For a few weeks in January, events moved the Middle East to the centre of Justin Trudeau’s world.
A U.S. drone strike killed an Iranian general and an Iraqi militia leader outside Baghdad’s airport and sparked fears of war. Canada, which had no warning, pulled some troops back from Iraq to Kuwait, putting the Canadian Armed Forces missions training the Iraqi army on hold. Iran fired missiles at bases housing U.S. soldiers in Iraq, including one where Canadian troops were posted.
There was a palpable concern about reprisals across the region. In Kuwait, where a small Camp Canada nests next to U.S. forces at an air base, the commander of Canada’s Operation Impact, Brigadier-General Michel St. Louis, said later that week that Canadian and coalition forces were still evaluating the threat, deciding “if we change, revert, go back, not go back.” Three weeks later, the future of the training missions is still in doubt.
Amid the tensions, a fatal mistake, the downing by Iranian forces of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, with 57 Canadian citizens and 29 permanent residents aboard, made events in the Middle East a pressing Canadian issue.
Mr. Trudeau was suddenly giving daily briefings on contacts with Iran. He was on the phone to Iraq’s Prime Minister, Jordan’s King, the Emir of Qatar, the powerful de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, a country with whom Canada has had no diplomatic relations since 2012. In the two weeks that followed the U.S. strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Shia militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Jan. 3, Mr. Trudeau spoke with 18 world leaders.
Much of it was focused on pragmatic diplomacy involving the Canadian aspect of an international tragedy: pushing for a full investigation into Flight 752, securing visas for Canadian investigators and consular officers who had to travel to Iran, discussing arrangements for the repatriation of remains.
But this was still Mr. Trudeau’s most extensive foray into Middle East affairs.
Yet before the month was out, his government was treading lightly around the region again, saying little when U.S. President Donald Trump, standing beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday, presented his “Deal of the Century” proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace, a one-sided plan immediately rejected by Palestinian officials. Mr. Trudeau obviously does not want to support Mr. Trump’s proposal – or criticize it: On Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne promised to examine the deal but offered no opinion.
It was a whiplash month for Canadian policy in the Middle East. Canada’s biggest foreign military mission, Operation Impact, has seen its chief task – training Iraqi soldiers – put on hold, its future in doubt. When Iran’s fatal error killed all those Canadians, Ottawa had no diplomatic ties with Tehran, and suddenly Mr. Champagne was shuttling to Oman to meet his Iranian counterpart.
It raises the question: Does Canada have a serious policy for the Middle East? Should it?
Before this month, Mr. Trudeau’s government hadn’t put much emphasis on the Middle East. Its foreign policy was obsessed with Mr. Trump and his threats to NAFTA. And the Liberal government did not view the Middle East through the same ideological lens as Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, who regularly proclaimed allegiance to Israel and declared Iran a danger. Mr. Harper’s third-term foreign affairs minister, John Baird, curried political and commercial ties with Gulf states, which saw Iran as a threat, too. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals nudged Canada’s Israeli-Palestinian policy toward the middle of the road, but as much as anything, stayed out of it. They said less, visited rarely and let some relationships slide.
“They really had virtually no interest in the Middle East,” said Dennis Horak, Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2015 to 2018, and a former head of mission at the Canadian embassy in Iran. But the Middle East tends to come back on the radar, he said: “You can ignore it and deprioritize it, but it’s got a nasty habit of coming up and forcing you to pay attention.”
Right now, Canada “is playing shorthanded” in Middle East diplomacy, Mr. Horak said. Mr. Harper’s government cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012, primarily to send the message that it disapproved of its sponsorship of terrorism and destabilizing actions in the region, so there is no embassy and little communication. Saudi Arabia declared Mr. Horak persona non grata in 2018, expelling him from the country in a furious reaction to a tweet by then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland demanding the immediate release of detained human-rights activists.
