John Baird on training Kurds, avoiding Syria, and ‘mission creep’

Highlights from this week’s Maclean’s on the Hill interview with the foreign minister


My interview with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird begins at the 10:07 mark of our Maclean’s on the Hill podcast this week. It’s worth hearing Baird’s own voice on this week’s news, but here are three key points he made—all on Canada’s decision to send special operations troops into northern Iraq to train Kurdish soldiers.

On what those Canadians can possibly teach the grizzled fighters of the Kurdish Regional Government, which rules Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, where Baird travelled earlier this month:

 “There’s no doubt particularly the KRG and folks in that region are very brave, very courageous. They’re battle-hardened, but they are used to fighting in the mountains, not a more conventional war with a front line. So they lack a lot of the training and expertise that would be invaluable. I think what Canada can provide is to impart the knowledge that our well-trained Canadian Forces have to assist them and win this battle.”

On why Canada is directly engaged now in northern Iraq, but not in Syria, even though Baird told the House foreign affairs committee earlier this week that so-called Islamic State terrorists have “effectively erased the border” between the two countries:

“The challenge is that we don’t have the capacity to train the forces on the other side of the border, given that the state there has used chemical weapons against its own people, and that it’s very difficult to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys in the [Syrian] opposition. Obviously, President Obama spoke to this and he’ll be moving forward with that aspect.”

On the sensitive question of whether or not the strictly limited training mission might evolve into something closer to combat, and on what factors will be taken into consideration on whether to extend the mission, Baird was cagey:

“First and foremost, we could never undertake any mission if we were worried about mission creep. I think what the Prime Minister has said is that after 30 days we’ll evaluate how we’ve been able to assist the KRG forces in northern Iraq and would there by value to continuing. I’m not going to anticipate what that decision will be…”

I also asked him about the situation in Ukraine, particularly about the imposition of new sanctions by the European Union and the U.S., meant to isolate Russia’s oil and banking sectors. “Listen, Canada has been a part of more than a dozen rounds of sanctions,” Baird said, “and we’ve argued for strong, tough sanctions, and we will undoubtedly follow suit.” Especially with Prime Minister Stephen Harper preparing to make a splash surrounding Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s visit to Ottawa to address Parliament this week.



John Baird on training Kurds, avoiding Syria, and ‘mission creep’

  1. Paul Martin’s indecision and vacillation about what to do in Afghanistan left Canada no option but the remaining and most dangerous one, Kandahar.

    I think Harper has done the opposite here. By deciding quickly, Canada is able to help in a useful way and take on a role that has lower risks associated with it, training the Kurds about how to work with Western air power, providing reconnaissance and targeting. Working with the Shia Iraqis would have been complicated because Iran is intimately involved with their militias (with one of the most effective generals of the IRG managing their forces). And Syria is a mess.

    ISIS really isn’t a threat to the West. The correct policy is containment. This is a civil war spanning two countries, and there is no Sunni ground force to take on the Sunni ISIS force. No neighbouring state wants to get directly involved (Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia), and the Kurds and the Shia Iraqis are not going to fight in Western Iraq outside of their traditional territory.

    The borders of Iraq and Syria have to be redrawn with an independent Kurdistan, a Shia Iraq, and a Sunni state in Western Iraq and Syria.

    So contain ISIS and let the Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria decide their own fate, and try to stop the flow of foreign fighters in.

    Bombing is actually counterproductive. Let the ordinary Sunni Iraqi find that ISIS is really unable to provide effective government.

    But the Americans and Obama are idiots. They will bomb (Obama being the Emperor of the Drones), and all of us will have to deal with the blowback for generations.

    • Enjoying the blowback from the Iraq war and the “idiots” who supported it?
      When will your pal, Harper be condemning those illegal drone strikes? He’s had, what, 10 years since Bush initiated the strikes to do so?
      But of course the “idiots” couldn’t find a more enthusiastic cheerleader for bombing than Harper – bombing Iraq, bombing Afghanistan, bombing Libya…

      • He’s our John McCain.

    • Paul Martin was manipulated civil servants at DFAIT and Rick Hillier into signing on to Kandahar- which Hillier told him would be robust peace support and the CF would have enough troops to conduct another peacekeeping mission. The real question is why did Hillier give this advice- incompetence and/or that he simply didn’t care if we were taking on a mission well beyond the capability of the CF for the chance to get closer to the Americans and to get a small war for the all the glory, gongs, cash and gear that would bring. In the case of Kandahar the “creep” was the size and cost of the force deployed. Was the soon to be discovered need for new tanks and helicopters part of the motivation for going? A way to bypass normal acquisition channels and use casualties as leverage?

      • Do you think the current CDS is listened to at all by Harper – he appears to be muzzled. Muzzled seems to be term being used a lot lately.

    • I think historians will trace the ‘blowback for generations’ to Bushes invasion of Iraq.

Sign in to comment.