Mr. Chair, the situation in Syria is serious and it seems that things are only getting worse, if the daily clashes in violation of the Annan plan are any indication.
The geopolitics in the Middle East have become a real powder keg in which the interests of the states are intermingling. Russia and China do not seem to want to co-operate and we are getting further and further from a peaceful solution. But we must not give up hope.
Canada has an honourable tradition as a reliable mediating power. That is often the lot of middle power countries that border the major geopolitical players of this world. It is an expertise of which we can be proud.
However, for several years, we have been seeing our international standing deteriorating. We could have been a mediator of choice at the UN Security Council to try to resolve the conflict in Syria, but we do not have as much clout as we once did, perhaps because our foreign policy is too focused on purely economic and self-serving interests.
Short-sightedness and a general withdrawal have been what we have been seeing since 2006. Canada appears only rarely on the international scene and has basically become disinterested in the outside world. For many Canadians the hardest blow was when we failed to obtain a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.
What kind of leverage do we have now? And what do we have to do? The Bashar al-Assad regime has lost all touch with reality. It strikes with impunity, it commits massacres and snubs its nose at the mediation attempts by the UN and the Arab League. And then came the bloodbath in Houla, as if to validate al-Assad's insanity and our powerlessness. Those who are old enough will remember the Markale massacre in Sarajevo, when the west decided to help the Bosnians under siege in Sarajevo.
But Syria is not Bosnia-Herzegovina. We do not believe that there is a military solution to this conflict and with good reason. For the time being, the efforts of Kofi Annan and the Arab League are our best hopes for resolving the conflict. If there is a solution out there, they will be the first to find it. We have to follow their progress closely, even if the process is long and cumbersome.
More specifically, what can Canada do? The answer is “little”. But “little” can still be useful.
Last week, Canada responded by following the example of European nations and expelling all Syrian diplomats. Literally, all ties with Damascus have been cut off. We have nothing to lose by severing those ties. Our interests in Syria are negligible. Syria is a weak economy that is barely staying afloat thanks to its nefarious and illegal tricks with unscrupulous countries that put up with the regime in Damascus in order to sell weapons and other basic amenities to third-world countries.
Despite a few timid attempts by the al-Assad regime since 2006 to liberalize the economy and encourage the growth of foreign investments, the results have been very disappointing. Encouraged by Turkey, whose economy and opportunities for the future are very optimistic, al-Assad tried to get a little closer to the west and seemed to want to play the game for a while. When the Arab Spring happened, it soon became very clear that we were dealing with an unscrupulous tyrant.
Since the uprising began, the Syrian economy—which was already faltering—has been in a free-fall. The country's domestic deficit has reached record lows. Syrians have lost all hope for their safety, their future and their honour, and are therefore either fighting or leaving.
According to some sources, 130,000 Syrian citizens have already fled the country to the four neighbouring states. If Canada must intervene, I think that is where we should focus our efforts.
Of all the countries that share a border with Syria, Turkey is the most directly affected by this civil war. The Turkish state was already deeply engaged with its neighbour from an economic and strategic standpoint. I am talking about Turkey's “zero problems with the neighbours” policy. The chaotic situation these days is creating challenging instability in the border regions and the Turkish government has to constantly adjust its position and struggle to restore order.
Among the pressing issues is the influx of refugees.About the Syrian refugees who choose to be flee to Turkey, we have to seriously consider the following. First, we have to consider the welcome they receive once they reach the border. Then, we have to consider the real or perceived impact of their presence on Turkish soil. Finally, we have to consider the long-term consequences to displaced persons and the local populations. Those are three very important elements that speak volumes about what we can expect in the region in general. Let us start with the situation in Antioch.
There are currently 120,000 Syrian nationals in the Turkish province of Hatay, where the city of Antioch is located. The Turkish government has put up temporary facilities for many of them, people of all ages. However, many are young children who were attending school before they were forced to flee with their parents. For them to return home when things get back to normal, they have to be able to continue receiving their education in their language. There are also seniors who require medical supervision and drugs.
