Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 1 Table of Contents
MEIB Main Page

January 2003 


The Lebanese-Canadian Crisis
Ziad K. Abdelnour

Raymond Baaklini

The recent diplomatic row between Lebanon and Canada over the latter's designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization vividly underscored the magnitude of Syrian control over Lebanese foreign policy. The Lebanese government's objection to sanctions against a foreign-backed guerrilla organization occupying large swathes of its territory was hardly a surprise given Syria's continued military and political hegemony in Lebanon. What was a surprise to many observers was that Lebanon escalated its diplomatic and public relations offensive to the brink of a major breakdown in relations with Canada, which had provided Lebanon with $200 million in economic assistance just weeks before.

The dispute was also a reflection of the balance of power between Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and the military-intelligence apparatus over Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The Syrian-backed president, who has controlled most diplomatic appointments since 1998, has repeatedly taken actions that compromise (and often appear intended to compromise) Hariri's quest to attract international aid and investment, on which he has staked his political reputation. Recent statements by the Lebanese ambassador in Ottawa, Raymond Baaklini, left many in Canada wondering which government he represented. As Hariri loses more and more power to Lahoud, Lebanese foreign policy is becoming not just un-Lebanese, but anti-Lebanese.

Background

Shortly after attending the opening ceremonies of the October 2002 Francophone summit in Beirut, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was asked by reporters about Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who had been seated nearby at the event. "Who is he?" Chrétien replied, "I don't know him." Minutes later, he was asked if Hezbollah was a terrorist organization. "Well, I don't know," he answered.1 Canadian officials later explained that Chrétien had not been adequately briefed, but the gaffe-prone prime minister's remarks signified precisely the Canadian government's policy toward Hezbollah prior to December 2002.

Following the September 11 attacks, Canada enacted anti-terrorism legislation under which Canadian citizens who provide material assistance to individuals and groups listed by the government as "terrorist entities" face a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. The list originally included only terrorist groups directly linked to Al-Qaida, but the government expanded it over the next year to include the Palestinian Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. However, following the lead of Britain, Canada outlawed only the "external security" apparatus of Hezbollah (there is no such apparatus, per say - the term is merely a euphemism for Hezbollah cells which operate abroad).

Hezbollah has operated in Canada for at least a decade. In 1997, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) stated in a federal court document that there is an underground network of operatives in the country who "receive and comply with direction from the Hezbollah leadership hierarchy in Lebanon." Due to the country's sizeable Lebanese immigrant population and porous borders, Canada has been not only an important source of Hezbollah fundraising and recruitment, but an integral component of the group's network in the Western Hemisphere. After the September 11 attacks, investigators in South America complained that key Hezbollah operatives in the Triple Frontier region were funneling money to the Middle East through Canada. In January 2002, US authorities uncovered a network of operatives who had smuggled large quantities of the drug pseudoephedrine from Canada into the Midwest and funneled the proceeds to Hezbollah and other Middle East groups. A Hezbollah cell in Charlotte, North Carolina was found to have purchased night vision goggles and other military items in Canada and smuggled them to Lebanon. Not surprisingly, Chrétien came under pressure from international quarters to ban the group entirely.

The government's justification for Hezbollah's omission from the list centered around the contention that its conventional military and political assets, education centers, media outlets, and social welfare network in Lebanon were administratively separate from a so-called "external security apparatus," headed by Imad Mughniyah, that bears responsibility for such international terrorist attacks as the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Community Center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people. It is claimed that Mughniyah lives in Iran, coordinates directly with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) officers, and operates independently of the formal Hezbollah power structure. Putting an end to Hezbollah fundraising in Canada would not necessarily weaken its external arm, the reasoning went, but would only hurt hundreds of thousands of dreadfully poor Lebanese Shi'ites who depend on Hezbollah. "It is important not to label [elected officials], doctors, and teachers as terrorists," said Foreign Affairs Ministers Bill Graham.

This policy became a magnet for criticism of Chrétien by Jewish and Lebanese groups in Canada, as well as and the largest opposition party in parliament, the Canadian Alliance, which made Hezbollah's exemption a top priority issue after leadership of the party passed to Stephen Harper in March 2002. Critics argued that the government's "external-internal" distinction was spurious, while its social-welfare argument could just as easily be used to justify lifting the ban on Hamas fundraising. Educational institutions may be administratively separate from the terrorist wing, but indoctrination in the schools produces the recruits. Moreover, as any economist could point out, poor Lebanese Shi'ites suffered first and foremost from Hezbollah's control of southern Lebanon, which has driven away much-need international investment and aid.

