Actions speak louder . . . Canada in Iraq and Syria

“Our new policy in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region reflects what Canada is all about: defending our interests alongside our allies, and working constructively with local partners to build real solutions that will last.”

These words were spoken by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on February 8, 2016. Flanked by the Ministers of Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development, Trudeau sought to reshape Canada’s involvement in Syria and Iraq—or at least re-shape the messaging of Canadian foreign policy.

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Prime Minister Trudeau with Ministers of Defence, International Development and Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2016. Photo credit/Government of Canada.

Canada’s current involvement in the Global Coalition fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is set to expire on March 31, 2017. Speculation is abounding: Will Canada extend its mission? If so, what will the mission look like? What will the messaging be?

The current context of Iraq and Syria calls for urgent action. There are millions of internally displaced peoples, ongoing strikes including in Mosul; the continued targeting of Yezidis and other vulnerable minority groups; and destruction such as we have seen in Aleppo.

On February 8, 2016, when Trudeau launched Canada’s revised mission, he emphasized integrated government programming to the tune of $1.6 billion over three years. While the Canadian military would still have a significant role, the vast majority of funds was earmarked for humanitarian response and long term development, $840 million and $270 million respectively. The termination of direct participation in airstrikes was arguably the most significant shift.

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A woman and her granddaughter—internally displaced by the Islamic State group in 2014—receive food assistance through MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole

Military action, on the contrary, was the priority the previous government emphasized above all others. This included airstrikes, but also the arming and training of non-state actors like the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Of course, humanitarianism was also a significant part of the previous government’s mission; Iraq was named a partner country for long term development in 2014. But the need to protect Canadians and the world from “imminent” terrorist threats through military efforts took centre stage.

MCC Canada wrote twice to the Harper Government on Canada’s mission—at the beginning, in October of 2014, and during the first renewal in March of 2015.  Our most significant concern was Canada’s involvement in airstrikes. In 2015 we wrote:

“[N]ot only will air strikes in Iraq and Syria fail to address the deep-rooted ethnic and religious divisions underlying the present violence, but they will exacerbate existing—or create new—economic, social, and political grievances.”

But did things really change under Trudeau?

One glance at Operation Impact’s website, the official government website on the military part of Canada’s ongoing mission, shows the continuing flight missions, or sorties as they are called, of Canadian aircraft. Since February 2016 Canadian fighter jets have not conducted direct airstrikes, but they have continued to regularly participate in refueling and reconnaissance missions. Though not directly striking, Canadian aircraft are gathering intelligence and refueling other aircraft for the purpose of carrying out airstrikes.

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MCC supports this Kindergarten in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan for children displaced from their homes by the conflict with the Islamic State group. MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole

In other words, the impact of airstrikes has not lessened because Canada is not directly participating. In an MCC letter following the launch of the revised mission in February 2016, MCC again lamented the devastating impacts of airstrikes to destroy life, and vital health and education infrastructure, leaving cities “virtually uninhabitable and fueling massive displacement.”

A final point of contention is the arming of fighters in the region, particularly non-state actors, and the consequences and complexities of this. This question has come up time and time again—from Afghanistan to Libya and now Iraq, particularly with the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Canada, under Trudeau, has continued to arm state and Kurdish forces.

What happens when the “official” fighting is over? What about the demands of these different groups—and what about the dynamics with other groups in the area? In the case of the Iraqi Kurds, how will arming these groups impact, for good or ill, a unified government in Iraq? A unified and functional government is essential for long term sustainable development. The question is, will providing arms to the Kurds help create this functionality? Or will it continue to destabilize the region? Will it lead to more bloodshed?

In addition, the arming of the Iraqi forces has also raised alarm bells, as both the government forces and minority armed groups have been implicated in violations of human rights.

MCC Canada raised this issue in the first letter to the Trudeau government on this mission and it was the main subject of the most recent letter, from February 2017:

“Training and weapons transfers from the international community are counterproductive to building a unified Iraq in that they are fueling sectarian divisions at the political level and amongst minority groups; contributing to human rights and laws-of-war violations; and further destabilizing the country.”

Where does this complicated situation leave us?

As the Canadian government considers possible renewal of its mission in Iraq and Syria, one lesson we can surely take is this: It is important to look far beyond the messaging of government.  We need to think critically about government actions and their impacts on the region. It may be cliché, but on this and any other government policy, despite what is said we need to adopt that all-critical perspective. Actions speak louder than words.

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the Ottawa Office.



Love in the time of sanctions

This reflection is written by Jacob Greaser, who recently completed an internship with the MCC U.S.’Washington office, focusing on U.S. foreign policy.  It originally appeared on Third Way Cafe. For information on Canada’s relationship with the DPRK, click here.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) is probably one of the most mysterious and least visited places in the world for North Americans. Even for many U.S. policymakers, DPRK is often seen through a political cloud of fear and presented as an unknowable and unpredictable enemy. For the U.S. government, the label of “enemy” usually leads to punitive measures such as sanctions. For Christians, the label of “enemy” should mean something quite different.

Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) may seem to be a meaningless phrase in the midst of political complexity, but it is an important perspective that is often missing from U.S. policy. In fact, there are more open avenues for peacebuilding in DPRK than many people realize. DPRK has been placed under increasingly strict sanctions by the U.S., but humanitarian assistance is still permitted and needed. In the recent flurry of policies directed at the DPRK government, it is important not to ignore cries for help from vulnerable citizens inside DPRK.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), one of just a few organizations providing humanitarian aid in DPRK, assists individuals with tuberculosis and provides orphanages with food and other material resources. MCC heeds Christ’s call to address the needs of the most vulnerable in society and believes this applies everywhere, including DPRK. Over 20 years of working in DPRK, MCC has been allowed access to verify that our resources get to those vulnerable people. Through MCC’s commitment to serving vulnerable people everywhere, MCC has the rare opportunity to work and build relationships with people in DPRK.


These children at the South Pyongan Kindergarten Orphanage in Pyongsong, DPRK receive soya milk made from soybeans provided by MCC. MCC photo/Rachelyn Ritchie

The picture that is painted of DPRK as a repressive, secretive country often leads people to forget that DPRK allows humanitarian workers and even tourists into parts of the country. By working in DPRK, MCC is able to challenge assumptions that engagement with DPRK is impossible and shows that some level of trust can be built through consistent engagement over 20 years. Even though the relationship between the U.S. and DPRK governments is tense right now, MCC finds hope in the relationships it has built with partners in DPRK and sees relationships on that small scale as one potential path towards a larger dialogue.

MCC’s commitment to vulnerable people looks beyond the political rhetoric to love our enemies. This ultimately opens up spaces for relationship building and ongoing dialogue. While both governments frequently blame the other for escalation and refusing engagement, this destructive cycle of blame denies all possibility of meaningful engagement or understanding. MCC is able to challenge the narrative of DPRK as unreachable through the individual relationships it has built and to provide an example of small scale engagement.

Eventually, small examples of love can open the door for large acts of peace.


Love of country as dangerous narrative

This week’s guest reflection is written by Dan Leonard, operating principles coordinator for MCC, who visited Ukraine in February of this year. His thoughts reflect his own personal views.

“In the beginning war looks and feels like love,” writes Chris Hedges in his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.

It was not hard to see this love walking the streets in eastern Ukraine when I visited recently. The blue and gold colours of Ukraine’s flag are seen everywhere proclaiming Ukrainian unity in the face of Russian aggression. Plastic grocery bags are printed with the traditional Ukrainian embroidery- something I’m told is increasingly common since the war. As I flipped through the TV stations in my hotel room, channel after channel runs images of the military. As you enter the city of Nikopol, a few hours from Donetsk, the statue of Lenin has not been taken down like it has in other cities throughout Ukraine. Instead Lenin has been dressed in blue and gold.

Mariya, an IDP living in Nikopol, fled from the Donetsk area. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the conflict areas of eastern Ukraine find support through Nikopol New Life. This MCC partner provides holistic assistance to IDPs through emergency food packets, short term housing, document restoration, legal counseling, and psychosocial support. 27 IDPs who have been rehomed by Nikopol into a renovated office building.

Mariya, an IDP living in Nikopol, fled from the Donetsk area. At Nikopol New Life, an MCC partner, she received emergency food, short-term housing, documentation and legal assistance, and psychosocial support. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)

Zaporizhzhia, a city of less than a million where I stayed, hosts more than 70,000 displaced people (IDPs) as a result of the conflict with Russia. When I visited with various displaced Ukrainian families, I found myself reflecting back a few years to the time I was serving with MCC in Ethiopia, when drought and conflict forced hundreds of thousands of Somali people into Ethiopia. It’s always tempting to make comparisons between countries visited.

