The reasons to extend Canada’s mission to Iraq are straight forward enough and consistent with the strength of our democratic values. Recent Islamic State attacks in Yemen and Libya show the movement is developing an ever-expanding footprint in the Middle East and North Africa with tentacles extending to other reaches of the planet – Europe, North America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. There is no terrorist group in modern history that has so effectively used a combination of social media and gory tactics to recruit followers and build support.
These values cannot be defended against by Parliamentary rhetoric alone or by shipments of blankets to increasingly desperate pockets of refugees. The threat IS poses is real, as is the widening scope and frequency of its attacks.
But there is certainly not yet much evidence that any of the lofty goals set at the beginning of the U.S.-led campaign to defeat IS have been met. Equally troubling is the unclear nature of the strategy at play in Iraq and Syria. We are a long way from “degrading” let alone “destroying” IS. The harsh reality is that America’s Middle East policy is aimless and rudderless. There is no apparent Plan A or Plan B. Western responses are driven more by rhetoric than substance.
The goals of the mission should be self-evident: Restoring Iraq to the authority of its new government is one obvious objective, especially since Iraq has new leadership that enjoys political support and legitimacy that crosses sectarian lines. The objective in Syria is less certain unless it is to compel a political solution on heretofore-warring factions, an effort that has failed to date because of inept political leadership. In Syria, it is not even clear whether the “enemy of our enemy” is our friend.
It should come as no surprise that American credibility for forging peace in the region is on the same scale as its willingness to wage war. Talks with Iran command a seemingly higher priority.
The nature of coalition commitments is also decidedly mixed. The U.S. continues to prefer to “lead from behind”, bluntly eschewing any notion of a major deployment of troops on the ground.
Meanwhile, Iran suffers from no such compunction and has decided to fill the vacuum by leading from out front with ground forces. Together with Iraqi and Kurdistan forces, including those that Canada is supporting, Iranian-backed forces have enjoyed the most evident success to date in terms of retaking territory on the ground. Egypt remains on the sidelines, piqued that the U.S. has not resumed military aid. The roles of Turkey and Saudi Arabia are even murkier. Loyalties are divided over basic differences of religion and turf.
Commitments from allies like Canada seem to be taken for granted. That is why we should not extend our commitment further without gaining a clearer understanding of the end-game strategy and without having a commensurate political voice in the direction of action.
Military engagement will only be part of any long-term solution. Pushing IS out of Iraq may be doable, but that will not resolve the broader conflict. We also need to be wary of an Iranian “victory” in Iraq and what that portends for the region as a whole.
For all of these reasons, Canada’s continued commitment should be carefully calibrated to a reinvigorated and more coherent strategy with distinct goals. The mission should not be open-ended in scope or time, nor should we stand idle in the face of uncertain alliance leadership.
Besides, the war against IS should not be allowed to overwhelm the circuits of Canada’s international security policy and other military commitments. The threat must be kept in perspective. There are bigger dangers on the world stage: resurgent Russia and a floundering peace process in the aftermath of the Minsk accords; erratic leadership in nuclear North Korea; and increasingly problematic talks to put Iran’s nuclear genie into a half-corked bottle where there is no Plan B if talks fail.
The rationale for combating IS is simple enough. By committing atrocities on a scale unseen since the Dark Ages, IS should have incurred the opprobrium of the entire civilized world. It has not because complacency reigns in many quarters including some in the region itself. The fact that IS’ actions attract support from gullible Western youth is a symptom of genuine concern for which there is no ready solution. Heightened vigilance by police and intelligence authorities, local community engagement, education and jobs for unemployed and disenchanted youth all form part of the solution though they are by no means a complete or perfect panacea.
But nations unwilling to fight for the values that underpin their system of government will be consigned to the backwater of history. As Churchill once observed “an appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile hoping that it will eat him last”.