Following John Baird’s whirlwind visit to Baghdad and Erbil in the first week of September, wherein our intrepid foreign minister personally observed ISIS fighters from the vantage point of a Kurdish outpost, Canada immediately pledged to send a military contingent to Iraq.
Since that announcement — what was at first one dozen, then a few dozen, and now some 70 personnel — there has been a tremendous amount of media speculation as to exactly what these Canadian soldiers will add to the raging conflict in northern Iraq.
There is no question that Canada possesses a first class military, and those members of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) who have been tasked with the mission are among the finest warriors in the profession of arms. That being said, committing disciplined professional soldiers to what is arguably the equivalent of a prison knife fight under blackout conditions is pure folly.
While Canada’s battle groups may have cut their teeth fighting more than a decade-long counterinsurgency in southern Afghanistan, that experience will have little to no bearing on what they can expect to encounter in northern Iraq.
In 2003, the Canadian government did well to resist U.S. pressure to join in then-president George Bush’s ill-fated foray to topple Saddam Hussein on the false charges that he possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). As the Americans and their coalition partners became bogged down in a bloody quagmire in Iraq, Canada could always feel a little smug at having turned down Bush’s offer to participate.
Now, however, with ISIS Sunni extremists running amok, Shiite militias mobilizing, and Kurdish peshmerga (militias) seizing territory, the Harper government has become one of the first international players to dive head first into this bubbling cesspit. The worst part is, from all actions and announcements made to date, the Canadian government has no clue about the complexity and duplicity that constitutes the political battleground in northern Iraq.
First of all, if we’re landing our soldiers in Erbil, they will be greeted with signs that read, “Welcome to Kurdistan” and they will see a lot of red, white, and green flags adorned with a sunburst. That is, of course, the flag of Kurdistan. What they will not see flapping in the breeze anywhere north of Mosul is the red, white, and black flag of Iraq.
The three northern provinces of Iraq have been independent of Baghdad’s central authority since October 1991, when Saddam had to relinquish control of that area in the wake of his disastrous defeat in the first Gulf War.
There exist two main powerbrokers in the Kurdish region: Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani. These two rival warlords have fought numerous territorial battles between themselves and were often played against each other by Saddam, even after 1991.
Following the U.S. invasion in 2003, both Barzani’s and Talabani’s peshmerga fighters poured south to plant their respective banners on any riches and resources they could lay their hands on. Talabani was elected president of all of Iraq, while Barzani became the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
While they claim their process to have been a democratic exercise, prior to the 2005 elections, the KDP and PUK decided to unify into one single party which proceeded to garner more than 90 per cent of all votes.
From that result, Barzani and Talabani simply doled out senior positions to family and friends. Barzani’s nephew, Nechirvan, is the prime minister of the KRG and Talabani’s son, Qubad, is the deputy prime minister of the KRG.
On June 13, with all international eyes on the shocking capture of Mosul by ISIS forces, Barzani’s KDP peshmerga moved south to capture the city of Kirkuk along with the vast Baba Gurgur oil fields. With this resource now declared within Kurdish territory, Kurdistan instantly became the 10th largest oil producer in the world.
On July 1, with Canadians out celebrating Canada Day, Barzani announced that he would hold a referendum on full Kurdish independence “within months.”
Turkey, Canada’s NATO ally and the only really capable military force in the region, is vehemently opposed to Kurdish independence for fear that it will re-ignite the Kurdish separatist movement in eastern Turkey. A bloody Kurdish insurrection against Turkish security forces in the 1990s resulted in over 30,000 combatants and civilians killed.
To recap, we now have a contingent of Canadian troops sitting in Erbil with a stated goal to assist Iraq by training Kurdish peshmerga whose sole purpose is to create their own state of Kurdistan, which will only destabilize a NATO ally.