The man chosen to serve as Syria’s honorary consul in Montreal, a proud supporter of President Bashar al-Assad, says his job is to work for all Syrian nationals, regardless of their political views.
Waseem Ramli, a Montreal businessman, was nominated for the post this summer and approved last month by Global Affairs Canada. As honorary consul, he would be responsible for helping Syrian-Canadians and in some cases, Americans, secure government documents.
Ramli, who has held pro-Assad demonstrations in Montreal, drives a Hummer adorned with the Syrian flag and a photo of Assad.
He is clear in his support for Assad, saying he doesn’t believe the regime has used chemical weapons and calls the volunteer rescue organization known as the White Helmets a terrorist group.
The White Helmets have been documenting the atrocities committed against civilians in Syria since 2013. Their efforts have earned international praise, but Russia and the Syrian regime have labelled them terrorists and purveyors of fake news.
In July 2018, several hundred people — volunteers and their families — belonging to the organization were extracted from Syria and taken to safety by an international operation.
Ramli’s outspokenness has sparked fear in Quebec’s Syrian community, members say.
Ramli told CBC Montreal’s Daybreak that his job is to provide services to the Syrian people, and his beliefs won’t get in the way of that.
As for his actions, he said they are within his rights as a Canadian citizen.
“For me, putting a picture of the president of my homeland, it’s something I believe in,” he said. “It’s just [like] anybody putting someone else’s president’s picture on their house, on their car.”
Assad has been repeatedly accused by the international community and human rights groups of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Freeland: ‘We will be responding to it promptly’
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said the appointment of a known Assad supporter as Syria’s honorary consul in Montreal is “unacceptable” and is promising to respond quickly.
“I do think it’s important for all Canadians, especially Syrian-Canadians and people who have fled the Assad regime, to know that, in my view, this situation is unacceptable and we will be responding to it promptly,” she told reporters Tuesday at a campaign event in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Que.
The government’s guidelines for appointing honorary consuls state that “diplomatic missions should avoid controversial or politically active persons.”
Nedal Alnajjar, a Syrian living in Quebec, said the honorary consul job should be held by someone who “brings people together, not someone who sows hatred.”
“It’s a betrayal of Canadian values. It’s a scandal,” he told Radio-Canada.
Ramli planting fear, says community member
Another member of the local Syrian community, who works with organizations that support refugees, detailed the impact of Ramli’s actions. CBC News has agreed to withhold his name to protect his identity due to fear of reprisals.
He said Ramli has been planting fear in Syrians who live here, taking photos of people who take part in anti-government protests. Ramli denied that allegation.
The man said he has heard from some people that the imagery evoked on his Hummer reminds them of what they lived through in Syria — more specifically, of the Shabiha, which he described as a group of people “who go around, terrorize people, beat them up, kill people, carry weapons, and commit all the massacres.”
And now Syrians living in Canada will have to come into contact with Ramli in order to process their paperwork, a vital part of moving on with their lives, he said.
“The person who is responsible for that, who can easily threaten their life, is this man.”
Issues with Syrian consular appointments
The need for consular services in the North American Syrian community is high — the only open consulate is in Vancouver. The other nearest service point is the Syrian embassy in Cuba.
The Syrian Embassy in Ottawa was closed in 2012 when Canada cut diplomatic ties with Syria and expelled Syrian diplomats.
Honorary consuls were allowed to stay because their mandate is administrative and not diplomatic.
In April 2016, Ottawa closed the Syrian consulate in Montreal and terminated the post of its honorary consul, Nelly Kanou, without saying why.
Kanou, who was also pro-Assad, was temporarily suspended by the disciplinary board of the Quebec Order of Pharmacists in 2015 after pleading guilty to the unauthorized sale of $1.5 million in drugs to Syria between 2008 and 2011.
In January 2018, Raed Mahko was appointed to the position and the office was reopened, but the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council found he was in a conflict of interest. Mahko was also an immigration consultant.
The conflict in Syria entered its ninth year in March. The most conservative of estimates puts the total number of those killed in the civil war at 400,000.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, since 2011, 6.6 million Syrians have fled the country and 6.1 million more have been driven from their homes but remain in Syria.