Fighting with the Kurds – whose side are THEY on?

There is  a lot of debate here in Canada on what we should do about IS.  The Trudeau government made a promise during the 2015 federal election campaign that if elected it would rescind the mission of Canadian CF-18s which are part of the international airstrikes on IS.  Mr. Trudeau had dismissively labelled the decision of the previous Harper government as “whipping out our CF-18s”.  Now that he is Prime Minister, he has stated on several occasions that he intends to keep his promise.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Africa and Asia – some inspired by IS and others by groups linked to AQ – in which 7 Canadians died, the public seems to want the government to ignore its campaign pledge and keep the CF-18s in theatre.  Many believe that the terrorist threat is significant and that we shouldn’t be abandoning our counter terrorism efforts – and our allies – at this time.  It will be interesting to see what happens.  Political parties make all kinds of promises when running for office and are loth to be seen to be shirking their commitments.  I find it odd that a portion of the Canadian public is clamouring for a promise NOT to be kept.  Only in Canada.

What the government has said is that if it brings back the fighter aircraft it will still play a role in the war on IS.  Canada will offer training and logistic assistance to parties on the ground which have a vested interest in stopping IS and which everyone agrees need to do more. One of those parties is the Kurds.

We have all read about how the Kurds are tenacious warriors, especially the peshmerga – “those who face death” – and how it is Kurdish forces that are achieving what little local success has been attained against IS on the battleground.  There have even been several hundred “foreign fighters”, including several Canadians, who have traveled to the region to fight alongside Kurdish soldiers.  I note with curiosity that these foreign fighters, unlike those who go to fight for IS, have not been charged with an offence, even though it is illegal in Canada to do so and has been since 1937 (when the government of the day was nervous about Canadians leaving to fight in the Spanish Civil War).

So the news that our main “ally” in the region has been razing Arab villages and expelling its inhabitants is a little awkward, to say the least.  According to reputable sources, the Kurds “bulldozed, blew up and burned down” thousands of homes to punish those who allegedly supported IS (see story here).  Amnesty International claims that these moves were in part revenge for the former Hussein regime’s displacement of Kurdish residents in favour of Arab settlers.

On the one hand none of this should be surprising.  The Middle East is a maelstrom of ethnic and religious hatred and this shows no signs of abating (no, not all residents give in to intolerance and violence, but a significant number do).  The Kurds, long thwarted in their desire for an independent homeland, have acted in part in a tried and true way.  It’s the way things are done, unfortunately, at times in the region.  And, in a way, the Kurds do have a case as these were their homes.

All of this should give us pause in our decision making.  The Trudeau government is wise to take its time on this one and should act carefully.  All too often, we have saddled up to perceived “friends” only to see the blowback years later (Al Qaeda in Afghanistan circa 1983 anyone?).  And yet, in an area where true allies may be hard to identify, maybe the Kurds are our best bet.  No one said the Middle East was easy.  I’ve been studying it for over 30 years and I am still confused.

As always, foreign policy is hard.  Events have a nasty tendency to interfere with our best intentions.  Let us do the utmost to ensure that our measures are good ones.

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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