Canada’s extension of its air campaign against Islamic State to Syria addresses a major shortcoming in the current mission.
Canadian fighter jets will be able to hit the jihadist group where it is strongest and, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in the House this morning, where it has its de-facto capital in the city of Raqqa. Islamic State might be pushed out of Iraq, but as long as it has a protected base to fall back to in Syria, it will not be defeated.
Canada had previously ruled out airstrikes in Syria without the permission of the Syrian government—in other words the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Harper has now reversed this policy and says Canada will not seek the “express consent of the Syrian government.”
That “express consent” nuance is important. Washington informed Assad’s government before beginning its bombing campaign in Syria last year. Syria has not targeted planes belonging to America or its allies that are operating in Syria. Assad’s consent, therefore, may not be expressed, but it is certainly implied.
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This brings us to the largest remaining flaw in the coalition mission against Islamic State. It ignores one of the driving forces behind Islamic State’s growth: Assad’s dictatorship, and the death squads and Iranian-backed militias who operate on its behalf.
It’s true that Assad’s violent Alawite and Shia Muslim sectarianism has pushed some Sunni Muslims to support Islamic State. But Assad’s role in Islamic State’s rise is more direct.
From the beginning of the Syrian revolution, Assad portrayed all opposition against him as Islamist terrorism. And then he tried to make it so.
His regime had a co-operative relationship with jihadists, and specifically with Islamic State’s parent group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, prior to the Arab Spring. Jihadist ratlines ran unmolested through Syria into Iraq during the insurgency against American forces there in the 2000s.
When the Syrian revolution began, Assad released many jihadists from prison. They joined the insurgency’s most radical brigades. When Islamic State began taking territory, Assad left it alone. His regime has gassed civilians and bombed schoolchildren, but has never quite got around to mobilizing in force against Islamic State.
This is not to suggest that Assad and Islamic State’s so-called caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have a formal alliance. But for much of the past four years, Syria’s dictators and its rebel jihadists have shared the common goal of eliminating Syria’s non-jihadist opposition. They have made a lot of progress.
It’s a temporary convergence of interests. Now that he believes Syria’s non-jihadist opposition no longer poses much of a threat, Assad has declared himself wiling to co-operate with Americans, or anyone else, against Islamic State.
And here we must give NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair his due. Today he described Assad as a murderous war criminal whose regime has collaborated with Islamic State. He’s right. But that begs the question: What exactly is the NDP proposing to do about Assad? Air strikes? A no-fly zone? Assad is unlikely to go peacefully. The NDP has not endorsed the use of force to remove him.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau today also condemned Assad for the oppression and terror he has visited on Syrians, killing and torturing more innocents than even Islamic State. But, like Mulcair, Trudeau has never articulated a serious strategy for getting rid of Assad.
Mulcair and Trudeau are far from unique here. The Conservative government’s humanitarian assistance to those affected by the Syrian civil war has been generous; its material support for Syria’s revolutionaries has not. And, to be fair, there’s little Canada can do on its own. Assad is armed by Russia and propped up by regional superpower Iran. Toppling him will require serious American intervention.
Sadly, under President Barack Obama, American strategy in Syria consists of waiting until 200,000 people are dead, including as a result of chemical weapons; finally sending in American war planes, but not against Assad; and then figuring a belated training program will miraculously make up for years of neglect and betrayal and cause Syria’s embattled revolutionaries to flock to his banner.
This means Assad isn’t going anywhere soon. But Canada bombing Islamic State in Syria, contrary to suggestions by Mulcair and Trudeau, will not strengthen him. Islamic State is not a serious threat to Assad, and Assad is not a serious threat to Islamic State. They feed off each other. If Syrians are ever to enjoy a decent future, both must go.
A final point: Mulcair claimed that Canada’s allies, including Americans, “do not even get close to the front line.” I’ve been on the front lines in Iraq, within rifle range of Islamic State, and was told by Iraqi Kurdish fighters that American and French personnel had been there, too. It’s been reported that other Western troops, including British and Germans, have been in similar positions. Mulcair and Trudeau have rightly condemned the government for its lack of transparency about Canada’s mission in Iraq, but it appears that in this regard Canada is not alone.