08/24/2012 02:54 EDT | Updated 10/24/2012 05:12 EDT

John Baird: Syria's Religious Minorities Greater Concern Than Al Qaeda


OTTAWA - Fear may be escalating over the influence of al Qaeda and other Islamist fighters among Syria's rebels, but Canada's foreign affairs minister says he's more concerned about the fate of the country's religious minorities.

John Baird offered that counterpoint this past week on a growing area of concern in the Syria conflict: whether the radical jihadists among the rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad pose a long-term threat to the country.

Many analysts question whether a repeat of Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia could be in store if jihadist elements gain strength in the anti-Assad uprising that has left 20,000 dead since March 2011. The foreign minister of Indonesia shared that view this week on a visit to Ottawa.

"Some extremists from the region have made their way in. I believe they are a minority of those fighting Assad's repression," said Baird, who travelled to neighbouring Jordan and Syria last month.

"Our concern is not so much Islamist groups. It's anyone who has radical or extreme views. There is not a single opposition in Syria. There are oppositions."

The bigger problem in Baird's view is that "civility and harmony" within Syria's various groups — Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Shiia and Sunni Muslims — could be undermined if the country fractures.

"What we don't want to see (is) anyone singled out for retribution, retaliation, particularly the ethnic minorities in the country," he said. "A number of us have a significant fear in that regard."

It's a position that's in keeping with the government's foreign policy focus on protecting the rights of religious minorities. Baird has yet to formally announce the long-promised Office of Religious Freedom within his department, but that hasn't stopped the minister from regularly highlighting the issue.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said he believes the conditions on the ground in Syria are conducive to the rise of extremist groups in Syria.

"If you have a condition of anarchy, however it is brought about in the first place, whether it's the Syrian situation or previously Iraq, Afghanistan, of course the classic case, in Somalia … it tends to create conditions conducive," Natalegawa told The Canadian Press prior to his meeting with Baird in Ottawa.

"That is why we have to quickly bring about an end of the conflict in Syria, setting aside the political question of who is coming and who is going."

Natalegawa bases that opinion on Indonesia's own hard struggle with terrorism within its own borders.

The South Asian country is home to the world's largest Muslim population. Since the 9-11 attacks it has worked hard to clamp down on al Qaeda affiliated groups within its sprawling borders, spread over a vast archipelago. Indonesia was rocked by the bombing of a Bali nightclub in 2002 and a series of hotel bombings in its capital, Jakarta, in 2009.

Natalegawa said he planned to share his views on Syria with Baird in their meeting, which was mainly focused on boosting trade between the two countries.

As the two foreign ministers sat down in Ottawa, yet another analysis emerged that warned the West against turning a blind eye towards the influence of jihadists in the Syrian rebel forces.

"Our collective excitement at the possibility that the Assad regime will be destroyed, and the Iranian ayatollahs weakened in the process, is blurring our vision and preventing us from seeing the rise of al Qaeda in the region," wrote Ed Husain, a Middle East expert with the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, in the National Review Online.

Husain said it is not credible for the West to ask the Syrian rebels to "jettison" foreign jihadists when it won't intervene militarily to stop the bloodshed.

The continued presence of jihadist fighters raises serious questions about the safety of the Syria's stockpile of chemical and biological weapons if the Assad regime falls, said Fen Hampson, director of Global Security of the Waterloo, Ont. Centre for International Governance Innovation.

"That's a big worry. They don't have to stay in Syria. As people get their hands on them, they can be smuggled and used elsewhere," he said.

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama raised the stakes in the conflict when he said the U.S. might have to intervene if chemical weapons were used or moved. He warned of rebel fighters or militants on either side of civil war getting their hands on the stockpile.

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