The debate continues over whether Stephen Harper got it right when he committed the Canadian Forces to intervention in the war against the Islamic State (IS). If given the choice the Prime Minister invariably goes for the hard-edge option, whatever the challenge. He seeks little advice. Officials censor themselves when they are called upon to give it. He relies on gut instinct.
And yet he may, by both inclination and chance, just have gotten it right this time in robustly confronting IS. He certainly has company with the United States, many of our European allies and a growing host of emboldened Arab conservatives. IS is beleaguered and on the defensive, but it will be a long tough row to hoe before its brought down. Canada will be in Iraq for more than a decent interval. The "six-month" limit on the Canadian Forces commitment is paper-thin. We are there indefinitely. U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday asked for congressional approval for a three-year military campaign against IS, including "limited ground combat."
Mr. Harper will not desert the winning side. He will not abandon Jordan's King Abdullah whose outrage at the IS execution of Jordanian Flight Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasabeh, caged and burned alive, knows no bounds. Despite initial ambiguity, the Hashemite monarch has managed to consolidate his country's people around him, particulalrly the tribes who underpin the regime. Not only Jordan, but the region as a whole, felt the impact. Both are bound by the cultural values of honour and shame: revenge or humiliation.
The United Arab Emirates has sent a squadron of F-16s to Jordan to participate in air strikes based in the Hashemite kingdom of which there were 56 over three days last week. Sources in Amman claim 7,000 members of IS have been killed since air strikes began.
Whether such a claim is correct does not belie the fact that IS is on the defensive. In Syria, the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish People's Protection Force have retaken the virtual entirety of Kobani and its surrounds. IS has also withdrawn fighters from villages north of Aleppo. Kobani is of tremendous symbolic, if not strategic, value. IS is reported to have lost more that 1,000 combatants in that one battle. The majority were core veterans. It has had to replace them with untrained and underage neophytes. Air power (albeit not Canadian, as our forces do not operate in Syria) has been a critical element in this outcome.
Devoting so many of its resources to such a locale proved a costly blunder for IS. As importantly, the horrific execution of Moaz al-Kasabeh has united the conservative Arab states, as they have not been before. Nor can one discount the pressure IS has been under at Deir el-Zour in northeast Syria, where the Assad regime's boots have put the badly stretched IS fighters on the defensive. The IS threat has united otherwise warring movements: Assad loyalists, Kurds and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. For this uneasy alliance to emerge, however temporary, is the mother of necessity. Increasingly under challenge throughout Syria, IS units have been forced to thin-out to defend what they hold.
The Islamic State's resource shortage is similarly severe in Iraq. Air strikes (and here Canadian aircraft have participated) have depleted its oil infrastructure. Its ability to raise money to finance its operations has been seriously impaired. Coalition air strikes have impeded the militant's mobility. The Iraqi security forces have become more effective due to the inflow of outside equipment, resources and training. The peshmerga, who Canadian troops are assisting, have demonstrated particular competence. They have retaken territory around the Mosul dam and are tightening the ring around Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, which itself however remains firmly under IS control.
The once seemingly inexorable march of IS is on hold. Its capacity is degraded. But this terrorist insurgency remains by far the most serious threat facing the region. The peshmerga may have advanced in northern Iraq but they took tremendous casualties in doing so. IS is far from loosing Mosul city itself nor does the government in Baghdad or its linked militias have anything approaching the capacity to get them out.
Baghdad itself is so directly threatened that the prime of the Iraq army is positioned in its defense and that of its northeast approaches, already heavily invested by IS. Internal problems abound. Many of the government's allied militias, particularly the Shiite Badr brigades, stand accused of atrocities, almost certainly with reason, although the wanton brutality of IS excels by comparison. This will not be forgotten if and when the tables turn.
Successes against the terrorists in the Middle East will strengthen Mr. Harper's determination to see his draft legislation directed against Islamic threats within Canada through Parliament as it stands, such are the linkages he will draw. Some real, some imagined. Given our fear based environment, how could it be otherwise?