What is our military going to accomplish in Iraq and Syria? In the view of Canada's government, and of most Canadians, the goal will be to defeat or significantly weaken a terrorist army, the Islamic State.
But for the people actually fighting on the ground, most of whom are Kurds, the goal of all this fighting is to create a new, independent, internationally recognized country. That country, Kurdistan, could well end up being the sole lasting legacy of the military campaign that Canada and its allies began this week.
The Kurds are making no secret of their goal. "The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for others to decide for us," Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's Kurdistan Region, said in July as he declared his intention to hold an independence referendum.
Days earlier, Kurdish Peshmerga militants had seized a swath of northern Iraq, including oil-rich Kirkuk, after the local Iraqi army collapsed in anticipation of Islamic State attacks. Mr. Barzani has told interviewers that his forces think of themselves not simply as saving these regions from the Islamic State's privations, but as making tactical moves toward national independence on behalf of their Kurdish-speaking populations.
We are providing the Kurds with extensive help in this mission. Foreign Minister John Baird visited Peshmerga soldiers last month, lauded their "courage and determination," and provided $15-million in "security assistance," along with several dozen Canadian special forces soldiers who offered training in combat and the "art and science" of air strikes. Our allies are heavily arming the Kurds, and more is on the way.
This week, the Kurds were fighting for their lives in Kobani, a Kurdish city on Syria's border with Turkey; Canada and its allies were providing air support and tactical assistance in what will likely be a successful but bloody battle to push back Islamic State fighters. NATO member Turkey's forces have been reluctant to join the fight en masse, perhaps not surprisingly, since it was only two years ago that the Turkish army was dropping bombs on Iraqi Kurdistan. The target then was not jihadist militants but the Kurds – specifically rebels from the Kurdish PKK, a southeastern Turkish group that fights for Kurdish independence and is recognized by Canada and other countries as a terrorist group.
Our military assistance might not obliterate the Islamic State entirely, but it will provide the Iraqi Kurds with important, and perhaps decisive, aid in their independence struggle. Is that something we actually want to happen?
On one hand, it is only just. The Kurds are sometimes called the Jews of the Muslim world, and it's not an unreasonable analogy. They are a stateless people, and they have suffered terrible genocidal violence – most notably during Saddam Hussein's Anfal campaign of the late 1980s, in which an estimated 100,000 Kurdish civilians were systematically slaughtered, many with nerve gas, on purely ethnic grounds. It is one of the most definitive and extensive examples of genocide since the Second World War. This year, the Islamic State has marched hundreds of Kurds, Christians, Shiites and other minorities into fields and slaughtered them as nonbelievers – by any definition, a genocidal act.
So the Kurds, like Armenians, Jews and Kosovars before them, have a reasonable case for creating a state for their protection. But the risks are considerable.
First, while there's little sign now that a future Kurdistan would expand – Turkish Kurds say in surveys that they vastly prefer remaining a "distinct society" within Turkey, and Iranian Kurds have little solidarity with others in the region – the existence of a Kurdish state could provoke secession movements. Turkish Kurds rioted this week against Ankara's inaction at the border, jeopardizing Turkey's hard-fought ethnic peace.
Second, a secession could be ugly. There are huge numbers of non-Kurds living in "Kurdish" territory, whose extent is ill-defined, so the state's boundaries could be a matter of constant conflict.
Third, in theory, we are fighting to keep Iraq and Syria intact as federal, multicultural countries against forces that aim to tear them apart, such as the Islamic State. Ethnic independence movements are meant to be the problem, not the solution.
Fourth, the idea of breaking a piece off a multiethnic, federal Iraq – vaguely like Canada, on paper – to create an ethnic breakaway country, even if it makes moral and practical sense, goes against all the principles of modern nationhood, and especially of Canadian nationhood.
The result of this campaign – aside from its effects on the Islamic State, which we can hope will be devastating – could be the birth of a landlocked, single-industry, oligarch-run country in constant conflict with most of its neighbours and with a vague and ever-changing border.
It could also be a safe haven, at long last, for the Kurds. In all likelihood, it will be both.