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

Also speaking

9:35 a.m.

Conservative

Dave Van Kesteren Chatham-Kent—Essex, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Thank you for coming this morning.

I'm privileged to be the chairperson of the Canada-Turkey Friendship Group.

This is something that we all are very concerned about. We are going to have a reception with the Turkish diaspora next Monday night, I think. I know that will be the topic of discussion.

One of the reasons I took this job—and I know that those who have come into the parliamentary association will agree—is that we recognize the importance of Turkey. Turkey has a leadership that I don't think can be matched by any other of the Islamic nations in the area. It has demonstrated good leadership for the most part.

I'm curious. You mentioned that Armenia had sent over a shipload...and we're all encouraged to hear that. What leadership role is Turkey taking with the Arab League? There must be, within that league, frustration at seeing this turmoil and strife in Syria. What position of leadership have they taken, and are the other Arab League nations looking to Turkey to broker some type of peace or reconciliation in that area?

9:40 a.m.

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

Gulcan Akoguz

We are participating very actively within the Arab League to find a solution in Syria. But the Arab League itself was quite active also. They held this conference for the opposition, which helped the opposition to be more organized and gain more self-confidence. There are a lot of factions within the opposition. The conference was also helpful in alleviating extremist points that might weaken the opposition, and Turkey was active in that effort.

9:40 a.m.

Conservative

Dave Van Kesteren Chatham-Kent—Essex, ON

I'm thinking of the Arab Spring. We all recognize that what's happening in Syria is a continuation of that. Turkey was the first to adopt democracy and has done a marvellous job in the past and the present of demonstrating that it's attainable, and it's something that other countries in the area want as well.

Those other countries that have gone through this strife in the last few years, have they come together with Turkey and sought Turkey's leadership in brokering peace, or is Turkey doing it on its own?

9:40 a.m.

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

Gulcan Akoguz

We will be celebrating the 89th year of our republic next week. We were the only democracy in the region, together with Israel. When the Arab Spring began, Turkey sent messages...and we had very close relations with Syria. Turkey sent messages that Syria should make reforms and listen to the will of the people. We offered help to all the countries in the region, including Syria. We had presidential, prime ministerial, and ministerial meetings with Syria. When the Arab Spring began and the opposition demonstrations began in Syria, we continued our talks with Syria. Turkey sent the message that there was a need for reform in the country, and that they should listen to what their own people wanted. There was communication up to a point. But as the violence of the Assad regime towards its own people continued, it was cut.

9:40 a.m.

Conservative

Dave Van Kesteren Chatham-Kent—Essex, ON

You're right in pointing out that Turkey and Israel were the sole democratic parties in the region. You have a tremendous role to play, and we encourage you to continue in it.

Mr. Chair, I don't know if I still have time.

9:40 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

No, you don't as a matter of fact. That was very good, right on time. I was just getting ready to cut you off, but you did it yourself. Thank you.

Madam Akoguz, thank you very much for being here today. We appreciate your time.

With that, I'm going to suspend the meeting so that we can switch our witnesses and bring out our next group.

Once again, thank you very much for taking the time to be here this morning.

9:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

We'll have the members come back to the table, and then we'll get started on our second half.

I'd like to welcome Mariam Hamou, who is here today, as well as Faisal Alazem. We want to thank both of you for taking the time to talk to us about the situation in Syria. We realize you're from the diaspora here in Canada, so we're looking forward to hearing your perspective on what is happening.

I believe you both have opening statements.

Why don't we start with you, Mariam, if that's all right. Then we'll do questions after both of your opening statements. We'll turn it over to you, Mariam.

9:45 a.m.

Mariam Hamou As an Individual

Thanks for having me today.

I just want to give you a little bit of background on what's happening in Syria.

I'm going to start off with some statistics, and the statistics I'm going to read out to you are of documented people. These are people who have been identified, not people who are missing or who have not been identified. The statistics are a little bit skewed in that way.

As of yesterday morning, recorded by the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, there were 30,273 deaths. Deaths of children: there were 2,020 males and 848 females; and there were 26,383 civilian deaths.

I also want to talk a little bit about the detainees. The number of revolutionary detainees is 31,763 thus far. This might come as a surprise to you, but there are children who are also being detained by Syrian officials. The number of males is 768; females, 24.

The latest reports, according to Human Rights Watch, claim that Assad is using cluster bombs on his people. Furthermore, since this report has surfaced, Human Rights Watch in Syria claims that regime forces have revved up their use of cluster bombs and are using them in civilian areas only. On Monday, in six areas in four separate provinces, cluster bombs were used. The bombs, again, targeted only civilian areas, where none are controlled by the Free Syrian Army. Furthermore, the Syrian regime is fully accountable for the use of these internationally prohibited weapons, which seem to be systematically used in Syria. The regime is violating basic United Nations principles and laws.

