Skip to main content

A fighter of Christian Syriac militia that battles the Islamic State group under the banner of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, burns an IS flag on the front line on the western side of Raqqa, northeast Syria, Monday, July 17, 2017. U.S.-backed Syrian fighters fought Islamic State militants in the heart of Raqqa, the extremists' self-styled capital, as scores of civilians fled areas controlled by the group. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)Hussein Malla/The Associated Press

Wrenching missives sent by civilians trapped in Raqqa, the Syrian city that served as Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital, suggest the fall of Daesh's "caliphate" is imminent.

Earlier this month, Iraqi and Kurdish forces, supported by a Western coalition that includes Canada, recaptured Mosul, the Iraqi city that until recently was IS's base in that country.

The war against the "state" part of Islamic State appears close to being won. But winning the peace – in Syria, Iraq and around the world, in places where small numbers of people are inspired by IS ideology – will be much harder.

Opinion: Islamic State will splinter after Mosul: Will Canada be ready?

While defeating Daesh forces has been one of Washington's and the Western Alliance's main military and security priorities since the group rose to prominence in 2011, comparatively little attention has been paid to what a post-IS Iraq and Syria could look like.

Canada is deeply invested in the conflict – despite the Trudeau government's insistence, for domestic political reasons, that the Canadian military mission in Iraq, which has at times involved Canadian troops in combat, is not a combat mission. However, there are multiple groups competing for power in the region, and outside of the predominantly Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq, Canada and the United States may have relatively little influence over what happens next.

The disappearance of the Daesh "state" is a good thing. But by itself, that is not going to stem the tide of IS-inspired, lone-wolf terrorists. They are not directed by or sent from Raqqa; rather, they have caught a kind of intellectual virus. The virus existed before IS, and will outlive it.

And within Syria, the brutal al-Assad regime is regaining control of many IS-held areas. That is unlikely to ease the country's enormous refugee crisis, which was primarily authored by the Russian- and Iranian-backed regime, and not by IS.

Even with IS shrinking, the civil conflict in Syria shows no signs of abating. What's more, the danger of a clash between the U.S.-led alliance and the Russian and Iranian military presence is increasing as the common IS enemy – and the physical buffer of IS-controlled territory – disappears.

Several near-misses have already taken place, including the shooting down of Syrian aircraft and Iranian drones, the buzzing of American warplanes by Russian fighters and the shelling of positions held by the other's allies.

Syria is an intricate puzzle in a famously complicated region. The news on the Iraq side of the equation isn't much happier. Both countries are bloodied and broken, with deep ethnic grievances that have been inflamed rather than healed.

The point of war is not to eradicate one's enemies; it is to force a solution to a political conflict. The problem in Iraq and Syria is that the current war is really multiple simultaneous wars, powered by multiple communities, outside powers and agendas.

Daesh has its roots in an Iraqi Sunni minority that dominated the country before the U.S.-led invasion, but found itself oppressed post-invasion by the Shia majority – and, across the border in Syria by a Sunni majority long repressed by a dictator from a minority community.

It rose as a response – a violent, unhinged, disastrous response – to this political situation.

Sectarian divides in Iraq and Syria run deep – and Iran, along with its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon, has been happy to inflame them to gain influence.

The Kurds have also made plain their desire for greater autonomy or even sovereignty. That seems only fair. But it is implacably opposed by Baghdad, Damascus, Ankara and Tehran.

From a Canadian perspective, the question now is what happens to the military mission in Iraq, Operation Impact. The federal government recently announced the extension of Canada's commitment until March 31, 2019, at a cost of $370-million. It did this without holding a debate in the House of Commons.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals campaigned against a combat mission in Iraq, only to put more Canadian boots on the ground once in office – so it's not hard to see why they're less than keen to discuss the contradictions. Perhaps the next 18 months will give Mr. Trudeau's government an opportunity to disengage itself from the spaghetti junction of contortions it has undertaken of late regarding Canada's military mission in Iraq, and its strange desire to present it as something less than it is.

Secrecy and doublespeak have been the defining characteristics of the government's disclosure of information, or lack thereof, about the Iraq campaign. That appears to be primarily for the convenience of the government, and not for the benefit of Canada's men and women risking life and limb.

As IS is defeated on the ground, major decisions lie ahead for Canada. They must be debated fully, openly and publicly.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct