Tag Archives: Syria

Complicity with Saudi crimes limits Canada’s response

Governments, like gardeners, reap what they sow. Trudeau’s continuation of Harper’s Conservative Mideast foreign policy has reaped the current mess with Saudi Arabia.

The Liberal brain trust must be wondering, “what do we have to do? We slavishly back the odious Saudi regime and they freak over an innocuous tweet.”

The Trudeau government has largely maintained the Conservative government’s pro-Saudi policies and support for Riyadh’s belligerence in the region. They’ve mostly ignored its war on Yemen, which has left 15,000 civilians dead, millions hungry and sparked a cholera epidemic. Rather than oppose this humanitarian calamity, Ottawa armed the Saudis and openly aligned itself with Riyadh.

Some of the Saudi pilots bombing Yemen were likely trained in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Since 2011 Saudi pilots have trained with NATO’s Flying Training in Canada (NFTC), which is run by the Canadian Forces and CAE. The Montreal-based flight simulator company trained Royal Saudi Air Force pilots in the Middle East, as well as the United Arab Emirates Air Force, which joined the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen.

As Anthony Fenton has demonstrated on Twitter, Saudi backed forces have been using Canadian-made rifles and armoured vehicles in Yemen. Saudi Arabia purchased Canadian-made Streit Group armoured vehicles for its war, which have been videoed targeting Yemeni civilians. The Trudeau government signed off on a $15 billion Canadian Commercial Corporation Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) contract with the kingdom. Over a decade and a half, General Dynamics Land Systems Canada is to provide upwards of a thousand vehicles equipped with machine guns and medium or high calibre weapons. The largest arms export contract in Canadian history, it includes maintaining the vehicles and training Saudi forces to use the LAVs.

With the LAV sale under a court challenge, in late 2016 federal government lawyers described Saudi Arabia as “a key military ally who backs efforts of the international community to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the instability in Yemen. The acquisition of these next-generation vehicles will help in those efforts, which are compatible with Canadian defence interests.” In a further sign of Ottawa aligning with Riyadh’s foreign policy, Canada’s just-expelled ambassador, Dennis Horak, said in April 2016 that the two countries have had “nearly similar approaches on Syria, Yemen, Iraq and the Middle East Peace Process” and the Canadian Embassy’s website currently notes that “the Saudi government plays an important role in promoting regional peace and stability.”

Within six weeks of taking up his new post, Trudeau’s first foreign minister Stéphane Dion met his Saudi counterpart in Ottawa. According to briefing notes for the meeting, Dion was advised to tell the Saudi minister, “I am impressed by the size of our trade relationship, and that it covers so many sectors …You are our most important trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.” The Trudeau government also sought to deepen ties to the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose members almost all intervened in Yemen. Announced in 2013, the Canada–GCC Strategic Dialogue has been a forum to discuss economic ties and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Dion attended the May 2016 meeting with GCC foreign ministers in Saudi Arabia.

Canada is a major arms exporter to the GCC monarchies. Canadian diplomats, the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC), and the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI) promoted arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC. With support from Global Affairs Canada and the CCC, a slew of Canadian arms companies flogged their wares at the Abu Dhabi-based International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in 2016, 2017, 2018 and are already preparing for 2019.

Canadian companies and officials sold weapons to monarchies that armed anti-government forces in Syria. In an effort to oust the Bashar al-Assad regime, GCC countries supported extremist Sunni groups, which have had ties to Daesh/Islamic State.

The Trudeau government continued with the previous government’s low-level support for regime change in Syria. It provided aid to groups opposed to Assad and supported US cruise missile strikes on a Syrian military base in April.

With the Saudis, Israel and the US generally antagonistic to Iran, there has been only a minor shift away from the Harper government’s hostile position towards that country. The Trudeau government dialed down the previous government’s most bombastic rhetoric against Tehran but has not restarted diplomatic relations (as Trudeau promised before the election) or removed that country from Canada’s state sponsor of terrorism list. One aim of the Canada-GCC Strategic Dialogue is to isolate Iran. A communiqué after the May 2016 Canada-GCC ministerial meeting expressed “serious concernsover Iran’s support for terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the region.” An April 2016 Global Affairs memo authorizing the LAV export permits noted that “Canada appreciates Saudi Arabia’s role as a regional leader promoting regional stability, as well as countering the threat posed by Iranian regional expansionism.”

The Trudeau government continued to criticize Iran for their human rights abuses while regularly ignoring more flagrant rights violations by the rulers of Saudi Arabia. In the fall of 2017, Canada again led the effort to have the United Nations General Assembly single Iran out for human rights violations.

Saudi Arabia’s over the top response to an innocuous tweet has given the Liberals a unique opportunity to distance Canada from the violent, misogynistic and repressive regime. If there were a hint of truth to Trudeau’s “feminist”, “human rights”, “Canada is back”, etc. claims the Liberals would seize the occasion. But the Saudis are betting Canada backs down. Based on Trudeau’s slavish support for the kingdom so far it is a safe bet.

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Canada’s chemical weapons problem: credibility

Somewhere in the Lester B. Pearson Building, Canada’s foreign affairs headquarters, must be a meeting room with the inscription “The World Should Do as We Say, Not As We Do” or perhaps “Hypocrites ‘R Us.”

With the Obama administration beating the war drums, Canadian officials are demanding a response to the Syrian regime’s alleged use of the chemical weapon sarin.

Last week Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed “if it is not countered, it will constitute a precedent that we think is very dangerous for humanity in the long term” while for his part Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declared: “If it doesn’t get a response it’s an open invitation for people, for Assad in Syria, or elsewhere to use these types of weapons that they’ve by and large refrained from doing since the First World War.” The Conservatives also signed Canada onto a White House statement claiming: “The international norm against the use of chemical weapons is longstanding and universal.”

While one may wish this were the case, it’s not. In fact, Canada has repeatedly been complicit with the use of chemical weapons.

During the war in Afghanistan, Canadian troops used white phosphorus, which is a chemical agent that can cause deep tissue burning and death when inhaled or ingested in significant amounts. In an October 2008 letter to theToronto Star, Corporal Paul Demetrick, a Canadian reservist, claimed Canadian forces used white phosphorus as a weapon against “enemy-occupied” vineyards. General Rick Hillier, former chief of the Canadian defence staff, confirmed the use of this defoliant. Discussing the difficulties of fighting the Taliban in areas with 10-foot tall marijuana plants, the general said: “We tried burning them with white phosphorous — it didn’t work.” After accusations surfaced of western forces (and the Taliban) harming civilians with white phosphorus munitions the Afghan government launched an investigation.

In a much more aggressive use of this chemical, Israeli forces fired white phosphorus shells during its January 2009 Operation Cast Lead that left some 1,400 Palestinians dead. Ottawa cheered on this 22-day onslaught against Gaza and the Conservatives have failed to criticize Israel for refusing to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention.

For decades the massive Suffield Base in Alberta was one of the largest chemical and biological weapons research centres in the world. A 1989 Peace Magazine article explained, “For almost 50 years, scientists from the Department of National Defence have been as busy as beavers expanding their knowledge of, and testing agents for, chemical and biological warfare (CBW) in southern Alberta.”

Initially led by Canadian and British scientists/soldiers, gradually the US military played a bigger role in the chemical weapons research at Suffield. A chemical warfare school began there in 1942 and it came to light that in 1966 US Air Force jets sprayed biological weapons simulants over Suffield to figure out how best to spray potentially fatal diseases on people. Until at least 1989 there were significant quantities of toxins, including sarin, stockpiled at the Alberta base. In 2006 former Canadian soldiers who claim to have been poisoned at Suffield launched a class action lawsuit against the Department of National Defense.

During the war in Vietnam, the US tested agents orange, blue, and purple at CFB Gagetown. A 1968 U.S. Army memorandum titled “defoliation tests in 1966 at base Gagetown, New Brunswick, Canada” explained: “The department of the army, Fort Detrick, Maryland, has been charged with finding effective chemical agents that will cause rapid defoliation of woody and Herbaceous vegetation. To further develop these objectives, large areas similar in density to those of interest in South East Asia were needed. In March 1965, the Canadian ministry of defense offered Crops Division large areas of densely forested land for experimental tests of defoliant chemicals. This land, located at Canadian forces base Gagetown, Oromocto, New Brunswick, was suitable in size and density and was free from hazards and adjacent cropland. The test site selected contained a mixture of conifers and deciduous broad leaf species in a dense undisturbed forest cover that would provide similar vegetation densities to those of temperate and tropical areas such as South East Asia.”

Between 1962 and 1971 US forces sprayed some 75,000,000 litres of material containing chemical herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. One aim was to deprive the guerrillas of cover by defoliating forests and rural land. Another goal of these defoliation efforts was to drive peasants from the countryside to the US dominated cities, which would deprive the national resistance forces of their food supply and rural support.

In addition to assisting chemical warfare by testing Agent Orange, during the Vietnam war Canadian manufacturers sold the US military “polystyrene, a major component in napalm,” according to the book Snow Job. A chemical agent that can cause deadly burns, Napalm was widely deployed by US forces in their war against Southeast Asia.

This deadly chemical agent was also used during the Korean War, which saw 27,000 Canadian troops go to battle. A New York Times reporter, George Barrett, described the scene in a North Korean village after it was captured by US-led forces in February 1951: “A napalm raid hit the village three or four days ago when the Chinese were holding up the advance, and nowhere in the village have they buried the dead because there is nobody left to do so. This correspondent came across one old women, the only one who seemed to be left alive, dazedly hanging up some clothes in a blackened courtyard filled with the bodies of four members of her family.

“The inhabitants throughout the village and in the fields were caught and killed and kept the exact postures they had held when the napalm struck — a man about to get on his bicycle, fifty boys and girls playing in an orphanage, a housewife strangely unmarked, holding in her hand a page torn from a Sears Roebuck catalogue crayoned at Mail Order No. 3,811,294 for a $2.98 ‘bewitching bed jacket — coral.’ There must be almost two hundred dead in the tiny hamlet.”

This NYT story captured the attention of Canadian External Affairs Minister Lester Pearson. In a letter to the Canadian ambassador in Washington, Hume Wrong, he wondered how it might affect public opinion and complained about it passing US media censors. “[Nothing could more clearly indicate] the dangerous possibilities of United States and United Nations action in Korea on Asian opinion than a military episode of this kind, and the way it was reported. Such military action was possibly ‘inevitable’ but surely we do not have to give publicity to such things all over the world. Wouldn’t you think the censorship which is now in force could stop this kind of reporting?”

No one denies that tens of thousands of liters of napalm were employed by UN forces in Korea. The use of biological weapons is a different story.

After the outbreak of a series of diseases at the start of 1952, China and North Korea accused the US of using biological weapons. Though the claims have neither been conclusively substantiated or disproven — some internal documents are still restricted — in Orienting Canada, John Price details the Canadian external minister’s highly disingenuous and authoritarian response to the accusations, which were echoed by some Canadian peace groups. While publicly highlighting a report that exonerated the US, Pearson concealed a more informed External Affairs analysis suggesting biological weapons could have been used. Additionally, when the Ottawa Citizen revealed that British, Canadian, and US military scientists had recently met in Ottawa to discuss biological warfare, Pearson wrote the paper’s owner to complain. Invoking national security, External Affairs “had it [the story] killed in the Ottawa Journal and over the CP [Canadian Press] wires.”

Price summarizes: “Even without full documentation, it is clear that the Canadian government was deeply involved in developing offensive weapons of mass destruction, including biological warfare, and that Parliament was misled by Lester Pearson at the time the accusations of biological warfare in Korea were first raised. We know also that the US military was stepping up preparations for deployment and use of biological weapons in late 1951 and that Canadian officials were well aware of this and actively supported it. To avoid revealing the nature of the biological warfare program and Canadian collaboration, which would have lent credence to the charges leveled by the Chinese and Korean governments, the Canadian government attempted to discredit the peace movement.”

International efforts to ban chemical weapons and to draw a “red line” over their use are a step forward for humanity. But this effort must include an accounting and opposition to Canada and its allies’ use of these inhumane weapons.

To have any credibility a country preaching against the use of chemical weapons must be able to declare: “Do as I do.”

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Conservative’s Syria policy is make war not peace

The Obama administration is looking to attack Syria. If they go forward without UN approval, the US would once again be violating international law and would likely inflame a conflict that’s already left 100,000 dead and displaced millions more.

For its part, Ottawa seems to want military action. Last week Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “We do support our allies who are contemplating forceful action [in Syria]” and on Friday he added “we are simply not prepared to accept the idea that there is a Russian veto [at the UN Security Council] over all of our actions.”

At the same time as they are calling for war the Conservatives are telling a skeptical public that Canada won’t be significantly involved in any military action. “We have no plans of our own to have a Canadian military mission,” Harper told the press.

