Canada's Freeland shocked by her department's approval of Assad ally to consulate

(Reuters) - Canada Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has condemned her government’s approval of a supporter of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to a consular post in Canada, and said she would look into the matter.

FILE PHOTO: Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland takes part in a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Lappi Areena in Rovaniemi, Finland May 7, 2019. Mandel Ngan/POOL via REUTERS/File Photo

The appointment has upset and frightened the Syrian refugee community, according to two Syrian community activists. Canada and several other countries cut diplomatic ties with Syria in 2012 after the Houla massacre killed dozens of people. Syria maintains two honorary consul offices in Vancouver and Montreal.

Canada’s Maclean’s magazine reported on Monday that Montreal businessman Waseem Ramli, a supporter and ally of Assad’s regime, was appointed to the Montreal consul position.

The appointment, put forward by the Syrian government and approved by Global Affairs Canada, as the country’s foreign ministry is known, will take effect on Oct 1.

In an interview with Maclean’s, Ramli confirmed that he is a supporter of the Assad regime, was vetted by Ottawa before being approved and would treat all Syrian immigrants equally. He also described the Syrian White Helmets rescue workers as a “terrorist organization” affiliated with al Qaeda.

“Shocked by the comments made to the press by the Syrian Honorary Consul in Montreal and the views he has espoused publicly on social media and elsewhere,” Freeland, who heads the department that approved Ramli’s appointment, said on Twitter.

“Neither my team nor I were aware that officials at Global Affairs Canada had approved this appointment.”

Freeland said she has asked the department to look into the appointment immediately.

She told reporters in Quebec on Tuesday that “the current situation is unacceptable and we intend to respond very quickly,” but added she felt it was important to “hear out” the public servants in Global Affairs Canada, who made the decision to approve Ramli.

At a Tuesday campaign stop, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that his government was “obviously ... quite seized with this issue” and that he had spoken with Freeland about the matter earlier.

Canada accepted 58,650 Syrian refugees between 2015 and 2018 through both government and private citizen sponsorship, according to the most recent government statistics.

Freeland told reporters Canada is “very proud” to have welcomed so many Syrian refugees, many affiliated with the White Helmets, and said she wants them to “hear very clearly that Canada supports them, that Canada condemns the Assad regime for its war crimes.”

“We have relatives in Syria and we care about them,” said Muzna Dureid, who moved to Montreal from Syria in 2016. “Any kind of activities we do, demonstrations or any activism against the Syrian regime ... they will send it to security in Syria. That’s what scares us as Syrians in Montreal.”

Reporting by Moira Warburton; Editing by Dan Grebler, Nick Zieminski and David Gregorio