The United States has shifted course to provide aid directly to Syria’s rebels, but Canada doesn’t have enough confidence in them to follow suit.
It is a rare international question where the two allies are taking different views: Canada, which was gung-ho about helping rebels in Libya, thinks it’s too risky to fund those in Syria.
On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States will for the first time send so-called non-lethal aid such as food and medical supplies directly to the Free Syrian Army, as well as provide $60-million to the political wing of the coalition seeking to unseat President Bashar al-Assad.
While that fell short of the pledges of arms and equipment that Syrian rebels really want, it marks a shift in U.S. policy to directly support rebels fighting the Assad regime.
“We do this because we need to stand on the side of those in this fight who want to see Syria rise again in unity and see a democracy and human rights and justice,” Mr. Kerry said after a meeting in Rome of countries supporting the opposition.
But Canada – unlike the United States, most of Europe and much of the Arab world – has never recognized the opposition’s umbrella organization, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, as the “legitimate representative” of Syrians. And it’s not about to follow the U.S. allies in sending aid to the Free Syrian Army, either.
“After 23 months of violence and 70,000 deaths, the answer to the crisis in Syria is not more violence,” said Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. “Canada is working to address the humanitarian crisis the conflict in Syria has produced.”
Ottawa has long expressed worries about the fractious nature of the Syrian opposition and about Islamist extremists in their midst. In December, when dozens of countries recognized the coalition, Mr. Baird said he was waiting for the opposition to be more inclusive to minorities and women, and denounce extremism.
The Harper government has not changed its stand – essentially, it still doesn’t trust the opposition, or feel confident it can send money to rebels without some of it ending up in the hands of Islamist fighters whom it views as a danger that could live on past the anti-Assad rebellion. Ottawa will still try to work with the Syrian opposition and fund efforts to aid refugees, government sources said, but hasn’t changed its mind on sending aid to rebels.
It’s a stand that has baffled Syrian-Canadian groups. “We don’t really understand the Canadian position,” said Khaled Sawaf, president of the Syrian Canadian Council. It’s one thing to decide not to send weapons to the Free Syrian Army, but there’s no reason to withhold aid like food and medical supplies, he said.
Mr. Kerry said one reason for sending money to the Syrian coalition is to try to counter the influence of extremists. “The stakes are really high. And we can’t risk letting this country, in the heart of the Middle East, be destroyed by vicious autocrats or hijacked by the extremists,” he said.
But the Syrian cleric who is the coalition president, Moaz al-Khatib, complained at an appearance with Mr. Kerry that some “focus [more] on the length of the rebel fighter’s beard than they do on the blood of the children being killed.”
Some analysts, though, hailed the U.S. move. “This is a slight shift in U.S. policy and it is required of the U.S. if it wants to be involved in Syria going forward. In such a complicated situation, it’s important a direct relationship with the Free [Syrian] Army is established,” said Radwan Ziadeh, the Washington-based director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies
Ottawa took a different stand when Libyan rebels took up arms against Moammar Gadhafi, joining a NATO air-strikes mission and recognizing the rebels’ political coalition as the representatives of the people. But it has been cautious on Syria, fearful the conflict could spill over borders – and the concerns of Israel, worried that new dangers will emerge from a fragmented Syria, may be one reason for its reluctance.