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What does victory look like for Canada in Iraq?

By Scott Taylor      

It’s even harder to say now, given the showdown between separatist Kurds and Iraq’s central government.

A peshmerga soldier prepares a detonation cord to defeat a simulated improvised explosive device during counter-IED training at Bnaslawa, Iraq on Nov. 22, 2016. Canadians have been training Kurdish peshmerga soldiers for the last three years. U.S. Army photograph by Sgt. Lisa Soy
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OTTAWA—With more than 800 Canadian troops committed to be deployed in what is still recognized internationally as Iraq, one would think that there would be a lot more news about the ominous developments in that war-ravaged country.

The problem is that when Canadians first entered the fray in 2014 the Harper government of the day had virtually no understanding of the complexity of the long-raging conflict in that region.

The Canadian public was coming fresh off a 12-year costly failed intervention in Afghanistan, but prime minister Stephen Harper was keen to get our troops back in action against Islamic extremists—somewhere, anywhere. Daesh’s sudden offensive out of Syria and into central Iraq was the perfect solution to the problem.

These evildoers also known as ISIL, ISIS, and the Islamic State, were so, well, evil, that Canadians had no objection about sending our soldiers into harm’s way if it meant destroying these fanatical psychopaths.

To keep things politically saleable, Harper promised combat aircraft would bomb the bejeezus out of Daesh’s bulldozers and dump trucks from the safe altitude of 20,000 feet, and the initial Canadian special-forces troops deployed on the ground would only be used in a training role, which the government misleadingly labelled “advise and assist.”

The mainstream media, like old fire-station horses hearing the alarm bell, rushed into action to breathlessly sell this new mission to the Canadian public. In those heady early days, no one was asking questions such as: just who are our soldiers fighting for, and what will final victory look like in Iraq? Nobody seemed to even care.

The focus was on killing the Daesh bad guys.

No one wanted to acknowledge that this meant our soldiers were on the same side as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces who were also battling Daesh in Syria. Canada had cut all ties with Assad in 2012 and John Baird, the foreign affairs minister of the day, had bellowed, “Assad must go!”

By sharing the same enemy in Daesh, this meant that Canada was also aligned with Assad’s Hezbollah and Iranian allies.

Closer to home in Iraq itself, Canada was in direct military support of Iranian-mentored Iraqi Shiite Arab militias with a notorious reputation for committing atrocities against Sunni Arabs.

Minister Baird and the Harper government had also cut off all diplomatic ties with the evil Iranian regime. Even bad old Russia was under sanctions for annexing Crimea from Ukraine. But in the skies above part of the Middle East, the Russian air force flew alongside the brave combat pilots of the RCAF.

All very confusing, but as long as Daesh remained a common threat then this collection of disparate factions could put aside their vast differences in pursuit of a single goal.

That objective has now been almost fully realized, as Daesh has been driven back into just a few tiny strongholds in both Syria and Iraq. Now it is time for that unholy alliance to turn on itself.

When the Trudeau Liberals were elected in 2015, they kept their campaign promise to bring home the CF-18 combat planes from the Iraq mission. However, public sentiment remained supportive of a continued role against Daesh, so Trudeau bolstered the number of special-forces trainers and everyone turned a blind eye to the fact that “advise and assist” was a joke. Our soldiers were in direct combat alongside the Kurdish militia members they were sent to train.

This is where things get a little tricky. The Kurds our soldiers trained and fought for have never lied about their ultimate goal of achieving an independent state. Against the wishes of the U.S. and Western allies, including Canada whose official policy supports a unified Iraq, the Kurds held a successful referendum on Sept. 25 that delivered an overwhelming victory for the separatists. As everyone predicted, this has led to negative responses from neighbouring Turkey, Syria, and Iran, all of them dealing with their own Kurdish separatist factions.

More importantly, it has led to a full-scale showdown between the Baghdad regime’s military—the one Canada purports to support—and the Kurdish militia members our soldiers have spent three years training.

On June 29, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that Canada would extend the military mission in Iraq by two more years. What is still not clear, especially as civil war between these factions appears imminent, is who exactly our soldiers will be assisting for the next two years. And even more unclear is what we think eventual victory will look like.

Scott Taylor is editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine.

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