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Canada and the IS threat

A recent increase in Canadian support for Iraq shows the country's move, under Prime Minister Steven Harper, to play a larger role in the Middle East, writes Bryan Gibson

The Canadian government announced on Friday that it was sending “several dozen” military advisors to Iraq to help as part of Canada’s increasingly robust response to help stop the Islamic State’s “murderous rampage.” The military advisors are likely to be drawn from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, which often serves alongside the highly classified, elite Joint Task Force 2 (JTF-2), Canada’s equivalent to the American Delta Force. In addition, two Canadian military cargo planes will begin ferrying weapons to the embattled Kurds.

According to a spokesman for the Canadian Prime Minister, Steven Harper, the Canadian mission is limited to providing “strategic and tactical counsel to Iraqi forces before they start tactical operations.” The spokesman, Jason MacDonald, emphasised that Canada will play “an advise and assist role, not one in which Canadian Forces will be accompanying Iraqi forces on missions [or] tactical operations. They are there to provide advice that will help the government of Iraq and its security forces be more effective against [the Islamic State]."

The decision comes after Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, made a secret two-day trip to Baghdad and Erbil beginning on 3 September. While in Baghdad, Baird met with Iraq’s new president, Fuad Masoum, and Foreign Affairs Minister, Hoshyar Zebari. In his meeting with President Masoum, Baird explained that he “wanted to come here to show [Canada’s] solidarity with the Iraqi people,” and that all Canadians are “deeply concerned with the security threat” the Islamic State poses to Iraq.

While referring to the “barbaric” beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, Baird acknowledged that many unnamed Iraqis had met a similar fate. “We should be very mindful that there have been hundreds even thousands of Iraqis, men women and children, who have met similar fates.” For this reason, he said, Canada wants to help the central government in Baghdad and the regional government in Erbil “to be able to provide for the safety, security and protection of all their people, including not just religious minorities, not just innocent civilians, but every citizen of Iraq.”

Speaking to reporters in Newport, Wales, where the NATO summit is being held, Harper observed, “The measures taken to date, particularly in the north of Iraq, have certainly been successful in halting the advance of [IS], and to some degree, pushing back on it. But this is far from truly turning back the advance of [the Islamic State] or diminishing its long-term threat.” Given this, he said that Canada’s involvement in Iraq would be evaluated on the basis of events taking place, while at the same time underscoring that the current mission was strictly non-combat.

For years, the Canadian government had quietly been providing humanitarian assistance to Iraq; however, it took on a much more public role following the outpouring of concern about the trapped Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in early August. On 10 August, Canada announced the provision of a further $5 million in humanitarian aid to Iraq. Since then, the Canadian government has also indicated that it was stockpiling relief supplies in Dubai and that some of these supplies were now being deployed to Iraq.

Indeed, since the start of the year, the Canadian government has provided the Iraqi government with considerable economic, military and humanitarian aid. According to statistics posted on the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development’s website, Canada has given Iraq over $21 million in humanitarian aid, of which $11.8 million is for populations affected by civil unrest and $9.6 million for Syrian refugees. This included help distributing food and the provision of hygiene kits, cooking materials, blankets, tents, medical supplies and other essential supplies, in addition to undertaking emergency repairs to essential water and sanitation facilities and improving access to information.

In addition, on 3 September, the Harper government announced that it is providing Iraq with at least $15 million to help support security measures. Of this sum, at least $10 million will be in the form of non-lethal security assistance that will provide the Iraqi security forces with equipment such as helmets, body armour and logistics support vehicles to help combat IS, while the remaining $5 million will be used to support regional efforts aimed at limiting the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria.

In the end, the Harper government’s decision to send military advisors to Iraq is significant for a number of reasons. Notably, the arrival of these troops in Iraq will be the first instance where the Canadian military will operate openly in this theatre since the 1991 Gulf War. This is because the government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had rejected any Canadian in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, there are reports that throughout the Iraq War, Canadian soldiers had been embedded with American units.

More importantly, this decision shows that under Prime Minister Steven Harper, Canada is continuing to play a larger role in the Middle East than it has in the past. This fits a wider pattern evident in Canadian foreign policy, which has seen Canada play an increasingly assertive role on the Middle East.

This has led to a number of controversial decisions, like Canada’s outright opposition to any form of nuclear agreement between the West and Iran or its unflinching support of Israel during the war in Gaza - even though polls show that only 17 percent of Canadians are supportive of Israel’s policies. However, the sending of military advisors and the provision of humanitarian and non-lethal aid to Iraq are more reflective of Canada’s long history of helping those in need. 

Bryan R Gibson recently completed a PhD in International History at the London School of Economics and is the author of Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988 (Praeger, 2010).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: Islamic State militants celebrate in Raqqa, Syria in August (AFP/YouTube)

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