On a sunny Thursday in Cyprus, holidaymakers relaxed on beach chairs, while a small group of people in Canadian uniform sat inside a nearby hotel meeting room, staring into screens. Displayed on a table was their reason for being here: large printouts of satellite imagery showing the Beirut airport and port, the likely staging grounds for a civilian evacuation that, if it happens, stands to be the largest in Canadian history.
Seventeen years ago, Canada chartered ships and aircraft to pluck thousands of Canadians from Lebanon during a 34-day war between Israel and Islamic militants there.
Now, with Israel at war with Hamas in Gaza, deadly skirmishes have erupted along the border between the two countries, raising fears of further escalation in Lebanon that would require another major civilian rescue.
To date, no evacuation has been called, and it’s not clear on what grounds one would begin.
But “the probabilities are high enough that we decided to lean forward,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Bernatchez, commander of the Canadian ground troops currently in the region. In addition to the personnel at the unit command post in the hotel, soldiers are on the ground at a nearby military base, while others have been positioned in Athens and Beirut.
In total, more than 300 soldiers have been deployed, with orders to be ready to respond.
”I could go tomorrow morning,” said Lieut.-Col. Bernatchez, who landed in Cyprus Oct. 21.
The proximity of Cyprus to Lebanon makes it likely that evacuees would come here first, likely by sea, before moving elsewhere.
Canada is among 20 countries who have sent people to the Mediterranean island to prepare for an evacuation, in addition to the European Union External Action Service. Each has representation at the Zenon Coordination Centre, a Cypriot facility on the edge of the Larnaca airport with space for countries to co-ordinate evacuations, rather than compete.
In total, those countries are planning for the extraction of more than 150,000 people from Lebanon, said Major Andreas Zacharias, deputy commander of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, which operates the Zenon centre. Inside a conference room, a large screen displays a spreadsheet to track air and maritime movements.
On Thursday, it was blank. If evacuations begin, it will quickly fill.
“The idea is to share seats,” said Maj. Zacharias. Rather than a chaotic competition by each country to find suitable vessels, the hope – as yet untested – is that those in the room can work together.
“It’s very important for all of these countries to co-operate and safely evacuate their citizens.”
Sufficient preparations are in place that evacuations could begin within six hours, Maj. Zacharias said, although the timing for individual countries would depend on decisions made in each of their capitals.
Some countries have already positioned military assets. On Thursday, a Swedish Hercules cargo aircraft sat on the tarmac near the Zenon Centre. Canada has one CC-150 Polaris plane in the Mediterranean, which was used to evacuate Canadians from Israel but will remain in the region, Stefanie McCollum, Canada’s ambassador to Lebanon, said in an interview.
In 2006, Canada evacuated 14,370 people by sea from Lebanon.
As of Thursday, more than 17,000 Canadians had registered in the country, up by a third from Oct. 7, the day of the massacre in Israel, although the total number of Canadians may be two or more times that number.
If Lebanon is once again thrust into war, 2023 could mark the largest evacuation in Canadian history, eclipsing the 2006 total, said Ms. McCollum. She came to Lebanon after two years as director of the Global Affairs Canada Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa, which co-ordinates the government response to crises.
Canada has a large footprint in Lebanon. At least two of the country’s current cabinet ministers hold Canadian passports, as do at least 10 of its members of Parliament.
In recent years, however, Lebanon has been gripped by economic and political crises that have massively devalued its currency, frozen much of its savings and left it without a president. Compared to 2006, Lebanon is poorer and Lebanese have fewer options to seek safety in nearby Syria, which has been ravaged by war.
“The Lebanon of 2023 is not the Lebanon of 2006,” Ms. McCollum said.
What that means for the number of people seeking evacuation is not clear: Lebanese Canadians have told The Globe and Mail they simply do not have the funds to live in Canada if they were evacuated. Ms. McCollum said Canadians should speak “directly with the government of Canada to see what support would be available.”
For Canada, the scale of planning reflects a desire to avoid a repeat of the furor directed at Ottawa in 2006, when it took a full week from the start of fighting to complete the first evacuation from Lebanon.
Evacuees at the time reported Canada’s embassy in Beirut closed on the weekend, in the midst of a war. Canada in 2006 had neither an embassy nor full consulate in Cyprus and those rushed in struggled to respond. Three of the first four vessels chartered to Lebanon by Canada were appropriated at sea by other countries offering higher bids.
A 2007 Senate committee report recommended the Canadian government “clarify and strengthen existing agreements with like-minded countries for mutual assistance in times of crisis.” It also advocated for better military preparation.
In Beirut today, evacuation planning is now Canada’s most pressing concern, said Ms. McCollum. Her home is in Canada’s official residence, which looks out on the port that could serve as a staging ground for evacuations.
“The safety and security of Canadians is our paramount priority,” she said.
In Cyprus, meanwhile, Lieut.-Col. Bernatchez expressed gratitude for the decision to dispatch such a large contingent of soldiers in advance, providing sufficient time to adjust to time zones and assess plans. Many have come from the Royal 22nd Regiment, the Van Doos, based in Valcartier, Que.
“We’re doing the right thing,” he said.
“Because if the situation changes, it will change like this,” he said, snapping a finger. He added: “We don’t want to be way too late and folks being stuck in a war zone.”
With a report from Mark MacKinnon