POLITICS

Faisal Alazem, Syrian Canadian Activist, Says More Rebel Fighters Needed To Aid Air Campaign

03/29/2015 01:53 EDT | Updated 05/29/2015 05:59 EDT
ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad gestures during an interview with the BBC, in Damascus, Syria. Assad says he would be "open" to a dialogue with the United States, but that it must be "based on mutual respect." He made the remarks in an interview with Charlie Rose for CBS News' 60 Minutes. A short excerpt of the interview was posted online late Thursday, March 26, 2015.(AP Photo/SANA, File)
OTTAWA - A leading Canadian activist for Syria says it is time to step up the training of a rebel force capable of leading a ground war against both Islamic militants and the Assad government in Damascus.

Faisal Alazem, spokesman of the Syrian Canadian Council, says the Harper government's decision to extend bombing into Syria doesn't go far enough.

Alazem, who has travelled regularly to Syria and the region to advocate on behalf of its besieged civilian population, says air raids alone will only empower Syrian President Bashar Assad in his ruthless campaign against his own civilian population.

He says that even if the campaign that targets the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) ultimately succeeds, it will only create a power vacuum that gives rise to something worse, or strengthens Assad's grip on power.

Alazem says there are 10,000 moderate Syrians in Turkish refugee camps who are ready to carry the fight to ISIL — double the 5,000 Syrian rebels the Pentagon hopes to train over the next year.

The training of a proxy ground force is a key element of the U.S.-led coalition's strategy for defeating ISIL. But as The Canadian Press has reported, the training of northern Iraq's ground fighters — the Kurdish peshmerga — has been slow with only 650 trained in six months.

A government briefing last week for New Democrat and Liberal MPs included information that Canada will confine its training to the Iraqi side of the border, while relying on the U.S. and their Arab allies to train Syrian fighters. The Harper government has been reluctant to arm Syrian rebels in the past because it says there are militant jihadists in their ranks.

"In Iraq, the strategy is clear: we allied ourselves with the peshmerga, with the Iraqi government," said Alazem. But there's no credible coalition counterpart on the ground in Syria, he added.

"If you want to solve Syria, you have to really start working with the nationalist democrats who have paid the ultimate price and we have ignored for the last four years."

In 2012-13, Alazem said the democratic rebel forces controlled more than half the country but at the time the newly-emerging ISIL, combined with Assad's government forces, turned on them in tandem in the latest twist in the multi-sided civil war that has claimed 220,000 lives. The rebel fighters were either killed, jailed, tortured or forced to flee the country.

"There are thousands of Syrian defectors from the Syrian military right now in Turkey, sitting in camps that are ready to take the fight, go inside Syria, take on the Assad regime, and take on ISIS. But there is no support and we've turned our backs on them," said Alazem.

Alazem said the West is now paying the price for not intervening sooner in Syria.

In addition to training more rebels, the West also needs to institute a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from Assad and ISIL, "where you don't allow helicopters to throw barrel bombs indiscriminately at civilian population," he said.

He noted the no-fly zone over northern Iraq prevented Saddam Hussein from killing innumerable Kurds between 1991 and 2003.

Alazem laid the blame for the West's indifference squarely at the feet of the United Nations Security Council because of the veto power of permanent members Russia and China.

As he watches the debate in Parliament, he's calling on some Canadian MPs to stop invoking the UN as a legal authority to intervene.

"We're living in a world where the five countries victorious in the Second World War get to decide which genocide can continue and which genocide we should stop," Alazem said.

"If we are going to keep the fate of Syrians in the hands of the UN Security Council, you're never going to see an end to the massacres in Syria, and you're never going to see a single official being referred to the International Criminal Court."

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