Whom do we arm in the “war on terror”?

Foreign policy is tough.  I say that not with any hands-on experience as a former foreign affairs officer but as a former intelligence analyst who worked alongside many people at GAC (Global Affairs Canada, formerly DFATD, formerly DFAIT, formerly EAC, formerly…) on international security issues.  I learned that Canada has a very good reputation internationally and that many countries look up to us, welcoming our participation in various fora, but that some aspects of foreign relations pose significant challenges.

I also know that we have to engage with some partners on the world stage that neither share our values nor have very good records on issues such as human rights.  The need to talk to such countries mirrors what intelligence agencies have to do, much to the chagrin and horror of many (former CSIS Deputy Director Jack Hooper said it best, if inelegantly: “Sometimes you have to dance with the ugly girl at the prom”).   I am not trying to belittle abuse and torture suffered at the hands of regimes like Syria, but there is a reality we cannot ignore.

This issue has come up recently in Canada over the sale of military vehicles to Saudi Arabia.  The Liberals have tied themselves in knots trying to justify this deal and yes it is true that many jobs in economically-depressed London, Ontario are dependent on this trade.  News that the Saudis have used similar equipment in their crackdown against the Shia in the eastern provinces has only given fodder to those who want to scuttle this sale.  Should we nix this contract or not?

It gets even more complicated when we discuss the export of military materiel to states where terrorism is present.  Several countries are lining up to supply one of the factions in Libya to beat back the Islamic State affiliate there and the US is considering selling fighter aircraft to Nigeria to aid that nation in its struggle with Boko Haram.  Irony aside (especially in Libya where the West, including Canada, used their air forces to help defeat Muammar Qadhafi, only to leave room for the morass that is today’s Libya), the question remains: should we give weapons and planes/tanks to countries that are problematic to say the least?

There is no question that groups such as IS, Boko Haram and others need to be confronted and neutralised as they have killed tens of thousands and cannot be allowed to expand their remit.  Inaction is not an option.  The problem is: what happens next?  Arms from Libya have been used by terrorist groups throughout northwest Africa in the wake of the downfall of the Jamahiriya and do we really need a reminder of what happened to all that aid given by the CIA and others to the “Afghan Arabs” who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s?

It is here that the danger lies.  Not only do we have to hold our noses at times and give lethal weapons to states we abhor, but we have no control over what happens to those weapons down the road.  Some are turned on civilian populations once the government decides that they pose a threat.  Others enter the international grey arms market.  Some find their way into the hands of terrorist groups.  None of these is a good thing.

What, then, is the alternative?  Do we take a principled stand and say no to potential partners we don’t like?  Do we calculate cost-benefit ratios (which sounds chilling as we are talking about human lives, just as the term “collateral damage” is horribly antiseptic)?  Or do we muddle through the best we can?

I have no answers to these questions and my heart goes out to the officials who have to make these decisions.  The former government would not talk to certain countries (Iran, Russia…) on principle, whereas the new Liberal government sees engagement, even with nasty nations, as better than isolation.

Surely we as Canadians can deal with issues and countries in a realist fashion while still working for change behind the scenes.  After all, is that not what Canada has traditionally been known for?

I’d like to end with a quote from Michael Bell, a former Canadian Ambassador to several Middle East countries (full disclosure: Michael is both a friend and a former colleague):

  • “We do not need another anarchic breakdown in the Middle East. The goals should be – and now again are, with Canada’s new government – a preparedness to work and deal with a highly flawed international community, to be able to contribute in real ways to the greater good.”  (his full op-ed piece in today’s Globe and Mail can be found here)


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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