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A conversation with Syria's acting envoy to Canada

An image taken from Syrian state TV on Wednesday shows some of the 1,000 Syrian prisoners freed on Tuesday in an apparent last-ditch bid to placate Arab leaders as Turkey and the UN warned President Bashar al-Assad to stop killing his own people.

AFP/GETTY IMAGES -/AFP/Getty Images

For months, the world has watched as the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has cracked down on protesters, with a death toll of more than 3,000, according to the United Nations. The Arab League has suspended Syria. Rebels attacked a military base Wednesday. Canada has called for Mr. al-Assad to resign, and a Syrian-Canadian group wants the country's acting ambassador, Bashar Akbik, to be expelled. But Mr. Akbik argues the world is hearing a false version of events, which have been exploited and fomented by foreign powers. He spoke to The Globe and Mail this week. The following is a somewhat abridged version of that conversation.

There's a report that Syrian defectors from the army have attacked a military base. Is this becoming a civil war?

"No. God forbid civil war. Because if civil war happens, really, it will not be only in Syria. It might start in Syria, but it will engulf the whole area. It will be a disaster in the Middle East. What's happening in Syria now is that we have a kind of armed insurrection taking place in the country.

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"To give you a good view of the situation, we have to go back to the beginning. After what happened in what we now call the Arab Spring … the repercussions arrived in Syria. And people were encouraged to go in peaceful demonstrations, asking for more liberties, against corruption, asking for real democracy in the country, and participating in political life. These were legitimate requests. Unfortunately, we in Syria are not really used to demonstrations, so security forces went to handle these demonstrations, and they handled it very badly. We acknowledged this. President al-Assad acknowledged this. He ordered the arrest of many important figures in Syrian security because they mishandled the demonstrations and that led to many casualties inflicted on the demonstrators, many killed. It was really very unfortunate. President al-Assad went on TV and he said he was sorry for what happened, and that the Syrian government is responsible about the delays in reforms in Syria. The Syrian government was working on the reforms in Syria, and they were going in that direction."

So how then did this go from that to the state it's at now?

"I'm starting from the beginning. It's much different now. There was some delay in the reforms. President al-Assad instantly said that we will start to make rapid reforms and we will issue the decrees that will pave the way for taking Syria into real democracy, liberty, and all of what the people were demonstrating for. He assigned committees to start preparing decrees on elections, about the formation of parties in Syria, for the freedom of the press. He three times issued decrees to let out detainees who were arrested during the demonstrations. General amnesty. Armed people started to infiltrate the demonstrations, and they started to shoot at the police – who at that time had very stringent orders not to shoot at any demonstrators – and to shoot at the demonstrators, so that police would think the demonstrators are shooting at them, and the demonstrators would think that the police were shooting at them. Those gunmen – most of them are criminals – we knew afterward they were offered money and arms from the Islamic Brotherhood movement stationed in Saudi Arabia, some Gulf countries, Lebanon, Iraq, and even Turkey and Jordan."

So these are not protests by ordinary people now?

"It is protests. I'm telling you how it started from peaceful demonstrations and turned into something else. There are peaceful protests, and when it's peaceful protests, the police, like anywhere else in the world, the police just stand and watch because they don't want any riots to happen. When there are no riots, why should they shoot at them, logically?

"Then the demonstrators, who were asking only for reforms … started to say that they wanted to get rid of the regime, and they rejected the reform package. And every time the government did a very good reform decree, they said, 'It's too late, this has no meaning under the pressure of security operations.' And then they started to say, we want to foil the regime. This became the main request. Those armed people started to make more effective operations against the army and security, using, sometimes, medium to heavy weapons. Where are these weapons coming from?"

So is the government going to go ahead with reforms?

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"It already did. The government made 14 decrees which we never, in Syria, even dreamed about. … And then [President al-Assad]formed a committee to study amending the constitution. One of the things they said is a must is to cancel item No. 8 from the constitution, which says that the Baath Socialist Party is the leader of the society and the state. Imagine! The Baath party has been leading the country for 50 years now. The government is working in the right direction."

The images we see of tanks in the streets, isn't that the government cracking down on protesters?

"We are now facing armed insurrection. It's no longer peaceful protests in many little towns and villages in Syria. We have people on the streets, mostly Salafists, mostly Islamic fundamentalists, who are run by the Islamic Brotherhood movement in adjacent countries. We have people on the street, also armed, who are working for foreign countries …"

Who?

"Okay, let's be frank. They are working for the United States, they are working for France, for England. They are like agents. They take support from them, they take money, communications. And they are trying to escalate the situation with the army and security. There are drug smugglers, arms smugglers, there are murderers. It's chaos in the streets. You cannot say that the people who are fighting against the Syrian army and security are totally Syrian opposition."

So that's why the tanks are there?

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"The tanks are not inside the city. They stay in the rough terrain, which are normally uninhabited zones. But you have to make a distinction between tanks and armoured vehicles. Armoured vehicles are not tanks and they need this to protect the army."

The Arab League has suspended Syria. Turkey has suspended some projects. There are efforts by some countries at least to have the United Nations develop sanctions. How do you view that?

"When we say it's a conspiracy, nobody wants to believe. Western powers, and the United States comes to the fore here, have been fighting Syria for decades. They want to get rid of Syria. These countries have their strategies toward the Middle East. They have their ambitions, they have their greeds in the area. They want to reshape the area into a new Middle East. They want to impose their own thoughts, their own democracy. They want to steal from the people in the area their petroleum, their mineral resources. Syria is always standing in their face …

"They found that now is the best time to try to get rid of the Syrian regime, and say that the Syrian regime is harassing people, and killing, and murdering, and making human-rights issues, so that they would foil the regime.

