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Canada Should Not Wage War Against ISIS

11/19/2015 02:33 EST | Updated 11/19/2016 05:12 EST
SAFIN HAMED via Getty Images
Smoke billows from the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar during an operation by Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US-led strikes on November 12, 2015, to retake the town from the Islamic State group and cut a key supply line to Syria. The autonomous Kurdish region's security council said up to 7,500 Kurdish fighters would take part in the operation, which aims to retake Sinjar 'and establish a significant buffer zone to protect the (town) and its inhabitants from incoming artillery.' AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Following the horrific attacks in Paris many Canadian commentators and columnists argue that Canada must recommit to the fight against ISIS. To do otherwise, they contend, would mean abandoning our allies, surrendering to evil, and jeopardizing Canada's safety. Predictably, Churchill quotes are being dusted off and martial language employed to convince Canadians that Prime Minister Trudeau must renege on his naïve pledge to cancel the participation of the Canadian Forces in the combat mission in Iraq. As is usually the case in the rush to war, this chorus of angry voices ignores the messy and uncomfortable reality of the situation. They propose a course of action that would put Canada in greater danger, strengthen its geopolitical foes, involve a far greater sacrifice than Canadians are willing to make, and fail to improve the situation in Syria or Iraq.

The attacks in Paris followed a French escalation of its attacks against ISIS in Syria. This is also true of the suspected ISIS bombing of a Russian airliner, which killed all 224 people aboard. Despite the unspeakable brutality of its actions and the insanity of its stated goal to restore seventh-century caliphate, ISIS's choice of Western targets is quite conventional in the military sense: They attack countries which have attacked them. A list of ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks against French, Canadian, Danish, Australian, and Russian targets confirms this general pattern. The simplest way for Canada to avoid being attacked by ISIS, it would seem, is to avoid attacking ISIS.

The logic of this approach may seem morally abhorrent and cowardly; shrinking from supporting allies under siege and opting not to engage with a monstrous, bloodthirsty foe is hardly heroic. However, proponents of an escalated military campaign ignore a crucial fact about the conflict: There are no good guys in this regional and religious war. There is no credible, democratic, or secular force with any realistic prospect of winning control of either Iraq or Syria. Attacks against ISIS invariably strengthen the brutal Assad regime in Syria, enhance Vladimir Putin's power and prestige as he seeks to reassert Russian influence in the Middle East, aid and embolden Assad's repressive patrons in the despotic Iranian government, and assist the Shia-dominated Iraqi government as they continue their campaign to exclude and oppress Sunni Iraqis.

It is easy to denounce the barbarism and callousness of ISIS; they are almost cartoonishly evil and depraved. It is more difficult however, to argue Canadian lives (civilian and military) should be put at risk to assist Assad, Putin, and the Islamic regime of Iran in establishing a new balance of power in the Middle East. It's also worth remembering that many of our allies like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Turkey have disgraceful human rights records. Do we really imagine that the deeply misogynistic Saudi Arabian regime, with its record of beheadings and floggings, is somehow morally superior to ISIS? Can anyone plausibly argue that assisting in the achievement of Saudi, Russian, Iranian, and Syrian government goals will make life better for the people of the region?

The domestic supporters of escalating the conflict, eager to bring Canadian power to bear on the villains of the Middle East, fail to acknowledge the level of commitment that would be necessary to defeat ISIS while pacifying Iraq and Syria. Canada spent several years, at least $18 billion, and sacrificed 158 soldiers in Afghanistan and the future prospects of that country are grim as the Taliban remains strong and poised to regain power once coalition forces depart. In Iraq the American government spent $2 trillion, lost almost 4500 troops, and killed at least 134,000 Iraqi civilians. The result of the sacrifice of all this blood and treasure was an Iraqi civil war and the birth of ISIS in Iraq.

Given the national trauma caused by the deaths of two Canadians in two separate ISIS-inspired attacks, it is clear the Canadian public does not have the stomach for a bloody, costly, protracted conflict with no clear goals, halfway around the world. Even in the unlikely event Canada and its allies were willing to make a similar sacrifice, there is little evidence they would succeed and a high probability the campaign could produce another, equally gruesome, terrorist entity, just as earlier attempts to defeat Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda in Iraq spawned ISIS.

Withdrawal from combat does not mean cowering to ISIS or retreat from the world stage. Canada should remain prepared to participate in missions to protect human rights, uphold international law, and foster democracy. Helping one gang of bullies and thugs to clobber another one does not qualify. Canadian leaders also have a responsibility to ensure any mission which endangers Canadian lives has clear, realistic, and worthwhile objectives. Fighting ISIS does not meet this standard.

Opting not to fight does not mean Canada must remain on the sidelines. We can increase our commitment to accept refugees, work with international organizations to assist victims of these conflicts, increase our aid budget and direct it to civil society organizations and NGO's inside war-torn countries. We can work to strengthen the International Criminal Court so that Syrian and Iraqi war criminals can be tried in the years to come and future crimes against humanity can be deterred. We can partner with G20 allies to stop the flow of terror financing and improve border security and cooperation between intelligence agencies.

Obviously these actions, sensible though they may be, will not stop the carnage and mayhem in Syria and Iraq. However, neither will sending CF-18's or ground troops. Canada should do what it can to assist innocent Syrians and Iraqis while rejecting the fiction more bombing will protect human rights, promote democracy, or protect us from harm. We cannot "fix" the region but we have the choice not to add to the body count while putting Canada in greater danger.

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