The Parliamentary Debate over Fighting ISIS – The Liberal Policy

Corporealism XVI: Justin Trudeau Redux

B. The Parliamentary Debate over Fighting ISIS – The Liberal Policy

Justin Trudeau positioned the Liberal Party stance between the NDP, insisting on no combat role whatsoever, and the Conservatives, insisting on the retention of the air fighter jet contribution. The Canadian contribution by the Liberals was set within the context of a humanitarian operation and the larger goal of fighting ISIS in a battle for hearts and minds, of which the military role was an adjunct rather than front and centre. “When we talk about the fight today, it is not just a military fight; it is a fight for the hearts and minds of those who are under pressure to join the Islamic State.”

The issue was how best to leverage Canadian military assets. The policy was broad in its geographical application – Iraq and Syria, Lebanon and Jordan (border security, border monitoring, providing technical equipment and training facilities) – broad in the set of tools brought to the task – military and training, humanitarian programs ($870 million in aid over three years and resettlement of 25,000 Syrian refugees through government sponsorship alone by the end of 2016) and intelligence operations (re chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear security), diplomatic coordination and development aid ($270 million over three years for promoting gender and sexual equality, protecting minority rights, mine and explosive clearance, etc.). The central message – a combat mission if necessary (versus the NDP), but not necessarily a combat mission for the fighter aircraft had been taken out of the equation (versus the Tories).

The Conservative response (to be explicated at greater length tomorrow) offered a great deal of humanitarian aid and helped refugees (???), but asked, why change the military mission in the sky? Air attacks have been successful, restricting ISIS to 25% of the territory it once held in Iraq. ISIS is weaker, more isolated. ISIS is also a threat to Canada. So the direct application of force is necessary, desirable and effective.

The Liberal response to the deployment of six CF-18s: perhaps before when ISIS was spread out; perhaps before, but not when Canada is only flying 2% of the missions; perhaps before, but not when the missions have been cut by a half or two-thirds; perhaps before, but not when the next major battle is for Mosul, a very large city totally infiltrated and controlled by ISIS in which aerial bombardment would be too costly in civilian lives. And perhaps never, for the major battle is not a military one, though a military one is necessary, but one best fought on the ground with well-trained and well-equipped local troops. The central battle is psychological, sociological and political. It is one for the minds and hearts of Iraqis, especially young ones, who are attracted to joining ISIL. As one Liberal member who has coached sports teams for a number of years, argued, you have to adapt the strategy to the current field conditions.

Trudeau also argued that Canada should concentrate on its expertise in advice and training developed from ten years in Afghanistan. Trudeau implied that, even though other countries desired primarily to play a training role, Canada was one of the best countries to fulfill it. To say, as Trudeau did, that Canada does not “have any troops on the ground in the front lines,” is very misleading, for in insurgency warfare, the enemy comes to you from the side, from the back, from underneath, from within. The battlefield does not have a front line by definition.

If the Liberals were engaged in a massive rebranding operation to portray Canadians as much more on the side of the angels involved in a hearts and minds fight rather than a direct combat role, why not go all the way? Why a hybrid mission with a scanty skirt of possible and risky combat training? If political stability is key, why get involved in the killing at all? The answer was there in the debate, but indirect and not really articulated very well by Justin Trudeau or other Liberals. It depended on how you characterized the enemy. It depended on how you characterized the means to combat the enemy.

On the question of the typology of the enemy, the Tories and Liberals were on the same ground, though the Tories used more fiery and unequivocal language. Daesh, ISIS, ISIL was evil incarnate, vicious. The militants in ISIS were “homicidal maniacs.” John McKay, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Defence Minister, called Daesh, “evil, brutal, and a completely ruthless collective of organizations that specializes in the use of terror to accomplish its aims. ISIL seeks to conquer and subjugate, with the interest and intent of establishing a quasi-nation state.” Stéphane Dion, Minister of Foreign Affairs, not to be outdone by the Tories, said, This is certainly a horrible group, and no word, be it ‘genocide,’ ‘massacre,’ or ‘terror,’ is strong enough,” thereby contradicting Tony Clement’s claim that the Liberals were reluctant to characterize ISIL’s treatment of the Yazidis and the Christians as “genocide.” “This group is driven by a perverse and terrible ideology that makes young people think they will win salvation if they murder everyone who does not believe what they believe and if they kill men, women and children. We must do everything in our power to fight it.”

Dion added, “It is important that we do everything to eradicate this group.” Not defeat! Not vanquish! Eliminate. Exterminate. Eradicate. When is the last time you heard such language applied to an enemy? Daesh was characterized as perverse and diabolical by both the Liberals and the Tories.

