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Foreign Minister John Baird visits Syria’s neighbours to ease tension

As civil war rages, Syrian refugees have spilled over the borders into neighbouring countries, living in camps like Jordan’s Al Zaatri camp.


When he landed in Lebanon to start a Mideast tour on Friday, John Baird sent a message about Canada's dominant concern about conflict in Syria: the fear it might spread.

Mr. Baird's three-day mission, including meetings in Beirut and Amman, is aimed at underlining Ottawa's broader priority: promoting stability in Syria's neighbours so they don't slip down a similar path of conflict.

The centrepiece of his trip will be his same-day trek to Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp to meet refugees from Bashar al-Assad's regime.

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Unlike Britain, which pledged £5-million ($7.8-million Canadian) in non-weapon aid for Syrian rebels, Canada hasn't overtly backed a faction of anti-Assad fighters. But Mr. Baird is making a point of backing the neighbours who must manage a humanitarian crisis and fear a spillover of violence.

On Friday, Mr. Baird met with both Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and opposition politician Fouad Siniora, a show of support for political co-operation among Lebanon's complex patchwork of factions at a time when civil war rages next door.

"Canada supports Lebanon's efforts to deal with the effects of what's happening next door in Syria," Mr. Baird said in a statement released after the meeting. "It is now more important than ever that the international community act decisively and in unison to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis before instability and chaos spread throughout the region."

The world has found it hard to find decisive action, however. Western nations, wary of military intervention, have also worried about a divided opposition that could break into chaos if President al-Assad is ousted. Unlike in Libya's civil war, Ottawa is cooler about openly supporting specific rebel groups than say, Britain, though it's clearly against the current regime.

A bigger fear in Ottawa is spillover; many of Lebanon's sectarian dividing lines echo Syria's. Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor with Queen's University and the Royal Military College, recalled the scramble to evacuate Lebanese-Canadians in 2006 and noted the Lebanese diaspora in Canada numbers 160,000. That's a Canadian constituency with a close interest in stability, and a potential source of displaced people.

"If Lebanon collapses as a spillover effect, it's not going to be pretty," Prof. Leuprecht said.

This is also a regional goodwill exercise: Here is Stephen Harper's foreign minister, visiting the region, not in transit elsewhere, and without a stop in Israel, its closest ally. In Jordan, a moderate player which has sent signals it wants international assistance, Mr. Baird will seek to buttress an Arab neighbour with whom Ottawa has maintained relatively close ties.

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"He's not going to Israel. This is really that Canada has an interest in the region in and of itself, and that it's not purely to bolster Israeli security – that Canada has a genuine broader interest in stability in the region," Prof. Leuprecht said.

That's likely to help Canada's image in the region, as will Mr. Baird's move to highlight the human tragedy by visiting a refugee camp, said Bessma Momani, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Drawing attention to that does bring a symbolic rebuke to the Assad regime too, she said.

Talks with neighbours over Syria can also help for Canadian diplomacy in the future, Prof. Leuprecht said. Ottawa can't be very influential in events inside Syria, but if the regime is ousted, Lebanon and Jordan will matter. "No matter what the post-Assad outcome is going to be, they're both going to be critical in the reconstruction of Syria," he said.

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