The Syrian refugee tragedy becomes a political battleground

After crisis meetings, Stephen Harper makes the crisis part of his campaign. Paul Wells reports from B.C.

“Obviously today there’s a little bit of different circumstances,” Stephen Harper said.

We suspected as much. The Conservative leader’s planned morning announcement at a sprawling and spice-fragrant Fruiticana warehouse was cancelled. Kory Teneycke, the Prime Minister’s spokesman, had spent an hour on the phone while reporters waited for word about what the day would entail. Everyone knew the topic.

“It really is on the big story that I know we’ve all seen,” Harper said when we finally got to the warehouse. “Yesterday Laureen and I saw on the Internet this picture of the young boy, Alan, dead on the beach.” The invited Conservative crowd that had assembled for whatever announcement Harper had originally planned to make looked on sombrely.

Related: His name was Alan Kurdi

“The first thing that crossed our mind was remembering our own son Ben at that age, running around like that.” I thought his voice caught here. “It brings tears to your eye. I think that is the reaction of every parent … It truly is a heartbreaking situation.”

Here, Harper’s remarks took a turn. “What I want to say, though, is this. I don’t need to tell you what we saw yesterday was a tragedy. What I need to tell you is that it is far, far worse than that. Far worse.”

Related: For the record: Stephen Harper on Syrian refugees

Harper said he had been to refugee camps in Jordan and Iraq where “I have seen tens of thousands of people in these desperate circumstances. And there are millions more in exactly the same situation. There are in fact tens of millions of people — not in the refugee camps — but tens of millions of people whose lives have been affected by what is going on in that part of the world in a way that is catastrophic, that has put their very survival on a day-to-day basis in jeopardy.”

The question was what to do. “Our country has the most generous immigration and refugee system in the world. We admit per capita more people than any other.” But “refugee policy alone is not remotely a solution to this problem. It is of a scale far, far beyond that. That’s why we have been one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid.”

But refugee policy and aid weren’t enough either, he said. Here he echoed remarks he has made every time he was asked, including yesterday in North Bay, Ont., before the story of the Kurdi family tragedy broke. “We are also doing what we have to do to try and fight the root cause of this problem. And that is the violent campaign being fought against millions of people by ISIS. That is why we are part of the international military coalition.” Here the invited guests applauded.

Related: Our primer on defence spending, among other major election issues

Harper continued, and here he said things that are difficult to square with the record. “A few days ago I met with the patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church. He was visiting us from Damascus, Syria. That is where he actually still lives. And look, what they all tell you is this, friends. They all tell you, ‘We’re honoured, we’re delighted, we’re relieved when we see some of our people coming to this country. And we appreciate the humanitarian aid you deliver to us… But more than anything, we need to be in a situation where people are not attacking and trying to kill us. We do not want to pick up our entire communities, hundreds of thousands or millions of people, and move them out of a region where they have lived for as long as history has been written.’ They do not want that. They want us to help them. That is why we provide refugee placements, friends, that is why we provide humanitarian aid to these millions of people, and that is why we are part of the international military coalition taking on the so-called Islamic State.”

The plain meaning of Harper’s words was that Mor Ignatius Aphrem, the Syrian (or Syriac) Orthodox leader who was in Ontario and Quebec recently, supports armed intervention against ISIS. If so, that would be a recent and startling change in his position. In an interview two months ago, he said, “We are not asking the West for military intervention to defend Christians and all others. We are asking them to stop arming and supporting terrorist groups that are destroying our countries and massacring our people. If they want to help, they should support local governments…”

Two weeks later, he said, “This injustice, which is against the heavenly and human laws, will not compel us to ask for Western protection or help.” And days ago in Markham, the patriarch made similar remarks.

After Harper’s remarks, reporters asked their questions. I asked one. For the most part the answers did not add much to the PM’s remarks, except in the degree of his fervour. “We need to help people who are actually there and can’t get away,” he told the CBC’s James Cudmore. “And part of the way we need to help them is to stop the awful violence that is being directed at them, displacing and killing them.” More applause from the invited crowd.

“And I do not know how, for the life of me, you look at that picture and you say, ‘Yeah, we want to help that family but we want to walk away from the military mission that is trying to prevent ISIS from killing tens of millions of people.’ I don’t know how, for the life of me, you reach that kind of conclusion. We’ve reached the conclusion that we should be doing everything, we are doing everything, and we will do more of everything. That’s our conclusion.”

Several hours later, during a brief stop at a horse farm in Delta, B.C., Harper delivered a version of his standard cheerful and combative campaign stump speech that included a new segment, an abridged version of the remarks I’ve just described. He knows military action must be part of the solution, he said. His opponents have no clue.

I admit I was surprised. The Conservative leader has decided—and it did not take him long at all to reach this conclusion—that his dispute with his opponents over the Syrian refugee crisis can be turned to his political advantage. We won’t have to wait long to see whether that instinct was accurate.

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