In 2003, Canada opted out of the coalition that pummeled Iraq back into the Middle Ages. Now, Canada has joined the coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that emerged out of the U.S.-led invasion.
In this three-part series, Firas Al-Atraqchi, a member of NCM’s editorial board, frames the Iraq quagmire, traces the evolution of ISIL, and how the Islamic State has come to dominate large areas of Iraq and Syria. Before they elect a new government, Canadians need to weigh the pros and cons of taking the fight to ISIL. Here are the current party positions —
Conservatives: Committed to bombing ISIL positions from the air in Iraq and Syria and deployment of troops in a non-combat role.
NDP: End bombing campaign and pull out all military personnel from Iraq and Syria; boost aid to help refugees affected by ISIL as well as investigate and prosecute war crimes.
Liberals: End the bombing campaign but keep military trainers in Iraq; boost aid to help refugees and allow more into the country from Iraq and Syria.
Greens: Ensure responses to terrorism are consistent with international law.
A man who set himself on fire in Tunisia sparked the spirit of revolution in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria.
By 2012, Syria was in the throes of a brutal and bloody civil war. Islamist forces backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France and others were violently trying to overthrow the government of Bashar Al Assad.
Eastern Syria fell into lawlessness and the Islamic State in Iraq took advantage of the already porous borders to push a constant stream of its Nineveh-based fighters into Syria.
There, they were able to enjoy the funds and materiel that a number of nations provided to various anti-Assad groups.
ISI now again renamed itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Sham) – ISIL or ISIS, an indication of what the group was intending to do. By including the Levant in the moniker, it was telling the world it would reach through Syria and into Lebanon.
This differed from previous Al-Qaeda strategy; here, ISIL was carving out the foundations of a state from which it could declare a caliphate, something Al-Qaeda never dreamed of doing.
Anarchy in Baghdad
Meanwhile, political implosions were increasing in Baghdad as yet another general election was to be held in April 2014.
In 2013, Sunni frustrations with the central government erupted in a continuing wave of violence that mimicked the sectarian tit-for-tat massacres in 2005 – 2007.
ISIL was well aware that greatest threat to the Islamic state did not come from the Shia-led government in Baghdad, from neighboring Iran or the U.S.-led Coalition, but from within.
Sunni forces such as the Baa’thists and other national entities represent the greatest threats to the Islamic State because they offer alternatives.
In that respect, the government in Baghdad has played a significant role in inadvertently helping ISIL strengthen its hold on northern and western Iraq.
Most Sunnis in Iraq do not agree with the Islamic State and if offered a choice would prefer an inclusive system of governance.
No amount of weapons deliveries or air raids against ISIL positions will resolve the current crisis in the country.
How does ISIL rule?
While it is important to understand how a system functions it is perhaps more important to understand why a system functions.
Why did the Islamic State come to dominate and hold its grip on such large areas of Iraq and Syria?
The ISIL leadership has fashioned a mechanism of governance that relies on four major principles: political opportunism, exploitation of the lack of viable alternatives, fear and propaganda of the spectacular.
Sunnis living in ISIL-controlled territory understand that only if they toe the line will they be able to survive. ISIL leaders have beheaded rapists and opportunists — those who would extort money from families at checkpoints or during security raids.
Sunnis living in ISIL-controlled territory understand that only if they toe the line will they be able to survive.
They have beheaded members of their own forces who didn’t follow orders who appeared to be an existential threat.
Their carefully filmed footage of horrific burnings and beheadings, coupled with the destruction of centuries-old heritage sites is part of an outreach campaign that is mean to prove they can do what they want, where they want and remain unchallenged.
Indeed, the world has been unable to lift a finger to prevent the destruction of historic temples and cities in Palmyra, Syria or Nineveh, Iraq.
A human exodus … and tragedy
All of this recent history brings us to the dilemma facing Canadians today: their air force is bombing ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq, while thousands stream out of these multiple-front battlefields in search of asylum in western European nations.
Civilian populations living under ISIL’s control have been subjected to barbaric punishments for breaking rules around some of the simplest pleasures – a ban on smoking and watching soccer games.
Entire societies from Iraq to Syria to Libya — and any territory that is under ISIL control — live in fear of flogging, torture, and decapitation. They also fear the bloodbath that is likely once a serious military push is made to liberate areas under ISIL control.
As a result, people have been fleeing with their families in hopes of finding sanctuary elsewhere.
It is no coincidence that the exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians from their home countries across the Mediterranean to southern European shores peaks at the same time that ISIL is making an entrance on the global stage.
The more the Islamic State penetrates into Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, the larger the migration of desperate people risking life and limb to reach Germany, the United Kingdom or anywhere where they do not fear the persecution of extremist Islamist forces.
Not a coincidence
It is also no coincidence that these refugees are seeking shelter in the very countries that supported military intervention in Middle Eastern states.
The hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean are an unfortunate and tragic lesson in the futility of military intervention.
If Europe, Canada, the United States and their allies are serious about helping refugees then they surely must find the will to implement a political, and not exclusively military solution, to the plague that is ISIL.
]It is also no coincidence that these refugees are seeking shelter in the very countries that supported military intervention in Middle Eastern states.
In 2003, Canada opted out of the coalition that pummeled Iraq back into the Middle Ages. It looked before it leapt.
It was the U.S. invasion and subsequent ill-prepared post-war administration that created the perfect storm of conditions which paved the way for ISIL’s rise. The US created a political nightmare in Iraq and is trying to deal with the aftershock through military means.
Now, Canada has joined the coalition which lacks the fortitude to demand political reforms (enfranchising the Sunnis in an inclusive process) and is unable to pressure Baghdad to provide an alternative to ISIL.
It leapt before it looked.
What do we do?
Ottawa needs to understand that the fight against ISIL and the mass migration of Arab refugees to Europe are interminably linked.
These refugees are aware that their homes, streets and villages have become battlegrounds where the coalition, including Canada, is waging war against ISIL.
They now not only fear ISIL but the kind of collateral civilian casualties that have all too often come with wars of liberation.
A new post-election government must carefully weigh this equation before again hastily committing military resources without a parallel political initiative.
Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Canadian journalist of Arab descent who has covered the Middle East since 1992. A former senior editor with Al Jazeera’s English-language website, currently he teaches journalism at the American University of Cairo as an associate professor.