Assad's offensives on his citizens are claiming on average 150 people a day. On October 17—that's yesterday—155 people were killed. On October 16, 133 people were killed. On October 15, 100 people were killed. You get the idea here, and this is just in the past few days. The latest report is that regime forces are using barrel bombs in civilian areas, specifically on schools, killing most of the children inside. The barrel bombs are, again, not in Free Syrian Army stronghold areas, but are targeting children specifically.

Torture has been reported in every city and town, and down to every family. I don't want to get into the chilling details of what goes on, but I'll share with you one story that just sends chills down my spine. Women are being systematically raped in Syria, not by one, two, or three of the militia men, but by many people. After the militia men are finished raping the victim, they insert a live mouse or rat in her vagina to destroy any sense of dignity that might have been left for this woman.

Children are not only dying by the hands of the regime's brutality, but by malnourishment, as food and water are becoming increasingly scarce. Food costs in Syria have gone up six times the price of what they were before the revolution. A loaf of bread is becoming increasingly unaffordable, and families are going without food at times. Babies are dying as mothers are not able to breastfeed them because of the lack of nutrition for the mothers, and the mothers have gone dry. There's no formula or clean water to prepare formula in some areas, mainly Homs. In many cases, it is a state of total disaster.

People's homes have been completely destroyed and entire streets, and in some cases cities are empty now because of the fighting—cities like Homs, Idlib, Zabadani, and Aleppo. Nothing at all is sacred. The regime destroys anything. UNESCO heritage sites, as some of you might know, have been destroyed in Assad's quest to remain the president of this country.

The images and stories are chilling and hard to forget, but they have become common for us who are involved in the revolution. My grandfather just got back from Syria two weeks ago. He's 90 years old. He and I sat and talked about some of the things that were going on in Syria, and both of us were crying like babies by the end of it. He's broken. It's actually difficult to see your grandfather like that, and to see him at the end of his days seeing a country that he loved so much being completely ruined. That's what's going on inside Syria.

I'll talk a little bit about what's happening on the ground in the refugee camps. According to the UNHCR, there are about 261,114 recognized refugees. The numbers within the refugee camps are fluid. Turkey has 96,000, Jordan has 58,000, Lebanon has 65,000, Iraq has 40,000 people. There are over 50,000 Syrians waiting at the borders to be admitted into other countries, but they cannot leave because they are undocumented.

Jordan's figures are not accurate because people are drifting in and out of the camps. In Lebanon the numbers aren't accurate because a lot of the bordering towns in Lebanon are absorbing a lot of refugees, so they're not accounted for. The number in Lebanon is closer to 100,000.

There are also makeshift refugee sites at the border of Jordan and Syria where 10,000 people live in absolute squalor. I saw a picture the other day of three little babies covered in flies, no diapers, shirts dirty, drinking God knows what, eating God knows what. It's hard to imagine. These people are not allowed to get through to Jordan as they're undocumented and don't have the proper papers to cross.

The most important objective at this point, and what the Turkish representative was speaking about before, is that the winter is coming. We're trying to get enough clothes and warm blankets for the people to survive the winter in the refugee camps. A lot of the American and Canadian groups who support the Syrian refugees are focusing on getting the blankets and warm clothing to the camps, but food is also very limited; it's scarce.

One very disappointing and horrible story that's coming out of the Zaatari camps in Jordan is that there are reports of young women being sold, young girls actually, for the equivalent of $20 Canadian, to be wives for older men. This was happening online. It's incredible. It wasn't stopped early on, so a lot of girls were sold off. A lot of these girls don't have fathers, as they've died in the civil war and this war, or they were fighting.

Other refugees are going into Egypt. They're not, of course, recognized by the United Nations. There are no official refugee camps in Egypt, but there are people who are trying to absorb them as well.

I was speaking to a representative a couple of days ago and she says things are looking grim. People have come with very little money, very little food, nothing, and are trying to get jobs in Egypt. In Egypt, a job is actually hard to come by to begin with. Supplies are short and winter is coming.

On the ground, between the militarization and peacefulness, the grassroots movements are still fighting for freedom, which started in the streets of Syria. This Syrian fight for freedom adds a new chapter to enrich the history of humanity, a unique chapter like no other, so colourful with slogans of freedom and dignity, and these are the people who are protesting on the ground. With all of this, you still have people going out and protesting for their freedom.

For the past 19 months, Syrians continue to take to the streets, despite the desperate attempts of the regime to crush and repress these peaceful demonstrations by shelling civilians with its warplanes. But Syrians insist on continuing their eternal fight for freedom and survival, to build a future full of hope and victory, to say tomorrow is ours, through 405 demonstrations that the local coordinating committee documented last Friday, on October 12.

With all of what we've heard, the people of Syria are still fighting for their freedom, and we need to help them get there.

I'm going to stop now and defer to Faisal at this point. If there is any more time, I can finish what I want to say.

9:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you very much for your testimony.

We're going to turn it over now to Mr. Alazem.

October 18th, 2012 / 9:55 a.m.

Faisal Alazem Spokesperson, Syrian Canadian Council

Thank you, everyone.

I think Mariam really gave a description of what's happening in Syria and the horror. I'm going to concentrate more on what we can do. I think everyone has been touched by what they heard, and there's a lot we can do in Canada.

First, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak in front of your committee about the situation in my country of origin, Syria. The Syrian revolution was started by young people like myself, young people who dream of freedom and democracy, of universal rights for all Syrians regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender, where Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Jews, Kurds, and all others live in freedom and dignity.

Syrians are protesting for freedom—freedom of expression, free press, freedom to dissent. They are dreaming of an end to corruption and nepotism; they are dreaming of equal opportunities and a better standard of living for all, and, above all, dignity and justice. They simply dream of the things that we take for granted here in Canada.

Since the first Deraa protest in March of last year, Syria has been living through one of the worst government-sponsored terror campaigns the world has ever seen, supported by its regional and international allies—primarily Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah. Systematic crimes against humanity, war crimes, and, in some instances, sectarian cleansing have been committed in Syria. One example is the famous Houleh massacre that Foreign Affairs had written a press release about, where more than 100 people were killed and burned, 49 of them under the age of 10.

The Assad regime has unleashed all weapons of the state to crush the uprising, from secret prisons to the use of propaganda to the use of artillery, and, for the last couple of months, the use of jet fighters. In Homs, Aleppo, Deraa, Deir Ezzor, Idlib, and Damascus, jet fighters are bombing civilian neighbourhoods, using barrels of TNT and internationally prohibited cluster bombs.

Syrian hospitals have become detention and torture centres, which has been documented by Amnesty International, and injured protesters or even civilians caught in the crossfire have reportedly been kidnapped to security headquarters for interrogation and torture, and are often killed.

The inability of the international community to protect the Syrian people through a Security Council resolution should not be an excuse for inaction. More than ever, the international community needs to use the responsibility to protect norm, which we in Canada greatly contributed to, in order to protect Syrians. The responsibility to protect, driven by Canada, was specifically created for situations like this, when the Security Council is unable or unwilling to act.

The continuous barbaric campaign of the regime has pushed tens of thousands of soldiers to defect from the Syrian army and to resist the regime, and it has forced thousands of civilians to resort to arms to protect themselves and their families. While the freedom fighters have exhibited great courage and heroism, the lack of international support has opened the door for more radical elements. Out of the over 80,000 rebels fighting the regime, 2,000 to 3,000 have been identified as radicals today. While the number is marginal, it will, without a doubt, increase if the conflict drags on, given that the radical elements are the only ones actively willing to help the rebels and able to get the financial support to arm the resistance.

How can Canada help? Canada has a long tradition of responding to humanitarian catastrophes and has an important role to play in supporting the Syrian people, both domestically and regionally.

The international community cannot be neutralized by the Russian and Chinese veto at the United Nations Security Council while systematic, gross human rights abuses and crimes against humanity are being committed. It's time to bypass the UN Security Council in order to protect Syrian civilians, as was the case in Kosovo. In Kosovo's case, despite the fact that the UN Security Council was bypassed, Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general at the time, said, “...there are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace”.

The establishment of a no-fly zone, given that daily MiG fighters are bombing civilians in Syria, and safe havens and humanitarian corridors to protect the displaced civilians, but also the army defectors, is inevitable.... I stress army defectors because people don't have any idea of the price a defector pays in order to defect from the Syrian army. It is a death sentence to himself and to his family. If we, as an international community, do not protect or do not facilitate this process, this is going to drag on.

As long as the Assad regime feels it has the upper hand militarily in Syria, no concessions or transitions will be made. Thus, support of the freedom fighters and the local military councils of the Free Syrian Army are necessary to shift the balance of power and accelerate the end of a 42-year tyranny.

It is estimated that $150 million is required per month to sustain a minimum standard of life for the 2.5 million displaced persons and refugees. Different organizations and agencies, such as the UNHCR, UNICEF, and the Red Cross, are providing humanitarian assistance and relief; however, they are still unable to meet the basic needs of Syrians.

