Canada's contingency plan to take effect if chemical weapons used in Syria
Published Tuesday, December 11, 2012 8:43AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, December 11, 2012 11:54AM EST
As Syrian rebels move closer to Damascus while continuing to rack up military victories, Canada has established a contingency plan to deal with the possibility that the Syrian regime will use chemical or biological weapons against its own people.
While Canada likely won't deploy troops to Syria or send CF-18 fighter jets to patrol the skies over the country, it will send the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit -- which handles chemical, biological and radioactive attacks -- if asked for help by NATO.
Canada will also send a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to provide clean water in Syria, as well as engineers and staff who can help set up a field hospital. And a navy frigate already in the area will be on standby.
In recent weeks, NATO has become increasingly concerned that Syrian President Bashar Assad will use chemical or biological weapons against his own people out of desperation as rebel troops approach. If that happens, it's likely that NATO members would step in.
Attending a Friends of the Syrian People conference in Morocco, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Tuesday it would be "unwise" for Assad to use chemical weapons.
"We've said repeatedly, and have echoed the comments of President Obama, that the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons on the civilian population is something that would be unwise and something we should not do and something the international comunity will not sit back (for). We'll continue to work with our closest friends and allies, whether it be the United States, United Kingdom, France, on this issue."
There are also deep concerns about the rebel forces themselves, which now include hardline Islamists and foreign fighters.
"The problem for Canada is do you recognize the governing body in exile," said retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie.
"I wish we didn't have to, but when just about everybody, including the U.S., next week goes that route, we're going to get dragged in. And that's why people in Ottawa said ‘let's not get our feet on the ground, let's not put aircraft over Syria, but let's contribute to the after-event stage’ … in other words the hospitals, pure water, et cetera."
There are reports that the U.S. has been training opposition forces to handle chemical and biological weapons in the event that the regime falls and rebels suddenly have control of an estimated 40 sites in Syria where such weapons are either being stored or produced.
However, MacKenzie said Assad himself is unlikely to unleash such weapons because of the sheer destruction that would be caused and the fact Syria's two main allies, China and Russia, do not support such a move.
Meanwhile, insiders say Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet are taking the threat of chemical weapons in Syria very seriously.
NATO has already moved forward with its plan to place Patriot missiles and troops along Syria's border with Turkey to intercept any weapons that enter Turkish territory or airspace.
Syria has denounced NATO's move, insisting that it would not unleash chemical weapons against its citizens.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government is under mounting pressure to recognize rebel forces in Syria as legitimate representatives of the opposition.
Britain and France have already recognized a coalition of Syrian groups fighting against President Bashar Assad's regime. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is expected to formally recognize the opposition at a Friends of Syria summit in Morocco on Wednesday.
Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will also attend the summit, but sources say he is not ready to make the same move.
With a report from CTV's Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife