OTTAWA — The government is facing calls to reconsider its plan to arm Kurdish fighters with automatic weapons and mortars because they could fall into enemy hands or be used to harm innocent civilians.
A number of analysts are warning that Canada's decision could have long-term consequences, even if it does assist its best ally on the ground in the fight against the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Canada will triple its contingent of 69 special forces trainers working with Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq — part of a retooled contribution that will also see CF-18 fighter jets end their bombing sorties there and in Syria.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan answers a question Monday at the National Press Theatre. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
A recent report by Amnesty International accused the Kurds of bulldozing and burning down thousands of Arab homes in northern Iraq in an apparent attempt to uproot them.
"The news that an increased contingent of Canadian troops will be involved in training and providing support to Peshmerga forces, therefore, potentially raises serious human rights concerns," said Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty's Canadian branch.
It's crucial that Canadian troops receive comprehensive training in international humanitarian law so that "Canadian troops do not in any way become complicit in operations which breach international law,'' Neve said.
Jordan Owens, a spokesman for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, said Canadian troops in Iraq have received legal training on armed-conflict laws and will report on any abuses and will be vigilant in their responsibilities, "including how to prevent and report incidents or abuses.''
"In the short term it makes sense, but in the long term it's a risky move."
Thomas Juneau, a University of Ottawa Middle East security specialist, said arming the Kurds could lead to short-term gains, but the long-term pain of the region as well.
"In the short term it makes sense, but in the long term it's a risky move,'' said Juneau.
"The Kurds in Iraq and in Syria are among the most reliable fighting forces on the ground against Islamic State,'' but they have aspirations for a country of their own, he warned, meaning Canada may be "playing against our long-term objective'' of a united and stable Iraq.
Arming Iraqi Kurds could also strain Canada's relations with Turkey, which is itself battling Kurdish rebels — the group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which Canada has listed as a terrorist organization.
The Iraqi Kurds are very close to the PKK in Turkey, said Juneau: "Are we setting up future tension with Turkey?''
'Extremely high-risk endeavour'
Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute, urged the government to reconsider the plan to arm the Kurds, noting there's a spotty history of weapons caches falling into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant throughout Libya, Syria and Iraq.
"All of the history demonstrates that supplying weapons in these circumstances is an extremely high-risk endeavour.''
Cesar Jaramillo, the executive director of Project Ploughshares, urged the government to use special care to ensure that "these weapons are not misused or diverted — both real possibilities in a deteriorating conflict situation such as this one.''
The new Liberal government has promised that Canada will sign the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, which will regulate the flow of small arms in conflict zones. Jaramillo said that could impose stricter controls on future Canadian arms transfers.
Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, said Monday that Canada would supply small arms and ammunition — "everything from rifles to machine guns to light mortars and the optics to be able to use them day and night.''
Canada has transported weapons to Kurdish fighters in the past, but has not supplied weapons.
Owens said Canada's future contributions would be "equipment donations'' from the government but he said planning was still underway so he could not discuss the "value, type and number of weapons.''