After a year of heavy airstrikes on its positions and ground confrontation with the Iraqi Army and Shia militias, ISIS has proved its resilience to consolidate its control over the territories it has confiscated from Baghdad.
In parallel, it is even more difficult to determine what role Canada should play in the efforts to defeat ISIS. One thing is certain: if the United States and other major powers are thinking of shifting their strategy, it is maybe time for Ottawa to reconsider the nature of its involvement and make an assessment of its contribution.
Justin Trudeau has said that, if elected, he would end ISIS' combat mission. This engagement aroused several critics claiming that the leader of the Liberal Party is stepping back in front of barbarism. Harper himself criticized Trudeau by saying that his announcement was "completely irresponsible". But is it really? What if Trudeau was right on ISIS?
Let's take a deep breath and reevaluate the role of Canada in this campaign. In only a few months, the number of Canadian soldiers present on Iraqi soil passed from 69 to more than 600 troops. Our troops are carrying out air strikes, training Kurdish Peshmerga forces, while also providing logistical support to the coalition forces. At the same time, the Americans have also increased their military presence in Iraq. However, ISIS was still able to increase its control over various parts of Syria and Iraq, as the region is disintegrating. When looking at the history of Western interventionism in this region, it is clear that this has only created further reluctance and condemnations in the minds of the local population. Further operations in the region will only benefit ISIS, as it has become a major source of attraction for foreign fighters from all over the world, coming to defeat the West and establishing the caliphate. The West is losing the war against ISIS so far.
Thus, to what extent is our current involvement changing the game in favour of our allies? In short, the answer is: not much!
The current leadership in Canada has shown more interest in short-term solutions, having proven to be inefficient in the region. We are not advocates of a disengaged foreign policy as portrayed by the Conservatives. On the contrary, we are in favour of an interventionist policy, one capable of making a difference in the lives of millions of Iraqis, while remaining truthful to ourselves. Our cautious past policies have avoided us taking part in the catastrophic war in Iraq. Yet, the Conservatives are presenting themselves as the only party that has the guts to take on ISIS. But what difference are they really making on the ground by fighting a half-war from the air? Canada is currently not a game changer in the fight against ISIS.
As a traditional middle power, Canada has often intervened as a manager on various occasions to solve global issues. Our country has demonstrated well-conceived policies and strategic investments of our resources. But Canada has sailed away from its 'niche diplomacy' in the past years. This approach implies concentrating our resources in specific areas in order to maximize the likelihood of success of our policies. Canada's expertise in peacemaking diplomacy, humanitarian aid and training troops is globally recognized, as we have demonstrated in the past strong leadership in these areas. However, Canada under Harper has simply been a follower of major powers in a war so far lost by the international community.
Also, our assistance has mainly been directed towards the Peshmerga forces while little cooperation between Ottawa and Baghdad has taken place. The Kurds have strategically used their military to protect their areas and maintain their borders secure without further adventurism in ISIS controlled areas. Many analysts see this as a crucial moment for the Kurdish elite to declare their independence. In reassessing the nature of our involvement in Iraq, this leads to the question whether -- purposely or not -- we are enforcing the military capabilities of a future independent Kurdish state.
In parallel, the conservatives tend to stifle the public debate by presenting this mission as the only option. But who says that this should be the case? In fact, Trudeau understands very well the need to address the issue differently, notably by reframing our implication on building institutions instead of hard power military action.
The ugly truth is that Iraq is a failed state. This implies that regardless of the number of bombs we will drop on ISIS, it will remain powerful as long as a functional Iraqi army is nonexistent. It is also important to understand that the Iraqis should lead the war against ISIS. There hasn't been any serious effort to build an Iraqi army since 2003. The West must support the central government in Baghdad by providing advanced military equipment, logistical support and training to Iraqi soldiers. This is where Canada can play a highly influential role by cooperating with the Iraqi government.
We would thus engage Canada's military in something we've demonstrated tremendous ability at, such as training troops behind the lines, institution building and humanitarian aid. Iraq needs a strong long-term plan to build an Iraqi army and security services. As long as this problem is not dealt with, the structure of the state will remain fragile and highly vulnerable to the actions of groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. If every time the Iraqi state turns to the West, in order to counter these threats, this will perpetuate the vicious cycle of western intervention in the region.
Finally, from a humanitarian perspective, we believe that Canada can make a real difference in the lives of many Iraqis. Last December, Ali visited Baghdad and witnessed the precarious conditions in which many internally displaced Iraqis were living in. Thousands of families are being deprived from social assistance, health care services and access to basic foodstuff. Although the Iraqi government has announced measures to increase the funds allocated to this crisis, reports indicate that the situation hasn't improved. Baghdad lacks the funds and the know-how to deal with this situation. Canada can play a greater role in this regard.
A realist assessment of our capacities and historical role in global affairs is crucial in order to formulate a clear foreign policy in Iraq. The current government has been all but realist in this regard. Trudeau however has made a realist and responsible statement. We should focus on training troops behind the lines and provide humanitarian assistance. On top of that, we would suggest helping Baghdad to build an institutionalized and effective army.
A french version of this blog can be read here.
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