Canada closes embassy in Syria

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced Canada has closed its embassy in Syria because of the continuing violence there.

No diplomatic staff remain in Damascus

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says the continuing violence perpetrated on the Syrian people compels Canada to 'again tighten the vise on those responsible.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada has closed its embassy in Syria because of the continuing violence there, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced Monday.

And in an interview with Evan Solomon on CBC's Power & Politics, Baird pointed to new reasons why Canada isn't sending the military into Syria, as U.S. Senator John McCain urged his government to do on Monday by launching air strikes to defend civilians against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Pointing to the "deteriorating situation" in Syria, Baird said there are no diplomatic staff left at the mission in Damascus.

"International consensus is that this regime has lost all legitimacy and the only course of action is for Assad to leave and leave now," Baird said at a press conference in Ottawa.

NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière, a former diplomat, said the government has legitimate concerns for the safety of Canadian personnel in Damascus.

"We have been asking the government for weeks now to recall the [Canadian] ambassador. We still think it would have been a good move. It would have sent a statement to the Assad regime to recall the ambassador and could have been done weeks ago while the embassy could have still been working on the ground," she said.

The U.S. closed its embassy on Feb. 6; Britain recalled its ambassador the same day.

Libya, Syria 'different'

In the interview with Solomon, Baird offered more reasons for why Canada isn't sending its military into Syria the way it did in Libya.

He and other ministers have said repeatedly that they don't have a UN Security Council-sanctioned mission and the opposition in Syria hasn't requested intervention. But he pointed to other factors as well.

"Obviously, Syria’s very different than Libya," Baird said. "The geography, the air defence systems, the neighbourhood that it’s in — don’t forget you’ve got Iran and [elements in] Lebanon on either side that have been supportive of the regime.

"You don’t have an arms embargo, so others have been delivering arms to the regime. And obviously it’s a much larger population in much smaller confines than was the case in Libya.

"I think just because we acted militarily in Libya doesn’t mean that we should send Canadian Forces into every country where there’s trouble," Baird said.

Multiple warnings to get out

The Department of Foreign Affairs has issued almost monthly warnings asking Canadians to leave Syria since protests began in the Middle East and North Africa in January 2011. The notices urged people to leave while commercial flights existed.

The government had to arrange flights last winter to evacuate Canadians from Egypt and Libya as violence grew in those countries.

"We have given, as some of the media may recall, 12, 13, 14 notices," Baird said. "We’ve conducted a voluntary evacuation. Certainly every single Canadian citizen who’s been in Syria has been offered support [or] help to voluntarily evacuate the country. Those that didn’t listen to the first six or seven warnings, we provided an additional six or seven."

Baird announced the embassy's closure following a meeting with with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, foreign affairs minister for the United Arab Emirates.

He also announced further sanctions against Syria on Monday.

"The continuing, appalling violence perpetrated by the Assad regime on the people of Syria compels us to again tighten the vise on those responsible," Baird said in a statement.