"The Arab League – do you think that the human-rights situation in most of the Arab countries, especially Gulf countries, is better than Syria? The Arab League is financed by two or three major countries. They want to get rid of Syria. They are under American control and everybody knows that. Add to this that some Arab countries want to get rid of Syria in the context of the Sunni-Shia conflict. Since Syria is an ally of Iran, they don't like this. They want to isolate Iran.

"Turkey – [a few years ago]our relations were very, very good, economic, political, we even cancelled visas. Last year, Syria imported $2.5-billion in goods from Turkey … Things were going very well. Now, what's happened is really surprising to us. But in my opinion, the current Turkish government, the Justice and Development party, is originally a Muslim Brotherhood. For a long time, Turkey hosted the leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and they are hosting the conferences of the Syrian opposition. Maybe Turkey has a view that they want to let the Muslim Brothers in Syria take over power and become an extension of Turkey."

Let me switch to Canada. Canada doesn't have a deep regional presence. What message have you been getting from Canada?

"Of course, we cannot consider Canada like the U.S, Britain, and France. Canada is a country still known for her good history, her support for human-rights issues, women's issues, environment, support for United Nations agencies. Canada has never been a colonialist country. And we always, in the past, had good relations. Now what happened, I'm really not sure. I can tell you Syria's relations with Canada started to degrade from 2006. Canada started to change her policy toward the Arab region and the Middle East. Before, Canada was always in the middle. Of course, you know, our big cause in the Middle East is the Palestinian cause, and Arab-Israeli conflict. Canada was always somewhere in the middle; she would always try to convince both parties to talk together. Then, if we go from 2006, and if you look at Canada's positions, for example, in the United Nations agencies, she was always closer to Israel and farther from the Arabs. Everybody knows that the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr. Harper, and the Foreign Minister, they say it clearly, they are with Israel to the end. This made the relations lukewarm, but it's not a bad relationship. Now I don't know what Canada's decision is based on. Is it because they are allied with the United States? I always see a resemblance between American declarations on Syria and Canadian declarations on Syria since the beginning of the crisis. Instead of taking such a negative stand on Syria, we expected [Canada]to try to help Syria, and try and help the government and the opposition sit and talk."

There have been protesters outside your door here. There have been complaints from some that they're being watched, or their names are being sent back to Syria. One woman, for example, says her neighbours in Syria have been asked questions by Syrian security.

"We have been through this for months. The majority of Syrian-Canadians are pro-President al-Assad. This is something Canadian police and government know very well because police accompanied all the demonstrations which were loyal to President al-Assad or against him. And they know the difference [in size of protest]between the protests loyal to the country and the opposition protests. When pro-Assad demonstrators go to the streets, the smallest demonstration is 500, 600 people … [but]when five or 10 people from the opposition have a demonstration, you find all Canadian media coming and interviewing them."

What about the substance? Is it true what they say, that names are being sent back to Syria?

"No. … I used to live with my wife and my little daughter in Canada, and I have my mother and two elder daughters in Damascus, they are studying in universities. After a while, a friend of my wife said to her, 'Did you see the demonstration of May 9' – because they do the demonstration and put it on YouTube. My wife said no. She gave her the site, and my wife looked at it. There was someone holding the megaphone – he thought I was inside the embassy – and he said, ambassador, we know your mother and two daughters are in Damascus. When my wife saw that, she fainted. She took my little Julia, she's seven years old, and she went back to Damascus to stay with her girls, and I'm now alone for five months. We had threats.

"On the CBC, there was one lady who went to them and told them that she was threatened by someone related to the embassy – she would not give his name, she would not give his telephone number, she would not give anything because she was afraid that Syrian intelligence would threaten her family. Prime Minister Harper was asked about this by a journalist, and he said, 'I have no idea about that but if there is something like that we will take measures.' Many other journalists called to ask me about this. We told them, we are a small embassy, we are not the CIA. We are not the KGB. We are a little country, we don't have intelligence agents knocking on their doors and threatening them. Then I told them – I mean the opposition – if you have something, really, in your hands, why don't you go to the police and the police will close our embassy."

They're asking now for you to be expelled from Canada. Do you think that will happen?

"I don't know. This is a matter related completely to the Canadian government. I hope this will not take place. After all, we are an embassy here, our job is to try to improve Canadian-Syrian relations, whatever is happening now."

How will this situation end globally? The protests in Syria, the demonstrations, the international pressure and Canadian complaints?

"I will tell you how. Many times we have invited the Syrian opposition to come to a national dialogue conference. So we all sit together, the government, the independents, the internal opposition and those outside opposition."

Do you think that's likely?

"Dialogue is always the civilized way to get out of a problem. The opposition does not represent all of the Syrian people. They represent maybe, in my opinion, 10 to 15 per cent maximum. … President al-Assad still enjoys the support of not less than 70 per cent."

Do you think there will be Western or outside military intervention in Syria?

"All is possible. I think what has been done now by the Arab League is another [case]of the Libyan model. They – not all Arab countries, because there is a very big division in the Arab League – they are doing this to give NATO or any foreign intervention the green light to go ahead. But Syria is not Libya.

"Secondly, the Syrian National Council is dominated by Muslim Brothers. They brought one figure, a professor from France called Burhan Ghalioun, as a leader. He's a puppet leader, so they can say, 'Look, we are not Muslim Brothers, our leader is a liberal.' They brought some Christians, some Alawites, to say 'Look, the National Council includes all elements of Syria.' And this is not true. The National Council was created in Turkey by Turkish hands and it's completely dominated by the Muslim Brothers.

"Would Canada really like to support the Muslim Brothers taking over in Syria, like what's happening now in Tunis and Libya, and God forbid, in Egypt? They know what the results will be. How come we are fighting al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalists in Canada and the United States and in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we are supporting them in the Middle East?"

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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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