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Jeffrey Simpson

The fight against Islamic State is a mission adrift Add to ...

The Conservative majority in the House of Commons approved an extension of Canada’s participation in the war against the Islamic State, including operations in Syria, until March, 2016.

They must have been kidding themselves if they thought IS would be “degraded,” to use a popular buzzword, let alone be close to defeat by then.

IS, by some estimates, has a literal war chest of $8-billion (U.S.). According to Iraq’s Prime Minister, they have about 20,000 fighters. A flow of new fighters arrives regularly to take up the dream of the caliphate.

IS has burrowed into areas where the writ of the sovereign states of Syria and Iraq is weak or non-existent. IS captured Mosul, in Iraq’s north, with a population of about one million when the Iraq army fled.

Recently, it overran Ramadi in Iraq (part of which IS had occupied for a long time) and Palmyra in Syria. It had been previously pushed out of Tikrit, but it took an Iraq government force of 24,000 soldiers and U.S. air strikes to force a few hundred IS fighters from the city.

U.S. officials brief reporters, and through them the country, about ongoing developments, something rarely on offer in Canada. After the fall of Ramadi and Palmyra, a U.S. State Department official told reporters, “This [IS] is a really formidable enemy. It’s going to have surprises and that’s going to happen over the course of what will be a very long, multiyear campaign.” He added, refusing to sugar-coat matters, “It’s an extremely serious situation.”

How long might it take to “degrade IS,” the spokesman was asked. “We’re eight months into what was always a three-year campaign to degrade.” (Note the word “defeat” was not used.) The spokesman continued, “We’ve never seen something like this. We’ve never seen a terrorist organization with 22,000 foreign fighters from a hundred countries all around the world. … This is a formidable, enormous threat.”

Canada’s Defence Minister Jason Kenney described IS in a recent interview with the Hill Times newspaper as a “resilient enemy.” The fall of Ramadi, he later added, should be a “wake-up call for the Iraqi military to massively improve its effectiveness.” Easy to say from thousands of miles away.

Canada has committed six CF-18 fighter jets, two surveillance planes, one aerial tanker, 600 Canadian Forces personnel and 69 special operations forces to the fight against IS.

With this contribution, Canada is supporting an Iraqi army that either will not fight or fights badly. (Kurds are a different story.) When the Iraqi army gets mauled or retreats, it hardly sends a supportive message to the Shia in the south of Iraq to enlist in the army. When Shia militias are formed to take on IS, with support from Iran, that gets the Sunnis nervous in Iraq’s north and in U.S. central command. Ordinary Iraqis in the north of the country, given a choice between the IS and Iranian-backed Shia militias, might prefer the former.

Air strikes in this sort of war are useful but not determinant. Insurgencies cannot be defeated from the air, because their forces learn how to hide and they fight in cities such as Mosul, Tikrit and Ramadi where dropping bombs means civilian casualties.

Only effective and motivated ground forces can regain territory. These do not exist in either Iraq or Syria, although there are some effective forces in Syria. They are not ones friendly to Canada and its allies.

These forces might not be as gruesome as IS but they are Salafist in inspiration, anti-Western and inspired by jihadi ideology. The three so-called “moderate” groups the U.S. (and by extension Canada) is trying to assist in Syria are small and no match for the Assad government, IS or these other Salafist groups.

The Assad regime that the Harper government has excoriated (as have the Americans) has been losing ground recently. Were it to collapse, the struggle for control or power and territory would not involve the “moderates” but the IS and the al-Nusra Front, an extreme Salafist group. Any non-Sunni in Syria – Alawites, Shia, Christians – would be in grave peril.

The brave announcement that Canada would bomb in Syria sounded much better rhetorically than it can work out in practice. Canada doesn’t want the Assad regime, IS or the al-Nusra Front. One of these bad options is eventually going to prevail.

Canada is therefore at sea in Syria not knowing exactly whom to support and in Iraq backing an army that cannot as yet fight effectively.

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