Canada must carefully re-evaluate its Iraq mission post-ISIS

Ottawa must realign its military commitment with its foreign policy approach, which promotes democracy in a stable, unified Iraq.
Sunday 22/04/2018
Canadian special forces look over a Peshmerga observation post in northern Iraq. (AP)
Risky options. Canadian special forces look over a Peshmerga observation post in northern Iraq. (AP)

Following the military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, Canada is re-evaluating its military aid and training programme for Iraqi Kurdish forces, the peshmerga. Canada may redirect its military assistance to the Iraqi central government in Baghdad but this may be a risky option for Ottawa, given ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq and the influence of Iran-backed militias on Baghdad.

Canadian Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan told CBC News that up to $10 million worth of weapons purchased by Canada to assist the peshmerga in the fight against ISIS might end up in Baghdad or supporting NATO’s training mission.

The weapons, including sniper rifles and anti-tank missiles, were promised to the peshmerga but remain in storage in Montreal and Amman. Now that the military threat from ISIS is eliminated in Iraq, further arming of the peshmerga would put Canada’s approach in Iraq under scrutiny.

Since Canada began its train-and-equip programme to the peshmerga as part of its contribution to the US-led international coalition fighting ISIS, critics suggest Ottawa is unconsciously supporting separatist aspirations of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and contributing to instability stemming from the separation.

This surfaced last October when the Iraqi Army and Shia militias clashed with the peshmerga in Kirkuk following the Kurdish independence referendum. Canada’s train-and-equip programme for the Kurds was halted.

While Ottawa considers the changed environment in Iraq and options for rechanneling its assistance, the Canadian government must remember that the Kurds were instrumental allies in the fight against ISIS and must continue to support them, at least politically. Canada should identify a clear plan for its involvement in Iraq and keep close relations with all players involved to maintain efficiency of any stabilisation efforts.

As for the destination of the weapons purchased by Canada, there are two main options.

One would be to channel the weapons to the Iraqi Army, although that option is filled with challenges. The government in Baghdad has failed on various occasions and is known to be corrupt and to operate along sectarian lines.

Iran-backed figures and sectarian militias have infiltrated the Iraqi Army and federal police. Many Iran-funded militias, including those designated terrorist organisations by the United States, are legally part of the Iraqi security forces. If Canada goes this direction, it must ensure that assistance does not end up benefiting sectarian militias in Iraq.

The other option, which Canada seems to favour, is to help with the planned NATO military training mission. Sajjan said: “If the needs are there for training capacity and if our resources in terms of equipment — including weapons — are needed, we will look at that option.”

The NATO mission is expected to operate from Baghdad with elements in KRG-held Erbil, where it would likely focus on training security forces in Iraq on skills needed to prevent the resurgence of ISIS. This capacity-building training would include counter-insurgency tactics and collection of intelligence.

NATO’s chief military policy adviser hinted that Canada may take on a greater role in support of its mission in Iraq, given that the Canadian military has special forces, advisers, equipment and, above all, experience that would bolster the alliance’s efforts in the country.

Canada is keen to support stabilisation in Iraq and its efforts must be applauded. However, a new environment is emerging in Iraq following the military defeat of ISIS and growing tensions between Kurds and Arabs. Ottawa must realign its military commitment with its foreign policy approach, which promotes democracy and coexistence in a stable, unified Iraq.