POLITICS

Baird headed to Swiss peace talks on Syria as opposition remains uncommitted

01/16/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 03/18/2014 05:59 EDT
OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will attend a major international meeting next week aimed at ending the Syrian civil war as a major push gets underway to convince rebels to attend the talks.

Baird will travel to Montreux, Switzerland, for the opening of next Wednesday's peace conference, known as Geneva 2, the latest attempt to find a political solution to a bloody conflict that has killed an estimated 120,000 people.

It wasn't clear Thursday whether all warring sides in the Syrian conflict would be at the table for the Geneva 2 talks.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was mounting a major push to have the Syrian opposition groups attend, but the various factions weren't due to make a decision until Friday.

"Canada fully supports the Geneva 2 process, and we have continually called on both sides to participate in meaningful negotiations to end this tragedy that has consumed Syria for nearly three years now," Baird's spokesman Rick Roth told The Canadian Press.

Baird was expected to push for increased safe access for humanitarian organizations into Syria. Baird also planned to stress the need for the opposition to unite further, and root out extremist elements.

Canada has been less supportive of the Syrian opposition than its major allies because it is concerned about Islamic militants in their ranks.

Kerry told reporters in Washington that the U.S. is also deeply concerned about the rise in extremism in Syria.

"The world needs no reminder that Syria has become the magnet for jihadists and extremists. It is the strongest magnet for terror of any place today," Kerry said.

"So it defies logic to imagine that those whose brutality created this magnet, how they could ever lead Syria away from extremism and towards a better future is beyond any kind of logic or common sense."

Roth reiterated Canada's position calling for an end to the bloodshed through a political solution.

"This transition must be Syrian-led, and the Syrian people must believe that they have a place in a new, free, democratic and pluralistic Syria," he said.

Baird, who was in Washington on Thursday, is to make the trip after accompanying Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Israel early next week.

A Syrian-Canadian activist said he was not optimistic about next week's peace conference, but said Baird and others in the international community have no choice but to try.

"The Syrian opposition right now really has nothing to offer," said Faisal Alazem of Montreal.

Alazem, who is headed to Turkey this weekend to do volunteer work to assist Syrian refugees, said the political leadership of the Syrian opposition has grown detached from the fighters on the ground, and that must change.

"They are in a very weak position in Geneva 2. For me, I see the regime having the upper hand in these negotiations."

Alazem planned to visit a makeshift school in Turkey, five kilometres from the Syrian border, that is helping educate 1,200 children forced to flee their country.

The project is funded by private donations from Syrian Canadians living in Montreal, he said.

They are also funding a field hospital inside the Syrian border, and Alazem said he has made a proposal to the federal government to fund both projects.