Retired lieutenant-general and former senator Roméo Dallaire says Canada has the capacity to take in between 80,000 and 90,000 Syrian refugees, and he dismisses security concerns over accepting them as a "smokescreen."

Reacting to former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier's push for 50,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas, Dallaire said Hillier was "dead on," but his figures were "at the bottom end of the requirement."

Dallaire told CBC's Power & Politics that Syria was a well-educated, middle class society and its citizens would make a contribution to Canada.

"They will be an incredible asset, as the Vietnamese were and the Hungarians," he said. "And if you want to talk 80,000 to 90,000, we can handle that capacity." 

Security issues a 'smokescreen'

All political parties have pledged to bring in more refugees, but the Conservatives have said they are concerned about the security risk of bringing over Syrians without proper screening. 

"We cannot open the floodgates and airlift tens of thousands of refugees out of a terrorist war zone without proper process. That is too great a risk for Canada," Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said last week.

But Dallaire expressed concern that the issue of security was now becoming a "smokescreen" to do nothing. He said Canada has already taken in more than 20,000 Iraqis, and said, "I don't remember people falling all over each other about security. And all of a sudden because they are Syrians — security has become a dominant [theme]?"

The government had already pledged to bring in 10,000 more Syrian and Iraqi refugees by 2017. Dallaire is skeptical about how many of those will be from Syria, rather than Iraq. 

"The question is how many Syrians … are going to be part of that exercise. We could go right into those refugee camps and start pulling them out. They are all registered."

Boots on the ground

Asked by Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton about the military campaign, Dallaire said the American-led coalition should have used ground troops in from the start.

"We should have been there with boots on the ground, reinforcing local capacity in order to make an effective protection." 

Airstrikes, he said, provide limited risks, but also limited results. "Dropping 500-pound bombs on a truck with a couple of guys in it is not what I call an effective use of force."

Dallaire was the commander of the UN force during the Rwandan genocide. He was appointed as a Liberal senator in 2005, but resigned last year to spend time on his initiative for child soldiers. Dallaire recently returned from visiting a refugee camp in Jordan, where he says he saw first-hand the frustration of teenage refugees. 

"You should have seen those 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds … sitting there and they know that their future is screwed. They know they have nowhere to go … they can't get schooling. They won't have enough money to even build a family."

Child soldiers fighting in Syria

That frustration is leading to recruitment. The war in Syria has become more complicated, Dallaire said, because all sides are using child soldiers. "They are young kids and they are using them younger … and they are using them indiscriminately," he said.

Dallaire made reference to the tragic image of Alan Kurdi on the Turkish beach, saying it was a "horrible thing," but that children have been dying since the civil war began four years ago. 

"They have been killing kids by the thousands and thousands for years, and I [didn't] hear anybody screaming," he said. 

"It sort of reminded me of Rwanda before the genocide," Dallaire said. "Nobody even wanted to answer the phone."