10/14/2014 12:24 EDT | Updated 12/14/2014 05:59 EST

Canada's War Against ISIS: a Little Less Talk, a Little More Conversation


Last week Canadians watched as MPs briefly debated and voted in the House of Commons on taking a combat role against ISIS in conjunction with our NATO allies.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird spoke on the conflict in Iraq and Syria as being about more than just security but about principle, particularly the need to protect and ultimately stop the grave human rights abuses taking place at the hands of ISIS. "My Canada protects the vulnerable. It challenges the aggressor," he said. The Minister focused on the crimes being committed against women and as a result pledged $10 million in services and treatment for women refugees who have been victims of ISIS's sexual crimes.

While there is no doubt that the Conservative government, like all Canadians, is appalled by the crimes against humanity being committed it is highly unlikely that it is their principle reason for going to war against ISIS. Women continue to be used as tools of war in conflicts throughout the globe -- forced impregnation, sexual slavery and rape are not exclusive to ISIS. Women have been used as tools of war in conflicts in the Congo and Sudan among others for years however Canada and its allies haven't rushed to intervene militarily in those conflicts. So why then is the Harper government so willing to take on a combat role now?

As mentioned by the government, Canada was asked to further engage in the conflict by the Obama administration. The desire to be seen as a capable partner, one that doesn't pass the buck or shy away from tough decisions is of paramount importance to the Conservative government. Demonstrating our willingness and ability to actively take on a combat role shows western partners that Canada is serious global player in the minds of the Conservative government.

Apart from the desire to further our alliances, the Harper government, like all western governments, fears the potential for increased regional instability in the Middle East should ISIS continue to advance.

Since the 2004 invasion, Iraq remains a powder keg for conflict. Paralyzed by its sectarian divisions, the current Iraqi government and military remain weak, and are likely to stay that way for some time. Syria, the other focal point of the ISIS conflict, remains in the midst of a civil war.

While much discussion was had by western powers over the civil war, particularly during its start, there has been little concrete action to stop President Bashar al-Assad. Despite current air strikes by coalition forces, the Syrian regime continues to attack rebel groups at will.

Should the conflict with ISIS spill over into neighbouring countries -- the international community risks the possibility of witnessing the Middle East descend into a black hole of uncertainty and instability.

Other regional countries have so far failed to grapple with the effects the conflict is having on them. The Kingdom of Jordan is overburdened by the influx of refugees from both the Syrian civil war and now the conflict with ISIS. The small Kingdom does not have the resources or the political wherewithal to continue to remain the home of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Lebanon, a country with its own sectarian and religious divisions, has historically been drawn into its neighbours' conflicts. The Syrian regime continues to command a lot of power and influence in Lebanon, not to mention that Lebanon is home to Hezbollah -- the terrorist organization which intervened in the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime in concert with its longtime ally, Iran. Meanwhile Turkey, our NATO ally, fights ISIS on its door step.

The likelihood for greater instability abounds in the Middle East. Should the conflict with ISIS spread the only regional powers that walk away unscathed and potentially better off are Iran and the Gulf states -- a prospect many would find unsettling.

While the imperative to combat ISIS is clear, how Canada successfully does that remains murky. While the Conservative government, effectively outlined why ISIS was a force of evil it has failed to outline a clear intent, goal or purpose for this mission.

What the end game looks like in six months or what constitutes a 'win' in this case hasn't been provided. Essentially Canadians have been asked to trust the government on this and check back again in six months. Rather than a robust conversation on the conflict, Canadians have been left with talking points on the atrocities committed by ISIS.

This conflict is not Afghanistan post 9/11 nor is it Iraq circa 2004. The fight against ISIS is far more complex, multifaceted and layered than any in which Canada has been involved in recent years. ISIS has proven itself to be a highly organized, skilled and flexible opponent. It remains to be seen if coalition air strikes can "significantly degrade" ISIS operations. The air strikes will very likely have unintended consequences particularly for the Syrian civil war and rebel fighters -- a fact that seems missing or unacknowledged.

Will these air strikes destroy ISIS as an organization? No. The west did not demolish the Taliban or Al-Qaeda after years of conflict and boots on the ground. More to the point, ISIS is not Al-Qaeda -- ISIS is not an internationally organized terrorist conglomerate with sleeper cells across the globe. ISIS is a homegrown terrorist organization which emerged as a result of the power vacuum left in Iraq and Syria.

So what to do then? The Canadian government has suggested that the best that can be done is to act now and reevaluate in six months, figure out our goals and objectives as we go. And while the government's arguments against inaction appeal to our moral imperatives doing so basically asks Canadians to support military action with no clear or realistic intentions and with little acknowledgement that this conflict is likely to last longer than six months. This isn't just different or unusual, it represents a significant departure from how modern warfare has been conducted up until this point.

The wars Canada will fight in the future will look a lot more like our current engagement against ISIS: it will be increasingly difficult to outline our strategic goals, enemy targets will become more mobile and we will be less likely to understand what constitutes victory. As a result, it is more important, not less, for this government and future governments to engage Canadians in a robust and fulsome conversation about the wars and conflicts we become embroiled in. It is the very least Canadians deserve.


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