Photo: flickr/ nate1280

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There are serious moral and strategic concerns about civilian deaths on the ground in Iraq and Syria. These lie at the heart of lively peace rallies in the UK over David Cameron’s decision to participate in the coalition aerial bombing campaign against the forces of the Islamic State.

There has not been a similar upsurge of protesters on Canadian streets calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to keep his election promises and withdraw the six CF-18s from their current mission, which is entirely in Iraq. Canada has, up to now, stayed out of the Syrian portion of the campaign.

In the face of a cacophony of voices in the media, and the opposition Conservatives, saying Canada should stay the course in targeting ISIS, few voices are being heard from the other side, either on the streets or in the House of Commons.

“I think we’ve not seen much resistance to the bombing because the demonization campaign has been so successful that everyone is afraid of being equated with ISIS and so few people are familiar with the political dynamics on the ground, which are complex,” says Matthew Behrens, writer and co-coordinator of Homes not Bombs.

He suggests that people normally caught up in anti-war activity “often look for a good guy” in a conflict with the west, but nobody in the current violence in Iraq and Syria fits that description.

That includes Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, mistakenly considered in some circles as the “anti-imperialist hero” for the moment “despite his policies of mass torture and brutal bombings,” says Behrens.

He laments the lack of a mass movement opposed to militarism and the weapons industry. “There is no peace movement in Canada. There are scattered peace groups.”

One such small group with a diplomatic heft is the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute where the president Peggy Mason is the former Canadian ambassador for disarmament at the United Nations from 1989 to 1995.

She agrees it has not helped matters that the Liberals have not explained — either during the election or following their victory — their preference for training and humanitarian assistance rather than continue Stephen Harper’s decision to participate in a coalition aerial bombing mission against the Islamic State caliphate over Iraq primarily.

Neither the Trudeau nor his defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, have talked about the consequences of civilian casualties from any bombing campaign as a justification for the pull out of Canadian jets. The recently released Pentagon records show Canadian air strikes killed up to 27 civilians.

Canada was also recently shut out of the U.S.-led coalition meeting about the fight to defeat Islamic State militants. Many speculated it was because of Trudeau’s election promise to withdraw six fighter jets from the bombing mission.

Canada’s 2015/2016 mission, which includes six pilots and six CF 18 jet fighters plus 600 military personnel, is “hugely expensive,” says Mason. She estimates the cost at about $450 million and remarks there are too few targets to warrant our presence in Iraq.

Mason notes that there is an “over capacity,” in terms of jets from countries like the U.S., France, Australia and Canada participating in the coalition.

“Our contribution is really to show the flag [in Iraq]; it is to be there, one of the countries bombing,” says Mason.

The purpose of all this ostensibly is to offer aerial support for the anti-ISIS forces in ground battles against a well-equipped Islamic State military.

That has become difficult with a corrupt Iraqi military in disarray and ongoing conflicts between the Sunni minority (which once dominated the country under Saddam Hussein) and the Shia-dominated Bagdad government.

It is the discrimination and violence experienced by the Sunnis at the hands of the Shia and their militias in the post-Hussein Iraq that is the basis for Sunni support of the Islamic State.

“You don’t have many Sunnis fighting the Islamic State because they are more afraid of their own government,” says Mason.

She urges that Canada and its western allies should put more time into improving the political governance of Iraq — not an easy task she concedes — to ensure that the Iraqis are the ones primarily doing the combat.

“Dropping bombs is not going to solve anything if you are not focused on solving the political problems,” says Mason.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Citizen‘s defense correspondent David Pugliese reports that the Trudeau government is considering providing upwards of 300 military trainers in Iraq.

Presumably, many will be working with the Peshmerga in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan, the most reliable of the anti-ISIS fighting forces in that country.

But, asks Mason, do Canadians want to be associated with a Kurdish separatist army that is busy ethnically cleansing conquered territory in Iraq of their Sunni Arab inhabitants?

“Everybody in the Canadian media is going on about the ‘wonderful Peshmerga,'” she says.

Meanwhile, the Arab partnering countries including Jordan, Bahrain and the UAE have abandoned the coalition bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria and switched over to supporting the Saudi intervention in the Yemen civil war. That has made the current U.S.-led mission dominated entirely western in orientation.

The coalition members adhere officially to what is called “proportionality,” under international law, says Michael Lynk, an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at Western University and legal expert. “Any humanitarian harm must be strictly proportional to the advantage gained by bombing the military target.”

Nevertheless, all of the cities where ISIS is in control in Iraq and Syria — such as Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul — contain significant civilian populations, and their deaths and suffering from the bombing “have not been insignificant,” albeit the difficulty in verifying reports on the ground, he says.

The danger is that the bombing campaign is also more creating recruits for ISIS among the affected people on the ground, adds Lynk.

“In terms of morality, groups such as ISIS need to be countered and combated. But equal to the danger that they pose because of their extreme brutality is the threat of handing them an easy and unintended victory,” he says.

Meanwhile, the separate Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and Burkina Faso — in the latter six Quebec humanitarian workers were murdered — have complicated the Trudeau government’s move to step back from the bombing entirely, says Reg Whitaker, a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria and author, who sees the logic in Canada’s participation in the bombing under some circumstances.

“There are good arguments against the bombing, some very compelling ones made in Britain inside and outside Parliament when it came to a vote recently. On the other hand, there are plausible arguments in favour, so long as they are not stretched beyond simply hitting ISIS military positions (since ISIS is running a full scale military campaign, not just hit and run guerrilla-type operations, bombing should have some concrete results).”

At the same time, he says, nobody in the west has offered a coherent strategic vision of how to counter Islamist terrorism both at home and in the Middle Eastern cauldron.

The Trudeau government can facilitate an alliance by playing a more active role in the international effort to end the civil war in Syria among the warring parties opposed to ISIS, states Mason. “I find it troubling that the Liberal government hasn’t said anything about the peace negotiations.”

After all, Prime Minister Trudeau did promise to the world that Canada “is back” on the world stage, she adds.


Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton-based freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected].

Photo: flickr/ nate1280

Paul Weinberg

Paul Weinberg

Paul Weinberg is a freelance writer as well as author and editor, based in Hamilton, ON.