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Canada, EU at odds over arming Syrian rebels

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird leaves a news conference about visas between Canada and the United Arab Emirates, in Ottawa on Tuesday.


The Harper government is telling its European allies that arming rebels in Syria is a mistake, warning that the step will lead to "more death and more destruction."

The European Union's decision to end an embargo on sending arms to Syria has underlined that the Western world is divided over how to deal with the country's violence. Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird insisted the differences won't strain ties with some of Canada's closest NATO allies, even as the United States expressed support for the EU's position.

At one end of the spectrum are Britain and France, which succeeded in tearing up the EU arms ban so they can send weapons to so-called moderate elements of the Syrian opposition.

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And at the other end is Canada, which has refused to provide a political endorsement of Syria's opposition National Coalition, let alone arm rebel militias.

"My strong view is that the only way to end the suffering of the Syrian people is a political solution, that flooding the country and the region with more arms will lead to more violence, more death and more destruction," Mr. Baird said Tuesday. "So certainly Canada has no intention of following suit."

The United States, meanwhile, is in the middle: White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration "welcomes" the EU step, but so far the U.S. is not arming rebels.

At the moment, Western nations are resting their first hopes on a "peace conference" sponsored by two countries once bitterly divided over Syria, the U.S. and Russia, who are now hoping to revive the Geneva Communiqué peace proposal that was approved by several countries last June but later abandoned.

On Tuesday, Russian officials complained that the EU vote to scrap the arms embargo won't help peace talks – but Russia has continued to sell weapons to the Assad regime throughout the conflict.

Britain and France reportedly see the lifting of the arms embargo as a means of pressing the Assad regime to make concessions and agree to transfer power to a transitional government; if the talks fail, it would be a means to strengthen moderates rather than extremists.

But it's clear the civil war has turned the opinion of many Western nations, including the U.S., which are much less certain of the opposition than they were in the early days of the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.

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At the White House, Mr. Carney indicated that the U.S. has a two-track strategy: working on support for the opposition even as it pushes reluctant opposition figures to take part in talks.

"Support for the opposition is a track that we are pursuing even as we also work with the opposition in an effort to realize the Geneva Communiqué and bring about the political transition that is envisioned in it," Mr. Carney said.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More


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