Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the Speaker for granting this debate. It is a tremendously important opportunity to give an update to the House and all Canadians, both on the actions that the Government of Canada has taken to date to address the Syrian crisis and on the most recent developments.
The actions this government has taken and the engagement this government has put on this file have been real and significant. I think I share with all civilized people everywhere the frustration that the civilized world has not been able to bring a resolution to this crisis. Many of us have been working tremendously hard.
This debate tonight is also a chance for us to take stock of where we go from here.
As I rise to speak tonight, I am reminded, as I often am when considering the many complex issues relating to the Syrian crisis, of one of the conflict's youngest victims.
She was a girl of about seven years old. I had a chance to meet her at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. This was not a good place for a family, living in a tent in a refugee camp in the middle of the desert with the heat and scorpions. As horrible as the situation was for her and her family, I thought of how tough it must have been for her family in Syria.
I thought of how difficult it must have been to make the decision for her and her entire family to leave their home and to seek refuge in another country. I thought of the courage it took for her parents to do that, to want to do one thing, to keep their family safe, just like every Canadian family and every Canadian parent's objective is.
She and her family had fled their home. They had left everything they had known in a bid to escape death and destruction that had stalked their hometown.
Many of the refugees crossing the borders into Jordan, and I saw videotapes, have been shot at as they have crossed the border. When I visited a refugee camp, I met with Jordanian authorities. I was shown videos of a man carrying his young baby across the border being shot at, and of a pregnant woman being shot as she sought to enter Jordan and having the physical wherewithal to continue running, only to make it to safety and die in the hospital after. They dodged sniper bullets to make it to what they hoped would be safety.
This young girl that I talked to had quite an effect on me. She has lost some, if not a great deal, of the innocence of her youth. It was quite evident she could not speak English. She did not have much to say, although I could see that she was filled with fear and a longing for stability.
My colleague, the Foreign Minister of Jordan, Nasser Judeh, was with me. Nasser translated. I said to ask her how she was doing. We were there to see the well-being of people. I will never forget her answer. She looked in his eyes and said one thing as tears built up in her eyes, “I don't like it here. I want to go home.” That is one small child who in many ways summarizes so much of the problems this crisis has created.
Nearly a year later, the sad report is that this young girl's future is no brighter. Families just like hers are arriving by the hundreds, if not the thousands every day. Many nights, 2,000 people flee across the border to Jordan.
Camp Zaatari is now the world's second largest refugee camp. It would actually be the fourth largest city in the Kingdom of Jordan, if it were a permanent city. We think of the generosity of the Jordanian people, the Jordanian government, and His Majesty King Abdullah II in allowing people to flee their country to seek refuge.
More than two years into this crisis, the situation only continues to grow more desperate.
While some might become numb by the endless stream of bad news or be tempted to shut out the details of a situation that only seems to grow more hopeless, it is for the sake of that little girl I just mentioned and for the millions of other people like her that we are compelled to remain actively engaged.
I would suggest to all hon. members that the only way to end the suffering of the Syrian people is through a political solution to this crisis. We have not gone out of our way to criticize those who are seeking to arm the opposition. If it were only as simple as to provide more guns, more rockets, more bullets, more grenades to bring an end to this crisis, I think it would have already ended a long time ago. However, I have felt for some time that the more arms that flow into that country, the more Assad ratchets up his military power. As bad and evil as the Assad regime has been military-wise, exercising brute force against its own people, it is probably operating only on six of eight cylinders. As bad as it is, these people have only just started. The more well armed the opposition becomes, the more brutal and violent and tough the government gets. It still has the capacity to make it worse. The better armed, better equipped the Free Syrian Army and other regime opponents have become, the more violent and more aggressive the Assad regime has become.
We saw it in Houla last May. We saw it in Daraa last August, and in other places since. Opposition strength to the Assad regime has unleashed a merciless response from that regime. The United Nations Security Council, unfortunately, has failed to effectively tackle this challenge. It is conflicted, but the world is conflicted too. People have different views and are rooting for different sides.
