Lloyd Axworthy is chair of the World Refugee Council and a former Canadian Foreign Minister. Allan Rock is senior adviser to the World Refugee Council and a former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations.
The coronavirus and its economic and public health impact have dominated headlines and preoccupied us all. Our focus, quite understandably, has been on the health of humanity, and the health of the markets.
But there is another deadly situation that demands our attention. We refer to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, whose government has waged a brutal war on its own citizens for almost a decade, killing more than 400,000, mostly civilians. A massive movement of refugees resulted, burdening Turkey and destabilizing Europe.
Syrian government forces, with Russian airpower, had been bombarding the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib in an effort to eradicate the remaining rebels. More death and displacement resulted. Turkey, which already houses 3.6 million Syrian refugees, fears that more of them will flee to its border. So it has sent its forces into north-west Syria to protect the population. After a series of exchanges, Syrian and Russian attacks killed 36 Turkish soldiers. To complicate matters further, there is now a growing hostility between Turkey and Greece – both NATO members – arising from Turkey opening its border with Greece.
These events are deeply worrying. They create the possibility of a wider war, involving forces from Turkey ranged against those of not only Syria and Russia but Greece as well.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Erdogan have now agreed on a ceasefire. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not a party to that deal, and he seems still determined to finish the job in Idlib. Furthermore, there is real doubt about whether the ceasefire will hold, since others have not. Mr. Putin cannot be trusted, and Mr. Erdogan will always act in self-interest.
There is now an urgent need for concerted diplomatic and political engagement. The stakes are too high to permit inaction. All responsible governments must do whatever they can to bring about a de-escalation of this dangerous situation and to address the compelling humanitarian needs. Canada must do its part.
There are three things we suggest Canada can and should do right away.
First, as a member of NATO, Canada should urge discussions between Turkey and Greece. Canada should actively explore any and all ways to use this forum to promote talks that can provide a way to ratchet down tensions and avoid a violent confrontation between two of NATO’s members.
Second, Canada should help provide humanitarian relief to the civilians displaced by the fighting in Idlib. Hundreds of thousands have been driven from their homes since December into makeshift internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in the Syrian countryside during the cold of winter. There are reports this week of children freezing to death, and of those camps being attacked by the Syrian armed forces. We cannot stand by and watch these tragedies. A way must be found to provide protection, sufficient shelter and life-sustaining supplies.
Third, Canada should take the lead in initiating another round of Syrian refugee resettlement. We can surely accommodate another 40,000 people. Concern about the coronavirus should not present an obstacle. The refugees can be tested and, if need be, quarantined as required to protect public health. We should also get on the phone with other members of the various clubs to which Canada belongs, from the Commonwealth to the Organization of American States (OAS), from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), to urge them to follow our lead and share the responsibility for granting asylum to the desperate Syrians. The EU in particular must step up and accept its share of Syrian refugees. The Turkish government has behaved erratically, but it is justified in complaining that it is simply unable to accommodate an unlimited number of refugees from Syria. The Turks should not be left to carry that responsibility alone.
Canadian Minister of Immigration Marco Mendocino recently met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who inquired admiringly about the success of Canada’s refugee integration. Their discussions can open the way to enlisting Germany as an EU partner on collaborative refugee initiatives.
The coronavirus crisis is obviously of major concern. But that does not give us license to ignore the calls on our conscience from Syria. We can meet both the challenges to global public health and the urgent needs of the Syrian population. Our shared humanity requires us to do no less.
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