After the Paris Attacks: Canada’s Role in the Fight Against ISIS

Comments to be presented at: “After the Paris Attacks: What Must we Learn?”
Liu Institute for Global Issues – Multipurpose Room. December 1 at 12:30 PM 

There are few certainties to guide our response to the threat of ISIS, but one thing seems clear: we do not have a strategy. As one US military commander put it last fall, “We do not understand ISIS, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it.”

Let me simply note two of the most obvious unresolved dilemmas facing the United States and its allies. A military defeat of ISIS would benefit Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. So, assuming the US were to have an effective strategy against ISIS, that would still leave unresolved the matter of how to rebuild Syria. Gwynne Dyer has written a book called “Don’t Panic” in which he concludes that to stop ISIS we have to back the Assad regime. Perhaps Dyer has failed to take his own advice, but his point does underscore the dilemma.

Another dilemma arises from the proposed solution of containment. Containment was a strategy used against the Soviets during the Cold War. The USSR was a state. ISIS is emerging as a prototypical state. It taxes and seeks to monopolize coercion within a territory, and asserts its right to rule—as a Caliphate—based on religious legitimacy. It has a rudimentary bureaucracy with standard operating procedures; a flag; it trades oil and antiquities outside its borders; and it produces slick if sickening propaganda. ISIS controls the territory and population of a small country. It operates like a protection racket (to use Charles Tilly’s term) or “stationary bandit” (Mancur Olson). Containing ISIS, if it means allowing it to hold its territory, would signal the end of Iraq and Syria as we know them.

On the other hand, defeating ISIS militarily would involve massive destruction and loss of life, but it would not end the problem of terrorism (indeed, it could very well intensify it). It is important to recall that the rise of ISIS is directly linked to the invasion of Iraq. The De-Baathification of the Iraqi government and disbanding of the Iraqi army provided many of the recruits and top leadership of ISIS.

So, what should Canada do? I think the Liberal government has, so far, got the balance about right. Our primary mission should be humanitarian. We should offer diplomatic good offices where possible. To be relevant we must be engaged in the military effort without a direct combat role.

Why not a direct combat role? Because we didn’t break it, so we don’t own it. Before the invasion of Iraq, Colin Powell advised Bush that “if you break it, you own it.” The US invasion broke it, and by leaving in 2011, President Obama allowed Iraq to slide into sectarian violence. Like it or not, the US owns this problem.

Prime Minister Harper would almost certainly have sent Canadian troops to participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, had he been prime minister then, and his policies while in office were aimed at reversing the Canadian aversion to involvement in international conflict. Yet he never made a compelling case for Canada’s role in bombing ISIS. His arguments were partisan, and motivated by a desire to change Canada’s role in the world in ways that did not enjoy broad support.

Moreover, the last election was a decisive moment for Canadian foreign and domestic policy. It would be impossible to separate the Harper government’s bombing of ISIS from its reluctance to admit refugees, its proposed barbarian practices snitch line, and its use of the niqab as a wedge issue. This is why Trudeau has insisted that admitting more refugees is about nation-building. It is an attempt to consolidate a commitment to multiculturalism. In this sense, under the Trudeau government, domestic sentiment and international policy have been, for now, re-aligned.

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