicts through these groups in Syria. This alone increases the state of division and political fragmentation between the carious Syrian factions.

Seeing these complexities and recognizing the murky circumstances surrounding the Syrian case, it is no wonder that the Government decided against direct involvement in arming the rebels or recognizing the opposition at this particular time, which seems like the sensible thing to do. That said this does not exempt Canada from its obligations as a global player with great humanitarian and peacekeeping tradition to uphold. There are several areas to work on and venues to tap into if indeed Canada is willing and wanting to help the Syrian people in crisis. 

As a first step, Canada should definitely and as soon as possible re-establish a diplomatic mission in Baghdad to help process refugees in the region. This will help speed the processing of asylum files, particularly those of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. The Government should also coordinate more with the UNHCR as well as the Turkish government to handle legitimate refugee claims in a timely and transparent manner while avoiding the unnecessary “bureaucratic barrier”. Citizenship and Immigration Canada could also do more to fast track processing immigration applications of Syrians who have applied long time before the uprising – especially in cases of family reunification. Equally important, Canada needs to beef up its support for humanitarian aid efforts and in finding viable alternatives to delivering medical and basic services to those in need. Since international aid organization can’t operate within the war-torn country, the Government could, for instance, assist trusted and experienced grassroots organizations in Canada or in the Arab region to provide the needed help.  Although Canada does not want to recognize or militarily support the Syrian opposition at the time being, it should still keep open channels of communication for targeted engagement with these groups. For instance, when the time is ready the Government could provide training that targets Security Sector Reform in Syria. Here at home, Canadian officials need to enhance their public relation efforts to explain their decisions to the frustrated Syrian community as well as to the Canadian tax payers who don’t quite understand how much (or little) is actually dedicated to foreign aid – which in 2012 was 0.31 per cent of the country’s GDP (way less than the 0.7 per cent, the international target for aid spending first espoused by former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson). Finally, with the rising threat of radicalization at home, CSIS will have to amplify its intelligence work by scrutinizing the radicalization and recruitment process, which creates human weapons ready for export to Syria. Thus, employing more intelligence officers with Arabic as well as social media analysis skills, and deep cultural knowledge should be a priority.

It is not enough though to always wait for the government to do something. The Syrian community in Canada can also play a positive role by increasing awareness among the local communities of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The community can, for instance, engage more in innovative fundraising activities that would be transferred only through trusted channels. Representatives of Syrian-Canadian organization should cooperate together instead of compete for funds and recognition. They should push more to meet and discuss the situation with their MPs. It is as well important to reach out to the Canadian public through various media sources to gather as much support for their humanitarian cause as possible. Syrian-Canadians with special skills (such as doctors, engineers and teachers) can also volunteer to help on the ground. Most importantly, the community must uphold the values of this country that we cherish very much and for which we immigrated here: freedom, liberty and democracy. What we dream of is a legitimate, peaceful, inclusive and democratic Syrian opposition with the ability to succeed in building an independent modern civil society away from sectarian or regional or suspicious tendencies and divisions. Only on these solid grounds we can ask the Canadian Government to help in the Syria crisis and nothing less.


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