Hon. Bob Rae (Toronto Centre, Lib.)
|| That this House do now adjourn.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the Speaker of the House of Commons for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue today. I must confess that when I moved the motion, I was not sure whether the Speaker would agree with me on the urgency of the situation. I am very glad that he did.
I am sure that many Canadians might ask themselves why the House of Commons would be taking a few extra hours on a Tuesday night to debate a question that to many Canadians may seem so far away. There are conflicts and challenges all over the world, yet this question of Syria has struck all of us as one that is extremely important. Let me try to express the reasons why.
It is because of where Syria is. It is a country of 22.5 million people in the middle of the Middle East, which over the last number decades has been perhaps the most difficult and challenging part of the world in terms of resolving conflict and dealing with the potential possibility of hostilities taking over and becoming even more serious than they are already.
It is a country that has become the test for the United Nations own sense of role and responsibilities to ensure civilians are protected and that there is human security for those people who are facing the challenge of how they will live, survive and get their next meal.
It is a country that not for a few years but for several decades has been ruled by a brutal dictatorship, that being the Assad family, the father and now the son, representing a relatively small religious sect within Islam, the Alawite sect. It has achieved the monopoly of the security service, armed itself significantly, and dramatically repressed the population, which has effectively closed its economy.
It is a country which in the face of the changes that are under way throughout the region has resisted every single one of these changes, in terms of opening up the economy, recognizing the plural nature of its society, establishing good relations with its neighbours and allowing a real sense of opportunity to its people.
Therefore, it really has been no surprise that at a time when there has been this movement called the Arab Spring—though some people now feel that is an inappropriately optimistic term to describe it—there would be strong elements within Syria that would insist that the country become more pluralistic and democratic, that it recognize human rights and that it allow its people to have their say in who their government would be.
When faced with this challenge from within, the Assad regime chose one particular path, that being the path of repression. That is a path which has caused enormous hardship to the people of Syria and which has caused great instability, not only in Syria but also throughout the region.
We now find that in a country of 22.5 million, some 1.5 million of them are now refugees living outside the country. That is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of people who, as the saying goes, are internally displaced. These are people who have been forced to leave their homes, forced to move somewhere else, or have had to leave whatever community they may have been in to get to a safer place. Of those 1.4 million refugees, some 62,000 are in Egypt, 143,000 in Iraq, 450,000 in Jordan, 450,000 in Lebanon and over 320,000 in Turkey.
By any definition, whatever else we face in Syria, whatever else may be said about the instability of what forces are at play, the overall security situation in the country, the challenge facing the security of the region itself from the violence and the repression in Syria, what we know for certain is that this is a humanitarian crisis of the first proportion.
This is an issue which affects not only the conscience of the world and therefore of Canada, but this is an issue which has to be dealt with on a practical basis. The presence of this many refugees in Jordan, and the presence of this many refugees in Lebanon and Turkey, poses a security risk and a threat to those countries, to say nothing of the financial risk and the financial threat which they face as a result of having this many people suddenly descend on them. These are not wealthy countries.
The minister is going to describe to us some of the things which the Government of Canada has been doing with respect to the refugee situation in Jordan, and I am afraid that members on our side are simply going to have to say “not yet enough”. There is still more to be done.
There is more to be done, in a few ways. The first is assisting these countries to deal with the refugee crisis in their midst. The second is assisting the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to deal with the continuing challenge it faces with having to run these camps. The third is to deal in a much more effective, efficient and advanced basis with the claims of many of those refugees to be reconciled with their relatives in Canada. That is as opposed to many other situations where we have responded more effectively as a country, and I think most recently of the crisis in Haiti, where claims for immigration were sped up so people could be reconciled with their families and we provided far more humanitarian aid. I would argue that in this situation Canada has been relatively slow to respond, proportionately to other countries certainly, and proportionately to the seriousness of the situation that is facing these countries.
Let us first of all recognize the humanitarian nature of the crisis. Let us recognize the fact that at the very least Canada has to be more engaged with other countries in dealing with the seriousness of the challenge posed to Syria's neighbours by virtue of the size and the extent of the refugee crisis.
My colleagues have spoken earlier, and my colleague from Scarborough held a press conference last week. He described the urgent challenge facing a great many people in these communities, where it appears the Canadian government has not been as responsive as it needs to be to the needs of people living in refugee camps. We do not appear to have a program in place that would allow for the speedy treatment and the speedy consideration of claims that are being made for reconciliation with families in Canada. We feel, and I am sure that the House feels the same, that we need to be doing more to respond to the urgent nature of this humanitarian crisis. Let me just complete this point. There is more to be done on the humanitarian crisis. There is more to be done for refugees. Canada needs to do more to step up to the plate and make a difference when it comes to dealing with the extent of the refugee crisis.
If that were the only issue, this could be a simple debate. However, the challenge the world now faces in Syria is one of the most difficult and one of the most complex challenges that we have faced in many different places.
As I have said before, we have to recognize the military strength of the Assad regime. The Assad regime has the capacity to repress. It has repressed. It has not hesitated to bomb its own people. It has not hesitated to kill its own people. It has not hesitated to respond to every challenge to it by means of a military response. It has been brutal, and in that brutality the United Nations estimates that as many as 80,000 people may have been killed.
If we were to apply a simple test to see if the Assad regime has treated its own people in a brutal fashion and whether that justifies an effective response from the rest of the world, the answer would be yes, to which we could say the world has responded. The world has responded by saying we have to cut Syria off from financial access to other markets. We have to make sure the people who are leading the Syrian regime know how seriously the rest of the world treats what is going on in Syria. We have to make sure that every effort has been made, from a financial point of view, to isolate Syria.
