What does Canada’s refocused mission against ISIS have to offer?
Ottawa - Canada’s decision to triple the number of its military advisers and trainers in Iraq marks a significant increase in its contribution to the international war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.
“Our goal is to allow local forces to take the fight directly to [ISIS], to reclaim their homes, land and future,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a mid-February speech in parliament.
The number of Canadian advisers and trainers deployed in Iraq is to go up to 207 and the number of Canadian armed personnel would increase to 830 from 650.
Trudeau said the “non-combat” mission is the right role for Canada in the fight against ISIS and that his government’s plan is comprehensive and will achieve long-term success. “Equipping, advising and assisting local troops is the best way that Canada can support,” he said.
Since Canada started its training mission in Iraq in 2014, the only forces the Canadian troops have trained are Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga forces. Backed by air strikes by the US military and its allies, peshmerga forces have held off major ISIS offensives and have taken back much ground. The Canadian programme has helped but Canada’s focus on training Kurdish forces has been criticised.
Some argue that putting more Canadian trainers on the ground in Iraq to only train Kurdish forces could develop into assisting Kurdish aims to establish an independent state in northern Iraq.
Amnesty International in January accused Kurdish militias of ethnic cleansing against non-Kurdish communities in northern Iraq. Amnesty said peshmerga forces had “bulldozed, blown up and burned” thousands of homes in Arab communities in northern Iraq and barred Arab residents from returning to recaptured areas.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said the damage was caused by fighting between its peshmerga and ISIS, air strikes and booby traps set by retreating militants. A KRG official pointed out that many Kurds had been prevented from returning to front-line villages and that some 700,000 Arab refugees from elsewhere in Iraq were being accommodated in northern Iraq.
Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based research organisation, said the goal of Kurdish peshmerga forces was not to liberate Iraq from ISIS but rather to create an independent Kurdistan. She said the new plan for Canadian involvement should offer more inclusivity and incorporate various parties in Iraq to degrade ISIS.
“What is the endgame of the peshmerga?” asked Mason. “The only effective way to counter Islamic State is to isolate it and it cannot be isolated… unless the Sunnis are brought in.”
Mason also expressed scepticism regarding the effectiveness of Canada’s stated mission. “There is this assumption that we [Canadians] are great trainers but the evidence suggests otherwise,” she said, citing language and cultural differences as obstacles to training.
“We spent 14 years training in Afghanistan… It wasn’t successful.”
The Liberal government has emphasised the importance of what it calls “renowned” Canadian expertise in training.
Although Canada in February formally ended its contribution of six CF-18 jets to the US-led coalition’s bombing campaign, the new plan would provide the international coalition with one CC-150 Polaris aerial refuelling jet and two CP-140 Aurora aerial surveillance aircraft.
Canadian personnel would provide intelligence services and assist coalition forces in identifying targets.
Furthermore, Canada’s new policy includes measures that aim to “build local capacity” in Jordan and Lebanon to assist with longer-term development projects, support counterterrorism initiatives and increase the Canadian diplomatic presence in the region. The plan would cost more than $ 1.2 billion over three years.
Canada has started to be more engaged with the UN-brokered Syria peace talks in Geneva. Canadian Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion visited Turkey in February and met with representatives of the Syrian opposition.
Though Ottawa is becoming more involved in the Syrian political process, its new policy for Syria — and Iraq — is primarily directed towards the campaign against ISIS and does not address the wider civil war and broader political issues.
Mason said she welcomed that the new plan includes aspects of enhancing diplomacy, supporting the peace process and assisting in governance but she said she was worried about what she said was the overemphasis on the military track of the mission.
Insisting there were no military solutions for the political problems in Syria and Iraq, she said: “There has been far too much focus on the military dimension and not on the political dimension.”