NEWS
04/07/2017 10:28 EDT | Updated 04/08/2018 01:12 EDT

Canada briefed one hour before U.S. airstrike on Syria, Trudeau tells Commons

OTTAWA — Canada was briefed about an hour before a barrage of U.S. cruise missiles were launched at an airbase in Syria, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who also spoke by phone Friday with the man responsible: President Donald Trump.

The two leaders discussed the need for a "political solution" to the Syria crisis, the Prime Minister's Office said in a brief synopsis of the call.

Trudeau disclosed the discussions during a long-awaited statement Friday in the House of Commons following Thursday's strike, Trump's promised response to a gruesome chemical attack Monday in Syria that killed more than 80 civilians.

Trudeau said that prior to the strikes taking place, U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis called Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who then briefed the prime minister.

"This morning I spoke with the president directly and emphasized that Canada agrees that Assad's repeated use of chemical weapons must not continue," Trudeau said during question period.

"In the face of such heinous war crimes, all civilized peoples must speak with one voice."

The PMO's readout of the call said the two leaders agreed "that the repugnant chemical attacks cannot be permitted to continue with impunity. They also committed to continuing to seek a political solution to end the crisis in Syria."

The strike prompted an abrupt change in Trudeau's position: after stopping short Thursday of directly blaming Syrian President Bashar Assad, he is now holding the Syrian government responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre asked Trudeau to explain the pivot, but the prime minister would only reiterate his support of the U.S. action.

In a statement earlier Friday, Trudeau said Canada supports the "limited focused action" by the U.S. He also denounced the use of chemical weapons, saying "the crimes the Syrian regime has committed against its own people cannot be ignored."

Thursday in New York, the prime minister was not ready to assign blame for Tuesday's suspected sarin attack, which killed more than 80 people.

He promised Canada would be involved in the United Nations process to investigate and punish the perpetrators of the chemical attack that killed civilians, evidenced by the ghastly images of suffering that shocked the world.

Earlier this week, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said the facts behind the attack had to be clearly established so that those responsible could be held accountable. She said the findings needed to be presented in a "highly credible international fora" so they could not be disputed. She also stopped short of blaming Assad.

Canada and the U.S. are the two leading funders for the UN organization that investigates the use of chemical weapons.

Poilievre urged Trudeau not to wait for a meeting of the UN Security Council — a body on which Russia, which supports Assad's government, wields a veto — to take action.

"When will the prime minister stop being so dangerously naive and confront this dictator and this tyrant?"

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose expressed support for the airstrikes in a statement that also suggested the Liberal government had been left out of the loop while the U.S. was planning its action.

"Contrary to the prime minister's beliefs, the United Nations Security Council has proven itself woefully ineffectual when it comes to resolving the Syrian conflict," she said. 

"In fact, the prime minister and the government of Canada seem to have been out of the loop on this action by the United States."

Asked whether former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper should have pushed former U.S. president Barack Obama to intervene in the war years ago, Poilievre said the circumstances have changed.

"There's a different administration in Washington and, as a result, there's different consequences for the crimes against humanity that the Assad regime is committing," Poilievre said outside the House. He also noted the former Conservative government imposed sanctions against the Syrian government, as well as its allies Iran and Russia.

"It's too late for the countless civilians who have died already, but it's better late than never."

The New Democrats, meanwhile, wanted to know whether the missile strike is part of a larger strategy, and called for a multilateral response.

"We do not know the extent to which this is limited and precise," said NDP House leader Murray Rankin.

"We don't know what the long-term plan is. We don't know the kind of information the prime minister may or may not have," he said. "This is a very volatile region. The impact of what he is doing remains of course uncertain."

Rankin said a multilateral approach would involve the United Nations, but also potentially "other possibilities."

Russia is the main backer of Syria and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has used its veto to block all attempts to take action in the war-torn country. 

The Kremlin also sent its military to Syria in 2015 to prop up Assad's government against rebel forces.