Over the past several months, two international conflicts have dominated news headlines grabbed the attention of Canadians: the rise of and fight against ISIS and ongoing fighting against Ukraine. To learn more about Canada’s role in both conflicts, we speak to Simon Palamar, a research with CIGI’s Global Security & Politics Program.
CIGI: What do you think Canada’s role in Iraq says about the country’s engagement in global affairs?
Simon Palamar: What we’ve heard lately, especially in Canadian academic circles on foreign policy, is this belief that Canadian foreign policy under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is really different than that of former Prime Ministers Paul Martin, Jean Chretien or Brian Mulroney. I’d argue that it’s not and Iraq is a good example why.
Canada, ever since the Second World War, has tended to go to war with the United States and United Kingdom. We’ve seen a long term decline in terms of Canada participating directly in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations. But we don’t see the UN involved in Iraq because there’s no need for it to be involved. Everyone recognizes the legitimacy of the current Iraqi government, even if we don’t like the way it conducts its internal or foreign policy. What we see with the Canadian Forces in Iraq is a very consistent pattern in our foreign policy. Canadian Special forces are in Iraq – right near the front lines of fighting round the Kurdish capital Erbil — and are willing to take on a training role with troops that are doing some of the hardest and nastiest fighting in the country.
We’ve generally used force or imposed sanctions with our major allies, which also includes France, Australia and New Zealand. At the margins, you seem some differences between Harper and Chretien’s foreign policy. The former is more concerned about the idea of justice than lawfulness, for example, which might be a narrow distinction, but when ISIS summarily executes dozens or hundreds of Shiites because they’re Shiites (or any other group that is targeted solely on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, or so forth), it’s a gross moral offense that seems to get Canada’s current Prime Minister animated (at least when it comes to his rhetoric). But overall, the way that Canada has approaches the war in Iraq it really is fairly consistent with a longer-term trend, where Canada works with its allies and gets the most done with these allies.
CIGI: We recently heard of Canadian forces engaging with ISIS fighters, despite the mission being non-combat. Do you think the lines are being blurred?
Palamar: It’s really become a semantic debate. I’m not going to defend the government either way, but when we’ve heard about Canadian Special forces being involved in firefights in Iraq it’s because they’re accompanying and going to the front lines to assess the situation and provide advice.
But the Kurdish Peshmerga, being trained by Canadian special forces, has been under-resourced for several years now. They don’t have the manpower right now to conduct large scale, deep offensive operations. During the 1980s, they fought with the Iraqi army and got quite good as a military organization but haven’t done as much fighting until recently. And if look south, Iraqi armed forces — except for a few key units that have fought well in parts of Anbar and Salah ad Din provinces — are in very poor shape. The country’s army — under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — became riddled with corruption and has since really suffered from institutional rot. In light of this situation, the ground forces of Western countries are training the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and that means sometimes you have to go to the front lines — a couple hundred yards from ISIS where you might come under fire.
Canada doesn’t deploy armed forces anywhere around the world without giving them the implicit right to defend themselves if they’re fired upon. Their deployment during the 1990s in the Balkans, when Canada committed to several peacekeeping missions, involved coming under fire and they absolutely had the right to (and did) return fire to defend themselves and civilians. Few would describe those peacekeeping missions as combat operations.
But let’s also remember that the Canadian government wants to have it both ways, if we look at how this mission has been described. You call ground operations a non-combat mission but at the same time Canada is dropping bombs. It is election season in Canada and the government was perhaps a little bit coy about some of the risks when the mission was laid out to the public last year. They didn’t say we’re sending people into harm’s way. But some of the polling from last autumn shows that Canadians entered this mission with eyes wide open, knowing it wouldn’t be riskless.
CIGI: On that note, the mission, opposed by the Liberals and NDP, is due to expire in April. Do you think it will continue beyond this date? And, in light of an upcoming general election, do you think Canada’s role in Iraq will make foreign policy a more important election issue?
Palamar: Let’s remember that it was a nicety when the Canadian government went before the House of Commons last fall. The Prime Minister and cabinet have the right to deploy Canadian forces without the consent of parliament.
