Last Thursday, while NATO leaders met at a summit in Cardiff, Wales, Foreign Minister John Baird made a whirlwind visit into war-torn Iraq.
After a few meetings in Baghdad, Baird flew to the northern Kurdish capital of Erbil, where he made a brief foray to a forward outpost. The front line for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters was just over a kilometre away from the Kurdish militia (or peshmerga) position while Baird visited.
Putting on a brace face behind a pair of Terminator sunglasses, Baird appeared to be more than a little nervous in the company of the Kurdish fighters given their close proximity to the fanatical ISIS extremists.
The Kurds used the occasion of Baird’s visit to tell his accompanying Canadian media entourage that the peshmerga need more heavy weapons, tanks and artillery if they are going to successfully defeat the ISIS threat.
Baird politely deflected the Kurdish request for more arms by announcing Canada’s commitment to supply Iraq with $15 million worth of helmets, body armour and other non-lethal military logistics support. Canada has also agreed to send a few dozen military advisors to Baghdad to help the central government rebuild its security force.
Even while seated next to the Kurdish militia officers who were pleading for more weapons, Baird insisted that the Canadian government is committed to revitalizing a new, inclusive authority in Baghdad.
This, of course, was something the Americans spent over a decade attempting to install at a cost of over a trillion dollars, 4,500 dead and 15,000 wounded soldiers, only to have it completely collapse upon their withdrawal of combat troops in December 2011.
Now Baird, after only a few hours on the ground, believes that a few dozen military officers and a total support package of $28 million in aid this year will not only defeat the ISIS threat but, somehow, bring together a nation that has effectively been divided since the first Gulf War in 1991.
It is just not that simple.
Having made a total of 21 reporting trips into Iraq between 2000 and 2005 — before, during and after the U.S. invasion and the deposing of Saddam Hussein — I feel duty bound to warn Baird that he is once again committing Canada to a Pandora’s Box from which the lid has long since been removed.
In the news reports, the Kurds whom Baird visited were loyal to the president of the Kurdish regimental government. That means they are the militia members of Massoud Barzani, a former warlord and current president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, and they fight under the banner of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
Barzani’s rival warlord, Jalal Talabani and his peshmerga fly the banner of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Between 2005 and July 2014, Talabani also served as president of Iraq, but ill health forced him to disappear from the political scene for almost 18 months prior to his stepping down from office.
The PUK and KDP have clashed numerous times prior to and following the 1991 Gulf War, which saw the defeat of Saddam in Kuwait and the creation of a United Nations-monitored independent Kurdish zone of control in northern Iraq.
Despite their mutual disdain for Saddam, between 1991 and 2003 both Barzani and Talabani created alliances of convenience with Saddam in order to obtain an advantage over their Kurdish rival.
The area’s third militia group is the People’s Workers Party (PKK), which represents the militant Kurdish separatist faction in eastern Turkey. After more than a decade-long and bloody insurrection, the PKK were forced to seek sanctuary in northern Iraq, but their cross-border assaults remain a constant threat for Turkish security forces.
Also in the mix in the Iraqi Kurdistan region are substantial minority communities of Yazidis, Christians and Turkmen. The Arabs of Iraq in the central and southern regions are divided into Sunni and Shiite factions, respectively. From there, you have the further division within both Shiite and Sunni communities between secular and fundamentalists. Kurds and Turkmen are also split between Shiite and Sunni followers, and they too break down into secular and fundamentalist camps.
The current crisis erupted as a result of Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki — a Shiite Arab elected by the Shiite majority in 2006 — ignoring the advice he received from his American mentors.
While the U.S. advocated that al-Maliki adopt a policy of inclusion and reconciliation with the Sunni minority, the prime minister instead chose to drastically reverse the privileges Sunnis had enjoyed during Saddam’s era. This drastic exclusion of the Sunnis forced them into their current alliance with ISIS extremists, whom they see as their sole hope for survival.
Given this level of complexity, I’m not sure that throwing a few dozen Canadian officers into Baghdad will accomplish Baird’s projected utopia.