Evidence of meeting #49 for Foreign Affairs and International Development in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was regime.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

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8:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

I would like to welcome everybody. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the orders of the day are a briefing on the situation in Syria.

I would like to welcome Ambassador Akoguz here today. We want to thank you very much for taking time to come and talk to us.

We are missing a couple of colleagues. As I think most of you are aware, there was a security issue down around Confederation, so those members will come in as things go on.

We want to get started.

Ambassador, welcome. We're looking forward to hearing from you. Why don't we start with your opening statement, and then we will go to questions.

8:55 a.m.

Gulcan Akoguz Chargé d'affaires ad interim, Embassy of the Republic of Turkey

Thank you very much for inviting me and giving us a chance to explain our views regarding the events in Syria.

I am sorry for being late; I miscalculated the traffic. There was a holdup.

Maybe I will begin right now with a statement.

The main aim of Turkish foreign policy is the achievement of peace and stability in our region, but the developments with the Arab Spring have changed this situation in the last two years. Particularly in Syria, the crisis is deteriorating further and fast: each day hundreds of innocent people are killed by indiscriminate shelling from regime forces. The political and social backbone of the regime is constantly disintegrating. Defections at various levels, including the military, continue progressively. The situation of more than 2.5 million international displaced persons and the devastated economy only add to the gravity of this tragedy.

Prolongation of the conflict is detrimental for Syria, the Syrian people, and for the region. We need to accelerate this process to the extent possible in order to avoid the further escalation of violence and its spillover to neighbouring regions.

As the violence in Syria escalates, the regime has become a clear and imminent threat in terms of conventional forces and weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems, not only for its people but also for the region and for the southeastern border for NATO.

In view of the visible threat posed by the Syrian regime, we have requested that NATO military authorities review an updated relevant contingency plan. The process is under way.

We consider Syria's ballistic missile capabilities and chemical weapons stockpiles as a serious national security issue. We are also deeply concerned by the growing tensions within Syrian society, which could lead to unbridgeable divides on ethnic and religious fault lines. The longer a solution for the crisis takes, the greater the risk of ethnic strife and civil war.

Extremist or terrorist groups must never be allowed to hijack the popular struggle of Syria and exploit the current turmoil to their benefit. Some terrorists groups, like Al Qaeda or the PKK, are trying to take advantage of the current situation in Syria. We cannot tolerate any attempts by terrorist groups, particularly the PKK, to set up bases in Syria.

A potential mass refugee movement is another grave concern, which may lead to a humanitarian tragedy on our borders. Minister Davutoglu already expressed our views in great detail at the UN Security Council meeting of August 30.

Currently the number of Syrians in the camps in Turkey has passed the threshold of 100,000. We stand in full solidarity with the Syrian people, and we will continue our efforts in addressing their needs. However, we feel that Turkey's open door policy is actually absorbing the potential international reaction, since the tragic consequences of the brutality by the Syrian regime are all tackled by the neighbouring countries. What we expect from our partners is a serious engagement and meaningful contribution in sharing this burden.

In this respect, we should also seek ways to address this humanitarian crisis within the borders of Syria. The threat presented by the regime in Syria is now gaining new dimensions as the regime carries its violent and aggressive policies, which it has been waging against the people, beyond the borders of Syria.

We are determined to take all the necessary measures, in compliance with international law, to protect the borders of Turkey and the fundamental rights and interests of Turkish citizens. The aggressive and hostile acts of the regime in Syria towards Turkey cannot go unanswered.

The town just at the border between Turkey and Syria, Akçakale, has become a target of Syrian artillery since the 20th of September. Our minister was paying a visit to Canada on that same day when they first began, after opposition groups took control of a Syrian border town, Tal Abyad, on the 19th of September.

Since the first artillery shell hit Turkish soil, Turkey has shown utmost care in acting in full compliance with international law as well as established norms and regulations.

Two separate diplomatic notes, underlining the fact that hitting Turkish territory with artillery shells is totally unacceptable and in gross violation of international law, and requesting that the Syrian regime put an immediate end to such aggressive acts, were submitted to the Syrian consulate in Istanbul on September 21 and 27.

The notes also put on record that Turkey upholds its rights emanating from international law and reaffirmed that there won't be any hesitation, on our side, in continuing our retaliation if they persist in their aggressive acts.

As the Syrian forces continued shelling Turkish territory, despite the warnings, Turkish armed forces engaged, in full compliance with international law and the principle of proportionality, the specific area where the Syrian artillery responsible for the shelling was located. We have also been meticulous in keeping the international community informed of the developments.

On October 3, Akçakale was targeted by six artillery shells, killing five innocent Turkish citizens, all women and children. Although the regime authorities have been denying any responsibility since September 20, when they faced Turkey's determined reaction, they acknowledged the responsibility publicly and stopped shelling. This shows that they have the option not to target Turkish territory in the first place, and even if there was a mistake, they had the ability to stop and rectify it. Therefore, it is crystal clear that the regime's position on this matter has been built upon deceit and miscalculation.

At most, attention has been paid to the principle of proportionality while retaliating against this latest violation by the Syrian regime.

NATO, the EU, the UN Security Council, and the Secretary General, as well as many members of the international community, condemn the aggressive acts of the Syrian regime. We thank all of them for their solidarity.

Taking this opportunity, I would like to express our gratitude for the prompt statement of condemnation by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Baird, regarding the shelling by the Syrian regime forces that targeted our territories and killed five innocent citizens.

The security threat Syria projects to its region is now increasingly dangerous. We have seen similar attacks by the regime against Jordan and Lebanon too.

In view of the developments in Syria, the Turkish Parliament adopted on October 4 a decree authorizing the government to dispatch the Turkish armed forces to foreign countries. It's not a declaration of war. However, Turkey is capable of protecting its citizens and borders and will take every necessary measure to make sure that such acts of aggression are not repeated.

During the transition period, the territorial integrity and the national unity of Syria must be preserved. We need to work together to frame a workable transition plan that will preserve the current infrastructure and public institutions. At this stage, we need to focus on expediting the transition process and the exit of the current regime. We cannot tolerate the establishment of any de facto administration in Syria by any single ethnic or religious group.

Those are mainly my points. I am ready to answer your questions.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you very much.

We are going to start with Mr. Dewar. Sir, you have seven minutes.

9:05 a.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Thank you, and thank you so much for being here. We didn't give you a lot of notice, so I thank you for your ability to be nimble and able to present before our committee today.

I just want to start off by reinforcing the message, not only from the government, Minister Baird, but also from the official opposition. We did put out a statement. Just to put it on the record here, our thoughts are obviously with the families and victims of this terrible attack. We also support your government's effort to maintain regional peace and stability, which is what we all want. The last thing any of us wants to see is the spread of this conflict outside of Syria. But that's already happened. So I just want to reinforce that message on behalf of our party as well.

With that in mind, I have just a couple of questions. In your presentation you talked about the importance of having serious engagement and meaningful contributions for resolving the conflict. You touched on a couple of things: humanitarian support and support for transition. We talked a bit about that on Tuesday at committee and how that could be done.

Is there something you can touch on that you would want Canada to participate in or continue to participate in?

9:05 a.m.

Chargé d'affaires ad interim, Embassy of the Republic of Turkey

Gulcan Akoguz

The international community has held a few conferences for the opposition. The last one was the Arab League conference of the opposition. They accepted a statement at the end of that.

We could support the opposition, and we also shouldn't let the extremist forces take.... The opposition is a bit scattered now, but they seem more self-confident. They are gradually enlarging the areas under their control. The Syrian National Council is in the process of improvement as well. They are undergoing a restructuring process to increase the inclusiveness and transparency of the council. I believe that is a step in the right direction.

The opposition should be well represented for them to protect their own rights, their own people. So the conferences may continue, and they are gaining more self-confidence right now.

9:05 a.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Just to build on that, your government has been engaged in the regional contact group with other countries—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, as a matter of fact. Can you update us on that? Is there anything coming out of that?

9:05 a.m.

Chargé d'affaires ad interim, Embassy of the Republic of Turkey

Gulcan Akoguz

Our ministers met on the 20th of September, right before our minister's visit to Canada. The Saudi Arabian foreign minister was not present because of his ill health, but he sent a representative. The main idea that came out was also to help the opposition to be better represented and to be more organized in their work.

9:05 a.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

As recently as yesterday, Mr. Brahimi, the special envoy, put forward the idea of a ceasefire. I'm just wondering if your government, your president, has commented on that.

9:05 a.m.

Chargé d'affaires ad interim, Embassy of the Republic of Turkey

Gulcan Akoguz

Yes. We have this religious holiday coming up next week, and Mr. Brahimi's suggestion was to stop all the fighting at least for the period. It's Eid al-Adha, during these Muslim holy days. Our minister said he's fully supportive of that, provided that the Syrian regime would also keep its promise to stop the attacks on civilian people and the opposition.

Both the opposition and the Syrian regime were looking favourably at that, and our minister stated his support, provided that both sides stop.

9:10 a.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

That comes back to your point about the opposition and supporting them to be able to be more cohesive. Obviously if they were to at least try to engage in a ceasefire, that would help.

I just want to turn to the relationship with Russia. This has been something that many people have voiced. We as a party have certainly voiced it, and I know the government has as well. I'm talking about the importance of trying to influence Russia. Can you tell us what actions your government has taken to try to persuade Russia to allow a strong resolution to go through the Security Council with regard to Syria?

9:10 a.m.

Chargé d'affaires ad interim, Embassy of the Republic of Turkey

Gulcan Akoguz

Since the beginning of the crisis, most members of the international community have voiced support. The U.S., France, Canada, and Turkey have been more or less the same. The position of the Russian Federation and China on this issue are not the same as those of the rest of the international committee or the same as those of Iran, on a regional level. They have stopped the passage of three UN Security Council resolutions regarding Syria. One of them was related to the humanitarian issue, and even that couldn't pass because of their vetos. Our minister is constantly communicating with their foreign ministers. We have full communication, but their position has not changed.

Mr. Putin will visit Turkey shortly, so they may have talks about that as well.

9:10 a.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Thank you very much.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Mr. Dechert, sir, you have seven minutes.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Dechert Mississauga—Erindale, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Ms. Akoguz, for being here this morning. All Canadians are very grateful for what Turkey has done so far in taking in refugees from Syria and maintaining, as best as possible, peace along the border there. We commend the actions of the Turkish government for that response.

We also commend the Turkish government for the swift action to intercept shipments of military equipment, and I believe Minister Baird made a statement last week to that effect.

I wanted to ask you about that a little bit. Have other military shipments flowing into Syria crossed Turkish airspace? What do you think the volume of that is? And can you tell us what Russia's reaction was to the interception of that equipment, which I understand was coming from Russia?

9:10 a.m.

Chargé d'affaires ad interim, Embassy of the Republic of Turkey

Gulcan Akoguz

Yes, we had information that a civilian airplane was carrying ammunition, so we intercepted the plane. It's a right of every country under ICAO rules and also of Turkish aviation.

I believe it was radar parts, and all civilian airplanes have to report what they are carrying. They should be civilian. It's just a regular thing in civil aviation; they are not allowed to carry military equipment. Military planes are for that.

There was no doubt that the parts could be for military use as well. We informed the Russians, after intercepting the plane, that it was carrying these parts. It was from Moscow to Damascus. The country intercepting the plane has the right to collect the items, and we collected the items, and we also closed our air space to Syrian airplanes after that.

The Russian federation was informed about it, and Minister Lavrov later made a statement that it was only radar parts, but even radar parts are not allowed to be carried by a civilian airplane.

There was another plane that we were suspicious of that was flying through airspace from another country. All countries ask for permission beforehand if they are carrying humanitarian assistance. There was another Armenian plane that was carrying humanitarian supplies. They asked for permission, and in our case our authorities allowed them to fly through Turkish airspace if they let the plane be inspected beforehand. It was inspected, and it was just mainly humanitarian supplies, so it was allowed to go to Syria afterwards.