On November 27, the government finally added Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and four other groups to the list, but not Hezbollah. This omission was loudly condemned by the opposition. "The decision to allow this terrorist organization to carry out its CSIS-documented activities in Canada is outrageous," said Stockwell Day, the Canadian Alliance party's foreign policy spokesman. MP Irwin Cotler called the exclusion of Hezbollah "inexplicable and, given [its] murderous ideology, unconscionable." Two days later, B'nai Brith Canada filed a motion in federal court to force the government to place the entire Hezbollah organization on the list. "Canadians can no longer tolerate the progress of a government moving at a snail's pace in dealing with organizations and groups who have shown themselves to be bent on the destruction of the West," said the group's executive vice-president, Frank Dimant.2

Under relentless political pressure, senior Canadian officials began to hint that future action against Hezbollah was in the works. "You can be certainly sure there will be new additions coming forward," Solicitor-General Wayne Easter told CBC Newsworld. Revenue Minister Elinor Caplan assured reporters that "the process is ongoing and as soon as there is sufficient information and evidence to support a listing, the decision is made."3

On December 4, the Washington Times published an article by Paul Martin claiming that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah had called for a global suicide bombing campaign in two recent speeches. "By Allah, if they touch Al-Aqsa we will act everywhere around the world," Nasrallah was quoted as saying at a Jerusalem Day rally on November 29. A few days earlier, according the paper, he had told supporters at a rally in the Beqaa Valley, "I encourage Palestinians to take suicide bombings worldwide. Don't be shy about it."

The report set off a firestorm in Canada. The following day, two major Canadian dailies, the National Post and the Globe and Mail, ran front-page articles carrying the quotations and Graham's tone suddenly changed. "Hezbollah, as an entity, is indicating that it doesn't intend to be governed by the rules of civilized conduct," he told reporters. "Those statements will clearly be factored into our decision-making in terms of what we will do with Hezbollah in this country. That decision is being made by cabinet."4 A week later, Solicitor General Wayne Easter officially added the group to the list.

The Lebanese Reaction

Hezbollah promptly condemned the decision, saying that the quotes in the Washington Times article which appeared to instigate it were either mistranslated or fabricated, and warned the Canadian government that it "would bring hostile sentiments upon itself" in the region.5 Lebanese officials were initially more reserved, and for good reason - Canada had just provided Lebanon with $200 million in economic assistance at the Paris-II donor conference in November.

Speaking to reporters on December 13 after formally notifying the Lebanese foreign ministry of the decision, Canadian ambassador Michel Duval sounded downright apologetic. The decision was a "difficult" one, he said, adding that Hezbollah was a political entity which carried out activities that could be described as normal. Duval, who had met with a senior Hezbollah official just a few weeks before his government designated the group a "terrorist entity," added that the ban would limit his contacts with Hezbollah in Lebanon.6

Duval's comments, together with the fact that neither of the Nasrallah quotations published by the Washington Times could be independently confirmed,7 led Syria and its Lebanese allies to conclude that a diplomatic offensive could pressure Ottawa into rescinding the ban. On December 24, Lebanon formally asked the Canadians to remove Hezbollah from the list. However, the Chrétien government was unwilling even to formally review the decision, which Canadian officials said was made because of Nasrallah's vocal support for suicide bombings by Palestinian groups.

The Baaklini Episode

Raymond Baaklini, is no stranger to trouble. Prior to his appointment as ambassador to Canada in June 2000, he had served for about a year and a half as ambassador to France. The French absolutely loathed him (he had been appointed to the position because his popular predecessor, Naji Abi-Asi, was regarded as too much of a Francophile by the Syrians) and declined to accept his credentials for three months. His transfer out of Paris was authorized after the death of Syrian President Hafez Assad in June 2000, when Bashar Assad took power and moved to improve ties with the French. Canada got the short end of the stick.

