Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA—Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has abruptly reversed course on his plan to get badly needed medical supplies into Syria by way of a Canadian aid organization.
Just days after travelling all the way to Jordan to announce some $2 million in aid, Baird confirmed Wednesday that the government will not be providing the money to the group known as Canadian Relief for Syria.
“I have directed officials to change course and to review alternatives to deliver medical supplies to the victims of the Assad regime in Syria,” Baird said.
He said concerns about where the money would be going arose after the announcement, when the government sat down with the group to reach a contribution agreement.
“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,” Baird said.
It remains a “top priority” of the federal government to assist the victims of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, whether they be opposition fighters, civilians or others caught in the crossfire, he added.
“The situation in Syria is a top priority for me, for my department and for our allies, and that’s why we’ll be moving as expeditiously as we possibly can.”
Momtaz Almoussly, a spokesman for the aid group, expressed shock Wednesday at the sudden about-face, insisting no one ever said the money would be used for anything but medical supplies and equipment.
“Maybe they sent an e-mail or something, but nobody has spoken to us from the government about this decision,” Almoussly said. He declined to comment further, saying the group is planning a press conference for later this week.
The group was established earlier this year and is in the process of obtaining charitable status.
It describes itself as “a non-political, non-denominational, non-governmental organization” devoted to supporting Syrian families in and outside of the country.
But Baird’s announcement prompted questions about why the relatively new organization received foreign aid when there are more established groups on the ground.
Some media reports have linked the group to a charity with an office in Pakistan that was once run by alleged al-Qaida financier Ahmed Said Khadr, whose son Omar is currently languishing behind bars in Guantanamo Bay.
Another report Wednesday suggested Canadian Relief for Syria was chosen because it would be better able to ensure opposition forces received care.
But the doctors on the ground weren’t going to single out anyone, Almoussly said in an interview Wednesday before the decision was made to revoke the funding.
“The treatment centre, when it receives a patient, they don’t ask are you a civilian, are you from the left or from the right,” he said in an interview.
“It’s just a medical centre.”
At a news conference earlier this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended his government’s choice.
“I’m told that our officials have done due diligence on all the organizations to which we’ve given money,” he said.
“I’m told they have the appropriate connections by which to deliver aid on the ground. And as I say, it is our officials who carefully research these groups and make sure they fit the needs of the government of Canada.”
Almoussly echoed those comments and said he didn’t know how the impression was formed that those networks would channel aid specifically to rebel groups.
“Because, maybe, of our connections and networks in areas that are difficult for international organizations, they labelled us that way,” he said. “But as I said, medical relief is impartial.”
Western countries have largely stopped short of providing material aid to the network of opposition forces in Syria who have been fighting against al-Assad’s regime since last year.
The United Kingdom recently announced funds to supply communications equipment, body armour and medical supplies and said the equipment was only for those not directly involved in the fighting.
Baird said Wednesday that Canada’s aid money was not directly intended for opposition forces.
“The sad reality is that far too much of the hospital and health care system has collapsed in Syria because of the war,” he said.
“Civilians are suffering greatly — whether it’s someone with a heart attack or a woman giving birth — so this medical assistance will go to support all the victims of Assad.”
That includes those fighting against the regime, but the money was never intended to help the opposition’s military effort, Baird said. “It’s entirely 100 per cent medical supplies.”
Canada has so far channelled the lion’s share of its aid for Syria through groups like the International Red Cross.
But the Syrian government has been severely restricting the number of visas available for foreign aid workers, making it difficult for outside groups to intervene.
This week, the United Nations humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos is in Syria to press for more access for aid.
But she told the BBC on Wednesday that the Syrian government doesn’t want international aid groups on the ground because they fear they’ll assist rebel forces.
Almoussly said his group’s network of medical staff is already there and can move around with ease.
He said the money was going to be used to purchase medical supplies which would be brought into the country via Jordan and Turkey.
“Canadians should know that they can help, they can make a difference,” he said. “It’s unacceptable to see people dying from non-fatal wounds due to the lack of medical treatment.”
The UN released a report Wednesday accusing Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and their militia backers of war crimes in the killings of more than 100 civilians — nearly half children — in the village of Houla in May.
It said the civil war was moving in a “brutal” direction on both sides.
The report was the first time the U.S. has described events in Syria’s civil war as war crimes and could be used in possible future prosecution against Assad or others.
— with files from The Associated Press