UPDATED: 12:05 a.m. EDT, Sept. 25: A statement from Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has been added to this story
Waseem Ramli is a well-to-do Montreal businessman who harbours an infamously unapologetic loyalty to the blood-soaked Baathist regime in Damascus. He’s often seen driving the streets of the city in his bright red Humvee, with its 1SYRIA custom licence plates, and its rear window emblazoned with the flag of the Syrian Arab Republic and the country’s Hawk of Quraish coat of arms. A side window is obscured with a portrait of Syrian mass murderer Bashar Assad.
Among the thousands of Syrian refugees who have settled in Montreal since 2015, the Kuwaiti-born Ramli is a notorious character. To many, his Humvee is an unsettling, menacing sight. Even so, Ramli, the director of his own management consultancy and proprietor of the popular Cocktail Hawaii restaurant on Rue Maisonneuve, has held little sway over Montreal’s Syrian community.
On October 1, with Ottawa’s blessing, Ramli will become perhaps the most powerful Baathist regime official in North America. As Montreal’s “honorary consul,” Ramli will control the consular affairs of tens of thousands of people in the Syrian diaspora in Eastern Canada and much of the United States. The only other Syrian honorary consul in North America operates out of an office in Vancouver.
All this came to pass in a manner that you could call sketchy in the extreme. And it all happened quickly and quietly.
On June 17, Ramli was among a small group of Assad supporters who showed up at a Liberal Party fundraiser at the Hôtel William Gray on Rue Saint Vincent. It was an “armchair discussion” with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Liberal MP Marc Miller, the incumbent candidate in Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Sœur. Trudeau and Miller posed separately for photographs with Ramli.
Within a week of the June 17 Liberal fundraiser, Ramli was in Damascus, and a poster-photo of himself standing beside a smiling Trudeau was up on his Facebook page, with the Liberal Party logo in the corner, along with Ramli’s description of his meeting with Trudeau as an honour. “With his government winning the next and upcoming federal elections,” Ramli wrote alongside the poster, “we have hope to see Canada playing a bigger role in world peace.”
Within days, Ramli had secured the Assad regime’s endorsement as Syria’s honorary consul in Montreal. Last month, Global Affairs quietly signed off on Ramli’s appointment.
In North America, honorary Syrian consuls have been intermittently active, and only in Vancouver and Montreal, ever since May, 2012. Following an atrocity carried out by Assad’s forces in Houla, which included the slaughter of 30 children under the age of 10, Canada joined the United States, Australia and several European countries in a mass expulsion of Syrian diplomats. Syrian consulates in Toronto, Washington, D. C., Los Angeles, New York, Los Angeles and Houston were permanently shuttered.
As of October 1, Syrian immigrants and refugees throughout Eastern Canada and most of the United States will have no choice but to present their requests to Ramli in order to get a passport renewed, assign power of attorney in Syria, arrange for remittances to family members or obtain any records from the old country—a birth certificate, a college diploma, a university degree. Everything will all have to be run through Ramli.
Ottawa’s approval of Ramli’s posting has sent ripples of fear throughout Montreal’s Syrian community. The fear is especially acute among those fleeing Assad’s cruelties who arrived in Canada after the 2015 federal election campaign, when Trudeau made his mark with a pledge to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees. Nearly a third ended up resettled in the Montreal area.
The NATO countries have maintained strict sanctions on the Assad regime since 2011, when a democratic uprising prompted Assad to turn his country into a nightmare state of mass graves and mayhem. With the backing of the Russian Air Force, Tehran’s Al Quds Force and Hezbollah, chemical weapons drops and aerial bombardments have destroyed and depopulated city after city. From a pre-war population of about 22 million, at least a half million people have been killed, and more than six million Syrians have fled the country. Despite the ravages of the ISIS barbarism, the depredations of Assad and his allies are why most of Syria’s refugees have fled the country.
In an interview on Sunday, Ramli insisted that while he is an enthusiastic supporter of the Assad regime, he was properly “vetted” by the authorities in Ottawa, and last month he received official confirmation of his appointment in a letter from Global Affairs Canada. He bristled at suggestions that he would fail to treat all Syrian emigrants equally. Ramli refused to divulge the amount of the financial contribution he brought to the June 17 fundraising event, and denied being a member of the Liberal Party. Maclean’s reached out to Marc Miller through his campaign office, to no avail.