The situation is especially bad in Jordan. At the Zaatari camp in Jordan, which Foreign Minister Baird visited, the Syrian refugees have described the camp, blasted by sandstorms daily, as a slow death. We encourage Canada to increase its humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, and to those inside Syria. Canada has been hesitant to provide humanitarian aid inside Syria, where it is most needed. As an example, it withdrew $2 million that was intended to finance field hospitals inside Syria and has provided aid to the Red Cross and the Red Crescent instead. Unfortunately, it has been widely documented, and it has been signalled to the Canadian government, that the Red Crescent inside Syria works closely with the regime. In fact, Abdul Rahman Attar, the head of the Red Crescent in Syria, has volunteered parts of his personal buildings as detention centres in Syria.

Domestically, many members of the Syrian Canadian community are worried about the fate of their families in Syria or those exiled out of Syria, and they therefore request that in keeping with Canada's long-standing tradition of concern for the displaced and persecuted, our Canadian government facilitate bringing their family members to join them in Canada. Many members of the Syrian Canadian community are concerned that no priority processing or family reunification program is in place to assist their families affected by the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Such measures were taken in 2007 for Iraq; they were taken for Algeria; and they were taken in 2010 for Haiti, after the earthquake. But until now it's quite surprising to us that no such program, no priority processing, has been done for Syrians, despite the humanitarian catastrophe.

The Syrian Canadian community is also hoping that Canada will admit a limited number of political refugees who face grave danger in Syria and in the surrounding countries, especially those with family members in Canada.

The Syrian regime has also been targeting university students for their participation and their demonstrations, and for simply having different political views. The regime has expelled activists from universities and prevented them from pursuing their education, and it has repeatedly attacked campuses or dormitories, firing tear gas and bullets, resulting in the killing of students and forcing them to drop out of university for fear of arrest.

The struggle in Syria might be prolonged, and these students deserve to resume their education. We therefore ask the Government of Canada to create scholarships directed toward Syrian students who were forced to leave their universities as a result of the conflict. The scholarships can support students in pursuing their education in Canada or in neighbouring countries like Lebanon or Jordan. I want to let you know that the U.S. and the European Union have created similar programs.

For the first time in the last 50 years, the interests of the Syrian people and those of the free world coincide. Please don't let this opportunity pass, for the sake of our values as Canadians, for the sake of the children of Syria, and for the sake of humanity.

Thank you.

10:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you very much.

We're going to start our first round with Mr. Dewar, for seven minutes, please.

10:05 a.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

Thank you, Chair.

It goes without saying that we offer enormous thanks to our witnesses. No one of us around this table knows what it's like. We can only try to understand, and it's very difficult. What you're going through is difficult personally, but the fact that you are so composed and focused on what we can do is an enormous help for us.

I think one of the things we had wanted to do is hear from you directly. There had been some talk about having a debate in the House of Commons. Frankly, I felt it was better to hear from you at committee. We need information that's lacking. We can read from the media, but what you've done today is inform us as parliamentarians on all sides, so thank you.

I think what you've noted is the personal as well as the political piece. On the personal side, it's very hard to comprehend what you're saying, Mariam. You talk about destruction of historic sites, but it seems to be a destruction of humanity that's going on in slow motion. To have places of care being used as places of torture, as you've mentioned, Faisal, is really difficult to understand.

You have pointed to the things that can be done, and that's where I certainly want to focus. I'm just saying this right now; I haven't talked to anyone around this table about it. I hope that as a committee we can perhaps put forward a motion as a group to talk about what can be done, and maybe put that forward to the government. Wouldn't that be something? I'll leave that to others to consider.

The things you've mentioned I think are doable. We've heard from our first witnesses that we can help support further what's going on in Turkey, for instance, to help the refugees. Clearly, they need help. We can help with fast-tracking those who have family here. That has been done in the past. We can support students.

I think everyone has been taken with the Arab Spring, but it's one thing to say and another thing to do. If others are doing it, why not Canada? Those are things that maybe this committee can consider as a motion to put forward.

I'm not going to table that now. I'm not trying to play games here. I really want to see if this committee can give voice to what the witnesses have given voice to.

Mariam, what sources are you using for the horrific witness statements you've provided us? We've been focused here at this committee in the past particularly on rape as a weapon of war. Where are you hearing these stories, and how have they been documented?

10:10 a.m.

As an Individual

Mariam Hamou

I've been speaking to the local coordination committees. These are cases they documented. They are a council inside Syria that organizes the protests but also identifies bodies. They document that, and they also document all the atrocities that are happening.

10:10 a.m.

NDP

Paul Dewar Ottawa Centre, ON

So obviously this is on the record, in terms of what they're doing and sharing with you.

10:10 a.m.

As an Individual

Mariam Hamou

Yes, absolutely, this is all on the record.