The Royal Canadian Navy, its mission in Libya completed, will continue to patrol the Mediterranean Sea for another year, increasing speculation that the situation in Syria could lead to NATO intervention.

The move was announced by Defence Minister Peter MacKay on Sunday, the final day of a weekend gathering of international security and defence officials.

The deteriorating situation in Syria, which was the main topic of discussion during the Halifax International Security Forum, was a factor in the decision, MacKay said, but not the only one: Canada has also committed to participate in a NATO counter-terrorism campaign in the Mediterranean, he said.

si-mackay-220-cp01653766

Defence Minister Peter MacKay fields questions at the closing news conference at the Halifax International Security Forum on Sunday. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

As for NATO intervention in Syria, where the government of President Bashar Assad has turned its military's guns on a widespread protest movement, MacKay reiterated that it is too early to say whether military action in Syria will be required.

"I think it's fair to say that a lot of dictators are on notice that this type of behaviour isn't going to be tolerated," he said. "How we go about it and what comes next is done on… an escalating scale before making any final decisions around intervention."

One of the key factors MacKay said would be part of the decision will be addressed on Monday when the UN Security Council debates imposing sanctions on Syria after it reneged on an Arab League peace plan it had agreed to.

MacKay's view

Defence Minister Peter MacKay addressed two other hot spots in the Middle East on Sunday:

  • The violence currently unfolding in Egypt is "troubling," but also a symptom of the massive change still sweeping the country. "Egypt, Libya, others have to be encouraged to make this transition in a peaceful way," he said. "I think there is some nervousness about the fact that it is the military that is still controlling much of this process.The international community is going to continue to watch this very closely."
  • The consequences of a nuclear Iran are "almost too dark to contemplate," MacKay said, while stressing military intervention would be the last possible option.

Canadian patrol frigates have been in the Mediterranean for months, part of the NATO mission begun in March to protect Libyan civilians during the last gasps of deposed leader Moammar Gadhafi's brutal regime.

They will remain on station until the end of 2012 with the primary purpose of locating, tracking, reporting and boarding vessels suspected of involvement in terrorism, MacKay said, adding the vessels will also be capable of helping Canadians in need abroad, if necessary.

"There is no question that having a ship in the region in the event Canadians need direct assistance or evacuations gives us that utility, that capability to respond," he said.

HMCS Vancouver, already in the Mediterranean, will remain until early in the new year, when it will be relieved by HMCS Charlottetown, the minister said.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press