Canada has joined its allies in a co-ordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats, as the Assad regime continues to engage in brutal violence against its own people.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement early Tuesday that despite calls from around the world asking President Bashar al-Assad for a ceasefire, his regime's "reprehensible campaign of savage violence continues unabated."
All Syrian diplomats, including the Ottawa-based chargé daffaires, Bashar Akbik, now have five days to leave Canada. The embassy's website also lists Yasser Kherdaji as the head of mission in Syria's consulate in Toronto.
Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill later Tuesday morning, Baird said the government was "deeply offended and outraged by the actions that occurred in Syria this past weekend by the government and thugs supporting the government" in the Syrian area of Houla.
"One of the most fundamental responsibilities that governments have is to protect their people. Assad for more than a year now has waged war on his own people," Baird said.
At least 30 children under the age of 10 were among the dead in the May 25 massacre in Houla, and reports suggest families were summarily executed in their homes, according to the United Nations.
Survivors of the Houla massacre blamed pro-regime gunmen for at least some of the carnage as the killings reverberated inside Syria and beyond, further isolating Assad and embarrassing his few remaining allies.
The Syrian regime has denied any role in the massacre, blaming the killings on "armed terrorists" who attacked army positions in the area and slaughtered innocent civilians. It has provided no evidence to support its narrative, nor has it given a death toll.
'Co-ordinated effort,' Baird says
"Canada is acting in a co-ordinated effort with our closest partners who are pursuing similar actions," Baird's statement said.
The U.S. State Department announced on Tuesday that the Syrian chargé d’affaires in Washington, Zuheir Jabbour, was being expelled from the United States.
"We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives. This massacre is the most unambiguous indictment to date of the Syrian government’s flagrant violations of its UN Security Council obligations," the State Department release said.
Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Australia also announced expulsions of Syrian diplomats posted in their respective countries Tuesday.
"These Syrian representatives are not welcome in our countries while their masters in Damascus continue to perpetrate their heinous and murderous acts," the Baird statement said.
Only two Syrian diplomats are believed to be in Canada at the moment. Another Syrian diplomat awaiting passage to Ottawa from Syria will be refused entry.
Canada had increased sanctions against the Assad regime as the violence escalated over the last year, but had not yet taken the step of expelling its diplomats.
Canada previously froze all assets and prohibited all dealings with members of the Syrian government and its central bank. It also prohibits new investments in the Syrian petroleum industry, in which Canada remains a significant player.
Canada is the third-largest direct foreign investor in Syria, thanks to its participation in the oil and gas sector.
Targeted sanctions now in force include a ban of all imports from Syria into Canada, including petroleum products but excluding food for human consumption.
Most recently, Canada banned the export of all luxury goods to Syria on May 18.
Baird announced on March 5 that Canada had suspended operations at its embassy and consulate in Syria. All Canadian diplomats have left the country.
"We are not interested in doing any kind of business or any kind of political engagement with this government," Baird's parliamentary secretary Deepak Obhrai told CBC News Tuesday, saying the regime has "blood on its hands."
Baird is calling on the UN to bring in tough Security Council economic sanctions against the Assad regime, building on the actions that Canada, the European Union, the United States and the Arab League have taken. But he also told reporters that military action is not something being contemplated "at this time."
Syrian opposition groups, inspired by revolutions in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, began to hold protests in March 2011 in cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama and Latakia.
Government forces responded to the protests with a number of tactics, from shutting off water and cutting off food supplies to deploying tanks and snipers to drive people off the streets.
Casualties are difficult to confirm, but UN estimated in March that 9,000 had died up to that point. Opposition group estimates now put the death toll at more than 13,000 since the violence began.
International outrage against Syria intensified May 28, with China and Russia speaking out against the continuing violence. Earlier in the crisis, these two permanent members of the UN's Security Council had resisted collective action against Syria.
"Their condemnation on the weekend was welcome," Baird said, speaking of the Russians specifically. "We can only hope they've lost patience with Assad."
"Russia obviously has a privileged commercial and political relationship with Syria. We hope they'll use that to get a timetable for Assad to go," Baird told reporters.
"All roads lead to Moscow right now. We have to put pressure on the Russians... to get something through the Security Council," NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said on CBC News Network on Tuesday.
"Syria needs to be sent a message," Dewar said, adding that the NDP is negotiating with the government and other parties to work on a motion that could pass unanimously in the House of Commons condemning the violence, to put more diplomatic pressure on Russia, strengthen the UN's mandate to intervene and support refugees fleeing the violence.
UN mediator Kofi Annan, who was in Damascus, said earlier this week he's "shocked and horrified" by the killings in Houla.
Annan met with Assad in Damascus to try to salvage what was left of a peace plan, which since being brokered six weeks ago has failed to stop any of the violence on the ground.
"We are at a tipping point," Annan told reporters in Damascus. "The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division."
Annan said he asked Assad to take "bold steps now" to create momentum for moving forward with the peace plan.
But there are fears that the violence in Syria could spread beyond its borders.
Syrian rebels kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shias and a Syrian driver in northern Syria last week, fueling fears that Lebanon is getting drawn into the chaos next door, security officials said.
Some Lebanese took to the streets of Beirut's southern sector, a Shia area, and burned tires to protest the abductions. The leader of Hezbollah, Lebanon's powerful Shia militant group and a strong ally of Syria, appealed for calm and warned his followers against revenge attacks targeting Syrians.
Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, who was detained and tortured in Syria as a terrorist suspect for more than a year after being extradited by American officials, wrote on Twitter that today's expulsions were merely a "face-saving tactic" on Canada's part.
"Too little, too late," Arar wrote.