I do want to take the opportunity here in this House to congratulate the Arab League for stepping up in a major way to fill this void. It has spoken out loudly and clearly for some time and repeatedly against Assad and the war that he has waged against his own people. The significant efforts expended first by Kofi Annan and then by Lakhdar Brahimi as joint UN and Arab League special envoys unfortunately have not brought about the end to the violence that we seek. For more than a year, I have been speaking to people who personally know Assad, and I have asked them what kind of man he is. These are people who have seen him up close, who have worked with him, people who have sought to seek peace between Syria and Lebanon, at the UN, the International Peace Institute, or other foreign minister colleagues of mine who have worked with him for many years. Just about every single one of them has said that Assad will fight to the bitter end. Unfortunately, I have seen nothing to convince me otherwise.
Obviously, we want to see him held accountable for his terrible actions. Last year, I said very clearly that what Assad needs to be facing is the International Criminal Court to face charges for committing crimes against humanity. Having said that, in many respects it will be up to the Syrian people to determine how he is tried and where. It is also up to Syrians to decide what replaces his regime.
Significant sanctions have come from Canada and like-minded allies or the Arab League. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has also played an effective role. I am very pleased to say Canada for the first time recently appointed a representative to engage with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah. Significant sanctions, while having devastated the Syrian economy, have not proven effective at causing this regime to change course. Assad is waging war against his own people. These sanctions are crippling the Syrian economy and it does not appear that he could care less about the effect of these sanctions. He has some support in the country; whether it is 10%, 20% or 30%, I do not know. He is getting material support from a number of countries, including Iran, which is another reason this government declared it a state sponsor of terrorism. However, the sanctions have not worked.
Canada, I should note, has not at all sat idle. In fact, Canada will be chairing and hosting the next Syria sanctions committee meeting here in Canada. I and others in government have worked very hard with the Friends of the Syrian People International Working Group to develop a united front and aid for the political action against Assad. Canada has helped address the most urgent humanitarian needs within Syria, while also working to assist Syria's neighbours to deal with the crush of refugees and other effects of this crisis.
In many respects, this is the worst crisis this century has seen, only 13 years in. Canada, I am pleased to say, has been a world leader, not only in making pledges of financial support but in delivering on those pledges. Canada is well known for that. We are delivering support, aid and humanitarian assistance to the victims of the Assad regime.
My colleague from Toronto Centre mentioned the crisis in Haiti and compared it to the crisis in Syria. It is hard to compare one crisis with another. I know that in that crisis, in five minutes, a quarter of a million people died. In five minutes, one-quarter of a million human beings lost their lives in our hemisphere. In Syria, Assad has been vicious. The war has had a terrible effect, but it has gone on over a long, protracted period of over two years now. It is hard to compare the humanitarian crisis in Haiti with the slow descent into hell the Syrian people have witnessed.
We have pressed countries, such as Russia and China, that have influence with this regime to do all they can to end the bloodshed and support a transition of power. We saw one glimmer of hope in discussions in Geneva, what was called the Geneva declaration or the Geneva initiative, which Russia saw reason to support. We continue to think that it is one element of a political solution.
We have called for resolutions and have pushed for real action within the United Nations system. While the Security Council has utterly failed, the UN has had some good successes. I would note the great job the United Nations World Food Programme is doing in Syria. Canada, by and large, is generally the second largest contributor to that organization. We have provided financial support to the World Food Programme to support both people inside Syria and those who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
Valerie Amos and her staff at the UN have done a phenomenal job with the United Nations' humanitarian response and in getting urgent assistance to those who need it most. I do not mind criticizing the United Nations when I think their actions are wanting, but I am equally proud to say congratulations to the United Nations when they do good and effective work. Frankly, when it comes to the registration of refugees, if the United Nations does not step in to do that, there is really no one else that can fill that void. They have done it, and they have done it well, in my personal, first-hand experience in Syria and Jordan.
Canada has, I am pleased to say, helped address the needs throughout the region. Obviously, if we can provide humanitarian support to people in Syria, the four million-odd people who have been internally displaced, they do not have to seek refuge. However, it is hard. It is very hard to get aid to the people who need it most.
Not too long ago, I travelled to Luxembourg, where I and nine other foreign ministers met with 10 international aid organizations: the World Food Programme, other UN bodies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the European humanitarian assistance folks. We talked. I am told by the UN World Food Programme that there are times when for four, five, six or seven days they are not allowed to get food out of Damascus. On the days they can get it out, there are 51 different checkpoints, with two signatures required. It has been brutal. Thirty people, some from the UN, some from other organizations, have lost their lives trying to get help to people within Syria.
