Fund Syria’s rebels — but be honest about it

It’s probably a good thing that Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs wasn’t in charge of covertly supporting the Afghan mujahedeen during the Cold War. Given DFAIT’s clumsy attempts to channel aid to Syria this week, I’m not even sure an underage teenager hanging around the LCBO parking lot should trust Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to secretly buy him booze.

Last weekend, Canada announced it was providing $2 million to Canadian Relief for Syria, little-known group with no previous international aid experience and no charitable status in Canada. The original press release said the aid would “provide medical supplies for doctors and health-care providers within Syria’s borders.”

The announcement struck a non-partisan tone: “‘Canada calls on all sides of the conflict to immediately allow humanitarian access so that assistance reaches those most in need,’ said [International Cooperation Minister Julian] Fantino.”

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The website of Canadian Relief for Syria also claimed neutrality: “CRS is a non-political, non-denominational, non-governmental organization, set up to co-ordinate help and support to Syrian families.”

On Monday, I reported that CRS directed potential donors to Human Concern International. Al-Qaeda lieutenant Ahmed Said Khadr, the father of Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr, once ran HCI’s Pakistan operations, though HCI has never been charged with any terror-related offences.

When questioned about Canada’s funding of CRS, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canadian officials had exercised due diligence investigating the group. A Foreign Affairs spokesperson stressed no money would go to Human Concern International.

Then, speaking on CBC’s Power and Politics, Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, said no money would necessarily even go to Canadian Relief for Syria. The money, he said, was earmarked for medical assistance generally, and not necessarily for CRS. Canadian Relief for Syria would have to submit proposals, which would then be rejected or approved.

This contradicted Canada’s original announcement singling out CRS as the $2 million funding recipient. But it did raise the question of why a group was promised millions of dollars before it had explained exactly how it would spend the money.

For a few hours on Wednesday, we got an answer of sorts. Postmedia News said the Conservatives confirmed Canada was funding Canadian Relief for Syria because it wanted to provide assistance directly to Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This contradicted pretty much everything the government had previously said, but it did have a whiff of truth about it.

And, to be candid, most of the medical aid going to Syria, or to surrounding countries, will help victims of Assad’s regime. Wounded government soldiers can get treatment at state hospitals; wounded rebels cannot. Refugees fleeing Syria are running from Assad’s army and civilian thugs; his civilian supporters, for now, are generally safe in their homes.

But then, by Wednesday afternoon, Baird said Canada wouldn’t be funding Canadian Relief for Syria after all. His explanation, to stretch the meaning of the word, was this: “We wanted to ensure that supplies could make their way to the victims of the Assad regime in the best way possible, and that it wouldn’t fund things like warehouses and infrastructure.”

Gobs of Canadian relief money gets wasted all the time — on photo-ops for ministers, for example. I’m not sure that warehouses are such an extravagance. You’ve got to store bandages somewhere. And more to the point, isn’t this the sort of thing that should have been sorted out before Canada made the funding announcement?

Momtaz Almoussly, a board member at Canadian Relief for Syria, was blindsided by the announcement and said CRS had always told the government any donated money would be spent on medical supplies.

So what’s really going on? Besides serial incompetence, I’m not sure. But I’m guessing Canada wants to help Syrian rebels but is afraid to say so openly — which goes some way toward explaining all the apparent jiggery-pokery going on.

There are many reasons why Canada should be wary of doing this. Supporting armed factions in a civil war has a history of unintended consequences.

And yet the fact remains that there is a war going on in Syria, and that one side will win and one side will lose. The consequences of an Assad victory are dire. They include a clear lesson to any other dictator faced with a popular uprising: kill enough people and you get to stay in power. The Arab Spring will be over. Despots in places like Belarus and China will sleep easier.

Then there are the international dimensions. This war is not contained within Syria’s borders. Iran is desperate for Assad to win, and is sending Revolutionary Guards disguised as religious pilgrims to ensure that he does. With Assad gone, Iran loses its most important ally in the Levant. Hezbollah loses a patron. Lebanon gets another chance to become an independent country.

There are risks to a rebel victory, too. Horrible revenge attacks against Alawites — the minority sect to which Assad belongs — are possible. There are credible reports that al-Qaeda fighters are within rebel ranks. And even without them, we can’t be sure what a post-Assad Syria will look like. But we know what Syria under Assad’s thumb is like — and it’s an ugly and tragic place. If Canada can help end this state of affairs, we should. The new leaders of Syria will remember.

So, yes, we should fund established aid groups that are helping refugees who have fled to camps on Syria’s borders. But we should also get medical supplies and other non-lethal hardware to Syria’s rebels. This may require some guile to get the aid into Syria, and care to ensure that it is placed in the right hands. But let’s be forthright about our intentions. They are not dishonourable.

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