Thomas Juneau is an associate professor in international affairs at the University of Ottawa. Bessma Momani is professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. They are the co-editors of the forthcoming book Middle Power in the Middle East: Canada’s Foreign and Defence Policies in a Changing Region.
As the war in Ukraine reminds us, the international political system continues to be volatile and Canada must play an active role, where it can, to support our broader alliances. One arena of conflict that continues to simmer is Iraq. Our mission there, Operation Impact, expires at the end of March. We ought to renew it, but we must do this with our eyes open to new risks and the evolution of our mission.
To defeat the Islamic State, the Canadian Armed Forces have been in the region to assist in training the Iraqi security forces and to support NATO’s mission in Iraq. At the peak of the mission, 850 CAF members were present in the region to improve local security forces’ capabilities to fight IS, gather intelligence, detect and dismantle improvised explosive devices repeatedly used to target innocent civilians, clear deadly mines in civilian areas and improve the professionalization of the Iraqi National Army.
The mission initially was, and still is, clearly in Canada’s national interest. First and foremost, Canada’s role in Iraq is to help Iraqi citizens who continue to face daily insecurities and who have a national army that is far from being professionalized. Corruption, internal fiefdoms within the Iraqi national army and external pressure from Iranian militias to create a fifth column within the Iraqi security forces pose real threats to Iraqis.
That said, let’s not kid ourselves. We are also in Iraq to be – and be perceived as – a good ally. The mission is important to maintain good relations with Washington. As is often the case, a key consideration shaping Canada’s decision on whether to contribute to a military intervention is not only about the situation on the ground but also about alliance management. Canada also has an interest in doing its share within the NATO alliance as well as in contributing to international efforts to combat terrorism. Thankfully, civilian deaths at the hands of IS have steadily decreased since its heyday in 2014. Nevertheless, in 2020, the terrorist group claimed 87 deadly attacks, on average killing 149 Iraqis each month.
Yet the mission in Iraq has evolved. Originally, Canada joined the U.S.-led coalition to fight against IS. That remains a valid reason for Canada to continue to contribute. But now the threat to the CAF deployment in Iraq comes primarily from Iran-backed armed militias. The Canadian government has not been sufficiently transparent about this evolution and needs to clearly communicate it to the Canadian public.
Canada also has an interest in the stabilization and democratization of Iraq, a key regional power, an important oil producer and, potentially, a bulwark against expanded Iranian influence in the Middle East. Establishing a professional, national army in Iraq that is not beholden to Iranian interests is key to preventing the state from falling into the hands of militia groups and reverting to IS’s territorial control. This raises uncomfortable risks. How will Canadian troops respond if they are hit by Iran-backed militias as is happening to U.S. troops on a regular basis?
That said, the war in Ukraine reminds us that Canada also has fundamental interests in Europe. If Canada is to continue and perhaps increase its commitment to various missions in Eastern Europe and beyond, then implicitly there are fewer resources for other commitments.
The Canadian Armed Forces have also increased the tempo of their deployments on the domestic front in recent years, as witnessed by their role during the pandemic in support of the vaccine rollout, especially in remote areas, and in long-term care centres. Climate change is certainly going to accelerate our need for domestic deployments. There is little reason to believe that European and domestic commitments will diminish in frequency in the coming years. In this context, it is less clear than in the past if, given its scarce resources, Canada can still afford to commit to the mission in Iraq.
Iraq is not yet stable and without the assistance of NATO and other forces, the country could see a renewed IS insurgency and fall further into the hands of Iran. Our government needs to be open with Canadians about our evolving purpose in Iraq, but it’s worth continuing the mission.
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