February 15, 2016

From Airstrikes to “Training” Missions: Reflections on the Canadian Militarism in the Middle East

Trudeau and Secretary General of NATO
Kurt Biray

War-torn Iraq and Syria have been centres for sectarian violence and civil strife for years, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. They've become hotbeds for jihadi terrorists and bastions for Islamic extremism. The 2003 Invasion of Iraq and the subsequent ouster of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Ba'ath Party had severe ramifications for the entire region and Western governments. Western funding, military equipment and foreign aid provided to Syrian rebel forces to combat Bashar Al-Assad's government have also exacerbated existing political turmoil and social cleavages in the Middle East. Having said this, some crucial questions and concerns arise. Who are the real victims of Western military intervention and resource-based wars? Who are the biggest losers of this ongoing battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria?

The United States has responded to this regional conflict, which was largely created by their previous interventions, by doing what they do best: dropping bombs and launching airstrikes. Other countries of the Western world have also joined this US-led military operation, including Canada. The former Harper Government had been adamant with regards to combating the threat of jihadi terrorism at home and abroad. With the controversial and unpopular Anti-Terrorism Act (Bill C-51) and the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act (Bill C-24) along with Canada's combat mission in Iraq and Syria, Stephen Harper was certainly not hesitant in demonstrating Canada's “commitment to national security” and implementing an interventionist military policy against the threat of jihadi terrorism. At least that was the stated agenda. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Iraq has the fifth largest oil reserves in the world and that anti-terrorism laws at home tend to end up targeting labour and people’s movements.

Canada’s “humanitarian” bombing campaign

The previous Harper Government faced much scrutiny and criticism for their foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East and their lack of response and humanitarian effort towards the Syrian Refugee Crisis. In October 2014, Canada joined the US-led coalition against ISIS by beginning a six month combat mission in Iraq. In April of last year, Canada extended the mission by one more year and began launching airstrikes on ISIS controlled Syria. Canadian CF-18 fighter jets fly over ISIS strongholds in Northwestern Iraq and Northeastern Syria bombing targets and creating civilian casualties.

Last year, the Canadian Armed Forces were accused of killing innocent civilians due to an airstrike in Iraq. During a January 21st, 2015, attack against Islamic State forces, CF-18 fighter jets potentially murdered 27 civilians, an allegation coming from Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq. The Pentagon released more information on this accusation which the former Harper Government was most certainly unhappy about. For months, the Canadian Armed Forces refused to disclose any information regarding the January 21st bombing, therefore creating a perception that no collateral damage was committed.

More allegations arose back in November regarding the bombing of a dairy plant in Mosul, one of the largest cities in Northern Iraq. Local media in the region reported that Canadian airstrikes killed 10 workers and wounded 20 others. Initially, the Canadian military asserted that they bombed an ‘ISIS weapons factory’, stating that there were no civilian casualties. Once the allegations transpired from local media reports, Canada suspiciously changed its interpretation of events, claiming that they didn’t strike any buildings therefore making it impossible for any causalities.

The US and its coalition allies have carried out approximately 10,000 airstrikes since the military campaign began in August of 2014. Independent monitoring organizations like Airwars and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have reported numerous civilian fatalities in the region due to Western airstrikes. In September 2015, Airwars recorded over 459 civilians killed, approximately 100 of them being children.

Background to the West’s Air War

The US and its coalition allies, including Canada, seem unable to grasp the complexity of the regional conflict. The Islamic State is fighting against multiple enemies including the Assad Government and other rebel forces in Syria, the Al-Abadi Government in Iraq, the Kurdish forces and Shi'ite militias. In the case of Syria, there are multiple sides waging war against each other (the Assad Government, al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army) which has further intensified the complexity of the civil conflict. Four years ago, Western governments were funding and arming the rebel forces in Syria against Bashar Al-Assad and the Syrian Arab Army. Now that much of this funding and arms ended up in the hands of al-Nusra and ISIS, and with ISIS being the official excuse for escalating intervention in the region, the battle lines have only become more blurry. The US-led coalition is clearly in a state of confusion, with US allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia who still have a soft spot for some of the most fundamentalist groups active in Syria. This perplexity has cost the lives of countless innocent civilians who are seeking refuge, having absolutely nothing to do with the warring sides.

Russia has recently employed its own military efforts in Syria cooperating with Iraq, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shi’ite militia. Unlike the US-led coalition, Russia has a clear mandate in the region: to assist the Assad Government in combating Islamic fundamentalist groups like ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. In contrast, the US-NATO coalition’s intervention is against the wishes of the Syrian state, which means it is illegal under international law, and also has as one of its goals ‘regime change’ in Syria.

The Liberals continue what the Tories started

The former Harper Government's combat mission against the Islamic State has certainly tarnished Canada's reputation worldwide. Their unwavering support for military engagement in the region and their disappointing and belated response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis had significantly contributed to their political demise in the October 19th federal election to Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.

Although Trudeau has promised to withdraw Canada’s six CF-18 fighter jets from the troubled region, his government’s foreign policy agenda is just a ‘lighter’ rendition of the Harper Government’s. The current Liberal Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, recently announced that Canada will stand by the $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia (previously negotiated by the Conservatives), even after the absolute monarchy in the country executed 47 prisoners. After all, it was under a Liberal Government’s leadership when the Canadian Armed Forces joined the longest and most dangerous combat mission in the country’s modern history: the war in Afghanistan.

Just last week the Trudeau Government clarified Canada’s new role in the conflict. While being criticized by Conservatives as “abandoning our allies”, in actuality Canada’s withdrawal of bombing missions is a deepening of Canada’s role in this imperialist adventure. They will indeed withdraw Canada’s six bombers, but with 12 other countries still bombing the air war will continue unabated. They will be adding hundreds of more troops on “training” missions in Iraq, and increasing funding for the war to $1.6 billion over three years. This is a cynical move to pretend to be stepping back, which was promised during the Federal election where Trudeau won a majority, while in fact stepping up ground support and overall involvement.

History has proven that Western military intervention is counterproductive to the stated goals of stability and combating terrorism in the Middle East. The results have been unintended civilian casualties and an escalation in the complexity of existing social, political and religious cleavages.

The number of forgotten faces of foreign military aggression in the Middle East is obscure and immeasurable. The numbers we know about from recent wars in the region are staggering. 1-2 million have been killed since 2001 in the countries of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. To make matters even worse the real impact of airstrikes in the region is receiving little to no news coverage via mainstream media sources, making it harder to address and curtail these ongoing atrocities.

Corporate media in the West is also ignoring another important and growing phenomenon: the ramifications of airstrikes in the Middle East. In the recent months, the world has seen a growing number of terrorist attacks and threats (Paris, Jakarta, etc.). The West has turned to a very simple and convenient explanation, relentlessly blaming the ideology of Radical Islam. What Western governments and media fail to address is that the airstrikes in the Middle East are assisting groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in recruiting new members. Former head of CIA counter-terrorism center, Robert Grenier, validates this concern by stating that the US Drone Program is “creating more enemies than [it is] removing from the battlefield".

With the growing frequency of foiled and successful terror attacks, it is becoming more plausible to infer that the vast majority of jihadists are seeking revenge against the West, primarily the United States, for brutally murdering countless innocent civilians. Western governments view these fatalities as “collateral damage” while in the eyes of many young jihadists, these were “family members, friends and loved ones lost.

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