Canada’s Syria Dilemma: What to do in the fight against ISIS

Six foreign policy experts weigh in on how Canada can best engage in the war in Syria and Iraq.

CF-18 Hornet fighter jets depart from 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta, on Oct. 21, 2014. REUTERS/Cpl Audrey Solomon/Royal Canadian Air Force/Handout

Justin Trudeau was on the defensive this week over his election promise to withdraw CF-18 fighter jets in the campaign to fight Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. During his first question period in the House of Common as Prime Minister, Trudeau responded to his critics: “The question has always been, how best to engage.”

Does Canada’s participation in airstrikes make a difference? And, is a withdrawal based on domestic considerations (following through on a promise), Canada’s strengths in the international arena (diplomatic versus military) or a symbolic gesture against the war itself (why then support it with the training of ground troops)?

We put the question of how Canada can best engage to a handful of experts in Canada. Their diverse answers reflect the important yet complex considerations in the most pressing dilemma for Trudeau’s new foreign policy.

There are four fronts in this war: military, political, economic and cultural.

Rouba Al-Fattal Eeckelaert, Professor of Middle East and Arab Politics at Ottawa University

When it comes to fighting terrorism, we are actually fighting an ideology, and you can't kill an ideology with bombs. We can eliminate a person with weapons, but an ideology lives and multiplies beyond the vessel that holds it. History taught us that; how many have died and their ideas survived even thousand of years after their departure?

The question then is how do you fight an ideology and win? That is a more complicated task, which requires a sophisticated, multidimensional approach over a long period of time. There are at least four dimensions to consider in this case: military, political, economic and cultural.

For the military dimension Canada can do a lot by providing military training, which is needed, and at the same time it is at low cost and risk to our nation. Politically, as a middle power, we have a reputation for being an honest broker. Canada can capitalize on this in future mediation between conflicting groups. When it comes to the economic dimension, we can make a real difference with humanitarian aid to those directly affected by war and terrorism. By focusing on rebuilding infrastructure and saving refugees, we deprive the terrorist of their narrative and human capital which is their main currency. Last, but not least, by directing our efforts to the cultural dimension, mainly education, we would win half of the battle against terrorism. 

While we are thinking in the short-term by bombing Daesh, they are thinking way ahead of us. With 4.5 million refugees in neighbouring countries and seven million internally displaced inside Syria, most children of this war have been left without schooling for the past four years. As the Syrian civil war and the war against Daesh continues, we are raising a generation of millions of children who are uneducated and even illiterate. These are the future recruits of Daesh. So, unless we act now and save these children from a future of ignorance, we are not talking about 30,000 Daeshi to fight against, we are talking about millions of them within a decade. Who would be winning the war then?

Cut off ISIS supplies, funding and communication.

Glenn Davidson, Canada’s former Ambassador to Syria and Afghanistan

This is an enormously complex subject.  In the interest of brevity I will present only some very condensed considerations for Canada and like-minded countries in countering ISIS. 

The messages which ISIS conveys; its attraction to marginalized and susceptible young people; its success in convincing citizens of distant lands to commit acts of extreme violence in their own or adjacent countries; all suggest that ISIS is a real or potential threat to the entire international community, including Canada.  While allied bombing is having some effect and remains necessary, an effective and lasting counter to ISIS will need to be flexible and comprehensive. After all, ISIS continues to operate, to grow and to generate new facilities despite the allied bombing effort. Cutting off funding and supplies for ISIS is therefore as fundamental a concern as bombing targets, which can be regenerated.

It is very reasonable then for Canada to look for other ways to apply effective leverage against ISIS, and, while it can play a constructive role in training ground forces, it must be supportive of the broader campaign.  

What is the broader campaign? To defeat ISIS, the West, regional powers and the moderate Muslim world need to join forces and commit to a three-part campaign which complements military action in the region:

1ISIS messaging needs to be countered. ISIS' distorted interpretation of the teachings of Islam, its calls for jihad and for the creation of a repressive caliphate, and its messages of hatred and extreme violence all need to be countered. This can only be done by moderate, informed and influential voices from within the Muslim world to the widest possible Muslim audience. The goal must be to reduce ISIS recruiting and its support base, and can only flow from Muslims to other Muslims. Such messaging is urgently required. It needs to be addressed to Muslims throughout the region, to European countries with large Muslim populations where youth are vulnerable to radicalization, and to Western countries including Canada. 

