By Scott Taylor
Prime Minister Stephen Harper simply steamrolled over any resistance from the opposition parties by announcing Canada would not only be extending the military mission in Iraq but also expanding it to include bombing targets inside Syria.
For the moment, Harper’s decision has proven to be a popular one, with over two-thirds of Canadians polled supporting a continued and wider fight against the ISIS evildoers. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, this support is not based upon a deep knowledge of the complexity of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts but rather out of a simplistic sense of fear for all things radical Muslim.
The buzz phrases used by the Harper spin machine are that we have the “moral clarity” to counter “genocidal terrorists.” The reason they are claiming moral clarity is because extending and expanding the mission is completely devoid of any strategic or legal clarity.
In the strategic sense, simply attacking ISIS fighters and their weapons systems does not remove the root causes of what lured Sunni volunteers into their ranks in the first place.
During Saddam Hussein’s more than 30-year rule, the Iraqi Sunni minority enjoyed special privileges. Despite all his megalomaniacal faults, Saddam was a devoted secularist who believed in educating his citizens — particularly women.
How is it possible that these same moderate secular Sunni Muslims are now throwing in their lot with ISIS fundamentalist extremists?
The answer lies in the fact that, during its occupation of Iraq, the United States imposed a democratic system without ensuring safeguards were in place to protect the rights of minorities. Naturally enough, the Shiite majority elected its own leaders, who immediately set out to marginalize the Sunnis and strip them of authority.
This sparked vicious resistance from Sunni insurgents against both the U.S. occupation forces and the Shiite militia. In turn, this led to the arrival in force of Sunni extremists allied with al-Qaida.
The success of the 2006–2007 U.S. surge strategy in Iraq was largely due to the fact that American commanders — armed with suitcases containing millions of U.S. dollars in cash — purchased the temporary loyalty of moderate Sunni tribal chieftains. With al-Qaida’s support base eliminated, the U.S. and its secular Sunni allies were able to eliminate the threat.
When American troops were finally withdrawn in 2011, Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki ignored all pleadings by outgoing U.S. advisers to keep the Sunnis onside. Instead, he embarked on yet another campaign of marginalization that climaxed last spring with Iraq’s Sunni triangle welcoming ISIS fighters as their liberators. The U.S.-trained and -equipped Iraqi security forces essentially dissolved without a fight at the first sight of ISIS in the summer of 2014.
With Baghdad threatened, al-Maliki called in Iranian military advisers and begged the U.S. to assist. The first condition of the U.S. involvement was the abdication of al-Maliki in favour of Haider al-Abadi.
While al-Abadi may be a more moderate U.S. puppet, he is still relying upon his Iranian-led Shiite militia to take the fight to ISIS. Those familiar with Iraq’s deep-rooted factional divisions are aware that launching the Shiite militia into the Sunni triangle is a recipe for a bloodbath.
As Canada cannot be seen as an ally of Iran, the Harper government has made it clear that our fighter jets will not support the Shiite militias who are battling ISIS in the Sunni stronghold of Tikrit. We are instead equipping, training and bombing in support of Kurdish peshmerga in their fight against ISIS.
Here is where the legal grounding for Canada’s military action starts to get a little fuzzy.
Canada was never asked by al-Abadi’s Baghdad-based government to commit troops. The U.S. was asked to support al-Abadi and then the Americans set out to build a coalition, which we joined. This is a pretty tenuous link for legitimacy in deploying lethal forces in a foreign sovereign state.
It gets even more thinly stretched when you realize that the Kurds we are supporting are not beholden to al-Abadi’s Iraqi administration. The Kurds have their own government, their own flag, their own country — Kurdistan.
Where the legal aspect breaks apart completely is when the Harper government tries to tell us that our participation in this coalition with wildly divergent strategic objectives in Iraq allows us to bomb targets in Syria in self-defence.
ISIS in Syria and even ISIS in Iraq pose virtually no risk to our soldiers in Erbil, Kurdistan or our aircrews in Kuwait. The only casualties we have incurred to date have come at the hands of our Kurdish allies in a friendly fire incident.
If Canada does not have a seat at the big boy table to help shape a strategically viable long-term solution to this multi-layered complex conflict, we should not be committing military resources at the tactical level.
This is not our fight.