Elizabeth May Speech: ISIL Debate

On Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016 in Speeches

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak to this important resolution. This is a difficult issue. Contrary to the implications in some of the speeches we have heard in this place since the government’s motion was put forward, this is not a black and white issue. It is one of the most complex and intractable issues that has been debated in this place in many years, and that is because it is not black and white. It is not simple.

I want to start by paying tribute to a veteran, Captain Trevor Greene, who lives in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. I have been inspired by him and his example. Many in this place will remember him as the Canadian soldier who in Afghanistan was attacked from behind. He had taken off his helmet as a sign of respect for the Afghani villagers with whom he was meeting, and he was attacked with an axe. He still struggles with the physical impacts of that attack. His brain is as sharp as a tack, but his body does not always co-operate. He spends most of his time in a wheelchair, as he learns to walk again. I have heard him speak publicly, saying that when he planned his career in our Armed Forces, he most wanted to wear the blue beret and become a peacekeeper. I read in the Speech from the Throne that the current government intends to return Canada to its peacekeeping role, and I want to apply that lens and look at those things that a young Trevor Greene wanted to see his country doing, for which he was prepared to risk his life, for Canada and for peace and for the peoples of the world.

This mission is intractable because it is so very difficult to figure out whose side we should be on, especially when it is described solely as a war against terrorism or a mission to get rid of Daesh. I do not like to call this group Islamic state. The resolution refers to ISIS and ISIL, but I do not like to convey any sense that this terrorism group has any legitimate claim to statehood.

Let us talk of Daesh. If this is a conflict solely directed at Daesh, then we have missed out all the complicated bits that make this so hard. This is a sectarian conflict. This is a Sunni-Shia religious war within which there are multiple proxy wars, with superpowers all over the place moving in and out of the region to their own advantage, and also neighbours in the region, for good or for ill. We have essentially a civil war in Syria.

The speech by the hon. leader of the official opposition made it sound as though this is simple. There is this group of horrific actors, a horrific army, a death cult, called Daesh. The official opposition says Daesh marauds at will. There is no context, no history, no understanding that this group would not exist at all except for the fact that the U.S. waged an illegitimate and illegal war in Iraq. This gave rise to the creation of this group, literally and physically. The people who founded Daesh met in a prison camp run by the U.S. army. They organized there. They saw their radicalization in what appeared to be the west oppressing the region.

Thank goodness Canada said no to going into Iraq at that time. The rhetoric in this place around why we should be bombing in Syria or Iraq tends to come with the tagline “Canada always steps up to do our part”. When there is a mission that is wrong-headed and contravenes international law, Canada is quite right to stay out of it. That is why I am so pleased that Canada did not overtly participate in the Iraq war. We used to think there could be nothing worse than al Qaeda until Daesh came along, which created itself through the Iraqi conflict. If we lose track of history and we lose track of context, how can we possibly know the right way forward?

Let me return to this issue of a civil war in Syria.

The current government of Syria, if we can still call it a government given that Syria is rapidly a failed state, is led by the brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad, who has killed far more people within his own country than has Daesh.

Bashar al-Assad, of the Shia minority and Alawite family, has led Syria with a fairly iron grip for a long time. In the Syrian civil war, Assad is supported by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. I read a lot of the journalists who have been covering this issue. Terry Glavin, a Victoria, B.C. area journalist, is right that when this first civil war began in Arab Spring, a lot of the people opposing Assad were people who deserved to have been supported because they represented an effort for democracy and against Bashar al-Assad.

However, the rebel forces now are an unsavoury concoction of al Qaeda’s branch, al-Nusra, and of course Daesh, or as it is called in the motion, ISIS, working to defeat Assad. Therefore, as we take up arms to defeat ISIS, are we incidentally keeping Assad in place? We are in very tricky territory here.

I completely support the decision of the current government to withdraw the CF-18s. One of the reasons I voted against the bombing mission in the first place was that inevitably we would be responsible for killing civilians. That by itself is a horror, but beyond that every civilian killed is part of the recruiting for Daesh. It gets more people who might have been moderate to feel that they must go to war because their own people have been bombed by Canada or the U.S. Now Russia is claiming to have come in to bomb ISIS targets, but, incidentally, seeming to bomb more of those other rebel forces that are trying to unseat Assad. It is complicated.

