Canada ending ill-conceived air war, expanding ill-conceived ground war in Iraq

Image description: Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (right) looks on as U.S. Navy Admiral Bill Gortney speaks at the Halifax International Security Forum. (Image credit: U.S. Embassy Canada/Flickr)

Image description: Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (right) looks on as U.S. Navy Admiral Bill Gortney speaks at the Halifax International Security Forum on November 20, 2015. (Image credit: U.S. Embassy Canada/Flickr)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has fallen under heavy criticism from the Conservative Party this past week over the government’s recently announced revamp of Canada’s war non-combat operation with ISIS/Daesh. Interim leader Rona Ambrose slammed the ending of the Air Force’s bombing mission in Iraq and Syria as “shameful”, and called Trudeau “dangerously naive” for his belief that the best approach to the conflict was, in his words, a “reasonable” one.

“There’s no reasoning with terrorists of this kind, that’s why it’s important to send a very clear signal that we are willing to do what it takes to fight a threat of this nature,” Ambrose told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton.

But the Conservatives, as is par for the course, are barking up the wrong tree on this one. Distracted by the smell of red meat for their base – cowardice in the face of Islamic terrorism! – they’ve missed the true issues in PMJT’s mission relaunch.

The fact of the matter is that the end of Canada’s ill-conceived air war, though laudable in isolation, is accompanied by a significant escalation of what can only reasonably be termed a ground war in Iraq. And there’s nothing in the rhetoric coming from either the Prime Minister or the Department of Defence to indicate that the government has well-considered contingency plans for the various ways in which this conflict may develop, or even much acknowledgement of the massive complexity of the situation.

In case you missed it, the quagmirish component of Trudeau’s long-anticipated announcement came in the form of a tripling of on-the-ground special forces “trainers” in Kurdish areas of Iraq. Canada will be “equipping, advising, and assisting” local troops, Trudeau said, although Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan acknowledged that Canadian “trainers” will almost inevitably be involved in “engagements” with ISIS/Daesh – which means shooting at each other, if you weren’t sure. Sajjan even told the Star’s Thomas Walkom that Canada’s special forces may even initiate fire if they or their trainees are threatened.

(This has, of course, happened in the not-so-distant past; just last December, Canadian forces and their Kurdish peshmerga trainees were caught in a day-long shootout with ISIS/Daesh forces in norther Iraq after an ambush attack.)

In addition, the end of the air war is a little overstated – Canadian air force planes will still be involved in surveillance and refuelling for the coalition, as well as using their on-the-ground and aerial presence to help pick targets for bombing.

Notwithstanding all these facts, Trudeau and Sajjan would doubtless quibble with my characterization of the conflict as a “war”. The Prime Minister was very deliberate in his description of the operation as a “non-combat” operation, and Sajjan told the Star that since Canadian troops aren’t “principal combatants” – since, strictly speaking, it’s the Iraqis’ war far more than it is ours – it doesn’t really count as combat. Sajjan was similarly equivocatory in an interview with the Globe and Mail on the sidelines of a conference of coalition members to discuss the progress of the war non-combat operation:

“We look at it as this is a conflict that we’re dealing with now,” Mr. Sajjan said in the interview. “But to call it a war, I think, it would be a stretch. But let’s make no mistake about it, this is a conflict that has high risk, but Canada needs to play its part as part of a responsible coalition, just as we are responsible NATO partners, we are responsible partners for global security as well.”

The government’s refusal to acknowledge the plain and simple fact that they’re inserting hundreds of Canadian soldiers into the midst of a shooting war is emblematic of the depths of their denial on this file. Even the most fundamental aspects of this war non-combat operation are glossed over in officials’ descriptions of the situation.

Take the training of Kurdish peshmerga forces in Iraq. That training is presented as a completely good and positive and unobjectionable endeavour, and indeed, Ambrose and her fellow Conservatives have not had a single negative word to say about this aspect of the mission. But it is, in fact, potentially extremely problematic, in ways I’ve yet to see a single senior Canadian official acknowledge.

The Kurds, if you didn’t know, have been striving to gain their independence and carve out their own nation from pieces of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria for nearly one hundred years. The Iraqi government, of course, doesn’t want to lose the Kurdish regions, which – and isn’t this just the way it always seems to go? – happen to be rich in oil resources. The national and regional governments have been fighting for control over that oil for the past few years, and relations between the Kurds and Iraq’s Sunnis and Shias are strained, to put it mildly.

