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Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson


Iraq’s inevitable consequences Add to ...

It was self-evident when the Harper government committed Canada to the military struggle against the Islamic State that the initial six-month deployment would become an open-ended commitment.

It was also self-evident, flowing from the initial deployment, that Canadian casualties would result, that many hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent, that the struggle would go on for a very long time, that even if the Islamic State could be removed from Iraq the question would remain what to do with the movement in Syria, and that Iran would wind up with the most enhanced influence in the region.

None of these consequences, of course, was laid before Parliament and the country in the initial debate, but each could have been foretold.

Let’s take these consequences one at a time.

Begin with casualties. The notion that foreign “trainers” would somehow operate somewhere in a classroom or a tent or a field far removed from battle was an oxymoron. That would not have been “training” but some kind of teaching.

Trainers have to be near the front. Whether that means the actual line of fire or 200 metres removed (as Defence Minister Jason Kenney insists was the case in the death of a Canadian soldier and the wounding of others last weekend) is quite immaterial – these positions are operationally the same when it comes to risk.

For Canada to send “trainers,” special operations teams and six jet fighters and other aircraft means, by definition, a high risk of casualties. They come with war, and Canada is at war – a bit player in the grand scheme of battle, to be sure, but a warrior nation nonetheless.

Next, cost. The budget for the initial six-month deployment would underestimate the final cost by a considerable amount. To mid-February, the government has admitted to spending $122-million; the Parliamentary Budget Officer says the figure is somewhere between $128.8-million and $166.4-million.

These sums account for only about three-quarters of the initial phase of the mission. They say nothing about the next phase, which the government will approve shortly.

The business of six-month phases is designed purely for political optics. If the Islamic State represents as mortal a danger to Canadians as their all-terror-all-the-time government insists, then Canada will be in Iraq for more than another six months, just as it was obvious that the initial six-month deployment would be the down payment on a much longer commitment.

The air campaign and some limited ground engagement around the Islamic State’s most southerly territory seems to have blunted the movement’s advances without dislodging it from entrenched lairs.

Its fighters are dug in and supplied with weapons. It can dissolve into the population. It continues to recruit foreign soldiers who are willing to die for its messianic cult. Defeating the Islamic State in the sense of removing it entirely from Iraq might be possible, but it will not be easy.

Even if or when it is removed from Iraq, it will remain implanted in Syria, where the movement’s military gains began and where its capital remains. Canada has conspicuously said nothing about a campaign in Syria, restricting its commitment only to Iraq. But if the Islamic State is driven from Iraq only to retreat and fortify itself further in Syria, can it be said to have been defeated, which is the stated aim of the mission?

The Islamic State is the sworn enemy of any other group but itself, but its Sunni militants are especially bloodthirsty toward Shiites, whom they consider the worst of apostates.

That Iran, the world’s leading Shia state, would become involved in the battle against the Islamic State was therefore almost inevitable, especially given how Iran’s influence over the Shia-led Iraqi government grew after the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Western countries come and go in the region (this is the third U.S. intrusion in Iraq since the 1991 Persian Gulf war), but Iran remains forever. Under Mr. Hussein, Iraq was Iran’s sworn enemy – the two countries fought a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Since the Iraqi army has proven itself a feeble instrument, the ground war against the Islamic State is being disproportionately fought by Shia militias who take their inspiration and military direction from Tehran.

Canada can help the Kurds in the north, but whether the government acknowledges it or not, the best ally on the ground in Iraq is Iran.

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