Russian ambassador Georgiy Mamedov is urging Canada to stay out of any military action in Syria, warning the West risks repeating the mistakes of the 2003 invasion in Iraq.
Speaking at a foreign policy luncheon in Ottawa, the Russian ambassador to Canada linked the current talk of a military strike on Syria to the events of 2003, where Western forces attacked in response to reports – which were never proven – that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
He argued that terrorists groups such as al-Qaeda – and not the Syrian regime – could have been behind last week's deadly attacks in suburban Damascus, where it is widely suspected that chemical weapons were used.
"I have a sense of déja vu. Ten years ago when I arrived in Canada, [the] first question to me was why we don't support Western intervention in Iraq and I said it's a tragic mistake, it's a tragic mistake because it will only help extremists, terrorists. So my answer is the same after 10 years," he said. "I think terrorists used some primitive chemical devices with the full knowledge that there will be a knee-jerk reaction from certain Western capitals who were under solemn obligation to do something once [the] red line is crossed, but again I think it's a provocation designed to create chaos like in Libya, like in Iraq, like in Afghanistan. And we will all be worse [off] if we unfortunately swallow this bait."
Several Russian officials in addition to the Canadian ambassador made the Iraq comparison Tuesday in an effort to dissuade Western nations from approving a military intervention. In 2003, Canada decided not to take part in the Iraq war.
Mr. Mamedov was speaking at a meeting hosted by Centre for International Governance Innovation to discuss next week's G20 summit of world leaders, which will be hosted by Russia in St. Petersburg.
The focus of the G20 is traditionally on economic matters, rather than discussions of military or political conflicts. The ambassador said the conflict in Syria will not be on the official agenda of the summit, but will be discussed on the sidelines among leaders.
U.S. President Barack Obama had cancelled a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that was to have taken place in Moscow just before the summit. The cancellation was widely seen as an expression of U.S. disappointment with Russia for granting asylum to Edward Snowden, a former U.S. intelligence official who leaked information to the media.
The Russian government expressed its "disappointment" at the time. However Ambassador Mamedov told reporters Tuesday in Ottawa that he expects the two leaders will still meet face-to-face in St. Petersburg at the G20.
"They will see each other there. Mr. Obama decided not to go to Moscow. But St. Petersburg is a different city. I was born in Moscow so I happen to know," he said. "I am absolutely certain that they will talk. Because I know both Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama. I am sure, 100 per cent."
Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations who was in attendance for the ambassador's speech, took issue with the comparison to Iraq.
"They're not the same," he said. "Every one of these issues is different... They require their own particular responses in each case. The idea of saying 'You made that mistake in 2003, don't make it again.' Yes, but we're not in 2003 and it's not the same situation."
Mr. Heinbecker said Russia has so far been unable to secure any concessions from the Assad government in Syria.
"The Russians have been as much part of the problem as part of the solution," he said. "There's a moral obligation to do something. The Russians may think that the outcome will not be satisfactory, but we know for sure that what's going on now is costing a vast upset of human life especially [and] damaged an entire generation of Arabs. It's clear that the Americans are not war mongers in this case, unlike the Iraq case."