Published in the Globe and Mail, January 29, 2015
The government has faced mounting criticism since it announced that special forces’ soldiers deployed to the front lines alongside the Kurdish troops they are advising had exchanged fire with Islamic State fighters on a handful of occasions. Senior officers also confirmed that Canadian troops have been helping direct air strikes by Canada and other coalition nations.
It is important to distinguish between two separate debates here: one is transparency, in which the government has been at fault; and two, the mission itself, in which most criticism has been misplaced.
Had the government been transparent about the mission from its beginning last fall, the controversy of recent days would have been lessened. It is normal for military deployments to evolve, especially in a context as messy and volatile as the conflict with IS. If it is indeed true, as the government claims, that the front line advising and air strike targeting support roles are additions to the original mission, then the government should be held at fault for not having kept Canadians informed of this evolution. Operational security is not a valid excuse; if it is possible to say now that troops spend about 20 per cent of their time at the front line, this could have been stated earlier.
Let’s be clear that this is a combat mission, and it has been one since the beginning.
The second debate concerns the mission itself and here, critics, both in opposition parties and in the media, have mostly mischaracterized the objectives of the deployment.
First, let’s be clear that this is a combat mission, and it has been one since the beginning: Canada is launching air strikes alongside its coalition partners, which is undeniably a violent action. Canada has also deployed boots on the ground, through its 69 or so special forces advising and assisting Kurdish troops.
It was not – and is still not – a ground combat mission. This is not merely semantics, as some critics claim; defining what a mission is and is not is fundamental. Troops deployed on peacekeeping missions can occasionally get shot at. That does not change the fundamental peacekeeping nature of their mission. Whether on peacekeeping or advising deployments, these are soldiers operating in a war zone. Getting shot at and responding is force protection, not combat.
In the case of the Iraq mission, it would have been possible for Ottawa to decide that troops were not to go to the front lines in their advising and assisting role, and were not to direct air strikes. Had this been the case, the basic parameters of the mission would not have changed, and Canada would still have been a valuable contributing nation to the coalition confronting IS.
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But that is not the issue; the current debate concerns whether the recent disclosures represent escalation or mission creep. They do not; the mission still operates within its initial parameters, to advise and assist Kurdish troops and to launch air strikes.
The criticism should be turned on its head. Constraining Canadian troops by preventing them from advising on the front lines and helping direct air strikes would be legitimate. But critics should recognize that it would limit their ability to fulfill their missions. They should also explain what the resulting benefit to Canada would be.
So what would real escalation look like? It would result from the deployment of ground forces units whose first objective would be to directly engage IS in combat. This is not the case currently, and it is highly unlikely to happen, at least as long as U.S. President Barack Obama is in power. It will not be a decision for Ottawa to make.
To deploy large numbers of ground combat troops would be a huge mistake, moreover: the U.S. experience in Iraq since 2003 shows that it would mostly pour more oil on an already burning fire. IS is a symptom, not a cause: it arose because of widespread Sunni disenfranchisement and alienation in Iraq and Syria. Militarily, Canada and its allies can and must help local actors contain and weaken it. But ultimately, its defeat will only come if or when the broken political processes in Iraq and Syria are repaired.