The day Canada closed its embassy in Syria

Canada’s last ambassador to Syria reflects on his departure in 2012 and calls for the government to do more in response to the refugee crisis.

By: /
September 22, 2015
A man walks on rubble of damaged buildings along a street in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus March 4, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Glenn Davidson served as Canadian ambassador to Syria from September 2008 to March 2012. He was also Ambassador to Afghanistan from May 2012 to July 2013.

I left Syria for the last time on March 5, 2012, while the fighting was still spreading, and the trend toward full civil war was increasingly apparent. After lowering the Canadian flag, we locked the Embassy doors and I called on the Syrian Foreign Ministry to formally advise the authorities that we were suspending the operations of the Embassy of Canada and removing all Canadian staff from the country.

Minutes later, the few remaining Canadian diplomats left Damascus in a convoy of Embassy vehicles and drove through the snow-filled mountain passes to the relative calm and security of Lebanon. I experienced a more complex series of emotions that day than at any other time in my professional life.

Until we were through the border and actually inside Lebanon, I was concerned that our departure might be impeded. I was then relieved in equal measure when that did not happen. I was satisfied that our careful planning had been successful, that we had closed Canada’s mission in good order, that Canadian citizens in Syria had been given every opportunity for assistance in the preceding months, that our Canadian staff and families were safe, and that our wonderful local staff who had to remain behind in Syria were as well looked after as was humanly possible.

I also experienced a slight sense of the surreal, as planning in years past had always assumed that one of our key diplomatic roles in Syria would be to support our colleagues in Lebanon in the event of renewed violence there. Now, here we were, evacuating to Lebanon!

Mostly however I experienced a profound sense of sadness that a country which my family and I had grown to love – and its gracious and welcoming people – were being drawn down into a spiral of violence, which was likely to get worse, perhaps much worse, before it got better.

While we knew the future of Syria was very uncertain that morning, little did any of us suspect that three and a half years later the civil war would still be raging, let alone that it would have claimed a quarter of a million lives, or that over half the population of Syria would be displaced – four million as refugees in neighbouring countries, and some 7.5 million internally within the country.

Today, as I write this, my emotions are less complex but equally profound: sadness at what has happened to this country, horror and disgust at the atrocities being committed, concern for the welfare of the Syrian people, and frustration with the international community’s inability to either help end the fighting or adequately support the refugees.

The last point of course is at the heart of the whole issue: the humanitarian crisis in Syria exists because the fighting in Syria is ongoing; once the fighting ends, rebuilding the country can begin and refugees can start to return home. But the difficulty and complexity of ending the fighting is hard to overstate.

Throughout the entire Syrian conflict to date, both the Syrian opposition and the international community have been hopelessly divided amongst themselves and unable to identify common goals or avenues for cooperation. Proxies have been at play, vested interests have been protected, opposition groups have fought each other, sectarian rifts have opened, and now new players, unknown at the outset, are brutalizing and sustaining a conflict in which they originally had no stake whatsoever.

It is past time that the international community, including Russia, Iran, and the key regional players, engage in a serious and concerted effort amongst themselves, and through their influence on the warring factions, to stop the fighting. This will require political will at the highest levels, inspired diplomacy, and a degree of innovation and boldness which may prove elusive. However, until this effort is successfully engaged the humanitarian crisis will deepen and the Syrian people will continue to suffer.

Sadly, it is difficult to see much prospect of a spectacular breakthrough in the near future.

So, what should Canada and the international community be doing now to help with the refugee crisis?

In my view there are three essential elements in dealing with the crisis.

The most pressing requirement is to dramatically increase financial assistance to the UN and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) supporting the roughly four million Syrian refugees now in other countries in the region (mainly Turkey, with more than two million, Lebanon with more than one million, and Jordan with more than 0.6 million). The UN has estimated that the refugees require some $4.5 billion in support on an annual basis, or roughly $1100 per person per year.

As I understand it, only some 25 percent of the essential funding has been pledged to date. To illustrate one example of the impact of the shortage of funds, food allotments for the refugees have reportedly been reduced from about $30 per person per month to about $13. Winter is coming and the need is great. This funding shortfall is unconscionable, and wealthy nations in the region and throughout the international community – including Canada – must provide more generous financial assistance immediately.

In the West, we have become very seized of the need to urgently accept more Syrian refugees in our countries. This is right and necessary and clearly must happen. However, and heretical as it may seem, the numbers we can accept will not resolve the refugee crisis and the great challenge of actually supporting millions of refugees within the region will be ongoing.

While most refugees may ultimately wish to return home to Syria, there are clearly many who desperately want to move to other countries, or who cannot return home for a variety of reasons. Canada and other countries must move quickly to accept many more Syrian refugees, and we can do so if the political will exists. For Canada, I suggest the following simple and achievable course of action.

First, the Government of Canada should set a realistic and generous goal for Syrian refugee intake in an ambitious timeframe. This number should be over and above our annual refugee intake, which is typically 10-14,000 per year (included in the total of roughly 250,000 new immigrants to Canada each year). Whatever the actual numerical goal we eventually set, it needs to reflect our national capacity to sponsor and look after the refugees in Canada, as well as the capacity of the UN and supporting agencies to work with us in managing the refugee flow.

Second, accepting more Syrian refugees needs to be declared a national priority by the Government of Canada. Once this happens, it can become top priority for all of the Departments and Agencies of government involved in processing refugees, whether in administering the files, coordinating sponsors, arranging funds, screening for health, security and so on. In routine circumstances, Departments work to service standards of time for screening and processing applicants. If processing time is to be shortened dramatically (say to five days or less for uncomplicated files) it will require guidance to all Departments involved. We should be able to do this and to take more refugees quickly. (In my view, the requirement for screening refugees for admission to Canada is absolute and includes some degree of security screening, but this should not be viewed as an immovable obstacle or a reason for not accepting more refugees).

Third, increased Syrian refugee intake will require additional financial and other resources for the supporting Departments from the Government of Canada. Additional resource calls are never welcome, but are an essential element of a serious national effort of this scale. Among other considerations: teams may need to be despatched from Canada to the refugee camps; work hours will have to be extended in headquarters, at diplomatic missions, and in the field to expedite refugee processing and screening; sponsorship funding will have to be expanded; transportation assistance may be required, and coordination with the provinces will need to be increased.

The countries in the region bearing the burden of refugee support also need financial and other assistance. Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey all need help to sustain the extraordinary efforts they are making to accommodate Syria’s refugees. The challenge goes beyond the humanitarian support which the UN and NGOs are trying to deliver. The host nations face pressure on their logistical, infrastructure, water, energy and transportation resources, to name but a few. Consider Lebanon alone with a population of four million, which is hosting one million Syrian refugees. Another factor is that Syrian families tend to be large, and there are many young people in the camps for whom the risk of radicalization is high if there is neither hope nor dignity in their daily lives or future prospects. Education, skills training, and job opportunities can all help to reduce this risk, and here the international community must be prepared to help the host nations as well.

The bottom line is that barring an unforeseen development which stops the fighting and holds some prospect of a sustainable peace, the plight of Syria’s refugees will worsen. Canada and the rest of the international community need to act boldly and generously to help them now.