The foggy war: Where is Canada in the fight against Islamic State?

In a battleground of shifting and strained alliances, Canada’s modest air war against Islamic State is becoming hard to justify

Royal Canadian Air Force ground crew perform post flight checks on a CF-18 fighter jet in Kuwait after a sortie over Iraq during Operation IMPACT on November 3, 2014.   Photo: Canadian Forces Combat Camera, DND IS2014-5026-03

(Canadian Forces Combat Camera, DND)

There was a look of surprise on Sam Bari’s face when he first heard that Canadian warplanes had dropped bombs in Syria. The 28-year-old media liaison officer working with the local Kurdish administration in Amude, a small town in Syria’s Kurdish-controlled areas bordering Turkey, had just finished explaining to Maclean’s how important the bombing raids were for militia fighters battling Islamic State. “Why doesn’t Canada join the coalition?” he had asked, oblivious to the fact that Canada had been a part of the air campaign in Syria since early April. “It would help us more to fight Da’ish,” he added, using the Arabic term for Islamic State.

His ignorance was excusable. Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in late March that Canada would be expanding its contribution to the fight against Islamic State, to Syria, Canadian CF-18 fighter jets had carried out less than a dozen sorties and even fewer actual strikes, as of last month. The Kurds, meanwhile, had been involved in an aggressive offensive, backed up by U.S. air support, pushing Islamic State back from the Turkish border and marching toward its self-proclaimed capital in Ar-Raqqah.

During his speech to Parliament, Harper had projected an image of steely resolve, emphasizing that “ISIL must be resisted, and resisted by force,” (ISIL being the acronym for Islamic State favoured by the U.S. administration). He specifically referred to Ar-Raqqah, stating that his “government recognizes that ISIL’s power base, indeed the so-called caliphate’s capital, is in Syria.” And yet, when the Kurds marched on that same capital, Canadian fighter jets were nowhere to be seen. According to Department of National Defence figures, Canadian air assets have participated in less than three per cent of all coalition missions in Iraq and Syria.

The lack of meaningful participation has raised the obvious question: Should Canada be involved in the air campaign at all? “There’s a lot of debate in security circles over why Canada hasn’t done more,” says Stephen Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University. “Canada does bring some useful hardware into the war theatre. The two Aurora surveillance aircraft are a key contribution, for instance.”

The problem, he adds, is the complexity of the situation on the ground. Air campaigns are notoriously difficult to coordinate, but in Syria and Iraq, the battlefield features a shifting array of allies and enemies. Using aerial surveillance alone to assess targets has proven inadequate. Instead, the coalition has had to rely on intelligence provided by boots on the ground. In central Iraq, that targeting has been spotty: The only viable local forces are Shia militias aligned with Iran, and co-operating with them is a geopolitical minefield.

In the north of Iraq, where the U.S. and Canada both enjoy close relations with the Kurds, the strategic landscape has changed in recent months. According to members of the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, who spoke to Maclean’s by telephone, the Kurds have largely finished carrying out offensives against Islamic State: They’ve pushed the militants out of their territory and are restricting themselves to “protecting their borders,” as one fighter put it. The Kurds have shown no interest in deploying their forces farther south into Al Anbar province, where the fight against Islamic State in Iraq will likely play out.

In northern Syria, the Kurdish militia, known as the Peoples’ Protection Units, or YPG, would welcome more support, but their recent successes have proven that the current level of engagement, led by the U.S., is proving sufficient. Shifting Canada’s contribution there would be redundant. “And now that Turkey has joined the fight, the skies over Syria and Iraq are getting crowded,” Saideman says.

Related: How an army of Kurds are beating Islamic State

Turkey’s involvement opens up a Pandora’s box. Since announcing it would join the fight on July 23, the Turkish air force has carried out hundreds of air strikes, the vast majority of which have actually focused on Kurdish targets in northern Iraq belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a designated terror group that has been fighting a civil war with Turkey for the past 30 years.