The local population is doing its best to manage the arrival of these Syrian families which, for the most part, must rely on the kindness of their hosts to survive.
Most of the people streaming towards Antioch originate from Aleppo, which is only a one-hour drive from the border. Many of these new arrivals are already familiar with the city because they have been there many times before. Consequently, some Syrians have moved to Antioch where they are trying to lead a normal life. Naturally, others are taking advantage of the freedom in Turkey and have engaged in political activism among their fellow citizens.
Antioch has a population of about 200,000. The arrival of so many refugees, longstanding neighbours or not, has been trying for all communities. Just imagine tens of thousands of poor and desperate Americans suddenly crossing the Detroit border and settling in Windsor. What would we do to give them the semblance of a normal live and the moral and social support they would need?
Turkey is one of Canada's allies and we should be sensitive to its needs in these difficult times. However, we must realize that the Syrian crisis has contributed to the destabilization of power in Ankara. We learned this lesson with Yugoslavia 20 years ago. When things happen suddenly, sleeping dogs are woken, and Turkish border areas are not immune to the ghosts of the past.
At one time, the Hatay province was the Sandjak of Alexandrette, and its transfer to Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne, soon after the end of the Great War, was strongly challenged by Syrians. Indeed, 100 years ago, the province was very predominantly Arab. We can imagine that the massive influx of Syrian refugees is stirring century-old fears and ethnic disputes. That is precisely the kind of disputes where logic and quiet reasoning account for very little.
This brings us to a potentially much more serious problem.
Everyone knows that the Kurdish issue is the most problematic and important one for Ankara. The Kurds form the largest ethnic minority in Turkey. There are between 13 million and 18 million of them and, in the past, that relation has often degenerated into violence. We must think about the potential exodus of the 2 million Kurds from northern Syria to Turkish Kurdistan. Ankara quickly anticipated the potential risks and, again, this threat, perceived or real, is the prime reason why the Turkish government in engaging into very active diplomacy.
However, after cutting ties with Damascus, Assad, who now knows he has his back to the wall and who no longer owes anything to his former friend, made concessions to the Kurdish labour party, the PKK. So, there is really a worrisome Kurdish dimension and its impact could be catastrophic. Let us not forget that, as in Yugoslavia at the time, Syria is lacking everything except weapons. The combination of all these conditions could create a perfect storm. Canada must always keep that in mind in the days to come. We must support our Turkish ally, but we must also be aware that it is under great pressure.
Here is my understanding of the dynamics at Syria's northern border. I do not want to sound like a doom and gloom bird, but if even Turkey can feel some destabilizing effects, just imagine what could happen west of that country, in Lebanon.
That country is well-known for the fragility of its multifaith social contract, and everyone is familiar with the long civil war that literally ravaged it during the 1970s and 1980s. Syria's ethnic and religious make-up is similar to Lebanon's. Incidentally, that country has historically been part of the Syrian cultural mosaic. However, because of the tragic events of the 20th century, the relation between these two modern entities has deteriorated, and their political destiny is now separated.
If Syrian nationals go into the mountains of Lebanon, it could reopen old wounds. Even this week, the conflict seemed to echo Tripoli, where there were confrontations. This is extremely worrisome, because you would need eyes in the back of your head to measure the impact. There are weapons stockpiles everywhere and there are old, hardened hatreds. If civil conflict were to suddenly resurface in Lebanon, we would be taking a 30-year step backward.
Need I add that if Lebanon were destabilized, Israel would be next in line to be affected?
The Syrian civil conflict is probably a powder keg. If the Middle East were to flare up in every direction, we would need to be ready. Fortunately, it has not yet happened. It is essential to seriously consider the risks before us. Diplomatic efforts need to be redoubled, and if this means through Moscow, then we will go to Moscow.
However, I wish to remind you that if Canada wants its involvement to be effective, meaning able to control part of the chaos, it will be by helping its allies in the region to remain calm along their borders. We need to deploy generous efforts to help those who are fleeing from violence. We need to do everything possible to limit the damage being inflicted by Assad's tyrannical and criminal regime.