One has to say, as strong as those efforts may have been and as coordinated as they have been, they have not had the effect to sufficiently weaken the Assad regime, to force it into a situation where it has to bargain with the rebels, come to terms with the need for change, and to make every effort to find a political solution to the crisis we face. That has not happened.
Another simple response would be to say, “Why would the world not simply conclude that if the Syrian regime is not prepared to treat its citizens properly, not prepared to respond to the various resolutions of the Security Council, the United Nations, the Arab League, all of the statements that have been made for the Government of Syria to come to grips with the reality, then why would the world not take further action, military action”?
Naturally, there are always those who think that military action is required in a situation where a government does not heed global opinion or international laws, such as those made by the United Nations based on decisions of the General Assembly and the Security Council to ensure that countries treat their citizens in a fair and equitable manner.
However, it is important to recognize the problem. The problem that exists in the Middle East currently exists in Syria. Because of the nature of the conflict and Syria's geographic location in the Middle East, there is no easy military solution.
I just watched the minister on television a moment ago. He said that he would prefer a political solution to a military one. I believe that it is difficult to contradict what the Minister of Foreign Affairs said because we would all prefer a political solution to a military one. However, the problem is that people are saying that, without military pressure on Syria, the rebels, those who are revolting against Syria's dictatorial government, will not get help and the Syrian regime will say that there is not a problem, that there is no pressure and that it is not necessary to find solutions. The civil war will therefore continue. That is why we are saying that this is a complex situation.
However, it is important to remember one thing. Syria is in difficulty. It is in the midst of a civil war. Eighty thousand people are dead because of it. The world cannot just stand by and watch. We must find solutions. That is why we are calling for a greater commitment from the Canadian government.
I know the minister has said, and I think it is the strongest statement that I have certainly heard, that he is satisfied with the evidence that chemical weapons have been used in the struggle, but the difficulty is finding out who has used them, when they were used and how they were used. Again, I find myself in agreement with the minister. Of course that is what the world has to do, and of course it is proving very difficult to do it.
Where, in fact, I think there is a need for us to be more engaged and not less engaged as a country is in recognizing the challenge that the instability in Syria creates for the entire region. The instability in Syria affects Lebanon. The instability in Syria affects Jordan. The instability in Syria affects Israel, which is why Israel has felt obliged to respond when faced with evidence that missiles are going from Iran to Syria to Hezbollah.
We cannot look at this situation in isolation. We cannot say that this all seems like a conflict that is so far away that we cannot get involved and cannot be concerned. The reality is that not only is there a humanitarian crisis which demands a response from the rest of the world, there is also a crisis which will not stand still. Unless the world effectively engages with it, the stability of the entire region is threatened.
This is why we continue to hear from others in the region that they want to see a more coordinated response from the rest of the world.
I am not one of those who think that Canada itself is going to come up with a magical solution, that somehow there is going to be some miraculous Canadian intervention that will make a difference on its own. We are a middle power; however, we are a middle power with many friends and we are a middle power that is respected.
As a middle power, we have an obligation to use every means possible to bring two things into effect. The first is to ensure that the oppression and the killing for which the Assad regime is responsible comes to an end. The second is to be part of the effort to use the International Criminal Court to hold those who are responsible for the conflict and for the death and mayhem in Syria to account. If we do not stand up for the rule of international law and for the role of the International Criminal Court, we are simply saying to the Assad regime that it can wash its hands of this conflict and nobody will ask any questions.
Finally, we have to recognize one other thing. It is not only the use of chemical weapons posing a threat to the very existence of some people and of some communities and it is not only the tremendous instability created by the use of chemical weapons, completely against every order of international law and any test of humanity; it is, as the minister referred to in his public comments, the extent to which Syria has become a playground for extremism.
We now know that there are fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Chechnya, as well as fighters who were in Iraq but are now back in Syria. We have to understand that this is the world in which we now live. However, the answer to that is not for Canada to be less engaged with the opposition, but to be even more engaged with the opposition.
I do not mean engaged in arming the opposition, as the minister might think I am saying, because that has never been a role that Canada has played. Canada has never played the role of an arms supplier to these various civil insurrections. What Canadians have done is to say we are not afraid of becoming politically engaged and reaching a better understanding who is who and who is where.
When we talk to people from the Syrian community in Canada, their main concern and main complaint, frankly, is that the Conservative government seems to be too determined to take a hands-off approach to even understand the nature of the conflict and the various elements in the opposition.
I am not pretending for a moment that it is easy. I am not pretending that it lends itself to easy solutions, and because of the very forces of instability that are now at play, I do not believe at the moment that a one-sided military intervention from the United States or from some other coalition is likely to get us to where we need to be.
I strongly support what Secretary Kerry and President Putin have decided to do, which is to hold another conference to get countries together to try and find a political solution. However, I do think we have to recognize that unless the world stands prepared to take the necessary steps to create the stability that we want to see and that the world needs to see in Syria, the risk is even greater instability in the years ahead and even greater hardship for the people who are living there.
It is a humanitarian crisis, a political crisis, a security crisis and an issue that demands a response from Canada. We would all like to see a future of stability, one in which the drive from Jerusalem to Damascus and from Damascus to Beirut could happen with nary a checkpoint, a future in which a train ride from Tel Aviv to Beirut could happen with nary a checkpoint. We would like to see that kind of world. It is an open world, a free world and a democratic world.
We are not going to get there overnight. We are not going to get there by wishing for it or by praying for it. We are not going to get there by simply analyzing what is happening from a great distance. We have to be prepared to become more engaged. In that engagement, Canada will gain some of the respect and some of the position in the world that Canada deserves for the efforts that it can make and should make in the months ahead.
Hon. John Baird (Minister of Foreign Affairs, CPC):
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