Liberals’ plan for Iraq & Syria will be unrealistic, unwinnable and unfinished

Image: An RCAF CF-188 Hornet refuels from a CC-150 Polaris over Iraq. In the background are white fluffy clouds and a blue sky. (Image credit: Department of National Defence)

Sources inside the Department of National Defence indicated to the press last Friday that the Liberal government’s long-awaited plan for Canada’s military operations against the so-called Islamic State (also known, derisively, as Daesh) will be revealed early this week.

While the specific details of the plan remain to be seen, a few things are already certain: it will be unrealistic, will feature no feasible path to victory, and will not address the main driving forces of the conflict in any meaningful way.

Bold claims? Perhaps. But how else to interpret the last four months of hyper-cautious prevarication on the part of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and his colleagues on this issue, their near-perfect silence on the escalation of Russian intervention in Syria or the mounting evidence of Turkish governmental collaboration with Daesh, their total unwillingness to justify their drawdown of fighter jets, their wilful ignorance of our “ally” Saudi Arabia’s involvement on both sides of the conflict?

This is not a war that the new government takes especially seriously. They came into power without more than the vaguest outlines of a plan for it – hell, even someone as washed-up and generic as Peter Mansbridge told Justin Trudeau to his face during the campaign that his program of no bombing and more training was unworkable and unlikely to succeed.

Why Trudeau & Co. decided to stand by their campaign promise to withdraw Canada’s fighter jets from Iraq and Syria is a bit of a mystery. There certainly is no powerful constituency pushing them to do so. The mainstream media is, across the board, in favour of more war, and, according to recent polls, most Canadians agree. Not that those numbers are especially meaningful – with nobody of prominence forwarding an alternative viewpoint to the public, why wouldn’t they by and large agree with the viewpoint of the overwhelming majority of the elites?

But that’s precisely the mystery – while the Libs have remained committed to ending the bombing (eventually), they haven’t ever bothered to explain to anybody why that’s their preferred course of action. (Which isn’t to say that there is no such critique to be articulated.) Beyond vague platitudes about finding the best role for Canada to play in the conflict, they haven’t seen fit to inform the public what exactly their vision for this war and Canada’s involvement in it is.

On the few occasions that the Minister of Defence has tried to do so, he’s veered uncomfortably close to an anti-imperialist critique of the Global War on Terror that he’s quite simply not in a position to fully articulate, given the circles he moves in. I mean, just look at this:

[Sajjan] suggested the so-called war on terror has failed.

“Over the last 10 years, we need to do a really hard assessment,” he said. “Should we be patting ourselves on the back? And, I’m talking from a security perspective around the world, I think we can say things have not gotten much better. Things have gotten worse.”

He said the western coalition in Afghanistan lacked a clear understanding of the situation on the ground, the parties involved and the impact of its intervention, which contributed to Afghanistan’s downward spiral after 2006.

I can’t urge you strongly enough to watch the video at the top of the linked article, wherein Sajjan points out that the policies of the coalition in Afghanistan directly fuelled the insurgency in that country, and asserts that Daesh is a direct result of Western intervention in Iraq and that the issue of their presence cannot be solved militarily. This is, I’ll remind you, the Minister of Defence for a G7/NATO nation – and he has enough battlefield experience that he can’t be dismissed out of hand as a lily-livered pacifist.

But he just doesn’t go all the way with it. There’s no “And therefore…” aspect to his criticism. He acknowledges that this is devilishly complicated business, that there are inevitable ripple effects to any Western intervention in Western Asia (aka the Middle East), that we could be sowing the seeds for more trouble a decade down the line, but he doesn’t progress to the obvious conclusion, that the predominant Western military strategies of the past fifteen years, long-term military occupation/”nation-building” and regime-change-from-above, are failures and need to be abandoned.

This position is hinted at in the government’s desired drawdown of Canada’s fighter jets. Implicit in this stance is a critique of the Libyan War (a war which enjoyed the full support of the Liberal Party at the time), which has led to a metastasizing chaos in North and Sahelian Africa. But this position is also undermined by the government’s insistence that as it draws down its air force, it will boost its on-the-ground presence in terms of Special Forces military trainers.

Here’s where Sajjan’s experience in Afghanistan ought to come in handy. Coalition forces spent years training an Afghan military to fight against the Taliban after the inevitable Western withdrawal. Now, today, we see the Taliban resurgent, expecting to engage in talks with the increasingly precarious central government, with full Western withdrawal from the nation looking ever more unlikely. Similarly, British and American forces worked diligently to train the same Iraqi military that melted away in the face of Daesh opposition – the exact same forces that those nations are now training to oppose Daesh.

An escalation in terms of Canadian Special Forces military trainers, based on the kind of hard assessment of the past decade-plus of Global War on Terror experience that Sajjan advocates, will quite simply not amount to any kind of progress in the struggle against Daesh, nor will it do anything to undermine the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. In fact, it’s hard to say what exactly it will accomplish in terms of battlefield goals.

It will, however, maintain a seat at the table for Canada, allow senior governmental officials and politicians to talk about the progress of the conflict, and maintain the fiction that We’re Doing Something About Daesh.

This has, of course, always been a fiction, ever since the earliest days of Canadian intervention into the conflict. The Harper Conservatives entered into the bombing/training mission with the most bombastic of rhetoric and the most timorous of efforts.

Much as the CPC’s bomb-dropping no-troops-on-the-ground-ing efforts were an attempt to live up to their bombastically bellicose anti-Islam rhetoric without having to suffer any consequences, the Liberal Party’s long-overdue presentation of a plan for this conflict is an an attempt to alleviate criticisms that they don’t have a coherent vision or sense of direction for the war without having to actually come up with a coherent vision or sense of direction.

The very notion that policy shifts don’t need to be explained or justified in any detail bespeaks a total lack of seriousness and realism. The continued reliance on a demonstrably unfeasible strategy of training of opposition forces shows clearly that governmental and military planners have no feasible path to victory. And the very fact that the government has been unwilling to address major root causes of the conflict – the complicity of the Saudis in the jihadist violence gripping the region, the duplicitous role of our NATO ally Turkey, the Russia/Assad alliance which threatens to maintain an unacceptable status quo in Syria – indicates that whatever plan is presented will be fundamentally unrealistic.

After four months of waiting, we’ll finally get to see what the Liberals have been cooking up. But it looks like it won’t have been worth the wait.

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