POLITICS

Syrian opposition figure: Only a 'few thousand' jihadists in our coalition

08/28/2013 02:18 EDT | Updated 10/28/2013 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - The leader of a Syrian opposition group seeking help from Canada acknowledges there are "a few thousand" jihadists as part of his coalition — but they're only a tiny minority.

George Sabra, head of the Western-backed Syrian National Council, fielded a question Wednesday about that thorny issue from a journalist in Montreal, where he had just finished a meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

"Yeah, we have jihadists," Sabra told reporters, before downplaying their influence within a key rebel group fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

"I think there are so many exaggerations (in) the numbers, the role of jihadists. There are not more than a few thousand from at least 180,000 soldiers in the Free Syrian Army."

Sabra said he's confident the extremists in Syria will be stopped once the international community helps end the conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 people.

"The level of violence of the regime and the silence of the international community brought the jihadists into Syria," Sabra said.

"So, we think when the international community helps Syrians to stop (the) killing, to save their lives, this is the first step to stop jihadists in Syria."

The Syrian war appears to be coming to a head two-and-a-half years after anti-regime protesters first took to the streets, prompting a violent crackdown by government forces. The Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations morphed into an armed rebellion and eventually a war.

Western states are now on the verge of military intervention in Syria for the first time since the start of the conflict, following a deadly offensive on civilians last week that the United States has said shows "undeniable" evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack.

During his stop in Montreal, Sabra said while his group's primary goal is to stop the killing, he also expressed a desire for more weapons as part of the greater foreign aid effort for his country.

"We are in need of humanitarian aid, all kinds of humanitarian aid — from food to weapons because we need to defend ourselves also," said Sabra, whose council is based in Istanbul, Turkey.

After meeting with Baird in Montreal, he said he asked the foreign affairs minister for Ottawa's continued political support of the coalition and for more humanitarian assistance.

Sabra, who noted he has met with Baird on several occasions, said he didn't make a specific request for direct Canadian military intervention.

Baird hinted Wednesday that Canada's military role in Syria could be limited and that any contribution to an international effort there will be mainly political and humanitarian. He said Canada does not have the weapons to contribute to the types of attacks being discussed.

Sabra believes, however, that Ottawa can play an important role in specific areas, such as supporting police, judges, education and health care in the Middle Eastern country.

The Harper government announced details Wednesday on how it will spend $42.8 million in Canadian humanitarian aid to help millions of refugees within Syrian borders and those who have fled to neighbouring countries since the conflict began in 2011.

Ottawa said in a statement that the assistance, part of a $90-million announcement in June, will focus on providing needs such as food, clean water and shelter, and will be delivered through aid groups, including the UN's World Food Programme, the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement.

The government has said it has allocated more than $158.5 million in humanitarian assistance efforts in Syria and neighbouring countries since 2012.

"Canada has been a generous country and a steady hand to the Syrian people during their brutal struggle," Baird told reporters following his meeting Wednesday with Sabra.

"We understand as this struggle goes on, Canada will need to do more and our government and the Canadian people are willing to do more."

Baird said he had a good discussion with him about the current state of affairs in Syria and indicated he would discuss it with his cabinet colleagues and Harper.

For his part, Sabra said he thought the world could still more to help Syrians.

"Really, we thank Canada for what they did, but we think also there are so many things to be done by Canada and other countries... Countries of our friends and Canada (is) among them."