This a response to an article posted to iAffairsCanada by my colleague Adam Patillo.
Patillo’s criticism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to recall the CF-18’s from Syria and their fight against ISIS is one that has been floating around policy circles for a while. Patillo argues that engaging in this kind of combat mission is completely in line with Canadian values. To pull back, as he claims we’ve done, from the fight against ISIS is a mistake and one that will cost us (and Trudeau) dearly.
Patillo´s key argument (or at least what I interpret to be his key argument) is that not using air power in the fight against ISIS is a tactical mistake, both on the ground and in relation to our reputation with our allies. I argue that both assumptions are wrong.
On the ground, focusing our efforts and expertise on training the Kurdish Peshmerga, the only force that has proven capable of fighting ISIS insurgents, is the best tactical choice. To Patillo’s credit, he recognizes the importance of the Peshmerga. However, I argue that training the Peshmerga is as far as our role in Syria and Iraq should go.
Critics argue that the Peshmerga need air support, fair enough. However, this is nearly impossible to achieve. The coalition against ISIS is dependent on Turkish air base support and Erdogan is not very fond of the Kurds. Turkey has launched a series of attacks against the Peshmerga, which has proven detrimental for the fight against ISIS. Nevertheless, the coalition needs these bases; there is no way of getting around it. Aggravating Turkey with air support for the Kurds is out of the question.
That leaves the CF-18’s combat role limited to striking ISIS targets. However, an air campaign of this sort against ISIS is a misunderstanding of the nature of insurgencies. First, of all, the tactical stalemate on the ground has not shifted after months of airstrikes, as the US pentagon bleakly concluded. Insurgent forces tend to be highly mobile and they hide amongst the population, making airstrikes against insurgent positions and infrastructures highly ineffective. Furthermore, there are reports pointing that Bashar Al-Assad has been using the cover of coalition air strikes to continue the slaughter of his people. Syrian armed forces have been dropping barrel bombs on population centers controlled by ISIS and rebel forces. Remember, dear reader, Assad has killed up to six times as many people as ISIS.
Even though it sounds counterintuitive, every time a barrel bomb or a coalition bomb is dropped on a population center, ISIS insurgents become more entrenched in that area. “Wining hearts and minds” is the mantra of any insurgent (and counterinsurgent), images of bombings in population centers help ISIS’ message against the West, and gives it the legitimacy and support of the population.
If not for tactical reasons, then surely, Patillo would argue, our image and reputation in the world stage is at stake. By pulling out our CF-18s, Canada has become “an [un]faithful friend who vanishes at the first sign of trouble”. Yes, Patillo is right. We are giving up a reputation and an image that former PM Harper created. We are giving up the image of a fractionalized country that serves the ruling party’s own internal electoral interests. We are giving up a foreign policy that chooses to talk a big Human Rights game against Russia (with one eye on the Ukrainian diaspora), whilst our mining companies commit gross violations all over the world. We are giving up on the hypocrisy of talking about our role for peace in Syria, whilst turning back thousands of desperate refugees.
It’s about time we went back to our traditional role as mediator between the great powers, one as champion for human rights and peace. We are not a trigger happy nation blindly following whatever misadventure the US leads us to. Times haven’t changed that much. Now more than ever, Canada needs to keep a leveled head, instead of the irresponsible military adventurism against Russia that some pundits seems to advocate for. We need to keep engaging with the world, but our interventions must promote peace and stability and not the other way around.
It is impossible to know if Trudeau knew he was making the right call in Syria or if he stumbled upon a proper solution. Nevertheless, our new found role in the fight against ISIS is more akin with the realities of the battlefield and to the realities of the world we live in.
We won’t watch the world burn, for the first time in ten years we´ll be helping put out the flames.
Christian Medina-Ramirez is a consultant and a free-lance writer based out of Bogotá, Colombia. He holds an MA in conflict from the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) and a BA (Hons.) in Politics and Philosophy from the University of Hong Kong and the University of Waterloo (Waterloo, Canada). His areas of expertise include the intersections between natural resources, armed conflict (specially insurgencies), criminal/terrorist networks and development. His regional focus is on Latin America and the Asia-Pacific.