Baird looks ahead to post-Assad Syria, but rejects military intervention

Ottawa — The Globe and Mail

Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird pauses while speaking to journalists following a meeting with Syrian-Canadian representatives and members of the Syria's opposition in Ottawa July 25, 2012. (Chris Wattie/REUTERS)

The forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appear to have the upper hand in the bloody conflict with rebels in that country, but Foreign Minister John Baird is looking ahead to the day when Mr. al-Assad is defeated.

Mr. Baird met Wednesday in Ottawa with representatives from the rebel-allied Syrian National Council, as well as Syrian Canadians and a Roman Catholic priest who was expelled from Syria in mid-June after living there for 30 years.

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“We’ve got to begin to think of a post-Assad Syria and they gave me many comments on that,” Mr. Baird told reporters after emerging from the meeting. “They said there was no room for Assad in any effort to negotiate a solution, that he is so tainted and has so much guilt that that is a significant concern.”

The Foreign Affairs Minister, who has been heavily critical of Russia’s support for the Syrian government, said it is clear that efforts of UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan to find a negotiated solution to the crisis have stalled – something that Mr. Baird said was “incredibly frustrating.”

But countries like Canada must continue to take every diplomatic action necessary to bring about an end to the bloodshed, he said, once again dismissing the possibility of outside military intervention of the sort that led to the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year.

“Just because the military solution worked in one part of the world doesn’t mean it will work in another,” said Mr. Baird. “I think there is a consensus among Canada and our allies and others that we need to continue to push hard of the diplomatic side.”

In addition, Canada has given $8.5-million to help the Syrian people and is prepared to do more, said the minister. “There is obviously significant need in the medical area,” he said. “There is obviously a significant need to document the crimes that are undertaken in the country.”

Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, the exiled priest who met with Mr. Baird, later told reporters that Canada obviously has a relationship with Russia, since the two countries are adjacent to one another, and Canada should use its “know how” in dealing with the Russians to start a new round of diplomacy.

In addition, said Mr. Dall’Oglio, the international community needs ultimately to send in United Nations “peace promoters” to Syria to innocent civilians.

Faisal al Alazem, a Syrian activist who was part of the contingent that met with Mr. Baird, said he and the others asked Canada match the U.S. contribution to humanitarian aid in Syria of $25 million.

“We are willing to give the Foreign Affairs the different channels and the different ways to get this money and this humanitarian aid inside Syria,” said Mr. al Alazem, “because they desperately need it.”

Mr. Baird’s meeting with groups friendly to the rebel cause came as the Syrian army and the rebels sent reinforcements to the northern city of Aleppo and as UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged the world “to stop the slaughter.”

Warplanes overflew the city, breaking the sound barrier, but not opening fire. And Russia ramped up its criticism of Western policy as helicopter gunships strafed several neighbourhoods of the commercial capital, causing deaths and injuries, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“The use of helicopters over the past month and now the reports of fixed-wing aircraft cause us great concern,” said Mr. Baird. But “as brutal as Assad has been, there is certainly room for an escalation in the violence.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have a chance to meet face-to-face with Russian president Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group in Russia in November.

“Obviously that’s an economic forum but, on the sidelines, I am sure that Syria will be a significant issue that’s discussed,” said Mr. Baird. “I have talked to my Russian counterpart, I have talked to the Russian ambassador here in Ottawa to lay out our significant disappointment, with not just Russia blocking the action in this regard but (with) their actions (that) have allowed this regime to soldier on.”

Mr. Baird said Canada is deeply worried about the rising death toll and the stories of torture and people disappearing. There is also significant concern, he said, about Syria’s chemical and biological stockpiles, both in terms of their possible use against the Syrian people but also with regard to their security both before and after the Assad regime.

And there is alarm being expressed about the news that Islamic extremists, including members of al-Qaeda, have moved into Syria to join the rebels in their fight against Mr. al-Assad.

“In a post-Assad regime,” said Mr. Baird, “we’ve got to ensure that we seek to de-radicalize any Syrian people who might have chosen that path.”

With a report from AFP

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