Despite the assurances about his commitment to even-handedness in dealing with the Syrian diaspora—most Syrian-Canadians loathe the Assad regime and support the opposition, to one extent or another—Ramli’s full-throated recapitulation of the most lurid regime propaganda suggests otherwise.
The most recent group of Syrian refugees to arrive in Canada are about 250 people associated with the Syrian Civil Defence organization the “White Helmets.” The celebrated first responders and war-crimes monitors carry on their volunteer work in opposition-held areas where Russian bombers have been deliberately targeting residential neighbourhoods, hospitals and clinics. The White Helmets’ members and their families who were resettled in Canada arrived last fall following a daring evacuation operation coordinated by the Canadian embassy in Amman, Jordan, aided by the Israeli Defence Forces.
“They are a terrorist organization,” Ramli said of the White Helmets in our interview. “They support al Qaeda. They are just an affiliate of al Qaeda.” As for medical professionals working in Syria for the Syrian American Medical Society, the vitriol was the same: “They have also provided money to terrorist organizations like the Nusra Front and al Qaeda.” This is Putinist-Assadist propaganda, red in tooth and claw.
Syrian immigrants and refugees are among the Liberal Party’s most devout supporters and election campaign volunteers in Montreal. Confused and distraught, some agreed to speak with me, but only if I withheld their names, owing to the fear that if they required consular services Ramli would refuse them assistance or pass information to the regime that would endanger their relatives and friends back in Syria.
“He drives his car in front of us to intimidate us,” one Syrian-Canadian Liberal supporter told me. “When we have demonstrations, he comes and takes photographs. I don’t know why the government approved his appointment, or how they did it. I don’t know. I am very scared. We can’t accept this guy.”
Ramli denies gathering intelligence on pro-democracy protesters in Canada, but one Montreal Syrian activist, Lama Shakar, said Ramli has been keeping tabs on pro-democracy Syrian immigrants in Canada for years. “I see him all the time. He doesn’t like it whenever we do anything to help the opposition in Syria. We raise money, we send food, clothes. And now the Syrians here are afraid all the time. He is in power now.”
Ramli said he, too, raises funds for humanitarian relief in Syria, but he dodged questions about his association with the controversial pro-regime Syrian House in Canada / Coalition of Syrian-Montrealers. “You are interrogating me so, I don’t think I need to answer questions like this,” he said. Eventually, he conceded that he had been involved in fund-raising for the group. “I have helped, yes.”
The group has raised thousands of dollars for the Syrian Trust for Development, a regime-aligned agency at the centre of a scandal three years ago involving the diversion of roughly $1 billion in humanitarian aid into operations controlled by the Syrian regime. Ramli said the organization is perfectly legitimate.”And have you verified the Syrian Trust? Are you aware that it is a charitable organization recognized by the United Nations?” I told him I had looked into it. The Syrian Trust for Development was expelled from the UN Global Compact with NGOs in Syria in October, 2016.
Ramli then invited me to consider accompanying him to Syria, so that I could see for myself the efforts the Assad regime is making to rebuild the country he has almost single-handedly destroyed. I declined.
On Tuesday night, after this story was posted, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted a statement saying she was “shocked by the comments made to the press by the Syrian Honorary Consul in Montreal and the views he has espoused publicly on social media and elsewhere.” She continued: “Neither my team nor I were aware that officials at Global Affairs Canada had approved this appointment. I have asked the Department to look into this right away.”
2/2 Neither my team nor I were aware that officials at Global Affairs Canada had approved this appointment. I have asked the Department to look into this right away.
— Chrystia Freeland (@cafreeland) September 24, 2019
There is a way for Canada to dig its way out of the mess it’s created, says Ayman Abdel Nour, a prominent Syrian reformer. Nour was once an adviser to Assad, in the days following the death of his father Hafez Assad, who was also a mass-murdering tyrant. Nour fled to Dubai in 2007, four years before Assad the Younger turned Syria’s Arab Spring into an endless winter of corpse piles and charred ruins.
“Revoke the appointment,” Nour told me in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. Then Canada could appoint perhaps two neutral Syrians to run an office to handle consular cases. There’s no need for an “honorary consul.” The Assad regime could be persuaded to accept the arrangement, not least because of the remittances that might flow into the country from the Syrian diaspora. And the Syrian diaspora could be assured of fair dealing in confidential consular services that did not imperil their relatives still stuck in the Baathist hellhole.
“But Canada, well, no. I don’t want to say it,” Nour said. “You can’t always count on the Canadians. It’s a mess there. It’s a problem.”