By Scott Taylor
Last week, as he was relentlessly advocating for Canada to extend its military mission in Iraq and expand it into Syria, Defence Minister Jason Kenney unwittingly revealed the fact that Canada really has no clue about our effectiveness in the allied campaign to date.
When a reporter asked if he knew how many civilian casualties had been caused by the allied airstrikes against ISIS, Kenney replied, “We are not aware of civilian casualties or so-called collateral damage by the Royal Canadian Air Force.” When the reporter clarified she was asking about American airstrikes, Kenney stuck to his “I’m not aware of any” position. For the record, U.S. authorities are investigating at least three separate incidents of Iraqi civilian casualties caused by their airstrikes.
Never mind Kenney’s propensity to exaggerate the facts and to ignore embarrassing truths, his claim of unawareness in this case certainly rings true. This is not the fault of our military but rather the fact that we have no independent intelligence-gathering apparatus in the entire region.
In the heady days of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, Canada had sided with the Syrian rebel forces and declared the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad to be illegitimate. Our embassy in Damascus was shuttered and Syrian diplomats in Ottawa were sent packing.
In a similar bout of chest-pounding anti-diplomacy, John Baird, then the minister of foreign affairs, shut down Canada’s embassy in Tehran on Sept. 7, 2012, and ordered all Iranian diplomats off Canadian soil.
Then last spring, when ISIS first swept into northern Iraq, the Canadian Embassy in Baghdad was shut down.
Thus, when the anti-Assad forces that we had originally championed morphed into evil ISIS and the beleaguered Iraqi leaders were forced to call in Iranian military support to contain ISIS, Canada was pretty much in a total intelligence vacuum.
As a result, our Royal Canadian Air Force contribution to the U.S.-led coalition has had to rely almost entirely on the intelligence-gathering resources of the Americans.
Yes, folks, that would be the very same CIA and military intelligence services that fabricated the threat of Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The same U.S. intelligence sources that spent more than 10 years unsuccessfully attempting to subdue an Iraqi insurgency. During that decade, the Americans were in full occupation of all of Iraq, meaning that, even inside the volatile Sunni Triangle, they could hire informants and bribe factional leaders into temporary loyalty.
The current military campaign is an entirely different kettle of fish. There are no American intelligence operatives in the ISIS-controlled swath of Iraq and, as a result of ISIS’s barbaric beheadings, there are no foreign observers in the form of either journalists or non-governmental organizations.
From a public relations perspective, this is a godsend for the Canadian Armed Forces because it means media coverage of the war must rely entirely upon information provided by the military.
Not surprisingly, our RCAF has so far given itself a staggering grade of 100 per cent on its self-generated report card. With no way to independently verify their claims, we must believe that our fighter pilots have destroyed every dump truck, bulldozer, roadblock and bomb factory they have engaged to date, hurting no one but ISIS evildoers in the process.
Of course, war is not simply a case of good PR or, in this case, the absence of any bad PR.
The fact that ISIS has established itself in an almost impenetrable intelligence vacuum means that the U.S.-led coalition cannot easily identify targets. The vast arsenal of armoured vehicles, artillery and heavy weapons ISIS obtained following the capture of Mosul remains intact within the ISIS-controlled territory of the Sunni Triangle.
The Harper government’s claim that Canada must expand the current mission into Syria because ISIS has transported this same arsenal there defies logic. Given the treeless desert terrain of the region, the allied air forces would love nothing better than for ISIS to attempt such a major withdrawal of its heavy combat equipment. With satellite imagery and round-the-clock aerial surveillance — including Canada’s provision of two Aurora reconnaissance planes — such a retreat could not have gone unobserved.
It is what happens inside ISIS-controlled villages and cities that we cannot ascertain, not large-scale troop movements in open desert.
For further reference, when Kenney claims to be “unaware” of specific activities in the Iraq campaign, he is not lying. Without solid intelligence reports, we are all “unaware.”