OTTAWA (CCN) — The Canadian government must stress a peaceful solution to the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, Syria, says a spokesperson for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.
“We support Canada being involved in the diplomatic discussions,” said Dominique Godbout, Development and Peace’s Syrian humanitarian program officer. “We’ve asked for this since the new government took office, that they be more involved in the diplomatic efforts. That’s the only way the war is going to end.”
However, Godbout expressed concerns about the limits of these diplomatic efforts. “There doesn’t seem to be much will from the international community,” she said.
On Nov. 1, the House of Commons international human rights subcommittee heard testimony on the plight of Aleppo that focused mostly on the rebel-held eastern part of the city that has been under siege since July. It has been closed even to humanitarian relief convoys and subject to airstrikes by the Assad regime that have targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure.
“The situation in Syria and in Aleppo in particular has recently been called ‘our generation’s shame’ and ‘a crime of historic proportions’ at the UN,” Sébastien Beaulieu, executive director, Middle East Relations at Global Affairs Canada told the subcommittee. “’Srebrenica,’ ‘Grozny’ and ‘Guernica’ have been used to call up images of horror and fear.”
He pointed out 250,000 people in east Aleppo are “besieged, bombed, starved and denied any humanitarian assistance.”
Canada is part of the 26-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG) that has been “pressing all parties to contribute to the necessary goodwill for fighting to stop and for peace talks to get underway,” he said, noting Canada has been providing advice to opposition groups. “We are not providing any lethal assistance,” he stressed. Instead, Canada is training them for peace negotiations.
Godbout said she believed Canada is supporting the official opposition based in Turkey, a political group that has “no control over rebel groups that are actually on the ground.”
“If they talk in Geneva with the opposition that is based in Turkey, I don’t know how much difference it makes on the ground,” she said.
“Most of the Syrians I spoke to that were part of the first revolution, they regret it,” she said. They tell her they would not have done it had they known how it would turn out. “Our revolution was stolen, stolen by external groups and we lost control over the future of our country,” they say. Syrians have even reported some Chinese involvement, she said.
“We want to put pressure, but we don’t know what Canada can do,” she said. The ISSG committee in Geneva needs to put pressure on for humanitarian aid to reach east Aleppo.
While Canada might not be providing direct support to rebels militarily, it does have military deals with Saudi Arabia and other countries, she said. While on one hand, Canada is supporting diplomatic efforts, on the other, they “do support military action and that we are absolutely against.”
Beaulieu told the committee Canada believes the Assad regime bears the greatest responsibility for the humanitarian crisis, but Canada also has concerns about the actions of rebel groups and the radicalization of the civilian population in response to the government’s bombardment.
The subcommittee also heard testimony from Raed Al Saleh, the head of the Syria Civil Defence, the so-called White Helmets who spoke via a teleconference from Istanbul.
The White Helmets are the first responders when there are bomb strikes or mortar attacks, pulling people out of rubble, getting the wounded to hospital and so on. Al Saleh said 147 White Helmets have been killed, often by double airstrikes — a first airstrike that brings a civil defence response, followed by a second that kills the rescuers.
Speaking through a translator, he said the best solution is for Canada to support civil society efforts to provide help and humanitarian aid.
He asked for international action to put an end to the suffering of the people in Aleppo, and stressed the White Helmets provide services to all Syrians. “We are unbiased,” he said.
Godbout said Development and Peace has partners on the ground in both east and west Aleppo. One partner in east Aleppo had the foresight to store fuel, food and other supplies prior to the siege that has prevented even humanitarian assistance from reaching the city. It has still been able to operate, though supplies are running out she said.
West Aleppo is also experiencing random mortar attacks from rebel forces, creating terror in the part of the city held by the regime, she said.
Though the Assad regime has reportedly opened up humanitarian corridors for civilians to flee east Aleppo in advance of an expected widespread assault of the city, Godbout said their partners have reported snipers shooting at those fleeing. There are rumours rebel groups are using civilians as human shields, and rumours the Assad government is charging $300 per family for those wishing to escape, money few can afford, she said, describing the picture as “murky.”
Despite the “very terrible situation” in Aleppo, Development and Peace’s partners “still have projects running that are doing great things and are saving lives in Aleppo east,” and elsewhere in the city, Godbout said.
Outside Aleppo, Caritas partners have projects helping farmers, training women to sew, read and use computers, she said.