The House of Commons will hold an emergency debate on Syria Tuesday as the crisis there intensifies.
Israel’s strikes and the alarming indications that chemical weapons have been used have sparked new calls in Washington for arming Syria’s opposition rebels, but Ottawa has insisted it is too wary of extremist elements to back them with weapons.
But opposition MPs are questioning whether the Harper government has been too unwilling to confront the issue, at least with humanitarian aid and a diplomatic role, and make efforts to strengthen moderates within the Syrian opposition – and Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae moved for the Commons to debate the issue.
“The government says Assad must go. Okay, so how do you get him to go?” Mr. Rae told reporters Monday. “How do we get that to happen? And then the other issue of course is what kind of coalition, what kind of government would replace him?”
Foreign Affairs Minster John Baird said Sunday that the Harper government is talking to allies about Syria, but foreign ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization made it clear at an April meeting they have no interest in intervention. And he said Canada does not support arming the rebels, because of the jihadists fighting among them.
But the prospect that chemical weapons have been used – and the fear that they might fall into the hands of terror groups allied to either side – have raised calls for the U.S. government to arm the rebels. The Democrat who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, Senator Bob Menendez, introduced a bill that would allow for arms to be sent to opposition groups without links to terrorism.
The U.S. is already sending “non-lethal” aid, including body armour and communications equipment, to rebel-held areas and militias that it believes are not linked to terrorism.
The conflict in Syria is now more than two years old, and has killed more than 70,000, according to the United Nations. It has slid from violent government repression of protests into a complex civil war where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad faces not only the Free Syrian Army group but also more than a dozen militias and armed groups including radical jihadists like the al-Nusra Front.
But over the weekend, Israel hit targets inside Syria, sparking the Assad regime to label it a declaration of war. The strikes killed 42 Syrian soldiers, according to a London-based rights group that supports the opposition, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Israel’s government has refused to comment.
And the strikes come as confusion reigns over which side in the conflict used chemical weapons, after evidence of the use of Sarin nerve gas was found. A member of a UN panel, Carla Del Ponte, said evidence so far has led to the suspicion it was Syrian rebels who used the chemical agent, but in the U.S., White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. thinks it is more likely that the Assad regime used the chemical weapons.
Mr. Rae said it’s clear that MPs won’t be able to offer simple solutions, but he said Mr. Baird must provide the Commons with more information about the involvement of extremists that has made Ottawa so reluctant to back the Syrian opposition.
“This is not easy stuff and getting it done is not going to be easy, but nevertheless, we have to be careful that the situation not get completely out of hand and that whatever steps are taken, there’s a greater degree of international activity,” he said outside the Commons.