Canada Should Prepare for a Long Fight Against IS

By George Petrolekas and Ferry de Kerckhove

Published in the Globe and Mail, September 12, 2014

In 1938, Neville Chamberlain returned to a hero’s welcome in London having given away parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler at Munich. He announced that he had brought “peace in our time” and then asked his citizens to go home and get a nice quiet sleep.

Édouard Daladier, Chamberlain’s French counterpart in Munich, whose intuition was that any capitulation would only precipitate the war they wished to avoid, acquiesced. He was also acclaimed on his return to Paris as a returning hero. “Ah, les cons (the fools)!” he commented to his aide.

Canada should prepare for a long conflict and further requests for troops, which may range from additional special forces to fighter jets – beyond the transport planes and advisors already committed.

History does not repeat itself perfectly, but it does rhyme as Mark Twain once said.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s doctrine of minimalism has been challenged by the immediacy and breadth of the Islamic State. As much as he wished his presidency to be known for ending America’s two-decade long wars, reality has intervened.

IS is the most savage strain of jihadism yet seen, publically reveling in its brutality and unapologetically killing anyone in its path. The danger of IS is that it is on the cusp of an inflection point, where a transition occurs from what we would call insurgent or terrorist activity to the trappings of a conventional force and state power with accompanying tactics which seek ground to conquer and people to govern.

At present, IS provides its own brutal form of governance in many cities it controls; it acts as a state, it moves as an army and has state revenues. The killing of hostages dressed in orange prison garb is meant to convey something beyond what terror killings in the past have done – it does not seek to destabilize a state, it seeks to be a state.

If fully realized, IS will never simply be contained. If not destroyed, IS has the potential to dislocate an already volatile region, eventually embroiling Iran, Jordan, Lebanon and the wider Middle East – redrawing borders in its wake.

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But following an economic crisis and questionable ventures abroad, nations in the west and particularly in the United States have become weary, not only of war, but in solving other people’s problems. The disappointments of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have, having given rise to a “no boots on the ground” nouvelle politique. With Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. facing elections in the next two years, the campaign against IS will become as much a domestic political issue as it is a foreign policy issue.

In response so far, weapons, ammunition and supplies have been provided to the Kurds in Northern Iraq supplemented by U.S. air strikes. These efforts have only had temporary effect, and only bought the West time to determine how and with what IS can be stopped. On Wednesday, Mr. Obama laid out that plan.

In speaking to the American people, Mr. Obama reflected the same dichotomy facing Chamberlain and Daladier. One sensed an improbable balancing act of trying to walk a fine line, while threading an impossible needle.

Mr. Obama recognized the danger that IS represents and pledged to destroy it. But in doing so, he assured the public that no U.S. combat troops would be sent preferring a more antiseptic approach of airstrikes, relying on “partners” to do the heavy – lifting on the ground. Involved, but not engaged, in partnership, and not alone. It is a strategy replete with difficulties.

An expansion of U.S. airstrikes is the President’s preferred approach. While highly effective in open desert, airstrikes present different complexities in urban areas like Raqqa, Mosul and Tikrit, where IS is well ensconced. We should also expect that an air campaign will produce collateral damage and civilian deaths in populated areas. And an aerial campaign would be measured in months not weeks; the air war in Kosovo took more than two months; Libya more than seven months.

Therefore, efforts to rejuvenate the Iraqi Army – incorporating its Sunni and Shia elements as well as the Kurds – are pivotal to success. But that will prove difficult as the Iraqi Army was degraded during former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s time, eroded by militias and sectarian divides and will need to be retrained. Fixing Iraq’s army will require international assistance, and Canadians are already doing so. The White House announced that 475 additional U.S. advisers would deploy in addition to hundreds already there.

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A proxy ground force is central to Mr. Obama’s strategy to defeat IS and will require time to emerge. As strong as airpower is at some point ground forces, whether they are Iraqi or someone else’s, will need to enter the major population centres that IS controls. Canada’s initial commitment of advisers for 30 days will likely be extended.

The air campaign as announced will not be limited to Iraqi territory and will affect the Syrian regime of Bashar-al-Assad; it will clearly be beneficial to him. That impact must be considered so that eliminating one problem does not create another as the removal of Moammar Gadhafi created an ungovernable Libya.

Canada must appreciate that this will not be a U.S. only fight; it will be an international effort in conjunction with our other key allies – France, the United Kingdom, Australia and improbable new ones from the region. Canada should prepare for a long conflict and further requests for troops, which may range from additional special forces to fighter jets – beyond the transport planes and advisors already committed.

It ironical that the reluctant President would now be assembling a coalition of the willing having been unable to deliver peace in his time. How he will balance the complicated elements of his strategy, only time will tell.

Ferry de Kerckhove, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, was Ambassador to Indonesia, Pakistan and Egypt.George Petrolekas served with NATO, and in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Cyprus.

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