“Given the fluidity of the current situation, Canada’s Special Operations Task Force has temporarily suspended the provision of assistance to various elements of Iraqi security forces…. Once more clarity exists regarding the interrelationships of Iraqi security forces and the key priorities and tasks going forward, the task force will resume activities.” — Col. Jay Janzen
For years, Canadian Special Forces have been training Kurdish and Iraqi forces to assist in the fight against Daesh. In June, the Liberal government quietly extended Canada’s involvement in Iraq until 2019, in what many observers deemed a premature and myopic decision.
“The situation on the ground in Iraq is about to radically change with the impending demise of the territorial phase of the Islamic State enterprise. Canadian military trainers will find themselves not only confronting a diffused Islamic state insurgency but a Kurdish independence movement and deep sectarian divisions between the Shia-controlled Iraqi government and the Sunni majority population.” — Rideau Institute President Peggy Mason
Rather than preparing for this situation, however, Canada simply ignored it until it could no longer do so.
Now, with the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate close to total collapse and increased fighting between the Kurds and Iraqis, the Canadian government is finally acknowledging that its “advise-and-assist” role has become untenable.
“They’ve got to figure out how they are going to sort themselves out, and we don’t want to get in the middle of that.” — Maj.-Gen. David Fraser
The breakdown of political stability in Iraq should have come as a surprise to no one. The Kurds have long been outspoken in their plan to pursue secession from the rest of Iraq, with a recent independence referendum drawing 93% of voters’ support. As the Iraqi government is in staunch opposition to Kurdistan independence, fighting between Kurdish and Iraqi forces upon the dissolution of the Islamic State was inevitable. Tangible Canadian policy on how to diplomatically confront tensions between the two sides has been non-existent, with Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance saying last year that “where Iraq decides to go after in terms of its political laydown is up to Iraq.”
“These dynamics, which were entirely predictable, confront Ottawa with difficult choices. Since 2014, Canada has aligned itself with specific Kurdish factions against others; with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad against Sunnis; and with both Kurds and Baghdad as they prepare to confront each other. Until recently, these tensions were manageable; but as IS continues to weaken, they will be increasingly costly.” — Professor Thomas Juneau
While it now has no choice but to stop its Kurdish training and to deny them arms shipments, how should Canada address the devolving situation that it’s helped to aggravate? Professor Juneau provides some ideas worth considering:
“While recognizing its limited influence, Canada could, alongside its allies, make its assistance conditional on progress on human rights and democratic norms. In doing so, Canada could steer its assistance towards greater support for institutional capacity-building (including of security forces), reconstruction and economic development, the fostering of pluralism, and political reconciliation — which, importantly, is the only path to ultimately defeating the Islamic State.”
These are extremely worthwhile objectives. But the question remains, why did Canada and other coalition partners not make the provision of training and other assistance conditional on a Kurdish commitment not to pursue unilateral secession from Iraq?
Photo credit: Canadian Forces