“We have to be careful to ensure that this aid falls into the right hands,”said International Development Minister Christian Paradis, gesturing at the cardboard box of toothpaste and hand soap that could prove deadly in the evil grasp of ISIS.
The Minister was at the Red Cross offices in Ottawa, for an emergency announcement. The conference was so obviously cobbled together, given the frazzled look on all the staff’s faces. When did they tell you about this press conference, I asked. “Last night,”one staff sighed.
But sometimes you need to move fast in crisis mode.
And, gosh darn it, this was an important announcement.
“Canada continues to condemn the terrorist actions of ISIL, and the killing of civilians in Northern Iraq, in strongest possible terms,”Paradis said.
That’s why he re-announced $2.5 million in funding.
Yeah, see, Ottawa decided to kick in $5 million in funding on August 10. Paradis, last week, merely said where the other half would be spent — surprise, it’s being split up between a few different NGOs.
Now, don’t read this as belittling Canada’s contribution. According to Ottawa, we’re contributed $21 million thus far in 2014, which is a sizeable sum.
What’s more, we’re releasing equipment from our emergency humanitarian stockpile, which we’re housing in Dubai. We expect those supplies — tents, pots, pans, blankets, toothpaste, etc — will help some 25,000 people.
That might sound like a lot, but to put it in context — the Yazidis trapped on an isolate mountain range, surrounded by ISIS, numbered more than 40,000.
And they’re just one group in need.
Compare this funding to the Canadian response to Syria — $630 million for Syrian civilians, opposition groups, and refugees in neighbouring states.
You can make a pretty good case that, despite best intentions, that didn’t do much good. Many of the opposition groups that received non-lethal aid from Ottawa — as I reported last year —are more-or-less defeated.
The Syrian National Council, once considered a natural successor to Assad’s regime, is no longer a credible shadow government. Its military wing, the Free Syrian Army, is on the verge of collapse. The only rebel groups that appear to be making gains are ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, who captured Israeli territory in the Golan Heights.
Not to throw out all Canada’s efforts, however. Huge chunks of funding that went to refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey have obviously had hugely important impacts on the region.
But funding to Syria has been a failure. Aid and weaponry flowing from America, Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia not only failed to topple Assad, but financed ISIS’ quick rise.
All that in mind, Canada was right to be trepidaticious of the whole affair. Ottawa, many forget, is a pretty formidable arms vendor who has been known to throw some heavy arms in the way of a friendly government, if the cause is right. (Hell, even if it’s not: one of our companies inked a $10 billion deal with Saudi Arabia for military vehicles that are used to suppress protest.)
But, the Department of Foreign Affairs was adamant for years — we can’t tell the good guys from the bad and, even if we could, the bad guy might just kill the good guy and take his weapons.
And, hell, that’s exactly what happened.
The Americans are mortified. Obama, professing to be the president wise to history, did exactly what Ronald Reagan did in arming the Afghani Mujahideen. He kicked in to support a wise cause, but utterly failed to manage it in any real sense, and trusted that domestic politics would work themselves out.
In terms of foreign involvement, it’s the equivalent of just sticking the tip in. Nine months on, you’re surprised when you have a baby.
Obama treated this like a proxy war. Our guys, the rebels; versus their guy, Assad (who used to be our guy, Assad.)
Of course, proxy wars only work when you have a cohesive opposition with popular support. That’s what the Libyans told us they had, only to disintegrate in the face of rampant tribalism.
They believed the same in Iraq, where Nouri al-Malaki convinced H.W. Bush that he commanded fear and respect from the tripartite nation. He ran the state like Napoleon, and made quick work of alienating much of his citizens. Still, he eventually brought stability. But as American force and the fighting in Syria upset that fragile balance, his steady hand began to resemble an iron fist, and things went from bad to worse.
So now Washington is trying airstrikes. Those won’t work.
And the Syria problem met the Iraq problem and they became the Islamic State problem.
Fact is, ISIS is a massive threat. By early reports, their fighting force numbered in the mere thousands. Yet, they carved through Iraq like butter. How? Iraqi fighters along ISIS’ war path laid down their arms, realizing that they, mostly Sunni, had no reason to fight for President al-Malaki’s growingly authoritarian regime. For all the tales of ISIS’ brutality, the truth is that if you are a god-fearing Sunni male, you’ll probably have it pretty good — if not better — under self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State.
Amazingly, the nominally secular military and political leaders from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — a man who recognized the danger of sectarianism — ended up joining the radical ISIS. Their fighting force has ballooned to anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000.
While we all like to clutch pearls and fan ourselves at the very thought of this Medieval throwback, it’s actually something that some Middle Eastern Muslims pine for.
See, in the midst of the First World War, the Arabs had grown tired of the Ottoman Empire. Revolt was brewing, and their political leaders communicated a plan to the British — if we kneecap the German-backing Ottomans, you have to recognize our state. London agreed, and a modern, unified Arab (not necessarily Muslim, per se) state was to be born.
