Critics pounce on Martin's Syria stumble
By JEFF SALLOT - From Friday's Globe and Mail
Friday, February 18, 2005 Updated at 1:47 AM EST
Ottawa — Paul Martin said yesterday that Syrian troops are in Lebanon to keep the peace, a comment that touched off a political firestorm in the Commons and forced the Prime Minister to later clarify his remarks and call for Syria to withdraw its troops.
Mr. Martin wandered into the political minefield of the Middle East as he came out of a cabinet meeting. He was asked by a reporter about the violence in Lebanon and the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri on Monday.
Mr. Martin noted that he had met Mr. Hariri, a popular leader whose killing, many Lebanese say, may have been the work of Syria.
Mr. Hariri's slaying in a street bombing is "terrible," Mr. Martin said.
The Prime Minister went on to say: "And it is clear that, if the Syrians are in Lebanon, it is because peace should be kept, and there was certainly a failure."
Mr. Martin did not elaborate further.
In fact, Canada, like many countries, is a long-standing supporter of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
Last week, on a visit to the Middle East, Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew urged Lebanon and Syria to support the current Israeli-Palestinian peace process and rein in the Syrian-backed Hezbollah militants based in southern Lebanon.
After Mr. Martin's statement yesterday, officials in his office quickly realized they had a problem. Press secretary Melanie Gruer soon began calling reporters, saying the Prime Minister's brief noon-hour comment did not mean Canada is shifting its Middle East policy.
Canada still believes Syria's troops should be withdrawn in line with the Security Council resolution, Ms. Gruer said.
When the Prime Minister entered the House of Commons for Question Period, all the opposition parties went on the attack.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper opened by calling Mr. Martin's comment "irresponsible and injurious."
Mr. Martin said it is important in international affairs to put things in context, and "I clearly said we support the UN resolution" and the Syrians should withdraw from Lebanon.
"Mr. Speaker, that's not what the Prime Minister said today," Mr. Harper said.
The two men sparred again.
"How many more times need I say it?" Mr. Martin asked. "I think it is a strange way to try to keep the peace, by allowing this kind of explosion to take place. The Syrians should withdraw from Lebanon."
Conservative foreign affairs critic Stockwell Day jumped in, accusing Mr. Martin of damaging Canadian credibility in the Middle East.
Mr. Pettigrew said Canadian credibility in the region is intact and there is no doubt about where Canada stands.
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe kept up the attack, suggesting that Mr. Martin was being stubborn by refusing to admit he had made a gaffe. "He should at least have the decency to admit he made a mistake."
Mr. Martin, however, was prepared to go no further than to say he might have been "misunderstood."
Then it was the NDP's turn. House Leader Bill Blaikie said that although the New Democrats support what Mr. Pettigrew said during his trip, "we just wish his Prime Minister was supporting the kinds of things he was saying in the Middle East, instead of saying dumb things and then being even dumber and not retracting them. Instead of digging himself deeper, why does he not just get up and say that he was misspoke and withdraw it?"
Mr. Martin tried a new approach, saying people didn't realize he was being ironic with his original remarks.
"If in speaking ironically about the fact that the Syrians believe that they are there to maintain the peace and explosions of that kind occur, that is not maintaining the peace," Mr. Martin said. "If honourable members have difficulty understanding that, then let me again repeat the Canadian government's position, the position that we have had from the very beginning. We support the United Nations resolution. Syria should withdraw from Lebanon."
At another point, Mr. Martin stumbled again, saying Syrian troops should withdraw from Syria, but then he corrected himself.
Another opposition MP, Conservative Jason Kenney, jumped in, saying: "What we are seeing here is a Prime Minister who is incapable of acknowledging an error and apologizing and retracting. The Prime Minister made an enormous diplomatic faux pas when he effectively endorsed the illegal Syrian occupation of Lebanon. He insulted thousands of Lebanese Canadians in the process."
Mr. Martin sought to bring an end to the matter by saying he was pleased all three opposition parties effectively support the Liberal policy toward Syria.
Middle East issues have been a minefield for Canadian prime ministers in the past.
In 2002, Jean Chrétien, Mr. Martin's predecessor, stumbled repeatedly during a trip to the Middle East on highly nuanced issues such as the status of East Jerusalem and conflicting Syrian and Israeli claims to a strip of shoreline on Lake Galilee.
Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark had to backtrack on a 1979 campaign promise to move the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a step that Palestinians would have interpreted as de facto Canadian recognition of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Meanwhile, in Washington yesterday, President George W. Bush said Syria was "out of step" with the progress toward democracy in the Middle East. He suggested that unless Syria stopped interfering in Lebanon, Washington would continue to isolate it in the world community.
"We've recalled our ambassador which indicates that the relationship is not moving forward," Mr. Bush told reporters.
He stopped short of blaming Syria for Monday's assassination.
"I don't know yet because the investigation is ongoing," the President said.