Ottawa issued export permits for made-in-Canada target-acquisition gear to be shipped to Turkey last year, despite an arms embargo, after assurances from Turkish officials that the equipment would only be used to protect civilians under attack in Syria, newly unveiled documents show.
These government records were released to the House foreign affairs committee, which is investigating how this targeting equipment ended up being used by combatants in the 2020 Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Drones played a major role in the fighting and the parliamentary committee has been probing the means by which restricted Canadian imaging technology made by L3Harris Wescam turned up in drones being operated by Azerbaijan. The gear from Wescam, based in Burlington, Ont., had been authorized for export to Turkey only.
The information made public Friday appears to confirm what the department of Global Affairs has been separately investigating for nearly six months – that Canadian military goods were illegally diverted from their intended customer and use.
As The Globe and Mail first reported, Canada issued export permits last May for the delivery of seven MX-15D air-strike targeting systems made by Wescam to Turkish drone-maker Baykar. That green light for shipments to Turkey came despite an arms embargo in place since late 2019 that prohibited the export of most categories of military gear to Turkish customers.
But federal government documents released to the foreign affairs committee show that Turkey had pressed Ottawa to allow the shipment on the grounds that it was necessary to safeguard civilians in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. Turkey borders this province and backs opposition forces in Syria’s nine-year-long civil war. Its armed forces operate in Idlib and are seeking to prevent more refugees from streaming into Turkish territory.
A May 6, 2020, memo by Marta Morgan, deputy minister of foreign affairs, recommends to then-foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne that he permit the export of the Wescam gear to the Turks. In the memo, Ms. Morgan said this represents an “exceptional circumstances” case.
Turkey is an ally of Canada in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance, but in October, 2019, Ottawa halted the approval process for new export permits to ship military goods to Turkey, citing Ankara’s “military incursion into Syria.” It followed Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria in an assault on Kurdish forces.
And in April, 2020, the federal government released a public caution that prospective exporters should assume requests to ship Group 2 military goods would be rejected. Group 2 is a sprawling category that includes most goods that are considered weapons.
However, Global Affairs pressed Mr. Champagne to allow an exception on humanitarian grounds.
“Based on assurances provided to you by the Turkish foreign minister, [Canadian] officials have assessed that they are intended for use to help protect civilians in Idlib,” the foreign affairs deputy minister wrote.
She raised the spectre of a new offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against civilians in the northwest Syrian province.
“The potential for a renewed Assad regime offensive on the region carries the risk of dire humanitarian consequences,” Ms. Morgan wrote. “Turkey’s military presence in Idlib may help to deter or delay this eventuality and may mitigate the humanitarian costs if a new offensive is launched.”
Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher with arms-control group Project Ploughshares says it’s absurd that Canada first barred arms exports to Turkey back in 2019 over Ankara’s conduct in northern Syria, but then granted military exports again for Turkish operations in the same third country. “Why is that permissible? What is the logic here?” he asked.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said it appears that Turkey and Turkish business interests persuaded Mr. Champagne to make exceptions to the arms embargo.
“It’s clear that Turkey misled Canadian officials about the purpose for which this gear would be used,” he said. “But I would equally say that the Canadian government was naive and [made an] ill-informed decision about the situation in the region.”
He said the also-released risk assessments conducted for the export of target-acquisition gear suggest “no one is considering the conflict in the Caucasus.”
Mr. Chong notes that other documents show that even as the conflict was raging in Nagorno-Karabakh, Mr. Champagne was telephoning the Turkish government to seek Ankara’s support for former Liberal finance minister Bill Morneau’s candidacy for secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris said it appears to him that the Liberal government “decided the relationship with Turkey was more important than arms-control obligations.”
Asked for comment, the Turkish embassy in Ottawa defended its conduct.
“We will not rush to comment on the documents that were released … they will be analyzed in due course,” the Turkish diplomatic mission said in a statement.
The embassy said Canada should stop blocking exports to an ally. “We strongly believe that the restrictions on export permits of controlled goods and technology to NATO ally Turkey are unjustified and misguided. Turkey meticulously upholds human rights and NATO standards.”
Turkey also defended its actions in Syria.
“We also feel it necessary to underline once again that Turkey has been the protector of all Syrian civilians. Turkey has been hosting four million Syrian and other refugees for a decade, at a huge expense to its economy.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.