Canada among nations pledging to help protect Syrian civilians

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Canada and a number of other countries at the G20 are pledging further help to protect Syrian civilians from violence, as few nations appeared willing to back a military strike against the regime of Bashar Assad.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird met Friday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, United Nations secretary general Ban ki-Moon, and ministers and officials from five other countries.

Baird is expected to announce some form of further help for Syria, in addition to the $316 million it has contributed since 2011. A more formal meeting of G20 foreign ministers — a first in the economic summit’s history — was scheduled for later Friday.

Cameron said the British government would be contributing an additional $85 million towards medical training and assistance to specifically help civilians who had been harmed in a chemical attack.

“I hope we can send a strong signal that we can act, and act specifically to relieve this appalling suffering caused by the war crime of chemical weapons use,” Cameron said.

Cameron also said British scientists had confirmed the use of chemical weapons in the attack that hit a Damascus suburb two weeks ago. That echoes the conclusions drawn by France and the United States based on their own intelligence.

But despite discussing Syria late into the night Thursday, there was far from a consensus or even a majority viewpoint on whether or not to punish Assad with a military strike.

So far, only Canada, France, Turkey and the United States are openly backing the use of force. Cameron has supported the idea, but the British Parliament voted down a resolution call for it. The European Council has also weighed in, saying nations needed to address the Syrian crisis through United Nations channels — echoing the stance of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

U.S. President Barack Obama faces an even greater challenge than convincing G20 countries to support his stance on Syria — he is also fighting to gain Congress’ backing for a military strike.