On December 31, a Montreal-based Arabic newspaper published a two-page statement by Baaklini in which the ambassador condemned what he called "the Zionist party" in Canada. "This party controls 90% of the Canadian media. It takes instructions and help from many Zionist organizations either in Canada or abroad." For good measure, he declared that Canadian police treat all bearded men and veiled women as terrorist suspects. The ambassador advised Canadians traveling to the Middle East not to display Maple Leaf insignia and wear "non-Canadian T-shirt(s) in Lebanon and the Arabic world."8

Baaklini's comments escaped scrutiny for over a week. After the National Post learned of them, the paper contacted the ambassador and asked him what he meant. Rather than qualifying the statement, Baaklini said flatly, ""I wanted to say exactly that 90% of the mass media in Canada is controlled by Jews or Zionists, and those Jews and Zionists, they are also supported by other organizations in the States."9

Canadian officials were outraged. "The suggestion that the decision about Hezbollah was made because of pressure of any group within Canada is wrong," said Graham. "It was a decision that was made that was based upon security for Canadians and their security needs. We don't make our decisions based on political or other forms of pressure." Referring to Baaklini's comments about the safety of Canadians abroad, he added, "If it's meant as a threat, it's clearly not a threat that's going to affect us in our decisions about what we do about our own security."10

Hours after the National Post story broke, Baaklini was summoned to a meeting at the Foreign Affairs department and urged to either retract or apologize for the statement. However, Baaklini was unwilling to go on the record with anything until he received instructions from his government. President Lahoud, however, was adamant that Baaklini stand his ground. In the days that followed, the ambassador not only refused to apologize for making the accusations, but repeated the allegations in interviews with the Lebanese daily Al-Anwar and the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat. In the latter interview, Baaklini said that the "Zionists" included "a certain segment of Canadian Lebanese," evidently referring to groups such as the Canadian Lebanese Human Rights Federation (CLHRF) and the Ottawa-based Council of Lebanese Canadian Organizations (COLCO), which supported the ban on Hezbollah activity in Canada.11

Baaklini's recalcitrance caused an even greater public uproar than his original comments. Whereas the ambassador's initial remarks were seen as little more than a tasteless expression of anti-Semitism intended for Arab readers, his adamant refusal to retract them was seen as a deliberate Syrian affront to Canada. The Montreal Gazette called it "ironic that these egregiously offensive remarks about foreign intrusion in the workings of the Canadian media should come from a man who represents a regime in Beirut that takes its marching orders from Damascus and whose country is routinely patrolled by Syrian soldiers."12

Calls for Baaklini's expulsion, initially confined to Jewish and Lebanese groups in Canada, quickly spread to the political mainstream. "The government must send a clear message that the ambassador's comments were unacceptable," said Canadian Alliance MP Jason Kenney on January 14. "Since the ambassador refuses to apologize, he should be sent home. Any refusal on the part of this government to take action could imply tacit agreement with the offensive remarks."13

On January 16, Baaklini was called to a meeting with Foreign Minister Graham and announced, "I regret that my comments caused offence and that they created a controversy," a carefully-worded statement (well short of an actual apology) which had apparently been negotiated in advance by Lebanese and Canadian officials. Graham promptly declared that he considered the matter closed. Many of Chrétien's critics were astonished that the government accepted Baaklini's refusal to either retract or apologize for his remarks. Evidently, Canadian officials recognized that the Lebanese government was powerless to authorize this.

Notes

  1 Ottawa Citizen, 20 October 2002.
  2 B'nai Brith Canada, press release, 29 November 2002.
  3 The Toronto Star, 30 November 2002.
  4 The Ottawa Citizen, 6 December 2002.
  5 The Daily Star (Beirut), 13 December 2002.
  6 The Daily Star (Beirut), 14 December 2002.
  7 CBC's Middle East correspondent Neil Macdonald spent three days in Lebanon investigating the matter and concluded that Nasrallah's remark at the Jerusalem Day rally were misquoted in Martin's Washington Times article and that the other statements attributed to the Hezbollah leader were never made. According to a December 24 report by The Daily Star (Beirut), the correct translation of Nasrallah's remark at the Jerusalem Day rally was, "Zionists and those behind them should understand that any harm caused to the Aksa Mosque will ignite the whole region." Martin later said that Walid Phares, a Lebanese-born professor at Florida Atlantic University, was the source of the quotes for his article.
  8 Sada al-Mashriq (Montreal), 31 December 2002.
  9 The National Post, 10 January 2003.
  10 The Ottawa Citizen, 11 January 2003.
  11 Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 13 January 2003.
  12 The Montreal Gazette, 14 January 2003.
  13 The Ottawa Citizen, 15 January 2003.

2003 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.


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