On the question of the utility of the air strikes, they may have not only prevented Daesh from taking more territory but they helped push back the militants by providing air cover to the Peshmerga Kurdish forces. The Tories could have quoted Falah Mustafa Bakir, the top diplomat for the Iraq Kurds in the north, who said, when he toured Canada three months ago, that, “the Kurds would prefer Canada continue air strikes in Iraq and Syria.” Perhaps the Tories did not quote him because he put the position gently and added that, if Canada chooses to take another course, then the Kurds hoped that other forms of support (political presumably as well as economic and humanitarian) would be forthcoming. Fighter jets were helpful, but not absolutely necessary, was his message. The Tories tended only to generalize about the first half of Bakir’s remarks.

The smartest response to the Tory criticisms came from John McKay. “The Conservatives agree that we should triple our advise-and-assist mission. The Conservatives agree that we should double our intelligence mission. The Conservatives agree that a helicopter component is an important component to these two missions. The Conservatives agree that we should have a medical component to this mission. The Conservatives agree with the upping of the amount of money for humanitarian assistance. The Conservatives actually agree, reluctantly may I say, with the resettlement of refugees here in this country. The Conservatives kind of reluctantly agree, as well, that diplomatic re-engagement is a good thing. The only thing they disagree with is our opposition to the bombing mission continuing.” On that question, the core argument was not over past effectiveness but, given the changing circumstances, whether a re-evaluation should take place and, if so, whether the evaluation recommended ending the air mission.

That was the nub once it was agreed that a combat mission was not ruled out in accordance with NDP preferences. And the Liberals were vulnerable on this question. First, they had campaigned on withdrawing the six fighter jets, not on re-evaluating whether the continuing deployment of fighter jets should be part of the Canadian contribution. The books seemed to be cooked before the Liberals took office. They did undertake that re-evaluation when they had access to all the requisite evidence. Secondly, a number of reputable scholars on defence matters, while welcoming the overall package of changes, argued that the continuing deployment of the jets was important for the following reasons:

  • training Canadian pilots in actual combat situations
  • the need to continue the degrading of ISIL
  • the need to have air cover for troops on the ground when training missions took them into combat zones
  • the preference for Canadian jets supplying that ground cover because direct communication was better, compatible communication equipment was in play and, hence, a more rapid response could be expected, one which decreased the possibility of friendly fire on one’s own troops.

The options had to be weighed against alternative uses of resources, the significant decline in the sorties for those jets, questioning the results in the use of such expensive equipment relative to costs and whether other resources in the air from Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Jordan, Netherlands, U.K., Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and UAE could readily fill in the gap while Canadians contributed in other ways.

After reading the debates, I became convinced that the main reason for withdrawal of the six jets was not an exercise in cost effectiveness or effectiveness more generally, or whether the Canadian contribution was essential or could be made up by others given the diminution in the number of sorties. The main issue, I believe, was rebranding and the complementary strategic stress on giving priority to a hearts and minds campaign over the military one without compromising those military goals. Since neither the Conservatives (at least, on record) nor the NDP objected to either the rebranding and the new emphasis on the hearts and minds campaign, the only question, setting aside all the irrelevancies about past performance of the jets and the other errors and faults of Liberals over the past two decades, was the question of whether the withdrawal of the jets compromises a) either the overall military effort of the consortium of sixty-six countries or b) compromises Canada’s relationship with its allies or c) is the best approach given the nature of the enemy and the relevant strategies available.

Since the answer to the first two questions, as I piece it together from the replies and remarks elsewhere, seems to be “No,” no to compromising the overall military effort, and no to putting Canada offside with its allies, then the whole debate comes off as blather when it comes to Conservative-Liberal differences, all steam and smoke but a product of hot air rather than fire. The blessing was that it was conducted with great civility, a complement to the new mood of parliament, even when John McKay called Obhrai’s verbose speech “entertaining,” to which Obhrai took offence.

Obhrai, exasperated, just protested that the change was “at the expense of the most effective weapon we have in destroying ISIL.” So why did he not spend his time piling on one piece of evidence after another to try to prove that point instead of going off into a multitude of tangents? Why did he not quote from allies that “the coalition forces are a little disappointed in the Liberal government?” But more on this tomorrow. It may be true that, to the best of one’s knowledge, the CF-18s have never attacked civilian targets and have destroyed infrastructure, fighting positions, training grounds and weapon caches. The actual record after their final mission has been:

  • 251 airstrikes, only 5 in Syria
  • dropping 606 bombs
  • destroyed 267 ISIL fighting positions
  • destroyed 102 vehicles or other pieces of equipment
  • destroyed 30 improvised explosive device factories or storage facilities

I do not know, and I could not find anything to tell me, whether this was an efficient or inefficient use of resources, assuming all claimed successes are correct. I could not find any strong arguments, pro or con, to help conclude whether, going forward, the deployment of jets would be the most efficient or effective use of resources.

On the matter of allied criticism of the change in policy, on  8 February Justin Trudeau claimed that he had spoken both to President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel and both expressed understanding of Canada’s change in policy and did not condemn it. Canada was asked to continue its refueling and reconnaissance roles and Canada complied. Bruce Heyman, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, in his statement not only called Canada’s contributions “significant,” not only noted that Canada was among the first to join in the fight against the Islamic State, but affirmed that the new Canadian policy was “in line with the Coalition’s current (my italics) needs.”

