Thomas Juneau is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He is a former analyst with the Department of National Defence.
Canada announced last week that it is formally ceasing its mission to train Kurdish militias in northern Iraq and that from now on it will concentrate its efforts on advising and assisting federal Iraqi government troops. Canada will, in particular, help Baghdad provide security in the northern city of Mosul.
This is the right decision. The Kurds were useful partners after 2014, when they represented one of the few reliable partners to fight the sudden surge by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. IS has not been fully defeated, but it is significantly weakened. Continuing to support the Kurds was thus not necessary anymore. Canada’s policy, moreover, is to support a united Iraq; supporting the Kurds amounted to arming a sub-state actor seeking independence.
Canada’s long-term interests lie in deepening relations with Baghdad. Democratic progress in Iraq is not perfect, but the country has made important progress in recent years, as witnessed by the recent elections in which there was genuine competition over ideas. Canada should encourage this rare exception in the Middle East. Iraq is also an important regional power with large hydrocarbon reserves; it is in Canada’s interest to deepen relations.
There are, however, serious challenges ahead. Prospects for the post-IS era in Sunni regions are worrying. This matters: IS was not born in a vacuum in 2014, but was the successor organization to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), itself established in the wake of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Around 2008-09, partly successful efforts by Baghdad to engage with marginalized Sunnis in parallel with the American military surge seriously weakened AQI, reducing it to a few hundred members.
Back then, IS was able to plot its comeback and rebuild its strength on the basis of two developments: Baghdad’s growing efforts to alienate and repress Sunnis after 2010 and the war in Syria, which provided it with an unexpected safe haven and a new, massive pool of frustrated Sunnis.
Today, IS barely occupies territory. It is reverting to what it was before – an insurgent and terrorist group. But it still has access to millions of alienated Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria (and beyond). IS can also count on years of accumulated skills in exploiting these grievances. Nobody knows precisely how many fighters it has today, but it is plausibly in the low thousands – an order of magnitude more than 10 years ago. It still has access to a strong cadre of experienced administrators.
In this difficult context, Canada’s interests lie firmly in helping the U.S.-led coalition strengthen the capacity of Iraqi security services to assist in efforts to further weaken remnants of the Islamic State.
But this is far from sufficient: Sunni areas in Iraq are devastated by years of war against IS and, before that, against occupying American forces. Government capacity remains weak and many Sunnis do not trust authorities in Baghdad – with good reason, given events since 2003. Yet, IS emerged as the expression of widespread feelings of Sunni alienation, the product of dysfunctional Iraqi and regional politics. Stuck between surviving extremists and an inefficient and often corrupt government, some Sunnis will inevitably return to insurrection. This could take multiple forms, whether a reinvigorated IS or the creation of the next-generation extremist movement. The objective must thus be to minimize this as much as possible.
As such, Canada could, alongside its allies, increase its assistance to federal authorities in Baghdad and condition it to continued progress in respect for pluralism and democratic norms. In addition to its support for security forces, Canada could provide more assistance in Sunni areas for the building of capable and legitimate governance and economic development. Only with reconstruction and reconciliation will the return of IS be blocked or at least contained.