It will be politically controversial to re-establish ties with either of those regimes, but Canada cannot be serious about the Middle East, know what’s going on or have influence unless it is talking to those two major regional powers, Mr. Horak said.
David Chatterson, a predecessor as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, put things more bluntly: “We’re not viewed as serious because we’re not serious.” He argued that Canada’s Middle East policy has been “chasing ambulances” with political statements to please domestic constituencies and shallow lectures on values that don’t do as much to change things inside Middle Eastern countries as serious diplomacy and long-term programs such as student exchanges and teacher training.
Canadians like to think of themselves as players in the region or honest brokers, but “no one is asking us to broker,” Mr. Chatterson said. And in a tough region with tough countries accustomed to conflict and big, serious foreign military players such as the United States, Russia and Turkey, he thinks it’s worth questioning whether Canada can be any kind of player or if it has more pressing priorities in the world. At any rate, to get serious, Canada has to ask itself what its interests in the region really are. “What are we trying to do? Just tell me that.”
There is a wrinkle to that question, underlined in January: Canada’s Middle East policy is calibrated to U.S. policy, and an unpredictable move by the U.S. can throw Canadian policy into confusion.
It is easy to see why Mr. Trudeau speaks quietly about Israeli-Palestinian issues. There is little upside in domestic politics, nor much desire to start disputes with Mr. Trump. The U.S. President has taken steps to back Israel that no other president has ever considered – as Mr. Trump noted Tuesday, he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and killed the multiparty nuclear deal with Iran. Mr. Trudeau’s government disagrees with all that – but quietly. And now Mr. Trump has unveiled a peace proposal that effectively tells Palestinians to accept extensive concessions to Israel, including settlements, which is at odds with Canada’s middle-of-the-road policy.
That’s politically uncomfortable, but in January Mr. Trump’s surprises also dislocated Canadian operations. Operation Impact involves providing military training in three countries, with the biggest share, roughly 500 troops, in Iraq. Canada had two missions there, one with the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State and the other with NATO – the latter commanded by a Canadian, Major-General Jennie Carignan. But Canada received no warning about the U.S. drone strike on Gen. Soleimani.
Iraqi politicians, especially Shia leaders influenced by neighbouring Iran, are now calling for U.S. troops to leave. But the NATO training mission depends on the roughly 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq for security and logistics. The future of that mission is up in the air. It was supposed to help stabilize Iraq. In the short term, at least, it is less stable.
“You can’t really say, ‘Let’s design a long-term strategy around Donald Trump,’” said Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa international security professor who served as Mr. Trudeau’s foreign policy adviser in 2015-16. “It is so dangerous right now that we have to think about what our interests are.”
That is no small thing. Advisers to Liberal and Conservative governments in Ottawa have counted the security relationship with Washington as a driving force in Canada’s Mideast policy for years.
Operation Impact was created as a kind of consolation when Mr. Trudeau, as a newly elected PM, followed through on a promise to withdraw Canadian CF-18 fighter jets from coalition bombing campaigns against the Islamic State. To placate allies, Mr. Trudeau created a training mission instead, first with Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq and then with Iraqi security forces. Many experts now see that as more valuable in a factionalized Iraq, which saw large swaths of territory overrun by the Islamic State between 2014 and 2017 and where 100,000 Shia militia fighters, aligned with Iran, operate outside the control of the government.
It was Gen. Soleimani who oversaw Iran’s policy of using such proxies to extend its influence and destabilize governments across the region, but his assassination sent shock waves around the world. Even in faraway Ottawa, there was palpable tension about the prospect of war – and little desire to say anything that might draw the attention of a revenge-minded Tehran or Mr. Trump’s Washington.
Mr. Trudeau’s telephone diplomacy started Jan. 6 with calls to Western leaders about de-escalating tensions and about the effect on the training mission. It picked up on Jan. 8 when Iran retaliated by firing missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. and Canadian troops, then inadvertently shot down Flight 752 as it left Tehran’s airport.
