This Isn’t the Kind of War Bombs Can Win

Published in iPolitics, October 7, 2014

For starters, let’s stop calling them Islamic State. As President Barack Obama has pointed out, the mass murderers in black cutting a bloody trail through Iraq and Syria are neither truly Islamic nor a state.

Second, let’s recognize that the fight against ISIS is less about bombs and bullets and more about legitimacy — and that’s a fight that only the Muslim world can lead. Already, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti — one of the highest individual authorities in the Sunni Islamic world — has condemned these sadistic extremists and, along with other senior Islamic authorities, has stated that “terrorism is a heinous crime” under Sharia law. The top Sunni clerics in Egypt, other Islamic majority countries and in the West have also condemned these mass murderers as fundamentally anti-Islamic.

The Harper government is sending a handful of combat jets to conduct whack-a-mole sorties of the sort that few experienced military experts believe will have any real effect.

Given that the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria will be a multi-year effort, what it really needs is a global Islamic public education effort — combining diplomacy and social media with Western funding — to stem the group’s recruitment efforts and convince local Sunni populations now supporting the extremists to turn against them. Ultimately, what these local tribal populations do will have far more of an impact on ISIS than airstrikes.

Because no one should be under any illusions: This isn’t an air war, and it can’t be won that way. Other U.S. allies are supporting the fight against ISIS without contributing air power — for one very good reason. The Harper government is sending a handful of combat jets to conduct whack-a-mole sorties of the sort that few experienced military experts believe will have any real effect. The outcome of this campaign will depend entirely on the success or failure of Kurdish and Iraqi ground forces; all air power can do is confine the fighting to urban areas.

In fact, the real war in Iraq may be one of intelligence — of winning the support of the Sunni populations and chiefs in territory the extremists already control. And the intelligence services in the best position to penetrate that territory are in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Jordan may be the lynchpin — and the weak point in the chain of the anti-ISIS alliance. Jordan now shelters more than 600,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq, a humanitarian burden it may not be in a position to bear while also struggling to keep extremists away from its borders.

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Jordan’s plight suggests a different, more constructive role for Canada: We should be helping Jordan with its refugee burden while also supporting the work of its intelligence agencies in undermining ISIS among the region’s Sunni populations. That, combined with supplying the Kurds with the weapons and materiel they need, would be far more useful than sending six elderly CF-18 jets, a refuelling aircraft, two surveillance aircraft and a handful of special forces.

More useful — but perhaps less politically useful, which is the truly disturbing aspect of Canada’s role in this war. Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be channeling Canada’s contribution to this fight into a high-profile air war purely for the political optics — to present himself as an effective global statesman with nerves of steel, and to drive a wedge through the opposition parties. And that would be a very shabby reason to go to war.

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