Montreal demonstration supports anti-government protests in Syria

Syrian activists allegedly harassed in Canada

More than 100 people marched through downtown Montreal on Saturday in a show of solidarity with anti-government protestors in Syria.

Protestors chanted “Solidarity with the Syrian people” and waved placards reading “Freedom for Syria.”

“We want to send a message to the Canadian people that we cannot stand silent to what is happening in Syria,” Ibrahim, a protestor, explained. “This is a criminal regime that is corrupt and greedy, and they are ready to kill the entire Syrian people to stay in power.”

Since March, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been sending armed troops into Syrian cities in response to largely peaceful protests that are calling for democratic reform and, more recently, for Assad’s ouster.

According to the United Nations, nearly 3,000 Syrians have been killed since the beginning of the anti-Assad uprising in March, including nearly 200 children. Opposition groups have maintained that the number of deaths is over 5,000.

In a petition circulated during the demonstration, the protestors called for the Canadian government to increase diplomatic and economic pressure on Syria.

Despite new parliamentary sanctions imposed against Syria by the Canadian government in early October, Suncor Energy, a Canadian oil company, still runs a $1.2 billion operation in the Ebla Gas Fields in central Syria.

The project provides electricity for about 10 per cent of the country’s population.

According to Suncor’s website, while the new Canadian sanctions “are aimed at our industry, they also allow for continued operation of existing operations [and] agreements.”

Suncor jointly operates the project with Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corporation. The company website states that it is not directly involved with the Assad regime.

Suncor Energy was not available for comment at the time of press.

Other protestors in Montreal expressed concerns for their safety.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a protestor spoke to some of his fears. “I am afraid. I am trying my best to avoid cameras,” he said.  “My family is ready for anything. They asked me to be careful in Canada. They expect pro-government people to attack me.”

A recent report published by Amnesty International has revealed that members of the Syrian secret police, the al-Mukhabarat, have been actively plotting to undermine anti-Assad protests in Canada and other countries.

The Director General of Amnesty International Canada’s francophone branch, Beatrice Vaugrante, attended the rally and elaborated on the report.

“People have been harassed on the streets, but, most importantly, families [were harassed] in Syria,” she said. “We have a case of a protestor in the U.S. whose parents ended up being arrested and beaten. Another, whose brother manifested outside of Syria was also tortured.”

According to the report, staffers at the Syrian embassy in Ottawa allegedly filmed anti-Assad demonstrations and took pictures of the protestors. A woman, identified in the report as Abeer, also received threats against her family on Facebook after she spoke out against the regime on Canadian television.

Although Amnesty International has only reported cases of harassment in Ottawa, some protestors hinted that similar activities might be occurring in Montreal.

“We have a regular stand on Ste. Catherine, and usually we get some harassment,” a protestor said. “They insult us, they accuse us of being traitors. They tried to [film us] once, but when we called the police they stopped.”

When asked whether the harassers worked for the Syrian government, another protestor replied that it was difficult to know. “Some of them do and some of them don’t,” he said.

The Assad regime enjoys some degree of support among different sectors of Syrian society.

Imad Mansour, a Political Science professor at McGill who specializes in Middle Eastern politics, explained that Assad hails from the country’s minority Alawi community, and many supporters – Alawis and others – fear that the toppling of the regime would mean an end to some of their economic and social privileges.

According to Mansour, support for the Assad family can be explained by a combination of factors.

“There’s a variety of reasons why a group would support a sitting regime,” he said. “Either their economic interests are tied with it, they benefit from it in terms of division of spoils and political favoritism, or they are simply convinced that the absence of this regime would mean chaos.”

While a copy of the Amnesty International report was provided to the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade earlier this month, the department claims that it has no evidence of any wrongdoing from Syrian security forces.

In a written statement to The Daily, a department spokesperson said that if such reports were confirmed, it would constitute “unacceptable behaviour on the part of the government of Syria.”

Meanwhile, the French and British governments have already taken steps to protect Syrian activists within their borders by enhancing police protection around protests and opening investigations into allegations of harassment.