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.

 

 

The price of peace

This week’s guest writer is Nathan Hershberger. Nathan is from Harrisonburg, VA, USA, and studied theology and history at Eastern Mennonite University and the University of Virginia.  He is currently serving with MCC as an English teacher in Ankawa, Erbil, Iraq.

The Islamic State group or ISIS is a difficult topic for pacifist Christians, and rightly so. It seems impossible to argue against U.S. or Canadian airstrikes when they are arguably holding back religious cleansing. I have lived in Iraq with MCC for about a year and I still don’t know quite what to say. A seminary student showed me a photo of an Iraqi Special Forces soldier who has reportedly beheaded a number of ISIS fighters and said to me, “This man is a hero.” I was left speechless. This student is a kind and generous man who loves Iraq and wants to remain in his country—a rare and precious thing in his generation. Is brutal war against ISIS the price of peace here?

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials -- including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits -- were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. Iraqi al-Amal Association supplemented the MCC-donated materials with other materials purchased in Iraq, providing a well-rounded distribution to meet the immediate needs of the recipients. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

MCC’s partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These materials — including blankets, infant care kits, hygiene kits, and relief kits — were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities.  (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

Fighting ISIS with any and all possible means seems so self-evidently necessary.  I confess that when U.S. airstrikes began in August and seemed to cut off an ISIS advance that threatened Erbil (where I live), I felt safer. If ISIS had made it to the city, it would have triggered the displacement of over a million additional people and left more Christians, Yezidis, and other minority groups vulnerable to ISIS.

This feeling of necessity is true not just of airstrikes in Iraq, but Western-led military interventions in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. On its own terms, each airstrike, weapons shipment, and campaign seems limited, efficient, and completely justified.  In Libya, strike the army of Muammar Qaddafi before it can massacre the population of Benghazi. In Iraq, destroy an artillery piece aimed at Erbil in order to ensure that Kurdish Peshmerga can defend the city from ISIS. In Syria, ship weapons to rebels to help them push back both ISIS and Assad.

With the greater caution of the Obama administration, Western powers seem united behind a foreign policy of surgical strikes. What the West seems to be faced with is not only an enemy that personifies evil itself, but the means of fighting it with a precision and economy that leaves our hands feeling clean, mostly.[1]  What can a Christian pacifist say to that?

MCC's partner organization Iraqi al-Amal Association distributed material resources to internally-displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Heads of households register their families in order to receive materials, with the number of hygiene kits, blankets, and infant care kits distributed according to the number of family members. These materials were donated by MCC constituents in the United States and Canada and provide much-needed assistance to individuals and families currently staying in Kirkuk and Erbil cities. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

Heads of households of displaced families register in order to receive materials, with the number of hygiene kits, blankets, and infant care kits distributed according to the number of family members. (Photo by Salar Ahmed)

But despite the new sense of distance and control, Western-led intervention in the Middle East is intimately trapped in a spiral of conflict. We are fighting an endless war where each victory makes the next battle necessary and seemingly inevitable. ISIS itself is a product, in part, of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In Libya, where a seemingly surgical intervention in 2011 appeared to have scored a victory, chaos and civil war now reigns, inviting further intervention. Each of these campaigns seem necessary, but all together they are tracing a slow spiral of destruction in which war and peace are indistinguishable.

What, then, is the alternative?

The conflict in the Middle East, with the war in Syria at its heart, has turned more and more into a regional war, and thus, the solution—short of total victory for one side or another—has to be regional and diplomatic. Additionally, relief aid and economic development throughout the region must be higher priorities for the international community both immediately and in the long-term.

But these answers feel deeply inadequate when I am speaking with students forced from their homes by ISIS.  All I can think of in those situations—but don’t usually have the courage to say—is what Father Ibrahim,[2] a local Orthodox priest, said in a sermon on the Good Samaritan a few weeks before Easter. “We are Christians. We have to love the stranger. We have to love ISIS. And we have to love the next ISIS too.”


