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After diplomats ordered expelled, Syrian-Canadian groups urge Canada to do more

By Kristen Shane      

Syrian, Canadian governments both say their arguments fell on deaf ears.

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Syrian-Canadian groups and the Opposition say they support the Harper government's decision to expel the remaining Syrian diplomats from Canada, but they are also urging the government to do more.

A spokesperson for Foreign Minister John Baird said the government decided to expel the diplomats after last week's killing of more than 100 people in Houla, the deaths of most of whom were described by the UN's human rights office as being at close range.

That event made it clear that the government's "strong messages" to the Syrian government "fell on deaf ears," the spokesperson said.

Mr. Baird also condemned the Syrian government, saying President Bashar al-Assad's "reprehensible campaign of savage violence continues unabated."

The Syrian government, meanwhile, has denied it was responsible for the killings, which took place in an area northwest of the city of Homs on May 25 and 26.

Syrian-Canadian groups and the NDP foreign affairs critic supported the government's move to expel the Syrian diplomats. Each said they had long been calling for such action.

"I think they should have done it well before. We've been asking on many different fronts," said Mariam Hamou, a spokesperson for the Canadian branch of the Council of United Syrian-Americans.

That group is unaffiliated with the well-known Syrian Canadian Council, which is an umbrella organization of some Syrian-Canadian groups speaking out about the future of their homeland.

She alleged she and her family were threatened by members of a pro-Syrian government militia in Canada, some of whom she said are employed by the embassy to spy on Syrians in Canada.

Syrian Chargé d'Affaires Bashar Akbik denied such allegations in an October 2011 interview with Embassy.

"Our embassies outside in all the countries have no instructions to bother anyone or to threaten anyone at all," said Mr. Akbik.

Paul Dewar, the NDP foreign affairs critic, agreed multilateral action is important.

"We support people when they do things that are in the right vein, so I'll choose to just support [the government] today and not to condemn why they didn't do it before," he said in a phone interview.

Sending a few diplomats home won't change the situation immediately, but it must be seen in the context of calls for strengthened action at the UN, and to show Syria the world is watching, said Mr. Dewar.

He called on the government to use diplomatic pressure to persuade Russia to bring about positive change in Syria, with which it has broad economic and other ties.

Syrian-Canadian groups also called for Canada to do more, although they aren't unified in what that would entail.

Canada co-ordinated its diplomatic expulsions with other countries, according to Mr. Baird's office. The United States, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, among others, joined Canada in announcing on May 29 the expulsion of either heads of missions or a greater group of Syrian diplomats.

All Syrian diplomats in Canada and their families have five days to leave the country, Mr. Baird said in a statement released at about 8 a.m. on May 29.

Joseph Lavoie, Mr. Baird's spokesperson, later said there are two Syrian diplomats in Canada, and another set to come to Ottawa who will be refused entry.

The Foreign Affairs website lists Mr. Akbik and attaché Abdulla Alfadel as working at the embassy in Ottawa. The Syrian government also has listed Nelly Kanou, an honorary consul general in Montreal, as well as Sawsan A. Habbal and Yaser Kherdaji, honorary consuls in Vancouver and Toronto, respectively.

The number of family members leaving alongside the diplomats was not immediately available before press time. The Foreign Affairs website lists Rafah Kawass as Mr. Akbik's spouse.

Too late?

The Western diplomatic expulsions come months after several Gulf Arab countries expelled Syrian diplomats and pulled their own from Syria. They include the Gulf Co-operation Council members of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Canada has imposed several rounds of sanctions against Syrian leaders.

Mr. Baird said May 29 in Question Period that Canada would on May 30 call on the UN Security Council to bring in tough economic sanctions against the Assad government, joining what Canada has already been doing.

Late last fall, Canada started voluntary evacuations of Canadian citizens in Syria. The government shut down operations in the Canadian Embassy in Damascus on March 5 and cleared all Canadian diplomats out.

Mr. Baird was asked at the time whether he was prepared to kick Syria's chargé out.

"When we feel a need to do that, we'll certainly let you know," he replied.

"Of course, it came too late. But it's a step in the right direction," said Faisal Alazem of the Canadian expulsion. He is the Syrian Canadian Council's head of the media committee.

"I think that Canadian foreign policy is really built around a general consensus with its allies. I don't think you will see Canada really take a lead in foreign policy issues, specifically when it comes to the Middle East, so it works very closely with its allies."

Mr. Lavoie said the Canadian government was looking for the best opportunity to make a "very clear message." It saw the benefit of greater impact through co-ordinated action.

Mr. Alazem acknowledged that the Syrian National Council is not perfect, but for now it's the biggest umbrella group of Syrian anti-government forces and his group wants the international community to recognize it as a point of liaison.

Some countries have officially recognized the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Mr. Baird has met with its members, but has not expressed formal recognition.

Ms. Hamou said the Syrian National Council has limited support from Syrians themselves, and Canada should only recognize a group Syrians broadly see as legitimate.

"We're going to keep watching the situation on the ground," said Mr. Lavoie. "When we have more to announce, we will."

But he emphasized that Syria is very different from Libya, whose National Transitional Council Canada recognized last summer as representative of the Libyan people.

Protest outside embassy

Pictures taken after the Houla killings, some from anonymous sources, of dozens of dead bodies lying side-by-side and wrapped in white shrouds, were prominently placed in Western news media, prompting a wave of political reaction.

The UN said earlier this week that at least 108 people, including 34 women and 49 children, were killed, according to the Associated Press.

The UN Security Council gathered at an emergency session to talk about the situation. The White House called the killings a "vile testament to an illegitimate regime."

Staff were busy in Syria's embassy near Ottawa's city hall on May 29. Mr. Akbik did not answer repeated calls to his office and cell phone.

Earlier in the day, CTV News caught up with him while he was leaving his car in front of the embassy to ask him about the expulsion.

"I think it's unfair. And even the Canadian government's position on the crisis in Syria was unfair from the beginning," Mr. Akbik told the news channel on camera, just before a man in a vehicle drove past and cursed out the window at him, which he ignored.

A group of anti-Syrian government protesters gathered on the sidewalk across the street from the embassy at about 11 a.m. waving flags and chanting slogans in Arabic through a megaphone, swelling to about 25 within an hour.

Mr. Akbik told CTV that his government had tried to explain to the Canadian government "an idea of what's happening in the country—that we have Salafists and we have al-Qaeda elements coming into the country, making explosions, booby-trapped cars." The Canadians "always gave to us deaf ears," he said.

Mr. Lavoie described the Syrians' behaviour in the same way.

"We had allowed them to be here as long as we thought we could convey our strong messages to them, which we have done on multiple occasions since the conflict started. The events of the last weekend, the massacre, demonstrate for us that those messages fell on deaf ears, which is why we think they can go," he said.


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