We have paid particular attention to the pressing needs in Jordan. That has been deliberate. The influx of refugees to Jordan has been nearly overwhelming. To put it in context, my dear friend and colleague, the Foreign Minister of Jordan, Nasser Judeh, put it this way: It is like the entire population of Canada seeking refuge in the United States. Already more than 10%, 11% or 12% of the population of Jordan are Syrian refugees. It causes huge problems in access to water and sanitation. Internal social problems, such as schooling and people taking employment from other Jordanians, are huge. They are significant.
The need for food, medicine and other basics have tapped a government that was already experiencing extreme budget pressures. Indeed, Jordan does not have the developed economy some other countries in the region do. It is not resource rich. The average Jordanian can afford just a third of what the average Turk can, for instance. The situation is very different for Jordan than it is for Turkey, and the need is greater than in some other places.
Canada is delivering. I have personally visited all of Syria's neighbours. I am continuously taking stock of what the needs are and what we can do to be of help. Canada is a rare donor country in that it not only pledges to help out, it actually delivers. This is something government colleagues will elaborate on throughout tonight's presentations.
My friend from Toronto Centre says that we are not doing enough. How could we possibly do enough when we are seeing the biggest humanitarian crisis of the century? Whatever we are doing, it is not enough, and we have to do more. As this crisis drags on, we will do more.
We know that when it comes to humanitarian assistance, getting people and goods to the places they are most needed is a challenge. The World Food Programme, for instance, is doing a great job, as I mentioned.
I am also pleased to report that Canada is at the forefront of thinking about and considering solutions to the challenge of Syria's sizeable stockpile of chemical weapons. We have all seen recent reports, some of them conflicting, about their possible use. While it would appear almost certain that some of these deadly weapons were, in fact, used in recent days, we do not yet know for sure who used them, where they were used and exactly when.
I will leave the rush to judgment to others, but I firmly believe that on a question as important as this, we need precision and clarity. We need to get the facts before responding. President Obama has outlined the importance of this too, and I agree.
About one month ago, we extended a line of credit to the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors to try to get these important answers and elusive facts. Once we get these facts, we will consult with our allies.
American leadership will, of course, be key. So too will the actions of other key allies, such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Regional powers, including Turkey and Jordan, will also need to be part of the response. The stakes could not be higher.
We, responsible nations everywhere, cannot allow these chemical weapons stockpiles to fall into the wrong hands. Even small doses unleashed in tight spaces can wreak havoc and cause mass casualties within minutes. This is a concern from Tel Aviv to Tokyo to Toronto, and all points in between.
Our collective response must be firm. We must speak with one voice on this matter. We must understand that failure is not an option.
While we engage with like-minded states on this important question, we also work and engage with various factions, such as the opposition within Syria. Let us remind ourselves that this is not one homogenous body ready to replace Assad and his thugs, which only complicates an already difficult situation.
My friend from Toronto has in recent days asked publicly for more information about the makeup of the opposition. Others have asked why we do not recognize them and back them blindly. We have engaged with the opposition. I have met with their leadership. Canadian officials have met with their leadership. We engage with them, whether they be in Istanbul, Cairo or London.
Let me be clear. We have very credible information to suggest that in recent months, the number of Salafists, jihadists, radical extremists and those who express links to al Qaeda has only increased. This was said by my colleague opposite. They have come to Syria, backed by foreign money, to fight other foreign nationals, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard among them. These are not people seeking peace for Syria. These are people looking to wage new wars based on old hatred in the lawless, ungoverned space that is today's Syria. We have gone from being concerned about whether there will be a place for religious minorities, whether they be Shia, Kurds, Alawites, Christians, Druze or Ismailis, to what we can do to make sure these people are not slaughtered when Assad falls.
It is no longer a “nice to have” notion of pluralism. It is a matter of survival for those who may not appreciate the imposition of Sharia law, Islamic courts and brands of religious extremism that deny women and minorities their basic human dignity.
Already we have seen the destabilizing effects in the border areas. I would point to the kidnapping of four UN peacekeepers, Philippine nationals, in recent hours and days. Already we see signs of problems that have worsened over years threatening to get suddenly much worse.
In conclusion, Canada will work with our allies to deal with all of this as best we can. We appreciate the support of all hon. members as this debate continues tonight and in the days and weeks ahead. I urge everyone to keep in mind the innocent who have been killed or displaced already, those many millions of Syrians who yearn for brighter futures, and perhaps especially the children affected by this crisis, children who simply want to go home.