Let us look at what has happened so far. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is an independent organization, coalition air strikes so far have killed 4,256 people, among which 322 were civilians. In Iraq, coalition air strikes so far have killed a further 1,000 civilians. This killing of innocent civilians is always described as collateral damage. However, in a situation like this, where we are trying to stop radicalization and create an argument against radicalization in a context that is so fraught with appeals to particularly young men but others around the world to come and join the fight, when there are large military efforts bombing targets on the ground and killing any civilians, we lose ground in the fight against radicalization. Therefore, I completely support the decision to withdraw our planes.

I am definitely affected by this by being the daughter of a dad who grew up in London during the blitz. He always said that there was no surer way to build the resolve of civilians on the ground to oppose an enemy than to see it come over in planes and drop bombs. It did not work to break the resolve in North Vietnam. It has not work to break resolve so far in Syria or in Iraq.

Therefore, the coalition air strikes are wrong-headed. It is a good thing to be out of them. However, I then am puzzled by the Liberal government’s insistence that we stay involved in them by providing refuelling and reconnaissance missions. This muddies the waters. It can only be explained, because in stopping something that was not going to work and adopting more humanitarian, diplomatic, and even peacekeeping type of work, and training, we did not want to, in any way, alienate our so-called allies that are working in the region, including through continued air strikes.

Who are our allies in the region? We really need to talk about what is going on with Turkey. Turkey is more concerned about the growth of Kurdish nationalism than it is with ISIS at its borders.

We saw the frontier land along the Turkish-Syrian border being reclaimed by Kurdish fighters, and where Kurdish fighters were under siege by Daesh fighters, Turkey held back and did not go forward.

Turkey is ostensibly a NATO ally. Yet Turkey has also been accused of aiding, through its intelligence, extremist militants from China making their way across Turkey to join ISIS fighters. This is an allegation that is contained in a highly controversial article, and I know it is controversial. The article published in the London Review of Books by Seymour Hersh on U.S. intelligence sharing in the Syrian war was called “Military to Military”.

Seymour Hersh is a journalist of great renown. He was right about Abu Ghraib. He was right about the My Lai massacre going way back. However, he may be wrong about the central allegation in the article, which is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military chose to ignore President Obama’s central effort to bring down the Assad regime. He felt that it was important to protect the Assad regime and so deliberately shared intelligence with other allies in hopes it would reach Assad.

Another claim in the article is that U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff replaced access for the rebel forces against Assad with less sophisticated weaponry, older weaponry, so that the Assad regime would be aided basically through neglect. These charges may not be true, but they also point to the enormous complexity of the fight in the region.

What of Saudi Arabia? We are still prepared to sell it armoured vehicles despite the evidence that those armoured vehicles are used against civilians within Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. However, we also have very consistent reports of Saudi Arabia aiding ISIS. Why? Well, it does not really like the idea of seeing Assad staying in power. Again, these proxy wars continue.

All through the region there is black market activity, selling black-market oil across the border, and selling antiquities. When I was discussing the matter with one of the leading journalists in the world on this subject, Robert Fisk who writes for the Independent, he said that he had reliable intelligence that the oil refineries inside Syria, which are shipping out black-market oil for the benefit of the ISIS coffers, were being run with Turks on the inside of the refinery, and Turks at the border turned a blind eye to the black-market oil.

This is surely a place where Canada could play a much stronger role, working with allies, particularly along the border. If we are going to have boots on the ground and put ground troops in the area, surely we should be prepared to say that we will make that border with Turkey less porous and ensure that we stop the flow and the sale of black-market oil. Interpol needs to play a stronger role.

Another place where the millions that fill the coffers of Daesh come from is the horrific destruction of antiquities in the region. Before it blows up a temple, Daesh takes out valuable artifacts. Apparently, there are art collectors, speculators, and billionaires of no conscious, who are prepared to buy these black-market antiquities. The sale in black-market antiquities also funds the horrific activities of Daesh.

