The federal government has delivered a stark warning to roughly 5,000 Canadian citizens in Syria to get out now, hinting the embassy in Damascus won't be there much longer to help them.
"The time to leave Syria is now," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Thursday.
Mr. Baird has warned Canadians in Syria to leave since October. But escalating violence in Syria, combined with sanctions that have reduced the number of flights out of the country, have sparked Ottawa to declare a "voluntary evacuation" from the country. Mr. Baird urged Canadians to get travel documents and book a flight.
Federal officials said they estimate there are roughly 5,000 Canadian citizens in Syria, though only 1,512 have registered with the embassy in Damascus.
Most are believed to be dual citizens who live in Syria, federal officials said. But the complication is that their families are not always all Canadian citizens, and they may require visas to come to Canada.
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has cracked down on protestors, killing about 5,000, according to the United Nations. There have been increasing violent clashes between the Syrian military and defectors, and opposition activists continue to organize strikes and protests.
Sanctions imposed by the Arab League include reducing the number of flights in and out of Syria – and there is a fear there could be a scramble if the situation worsens. Canadian officials said there were seven flights out of Damascus scheduled Thursday, and that about 100 seats were available.
Mr. Baird's warnings came with an unusually clear hint not to expect the embassy to be available much longer to provide passports for Canadian citizens or visas to loved ones. He said teams are being set up in Ottawa to expedite requests, and that the Damascus embassy will offer that service until Jan. 14. The stark exhortation now, he said, was intended to avoid a situation where "our capacity could be very reduced without warning."
"I must warn that, should Canadians stay in Syria, we will not be able to guarantee the current service at our embassy or that commercial options to leave the country will remain available," he said.
He said he does not have a plan to close the Canadian embassy in Damascus "at this time."
"Obviously, with the situation in Libya, once it deteriorated to such a level, we did have to close the embassy in Tripoli," he said. "So what we're saying to Canadians is, we can provide assistance [in Syria]now, but if things continue to deteriorate, there may be a time when we can't."
The warning is not a prelude to war, the Foreign Affairs Minister added. The United Nations cannot even muster a condemnation of the killings of 5,000, he said, so a mandate for military intervention cannot be expected.
He said there are no plans for Canada to join a military coalition to intervene. "That's not something we're contemplating," he said.