Madam Chair, I appreciate the opportunity to participate this evening in this very important debate.
Canadians, like freedom-loving people around the world, have been absolutely horrified by the ongoing brutal violence committed by the Assad regime against the people of Syria. The most recent appalling example of this regime's blatant disregard for humanity and decency was seen on May 25 in the shocking massacre in Houla that left scores of civilians dead, including 49 innocent children. I do not think anybody here will very soon forget the picture of that three-year-old little girl with a bullet hole in the side of her head. This is the kind of horror that we have not really seen since the Second World War.
We are deeply concerned that despite repeated calls for peace and despite pressure from the international community, Assad's reprehensible campaign of terror continues unabated. We continue to call for the immediate implementation of and adherence to the Annan peace plan, which has been endorsed by the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League. We fervently believe that Assad must step down now and allow the Syrian people to build a better, brighter future and to live in peace and security.
As if the consequences of the crimes within Syria itself were not horrible enough, we are now facing the deeply troubling regional implications of this crisis. To begin with, the UN estimates that more than 70,000 refugees have fled Syria to seek shelter in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
There have been incidents of violence along the Syrian–Lebanese border as well as in the border regions with Turkey. Moreover, in Lebanon we are now increasingly seeing violent confrontations between pro- and anti-Assad factions within that country itself. In a region with such complex and interwoven political, social and economic fabric cutting across national borders, a protracted struggle in Syria carries the risk of dragging other countries into sectarian conflict and proxy wars, exacerbating the existing regional tensions and further victimizing civilians throughout the Middle East. For these reasons, we believe it is imperative that a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis be found.
I will highlight in more detail some of the implications of the conflict for Syria's neighbours, as well as the complex interests and relationships that tie Syria's fate to that of others in the region, including Iran and Israel. This will give even further evidence of why we must work to end the conflict as quickly as possible.
Of all the countries in the region, Turkey has welcomed the largest number of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. More than 22,000 Syrians are currently registered with the Turkish government, which has established 10 separate locations to deal with the influx and has appealed to NATO, the UN and the EU for international assistance in addressing their needs.
In Lebanon, over 15,000 Syrian refugees are registered with humanitarian agencies. The UN High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, and partners are working with the Lebanese government and local authorities to ensure that the needs of refugees in the affected communities are addressed.
Beyond this, the escalating violence in Syria has caused security-related concerns for Lebanon, where in recent weeks pro- and anti-Assad factions clashed in Tripoli and Beirut. Lebanon has also been the site of border incursions by Syrian security forces, as well as of several unsolved disappearances of Syrian opposition figures. Meanwhile, reports indicate that weapons smuggling from Lebanon to Syria continues to grow.
Jordan has also welcomed a sizable wave of Syrian refugees. Over 19,000 Syrians in Jordan have registered with UNHCR since March of last year, and the numbers continue to grow. This is a heavy burden on Jordan's fragile economy and its delicate sectarian balance.
Canada is a good friend to Jordan and continues to strongly support the efforts of His Majesty King Abdullah II to implement reforms that will lay a critical foundation for the strengthening of the economy and Jordanian democracy. As a moderate voice in the region that has helped build bridges to peace, Jordan faces many challenges from the crisis in Syria.
Iraq, which is of course dealing with its own internal instability, has also experienced an influx of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. Close to 4,000 Syrian refugees of Kurdish origin are registered in Iraq with the UNHCR and its partners providing assistance there.
Another serious concern is the infiltration of terrorist fighters from Iraq into Syria. There are reports that some of the most vicious terrorists now operating in Syria, members of al-Qaeda and related groups, came from Iraq.
If the conflict in Syria continues unabated, there is a risk that the flow of terrorists crossing the Iraq-Syria border will grow, raising the spectre of even greater instability and violence in both countries.
This is why the actions taken by the Assad regime have only added to Syria's instability and to an environment conducive to terrorists and extremist actions. It is in everyone's interest to see a stable, peaceful Syria, one that rejects extremism and upholds the fundamental human rights of its people.
What is Iran's role in all of this? Iran provides support to Syria as a means of promoting its own political, cultural and economic influence and interests in the region. Iran, its clients and proxies do not flinch from using violence and abusing human rights to achieve their aims.
Syria and Iran have been linked since the time of Hafez al-Assad. Together they forged an alliance that allowed Iran to project its influence, its interests, its extremism and its rejection of Israel into the Levant right up to Israel's borders. Through its ally in Damascus, Iran was able to build up its proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and a host of extremist Palestinian rejectionist groups, led by Hamas, all of them headquartered in Damascus and sheltered by the Syrian regime. Syria's interest was of course to maintain pressure on Israel to return the Golan Heights and the ability to intervene in Lebanon's affairs to promote its various interests there. Among those who paid the price were Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, and members of his entourage.
Having made a substantial investment in developing this chain of extremist influence throughout the Middle East, Iran is not about to let a bunch of pro-democracy demonstrators put it at risk. Therefore, there are reliable reports that Iranian money and supplies, including diesel for Syrian tanks, technical expertise, and even specialist soldiers like snipers, are aiding the Syrian regime to oppress its own people. The Iranians have helped the Syrian security forces to intercept telephone communications and to track down activists by tracing their Internet usage. These two criminal regimes are co-operating to cause chaos and destruction throughout the entire region, even as they both brutally oppress their own people.
Canada continues to be seized with developments within Syria and their impact on the broader region. The ongoing violence is appalling by itself, but as I have pointed out, the risk it poses to regional security and stability is even more alarming. For all of these reasons, we steadfastly believe that a solution must be found before more innocent lives are lost and before the crisis further threatens peace and stability in the broader region.
We again call on all parties to immediately and fully respect the ceasefire and to co-operate with UN observers and support the efforts of Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan to resolve the crisis. We call on all Security Council members to come together and adopt strong measures, including economic sanctions, against the Syrian regime. We urge countries with ties to Damascus to use their influence to convince the regime that it must act now to stop the violence. We continue to work with our international partners to isolate the Assad regime and to limit the damage it can cause both to Syria and to the broader region.
Canada supports the Syrian people's hopes for a better, brighter future and is committed to finding a solution to this crisis that will help them achieve it. We hope to see a new democratically elected government of Syria that will respect human rights and the rule of law, including, most importantly, the protection of religious freedoms and religious minority groups, pursuant to article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.