The downside of fighting terrorism with the Kurds

I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.  Almost a year ago I wrote that the Canadian government would be placed in a difficult position should one of our citizens who chose to travel to Iraq to fight the terrorist group Islamic State alongside Kurdish forces was caught by the terrorists.  And that is exactly what has happened.  Sort of.

In today’s National Post Stewart Bell reported that IS is trying to “make a deal” with Canada to hand over the body of a dead soldier, Nazzareno Tassone, who left Edmonton in June of  last year to fight with the YPG (remember that some consider the YPG to be linked to the PKK, a group listed as a terrorist entity in Canada).  The “deal” may involve paying money to IS or may simply be a swap of bodies (dead IS terrorists for Tassone).  Let us think about that for a minute. Our government may be asked to give funds to a terrorist organisation so that Mr. Tassone’s family can get him back, bury him and obtain some kind of closure. The chances of that happening are somewhere south of zero I would imagine.

In no way do I intend any disrespect towards Mr.Tassone or the other dozens of Canadian men and women who have elected to fight what is  to many a good fight.  How can anyone not honour those who put their lives on the line to help rid us of a heinous terrorist group like IS?

But there are other ways to go about this, as the Canadian government has long said. If you want to make a difference in a military way, join the Canadian Armed Forces, a body already engaged in the fight against IS, even if the current government twists itself into knots to deny that our soldiers are involved in combat.  That is and should be the vehicle with which Canadians fulfill this worthwhile desire to help.

Joining a group that may in fact be a terrorist wing and tied to political objectives we do not officially support (i.e. Kurdish independence) should be discouraged, if not made outright illegal (actually it probably already does break Canadian law).  I can admire the passion behind the decision to travel even if I cannot support the decision itself.

What should the government do to bring Mr. Tassone home?  I would imagine that the options are limited, irrespective of what the family would like to see done.  I would also assume that this brave Canadian knew the risks of his actions and contemplated the complications of fighting for the Kurds.  In any event, I can’t see a lot of good outcomes here and I feel for the Tassone family who just want their son/brother back.

This of course speaks to a greater issue. To what lengths should our government go to rescue Canadians who find themselves in difficult straits (i.e. being held hostage)?  Is there not some responsibility on the part of those who go to Mogadishu or Afghanistan or the Southern Philippines, where everyone knows the risk of terrorism is very high, to not go there?  Besides, what measures can a middle power like Canada take?  We have said we will not negotiate with terrorists and we will not pay ransom: I can see arguments both for and against this position and if one of my loved ones were taken I would sure as hell want everything possible to be done.  But surely there are limits – operational, legal and moral.

More Canadians will likely die fighting IS.  Some will be with our men and women in uniform and others will be wearing Kurdish uniforms.  They are all decent, altruistic people who should be seen as heroes, of a sort.  But there has to be a wide-ranging discussion on what actions are seen as legitimate and supportable. I am not sure that fighting with the Kurds as a volunteer/mercenary fits either bill, especially when there are other options.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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