OTTAWA –The Obama administration has committed itself, and by extension its allies, including Canada, to an open-ended conflict in the Middle East in precisely the kind of foreign entanglement Stephen Harper has sought to avoid.
The toxic politics of Iraq, combined with overlapping sectarian civil wars in Syria and throughout the region, mean the dozens of Canadian special forces troops recently committed to the mission are stepping into a more complex and violent cauldron than anything they experienced in Afghanistan.
A series of experts weighed in Thursday on President Barack Obama’s expanded military campaign to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group leading a resurgent tide of Islamic extremism.
The linchpin of the strategy is Obama’s plan to keep American and allied ground troops out of the fighting by using U.S. air power, manned fighters and drones alike, to support Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters as they retake Islamic State territory.
Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said Canada is “united with our allies in recognizing the need to address this barbaric terrorist threat.”
But the deployment of Canadian special forces will not be followed by any regular ground troops, MacDonald insisted.
Ben Connable, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation and former Marine intelligence officer, said Thursday he has doubts that the Iraqi army is up to its first major test: clearing the northern city of Mosul.
“We’re looking at a campaign that may look very similar to what Fallujah looked like in 2004,” Connable said.
“If that is the case … I’m frankly not sure the Iraqi army is up for a military operation in urban terrain in a campaign that will require them to go block-by-block through the city, clearing building by building against fanatical fighters.”
To complicate matters, there’s Iran, which has reportedly deployed members of its elite Revolutionary Guard in northern Iraq in a mission similar to that undertaken by U.S. and Canadian special forces.
Earlier this week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird flatly rejected the notion of co-operating with Iran.
“Iran is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world,” Baird told a joint commons committee on Tuesday.
“Just because it’s not their brand of terrorism doesn’t (absolve) them. They have had a very destabilizing influence in just about every single country in that region.”
But Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Rand Center for Middle East Public Policy, said while Shiite-dominated Iran will “always play a role in the Iraqi sphere,” there is a way to co-ordinate actions.
The U.S. strategy becomes even more murky when Syria and the ongoing civil war to topple Bashar al Assad’s regime is factored in. Obama is ready to conduct airstrikes and arm moderate opposition fighters who would presumably also battle the Islamic State.
Iran has steadfastly backed Assad with arms and technical assistance.
“Iran wasn’t mentioned in the speech and they are a de facto partner aligned in the anti-IS coalition _ at least in the Iraqi sphere,” Kaye said.
“The dilemma, at least in the Syrian sphere, is that Iran is on the other side. If we are arming the opposition forces in Syria, we are indirectly fighting a proxy war against the Iranians.”
Harper has been clear that Canada’s involvement is strictly limited to Iraq, but even there, Connable sees trouble, especially when it comes to providing arms to local Shiite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
“There are real dangers,” he said. “I don’t see a long-term objective yet, and I think that needs to be articulated. And we are, unintentionally or perhaps unwillingly, going to arm people who are going to fight against the government of Iraq and have been fighting against the government of Iraq.”
Canadian transport planes have been ferrying weapons to the Kurds.
Just prior to the 2008 election when the Afghan war was in full swing, Harper defended his decision to set 2011 as the year to pull-out of combat in Kandahar.
“You have to put an end date on these things,” he said.
The size and scope of the Iraq commitment doesn’t equal the struggle in Afghanistan, which persisted for more than a decade, but experts agree it could very well be something that’s inherited by future Canadian governments.