Additionally, many Iraqi Sunnis aren’t exactly supportive of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, and are frustrated with the way they are being treated. Some feel that ISIS/Daesh represents a better future for the country. Indeed, after the Iraqi army pretty much melted in the face of ISIS/Daesh in 2014, many observers felt that there was a lot of latent sympathy for the terrorist organization within the military.

All of this makes arming and training Kurdish forces in Iraq pretty complicated, to put it mildly. It’s not an apolitical act; indeed, it inserts Canadian soldiers right into the heart of Iraqi domestic politics and touches on multiple long-held grievances.

But the situation is much larger even than that. The single most effective fighting force opposing ISIS has been, without question, the YPG, a Kurdish militia operating in Syria. Their defence of the city of Kobane has become something of a modern legend, and they have been uniquely effective in pushing back against Daesh’s incursions into northern Syria. Furthermore, they are a strongly egalitarian organization, fielding a women’s army (the YPJ) and implementing direct democracy in the parts of Rojava under their control.

But Canada is explicitly not supporting those Kurdish militias, because our NATO ally Turkey is strongly opposed to their desire to form an autonomous Kurdish state. Indeed, Turkey has expended far more effort fighting against nationalist Kurdish militias than it has in actually targeting their ostensible enemy ISIS. In recent days, it has actually shelled Kurdish forces which are simultaneously under attack by the regime of Syrian dictator and war criminal Bashar al-Assad, with nary a peep of protest out of the coalition of Western and Gulf Arab nations taking on ISIS/Daesh.

The message this sends to the Iraqi Kurdish peshmergas that Canada is training is unequivocal: Western support for them is only guaranteed inasmuch as they don’t threaten to mess with the status quo of Iraqi borders. The maintenance of imperially imposed and historically nonsensical imaginary lines is a higher priority than either the struggle against ISIS/Daesh or the lives of Kurds, be they Iraqi, Syrian, or Turkish. This could easily lead the Kurds to feel as though they are being used as pawns in an imperial war that offers them little in the way of benefit. (And really, could you blame them?)

But what have Canadian military and government officials had to say about the intricacies of the Kurdish question vis-a-vis Canada’s combat non-combat operation in Iraq? Bupkis.

And this is just one incredibly complicated aspect of a headache-inducingly complicated conflict. On the slow crumbling of the Iraqi state’s ability to effectively govern its peoples and territory, the role of the Gulf States (and particularly our close friend and ally Saudi Arabia) in promoting and funding jihadi terrorist organizations including ISIS/Daesh, and the increasingly decisive role of the Russian air force in winning the Syrian theatre of the war not-war for that nation’s murderous government, we have heard nothing substantial from this government. These are major factors which will massively influence the course of this conflict, but they don’t seem to be in any way addressed by Canada’s new war not-war plan.

Indeed, as iPolitics’ Jeff Sallot noted, Prime Minister Trudeau seems to have settled on a strategy which will be relatively easy to sell to a domestic audience, but which is full of publicly unacknowledged on-the-ground risks. Whether the bureaucrats and generals have a more nuanced plan that they’re keeping to themselves is unknown, but the quality of their rhetoric thus far is not at all reassuring.

In opposition, Trudeau worried that Prime Minister Harper’s training mission was “steadily – and stealthily – [drawing] Canada into a deeper ground combat role in Iraq” despite the government of the day’s protestations that they were engaged in a non-combat operation. This week, he and his Minister of Defence decided to amplify that combat role, regardless of what they’d like us to call it.

 This is a terrible idea. It’s a mission bereft of an actual plan or any kind of vision for how this all ends well for anybody. It seems like it was dreamed up in a smoke-filled back room by party hacks based on focus group studies of how soccer moms and people making $80 000/year or more reacted to phrases like “training mission” and “Canada’s strengths”. It’s almost certainly going to end badly for everybody concerned.

It will be years or perhaps decades before the full ramifications of this policy are known, but the lack of a nuanced and detailed vision for this war from the officials calling the shots indicates that they’re setting themselves up for trouble – along with everybody under their command.

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