OTTAWA – Syria’s spiralling civil war has spawned a growing terrorist threat that could spill across the whole region, says Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
Speaking from peace talks in Switzerland, Baird also called on Russia to play a greater role in ending the bloodshed in the nearly three-year-old conflict that has claimed 130,000 lives and driven more millions more from their homes.
The support offered by Russia has allowed the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad “to soldier on for the better part of three years,” Baird said in a conference call from Montreux, where he was attending the Geneva 2 peace conference.
He praised Russia’s role in the international effort last year to begin the process of stripping Assad of his chemical weapons stockpile.
But Baird said there is an “expectation” that Russia will exert more influence on Assad to end the bloodshed and find peace.
He unequivocally backed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s position that Assad should not have any role in the future governing of Syria.
Earlier, Baird told the international conference that Assad deliberately opened the door to terrorists to help defend his personal power and privileges.
Baird said Assad invited in the terrorist organization Hezbollah and its state sponsors in Iran. Other groups came in through the back door to join the fight, including affiliates of al-Qaida, he added.
Baird urged a political settlement as the only way to end the fighting and begin the slow process of rebuilding the shattered country.
“Assad’s war created a vacuum that has been readily filled by terrorists,” the minister said in a text of the speech he delivered at the conference.
“The terrorist threat that is developing in Syria is real. It is a threat to the stability of the entire region and beyond. It is a war we have seen before on the streets of Baghdad, and its agents are ones who have been hardened by the wars of the last decade.”
He called on the various Syrian factions to start the process by opening routes for humanitarian aid, setting up prisoner exchanges and negotiating local ceasefires.
“At the same time we call on Syria’s opposition to adopt, without any ambiguity, the vision of a future Syria that respects human rights and accepts Syria’s diversity,” Baird said.
“We call on the opposition to clearly reject the extremists in their midst and fully embrace, in word and deed, democratic values and the principles of tolerance.”
Canada has expressed concerns in the past about militants in the fractured Syrian opposition.
But Baird also commended their courage Wednesday in coming to the peace talks despite formidable odds, including death threats.
Baird also said this week’s report by war crimes experts who have received a cache of 55,000 photographs that document the killing of 11,000 Syrian detainees should give the international peace efforts a greater urgency.
It’s one thing to recite the number of dead and displaced, he said, but quite another to contemplate the photos that have been released in recent days.
“They’re deeply disturbing, shocking and should be yet another reason to commit ourselves to a political solution,” Baird said.
A member of the Syrian opposition held up a few of the photos during his opening comments to the conference, he added.
“It was a very quiet room.”