Unravelling the nightmarish Gordian knot of Syria

The Liberal government has followed through on its campaign commitment to pull Canadian CF-18 fighter jets out of Iraq and Syria.  Simultaneously, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that we will be leaving planes for reconnaissance and one capable of mid-air refueling of other nations’ fighter jets.  The focus of Canada’s efforts were announced to be shifting with $1.6 billion over the next three years for humanitarian assistance, while also increasing the number of Canadian troops in the region.  Tripling the number of armed forces personnel to over 800 people, the new focus was announced as training for the Kurdish forces.  Canada will also be providing weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.  Flanked by his ministers of international development, foreign affairs and defence (Marie-Claude Bibeau, Stephane Dion and Harjit Sajjan) Trudeau stressed Canada wanted to balance our military role with greater diplomatic and development efforts.

So what are we to make of this?

My starting point is that in engaging on foreign wars, as in medicine, the injunction should always be “first – do no harm.”  The intractable mess we face today is virtually entirely due to Western nations, primarily the United States, wading into the region with disastrous results.  Among the many disasters inflicted on the Iraqi people primarily, but on the rest of the world, was a rise in religious fundamentalism.  Saddam Hussein, while a brutal dictator, was a secular dictator.  His cabinet included women and had no Islamist doctrine.  His Sunni leadership and the Baathist party kept things relatively calm in the simmering Sunni-Shia divide. But after the US invasion, the “shock and awe” campaign and US puppet governments put in place, the Baathists were banned from working in government, from being in the army.  The US created a vast cadre of unemployable people with skills.  They knew how to run an army, fight a war, run a government. Shunned from any role in the future government, previously secular Baathists were hired by ISIS.  Some Baathists became radicalized. Iraq became the breeding ground for a group with dangerous ambitions.

Canada’s actions in Libya contributed to another failed state.  And we – knowing that al-Qaeda forces were among the rebel groups – still recognized them as the legitimate government of Libya. And then we stood by as all of Colonel Gaddafi’s warehouses of armaments were shipped out to terrorists.

Syria is a giant mess of competing nasty forces.  The government (if one can still call it that) is run by a brutal dictator Bashar Al-Assad.  Assad is supported by Iran and Hezbollah, while Al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, and ISIS want to over-turn Assad. Saudi Arabia is reported to be supporting ISIS. Russia supports Assad and is using its access to bombing, legitimized by US and its allies own bombing campaigns, to hit hard at Assad’s enemies – whether they are ISIS or not.

Why is Canada training Kurds?  Because in a vast network of unappetizing choices — legions of killers no one can support, no good guys — at least the Kurds have a clear agenda.  They are motivated by an intense desire to have their own country.  So while it may help stop the advance of ISIS in Syria to train and arm Kurds, there is no question that the long-range impact will stretch beyond Syria, to fuel Kurdish dreams of a homeland in Iraq and Turkey.  And our allies will not be so happy then.  And, the Kurds when gaining ground against ISIS may not meet our standards of respect for human rights.

As long as the mission is described as “getting rid of ISIS” we have the wrong mission.  If we could re-cast it as “advancing peace and stability in the region,” we might have a hope. To do so, we should press Iraq to lift the ban on hiring former members of the Baathist party.  To achieve peace in the region, we need a coordinated effort engaging all our allies – including Russia and China.

For that, I do appreciate that the new government speaks of enhancing our humanitarian and diplomatic roles.  We could do more to stop the flow of weapons and money to ISIS through its black market activities.  We could invite all the key governments with a role to play to a conference – hosted in Canada – with the goal of finding and plugging ISIS’s financial networks.  This we could do.

We could back the United Nations process.  We could establish the right kind of coalition.  We should call for an end to airstrikes.  We might anger allies who like bombing missions, but they inevitably kill more innocents. I believe that what critics are calling an incoherence in the new Trudeau policy comes from a desire to pull out of airstrikes, while trying to support allies, like the United States, that will continue with bombing. Bombing missions will not stop ISIS.  And they cannot bring peace and stability to the region.

Only cease-fires and negotiations can do that.

Originally published in Island Tides.