Again, we have a civil war with no real good options for good guys. There is al-Nusra, ISIS, versus Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia trying to support Bashar al-Assad. In all of that, I can see why the Minister of National Defence and the new government think that the only good guys they can find on the ground are the Kurdish forces. At least one knows that Kurdish forces are not likely to do what other so-called more moderate rebel groups have done when they have received training, weapons, and equipment from the west. Some of those moderate groups have just sold it to ISIS. They can get good coin and they are not that committed to being against Daesh.

We know one thing about the Kurdish forces: they have a real commitment. However, their commitment is not solely of getting rid of Daesh; their commitment is to a Kurdish state.

With Kurdish nationals and a Kurdish dream of nationhood that extends from Iraq to Syria to Turkey to Iran, one can see that our efforts here must be made with great caution because our allies will not thank us when they find, having been emboldened by military victories pushing back the horrible Daesh forces, that the Turkish state turns its own guns on the Kurds instead of on ISIS.

This is a complicated mess, and I am not saying it is simple. If there is anything I am saying today it is that it is anything but simple, and our debate about it should not pretend it is black and white.

I have one last point about the damage we have done in other countries.

When that illegal war ended In Iraq and the U.S. installed some puppet governments, it decided to ban any members of Saddam Hussein’s former Baath Party from office. As a result, there are a lot of people who have skills, who know how to run a government and an army, and who are not allowed to have a job. We have created a group of people that was ready to go to work for Daesh, because through its black market activities, it had money to pay people. It is time that we talk to our allies about removing the ban on the Baathist forces and Baath Party members, whether they were part of Saddam Hussein’s former government or former army, from having legitimate jobs in a new Iraq. We must stop the flow of people who were not previously radicalized to the Daesh army just because it could pay for them.

There is more here than one can possibly scrape the surface of in a 20-minute speech.

I am honestly torn about how I will vote on this resolution. I support much of what is being proposed. I support the increase in humanitarian assistance. I am pleased to see any discussion of diplomacy, because this cannot just be about how to get rid of Daesh without a strong focus on how we bring peace and stability to the region. If that is not our goal, we will never get rid of extremist factions in an ongoing Sunni-Shia war in the context of a civil war and in the context of a brutal dictator like Bashar al-Assad.

Where does Canada stand in an argument with no easy solutions and no easy answers? There is only one safe place to stand, and that is on international law. Bombing a country at which we are not at war is illegal under international law. We should not be in a bombing mission. Helping where we can on the ground makes sense, but we need to do much more in this country to oppose radicalization. We must not do anything to increase the propaganda value of those who want to recruit youth from any country anywhere in the world to come into this sick world of a death cult thinking they have gone for some higher moral purpose.

Canada can play a significant role in the world. We always did, and I hope we always will. However, we should move with great caution. We should be constantly reassessing what Turkey and Saudi Arabia are doing, and what we can do by working and creating much better diplomatic channels with Russia. The U.S. Secretary of State, in this very inadequate partial ceasefire, would never have gotten anywhere if the U.S. had not established the ability to at least talk with Russia. We need the help of Russia, China and the U.S. together to end the conflict in Syria. We must not allow it to become yet another failed state like Libya.

I was the only member of Parliament in June 2011 to vote against the bombing missions in Libya. One of the reasons was I simply did not buy it when our then minister of defence said that although the government did not know what would follow Moammar Gadhafi, it could be sure that it could not be as bad. A failed state in Libya, the rise of ISIS, and all of those warehouses full of armaments in Libya going into the hands of terrorists are worse than Moammar Gadhafi.

We must find our role in diplomacy. As hard as it is, we must work to stop the flow of money to Daesh. We must ensure that when we ask Canadians to go into as problematic a region as Syria in the middle of a civil war that they are adequately protected at all times, that we do everything possible to ensure their safety, and that as they train other forces, we are very careful about who we decide wears the white hats and the black hats in a war that really does not have any good guys.

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