News Roundup: Canada’s military mission in Iraq

by Rebekah Sears

The MCC Ottawa Office blog is trying something new, with a semi-regular News Roundup! We want to take the opportunity to share news stories, reports and resources from various sources around the web, with the goal of providing more background information and context on the countries and themes where MCC and our partners are working. We also want to speak to the role and responsibilities of the Canadian government, highlight what MCC is doing, and outline how you can get involved! The articles are drawn from a variety of sources and do not necessarily reflect the position of MCC.

For our first round-up of 2019 we wanted to raise the profile of the context in Iraq, particularly when it comes to Canada’s foreign policy: a continuing military mission, humanitarian and development assistance, and how these fit with the complexities of the region.

Canada has had a military presence in Iraq since late 2014 and starting in 2017 through 2018 there were significant geopolitical shifts in Iraq, forcing Canada to shift strategies in the region. This round-up looks back at the history of Canada’s military mission in Iraq – including MCC’s main critiques; how Canada’s mission was completely upended by key geopolitical dynamics in the region; Canada’s revised mission, as it stands; and all considering the context and politics of Iraq.

Getting us up to speed on Canada’s military Mission in Iraq and MCC’s engagement, from 2014-2017

Actions speak louder . . . Canada in Iraq and Syria, MCC Ottawa Office Notebook, March 2017

This is MCC Ottawa’s own take on Canada’s military mission in Iraq as or early 2017, including analysis on Canada’s strategy in Iraq from 2014-2017. In consultation with our staff and partners in Iraq, MCC has consistently raised concerns around Canada’s involvement in this foreign military intervention and what it means for peace for the long-run. Until 2017, Canada had been supporting Iraqi government forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, despite these groups having their own very different goals and visions for the future of Iraq.

(CBC) Canada to extend anti-ISIS mission by 2 years
Originally from CBC article, June 29, 2017: Canada to extend anti-ISIS mission by 2 years. “A Canadian special forces soldier, left, speaks with Peshmerga Capt. Omar Mohammed Dhyab, second left, and other fighters at an observation post in February in northern Iraq. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)”

In almost every renewal or reshaping of Canada’s military mission, MCC has raised these concerns with the Canadian government, both under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: October 2014, April 2015, February 2016, February 2017, and July 2017.

The Uncounted, New York Time Magazine, November 2017

There are so many pieces that illustrate the complexities of foreign military interventions, but few are as compelling as this must-read account regarding the civilians and communities, the “collateral damage.” This barely scratched the surface of impacts on civilians, physically and psychologically, not to mention the social fabric. Though this piece highlights U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, it is imperative to note that Canada has also actively participated in airstrikes, directly from 2014-to early 2016, and indirectly through refueling and aerial reconnaissance missions since 2016.

Canada’s military mission in Iraq was arguably ill-prepared for significant shifting geo-political dynamics in 2017-2018

Globe editorial: After IS is defeated, what comes next? Globe and Mail, July 2017

From the beginning of Canada’s military participation in the Global Coalition Against [ISIS] the government has claimed its goal has been to “defeat ISIS” through partnering with local forces, among other strategies. But in mid- 2017, even as ISIS forces lost more and more influence in Iraq, Canada extended its military mission for another two years. With the significant changing regional dynamics, Canada’s overall goals for the region, including partnerships with Kurdish and Iraqi forces, became even more unclear.

Canada suspends military aid to Iraqi, Kurdish forces amid outbreak of fighting, Globe and Mail, October 2017

Canada suspends military aid to Iraqi, Kurdish forces amid outbreak of fighting
Originally from Globe and Mail article, Oct 27, 2017: Canada suspends military aid to Iraqi, Kurdish forces amid outbreak of fighting “Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga take part in routine military exercises in Koya, northern Iraq, on Oct. 22, 2017. SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images”

The fall of 2017 saw major changes in Iraqi politics. In September, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region held a highly controversial independence referendum. Canada had long supported the Kurdish Peshmerga, putting our mission in an awkward spot, as Canada had also been outwardly supporting a unified federal Iraq, and supporting Iraqi government forces in Mosul. In Baghdad, the Iraqi government reacted swiftly to the referendum, deploying troops to some of the contested regions, confronting Kurdish forces. As a result, Canada suspending all military actions in Iraq. To many critics this conflict between Iraqi and Kurdish forces came as little surprise, Canada looking unprepared and not fully understanding the complexities of the region.

The Underground Caliphate: ISIS Has Not Vanished. It Is Fighting a Guerrilla War Against the Iraqi State, The Intercept, September 2018

Looking at the Iraqi context as a whole, this in-depth piece is a warning against the overcomplication of conflicts such as that in Iraq and explores the complexities and roots behind insurgent groups like ISIS – political grievances, sectarian tensions and power vacuums, among others.

Canada’s new mission: more directed actions, but complexities and significant concerns remain

Canada is right to shift focus toward Baghdad and away from the Kurds, Globe and Mail, June 2018

By the end, in June 2018, Canada finally announced its new directional focus in Iraq. This included an additional component: a leadership role in a NATO mission aimed at general stabilization in Baghdad and beyond. But the main focus was a shift to supporting solely the Iraqi government forces, specifically in the further stabilization and reconstruction on Mosul, a region arguably at the centre of the conflict in Iraq. But shift also raises significant concerns.

Canada is essentially switching sides in the middle of a mission, whereas Canada began its mission primarily supporting Kurdish forces.

Mosul: One year on After ISIL, a city still in ruins.
Originally from Al Jazeera article, 6 July, 2018: Mosul: One year on. After ISIL, a city still in ruins. “Vehicles navigate a street in Mosul’s old city. Cars and inhabitants circulate with difficulty in this apocalyptic scene, as small adjacent streets are not safe yet. Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC”

Also, Mosul is an incredibly complex context. There are dozens of analyses focusing on the slow progress, if any, on reconstruction. But behind a lot of this waiting and uncertainty, tensions, be they political or sectarian, simmer just below the surface. The Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) dives deep into the complexities and challenges of Mosul recovery in a recent podcast – both in the physical reconstruction of neighbourhoods and the reconstruction of social fabric.

Finally, since 2017 disturbing reports from human rights groups have been coming out of Mosul and other former ISIS strongholds, whereas divisions of Iraqi government forces and officials are allegedly carrying out a campaign of revenge – with 10-minute trials and torture of suspected former ISIS combatants and their families. One such recent piece from the New Yorker looks at this disturbing trend in depth.

Iraq in 2019 and going forward

What does 2019 hold for Iraq? All bets are off, Middle East Eye, January 2019

From the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to the rise of ISIS, federal elections in 2018 and continuing tensions, the people of Iraq have witnessed many changes and uncertainties. Yet hope abounds with the rising up of a new generation and with the continuing work and dedication of local organizations, seeking to build long-lasting peace from the ground up. As Canadians we want to urge our government to support such efforts, making decisions based on in-depth analysis of the situation, and in the interests of peace for the long haul.

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

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