A smart IS strategy – except for the air strikes

OP-ED

by Thomas Juneau

The Globe and Mail
February 12, 2016

Thomas Juneau is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. From 2003 to 2014, he was an analyst with Canada’s Department of National Defence.

This week, the Trudeau government released its strategy to confront Islamic State. On balance, it is a good strategy, one that is consistent with Canada’s interests, with one important exception: the decision to stop the air strikes.

Every element in the strategy allows Canada to pursue its interests in the Middle East. The plan calls for Canada to provide crucial niche capabilities essential for coalition operations. This includes continuing the deployment of air-to-air refuelling and surveillance aircraft. Canada will also increase its number of officers in coalition headquarters. It is also sound policy for Canada to increase its intelligence assets committed to better understanding the threat posed by IS.

It is unfortunate that the regional capacity-building elements of the strategy have received less attention, since they deserve praise – it is in Canada’s interests to boost the capabilities of partner governments in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Many critics lament that it has taken three months for Ottawa to announce the new policy. This is unfair, for two reasons. First, it is normal for a new government to carefully think through its options on such a complex issue while it builds trust with the bureaucracy. More importantly, Canada is a mid-sized contributor to a large coalition. Agreeing on niche contributions therefore requires identifying specific needs with allies and partners through extensive consultations, matching these gaps with Canadian assets, and working out logistical and legal frameworks. This takes time.

The decision to increase the existing level of support to Iraqi Kurdish troops is probably the right one, but it carries short-term benefits in exchange for longer term costs. The Kurds are among the coalition’s most reliable partners in fighting IS; in the short-term, they deserve support. Looking farther ahead, however, the wisdom of boosting a sub-state actor with secessionist aspirations plays against Canada’s support for a stable and united Iraq. This could also eventually be a source of tension with Turkey, a NATO ally at war with its own Kurdish insurgency.

The Liberals made the commitment to stop the air strikes largely for domestic political purposes; it worked for them, and they should be commended for respecting an electoral promise. That said, they have not articulated a sound strategic rationale for doing so. Their oft-repeated claim that Canada will focus on “what we’re good at” is inaccurate, because the Royal Canadian Air Force is highly skilled at what it does.

Similarly, the claim that we contributed only 2 to 3 per cent of air strikes, and that the coalition can easily do without us, is misleading. The Obama Administration has wanted the coalition to be seen as legitimate, which is why it worked hard to build broad support. Canada’s value-added in contributing to the air strikes was therefore as much political as it was material. With this logic, Canada’s other initiatives should also be suspended: as a mid-sized country, we rarely contribute more than a small proportion of overall efforts.

Critics who claim that air strikes aren’t helping to defeat IS misunderstand their purpose. Air strikes have weakened the group and have chewed away at its capabilities, providing space and time for the coalition to support local troops. And ultimately, IS is a symptom of broken political processes in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the region; it will only be defeated when stability and prosperity come to these countries. That will not happen for years, and in the meantime, air strikes are the least bad option to contain the group.

The government recognizes this logic. The new strategy undeniably supports coalition air strikes and even enables them. The only coherent explanation for the Liberals’ decision to stop the air strikes is for domestic political purposes; then they built a policy around it. The result is a sound plan and an appropriate commitment of resources which will help Canada pursue its interests in the region – despite one important, poor decision.

Thomas Juneau is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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