Unless something really horrible was to happen – a Canadian soldier being killed or implicated in some tragedy – I don’t see the mission in Iraq being an election issue. The Liberals haven’t found it beneficial to wholly oppose the mission as Canadians still seem to be fairly comfortable with the idea that we’re at war with ISIS and tend to support the idea that we should be. Plus, there are many pocket book issues right now: falling oil prices, health care and student debt, to name a few. It’s a safe bet to anticipate that those will be the issues that Canadians are going to be voting on.
With that said, I hope it isn’t a partisan election issue because it’s important that Canada’s three principle parties get on the same page about Canadian policy in Iraq, and it’s by no means clear that a hotly contested election is the best time to debate the nuances of Canada’s Iraq policy. Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau don’t have to agree on all the details – I wouldn’t expect them to – but one issue where forming some sort of non-partisan consensus is important is timing. The Canadian Forces have assessed the situation and think it could take months before we see broadly see the effects of training Iraqi and Kurdish security forces on the ground. It could be a year or longer before we start to see these forces conduct large-scale major offensive operations and hold on to territory. No one in the West is seriously talking about sending armed forces to fight ISIS on the ground, and so it will be better for Canada and Iraq if the Conservatives, New Democrats, and Liberals can at least agree that degrading ISIS is a net positive for the Middle East and worthwhile foreign policy goal, and that achieving that goal may take more than a few months, regardless of whether Canada contributes to that goal via training, air strikes, increased humanitarian aid, or some other combination of approaches.
CIGI: Has Canada been as engaged with NATO on Ukraine as with Iraq? What do you think accounts for this?
Palamar: We’ve seen around 5,500 people die since the fighting began last May in Ukraine, and the recent round of fighting since January has been quite intense. There are important reasons why we’re sending people into harm’s way in Iraq and sending medical and non-lethal force to Ukraine.
ISIS doesn’t have a state sponsor. No government in the world – including in the Middle East – wants them there. There might be some people Arab Gulf countries who have personally funded ISIS and there might be some government officials in Arab Gulf countries who think that ISIS might be a useful tool against the Syrian regime. But I have a hard time believing that any government in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region wants a swath of territory — stretching from central Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad — to be controlled by an extremist organization that threatens to exacerbates the region’s Sunni-Shiite divide and could plausibly supporting insurgencies and terrorist movements.
The rebels in Ukraine clearly have a state sponsor to the point where Russia sends equipment and (there’s fairly good evidence proving this) armed forces to the in the Donbaas. Complicating this picture is that Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom have many interests in common with Russia. They’re all on the same side when it comes to ISIS. While there are differences between Russia and these countries about the future of Syria, on the future of the Middle East, in general, and when it comes to concerns about counter terrorism, nuclear proliferation and other big national security issues, we’re all more or less on the same page with the Kremlin. And so, we don’t want to destroy our relationship with them.
The other important consideration — and this is quite significant — is that the European Union (EU) is incredibly divided about how to approach Ukraine. NATO overlaps significantly with the EU — and some EU governments have wanted to avoid taking a hard-line with Russia for quite understandable reasons. For example, just last year, Italy fell into its third recession since 2008, and is very dependent on Russian natural gas, so the idea of cutting off all trade with Russia is simply a non-starter. This makes getting a trans-Atlantic consensus on deep and broad sanctions that might help compel Moscow to reign in Ukraine’s rebellion rather difficult.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who de facto leads and is probably the single person with the most influence in the EU, has time and again said there is no military solution to the crisis in Eastern Ukraine — though Russian President Vladimir Putin probably disagrees with her. But when you have major parts of the Western alliance not wanting to station additional permanent troops in Poland, Romania, and the Baltics, and those parts of the alliance also have considerable influence over your other form of coercive policy (sanctions), it’s very hard to present a unified front.
Alternatively, there’s relatively little political downside when you’re talking about sending arms to the Kurds. There will be some people in Canada who say we shouldn’t do that because it’s neither our fight nor our business. But I think reasonable people can disagree on that issue.
There are very few countries that will significantly downgrade their relationship with Canada for sending arms to the Kurds. If we send arms to Ukraine there is the potential that relations with Russia get much worse and relations with the EU potentially get more difficult. The importance of Moscow’s relationship with Washington and the complexities of EU politics all make for a very unfortunate reality for the people of eastern Ukraine.