Syria’s top diplomat in Canada is striking back at Ottawa for what he says are “deplorable” sanctions imposed by the Harper government that he insists are harming innocent civilians in his country.
Bashar Akbik, Syria’s charge d’affairs, levelled that accusation in an interview with The Canadian Press during which he steadfastly denied that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the killing of thousands of innocent civilians in a bloody 11-month crackdown on dissent.
Mr. Akbik blamed terrorists and criminals for the violence in his country. He said a Western-led “conspiracy” – with Saudi Arabia’s collusion – is trying to overthrow his government and that conspiracy is responsible for the carnage that the United Nations says has left more than 5,400 dead.
“Hollywood”-style videos on the Internet that have fabricated scenes of government forces killing innocent civilians are part and parcel of the international plot, he said.
Mr. Akbik’s denial came within hours of United Nations human rights chief, Navi Pillay, telling the General Assembly that Mr. Assad’s regime has likely committed crimes against humanity.
Canada has imposed five rounds of sanctions on Syria and has repeatedly said Mr. Assad must leave power. The government has also maintained that sanctions are not hurting innocent citizens but are helping to destabilize the Mr. Assad regime.
“Canada is helping to worsen the life of the Syrian citizens and the sanctions will bring no result,” Mr. Akbik said in a lengthy interview Monday in his Syrian embassy office in Ottawa.
“This is really deplorable, the Canadian stand towards the current events in Syria,” he added. “Since the first days of the insurgency in Syria, the Canadian government took a belligerent position against the Syrian regime.”
Mr. Akbik also took aim at a senior Foreign Affairs official who told a House of Commons foreign affairs committee last week that the sanctions were undermining Mr. Assad’s grip on power.
Barbara Martin, director general of the department’s Middle East bureau, said Canadian sanctions imposed as part of an international effort were triggering a dive in the value of Syria’s currency while creating bread lines and electricity blackouts.
“This is really deplorable for a bureaucrat to sit and talk and give their opinions. They get high salaries and live like kings here in Canada while our people are suffering from sanctions,” said Mr. Akbik.
“I would tell her, the Saddam Hussein regime was under sanctions and isolation for 13 years – the strongest isolation and sanctions any country could take. Saddam and his government were living like kings, but the people were dying from shortages of medicines, pollution of water, from shortage of medical equipment, from pollution of food, et cetera.”
Mr. Akbik blamed terrorists and criminals for violence in Syria that now bears a striking resemblance to a civil war. He outlined what he called a Western-led conspiracy that is determined to overthrow his government. Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia has no use for good friends, Iran and Syria, because they are Shiite, he said.
The “neocolonialist western schemes” of the United States, Britain and France aim to “turn the Middle East into little entities which are weak, which are all belligerent to each other because of sectarian or national problems ... they want to control the gas and petroleum in the Middle East, by which they will manipulate the rising powers like China and Russia.”
Mr. Akbik’s account bore little resemblance to the presentation that Ms. Pillay, the United Nations human rights chief, gave to the General Assembly Monday.
Ms. Pillay said tens of thousands of people, children included, have been arrested, while as many as 18,000 have been arbitrarily detained and thousands more are reported missing. Another 25,000 have fled Syria while more than 70,000 are internally displaced.
“The nature and scale of abuses by the Syrian government indicate that crimes against humanity are likely to have been committed since March 2011,” Ms. Pillay said.
“Furthermore, the breadth and patterns of attacks by military and security forces on civilians, and the widespread destruction of homes, hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure indicate approval or complicity by authorities at the highest level.”
Mr. Akbik said his government has no blood on its hands and he denounced the macabre Internet images filtering out of his mainly closed country and the reports of human rights watchdogs.
“Much of what you see is like Hollywood things,” he said.
“Many countries in the world want to foil the regime in Syria. They are paying billions of dollars for media. Everything possible – arms, money technology, communication means. They also are doing films.”
Mr. Akbik said his country has no intention of allowing journalists from CNN, BBC or even the leading Arab news network, Al-Jazeera, into the country to report on the situation because they are biased against Syria.
Canadian journalists are no longer welcome either, he said.
“We know that Canadian media is totally, totally biased to one side of the conflict. So what’s the use?”
As for his dealings in Ottawa, Mr. Akbik said he has been called in to Foreign Affairs for many meetings, often for dressing down.
What do Canadian officials tell him?
“Their message is what you read in the newspapers.”
And what does he tell them?
“I try to tell them not to depend on the Western media and some Arab media who are exaggerating very much the events and the stories you hear here,” said Mr. Akbik.
“I try to let them understand the core of the problem. But alas the position of the Canadian government has not changed. It’s becoming harder and harder.”
The envoy arrived in Ottawa in July 2010. He said his government fully intended to assign a full-time ambassador to Ottawa but has been preoccupied with the dealing with unrest back home.
Canada’s ambassador to Syria remains at his post in Damascus with a skeleton staff. The U.S. and Britain have withdrawn their envoys.