Chrystia Freeland revokes status of controversial Syrian consul

The foreign minister has ordered a review after approval of honorary consul embarrasses the Liberals and upsets many in Canada’s Syrian community
A photo of Waseem and Trudeau posted to Waseem’s Facebook page. (wramli/Facebook)

The wealthy Montreal businessman whose belligerent and broad-daylight enthusiasms for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have made him a notorious figure in Montreal’s Syrian refugee community will be stripped of the diplomatic credentials Ottawa unaccountably granted him last month, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland confirmed this morning.

“Upon review of the Department’s decision, I have instructed officials to immediately revoke his status,” Freeland announced. “I would like to express my deep regret over the difficult situation this nomination has posed for many Syrians living in Canada, including the many brave White Helmets and other refugees who now call our country home and may be feeling fearful and distressed.”

Waseem Ramli, the proprietor of the Cocktail Hawaii restaurant on Rue Maisonneuve, drives a bright red Humvee with a 1SYRIA custom licence plate and a portrait of Assad on a side window. His Facebook profile features a picture of himself standing beside Assad, smiling. Only days after he posed for photographs with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at an $800-per-ticket Liberal Party fundraiser in June, Ramli travelled to Damascus and obtained a formal appointment from Assad’s Baathist regime to act as an honorary consul in Canada. The Global Affairs department’s Office of Protocol registered and authorized Ramli’s appointment in Montreal last month.

READ MORE: Why did the Trudeau Liberals approve Bashar al-Assad’s man in Montreal?

The move sent ripples of fear and dismay throughout the Syrian refugee community, most of which tends to be solidly opposed to Assad, whose scorched-earth warfare is the reason most of them are refugees in the first place. As for Syria’s celebrated White Helmets, Canada resettled 250 of the heroic first-responders and their family members last year following a daring operation to rescue them from Assad’s advancing army adjacent to the Golan Heights. The operation was coordinated out of Canada’s embassy in Amman, Jordan, with the help of the Israeli Defence Forces. In my conversation with him last Sunday, Ramli told me the White Helmets are terrorists. “They are a terrorist organization,” Ramli said. “They support Al Qaida. They are just an affiliate of Al Qaida.”

Since Assad set out to crush a pro-democracy Arab Spring uprising in 2011, at least 500,000 Syrians have been killed and more than six million are now refugees from a pre-war population of 22 million. The country has descended into a charnel house of Islamist faction-fighting, Assad’s barrel bombs and chemical-weapons attacks, Russian air force bombardments and bedlam.

After Maclean’s reported on Ramli’s appointment and the dismay it had caused among Canada’s Syrian refugee advocates, Freeland expressed surprise that her own department had given Ramli’s appointment a green light. On Monday, she issued a brief statement to the effect that she was “shocked” to learn of Ramli’s views, and she had no idea how he had obtained her department’s blessing. “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.”

In an interview Wednesday, Freeland could not say whether staff in the Office of Protocols may have been swayed by the photographs of Ramli with Trudeau, and with MP Marc Miller, from a June 17 Liberal fundraising event. Earlier this week, Trudeau told reporters he couldn’t explain how Ramli was officially blessed by his government. “Obviously we are quite seized with this issue,” he told reporters. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer called Ramli’s acquisition of honorary-consul status “outrageous.” In an apparent comparison with the the case of Liberal candidate Hassan Guillet, dropped by the Liberals after remarks he’d made were uncovered by the Jewish human rights group B’nai Brith, Scheer said that anti-Semites and people who sympathize with terrorists “seem to feel welcome in the Liberal Party of Canada.”

The Office of Protocol decision to authorize Ramli would have meant all consular assistance to tens of thousands of Syrian immigrants and refugees in Eastern Canada and much of the United States would have had to be approved by him. Passport renewals, powers of attorney, copies of university degrees, arrangements for remittances to relatives back in Syria and so on would all have had to run through Ramli. He would also have been provided with access to consular archives.

A photo of Waseem’s vehicle, posted to his Facebook page. (wramli/Facebook)

Ramli had said he had intended to open a new Montreal consular office Oct. 1. In North America, honorary consuls have been operating only intermittently and only in Montreal and Vancouver since 2012, when Canada, the United States, Australia and several European countries broke diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime in response to Assad’s war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Several Syrian activists we spoke with in Montreal last weekend, including Liberal Party supporters, said they felt betrayed by the decision to grant diplomatic credentials to Ramli. Some said they would talk to me only if their names were withheld, owing to the fear that Ramli would either refuse to provide them with the help they need, or would pass on information about them to the Assad regime, putting their families in danger. Ramli told me he would treat all Syrians in an even-handed manner, no matter their views about Bashar Assad.

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Most of the refugees who have been resettled in Canada came from United Nations refugee camps after fleeing Assad’s scorched-earth warfare. Roughly 60,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada over the years, including about 8,000 who were resettled in Quebec following Trudeau’s ambitious 2015 federal election promises.

Ottawa’s authorization of Ramli’s appointment seems at odds with the Office of Protocols’ guidance that honorary consuls should not be “controversial or politically active persons.” Honorary consuls are expected to be “persons of good standing and reputation in the local community.”

Today, Freeland said Global Affairs officials have been instructed to undertake a review of the system that governs the appointment and authorization of honorary consul appointments.