On February 8th the Liberal government revealed its new plan for the role Canada will play in the coalition against Islamic State. President of the Rideau Institute, Peggy Mason, was invited by The Citizen to provide an analysis of the new plan. The resulting commentary is reproduced in its entirety below.
The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State (ISIL) is in utter disarray. Things are going so badly that some Arab members of the coalition who left the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria to focus on Yemen now say they are ready to come back and provide ground forces. In the meantime, believing that President Bashar Assad is the best bulwark against ISIL, Russian air strikes are decimating coalition allies on the ground, blowing up the fragile UN-backed peace talks at the same time.
ISIL is proving so difficult to dislodge that the U.S., under cover of outrage over the November Paris attacks, has relaxed its targeting restrictions. And ISIL advances in Libya have the U.S. and U.K. openly musing about extending the war into that country. An urgent course correction is long overdue.
The non-military aspects of the new Liberal plan, including diplomatic peacemaking in Syria, and promoting regional stability and improving Iraqi governance, are important steps in the right direction. However, the military components of the Liberal response, which involve not only an expanded training role but continued participation in the air campaign through reconnaissance and refuelling, will only heighten Canadian involvement in an ever-deepening quagmire.
Since the announcement by Justin Trudeau that Canada would be withdrawing its CF-18s from the coalition bombing campaign, there has been an incessant media drumbeat demanding that he rethink this decision. The demand only intensified after the Paris attacks, as if the decision to change Canada’s role in the coalition was based on a misunderstanding of the threat and not on a desire to be more effective.
The federal government can be rightly castigated for not articulating more forcefully its reasons for wanting to adjust the role. But this does not excuse the failure of the Canadian media to consider the actual effect on the ground of the bombing campaign.
The so-called coalition “victories,” in which cities such as Kobane and Sinjar in Syria, and Ramadi in Iraq, are “liberated” with the help of massive air strikes, have resulted in the destruction of these cities. They are reduced to rubble, leaving nothing to house or sustain returning populations. Yet the American secretary of defence has made clear that this is his plan for cities such as Raqqa in Syria and Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq. If this plan is carried out, then the almost certain result will be far fewer habitable cities and far greater numbers of displaced, destitute populations.
But what about Canada’s intention to increase its training of local Iraqi forces? Surely that is another step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the devil is in the detail. Training the Peshmerga, which Canada is already doing, puts us in the position of helping fighters whose goal is not to liberate Iraq from ISIL but to create an independent Kurdistan. Particularly troubling are credible allegations from Amnesty International that Kurdish forces are engaged in “ethnic cleansing” of areas they retake from ISIL.
And we still have precious few Iraqi Sunnis to train since, in their stronghold of Anbar province, Sunni tribes have largely chosen what they see as the lesser of two evils, ISIL, over a corrupt and sectarian Iraqi government. In other words, our training should take a back seat to that part of the Canadian plan intended to focus on Iraqi governance. As for Syria, as long as the civil war continues unabated, ISIL cannot be effectively contained.
Canada would have far greater impact if we pulled out of the military mission altogether and concentrated on regional stabilization, humanitarian measures and, above all, acting as a catalyst for a new strategy that puts diplomatic peacemaking in Syria and Libya and governance reforms in Iraq at the heart of coalition efforts.
Peggy Mason is president of the Rideau Institute and former Canadian disarmament ambassador to the United Nations.
For further analysis on another aspect of the Liberal plan – providing arms to the Kurdish Peshmerga – see Analysts pan Canada’s plan to arm Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq.