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Politics Canadians urged to get out of Syria while they still can

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird delivered a pretty clear signal yesterday: Canadians in Syria, he said, should take commercial flights out of the country "while they're still available." It followed an attack by rebels on a Syrian military base and France's recall of its ambassador.

After Libya, one might think Western air forces are about to fly in. But Syria's not Libya. Canada, and many other countries, are reproducing part of the strategy they used for Libya, but not all of it.

Mr. Harper has been quite gung-ho in condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ottawa was cautious about Arab Spring movements in Tunisia and Egypt, but zealous in opposing Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. They look at Syria, with a regime they dislike, more like Libya than the others.

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Still, when Syrian-Canadians mount a protest in Ottawa on Saturday, they won't get all they're demanding from the Harper government. Syria's opposition hasn't made the strides Libya's did in March. Canada's allies aren't itching for military action but international pressure on the al-Assad regime is stepping up. For Ottawa, it's one step at a time.

Canada doesn't have many levers. Trade is small. The main ties are people – 30,000 to 100,000 Syrian-Canadians, depending on the estimate, and perhaps thousands of Canadians in Syria.

Syria's acting ambassador, Bashar Akbik, said ties cooled since Mr. Harper government took office, suggesting it's due to its pro-Israel stand. That's probably partly true. Syria's alliance with Iran and support of Hezbollah are red flags to Mr. Harper's government. But the crackdowns within Syria are the impetus now.

One sign of the Libya strategy being repeated was Mr. Baird's recent move to publicize meetings with representatives of the Syrian National Council, the opposition group modelling itself after the National Transitional Council in Libya, which wrested power from Col. Gadhafi.

Western and Arab countries legitimized Libya's NTC by recognizing it even before Col. Gadhafi's forces were defeated. Canada and others are trying to boost Syria's opposition now by meeting them.

But the Syrian Canadian Council, the organizer of Saturday's protest, wants more – for Ottawa to officially recognize the Syrian National Council as a government-in-exile. They're not likely to get it now.

There are doubts whether the fledgling Syrian Council represents all the opposition, perhaps more so than in Libya, said University of Ottawa Professor Costanza Musu. Libyan rebels controlled territory before the NTC was recognized, but the Syrian council is in Turkey.

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Mr. Baird has, a Canadian official said, met several times with Hassan Hachimi, a Syrian-Canadian member of the Syrian National Council. But recognition will come later if it can increase pressure.

Protest organizers also want Mr. Harper to boot out Mr. Akbik from Canada. Some Syrian Canadians accused the embassy of organizing threats and relaying their names to Syrian security, but Mr. Akbik insists it's a fabrication.

"We're a small embassy, not the CIA," he said. He insists most Syrian Canadians support Mr. Assad, a claim that makes protesters' blood boil. Expelling him would be a symbolic move, but France has withdrawn its ambassador, and Ottawa now faces pressure to make a similar gesture.

In the meantime, another step from the Libya playbook is moving forward: pressure from Muslim neighbours. Turkey, an emerging regional power, halted oil projects in Syria. The Arab League suspended Syria on Wednesday. That might lead to UN sanctions.

But military intervention seems far off. The Arab League is against it. The UN mandated a no-fly zone in Libya partly because China and Russia couldn't be sure Col. Gadhafi wouldn't really make the streets run red with blood. The al-Assad regime crackdowns haven't yet evoked the same crazy factor. The question, Prof. Musu said, is whether the al-Assad regime will turn far bloodier if its tight control starts to erode. That is probably what would spark more international action.

NATO's military mission in Libya is counted as a success, but it looked threadbare for a while, with few allies doing airstrikes, and material running short. The United States is loath to enter another war, and NATO allies probably couldn't do it without them, Prof. Musu said.

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That leaves Mr. Harper's government with little steps, urging international isolation and trying to join others to boost the credibility of the opposition, one step at a time.

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

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