[1] Despite their increasing precision, airstrikes do continue to kill civilians.  A few weeks ago, the U.S. bombed a power plant in eastern Mosul and an apartment building next door collapsed, reportedly killing 68 people. UN-SSI Daily Security Brief, April 22, 2015, UNAMI.   As the bombing campaign intensifies in urban areas like Mosul and Fallujah, and as ISIS begins to use human shields, such incidents will almost certainly increase, driving those affected to identify more with ISIS.  The U.S. Department of Defense has failed to adequately investigate these incidents.

As to the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Defense current military operations in Iraq and Syria since last August have cost over $2 billion.  (For current reports of the U.S. bombing campaign and its costs and targets, see http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2014/0814_iraq/). Canada budgeted $122.5 million for its military operations in Iraq in 2014-2015.  For its expanded mission in Iraq and Syria, it has budgeted $406 million for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. These costs are above and beyond salaries and the routine costs of maintaining an army. See http://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/canada-s-anti-isis-mission-in-iraq-syria-to-cost-528m-in-coming-year-1.2307991.

[2] Name changed for security reasons.

A light to the nations

This week’s guest writer is Carolyne Epp-Fransen of Winnipeg. Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen serve as MCC Representatives for Jordan, Iraq and Iran and live in Amman, Jordan.

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  Isaiah 42:6-7

It’s a privilege – a conflicted privilege, to be sure – to meet and visit with refugee and displaced Iraqi families who are so destitute and then to go back to our plenty. Our lives are not worth more than theirs and so we do need to step into their lives when we can.

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Internally displaced persons living in Enshika camp, NW of Dohuk, Iraq, where an MCC partner distributed food rations recently.

In October we met Christian families displaced by the sudden and brutal advance into northern Iraq of the group that calls itself ISIS. These displaced families are still in shock. They are grateful to be alive. They are living in conditions they could never have imagined. They are realizing that homes, businesses, and livelihoods are gone. Their hopes and dreams for their lives and the lives of their children are, at best, uncertain.

It is here, among these displaced families, that I am learning about what it means to be a light to the nations.

The Chaldean and Syriac Catholics are a small minority in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. Their faith and language (neo-Aramaic) descend not from recent missionary efforts but from the time of Jesus. They have lived peaceably with their neighbours – Sunni, Shia, Yazidi, Turkman – over centuries. They want to remain in Iraq among these others to be a light. Despite decades of war and the violence and hatred it breeds, the Church wants to stay.

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Carolyne with new friends, Christian refugees from Mosul and Nineveh, living in a church yard in Ankawa, Iraq.

Father Douglas Bazi is a priest in the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq. He met us in his office in the midst of tents for displaced people on the church grounds. He is charged to meet the needs of over a hundred families. He laughed as he described his unfortunate choice of shampoo for the young ladies. Our meeting was interrupted by a boy about age 8 who came in crying. Father Douglas tenderly cleaned his scraped leg and applied a bandage. Father Douglas said, “My heart is full of pain because I am taking the trauma from the people. This is the time to show who we are (the Church); in 15-20 years I do not want to be ashamed for this time.”

Together with his church, Father Douglas wants to care for the displaced people so these Christians can stay in Iraq and be a light to the nations.

The displaced people of Iraq remind us of what is important – to be alive, to have faith. As we hear their stories, we come to realize the extent of the evil they have fled. We encounter the trauma that they are experiencing. Displaced families, of necessity, must seek out shelter, food and work. The focus of a first generation is on coping, adjusting and transition. The Chaldean Catholic Christians are being encouraged, even in these difficult times, to remember their faith and heritage. They are asked to consider their important role in the greater history of Christianity and the region. The leadership of the Chaldean church sees a calling for Christians to remain in Iraq, to live with, work beside and share with their neighbours.

Advent-2012The displaced people of Iraq remind me of my own Anabaptist history of persecution and fleeing from evil. Only a generation or two ago, my people were frightened, homeless and hungry. Now that we are safe and warm, how are we bringing light to the nations? I fear that we have not always lived up to this part of our calling. Most of us are no longer first generation newcomers. It is time to look beyond our own needs to see how we can be a light to the nations around us.

Advent is a festival of lights. We light candles for four weeks to symbolize core elements of our faith. The lights shine in the darkness of winter. As servants of God we are called to be light to the nations.