My first impression as we visited partners is how different a humanitarian crisis is in Europe than it is in a place like Ethiopia. When a crisis hits Ethiopia, hundreds of international aid agencies already located in the country jump into action. They have local partnerships, relationships with government, and both the human and financial resources to mobilize relatively large and complicated responses in seemingly short (albeit often not short enough) time periods.

Ukraine is not Ethiopia. There are few international aid agencies ready to launch a humanitarian response. The strongest partnerships between global actors are political and military, not humanitarian. Consequently, the response in Ukraine, while garnering significant international attention, is remarkably local. Small agencies and churches, which previously ran small programs with little funds and mostly volunteers, are suddenly responding to a significant humanitarian crisis that far exceeds the resources available to them. And so whereas responding to humanitarian crises in Ethiopia often means a jockeying for space of large humanitarian organizations, the response in Zaporizhzhia is led by groups like the Zaporizhzhia Evangelical Baptist Union and the local government.

My second impression from Ukraine is how similar the things I heard from displaced families in Ukraine was to the families I spoke to in Ethiopia. In both places governments and military personnel project themselves as saviours and liberators to oppressed people. Russia projects itself as liberating Russian-speaking people in Ukraine from the marginalization they face from western Ukraine. Ukraine projects itself as protecting Ukrainians from the aggression of Russia. And yet when I talked to individuals they rarely spoke of either Russia or Ukraine as their protector or liberator. Instead, they spoke of their desire to be in their home, in their own space, making food for their family. They want peace, routine, their jobs, their lives. This same sentiment was true of Somali refugees in Ethiopia who frequently spoke of their desire to cook their own traditional food in their own home.

Yelena Glogovskaya (left), Viktoriya Gergert (right)Volunteer Social Workers at the Zaporozhye Baptist Union's City Aid Centre register incoming IDPs and provide assistance in securing housing, employment, and document restoration. Yelena was displaced by the conflict in Donetsk herself, but found support through this MCC partner and now offers her own gifts back as a volunteer for the City Aid Center. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)

Yelena Glogovskaya (left) and Viktoriya Gergert (right) are volunteer social workers at the Zaporizhzhia Baptist Union’s City Aid Centre (an MCC partner) where they register incoming IDPs. Yelena was displaced by the conflict in Donetsk herself, and now offers her own gifts as a volunteer. (MCC photo by Dan Leonard)

As I returned to Canada I was even more convinced of the need for Canada to strengthen its support for civil society groups in Ukraine. More so, these civil society groups, particularly those in the church, have a responsibility to critically reflect on the positive as well as potentially dangerous narratives that come with a love of country. Displaced communities have a right to safety that is not contingent on their rejection of or identification with any national or political group.

As theologian Miroslav Volf has written in his book Exclusion and Embrace:

The will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil.”

Two requests from Syrian partners

By Sarah Adams, former MCC Representative for Lebanon and Syria.  Sarah recently completed a speaking tour through parts of Canada.

I have just finished four and half years as the MCC Representative for Lebanon and Syria. The change I witnessed in the region during the last few years has been nothing short of remarkable. The pain and suffering of the millions of displaced and traumatized people has often left me without words. Yet, in the face of such tragedy, I have seen hope and thanksgiving and selflessness beyond measure.

Zakaa Mohamad Khalid, a Syrian refugee arrived in Lebanon about three months ago after fleeing from her burning home in Homs with nothing, not even documentation. MCC provides material resources to many refugees like Khalid, helping them to retain some dignity as they adjust to living in refugee settlements. (MCC Photo/Sarah Adams)

Zakaa Mohamad Khalid, a Syrian refugee, arrived in Lebanon from her burning home in Homs with nothing, not even documentation. MCC provides material resources to many refugees like Khalid, helping them to retain some dignity as they adjust to living in refugee settlements. (MCC Photo by Sarah Adams)

I had the privilege to walk alongside individuals and communities responding to the on-going emergency. They chose non-violence in the face of a raging civil conflict, working together instead of being driven apart, faith instead of anger, hope instead of despair.

As I said my farewells, I was regularly met with two requests:

The first request was a simple one: “Remember to pray for us.”

There is trust that God’s mercy and love can prevail, even in the face of destruction and dehumanizing violence. Even when warring sides and foreign influences make the conflict feel inescapable, God offers the hope of peace.

The second request was more complicated: “We need the world’s help to end this conflict. Do what you can to let people know what’s happening in Syria, and ask those in power to help us find a way forward.”

The Syrian conflict has grown beyond the Syrian borders and the Syrian people. External influences are at play in many ways—some directly through the provision of weapons, fighters, and other equipment on the ground. The United Nations seems to be paralyzed in its ability to help mediate an end to the conflict.

