Iraq and Syria are perhaps the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in the modern Middle East. And while they were never models for coexistence and romanticizing the past — that would be imprudent — for both Iraq and Syria, tolerance at the societal level had been the norm. People lived in mixed communities, celebrated each others’ festivals and ate at the same table.
Today, the rise of Islamic State, extremist narratives and government discrimination are pitting neighbour against neighbour, with levels of animosity heightened to a point that is making both these countries increasingly unrecognizable to their own people.
Yet, while Islamic State has captured the global imagination and instilled great fear throughout the international community, it is not Islamic State that killed nearly 200,000 Syrians. It is not Islamic State that has caused a regional exodus of millions of Middle Eastern refugees. It is not Islamic State that rounded up and imprisoned thousands of Iraqis for belonging to the Sunni Muslim community. Only the central Syrian and Iraqi governments are to blame for creating the political vacuum that has allowed Islamic State to gain power.
Can Canada help? Yes, we can do more by bringing Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Canada. However, the Harper government’s purported preference for religious minorities fails to see that Islamic State’s terror does not discriminate. The fact that Islamic State has targeted Iraqi minorities — groups like the Yazidis, Christians and Iraqi Shiites — is well-known. In Syria, the Kurds have captured global attention after being surrounded by Islamic State fighters. The fact remains, however, that Islamic State targets anyone who opposes its rule, and the harsh reality is that the majority of its victims are Sunni Muslims.
The Sunni Albu Nimr family in the western part of Anbar province lost more than 600 family members to Islamic State because it refused to succumb to Islamic State’s perverse interpretation of Islam. A Sunni imam in Baquba and another in Mosul were murdered for criticizing Islamic State’s ideology. Female Sunni doctors in Mosul were killed after protesting against Islamic State’s diktat to cover their faces. These and countless other stories of Islamic State murdering Sunni Muslims are about real people, which for whatever reason do not make it to our television screens.
To frame Islamic State as a battle of sects or to claim it is only religious minorities that are paying the price of its tyranny only perpetuates the myth that the western coalition is in a war against Sunni Islam. Islamic State is a medieval organization that has blood on its hands, but the governments of Syria and Iraq are also to blame for the death of their citizens and destruction of their countries. Our fight in Iraq and Syria should therefore always be in the best interests of all of its citizens, not one community or another. This should be our policy, not just because it is the morally right thing to do, but because it is also of tactical necessity.
The aerial bombardment by the international coalition is slowly exhausting the number of military targets that can be hit from the air. And let’s not fool ourselves: after decades of mistrust built by the Bush invasion of Iraq, western boots on the ground would be devastating and most unwelcome. Soon, the international coalition will need Iraqis and Syrians to rise up against Islamic State. This second phase of the counter-insurgency strategy could start in the coming months, but without empowering Syrians and Iraqis from the bottom up, this would be self-defeating in the long run. To defeat Islamic State, a military strategy must be followed by building politically viable societies in Syria and Iraq.
To win the battle against Islamic State, the international coalition, of which Canada is a part, will need to build on its military and tactical strategy by beginning the long process of political reconciliation that can both heal the sectarian wounds and build inclusive societies. As a member of the international coalition, Canadian Armed Forces can help consult and advise Iraqis on how to truly build a professional army that is inclusive of its minorities.
As Canada debates how it can meaningfully help this region from being torn by civil strife, massive refugee flows and failing governments, I see only one comparative advantage that is truly Canadian: our multicultural society. We are not perfect, but we have a great deal of experience, wisdom and policy knowledge to share with the region about the values and virtues of a multicultural society.