Everything you need to know about Canada’s mission against ISIS






As you’ve (hopefully) heard, Canada will be —barring an unprecedented Parliamentary upset, or the sudden surrender of our enemies —hitting targets in Iraq within a matter of weeks, if not days.  We’ll be contributing a half dozen CF-18 fighter jets, two surveillance aircraft, and some military transport to the mission-

Mission?  You mean war.  Were going to war.

Not exactly, Q.

See, on September 20, the Foreign Minister of Iraqi sent a letter to the UN Security Council, asking for international assistance in battling the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.  Or, as we all know them, ISIS.

Thats war.

Well, only if you consider the Islamic State an actual state.  Which no county in the world actual does.  Legally speaking, we’re cooperating with the Iraqi state in a counter-terrorism effort on their own soil.

Why cant the Iraqis do this on their own?

Well Iraq has had a few problems of late.  Naturally, the American war did a whole lot to create turmoil in that country, but it’s not the only reason.

President Nouri al-Maliki —George Bush’s ‘guy’ in the country who was further propped up by President Obama —was sort of an ass.

Al-Maliki’s government highly leveraged Shia Iraqis in his state, to the extent that Sunnis began to feel unsafe.  That frustration is entirely understandable, too.  Under al-Maliki’s rule, he didn’t do enough to disarm Shiite militias, and many Sunnis blamed that inaction on increased sectarian attacks against them in Northern Iraq.

So, amid civil unrest in Northern Iraq, ISIS came to town.  If you’re wondering how they managed to capture so much territory over so little time, blame al-Maliki’s aggressively sectarian alienation of Iraq’s Sunni population (which account for roughly a third of the country’s population.)  Iraq’s military basically laid down their arms and high-tailed it out of there, refusing to fight for a state that wouldn’t support them.

All this has left the Iraqi military essentially kneecapped.  ISIS has launched attacks on various military installations and airfields across the country, and they’ve either stolen or destroyed a large amount of the Iraqi army’s hardware.  While we’re not tremendously sure what they’re equipped with, we know that it includes tanks, rocket launchers, artillery, anti-aircraft weaponry, and much more —most of it American-made.

Anti-aircraft?!  Doesnt that mean theyll shoot down our planes?

Probably not.  The CF-18s have anti-missile capabilities.

Phew.  And, hey, ISIS probably doesnt even know how to use them.

Not exactly.  Former soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s army have been joining ISIS’ fighting force.

What the hell?  I thought Hussein ran a secular government?

Not exactly.  He leveraged the country’s minority Sunni population at every turn —especially in the military.  One of his former vice presidents and military commanders has even joined ISIS, encouraging other Sunnis to do the same.  If reports of others following his lead are correct, it means that ISIS actually has guys who can use that American military hardware.

Good god, thats terrifying.  We should stop them.

The Western world agrees.  Unlikely the bumbled response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, President Obama has managed to cobble together a relatively effective coalition of international partners to intervene and take out ISIS’ military weaponry.

From the NATO side, you’ve got the might of the American military, here, but you’re also looking at about 10 English planes, as well as a destroyer, another 10 from Australia, and about a dozen fighter jets apiece from the Dutch, Belgians and Danish and a handful from France.

In the Middle East, there’s some serious consternation about the threat that ISIS is posing.  In the first mission, the U.S. was joined by Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates in their missions to hit a series of ISIS targets —amongst them, supply routes near their defacto headquarters of Raqqa, as well as other terror cells outside Aleppo.

Hey, what about Iran?  What are they doing?

Well, Iran is pretty freaked out.  Iran is terrified that the violence could spill over to their country and things in the whole region will devolve to hell.  As such, they’ve launched their own bombing campaign, and dispatched a small contingent of troops to fend off the violence.

But, it should be noted, NATO countries aren’t really cooperating with Iran.  They just happen to have the same goals, here.  Tehran has, in fact, condemned America for their airstrikes.  So, go figure.

Are these airstrikes enough?

Good god no.

So we need to [gulp] send in troops?

Not necessarily.

Luckily, there are an assortment of armies with interest in defeating ISIS, each of them in various levels of preparedness.

Firstly, you’ve got Iran.  The Ayatollahs there have a basic interest in ensuring that the fighters don’t spill into their country, but they’ve also got to ensure that Iraq can continue as a viable and stable Shiite state.  Al-Maliki was a close ally of Tehran, and now they’re on damage control.

