Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former New Democratic Party national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.
If there's been a less edifying debate than the one in Parliament last week on Canada's role in the fight against Islamic State, I can't remember it. All three parties presented arguments that made little sense, merely reiterating for the thousandth time the same unpersuasive spin lines. Yet I have some sympathy for them. I think what's behind the unconvincing positions is their difficulty figuring out exactly what's going on in the region and what outsiders can or should do about it.
Or maybe I'm just projecting. Because I'm certainly having that problem, and in fact my befuddlement just increases as the situation there gets increasingly complex. I try to read widely – although it's impossible to keep up with the flood of reportage, commentary and fat books – and the more I read the more I learn and the more I learn the more baffled I become.
Yet Canada apparently intends to add shattered Libya to the countries where we're intervening. Of course it's shattered because Western countries, including Canada, helped shatter it, a typical result of Western interference in Muslim countries, where we've rarely understood what we were getting into.
There was a time when I thought I understood the general outlines of the mystery and confusion that characterized events in the Middle East. First, we jumped into the middle of a vast internecine war between Sunni and Shia Muslims, which, second, has been profoundly complicated by the instability and conflict flowing from reckless Western invasions from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya. IS was actually one of the unintended consequences of those interventions.
Still, those were simpler times.
Now, as more and more countries and non-state actors have jumped into the fray, and as more and more enigmatic agendas play out, it's become – for me at least – all but impossible to know who's in, who wants what, and what can be done to bring peace and justice to this troubled and dangerous part of the world. The belated intervention of Russia has made an implacable situation even more deadly and muddled. Remember, in one way to another, this conflict has been going on since the Americans invaded Afghanistan after 9/11. Almost fifteen years later and it just keeps expanding. No wonder our political parties sound like unconvincing broken records.
Just about the entire world wants to get rid of IS, and yet it remains frighteningly strong if modestly degraded. But look at its enemies: China, Russia, the US, most of NATO, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and many more. What's most conspicuous about this group is how many of its members also hate and mistrust each other. So they have distinctly mixed objectives. Somehow, Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia – bitter rivals for Middle East hegemony – want to stop IS even while undermining each other.
The Turkish government is a bitter foe of most of the Kurds who live in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria since the Kurds want an independent Kurdistan, which Turkey is determined at all costs to prevent. Of course, the Kurds are deeply split among themselves at the same time. Turkey often seems more determined to crush the Kurds than IS, as Russia seems more committed to bolstering Syria's Assad than directly hurting IS.
Canada is now in the strange position, under the new Liberal policy for the Middle East, to be helping the Kurds become strong enough to break away from Iraq, which will help fracture that fragile entity, with more destabilizing consequences, while alienating our Turkish ally. Does this make sense? Do the Liberals recognize these potential consequences? I believe that the Harper government never understood the messy realities of the Middle East or the ramifications of their meddling. Now it's growing harder to believe that the Liberal government does either.
Let me confess further that I can no longer keep up with terrorist attacks around the world. There are just too many. More important, I'm not sure which ones were IS-organized and which were IS-inspired – in other words, IS agents versus rogue killers. Yet many coalition members claim as their motive the destruction of IS in order to end such attacks. But this makes no sense. Unless they kill every IS member everywhere, which is entirely impossible, there'll always be some fanatics left to motivate others around the world to commit inhuman acts. Besides, the Taliban is making real gains again in Afghanistan while al-Qaeda has resurrected itself in various venues. So what exactly is the goal and how can it be achieved? How will we judge when the coalition has succeeded? No one knows.
Finally, just to further flummox us, Israel – always part of any Middle East development – appears to be less agitated by IS than by Lebanon's Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian backers. Israel fears Hezbollah's nearby weapons more than IS's caliphate, and IS is satisfied making only intermittent threats against Israel. In fact, Islamic State is more dedicated to killing fellow Muslims, even fellow Sunnis, than killing Israelis. But anyone who knows the Israeli record knows its various intelligence services are in there somewhere, muddying the waters even more.
No wonder our political parties haven't a clue what policies make sense. The Americans certainly don't. Maybe no one does, as often seems the case. Then what?