Stephane Dion, world foreign ministers frustrated as bombings again rock Syria
OTTAWA – The clock was ticking on Thursday afternoon as Stephane Dion sat in a New York hotel room at a special meeting on Syria with nearly two dozen fellow foreign ministers.
He was destined to be late for a very important Ottawa dinner — the gala for China’s visiting premier that his boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was hosting. This became inevitable when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry interrupted the meeting.
“Hang on a second, someone’s showing me a Blackberry,” a senior Canadian official recalled Kerry saying. The official, who had knowledge of what was said in the room, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“It was a note that bombing had started in east Aleppo.”
Dion, like Kerry and many others in the room, was deeply frustrated, but “there was no way that the minister was leaving that room. He was absolutely determined.”
Kerry said “a little bit of progress was made” in a subsequent meeting with Russia’s Sergey Lavrov on Friday, but the renewed bombing of the rebel-held Syrian city of Aleppo continued.
Syrian forces pounded neighbourhoods that are home to the besieged city’s civil defence forces in attacks that left more than two dozen dead, including a handful of children. It was another tragic moment in a country that has already suffered five-and-a-half years of fighting, which has killed a half million people and forced millions more from their homes.
The new bombing also effectively crushed diplomatic efforts underway at the UN General Assembly this past week to deal with Syria, a subject that hung over Dion’s 20 bilateral meetings throughout the week.
That was hammered home during Kerry’s so-called Blackberry moment in Thursday’s extended session of the International Syria Support Group.
A source told the Associated Press that Kerry was furious when he read about the renewed bombing of Aleppo. He told the room — Lavrov, Dion and the rest — “even while we are meeting here, they are doing this.”
When Dion’s turn came to talk, rather than restate what was already being said around the room — stop the bombing, ground the Syrian air force — he suggested using technology to better publicize what was happening, the source said.
Dion said more needed to be done to support “the folks on the ground doing reporting and monitoring. He suggested publicizing detailed digital data, pinpointing exactly where the bombs were falling in an attempt to put “additional pressure and facts out there,” the source added.
News of the Aleppo bombing also reached the Blackberry of Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the UN World Food Program, while she was in a General Assembly side event on how to eliminate hunger by 2030 — one of the UN’s new sustainable development goals.
When it was her turn to speak, she told the gathering of more than 400 people, “We need peace,” Cousin said in an interview Friday.
“I have a responsibility to avoid emotional distress every time a situation changes,” she added.
One of Cousin’s main preoccupations is moving a convoy of 40 trucks, currently sitting at the Turkish border with food bound for Aleppo.
“I’ve been talking about these 40 trucks … for almost two weeks now.”
Among other things, the convoy contain enough wheat flour for 167,000 people and enough sugar, salt, vegetable oil, rice, lentils, chick peas and white beans for 35,000, she said.
“There are lots of people getting into the politics of this — who’s right and who’s wrong,” she said.
“What I look at are the people who are going to go hungry because we can’t access them — the children who lack access to nutritional food, the pregnant women … the elderly who are stuck in these places.”
Back at the Syria meeting, Dion had blown any chance of making it on time for the state dinner in honour of China’s premier, taking place in the resplendent main hall of the Canadian Museum of History. On the menu: roasted bison tenderloin and B.C. blueberry sauce.
The meeting finally broke late in the afternoon after two-and-half hours. Dion managed to hop a flight back to Ottawa and slipped into the museum about two hours after Trudeau had toasted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
The next day, the minister was still fuming.
“The military offensive in Aleppo launched (Thursday) by the Assad regime forces and their backers is appalling,” his office said in an emailed statement to The Canadian Press.
“Its timing, launched to coincide as members of the International Syria Support Group were meeting in New York, is an affront to all those working tirelessly to reduce the violence and alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.”