DFAIT's spinning on Syria and sanctions

If Canada believes its sanctions are effective, it should be able to say so

When I wrote this article about the ongoing uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria, the Department of Foreign Affairs’ webpage on Canada-Syria relations noted that Canada is the third-largest direct foreign investor in Syria, mostly due to a $1.2 billion Suncor/Petro-Canada gas project. The website was then amended to remove this reference.

It’s fair to assume that the Canadian government was embarrassed by the extent of Canada’s business investment in a country whose government has already slaughtered some 2,000 people. I contacted Foreign Affairs to find out their explanation.

Sunday I posed the question by email. Tuesday afternoon I received the following response from Aliya Mawani, a spokeswoman at the department:

– DFAITs webpages are updated regularly and as events dictate.

-Given the significant sanctions Canada recently imposed against the Assad regime, the statement was no longer up-to-date or relevant. The change you refer to reflects that.

This statement is absurd. It may be something worse, unless one accepts that the meaning of the already elastic word “irrelevant” might be stretched to include “inconvenient.” The Suncor/Petro-Canada gas project has not been affected by the sanctions Canada has imposed on Syria. Suncor CEO Rick George said as much in an interview with the CBC. Foreign Affairs must have known this.

I wrote Mawani back, reminding her that what her own department’s website had said about the $1.2 billion project, and that it was ongoing despite the sanctions. As it is impossible to read her original response and not interpret it to mean that Canadian sanctions had hit the Suncor project, I also asked her why she had given me inaccurate information about the sanctions’ impact.

Mawani’s response was repetitive:

The information provided is accurate.

To reiterate—DFAITs webpages are updated regularly and as events dictate. Given the significant sanctions Canada recently imposed against the Assad regime, the statement was no longer up-to-date or relevant. The change you refer to reflects that.

There comes a point when hopes for a rational exchange are no longer realistic. Clearly we had arrived there, but I tried one more time. I asked Mawani to explain how the sanctions Canada has imposed on Syria affect the Suncor/Petro-Canada project. She had, after all, specifically cited these sanctions as the reason why DFAIT’s earlier statement about the Suncor/Petro-Canada gas project were no longer “up-to-date” or “relevant.” Mawani resorted to the government media relations equivalent of picking up her ball and going home:

We do not comment on specific cases.

Of course they do. They just had. The entire discussion had been about a specific case. But never mind. This isn’t just about DFAIT spin. It’s also about the efficacy of sanctions.

There is a school of thought that argues broad sanctions are ineffective. They punish the people rather than the government. A decade of such sanctions against Iraq didn’t dislodge Saddam Hussein; that took an invasion. Sanctions targeting the regime and security services, as Canada has imposed on Syria, hit those who deserve to be hit and spare the broader population.

(It should be noted, however, that Suncor CEO Rick George’s claim that “we are not connected to the Assad regime in any way” is questionable. Their partnership is with the Syrian Petroleum Company, which is state-owned. In dictatorships, the state is the dictator.)

I’m not arguing for or against the proposition that Suncor’s operations in Syria should be shut down. My point is that if the Canadian government believes in sanctions that are sufficiently narrow as to protect Suncor’s $1.2 billion project in Syria, let it clearly make this argument. Trumpeting Canada’s investment in Syria one minute, erasing mention of it the next, and then engaging in ridiculous obfuscation about the matter is disingenuous and unbecoming.

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