Then there’s Iraq.  While Baghdad might be severely hobbled, given that some half of its state is run by terrorists, they still have some semblance of an army —one that, thanks to Russia, will be getting some replacement weaponry.  Iraq is also a country of militias, and you’ll definitely see some of those militias fighting back against ISIS, just so long as they feel there’s an Iraq worth fighting for.  Or, of course, if they’re personally threatened.

Syrian opposition groups will also have a role to play.  While organizations like the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front —moderate groups, to some degree, supported by international allies —are primarily concerned with fighting Assad, they also might find themselves dragged into the fight against ISIS.

The ISIS fighters seem to have a wish to take Aleppo, given that it has some pretty serious regional strategic importance.  That problem with that is it’s insane.  Government and opposition forces have been fighting in Aleppo for the last two years, with little movement.

But we know that ISIS is a pretty formidable force with some seriously advanced weaponry.  There’s a whole lot of fear that, as they get closer to Aleppo, they’ll kill the moderates, ally with the radicals, and topple the Assad Government altogether.

Complicating this already insane web of insanity is the fact that one of Syria’s most considerable fighting forces is the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-affiliated radical jihadist group that has broadened its campaign to the Golan Heights —putting them on Israel’s doorstep —and into Lebanon.  They had previously been in cooperation with ISIS, but split sometime last year.  Since then, they’ve had isolated skirmishes, with al-Nusra proving itself to be somewhat more moderate than ISIS’ insanity.  It seems somewhat unlikely that al-Nusra would join ISIS, but it seems much more probable that its fighters would abandon the group if ISIS proves itself more capable of fighting Assad’s forces.  That goes, to a lesser degree, to all anti-Assad forces.

To this end, Assad has largely left ISIS alone.  It’s not quite clear whether he’s lacking resources to hunt them down, or whether he’s gambling that the fighters can do away with his opponents before he moves in.

Either way, the ‘good guys’ in Syria are caught in the middle of this.

What about these Kurds I keep hearing about?

I’m getting there.

Since the start of its involvement in the region, Canada has been flying arms and advisors to the Peshmerga.

Now, here’s where things get even more complicated.

Deep breath.

The Peshmerga can boasts hundreds of thousands of fighters, and claim to be the legitimate fighting force of Kurdistan.  Now, before you reach for your globe, know that Kurdistan isn’t a real country.  Despite the fact that the Kurds can claim a coherent cultural identity in a clearly-defined geographic entity, the West —in its mapmaking exercise after World War I —decided to divide the Kurds between four states: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.  Since then, they’ve faced political marginalization, repression and, at times, ethnic cleansing from their own governments.  As such, the Kurds have amassed a considerable force intent on staking out their independence.

When the Syrian crisis broke out, the Western end of Kurdistan moved in to claim its territory from a faltering government in Damascus, and largely succeeded.  It made a similar move as ISIS crippled the Iraqi state.  Those pushes were partly out of self-defence, and partly opportunism.

To that end, the Peshmerga aren’t exactly the only fighting force in the region.  While it’s not entirely clear how the West views this division, the separate regions of Kurdistan sometimes have their own fighting forces.  The YPG, for example, are the military wing of Syrian Kurdistan, and have been instrumental in repelling ISIS’ push towards the Turkish border town of Kobani.  American airstrikes have helped the Kurdish efforts, there.

Turkey!  Doesnt Turkey have a huge Kurdish population?

Yes, and they’ve been engaged in a civil war for generations.

So what do they think of this?

They’re not thrilled.

The Kurdistan Worker’s Party —known commonly as the PKK —is an independence group operating within Turkey, intent on breaking their section of Kurdistan out from under Ankara.  While numbers are hard to pin down, it’s undeniable that tens of thousands of fighters and civilians alike have been killed on both sides of the conflict in the past few decades.  While the PKK utilize brutal terrorist tactics to go after Turkey, the other side has employed painfully repressive tactics in an effort to quash the rebellion.

To give you a sense of relevance, here, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently said that the PKK was as bad as ISIS.  He also asked the Peshmerga to join in the fight against the PKK.  That’s never going to happen.

The PKK, according to most reports, are aiding the Peshmerga in their campaign against ISIS.  If and when this thing resolves itself, it’s extremely likely that the PKK will leverage the goodwill towards the Kurds, as well as their considerable military acquisitions, into a push Northward to claim their territory within Turkey as independent.  When that happens, all bets are off.

So there’s been heavy caution from Turkey.

