Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 4 Winter 2014
Canada’s contribution to peace in Iraq and Syria and the challenge of Islamic State
On October 3, 2014 a statement was sent by Project Ploughshares to the Government of Canada and parliamentarians on the proposed military mission to Iraq. Entitled “Short-term gain for long-term pain—Canada’s challenge in responding to Islamic State,” it cautioned against Canada’s joining the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq.
A military response to a non-state group using terror to achieve its goals, in the absence of a broader political strategy to achieve a sustainable peace in the affected countries, can prolong the violence and lead to further harm. Military action can produce short-term gains, but add long-term pain for vulnerable civilians and targeted minorities already suffering in a conflict zone.
The motion authorizing Canada’s participation was passed by Parliament on October 7. It authorized the Canadian Armed Forces to send six CF-18 fighter jets, a refueling aircraft, and two surveillance aircraft to set up operations at a base in Kuwait for a six-month period. Canadian Special Operations forces are in Iraq as well in what is described as a training mission.
The role of Canada’s military presumably will be reviewed by Parliament and likely extended in April 2015. In anticipation of the next parliamentary debate, further consideration should be given to strengthening Canada’s non-military contributions to building sustainable peace in Iraq and the broader Middle East region.
The political evolution of Iraq
Islamic State, or IS (also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS) did not suddenly appear out of thin air. Iraq and Syria are deeply troubled and fractious countries, beset by violent conflict. Iraq has experienced military invasion and regime change. Syria is in the middle of a bloody civil war. Both require governments viewed as legitimate by their own people—governments that can compromise and address the grievances and demands of their various regions and the many minorities being targeted by violence.
Canada needs to find ways to strengthen the rule of law in Iraq and Syria. As a priority Canada should contribute to programs that create and strengthen democratic processes in Iraq and Syria through assistance to civil society and, where possible, state structures.
The United Nations and intervention
There is no denying the complexity of this conflict and the difficulty in sorting out with whom, and how, to find a negotiated means of ending the violence. Any international intervention—military, diplomatic, or humanitarian—must be embedded within a comprehensive, ethically defensible, and sustainable peace process. Canada’s military mission is being undertaken at the request of the Iraqi government, but in the absence of a credible international political framework to build sustainable peace in the region.
In these circumstances, experience tells us that the coercive use of force is far more likely to fuel conflict and the extremism underpinning it, rather than defeat it. Without doubt there will be delays and frustration in finding workable diplomatic solutions under the auspices of the United Nations, but Canada’s foreign policy must remain firmly grounded in the UN Charter and, more generally, in international law.
This will require sustained diplomacy that engages Canada and its coalition partners in talks with Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and others in the region. The commitment to diplomacy must equal or surpass the commitment to military options if the international community is to find its way beyond the violence currently being committed by IS.
Intervention to protect the vulnerable
The primary goal of a Canadian military mission should be the protection of vulnerable civilians, not the military defeat of IS or other insurgent groups. Civilians should be protected while a political process takes hold. This is in keeping with the principles of the responsibility to protect (R2P), although the invocation of responsibility to protect for this intervention is null and void in the absence of a UN mandate.
Canada’s political and military decision-makers must keep foremost in their minds the limitations and risks inherent in such military intervention, which are particularly evident in the use of air power. Legitimate military targets for bombing are relatively few in areas now under the sway of IS.
Canada’s recent air support in the Libyan conflict provides an example of what does not work. While successful in the narrowest of terms—it led to the downfall of the regime—it also resulted in an ongoing civil war that is contributing to the destabilization of other parts of northern Africa, such as Mali.
The battle of ideas
Canada also should consider how its proposed combat mission might, in fact, further the goals of IS. It seems likely that videotaped beheadings of Westerners were provocations by IS to draw the United States, Canada, and other coalition members directly into the fray. We need to ask what IS gains by our military response.
As UK commentator Dr. Paul Rogers (2014) points out, military intervention by the United States and others could build support for IS—both at home and abroad. He challenges Canada and its allies to come to grips with radicalization in their own societies. To do so they must confront some of the grievous mistakes and wrong behaviour committed in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere that are exploited by groups such as IS and al-Qaeda.
Arms supplies and diversion
IS is now fighting with U.S. weapons acquired by overrunning Iraqi army bases. The irony should not be lost on us. Canada currently is providing airlift assistance to deliver military supplies to Iraqi and other security forces fighting IS. The Royal Canadian Air Force is reported to have delivered almost 226,800 kilograms of donated military supplies to Iraqi security forces (FATDC 2014).
What steps has Canada taken to ensure that these supplies are not diverted to IS or other groups in the future? This question also applies to Canada’s $10-million in non-lethal security assistance that includes helmets, body armour, and logistics support vehicles.
The Government of Canada’s 2014 provision of humanitarian aid and emergency supplies to civilians is welcome. Canada has committed more than $28-million to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, including $18.8-million for populations affected by civil unrest and $9.6-million for Syrian refugees (FATDC 2014). More is needed and should be offered.
The immediate needs of displaced people are paramount. Canada should make further offers to those in need to provide at least temporary resettlement in Canada, pending resolution of the conflict and their potential return.
Strengthening the observance of human rights
Freedom of conscience and religion are essential to open, peaceful, and democratic societies, particularly where different cultures and faiths come into daily contact. This is the reality throughout the Middle East.
It is important that Canada lead in the protection of human rights for all people in the Middle East by working with both established and emerging state and community leaders, giving special attention to the rights of minorities, women, and children. This work can be further reinforced by Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom.
The outcome of Canada’s participation in a combat mission against IS is uncertain. We could make matters worse. The government and all parliamentarians should take the time necessary to consider whether the promised short-term gain from an air power-focused combat mission outweighs the potential for increased pain and suffering for those who are experiencing the brunt of the current violence. Non-military contributions should be at the forefront of Canada’s contribution to long-term, sustainable peace in Iraq and Syria.
Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. 2014. Canada responds to the situation in Iraq, September 7.
Rogers, Paul. 2014. Paul Rogers Security Briefing: The Islamic State and its potential. Oxford Research Group, October 7.