PM's claim that Syrians 'keep peace' is 'valid'
Islamic group: Canadian association backs Martin; he insists he was being 'ironic'
Joanne Laucius -The Ottawa Citizen; with files from Citizen News   Services
Saturday, February 19, 2005
Paul Martin claims he was being ironic when he said Syrian soldiers are in Lebanon to keep the peace, but the joke was lost on the Canadian Islamic Congress, which yesterday endorsed the prime minister's characterization of Syria as a benevolent force in the Middle East.  Mr. Martin's comments on Thursday appeared to contradict the international consensus that Syria is an illegal occupier in Lebanon. The prime minister was lambasted by opposition critics Thursday for the gaffe. He later said that he had been misunderstood, and he reiterated the official Canadian position that Syria should withdraw from Lebanon.
Nonetheless, the Canadian Islamic Congress, which says it represents 70 per cent of Canada's approximately 700,000 Muslims, took the statement literally. Mohamed Elmasry, president of the congress, said even though the prime minister later backtracked, the essence of the comment is still valid and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon must be negotiated between the two countries.
 The Islamic congress urged the federal government to moderate Washington's aggressive and dangerous policies against Iran, Syria and Lebanon and added that failing to do so will only lead to more death, destruction and human misery in
the Middle East.
The group also charged that America's aggressive Middle East policies are designed primarily to shore up Israel's military power and economic advantages in the region, while attempting to divert world attention away from Israel's territorial expansion into the West Bank through illegal Jews-only settlements.
The Canadian Islamic Congress has been accused of taking reckless and even radical positions, and the fact that its chief spokesman has endorsed Mr. Martin's remarks shows that the prime minister should have retracted his statement immediately, said Conservative foreign affairs critic Stockwell Day.
Last fall, Mr. Elmasry told a television interviewer that any Israeli over the age of 18 is a valid target for Palestinian terrorists. The comment caused an outcry and Mr. Elmasry later said the comment was not his opinion. He tendered an apology and said he would resign from the Islamic congress. The group accepted the apology, but not the resignation.
Yesterday's news release from Mr. Elmasry also suggested that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a decent place to live. Before the U.S. invaded and ousted the longtime dictator, says the release, Iraq was one of the leading Middle East states in administration, education and health care.
Mr. Day warned that diplomats in Ottawa were listening to Mr. Martin and his comments, which have doubtless been passed on to governments around the world. When a head of state makes a statement as flawed as this, the rest of the diplomatic community send word back to their home nations, said Mr. Day. Now we have a situation where this response has gone around the world.
Mr. Day said it's now incumbent on Mr. Martin to make a clear statement showing he understands that Syria's current regime is a destabilizing presence in the Middle East. Anything else only emboldens the Syrians. Now they think they have
an ally. And we're alienating our allies. Or we're giving that impression. Mr. Martin's office did not respond to requests for comment.
The Islamic Congress's most recent statement shows it has no credibility as a Middle  East analyst said Ed Morgan, national president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.  Mr. Morgan said he finds it hard to believe that anyone could say Syria has a peacekeeping tradition. Syria doesn't have experience as a peacekeeping country. Syria has experience as a war-making country, he said. No intelligent analyst of the Middle  East sees Syria as a peacekeeper.
The first political fallout from Monday's assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, occurred yesterday with the resignation of a cabinet minister. The announcement was made amid growing calls for the pro-Syrian government to resign. The resignation of the official close to President Emile Lahoud came as different opposition groups were meeting to decide their next steps to challenge the government. The anti-Syrian Lebanese opposition has blamed the government and its Syrian backers for the assassination. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad replaced the chief of military intelligence with his brother-in-law, a Syrian official said yesterday.
The new chief is the former deputy head of military intelligence, Brig.-Gen. Asef Shawkat, 55. Mr. Assad's move indicates the young president is consolidating his hold on the security services. Brig.-Gen. Shawkat is close to Mr. Assad and recently emerged as a top presidential adviser on security matters. He is married to Mr. Assad's sister, Bushra. The Syrians have about 15,000 troops in Lebanon. They originally entered Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s to try to maintain order during the country's bloody civil war. But they have remained in the country and former Syrian president Hafez Assad used them to maintain hegemony over his increasingly prosperous neighbour.
When Mr. Assad died in 2000, many hoped his son and successor, Bashir, would withdraw the troops from Lebanon, but he now seems as eager as his father to keep it under the control of Damascus.
The Ottawa Citizen 2005