Yet, ten days ago the head of the Canadian military met generals from some of the main countries backing Syria’s rebels to discuss the prospects of building an international coalition force. Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson traveled to Amman alongside the top generals from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, the UK, Italy, France and Germany. The three-day meeting was co-hosted by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Tartin Dempsey, and Jordan’s chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Mishaal Zaben.

While initially trying to keep the trip secret, the Department of National Defence later shifted gears claiming, “These meetings were planned months in advance and were not in response to the escalating situation in Syria.” This is hard to believe as Lawson traveled to Jordan just four months ago.

In another sign of Canada’s deepening involvement in the Syrian conflict the National Post and Ottawa Sun recently reported that Canada has funneled $5.3-million to the Syrian rebels’ propaganda efforts since April of last year. Working alongside Washington, Canadian funding has helped the rebels set up a pirate radio network and train bloggers and journalists “in an effort to rapidly increase international credibility of the Syrian opposition and visibility of humanitarian news reporting from Syria.” Foreign Affairs also admits to giving $650,000 to the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre to support “research and collect evidence of human rights violations for use in future Syria-led transitional justice processes.”

Over the past two years Ottawa has pushed to unite the Syrian opposition both inside and outside of the country. One way they’ve done so is by paying for the rebels’ satellite Internet communication devices with the aim of “increasing co-ordination between opposition networks of local civilian actors involved in local administration and political leadership, during both the conflict and transition phases in Syria.”

Notwithstanding their support for the rebels and involvement in military planning, Harper’s Conservatives had been relatively restrained with their public comments on the violence in Syria. Compared to their belligerence towards Iran, Hezbollah, and the Palestinians, they’ve taken a slightly more nuanced position towards Syria, which reflects the fact that the Israeli establishment is torn between its desire to weaken Hezbollah and Iran by overthrowing Assad and its fear that Islamists taking over in Syria could lead to more volatility in the occupied Golan Heights.

At different points both Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Minister Baird have recognized that the war is not simply a brutal dictatorship crushing innocents but that there is also a sectarian element to the conflict and the rebels include many unsavory characters. Despite recognizing the extremist nature of some Syrian rebels, the Conservatives have yet to add any Syrian group to Canada’s list of banned terrorist organizations. Unlike the US, UK, and UN, Canada has not designated Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front) as a terrorist group.

This might help explain why Canadians are thought to be over-represented among Western fighters in Syria. The Toronto Star reported that during the past year at least 100 Canadians have left to fight with the rebels in Syria.

While failing to list any opposition group, last September Ottawa saw fit to designate Syria a State Supporter of Terrorism. This “allows victims of terrorism to sue perpetrators… for loss or damage that has occurred as a result of an act of terrorism committed anywhere in the world.”

At the regional level Ottawa has denounced Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia for supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad but they’ve ignored the role Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and Qatar have played in the conflict. According to front-page Financial Times and Wall Street Journal articles, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have plowed billions of dollars worth of weaponry and other forms of support to the rebels. But there hasn’t been a public peep from the Conservatives about the Saudi’s and Qatar’s role in exacerbating the violence in Syria. Instead of calling on these repressive monarchies to desist, they have deepened Canada’s ties to the rebels’ main diplomatic and arms benefactors.

Conservative ministers have repeatedly visited Saudi Arabia. On his second visit to the Kingdom in a year, last week Minister of International Trade Ed Fast said, “There is a sincere desire on the part of our government to re-lift this relationship to a whole new level. We collaborate on security issues. We agree on a number of issues. … I am very bullish on where the Canadian-Saudi Arabian relationship is going.”

Over the past couple years Ottawa has ramped up arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies backing the rebels. At the start of 2010 the government-backed Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI) sent its first-ever trade mission to Saudi Arabia while in 2011 the Conservatives approved arms export licenses worth a whopping $4 billion to Saudi Arabia.

In February, 25 Canadian companies flogged their wares at IDEX 2013, the largest arms fair in the Middle East and North Africa. “We’re excited to see such a large number of Canadian exhibitors,” said Arif Lalani, Canada’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, where IDEX 2013 was held. “These companies represent the best Canadian capabilities and technologies in a number of areas of the defence and security sector.” As part of their effort to promote Canadian weaponry, Ottawa sent HMCS Toronto to the UAE during IDEX.

If the Canadian government cared about Syrians, over the past two and a half years they would have been calling on Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, Hezbollah, Washington etc. to stop the flow of arms into Syria, which only prolongs people’s suffering. At the same time they would have been pushing aggressively for a negotiated resolution to the conflict.

It’s never too late to do the right thing.

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