Arguably, that fatal error tamped down Iran’s immediate focus on revenge – sparking protests in Tehran condemning the Iranian government’s own culpable error. Mr. Trudeau’s public handling of the disaster may have encouraged Iranian co-operation: He insisted on answers, but framed it as seeking justice for the dead and their families; he accused Iran of shooting down the plane before anyone else, but acknowledged it might have been unintentional. Mr. Horak, who served as chargé d’affaires in Canada’s embassy in Iran until it was shuttered in 2012, said Mr. Trudeau pulled off a delicate balance between taking Iran to task and getting it to co-operate.
The high-level contacts that followed were notably lacking in prickliness on the Iranian side, said a Canadian official. Tehran’s spokespersons pointed out that Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, raising concerns that it might deny Iranian-Canadians consular access or the right to repatriate their family members’ remains, so it was noted when Mr. Rouhani offered his condolences to Mr. Trudeau for the many Canadians who perished, the official said. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the calls.
Those contacts were for the most part narrowly focused on Flight 752, the official said, but there was a hint that Mr. Rouhani was in favour of re-establishing diplomatic ties: He suggested it would be good if the two countries could develop better ways to deal with difficult issues.
Canadian officials don’t expect a rush to a resumption of diplomatic relations. Iran just shot down a plane with dozens of Canadians aboard. The immediate political pressure from Conservatives, Jewish organization B’nai Brith Canada and some Iranian-Canadian organizations was a call for new terrorism sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which would probably curtail co-operation in the crash investigation.
The idea of resuming diplomatic relations with Iran, which Mr. Trudeau promised to do in 2015, has stalled in large part because of the politics. One major obstacle, noted University of Ottawa professor Thomas Juneau, is a 2012 law that makes Iran liable for damages due to acts of terrorism. Mr. Trudeau’s minority government may not want the risk of delisting Iran as a sponsor of terrorism, he said, so the two countries may first take the interim step of opening “interest sections” rather than embassies.
Fear of political criticism at home will also make resuming full contacts with Saudi Arabia controversial, too, Mr. Horak noted. “That’s part of our immaturity – this misconception that diplomatic relations are a seal of approval.” Canada can’t turn countries around, or bring peace to the region, but it can have an impact in niche areas if it chooses to make serious efforts, he argued.
When the stakes got higher, Mr. Trudeau decided he had to make contacts among power players in the Middle East – to trade notes about what Iran might do next, about prospects in Iraq and the resumption of the Canadian military mission. He reached out to leaders such as Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who maintains relations with Iran, spoke to Jordan’s King Abdullah twice and called the U.A.E.'s de facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, known as MbZ. Several of them, according to the Canadian official, had watched Mr. Trudeau’s news conferences on Flight 752 on TV.
When it came time to call Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, there would have been one obvious question: Do the Iraqis really think Canadian and NATO troops will stay if U.S. troops are told they must leave the country?
That question is still up in the air. An Iraqi official said the government sees the value of foreign training for Iraqi security forces in the fight against the Islamic State and needs “professional, national, non-sectarian forces” – an apparent reference to the plethora of militias in Iraq – to prevent a resurgence. The Globe is not identifying the official because he was not authorized to speak publicly. Iraq recognizes Canada’s contribution and wants NATO forces to stay, the official said, but the political climate since the killing of Gen. Soleimani has made it hard to predict if U.S. forces will stay. Mr. Abdul-Mahdi is an outgoing prime minister, and negotiations on forming a new government so far involve the eventual departure of U.S. troops.
In January, the Middle East grabbed Mr. Trudeau’s attention. Will he risk taking a serious interest? Diplomatic relations with two of the largest regional powers are cut. Canadian policy on Israeli-Palestinian issues is at odds with Washington’s. After Mr. Trump’s surprise move, Canada’s largest military initiative, training Iraqi soldiers to promote stability, is on hold. There’s a basic question for Canada’s Middle East policy: What now?