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That Conservative foreign policy election plank: Shaky, incoherent and quite possibly dangerous

Harper Screen Shot

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper likes to portray himself as a leader who stands by his foreign friends through thick and thin. But can they really depend on him? And can we depend on them?

Like the economy, Harper has made foreign policy a key plank in his Conservative Party's reelection strategy. And that stalwart support for certain groups and countries is a showpiece part of the prime minister's vote-winning effort.

High on the agenda -- indeed, one of only two examples of foreign policy initiatives mentioned in the party news release explaining the prime minister's decision Sunday to call an election early -- is what the government calls "Canada's mission against ISIS." Canada's friendship with the Kurds is a cornerstone of that mission.

In May, when the prime minister visited leaders of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region who have been fighting the so-called Islamic State with Canadian support, he lauded the Kurds' officially unrecognized but effective army, the Peshmerga.

A few days before, a Peshmerga unit had killed a Canadian special forces soldier sent to assist it in what was described as a "friendly fire incident."

"Look, this was a terrible tragedy," Harper said while visiting the contested territory, "but let it not obscure, frankly, the respect I think we should have for the Kurdish fighters in this area." A now notorious video of the visit in which the Prime Minister's Office revealed the faces of Canadian special forces troops clearly shows the prime minister speaking in front of a Kurdish flag snapping in the desert wind.

Under the Conservatives, Canadian authorities have turned a blind eye to the recruitment of Canadian military veterans and other volunteers by the Peshmerga, and some Canadian news media, the National Post in particular, have acted as a virtual recruiting agency for the Kurds.

So what does Canada do now that our North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, the Turks, have turned viciously on the Kurds with the apparent support of the United States? Will Harper stand by his friends, or will he just stand by?

Conservatives and the Department of Foreign Affairs might try to make a distinction between the Kurds being bombed by the Turks and the Kurds being assisted by the Canadians. But while it is true that the principal group being bombed by the Turks -- the Kurdistan Workers Party, known by the initials PKK -- was declared a terrorist group by Canada in 2002, this won't really wash. It is acknowledged by experts on the region that the PKK in Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, who Canada has been supporting, have long worked together.

For Canadians trying to follow the unfolding situation in the Middle East -- particularly the cartoonish version created by Conservative press release writers and their echo chamber in the media -- the latest developments in this region of shifting alliances and unchanging aspirations must seem extremely confusing.

However, this much is clear: The Kurds, who live in a region that spans parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey and who do not have a country of their own, have more than one enemy. One is the fundamentalist and unrelentingly violent ISIS. But another has long been our NATO ally Turkey, a major regional power.

Yet another is the government of Syria, which we are apparently not trying to help even as we are attacking one of its principal enemies, ISIS, inside Syria.

This is because part of the territory that for generations has been desired as an independent homeland by the Kurds, a distinct ethnic group closely related to the people of Iran, is in southeastern Turkey. It is hard not to feel sympathetic to the Kurds' national aspirations. But our Turkish NATO allies are not about to give that territory up either.

Indeed, the Canadian government really should have seen this coming. The Turks and the Kurds have been at daggers drawn at least since the mid-1980s, some would say the since the 1920s or before. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952.

About two weeks ago, the United States cut a deal with Turkey for the use of airbases on Turkish territory for the U.S. bombing campaign against ISIS. In that campaign, the U.S. had been effectively allied with Kurdish groups in Syria. In doing so, the U.S. has been accused of abandoning its Kurdish allies.

Whatever the U.S. intentions, the deal made it possible for Turkey to increase its attacks on terrorists too -- but the "terrorists" Turkey has been attacking are almost entirely Kurds.

Last week, according to news reports, Turkish airstrikes killed more than 250 Kurdish soldiers associated with the PKK, which is also allied with the Syrian Kurds supported by the United States. Kurdish units killed four Turkish policemen and four Turkish soldiers.

The Iraqi Kurdish fighters supported by Canada in the fight against ISIS are naturally sympathetic to the PKK even if not formally allied as they are part of the same aspirational national movement. Despite whatever NATO-member Canada is doing for them they are unlikely to feel much warmth for NATO-member Turkey.

This may explain the Wall Street Journal's reports that ISIS is now successfully recruiting young Turkish Kurds to join its fight.

Moreover, notwithstanding the prime minister's fine words about the Kurds, we don't seem to treat them with all that much consideration. In June, despite the Peshmerga's front-line role, the Kurdish Regional Government (representing Kurds in Iraq) was shut out of a meeting in Paris of the countries and groups engaged in the fight against ISIS.

As the latest battles between the Turks and the Kurds heated up, the Iraqi Kurds were also not invited to a meeting of the same parties, this time in Quebec City. "Once again it appears that the Kurdistan region, a key component in the fight against (ISIS), is being excluded," the KRG's Washington office said bitterly. But a spokesperson for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs blew off questions about it, saying it was up to the Iraqis "to determine participation in their delegation."

If you're confused by this, don’t feel too guilty. It’s none too clear to people who understand the region, and made less so by the incoherence of Canada's policy.

Whatever is going on, though, a few things seem obvious, chief among them that Canadian policy in the region is rapidly turning into a clusterfrolic with little apparent understanding of the players, no clear objective other than "fight ISIS" and no exit strategy for the Canadians who are being asked to fight and die there.

Sound familiar?

As for the economy, another pillar of the prime minister’s re-election strategy, it turns out it's a mess too!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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