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In The Media

Where’s the diplomatic element in Canada’s anti-ISIS strategy?

by David Carment

February 9, 2016

Critics argue the government's decision, announced Monday, to withdraw Canada’s CF-18s from their bombing mission against ISIS by February 22 is a clear loss for the Department of National Defence. Canada’s international reputation is in jeopardy, they point out, and Canada’s non-invitation to meet with allied defence ministers in Paris last month as part of an anti-ISIS coalition is clear evidence of this.

But we already knew, even during the federal election, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was manifestly interested in charting a course distinct from his predecessor. Our allies didn’t complain then. We already knew that, were Canada to pull its CF-18s from Iraq, training and logistical support would be our primary contribution to the war against ISIS. Our allies weren’t bothered by that either. So there is no surprise in Monday's announcement. Nor is there cause for concern at this point about Canada’s eroding international reputation.

In reality, Canada’s revamped mission comes as a win for the Department of National Defence, especially for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who understands rightly that any measure of success will be achieved by dealing with the regional consequences of the war, such as the massive humanitarian crisis that is destabilizing Jordan and Lebanon. The mission will see the size of the training team triple to more than 200 special forces and the number of troops increase to more than 800, with financial commitments for humanitarian aid and capacity building of more than $1 billion over three years. The total cost is estimated at $1.6 billion. Canada hasn’t seen those kinds of numbers since Afghanistan. 

And it was Afghanistan where Canada’s mission failed to appreciate the importance of finding a regional solution to an ongoing war. In particular, Pakistan’s deleterious influence on Afghanistan was all but ignored. In all aspects of policy making, from strategic analysis to public debate and intergovernmental co-operation, Canada had no significant internal evaluation of and policy on the region. That blind spot on Afghanistan generated a series of military operations that were neither equipped nor mandated for a regional approach to stabilizing Afghanistan and were, as a result, slow to adapt to changing regional dynamics. Minister Sajjan is determined to not let that happen again in the war against ISIS.

But do we have the right stuff to get it right this time around? So far we have heard from Minister Sajjan and the minister responsible for the delivery of humanitarian aid, Marie-Claude Bibeau. The third pillar accountable for assessing the regional aspects of this conflict and working through all relevant policy options would be the diplomat corps at Global Affairs Canada (formerly DFATD).

That is why it is both troubling and curious that a political solution to the conflict was not part of the announcement made on Monday, despite more diplomats being deployed to the region. It is expected that our diplomats and their advisers will have considered the consequences of Canada’s revamped mission, such as the obviously higher risks our forces face as they engage the enemy covertly.

It is also expected that Canada will lead with a clear end goal in mind. After all, before foreign affairs expert and academic Roland Paris became Senior Advisor to Trudeau, he chastised the Harper government in the Globe and Mail for launching an ambiguous mission against ISIS that was sure to promote “mission creep” by taking Canada into a combat role.

Today the challenges Canada faces in finding solutions while avoiding “mission creep” are both formidable and extensive. First, there is the problem of diffusion as ISIS sets up shop in Africa. While the Middle East becomes a less hospitable place for its operations, the weak and soft states of Africa present an opportunity for the Islamic State. The most urgent friction point, Libya, is so divided that up to 1,000 ISIS personnel have made it their headquarters. Canada will need to factor political answers to Libya’s stability into its game plan, if any measure of long-term success against ISIS is to be realized. Not to mention shoring up the fragile states of sub-Saharan Africa, such as Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic.

Second, Canada has already been supporting the much more important ground war against ISIS led by the Kurdish Peshmerga, much to the dismay of both Iraq and Turkey. We are, for all intents and purposes, through our Canadian advisers and trainers on the ground, helping to create a Kurdish state carved out of parts of Syria and Iraq. Our diplomats need to start taking that eventuality seriously and prepare for the point when Iraq and Syria fracture completely and irrevocably and become client states of regional powers – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.  

Finally, there are the peace talks to end the conflict in Syria. They are on the brink of collapse. These talks could bring stability to Syria even if it means recognizing the Assad government in a truncated Syria and an increasing Iranian presence in the region. Canada is only a small player at these talks. Yet it would serve our diplomats well to communicate a clear and resolute preference for an outcome that is consistent with Canadian values and interests by making sure the talks do not fail.



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