Priest warns of threat from Syrian extremists

Representatives from the Syrian National Council, the Syrian Canadian Council, and a Roman Catholic priest have asked for Canada's help in mounting international pressure on the Syrian government to end violence against its own people.

Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio, who was expelled from Syria, wants no-fly zone and UN peacekeepers on ground

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird meets with Syrian-Canadian representatives and members of Syria's opposition in Ottawa. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Representatives from the Syrian National Council, the Syrian Canadian Council, and a Roman Catholic priest expelled from Syria are asking for Canada's help in mounting international pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime to end violence against its own people.

"We want the international community to mount further pressure on the Syrian regime to stop its targeting of civilian and residential areas under the auspices of wanting to stop armed groups when, in fact, their armed groups and their militias are cracking down on the Syrian people who came out very peacefully and non-violently demanding basic human rights," said Afra Jalabi from the Syrian National Council.

Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who lived in Syria for 30 years before being expelled for his outspoken stance against the violation of human rights in Syria, warned the Canadian government of the threat of extremism in Syria and called on Ottawa to use diplomatic ties to press Russia to stop enabling the Syrian regime.

In an interview on CBC-TV's Power & Politics, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird did not mince his words with respect to Russia's decision to veto more than one UN Security Council resolution on Syria.

"Their actions have really allowed this regime to soldier on," Baird told guest host Hannah Thibedeau.

Dall'Oglio warned that the more violence and repression there is, "the more the most extremist and dangerous people will have power and space of action."

"We asked the international community, and today the Canadian diplomacy to act quickly," Dall'Oglio said.

A renewed sense of urgency emerged after Syria acknowledged this week for the first time that it possesses chemical weapons, and threatened to use them if the country came under foreign attack.

Baird told Thibedeau if chemical weapons were deployed on the people of Syria, "it would take things to a new level."

When asked if he was concerned about extremists using weapons of mass destruction against the Syrian people, Dall'Oglio said the "yes, the danger is there."

Dall'Oglio called for "a no-fly zone" and UN peacekeepers or as he called them "UN peace-promoters on the ground to protect the population."

Baird ruled out military intervention saying Canada was not prepared to "throw in the towel."

As for weapons of mass destruction, Baird said it was something he had discussed with his international counterparts and that the issue had their "active attention."

Post-Assad regime

While it is unclear how or when the bloody conflict will end, Baird said on Power & Politics that Assad "will fall, he will leave power and what we want to ensure is we'll be ready when that happens."

"We want to ensure that there's an element of reconciliation, that there's no retaliation ... we want to see that a transitional government that is broadly representative of the country take power," Baird told Thibedeau.

"We are hoping it doesn't become a war of attrition between a brutal regime and an armed civilian population, we're hoping there would be enough pressure by the international community to make Assad stop and that there would be perhaps either a settlement or a stepping down," said Jalabi.

Baird said the group made it clear to him there was "no room for Assad in any effort to negotiate a solution."

And while Baird did express disappointment at a "stalled" joint UN-Arab League solution, he maintained that Canada would continue to take "every diplomatic action necessary."

Canada prepared to give more aid

Faisal Alazem, from the Syrian Canadian Council, said he asked Baird for an additional $25 million in humanitarian aid.

While Baird did not commit to a specific sum, Jalabi said Baird assured the group there would be "further assistance" in terms of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and refugees.

Earlier, Baird said, "Canada can and wants to do more," particularly in areas of medical support.

The Foreign Affairs minister said Canada's $8.5-million aid commitment is the third-largest contribution by any donor country.

Baird also expressed "deep concern" at the "deteriorating" situation in Syria, the rising death toll, stories of torture, and Syrians being jailed.

Almost 115,000 people — half of them children and youth — have fled Syria and are registered as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

On Wednesday, UNICEF launched an emergency appeal in Canada to support its Syrian emergency efforts.

The next "Friends of Syria" meeting is expected to take place in Morocco at the beginning of August.