The United States shuttered its embassy in Syria and Britain recalled its ambassador from Damascus as Western powers including Canada tried to turn up public pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to quit before civil war engulfs his bloodied country.
The United States and its allies continue to try to isolate Mr. al-Assad even though diplomatic efforts have so far failed. Russia and China on Saturday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have backed an Arab plan urging Mr. al-Assad to leave power.
The Canadian government is using diplomatic channels to press Moscow to end arms sales to Syria, arguing that even if Russia won’t join an international consensus against Mr. al-Assad’s regime it should distance itself from his bloody crackdown.
Both the U.S. and Britain signalled Monday that they see no purpose in dealing with Mr. al-Assad any longer and talked of cementing ties with Syria’s opposition forces even as chances dim for a peaceful resolution to 11 months of bloodshed.
“This is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said as he recalled his country’s envoy. “There is no way it can recover its credibility internationally.”
U.S. President Barack Obama said the Syrian leader’s departure is only a matter of time.
“We have been relentless in sending a message that it is time for Assad to go,” Mr. Obama told NBC. “This is not going to be a matter of if, it’s going to be a matter of when.”
The most serious violence Monday was reported in Homs, where Syrian government forces, using tanks and machine guns, shelled a makeshift medical clinic and residential areas on the third day of a relentless assault, killing a reported 40 people, activists said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper plans to broach Beijing’s ongoing support for the al-Assad government during his trip to China this week – but he faces a delicate task as he will be keen not to derail expanding bilateral economic relations.
The real diplomatic focus of Canadian efforts remains Russia – seen as the leader in vetoing the security-council resolution.
The Russians are reluctant to side with the West in the Syrian crisis. But Canadians are arguing that an arms embargo would send a signal Moscow does not condone Mr. Assad’s attacks on his own citizens – even while it opts out of international efforts to help oust the Damascus regime.
Canada is trying to persuade the Russians “at a minimum” to stop selling arms to Syria, a government source said, “so as not to appear either overtly or unintentionally complicit in what [the al-Assad regime]is doing.”
They have been pressing that argument in recent weeks, and Canadian diplomats have repeated this message again with authorities in Russia, the source said.
“That’s been taken to Moscow and is being considered.”
Canada has no plans right now to shutter its embassy or diplomatic presence in Damascus despite reducing staff there to a skeleton crew last week. The government said it will keep operating there as long as it considers Canada’s embassy and staff secure.
“The safety of Canadian staff in Syria is our number one priority,” said Chris Day, director of communications for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
Part of Mr. Harper’s agenda in Beijing this week will be trying to explain why Canada thinks China made a grave error in vetoing a draft UN security-council resolution condemning the violent crackdown by Mr. al-Assad’s regime.
Mr. Baird is expected to raise the matter with his foreign affairs counterpart in China. The Prime Minister’s Office, however, couldn’t say whom Mr. Harper would engage in Beijing on Syria.
He may as well save his breath. For China, this is another coming-of-age moment, a decision to tell the world that the United States and the West don’t get to make all the rules any more. There’s nothing that the Prime Minister of Canada can say to persuade China to stand aside, as it feels it was pressured into doing on a similar UN resolution on Libya.
“Era of abstention shifts to confident veto,” was the title of the lead editorial in Monday’s edition of the Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the ruling Communist Party. China abstained last spring on UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which was used as the basis for NATO military intervention in Libya.
“China needs to speak out. Hiding its true thinking does not help avoid trouble,” the editorial read. “The veto may have its consequences, but the Chinese people are willing to face it together.”
It’s the same line emanating from Russia: The United States pressured Moscow to abstain on Resolution 1973 and allow the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya. The U.S. and its allies then pushed military action far beyond what Russia expected, creating the conditions for Moammar Gadhafi’s regime to be toppled. The Kremlin says it won’t be tricked again, nor will it abandon its long-time ally Mr. al-Assad.
“We all saw how the Libyan scenario unfolded. Now an investigation is needed to find out how exactly the UN mandate was applied. That is why Russia is strongly opposed to the Libyan scenario,” the state-owned Voice of Russia radio station reported on its website Monday.
Moscow and Beijing, of course, also share another concern: that the wave of popular uprisings that has swept through the Middle East may continue on to Red Square and Tiananmen Square. The Kremlin has already been rattled in recent months by the largest protests to hit Russia since the early 1990s; China has escalated its crackdown on dissidents since early last year, when Internet users began calling for an Arab Spring-inspired uprising in Beijing.
Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, told the CBC on Sunday that Canada “will be talking to the Chinese and to the Russians, and explaining to them our view, as to why their veto is wrong.” Canada also plans to raise its concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and threats toward Israel. But Mr. Harper would be naïve to assume President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will be listening when he meets them this week.
When asked Monday what China expected from Mr. Harper’s trip, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing ticked off a list of areas that the Chinese were interested in exploring: “Our two countries are making good progress in various fields, such as economy and trade and energy resources, science, education, culture and health,” the spokesman, Liu Weimin, said in an interview. “We hope that through this visit we can further promote the political trust between us and the practical co-operation in various fields, so that we can move forward Sino-Canadian strategic relations.”
Not included on that agenda? Asking what Canada thinks about China’s policies toward the Middle East.
“China does not accept the accusations” that it is protecting Mr. al-Assad’s regime while it wages war against its own people, Mr. Liu said. “China does not have its own selfish interest on the issue of Syria. We don’t shelter anyone. We uphold justice on the Syrian issue.”
On human rights, the Chinese appear to be equally firm. In an editorial printed shortly after Mr. Harper’s plane left Ottawa, the official Xinhua newswire lauded the “new momentum” in Canada-China ties, but the editorial also contained language that could be read as a warning for Mr. Harper not to resume lecturing Beijing on issues such as human rights and Tibet.
“For the train of bilateral ties to go forward unhindered, a core precondition is that the two sides have to always treat each other with respect, accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns and appropriately handle sensitive issues,” it reads. “Core interests” is Chinese official-speak for Tibet and Taiwan, while “sensitive issues” frequently refers to China’s treatment of its dissidents.
With a report from The Associated PressReport Typo/Error
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