Hang on, does Canada support an independent Kurdistan?  Doesnt that make things awkward between us and Turkey?

That’s problematic, because Ankara stands to contribute the ground forces that could really turn this thing around.

While we’re fixated on the Peshmerga, it’s all but certain that the Kurds don’t have much interest in actually defeating ISIS.  They’re content with securing their own territory, perhaps helping their neighbours, but I don’t think they’re tremendously interested in an all-out ground war —what, with their relatively limited weaponry against a depraved guerrilla force.  At the very least, they’re not going to liberate Iraq, only to be stuck under Baghdad’s thumb once more.

The same goes for the Turks.  While they’re terrified of having the fight brought to their border, they’re not going to just hop into the fray.  Even in the fighting around Kobani, their tanks are currently in park in Turkish territory, as ISIS draws closer.

That said, they’re still a NATO ally.  If the West goes full bore in stamping out the threat, they may just be compelled into sending their sizeable military.  Time will tell.

One thing that’s worth noting is that Kobani is in Syria —thus far, America has been one of the only states to hit targets in Assad’s backyard.

Good god, we want to join this clusterfudge?

Well airstrikes have already proved relatively effective.

ISIS may be a versatile and considerable agile fighting force, they’re still an amateur force of terrorists.

Early, and limited, American airstrikes have already helped the Kurds push ISIS out of Makhmur, stopped their advance towards Irbil, the nominal capital of Kurdistan, and are frustrating ISIS’ efforts to take Kobani.

So aspersions that things aren’t working are probably a bit premature.  Airstrikes don’t work overnight.

I heard that they were adapting to the strikes.  Is that true?

Sure they were, just as any fighting force does.

ISIS has moved assets underground, scattered their convoys, and found other crafty ways to avoid being hit by coalition strikes.

That said, it’s very hard for a rag-tag guerrilla group —one that numbers at around 30,000 according to the CIA, but as high as 100,000, according to the Iraqis —to avoid strikes for long.

Which is why the Americans requested two of our Aurora surveillance aircraft.  Now, admittedly, those planes are thirty years old, but upgrades to their technology have proved them useful in following force movements in Libya and Afghanistan.

Of course, on top of that, we’re sending six CF-18 fighter jets to the mission.

Fighter jets!  I thought Canada loved peacekeeping?

Well tell that to the people of Libya.

While Canada doesn’t exactly have a sterling record of military intervention, it’s fair to say that we’ve pulled our fair share when it comes to joining coalition efforts.  In Libya, for example, we hit numerous weapons and ammunitions depots that crippled the Gadaffi Government’s ability to wage war on his own people, as well as Western partners.

Peacekeepers can’t do that.

Why cant we send humanitarian aid instead?

This has been a canard put out by the opposition parties to explain their opposition to the mission.

Fact is, we’ve contributed significant humanitarian aid to Iraq and Syria, as well as to the surrounding area.  Iraq has received $20 million in 2014 alone, with another $10 million being announced today specifically targeting rape as a weapon of war.

Hundreds of millions of humanitarian, non-lethal, and military aid has either come from Canada itself, or Canada has helped transport it.

Could we do more?  Probably.  We could also be doing much less.  These airstrikes won’t change that.

So why are the opposition parties opposed to this?

That’s not entirely clear.

As I wrote last week, the opposition parties aren’t entire coherent on the matter.

Let’s start with the NDP.  They’ve maintained that they don’t want a mission in Iraq unless it’s UN-backed, which this one is not.

Of course, getting Russia and China to sign off on any such thing would likely proof difficult, as it is for every mission.

The UN Security Council has, however, adopted a motion recognizing the threat of ISIS and pledging action.

Further, the NDP wanted specific parameters on the mission —exact timelines, details on troop commitments, increased humanitarian aid, and geographic areas where Canadians will be going.

Those requests were either half-answered, or dumb to begin with.

The government’s motion in Parliament commits them to a six month mission, with the option to renew.  The NDP assume that won’t be respected, and this will turn into a years-long quagmire.  While they might be right, the government should technically have to come back to the House to re-affirm a continuation, give the Prime Minister’s insistence on consulting Parliament for these missions.

And Ottawa has detailed some Canadian Forces human resources.  They say some 600 Royal Canadian Air Force crew members will be dispatched for the mission —most of them will almost certainly be on-base outside of the warzone, likely in Turkey or, perhaps, Cyprus or Italy.

