OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been invited to a high-level meeting this week about the future of Syria — one that could include his Iranian counterpart.
Norway is hosting the meeting, billed as a 'make-or-break' discussion, on the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Friday. Invitees include senior political figures from Iraq, Jordan, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and the League of Arab States.
A copy of an internal memo obtained by The Canadian Press, stamped "strictly confidential," says that half the Syrian population — some 9.5 million people — have been forced from their homes. The internal violence that erupted in Syria in March 2011 has left an estimated 220,000 dead.
"We are thus at a possible 'make-or-break' moment for the future viability of Syria as a state, with serious consequences for Syrians, the region and the world," the memo states.
One of the goals of the talks is to "mitigate the impact of the conflict on the future viability of Syria as a state," it adds.
Also on the guest list is Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the top diplomat of a country with which Canada has severed relations and of which Baird has been a vocal critic.
Baird's office declined to confirm whether he had accepted the invitation.
The government made no mention of Syria in a news release Tuesday that announced Baird would be in Davos along with Trade Minister Ed Fast, Finance Minister Joe Oliver and at least two other cabinet colleagues.
The United Nations special envoy for Syria is among the invitees, along with several other senior UN officials, heads of the UN World Food Program and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and unnamed American and Chinese officials.
The meeting, to be chaired by Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende, also aims to find ways of mitigating the impact of the conflict on Syrian civilians and renewing diplomatic efforts, the memo states.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau said he hoped Baird's reticence towards Iran would not influence his decision to attend the talks.
"He must absolutely go," said Garneau. "Syria is the most troubled place on Earth."
Syria's woes have been compounded by the fact it is now a battleground — along with Iraq — in the fight against the spread of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, he added.
If Baird takes a pass, "it would be an abdication of Canada's role in foreign affairs," Garneau said.
Iran has been helping the U.S.-led coalition in its fight against Islamic State militants, whom it sees as a common enemy. But Baird has said Canada does not trust Iran.
Garneau said Baird should set aside any differences he might have with Iran and "swallow deep and go in to try to help" at Friday's meeting.
Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Baird's participation at Davos would provide "an opportunity to raise awareness of Canada's leadership role on the world stage in fighting for freedom and security around the globe" and engage with "key counterparts."
Baird's office declined to give specifics of his itinerary.
The Canadian Press has also learned that Baird is planning bilateral talks with Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal at the Davos summit. Baird is expected to host him in Ottawa next month.
Garneau said he hopes Baird raises the case of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for a blog criticizing Saudi Arabia's clerics.
Badawi is not a Canadian citizen but his wife and three children have fled Saudi Arabia and now live in Sherbrooke, Que.
Baird issued a written statement last week condemning the sentence and asking for clemency.
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