Situation in Syria

Mr. Speaker, I rise tonight in response to the request by the member for Toronto Centre to debate the situation in Syria in accordance with Standing Order 52(9).

Our government, and indeed most Canadians, have been following the situation in Syria very closely for the last two years, and particularly in the last few months. All Canadians are extremely concerned about the loss of life, human rights abuses, the destruction of property and the destabilizing impact the civil war has had on the region.

I think all members of the House share the desire for the conflict to come to an end and to see the Assad regime toppled. Our government has expressed this sentiment consistently for the last 18 to 24 months.

In recent weeks, an already terrible situation seems to be spiralling towards the depths of barbarism. The potential use of chemical weapons is something the world must examine closely and carefully. This need for careful examination stems from the fact that the use of these weapons will likely lead to a serious response by Canada and our international allies.

By now we have likely all seen the disturbing images from Syria of patients in hospitals who appear to be suffering the effects of a chemical toxin. These weapons have the potential for mass destruction and death. They would certainly cause greater suffering for the people of Syria and wider panic and instability in the region, which will lead to a rise in the number of refugees in border states and will raise the risk level in an already unstable part of the world.

Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Canada is a signatory to the convention and has a long track record of working with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Indeed, the United Nations and our allies in NATO have been watching the potential risk with respect to chemical weapons in Syria very closely.

The member for Toronto Centre has suggested in this debate tonight that there is some tension in the position of the government. In fact, the position of the government has been unequivocal. Assad must go, and the death and suffering needs to end.

The issue for our country and in this debate tonight is to determine what role Canada should play in the pursuit of these outcomes. In listening to the debate tonight, it is clear that the members of the House, including those from the Liberal Party, do not advocate direct military action.

Certainly, the Canadian Forces are one of the most highly trained and professional militaries in the world. However, a civilian protection mission would require boots on the ground. We are not prepared to do that.

Syrian air defence is considerably more developed than that in Libya. It is also more dense airspace, making any international multilateral military action extremely complicated and risky.

It also seems clear that most members of the House do not advocate providing arms or military assistance to the rebels. I read a quote from the NDP critic stating that this was not Canada’s approach. Finally, it appears that most members acknowledge that the civil war is not clearly demarcated by a monolithic rebel force on one side and the Assad regime on the other. The rebels may very well be a coalition of various groups within Syria opposed to the regime for different reasons. Most importantly, the rebels do not appear to share aspirations for a post-Assad Syria.

With all these points of agreement in mind, I would expect that most members of the House would agree with the government’s approach to the Syrian crisis. The Prime Minister and this government have advocated a strong multilateral approach, with the United Nations and our allies, to apply strong diplomatic pressure on the regime and to investigate seriously the possible use of chemical weapons.

On March 21, the Secretary-General of the United Nations launched an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. Canada strongly supports this investigation. Any and all credible allegations, including potential incidents in Homs late last year, and more recently in Adra, will be pursued.

The UN has inspectors in Cyprus ready to conduct this investigation. These inspectors have been selected and trained and are ready to deploy on one day’s notice. There just needs to be a cessation of hostilities or some form of security for this investigation to occur.

Canada was one of the first countries to pledge direct financial support for the United Nations investigation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Canada has also provided some direct unilateral assistance to neighbouring countries dealing with the threat posed by chemical weapons. Detection equipment and protective gear have been provided to the Jordanian armed forces to guard against a chemical weapons or biological incident arising from Syria.

Canada has also provided support to strengthen civilian capabilities to respond to chemical or other attacks affecting the people of Jordan. We have also pledged support for the establishment of a regional biological risk management training centre at the Jordanian university in co-operation with our allies, the U.K. and the U.S.

At the time of this debate in our House of Commons this evening, the UN-led investigation into chemical weapons use and the threat they pose is at an impasse. This is not acceptable. Canada supports the UN Secretary-General’s repeated efforts to resolve the current impasse so that all credible allegations are investigated as soon as possible.

Like our UN and NATO allies, Canada continues to demand that Syrian authorities grant full and unfettered access to the United Nations investigation team immediately. In recent weeks there have been news reports and even statements by UN officials that suggest there is evidence of the use of chemical weapons like sarin gas by both the Assad regime and a section of rebel forces.

While the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria quickly distanced itself from statements related to weapons use by the rebels, the commission did state that it “has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict”.

The fog of war, the increased use of media as a tactical advantage and influence operations by parties in a modern conflict show the need for a UN-led investigation to provide clear answers. Canada is pursuing a clear but careful approach to Syria. We are working unilaterally with allies and with countries like Jordan in the region to address the threats caused by the conflict.

This government is also committed to our multilateral course of action with respect to Syria as well, working with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations. Canada has taken a principled and consistent stand on Syria. We will continue to work with our international partners to contain the threat caused by the situation in Syria, and we will continue to apply global pressure on the Assad regime.

These are very difficult times. This was a very good time for the House to revisit this issue and Canada’s response. I think the careful and thoughtful deliberation by my colleagues tonight indicates that Canada cannot rush into an action engaging our military forces. We must keep this as a clear diplomatic effort on our part. We must clearly work with our allies, the United Nations, and NGOs working under the auspices of the United Nations, and our allies in NATO not only to assess the military threats on the region, but also to assess the real use of chemical weapons on the ground in Syria.

I appreciate the thoughtful comments from all sides of this debate, but I do think this government has pursued a very principled and rational approach. We are also dealing with the humanitarian crisis surrounding Syria, and we have heard tonight on all sides some acknowledgement that Canada has reacted with respect to refugees, particularly with regard to family reunification. I think even members on this side of the House have acknowledged we could do that perhaps faster and better, but it is clear from comments on the other side that those efforts are under way and that there is real and meaningful efforts by the minister to expedite family reunification, while also providing the appropriate oversight in relation to potential security risks that might be associated with widespread departures during a time of war.

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