Yes, With Conditions, To War in Iraq

Published in the National Post, March 23, 2015

The Harper government is expected to announce this week that it will renew — and possibly expand to Syria — its commitment to the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and and Al-Sham (ISIS). This would be the right decision. But Canada should not support an open-ended mission; rather, the government should clarify under which conditions it would cease or reduce its involvement.

To determine whether and how it should launch a military intervention, a state should, first, determine what its interests are and whether they justify committing resources. Second, even if these interests are actually or potentially threatened, a state should commit resources only if it can design a realistic strategy.

Canada may have strong interests in contributing to ISIS’s defeat, but it also has little to gain from blindly committing to a long-term, bloody quagmire.

Canada has strong interests in contributing to the fight against ISIS. Canada’s homeland security is threatened by ISIS, which has signalled its intent and shown its ability to direct or inspire attacks against Western countries, including Canada. It is, moreover, essential for Canada to be considered a reliable ally, primarily by the U.S.

Canada’s regional interests in the Middle East are also affected, as its close partners, primarily Israel and Jordan, have watched the emergence of ISIS with great anxiety. In addition, Iraq sits on prime real estate, holds some of the world’s largest hydrocarbon reserves, and could re-establish itself as one of the dominant powers in the Middle East in coming years.

It is therefore in Canada’s interests to develop diplomatic ties and open up commercial opportunities in the country. There is also a strategic rationale: a stronger Iraq will eventually emerge as a bulwark against Iran.

At the same time, Canada has a strong interest in avoiding entanglement: There is little to gain and much to lose from a long-term commitment that would escalate into a costly war with little hope of achieving desired outcomes.

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The strategy to pursue these interests — designed by the U.S., accepted by coalition members — is based on three pillars. The first is to contain ISIS and roll back its expansion through air strikes and measures to choke its finances. There has seen slow but real progress at this level so far, a trend likely to continue.

The second pillar emphasizes that local forces are to assume the responsibility for fighting ISIS. That is why the U.S. is leading efforts to rebuild the Iraqi army, to train Kurdish militias (with Canada’s assistance), and to support moderate factions in the Syrian opposition. This is a long-term and highly uncertain endeavour, but there are cautious grounds for optimism that limited objectives can be achieved given enough time and investment.

The military aspects of the strategy, however, serve only to open up space for what must be a political solution. The third and by far most challenging pillar of the strategy therefore rests on the understanding that ISIS is not the cause of Iraq and Syria’s problems but a symptom. It is but the latest expression of widespread Sunni alienation. That is why the U.S. is pressuring the Iraqi elite to launch a process of national reconciliation, and why ISIS can only be defeated in Syria through a viable peace process there.

This strategy has several potential weaknesses, especially the difficulties associated with relying on local partners and the extraordinary challenges involved in repairing the broken political processes in Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, it is not as bad as the available alternatives, whether another ground invasion of Iraq or doing nothing.

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In this context, it is the right decision for Canada to renew its commitment. Joining the U.S. in striking ISIS in Syria would also be appropriate. Defeating ISIS in Iraq would merely push it back into Syria; it is essential that the two theatres be considered together. By punching above its weight, Canada would position itself as the most important contributor to the coalition after the U.S. This would put pressure on our European allies to step up their own commitment.

Canada should remain cautious, however. Refusing an open-ended commitment is wise. Rather, the mission should be renewed for fixed periods of six or 12 months. Ottawa should also continue opposing the large-scale deployment of ground forces. This would be the equivalent of pouring oil on a burning fire, ruining the already limited chances of a political solution. It would foster violent resistance and feed disenfranchised Sunnis’ narrative of occupation.

Most crucially, Canada should cease, or at least significantly reduce, its participation in the coalition within two to three years if it becomes clear that the second and third pillars of the strategy are failing: if capacity-building efforts with local partners are not progressing and if political development stalls. Canada may have strong interests in contributing to ISIS’s defeat, but it also has little to gain from blindly committing to a long-term, bloody quagmire.

Watch Thomas Juneau’s Radio Canada interview on current events in Yemen:

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