By: Scott Taylor
The Nov. 4 death of John Gallagher in Syria has once again sparked the debate as to the status of Canadian volunteers fighting in foreign conflicts.
At the time of his death, Gallagher was serving alongside Kurdish peshmerga militiamen, fighting to oust ISIS fighters from the Syrian village of Al-Hasakeh.
While the 32-year-old Gallagher had served a three-year basic engagement in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), he had returned to civilian life in 2005.
It was his personal ambition to sell off his worldly possessions and make the dangerous trek into Iraq and Syria in order to combat what he described as the “evil theocracy” of ISIS. That adventure began last May, when Gallagher arrived in northern Iraq.
After fighting with Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga for a couple of months, Gallagher then moved into Syria to join the People’s Protection Units — a.k.a. the YPG Kurdish separatist forces. Along the way, the Toronto-born political science graduate realized that he was not just fighting against ISIS, but that he was now fighting for the notion of an independent Kurdish state.
Following his death, there was a number of media stories lionizing Gallagher for his courage and self-sacrifice. Some politicians went so far as to recommend that he be granted the full repatriation honours that were afforded to the 158 Canadian soldiers who died serving our country in Afghanistan.
To be fair, the most vocal of these voices was Ontario provincial MPP Randy Hillier, whose own son Dillon (also a former soldier with the PPCLI) volunteered to fight with the Kurds against ISIS. Unlike Gallagher, Dillon thankfully returned home to Canada unscathed last January.
The argument Hillier used is that Canada is officially at war against ISIS and that, by volunteering to fight this same enemy on his own, Gallagher’s death should merit the same formal recognition.
I cannot agree.
As noble and heroic as Gallagher’s actions may have been, the fact is that at the time of his death, he was not fighting for Canada. He was not sent to the Middle East by the Canadian government.
He went out on his own to put his life on the line for Kurdistan. If, one day down the road, there is indeed an independent state, then I truly hope Kurdistan will build a monument to the foreign volunteers such as Gallagher who died fighting for their cause. If that transpires, then Gallagher’s family and friends can take pride in the fact that his death was not in vain.
However, at the moment, while Canada may be bombing ISIS targets and using our Special Operations Regiment to help train Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, there is nothing in our stated foreign policy that supports the establishment of an independent Kurdistan.
The northern Iraq provinces are de facto autonomous, but all official Canadian correspondence still references it as the Iraqi Kurdish regional government. The reason for this is that Kurdish separatists are not only actively destabilizing the Rojava region in Syria, they are also increasingly active in eastern Turkey.
Where Gallagher was killed, the Kurdish Workers Party (a.k.a. the PKK) have been waging a violent separatist insurgency against Turkish security forces for the past three decades. By 2003, the insurrection had practically been quelled in Turkey, but the U.S. invasion of neighbouring Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein relit the flames of the Kurdish independence.
The PKK remains listed as a terrorist organization by Canada, the U.S. and the European Union, and of course Turkey is a vital NATO ally. In addition to the PKK, the Kurdish independence movement also includes the likes of the al-Qaida Kurdish Battalion, which has declared itself an enemy of ISIS.
In other words, as noble as Gallagher’s intentions may have been, some of the goals he was fighting for were not in line with Canada and our allies, and some of the people he was fighting in alliance with would be considered dubious at best.
It is not Canada’s place to honour Gallagher’s sacrifice. It is that of the Kurds. He gave his life for their cause, defending them.
Let’s preserve the distinction of national mourning for those brave sons and daughters who have fallen while in uniform in the service of Canada.