Why we must expand our mission into Syria

The Globe and Mail opposes Canada’s war against Islamic State entering Syria. Michael Petrou explains why that’s wrong.



A Globe and Mail editorial has outlined the paper’s opposition to the expansion of Canada’s mission into Syria. I’ve tried elsewhere to articulate why, on balance, I think the expansion is good, if insufficient. But I’d like to specifically address a couple of the Globe’s arguments.

The Globe asks: “In Syria, who would Canada be fighting for?”

The short answer is: “Syrians.”

Such calls to solidarity with people far away who are crushed by fascism don’t much feature in Canadian political debates these days.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair says the war in Iraq is not “ours” — which is true only if we also believe that Iraqi and Syrian victims of mass rape and ethnic cleansing are not “us” either. The left in Canada has an admirable history of internationalism, but also of navel-gazing isolationism, which is what Mulcair appears to be tapping. “European troubles are not worth the bones of a Toronto grenadier,” CCF co-founder Frank Underhill opined in the 1930s. He was later made an officer of the Order of Canada.

The Liberals once championed the notion of “responsibility to protect.” Some have evidently not forgotten. Members of Justin Trudeau’s caucus rose listlessly to their feet in the House to applaud his speech opposing the mission. They didn’t look proud.

Related: Paul Wells on how Justin Trudeau is doubling down

The Conservatives, for their part, have exaggerated the threat Islamic State poses to Canada as part of their efforts to sell the war. The threat is real, but mostly indirect, and small. The more compelling reason to fight Islamic State is to protect those it seeks to kill and enslave. When halting genocide isn’t sufficient cause to endorse a military mission consisting of only a handful of planes and soldiers, we’ve shrunk as a country.

Related: What the party leaders said about expanding the war against ISIS

The Globe, to be clear, isn’t arguing that Canada shouldn’t help Syrians, but that Canada doesn’t have a “significant ally on the ground” there.

It must be frustrating to be a Syrian revolutionary, or armed fighter. For years, they have been dismissed as al-Qaeda by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” by American President Barack Obama.

In fact, Syria’s original revolutionaries had a wide and deep democratic streak. And because most Syrian men have military experience due to the draft in that country, many Free Syrian Army fighters are former soldiers. Many others were in the army when they defected to the opposition.

It is true that many of Syria’s original revolutionaries are now dead, in exile, or embittered by the West’s abandonment of them. But we do still have friends.

Among them are the Kurdish YPG forces, and some allied militias, in Syria’s north. With the help of American air strikes, they freed the besieged city of Kobani and averted a certain massacre there earlier this year. They have carved out three enclaves, dubbed Rojava, including a large one in the northeast that borders Iraq.

Related: Inside the triumph at Kobani, and the reality that awaits

Last year, in northern Iraq, I interviewed Gharib Hassou, a spokesman for the YPG’s political wing, the PYD. He said the group is devoted to pluralism and tolerance.

It’s not easy to report from Rojava, but Ottawa Citizen columnist Terry Glavin has done so. He describes a proto-state where these values are lived.

“Here, we are Muslims and we are Christians. It is not important, really,” said Ratas Shimon, the Assyrian Christian owner of a restaurant/swimming pool/wedding-hall complex whom Glavin interviewed in the town of Derike. “We live with each other as brothers and sisters, and I live in freedom and equality. Why would I want to go to Europe or America?”

There are aspects of PYD politics, including an unwavering devotion to Abdullah Ocalan, leader of their sister party in Turkey, with which I’m uncomfortable. But that’s hardly the point. They’ve proclaimed a commitment to democracy. They’ve demonstrated a commitment to gender equality. They have heroically stood against Islamic State and protected those within territory they control. They are, or should be, our “significant ally.”

The Globe also argues that Islamic State’s “main adversary” is the government of Bashar al-Assad. If this were true, all parties in any war should wish to be so lucky.

Assad and Islamic State are not opponents; they are unofficial partners sharing the same short-term goal of eliminating Syria’s non-jihadist opposition, and for this reason they’ve mostly left each other alone.

Assad’s forces have killed far more Syrian schoolchildren than Islamic State jihadists. Islamic State has suffered more casualties in Syria at the hands of revolutionary Kurds than the Syrian army.

Assad has always tried to frame Syria’s civil war as a conflict with only two possible outcomes: a victory for his regime, or for radical Islamists. Syrians deserve a future free of both.


Why we must expand our mission into Syria

  1. This is not war. It’s an insurgency coupled with a religious sectarian war and a civil war in a far away land.
    The perpetrators have managed to push fear and revulsion buttons in the West by using modern social media and mass communication techniques. But this in no way resembles a real war like WW 2 as far as atrocities are concerned.

    I heard Saudi Arabia our close friend and ally for decades beheaded 70 or so people in public last year. Must be wrong.

    This local conflict is being treated like Vietnam was. Those Vietnam Cong are the enemy and if we don’t stop the Commies over there, the domino theory will kick in and we will all be doomed, they’ll be landing on the west coast.

    However invading a country as we are invading Syria is an act of war. We are embarking on a Vietnam like quagmire. Remember we don’t cut and run in Canada, so it’s long term.

    There is hope. After the election the threat of Islamic terrorism should subside considerably.

  2. If we were actually doing anything good over there I might agree with our rediscovered “internationalism”, but 6 jets and a platoon of trainer/targeteers, helping to pinpoint that humanitarian bombing, doesn’t make me feel all warm and fuzzy. All we’re doing is apparently helping one side get rid of the other when neither are particularly beneficial to what we consider peace, security or our national interests. What this IS about is an investment in the ‘goodwill’ we hope will sell the Americans on our pipeline fantasies. If we really gave a fig about the evil that is Bashir Assad (and he didn’t ‘go bad’ overnight) we wouldn’t have been helping US authorities ‘rendition’ Canadian citizens into his prisons – and we could have squawked louder when we found out they did.

    Our military millions would be far better spent on the humanitarian assistance that used to go with that ‘internationalism’, for we gained a reputation for peace-keeping and fair dealing that we’ve long lost blasting places in the world to do nobody any good.

    Neither Iraq, nor Syria , Ukraine too for that matter – or the ‘Preem”s fixation with the land of milk and honey are Canada’s concerns. Other than to help – and not with a gun. God knows they already have enough of those.

  3. The cons have knocked the economy off the news cycle for the last month or so by trying to push C-51 through, and now they have C-51 knocked off the news cycle(popularity is dropping on that bill now) by introducing this motion in the HOCs with Iraq mission instead of April 7, when it was supposed to be introduced. We are still not talking about the budget or the state of the economy, tells me we have a major problem in the media when the government is controlling the message in the political news cycle and not the media, Mark Bourrie had something when he said the media is controlled by the government..

    • It’s JT’s job to drag the conversation back to the economy, but until he’s ready to release a platform, he remains “mum” on the subject.
      The press have become headline click bait, hampered with dwindling budgets and ADD readership.

      While I appreciate the efforts of those who still comment, this place is pretty much a dead zone for debate and that is a damn shame; there used to really be something special here

      • JT’s or Mulcair’s. The latter is still the leader of the Official Opposition.

        And I wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph.

        • Re para 2.

          What happened? Fear?

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