The NDP objected to any combat role or risk of a combat role for the Canadian military. Further, when it came to repeated questions about the Arms Trade Treaty, the Liberals either obfuscated or simply went on to answer an imaginary question on another matter. According to UNODA (United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs),

Under the landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) countries regulate the international trade in conventional weapons – from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships – and work to prevent the diversion of arms and ammunition.”

The treaty has 131 signatories, including Canada, but Canada is among the fifty countries that have yet to ratify the treaty. Yet no explanation was offered when the NDP used this debate to raise the issue. Of course, it fits in with the NDP’s major point that the prime thrust of policy in dealing with ISIS should be cutting off its access to recruits, arms and funds. But, again, more on this tomorrow.

Other than the withdrawal of the CF-18s from the air mission, what changes were being made on the ground? According to the Liberals, Canadians realized that our efforts to help the local government win could best be served by increasing the amount of resources and troops who contributed to the training mission and to intelligence, provincial reconstruction, and actual regional stabilization. From about 2005 to 2010, this transition was under way and applied with great determination and skill, by not only the Canadian Armed Forces personnel, but indeed by all those who contributed to a so-called “whole-of-government” approach.

Sven Spengemann (Mississauga—Lakeshore, Liberal), who once served as a UN official with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Baghdad, put it this way: boots on the ground were absolutely necessary. However, the great shortfall is in training indigenous forces. What was needed was boots on the ground who were:

  • the best trained
  • local
  • had the best intelligence.

The Liberals wanted local forces to fight ISIS. The ground seized by Daesh, displacing millions of refugees and throwing the region into turmoil, will, the Liberals argued, only be taken back by efforts on the ground. To retake that ground, local allies need better training and support to take the fight to Daesh directly and allow people to return to their homes. To that end, Canada needed to train, advise and mentor them. The Canadian complement of military personnel taking part in Operation Impact will increase from approximately 630 to 850 focused on operational planning, targeting, and intelligence. The size of Canada’s training, advice, and assist mission will also be tripled and will include equipment, such as small arms, ammunition, and optics to assist in the training of Iraqi security forces, to boost local security forces’ independence. Consistent with international law, Canada would provide training in the use of that military equipment supplied by the Government of Canada.

The Liberals promised to provide additional intelligence resources in northern Iraq and theatre-wide to better protect coalition forces and those of the host country and enable the coalition to develop a more detailed understanding of the threat and improve its ability to target, degrade, and defeat ISIS by choking off the flow of supplies, money and personnel in an “observe, detect, orient, and react cycle.” Canada’s air mission would not end entirely. The Liberal government continued to support coalition operations using the Canadian CC-150 Polaris aerial refueller and two CP-140 Aurora surveillance aircraft.

However, the new emphasis was not on the military, but on humanitarian, development and diplomatic assistance. In recognition of the worsening humanitarian crisis, Canada will undertake an $870 million three year commitment, 30% more than the previous three years, for humanitarian aid to support the basic needs of conflict-affected areas. Assisting Syrian refugees to resettle in Canada is an integral part of that humanitarian program. Canada will welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February and 25,000 government-sponsored refugees by the end of this year.

In the area of development assistance, as stated above, Canada will spend $270 million for development and resilience aid over three years, double the amount of the previous three years, to improve the living conditions of conflicted populations, and help to build the foundations for long-term regional stability of host communities, including Lebanon and Jordan, and work with local partners to build the capacity to provide basic social services, and foster inclusive growth and employment:

  • help create jobs by, for example, supporting Jordan’s commitment to put in place conditions that will create jobs for Syrian refugees in exchange for greater targeted development aid and better access to foreign markets for Jordanian exports
  • ensure that people have access to essential services
  • teach local officials how to operate water supply, water treatment, and sanitary facilities to prevent water-borne diseases associated with unsanitary conditions.
  • increase children’s access to education
  • provide a safe and healthy learning environment for the children of the local populations and the refugees
  • renovate schools
  • advance inclusive and accountable governance.

The education component is crucial. In hundreds of schools in Jordan and Lebanon, school has been shortened to half a day to permit refugee children to attend in the afternoons. Two million children in Syria and 700,000 in the camps no longer attend school. An entire generation is missing an education, with enormous long-term human and economic consequences. After all, education is the cement in order to build a democracy and maintain peace as well as provide the foundation for economic growth.

Since the solution to the crises in the region is first and foremost political, the diplomatic component will also be bolstered by additional staff in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Diplomats will work for a political solution to the crisis in Syria by supporting the UN-sponsored peace process as well as the reconciliation efforts of the Iraqi government and other crises in the region.

 

Tomorrow: A detailed critique from the Opposition parties

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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