2. Disrupt ISIS communications. ISIS makes extensive and extremely effective use of social media to convey its messages and attract recruits and support. These ISIS communications urgently need to be disrupted through a sustained counter campaign. This will involve some role for governments, but there is also a tremendous opportunity and even imperative for effective engagement by the private sector. This is a new and important form of warfare, which will require innovative thinking and may entail departures from conventional norms including concepts of central control. Canada needs to be positioned to support this campaign domestically, with an informed and flexible approach to practical implementation in both government and the private sector.  

3. ISIS funding and logistical support need to be cut off. In many ways this is the most pressing aspect of all. The fact that ISIS continues to regenerate forces and maintain substantial capability after a year of bombing suggests that some very hard questions need to be answered: Who is buying the oil that ISIS is selling to generate operating revenue? From which sources does ISIS obtain logistical support including weapons and ammunition? How and where does ISIS flow its funds? And so on. The intelligence services will have answers to all of these, but until the answers are made public, and the states (or non-state actors) in question are identified and held accountable, ISIS will continue to survive and even grow. When its funds and logistical support are cut off it will wither. Canada needs to be an active proponent of such action in international fora and to support the allies and international organizations which are directly engaged. 

Bombing and training are both problematic.

Peggy Mason, former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament to the UN and President of the Rideau Institute on International Affairs

The United States alone can easily handle all militarily useful airstrike targets against ISIS.  Participation by others is therefore symbolic and token at best. While in the case of Arab states, this might at least have been useful — in that it would weaken the idea that this is a war between the West and Islam — those coalition members have abandoned their bombing in Iraq and Syria in favour of decimating the already utterly impoverished country of Yemen.

But bombing even of the token variety has consequences, most notably collateral damage in the form of death and injury to innocent civilians, which in turn leads to yet more violent jihadists, seeking revenge.

Since a war cannot be won through bombing but only through the actions of ground forces, in theory at least training of local Iraqi and Syrian forces should be a more productive role for Canada. In practice, however, problems abound. The Americans to date have spent about US$500 million on training local, so-called moderate Syrian fighters with shockingly abysmal results: namely a total of four or five fighters trained and with countless American-supplied weapons ending up in extremist hands in the process.

Training of Kurdish Peshmerga, which Canada is already doing, may yield better fighters but not a stronger Iraq, since what the Kurds have in mind is an independent Kurdistan, something about which our NATO ally, Turkey, has grave concerns.  Then there are the disturbing allegations of grave human rights abuses by Kurdish forces including their refusal to allow non-Kurds from returning to their villages, once the Peshmerga “liberate” them from ISIS.

And we have precious few Iraqi Sunnis to train since, in their stronghold of Anbar province, Sunni tribes have largely chosen what they see as the lesser of two evils, ISIS, over a corrupt and sectarian Iraqi government utilizing Iranian-backed Shia militias as its main fighting force against ISIS.

Bombing Islamic State and training local fighters is doing little to end the civil war in Syria. But without an end to that war, ISIS cannot be effectively contained. Canada, then, urgently needs to throw its support wholeheartedly behind the UN-facilitated peace negotiations which now involve all but the most hardline Syrian factions, and to participate actively in the Vienna process of the so-called Syrian Support Group, which finally includes virtually all of the external backers of the various warring factions, including Russia and Iran.  

Canadian airstrikes are making a difference.

Kyle Matthews, Senior Deputy Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University 

Two weeks ago I was invited to a private luncheon organized by the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations. Iraqi Kurdistan’s foreign minister was passing though town and he made it known that Canada’s fighter jets were making a difference, allowing the lightly armed Kurdish Peshmerga militia to win on the battlefield against our common enemy. He noted that in the past month the Kurds were able to liberate the town of Sinjar in Iraq, in part because of Canadian air power. Also mentioned was the fact that coalition aircraft also stopped ISIS from taking over the town of Kobane in Syria, while saving more than 50,000 of the minority Yezidi ethnic group from genocide in August 2014.

