Canada’s stance on the Islamic State literally doesn’t make any sense

When he announced his intention to follow through on his campaign pledge and withdraw Canada’s combat planes from the bombing mission in Iraq and Syria, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was determined to make clear that the Canadian government was still very serious about the fight against ISIS.

Trudeau pledged that Canada would do “more than its part”, that it would continue to have a “meaningful” role in the mission, and that the number of Canadian military trainers working with the peshmerga in Iraq would be substantially increased. The drawdown of Canada’s CF-18s wasn’t a marker of Canada’s disenchantment with the mission, Trudeau insisted; on the contrary, it would allow us to be more effective partners in the coalition fighting the Islamic State.

The Canadian government’s position on ISIS, then, remains essentially the same as it was under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper pledged to use the Canadian Forces to “degrade the capabilities of ISIL, that is, to degrade its ability to engage in military movements of scale, to operate bases in the open, to expand its presence in the region, and to propagate attacks outside the region.” His use the word “degrade” was no doubt a deliberate echo of Barack Obama’s pledge to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.

Trudeau doesn’t use such blunt and violent language, to be sure, but his firm commitment to continue the mission Harper embarked upon as effectively as he thinks is possible speaks volumes; he thinks this is a fight worth fighting, and if we take him at his word, he only differs with Harper and the Conservatives on how best to go about conducting that fight. And on that topic a feverish debate is raging, with some, including retired general Rick Hillier, wanting to see Canada to much more to combat ISIS, including sending Special Forces troops into Iraq and Syria.

This debate makes mountains out of minor differences. The continued presence of Canadian fighter jets – which participated in a mere 3% of the coalition’s strikes against ISIS – wouldn’t amount to much one way or the other, notwithstanding the Conservative Party’s feverish objections. The simple truth is that Canada has been and will remain a bit player in this coalition, and any adjustment of our approach will have a negligible impact on the ground.

And yet this petty dispute dominates the political conversation about Canada’s mission in Iraq and Syria, entirely drowning out more fundamental absurdities with our government’s position.

For instance, the very premise of the coalition’s mission is, as I’ve written before, pretty dubious to begin with. The coalition’s effort is based on a two-pronged approach of attacking ISIS positions from the air while training local forces to combat them on the ground; recently the US started (openly) deploying Special Forces soldiers in Syria to aid in the latter effort as well.

The problem with this approach is that it’s literally what got us into this mess. The territory that ISIS holds in Iraq today is territory they took from a Western-trained army. The radical militants who form the bulk of ISIS’s membership were in part radicalized by the widespread aerial bombardment of their towns and cities by Western air forces – not to mention murderous sanctions regimes, illegal invasions, and the propping up of brutal dictators friendly to Western interests. It’s pretty difficult for me to see how we’re gonna bomb and train our way out of a situation that we bombed and trained our way into.

More specifically, Canada’s military aims are working at cross-purposes with those of our putative “allies”, and most particularly fellow NATO member Turkey.

Canada’s military trainers have been working closely with Kurdish peshmerga forces in Iraq – at times, far more closely than the military’s terms of engagement seemed to allow for. In many ways, working with the Kurds makes a lot of sense; Kurdish forces have been by far the most effective in resisting and pushing back against the growth of the Islamic State.

But our “friend” Turkey sees things rather differently. Turkey’s war efforts have in fact been directed primarily against the Kurds, with anti-ISIS efforts lagging in a distant second. The Turks are worried about the Kurds’ ambitions of forming an independent Kurdistan, and so has been actively attacking not only PKK and YPG forces, baselessly considered by many Western nations to be “terrorist” organizations, but also Kurdish forces which are explicitly allied with the United States and other Western nations in Syria.

And in fact, there’s considerable evidence that Turkey is either actively supporting the transportation of oil from ISIS-controlled territories through Turkish territory, or at a minimum turning a blind eye to its movement. (Seriously, click that link for some detailed analysis from the incomparable David Graeber, who also details the Turkish government’s links to Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel organization in Syria) and Turkey’s role in allowing foreign fighters free passage to join the Islamic State.)

Meanwhile, Canada’s good buddies in Saudi Arabia were, in the opinion of the former head of the British intelligence agency MI6, instrumental in the initial funding and training of the Islamic State. Those would be the same Saudis who are currently being accused of committing heinous war crimes in Yemen and to whom, as I detailed in May, Canadian arms companies are supplying $15 billion worth of armoured vehicles, in contradiction of Canadian law.

And lost amidst all this talk of Canada’s allies is any discussion of its original putative enemy in Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad. Of course, our neighbours to the south are still insistently screaming for his ouster – most recently just a few weeks ago – on account of the vicious war crimes his regime has perpetrated against the Syrian people. On the other hand, having seen what kind of monstrous violence can result from the removal of a strongman in a power-vacuum-type situation in Libya just a few years ago, one might think that major global powers would be hesitant to unleash such a volatile situation on yet another Middle Eastern nation yet again.

Then there’s the fact that we in the West are often condemning Assad for behaviour that is overlooked when it is committed by Western forces. Last week, for instance, a Doctors Without Borders hospital was hit with an aerial bombardment, apparently conducted by the Syrian Air Force, which is obviously a reprehensible act and a war crime to boot. Western coverage primarily focussed on (and heavily condemned) the “double-tap” tactic employed by the SAF, wherein the hospital was bombed, and then, when first responders arrived on the scene to help the wounded, bombed again.

Truly disgusting and abominable and contemptible behaviour, and no doubt about it. Which makes it all the more mysterious that the selfsame Western media is MIA and completely silent when the exact same tactics are employed by the USAF in their drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan. US drone strikes have attacked weddings, funerals, and large numbers of totally innocent people. This type of behaviour no doubt fuels the rise of groups like ISIS, and yet our press pretty much gives the USAF a free pass on this issue.

Then there’s the Russian angle, on which our government is at best incoherent. Russia has been for a long time quietly intervening in Syria on behalf of Assad and against both ISIS and other rebel groups, often described as “moderates” in the Western press in the absence of any evidence. Depending on your point of view, Russia either foiled the US’s plans to bomb Syria in 2013, or else it gave them a way our of a war they didn’t really want to fight. Turkey’s assault on a Russian jet not too long ago has the potential to escalate the regional conflict pretty dramatically.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion called on Canada’s NATO allies to “support Turkey” in its fight against Syria earlier this week, urging nations to move missile defence systems into Turkey. Meanwhile, as the proxy war heated up, Russia announced it would be moving an air defence system into Syria in support of Assad’s government.

All of which adds up to an immensely complicated picture.

No decent person would dispute the Canadian government’s assertion that ISIS is an abominable organization. But by focussing the debate primarily on which limited tactics the nation’s military should employ against ISIS completely obscures the profoundly nuanced nature of this conflict.

Even middle-of-the-road commentators like Maclean’s have labelled Trudeau’s approach to this conflict “vacuous”, and for good reason – he has hardly anything at all to say about the vastly complex nature of the festering Syrian civil war.

Let’s look at this whole big picture together. In summary, then, Canada’s mission against ISIS: (a) perpetuates the conditions which fuelled ISIS’s rise; (b) actively supports the enemies of ISIS’s most effective opponents; (c) overlooks the fact that our allies are helping prop up ISIS; while we (d) continue to brag about how we’re part of the effort to stop ISIS, and (e) ignore the fact that ISIS is just one particularly nasty component of a massively complicated situation.

In short, Canada’s position on ISIS quite literally doesn’t make any damn sense at all.

National Security Sunday is a weekly series examining Canada’s military/intelligence/law-enforcement complex. You can contact me at, or leave a comment below.

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