U.S. authorities have publicly welcomed Turkey’s participation, but privately, some commanders worry the Turks are using the Islamic State threat as a cover to push their own agenda. The success of the YPG, the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, has had an unsettling effect in Turkey, particularly in the wake of Kurdish advances into areas of Syria historically belonging to Arabs and Turkmens.

Turkish officials interpret the moves as a land grab for a future independent Kurdish state, and have been attempting to undermine the YPG for months. In Tel Abyad, a predominantly Arab town near the Turkish border that was “liberated” from Islamic State control in June, Kurdish officials tell Maclean’s they have been encouraging Kurds to move into the area. “We’re telling them it’s safe now,” says Adnan Ibrahim, head of a newly established Kurdish social welfare department in the city. “There are plenty of empty homes here they can move into.”

The problem is, many of those homes previously belonged to Arabs, many of whom fled the coalition air strikes that helped the YPG push Islamic State out. Those Arabs remain in refugee camps in Turkey and blame the international coalition for helping the Kurds drive them out of their homes.

A man carries a girl as Syrians fleeing the war pass through broken down border fences to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish Akcakale border crossing in the southeastern Sanliurfa province, on June 14, 2015. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

A man carries a girl as Syrians fleeing the war pass through broken down border fences to enter Turkish territory illegally, near the Turkish Akcakale border crossing in the southeastern Sanliurfa province, on June 14, 2015. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

The tensions in Tel Abyad reflect the broader sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq and Syria that make international intervention extremely risky. The Kurds are suspicious of Arabs and have refused to let them back into Tel Abyad, sealing the border and accusing the Turks of protecting Islamic State militants hiding among the refugees.

Not far away to the west, in Kobani, the situation is reversed. The predominantly Kurdish town, which famously resisted an Islamic State onslaught in late 2014, remains in ruins, largely because the Turks refuse to open their border to let in the supplies and manpower needed to rebuild. They fear leftist Kurds from Turkey will flood in and radicalize under YPG tutelage.

The volatility of the Kurdish question should be a worrying development for Canadian planners. In addition to its CF-18s, Canada has sent 69 special-forces advisers to train and assist peshmerga forces in northern Iraq. Those trainers have largely been working with peshmerga loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud Barzani, the current president of Iraqi Kurdistan. The KDP is not sympathetic to the PKK-YPG cause, but there is another faction of Iraqi Kurds, the PUK, that is.

These regional complexities are a ticking time bomb, say Kurdish government officials, requesting anonymity. “Every attempt to merge the peshmerga from the KDP and PUK into a single fighting force has failed,” says one official working with the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs in Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital. “What to do with the PKK is one major sticking point. There is some concern now that Turkish actions could spark another conflict between the KDP and PUK.”

Meanwhile, Turkey’s demand to set up an Islamic State-free zone along its border in northern Syria, protected by coalition air support, has irked the YPG. The Turks envision a patch of land inside Syria occupied by forces friendly to its interests, either Turkmen militias or Islamist groups such as the Ahrar al-Sham, both of which view the YPG as a threat. As a last resort, security analysts in Turkey say, the Turkish military could deploy its own boots on the ground, bringing the Turks and the YPG precipitously close to open conflict. “Now you have the very real possibility of our best ally in Syria being attacked by our regional ally,” says Saideman. “I can’t think of another example in recent history where this has been the case.”

It’s hard to imagine a messier situation than this, and it suggests that Canada’s contribution to the fight against Islamic State will likely remain ineffective. The leaders of Canada’s major parties have spelled out their positions in broad brush strokes, covering the full spectrum of what Canada could do, but without considering the fine web of alliances and interests that serve as a backdrop.

For the Tories, the issue is messaging, Saideman says. Taking a hard line on Islamic State resonates with Canadians. But that decisive stance requires a visible contribution to match, “which things like training and diplomacy don’t provide. Joining the air campaign is a way to offer a tangible contribution,” he adds. But will that be enough? And, more important, is it worth the cost?

As much as Canadians want to be part of the action against Islamic State, the reality is that Canada is wading into a complex, fractured and unpredictable landscape. There is no satisfying endgame in sight.

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