The above examples demonstrate that air power, Canada’s included, can have an immediate impact against ISIS and protect people. It also permits action to be taken directly against the group deep in the heart of Syria. Also worth pointing out is that Canada and our allies have been striking the group’s oil trade (convoys and refineries), which significantly diminishes its ability to pay for military operations and foreign fighters’ salaries.

I have not been swayed by the arguments that Canada should re-focus its strategy on the provision of humanitarian assistance to the displaced and conduct training for Iraqi and Kurdish forces very far away from the Syrian city of Raqqa, which is ISIS central.

The idea that Canada should pull out our air power because we were only conducting two percent of all air strikes but that we should pat ourselves on the back for resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees, which amounts to under 0.007 percent of the total Syrian case load, seems a little contradictory to me on many levels.

As long as ISIS is free to enslave women, indoctrinate children to become child soldiers, destroy world heritage sites and carry out crimes against humanity and genocide against minority groups, the flow of refugees will only continue. Soft power alone will not stop ISIS from carrying out its genocidal actions. It is time Canada and Canadians face up to these uncomfortable truths.

Canada should focus on negotiations, not military involvement.

Saeed Rahnema, Professor of Political Science and Equity Studies, now retired, and former Director of York University’s School of Public Policy and Administration

Canada should not have engaged itself militarily in Syria to begin with, in the same manner that it should not have been involved in the bombing of Libya, or getting into combat in Afghanistan. Canada was a superpower in peacekeeping and humanitarian roles, but at best a medium power militarily. Now that Canada “is back,” and we should hope that it is back, it is better to focus on what it can do best.

ISIS is the most dangerous force and should be eliminated militarily, but by those who helped its creation and flourishing in the first place, i.e. the United States, Saudi Arabia and other Sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, and Turkey. There have been thousands of airstrikes, including those launched by France, Britain, and Russia. The absence of few Canadian jet fighters will not have any noticeable effect on the outcome of the war.

Five years of the bloodiest civil war in the Middle East, whose disastrous outcome some of us had anticipated and warned against, has created enormous humanitarian tragedies. Aside from the 300,000 (or more) killed and millions of refugees, there are so many internally displaced and homeless in the ruined cities and villages. Aside from the coastal areas that are well protected by the Assad regime and its Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies, there is a dire need for food, water, temporary shelters and medicine. ISIS thrives on misery, thus a more serious humanitarian effort by the allies and the UN is needed, and Canada can play a leading role in it.

Finally, the most crucial thing at this moment is to push for ceasefire and serious peace negotiations. The Syrian proxy war between the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and their “opposition” groups on the one hand, and Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime on the other should stop, and negotiations for the future of Syria begin. Canada should try its best to be involved in this process and at a later stage in the peacekeeping work.

Compensate for airstrike withdrawal by focusing on Libya.

Stéfanie von Hlatky, Director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy, Queen's University

The fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to end the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria came in the form of an electoral promise makes it impossible to reverse. President Obama understands that and so too will Canada’s other allies. In the meantime, Trudeau would do well to intensify the bombing campaign in the limited time he has left and find ways to compensate for the decision to opt-out of future strikes.

The proposal so far seems to be to double down on training efforts. But to defeat ISIS, the U.S.-led coalition will need to do more than train-and-assist missions backed up by air strikes. In fact, training efforts have led to sub-optimal outcomes thus far. The U.S. recently ended its program to train Syrian rebels in neighbouring countries to help them combat ISIS. The expensive program simply did not deliver. NATO has also placed its faith in “defence capacity building” to support Iraq, but again, it is not clear how ISIS can be defeated through such efforts.

It is because defence capacity building is politically palatable that it remains an attractive option for war-wary NATO allies. What should Canada do now? Perhaps the role for Canada is not in Iraq or Syria, but in Libya.

Recent reports have shown the city of Surt (also called Sirte) to be under ISIS control. ISIS fighters have escaped to Libya as the pressure in Iraq and Syria has increased. Canada participated to the 2011 NATO-led Operation Unified Protector in Libya, which left the country vulnerable. Canada should consider options to prevent a third front from emerging. Stopping ISIS fighters from reaching Libya would mean strengthening border security in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt to capture them when on the run. Assisting the coalition and regional partners in this way might be the way to go, given the constraints Trudeau has imposed on himself.