There will likely be special forces as well.  We know that 69 were already there for training purposes, and that several others were dispatched to asses the situation in advance of strikes.  More may well be dispatched.  In Libya, for example, members of Canada’s uber-secret special operations service headed over to secure some dangerous weaponry and the like.  Canada still has confirmed those details.

Increased humanitarian aid was announced directly in response to the NDP’s request.

The interesting question is the one of limiting the Forces geographic contribution.

The Prime Minister said only this, in announcing the motion: “We will strike ISIL where –and only where –Canada has the clear support of the government of that country.  At present, this is only true in Iraq.  If it were to become the case in Syria, then we would participate in air strikes against ISIL in that country also.”

What does that mean?

Well, it means three things.

One, we’ve got no interest in destabilizing Syria anymore than it’s already been, and we’re concerned that any airstrikes could play into Assad’s hand; two, that we’re at least somewhat worried that Assad could down our jets if we enter his airspace, given that he does have the capabilities; three, it’s against international law to strike a sovereign nation, even if they’re a despot.  Given that we haven’t recognized a legitimate replacement for Assad, we still consider him to be the head of state.

But the NDP have repeatedly characterized it as offering “credibility”to the Assad regime.  They’ve tacitly implied that we would do nothing without the cooperation and assistance of his government, and that’s really unfortunate.

As Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird noted today: “We do not have any legal authorization in Syria.  As despicable as the political leadership is in Syria, in the motion before Parliament we obviously do not have any legal basis at this stage for that effort.”

So the Prime Minister’s comments, in that light, basically mean: we won’t strike Syria unless we’re allowed to.

If we did, we would probably follow the American’s lead and hit targets near Northern Syrian towns like Kobani.

So the NDP want us to hit Syria without asking Assad?

No, they don’t want us to hit Syria at all.

Because it sounds like-

I know.

Huh.  Anyway.  What are they proposing as an alternative?

Well they introduced a motion to amend the government’s motion.  They’re asking the government to transport weapons (which we’re already doing) for up to three months, send humanitarian aid (which we’re already doing, although they want more), investigate war crimes (which we’re doing, to an extent), and to keep consulting Parliament.

Doesnt sound like much of a plan.

It’s not.

They keep citing Germany as their inspiration, but they seemingly haven’t studied Germany’s contribution too closely.

While Canada is currently flying-in weapons from Albania and the Czech Republic, those weapons are Soviet-era rifles that were sitting in warehouses, on the verge of decommission.  The Germans, on the other hand, are sending anti-tank guns, modern rifles, and trucks.

If the NDP wants to support that, I’d love to hear it.

Okay, what about Justin Trudeau?

What about him?

The Liberals have kept on this tract that Harper has failed to make the case for the mission, that it’s ill-defined, and that they can’t support it.  They’ve generally danced around the same idea —that humanitarian aid is better than airstrikes, and that they are apparently mutually exclusive —but haven’t hit quite the same specific points as the NDP.  It’s been a fair bit of bluster.

Well it sounds like the Prime Minister has it all figured out!

Not quite.

While the mission is generally a pretty reasonable one, the Prime Minister has a lot to do before he can brag about Canada’s contribution.

For one, our prudence might be bordering on over-cautious.

Probably due to our lack of confidence in the Iraqi army, we’ve only kicked in $10 million in military aid, and that only includes protective gear like vests and helmets.  If we’re actually counting on them to re-take positions North of Baghdad like Mosul —where ISIS has some of its most serious gear —they’re going to need more than that.

And the Kurds, too.  They need more than antiquated Kalashnikovs.

The NDP, too, is right that we haven’t done enough on the refugee front.  Yes, of course, we’ve contributed hundreds of millions to the problem, but relocating some of those displaced peoples into Canada would help take the burden off of our allies, even if only slightly.

Mulcair and Trudeau was also right to chastise the Prime Minister for not briefing the opposition parties on the mission.  In recent history, the Prime Minister has always briefed the second and third party leaders on international missions.

And that didnt happen.

It didn’t happen.

But, aside from that, it sounds like you support the mission.

Not necessarily.

I think the international mission is a good idea, and I think Canada ought to contribute.  This government, however, could have done a better job of getting us here and showing some good faith to the opposition parties.

Oh. I see.  Well, thats all I have.  Would you like to go get a beer?

[door slam]

Click here for more political news headlines.



Harper goes to New York
Harper will win again… maybe
Trudeau’s fortunes are fragile
Voters don’t trust the NDP on the economy


Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling

Share this article