But then the Western powers thought nah, let’s not and signed a secret deal that said England and France would control the Middle East in order to ensure that the Ruskies don’t take it first. It’s called the Sykes-Picot Agreement and it’s pretty much the most bald-faced colonialism you’ll ever see. The white folks in Paris basically took a magic marker to the Middle East, installed some of the nay-sayers as kings to pacify them, and went about their merry lives.
Except that it caused some of the horrible pains that we’re currently going through. The intense sectarian strife that has plagued Iraq from decades — a terribly-planned-out unity between the Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, and various other minorities like the Yazidi — are a direct result of Western statecraft.
And in case you think this is just ivory tower textbook academia, check out this mind-boggling Vice News documentary from within the Islamic State — it features a machine-gun wielding ISIS soldier standing on the formerly-arbitrary, now meaningless, Iraq-Syria border, proclaiming the Sykes-Picot Agreement moot.
Fact is, many adherents to political Islam — dating back to the early 20th Century incarnation of the Muslim Brotherhood — have always believed in a unified Arab State. Originally, it was to be a pan-Muslim state based on progressive Islamic philosophy and religious unity (like Palestine in the 19th Century, where Christians and Jews lived with Muslims in relative harmony, albeit under a different tax code.) The real fear from the West was that their collectivist-minded, anti-capitalist state would be a prime Soviet ally.
All this to say: this isn’t an idea that will just vanish. Syria is a failed state with no effective governance in any level, except the semblance of normalcy brought about by ISIS. Meanwhile, Iraq is quickly crumbling along the poorly-drawn sectarian lines devised nearly a century ago. Neighbouring states, thrown off-kilter thanks to years of political instability, are at risk. And they’re not just at risk from a rampaging gang of murders — they’re at risk from a basic political ideology.
While the AR-15 wielding marauders on horseback may buy wholesale into the ethnic cleansing that appears to be going on, that doesn’t mean that everyone under the Islamic State believes the same. That said, given the choice between the region’s idiotic leaders — a madman who uses chemical weapons indiscriminately and an arrogant buffoon who seems set on driving his state into the sand — and a revolutionary organization that can offer some sense of stability, the latter seems like a solid choice, even if they’re committing war crimes elsewhere.
Which brings us back to Ottawa’s pittance aid plan.
All this flux has spooked us.
So we’ve retreated to pittance aid drops.
In actuality, we have a pretty clear plan in front of us.
The Kurds are obvious the good guys in this scenario. That rag-tag group of fighters have, aside from some radical tendencies here and there, proven moderate, determined, and capable. Their fledgling state of Kurdistan should be recognized and supported — like we should have done decades ago.
But the Kurds have no interest in going in and taking care of all of ISIS. They want to guard their borders and hunker down.
The Iraqis, on the other hand, want nothing more than to stem the tide. Problem is, their military is now crippled and large swaths of their army have joined ISIS.
But they’re not totally out of the game. The forces around Baghdad are, supposedly, still well-equipped and loyal. The new president, too, may help repair some bruised egos. They need arms, and quick. Otherwise, having the Iraqi capital fall is a very real threat.
We wouldn’t be alone. Germany, usually a dove on these matters, is moving to send arms to Iraq to fight ISIS.
Turkey, meanwhile, is in big trouble. A porous border with Syria, thanks to the huge trail of refugees, means that any number of ISIS operatives are already in the country. While there’s little chance that ISIS will make any sizeable incursion into the state, there’s a real chance they could do some damage. To that end, the huge refugee camps along the Syrian border need to be dealt with — they need to be moved and settled, ASAP.
The same principle applies to all the states in the region.
Meanwhile, we need to tighten the screws on Qatar. The superrich microstate is one of the sugar daddies for the radical group.
Of course, they deny it. They even condemn ISIS. Even if that’s true, they bank roll a host of other terrorist organizations in the region, including Hamas, and it’s a sure bet that some of that aid is falling into the hands of ISIS.
Canada has the option of labelling Qatar as a state sponsor of terror. That may be extreme but, on the other hand, ISIS is committing crimes against humanity.
Which brings me to my next point: ISIS is committing crimes against humanity.
I asked Paradis repeatedly during his press conference whether he considered the actions happening in Iraq and Syria to be crimes against humanity. He didn’t answer. Obvious because saying yes implies the need to act.
Canada, supposedly, still has a responsibility to protect. Just like in Rwanda and East Timor, if we are still committed to being a good global traffic cop, we are duty bound to act in the face of genocide. Here, however, we’re sending tents and blankets.
I’m not saying that we need to send in the blue helmets. I’m not even saying that we need to fly in the CF-18s.
But what we’re doing right now is not enough. Treating the crisis in this proclaimed Islamic State like it were a monsoon or a landslide betrays our responsibility to be more than incapable spectators.
One of the greatest feats of the Harper Government’s foreign policy is that it has been so inclined to dispense with the crap and hammer at real solutions. Here, though, it appears too afraid to do so.
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