The Liberal government’s plan to provide weapons to Kurdish forces in Iraq is being held up by concerns the military equipment won’t be used for purposes other than fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The revelation comes amid growing calls in some Kurdish circles for an independent state separate from the rest of Iraq, and allegations – which the Kurds deny – that they are committing war crimes.
The government said in February that Canada would provide small arms, ammunition and optical sights to the Kurds as part of its revamped mission to fight ISIL. It also expanded the number of special forces in Iraq to about 200 and withdrew Canadian fighter jets from the U.S.-led bombing campaign.
Nearly eight months later, however, none of that so-called lethal aid has been delivered.
The government still intends to provide weapons to the Kurds, National Defence spokeswoman Ashley Lemire said in an email. But first, she said Canada needs to get “Iraqi diplomatic assurances” that the equipment will be used in accordance with international laws.
“This requires time to allow for a co-ordinated interdepartmental effort to ensure good governance and accountability in the delivery of equipment,” Lemire said. “Planning is currently ongoing.”
The government has otherwise said little about the weapons, including how many or what type Canada is planning to send to Iraq.
The provision of arms to certain groups involved in armed conflicts has been controversial for a number of reasons. Some say such measures only contribute to fighting, while there are many reports of weapons being lost, stolen or sold.
A report from the New York Times last month found that the U.S. has lost track of hundreds of thousands of weapons handed out in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Many of those have ended up on the black market or even in the hands of groups like ISIL.
Internal briefing notes show that Canadian officials have also previously worried that Canadian-supplied weapons could end up with a Kurdish terrorist group in the region, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
But Bessma Momani, a Middle East expert at the University of Waterloo, said relations between Kurdish forces in Iraq and the PKK have been cool lately. The more pressing concern, she said, relates to rising Kurdish aspirations for independence from the rest of Iraq.
The Kurds already have a degree of autonomy from Baghdad when it comes to running their territory in northern Iraq.
But a number of high-ranking Kurdish officials have been increasingly vocal in their calls for a fully independent Kurdistan once ISIL is defeated. They have also warned that territory claimed by the central government in Baghdad but liberated from ISIL by the Kurds will not be returned.
Tensions are rising between Kurdish and non-Kurdish forces around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, whose ownership is in dispute. Human rights groups have also accused Kurdish forces of committing war crimes by destroying more than a dozen non-Kurdish towns and villages in parts of northern Iraq to consolidate control over the territory.
“The reference to international law, in my opinion, is really about the potential misuse of Canadian weapons against civilians,” Momani said in an email.
The Kurds have fiercely denied they are committing war crimes, and say homes and businesses are being destroyed only because of concerns with booby-traps and other dangers left behind by ISIL.
Canadian officials warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year that the Kurds could use the military training and equipment Canada is providing to fight ISIL to one day push for an independent state.
In a briefing note prepared for Trudeau shortly after the election, officials said, “Should the (ISIL) threat recede Baghdad will have to contend with a range of land disputes with the (Kurdistan regional government), as well as strengthened Iraqi Kurdish forces, which have received training and equipment from coalition members, including Canada.”Report Typo/Error