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Canada's Battle Against Extremism Should Involve More Aid Instead of Bombs

04/01/2015 09:28 EDT | Updated 06/01/2015 05:59 EDT
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As Parliament edges closer to a vote concerning the extension of Canada's mission in Iraq, Canadians should be asking themselves if they see a successful end -- or any end -- to our mission there, and whether Canada could be engaging in a more fruitful Mid-East policy.

Winters can be harsh in the Middle East. The mountainous region of Akkar, near Lebanon's northern border with Syria, is a perfect example. Snow covered, with temperatures often dropping into the negatives, it is home to an estimated 109,000 Syrian refugees.

Of Akkar's 198,000 permanent residents,67 per cent already live below the poverty line. Such an influx of refugees creates problems so profound that the Lebanese President labelled it as an "existential crisis." Indeed, more than half of Akkar's residents are refugees. Many must squat in abandoned buildings or live on the streets.

Conditions in the refugee camps where others shelter are deplorable. The Lebanese government has avoided granting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the right to set up proper refugee camps because the last time that happened, 375,000 stayed permanently.

Food and electricity prices have skyrocketed throughout Lebanon, electric blackouts are common. So are despair, cynicism and social tension.

The result is a hotbed of extremist activity.

"There is terrorist radiation in Lebanon because of the presence of hundreds of thousands of desperate, hungry, and homeless individuals that no one is taking care of," stated Lebanese Social Affairs minister Rashid Derbas in an interview with Al-Markaziyah news agency late last year.

Countries like Germany have made addressing the conditions of these refugees -- and the resulting security and humanitarian concerns -- a foreign policy priority. But where does Canada stand?

Canada stands for bombing the Un-Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (why call them what they want to be called and something that they are most certainly not?). While I commend Canada for trying to take action to degrade the Un-Islamic State's strength in Iraq, the strategy (or lack thereof) as it stands now is useless in actually degrading the terror state's capabilities.

Bombing only marginally degrades a group like the Un-Islamic State, who take their strategies from the Hezbollah and Hamas playbook: make equipment highly mobile, and positioning them deep underground or among residential areas. When the first rounds of bombing started, an Un-Islamic official even mocked the predictability of Western governments, stating most of Un-Islamic's fighters and equipment had already moved out.

A cohesive strategy must also address the situation in Syria. Harper is trying to put out a fire only when it crosses into one yard, even though the source of the fire is the neighboring lot, and bombing that yard is equally futile.

So, you ask -- why don't Canada and its Western allies arm the moderate Syrian rebels? The United States is trying that now, and failing miserably. Not only is it too little, too late, but fears exist that currently moderate rebels might defect with U.S. weapons to Un-Islamic state -- meaning the U.S. could be indirectly arming its enemies.

Ruling out bombing, and arming rebels as viable means of accomplishing Canada's goal of degrading Un-Islamic State, what about Canadian boots on the ground? There is no Western appetite for that, and history dictates it would probably do more harm than good.

Training and equipping state or state-like actors like the Iraqi army and the peshmerga might be useful in stopping Un-Islamic State in Iraq, but neither force would have the capacity, even when well trained and equipped, to defeat them in Syria. The participation of the peshmerga also limits the ground participation of another, stronger ally -- Turkey -- which has tense relations with its Kurdish inhabitants and neighbors.

Sounds complex? It is. Can Canada truly accomplish its goal of degradation of Un-Islamic state with the political and financial limits imposed? No it cannot.

Shouldn't it at least try? For the marginal difference the small Canadian contingent is doing within the coalition relative to their costs to Canadian taxpayers, I argue we could be putting that money to better use by making a direct difference in the lives of millions of refugees.

To put it bluntly, fighting ISIL is less effective than tackling the humanitarian crisis from which much extremism originates.

Canada can help fund UNHCR efforts, increase its own acceptance of refugees, and lobby states like Lebanon and Turkey to cooperate to ensure that schools, work and other educational programs are available to refugees -- keeping idle hands away from the devil's play pen, and ensuring long term security and prosperity in the region and around the world.

Now that's a foreign policy initiative Canada can succeed in.

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