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middle east

Foreign Minister John Baird takes part at a panel discussion during the Herziliya Conference. Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012, in Herzliya, Israel.Dan Balilty/The Associated Press

Foreign Minister John Baird flies to the Middle East Friday on a hastily organized mission intended to show Canadian support for two countries inundated with refugees fleeing the raging conflict in Syria.

A trek to visit the teeming masses of displaced people – and announce aid for them – will allow Mr. Baird to be seen taking some action to help the victims of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a long-running conflict that has frustrated Western nations.

And in a region where the Harper government is seen as too pro-Israel, Mr. Baird's meetings in Lebanon and Jordan are a chance to score diplomatic points by siding with them on an issue that is hitting close to home.

Canada has sought to take an active role in the Syrian crisis, having already imposed nine rounds of sanctions on the Assad regime.

In Jordan, on Saturday, Mr. Baird will visit a refugee camp, the country's first official facility for Syrian refugees, and will announce "sizeable" new financial assistance to help Jordan and Lebanon meet the needs of such displaced people.

Officials say Canada already is providing $8.5-million in humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of those people affected inside Syria and those who have fled to neighbouring countries, including Jordan.

Jordan's newly opened Zaatari camp currently is home to about 4,000 displaced Syrians. In Lebanon, no camps have been constructed to house the refugees, believed to number close to 100,000.

Instead, most people find refuge in the homes of families and friends, and in hotels and rented apartments.

In Lebanon, Mr. Baird's first stop Friday evening, he is to meet with Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Fouad Siniora, Parliamentary Leader of the opposition coalition.

This will be the first meeting between a Lebanese prime minister and a member of the Canadian cabinet since 2009, when then-prime minister Siniora met with Jason Kenney. Canadian officials have been concerned that the conflict in Syria is a source of instability in Lebanon, as sectarian ties often span the border. Mr. Baird will make a point of praising Lebanon's role in harbouring Syrian refugees.

"Canada welcomes Lebanon's continued assistance to Syrians escaping the violence in their country," said Mr. Baird's spokesman, Joseph Lavoie. "The Syrian crisis risks undermining stability across the entire region."

"One of the reasons the minister is travelling to Lebanon and Jordan is to determine needs in both places," he said.

The flow of refugees is one area where the Canadian government now has an opportunity to act – after months and months where Western efforts seemed to have negligible impact.

Canada has imposed nine rounds of sanctions on the Assad regime, cutting off virtually all economic contacts. But even though several other Western nations have also imposed sanctions, the Syrian regime can still do business abroad, as Russia and China have resisted efforts at the UN to make those sanctions international.

The flow of refugees might also include some Syrian-Canadian dual citizens – there are likely thousands still in the troubled country. But Ottawa went through great lengths to avoid a repeat of the 2006 scramble to evacuate dual citizens from Lebanon, warning Canadians in Syria repeatedly in December or January to leave, or face being stranded.

Mr. Baird's visit could also help boost the Canadian image in a region where several governments have been alienated by the Harper government's staunch support for Israel. Most Muslim governments, with the notable exception of Iran, oppose the Assad regime in Syria, and the conflict, and the flow of refugees, is having a direct impact on neighbours like Lebanon on Jordan.

In Lebanon, refugees without family or means to rent accommodation are being put up in schools, empty during the summer vacation period. Some, in the border area in the north, are being housed in unused warehouses, with the small communities themselves taking care of the needs of the displaced people.

In Majdal Anjar, a town in the Bekaa Valley in the east, just a few kilometres from the Syrian frontier, Mohamed Rahme, a farmer from Homs in central Syria, his mother, his wife, eight children and 16 grandchildren have found a temporary home in the community's tiny primary school.

"We could use some mattresses," Mr. Rahme said, sitting with some of his grandchildren in the school's central courtyard. Until now, the family, living in three classrooms, has mostly been sleeping on folded blankets on the hard marble floors. Otherwise, the family is grateful for the help they've received.

The school's small tuck shop has been converted into a kitchen, with a two-burner stove turning out meals for the Rahme family and the 43 other people sharing the school.

Mr. Baird is expected to commend the Lebanese government for its handling of the refugee situation to date and for its generosity. He also will emphasize the importance of protecting the displaced people from harm.

In Jordan's Zaatari camp, established on a tract of exposed desert, there is room for another 5,000 people in addition to the 4,000 already there, officials say.

However, new arrivals to Jordan reportedly say they would prefer to stay elsewhere, away from the dust storms and scorpions.

Jordan now has more than 100,000 Syrian refugees, and several thousand other displaced people who have not registered as refugees with the United Nations. As in Lebanon, most people are staying in homes of relatives and friends, or in rented rooms.

For a relatively poor country with little arable land and water, Jordan has had to cope with an influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and 1967, with Iraqi refugees in the 1990s and 2000s, and now refugees from Syria. It's a lot to ask of the tiny kingdom.

"Jordan has, once again, made an exceptional contribution to regional safety and security by welcoming tens of thousands of Syrian refugees," said Mr. Lavoie. "Canada stands ready to help Jordan as it continues to welcome these people."