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Chrystia Freeland renews call for Russia to withdraw support for Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad upon his arrival for a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on October 20, 2015.

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a renewed challenge to Russia on Thursday, suggesting that the country will be on the wrong side of history if it continues to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the wake of a chemical-weapons attack against civilians earlier this month.

Ms. Freeland said the attack, which prompted U.S. missile strikes in Syria, could be an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to reconsider his support for the Assad regime.

"Assad is not the greatest ally to have. Do you really want to be on that side of things?" Ms. Freeland said, speaking at an event held by Canada's Public Policy Forum in Toronto. "There is an opportunity for Russia which I hope Putin will take, to join with the Western countries – and also a lot of the Arab countries – in pushing for a truly negotiated solution in Syria and ending what is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. It's a true blood bath. And Russia can, if it chooses, be part of the solution."

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Her comments echoed previous efforts by the Trudeau government to apply pressure to the Syrian regime and its supporters: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he fully supported the American strikes in Syria, and last week, Ms. Freeland said that Russia must consider whether it wants to continue to support a "murderous regime." Also last week, Canada announced sanctions against 27 high-ranking Syrian officials.

But Mr. Putin has thus far shown no signs of wavering, and last week questioned the intelligence about the deployment of what is suspected to be sarin gas near the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria – raising the spectre of false reports of "weapons of mass destruction" leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution last week that condemned the chemical-weapons strike and also demanded that the Syrian government provide information and allow investigators access to look into the attack.

Ms. Freeland noted that China abstained – a "significant shift" considering that China has traditionally joined Russia in UN vetoes – and said that Mr. Trudeau thanked Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for that abstention this week.

"I think that there are some real opportunities right now for the West generally to be developing a stronger more constructive relationship with China," she said.

Ms. Freeland argued that Russia should push the Syrian government to participate more meaningfully in UN-backed peace talks in Geneva, which are set to resume in May.

"The reality is the Assad regime has not been serious about those talks," she said. "There is an opportunity for Russia to put some pressure on the Assad regime and say, 'Enough is enough. Enough people have died. Now is the time to really negotiate a peaceful settlement.' And yes, I do think that is possible. I think that would be the best outcome for Syrians, and I think it would be the best outcome for Russia, too."

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Susan covers marketing and media for Report on Business. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2009, Susan worked as a freelance reporter contributing to the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and other publications, as well as CBC Radio's Dispatches and Search Engine. She has a Masters degree in journalism from Carleton University. More

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