Earlier this month, I was able to join our partners’ requests for advocacy along with my daily prayers for Syria. During a visit to the MCC office in Ottawa, I shared some of the experiences of our partners in Syria with leaders in the Canadian government.

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Sarah Adams (right), with Jennifer Wiebe and Paul Heidebrecht of MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office before meeting with officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. (MCC photo by Mark Tymm)

In a series of meetings with both elected officials and civil servants, I was able to answer questions about MCC’s response to the conflict, and to highlight the important humanitarian and peace building efforts happening both within Syria and among refugee communities in the surrounding countries.

I sensed a real compassion for the suffering of Syrians and a sincere desire among those we met to see this conflict come to an end. Indeed, the humanitarian assistance provided thus far by Canada and other countries has been significant, even as that assistance needs to accelerate in order to match the urgent and growing needs in the region.

The conflict in Syria will require prayers and efforts from people around the world to find a lasting resolution. On behalf of MCC’s partners in Syria, I ask you to add your prayers to the chorus of calls for peace. I also invite you to reflect on the role of the global community and to call on your elected officials to seek new channels of dialogue and international cooperation to end the conflict in Syria.

A call to end the violence in Syria

International support for some kind of military intervention in Syria has been building since last week’s chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus.

This support appears to be solidifying in Canada as well. For months, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been insisting that his government “believes the only way to halt the bloodshed in Syria is through a political solution,” a belief that MCC has affirmed.

2857_20130618_PG_05However, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke by phone with U.S. President Barack Obama, and agreed that recent events demand “a firm response from the international community in an effective and timely manner.” On Wednesday afternoon, following a meeting with the President of the Syrian National Council in Montreal, Minister Baird indicated that it was unlikely that Canadian Forces would have a role to play in that response. Nonetheless, he affirmed that Canada is “of one mind” with its allies.

In light of this growing willingness to intervene militarily, MCC released “A call to end the violence in Syria.” Compelled to speak by the fears of our Syrian partners, this statement condemned “in the strongest terms all forms of violence and war,” and called for an escalation of humanitarian assistance and diplomatic efforts to negotiate “an inclusive political solution to the crisis.”

To be clear then, we do not agree with those who assume that rejecting armed intervention means there is nothing that can be done about the crisis in Syria. At the same time, we have no illusions that aid and diplomacy will be quick and easy.

Indeed, any intervention is bound to be inadequate in the face of a tragedy that has, to date, resulted in over 100,000 lives lost, created almost 2 million refugees, and displaced almost 5 million more people within their own country.

One might think then that MCC would be glad for the eagerness of world leaders to condemn violence in Syria. For example, Minister Baird was “incredibly outraged” by the recent use of chemical weapons, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the attack a “moral obscenity.”

Upon closer examination, however, I think there is plenty of cause for concern with this rhetoric.

I am unsettled, for example, by the way that violence in Syria is often condemned in a conditional way. Why are statements by world leaders or media pundits so preoccupied with making distinctions between different types of violence?

I certainly don’t want to minimize the horrors of chemical or other “weapons of mass destruction.” As was pointed out by many earlier this year when Human Rights Watch documented the use of cluster munitions by the Assad regime,176632072 the willingness to use technologies of war that the international community has sought to ban is clearly a troubling sign. However, I am troubled by the willingness of all sides in the Syrian conflict to employ violence to achieve their goals, regardless of their tactics. The moral obscenity of war in Syria has been going on for years now.

Perhaps there is some reluctance among the world’s leaders to condemn violence categorically because the whole point of their rhetoric is to create space for another kind of violence? Is the point to justify their own—presumably legitimate, necessary, or even honourable—military action?

I have also been struck by the slipperiness of the international community’s rationale for violent intervention. On the one hand, we have repeatedly been reminded that the Syrian regime is committing acts of violence “against its own people.” As a result, words such as “cowardly,” “crazy,” and “delusional” have been used to characterize Syrian President Bashar al Assad. How often have you heard that phrase or those words mentioned in news reports on Syria, just as they were with Libya and Iraq in years past?

In recent days, however, armed intervention is increasingly being framed as a necessary response to an offense that the Assad regime has committed against the international community. It is now a matter of international (and national) security rather than a transgression against the Syrian people.

The origins of this latest rationale can be traced to President Obama’s declaration one year ago that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a “red line.” And it now seems that Assad’s greatest sin is that he had the nerve to cross that line.

President Obama has insisted that “when countries break international norms” they have to be “held accountable.” Prime Minister Harper has expressed worries about “the risks of the international community not acting,” as this would set “an extremely dangerous precedent.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague has argued that “we cannot in the 21st century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity.” And German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the “large-scale use of poison gas breaks a taboo.”

It seems then that the fundamental problem that the nations of the world are being mobilized to address is not violence per se, or even a particular kind of violence, but a regime that refuses to use violence in acceptable ways. The concern is not just punishing the Assad regime, but regimes everywhere that refuse to play by the rules.

Is this a compelling enough justification to put more lives at risk through more violence? Will this kind of intervention be able to meet the needs of Syrians in the near and long term?

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

What is a small player to do?

The House of Commons is back in session this week after a long Christmas recess, and one of the lead issues in Question Period has been the situation in Mali.

The recent escalation of armed conflict in Mali prompted the French government to launch a military intervention to repel extremist rebels who had gained control of most of the country. Canada has provided some logistical support for this intervention, although the Prime Minister has also insisted that Canadian Forces will not be getting involved in a combat role.

On January 29, Minister of International Cooperation Julian Fantino announced that Canada will provide $13 million in humanitarian assistance to people affected by the crisis. Interestingly, he made this announcement at a conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that was seeking funding to send African troops to Mali in order to help stabilize the country.

While $13 million is a relatively modest contribution in comparison to what was pledged by other G8 nations, I think this announcement is good news. Indeed, thus far the Canadian government response is consistent with recommendations made by Project Ploughshares, one of MCC’s coalition partners.

I also think this may be unsatisfying to some—perhaps even to our Prime Minister, given his conviction that “Islamicism” or Islamic terrorism represents the major threat faced by the world today.

People are dying. Communities are being displaced. Violence has already spilled over into one surrounding country, and others are threatened. Can’t we do more?

The same question has been asked repeatedly in recent months about the conflict in Syria. Can’t we do more to prevent the ongoing loss of life? Can’t we do more to slow the growth in the number of refugees? Can’t we do more to ensure that violence doesn’t engulf the region?

Distributing school kits near Sidon, LebanonEarlier this month I was part of an advocacy delegation that met with MCC partners in Lebanon and Jordan who are trying to make a difference by meeting the needs of Syrian refugees, and by pursuing peacebuilding initiatives in their own, increasingly fragile, contexts.

We also met with Syrian refugees and heard some of their harrowing stories. Many experienced tragedy. Many continue to experience great hardship. Almost all long to return to Syria. Unfortunately, all of the partners we met with didn’t think that would happen any time soon.

I came away from this trip with an overwhelming sense of the complexity of the situation in Syria, as well as Lebanon and Jordan. There is so much about the history, politics, and religious traditions in the region that needs to be considered. I also came away from this trip with numerous reminders that my own country does not play much of a role in the Middle East.

Of course, neither point came as a surprise. Media accounts inevitably oversimplify the situation in conflict zones. And most people have no need to give any thought to Canada, given that it is a far cry from being a global superpower.

Canada does not figure in the dynamics of geopolitics. Thus we inevitably find ourselves reacting to rather than instigating events.

Kind of like the church.

Kind of like MCC.

One response to this reality might be to bemoan our lack of influence, and wring our hands at the fact that we can’t do more. Another response might be to pretend that we have more power or knowledge than we really do, and to weigh in on big-picture debates whenever the opportunity presents itself.

A third response might be to look for opportunities at a smaller scale. It might lead us to carefully discern where our niche lies. This could hold true for both Canada and MCC.

Clearly we can provide humanitarian assistance that can make a difference in lives of refugees, as well as the lives of vulnerable groups in host communities that have been impacted by the dramatic rise in demand for food, housing, and jobs.

63Beyond the provision of essential services, clearly we can support efforts to address underlying tensions in neighbouring countries in order to make them less vulnerable to the kind of violence we are seeing in both Syria and Mali.

Beyond implementing peacebuilding initiatives, however, shouldn’t we also be pushing for modest efforts to change the larger systems and structures that govern our existence? For example, how can we make it harder for weapons to end up in the hands of groups that see violence as the only way to advance their cause? My trip reminded me again of why advocacy for a strong Arms Trade Treaty matters.

Perhaps there are other responses that go beyond working at the edges of big problems. Perhaps the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development will make more ambitious recommendations when they meet to discuss Mali later today. But it seems to me that there is no shortage of important work to be done around the edges.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director