Canada’s military support for the Kurds brings unintended consequences in northern Iraq, writes David Pugliese. Every single course in the Canadian Armed Forces, regardless what rank level you go up to, always starts with ethics and values and that is the same level and standard we apply when we do our training.
|A Canadian Special Forces Member supervises a training exercise with the Kurdish Pesherga (DND Photo)|
The Liberal government, he says, wants to ensure that its actions don’t make matters worse. In Afghanistan, for instance, the West’s support for corrupt individuals helped drive some of the population into the arms of the Taliban.
In Iraq, Islamic extremists took advantage of grievances felt by some groups and recruited those individuals into their ranks, explains Sajjan, a former Canadian Forces officer and Afghan war veteran. This time will be different, he says. “When we look at the decisions we make, the policies we create, we have to figure out what ripple we’re creating,” Sajjan said recently at a foreign policy conference in Ottawa. “We may not be able to control all the ripples that are out there, but we can control the ripples that we create.”
Can we? The ripples Canada is making in Iraq now, even before it announces its next steps, may already be flowing in directions we did not intend.
Since the fall of 2014, Canada has been providing equipment and military training to Kurdish troops in northern Iraq. Canadian special forces have been working closely with the Kurds, providing them with skills needed to field a modern army.
And while the Kurds have used that training to fight Islamic extremists, such skills will also be useful in the future for another goal that Canada does not endorse: their plan to separate from Iraq. “The problem with training foreign forces is that you never know what they will put those skills to use for in the future,” said Walter Dorn, a professor with the Royal Military College. “With the Kurds there is the danger we are supporting a secessionist movement.”
The Liberals still have to decide how they want to proceed with the Iraq mission, an announcement that is imminent. Military sources say the government is leaning towards keeping the Canadian military’s aerial refuelling aircraft within the U.S.led coalition, as well as providing more surveillance planes. Canadian troops could also provide training to Iraq’s army.
But also high on the list of options is providing the Kurds even more training. A new Kurdish special forces unit could be developed with Canadian expertise. Canadian training could also be expanded to include Kurdish police, Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion has said.
When the Conservative government first committed Canada’s military to fighting the Islamic State (ISIL) in the fall of 2014, it said its goal was the protect the security of a unified Iraqi state. CF18 fighter jets have been providing support to Iraqi security forces as they try to take back land seized by ISIL.
But Canada’s military efforts in northern Iraq are another matter. There, the Kurdish people have their own semiautonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government, as it is known, is technically still aligned with the federal government in Baghdad.
The Liberals, like the Conservatives, maintain that Canada remains committed to a unified Iraqi state. But Canadian military officers privately acknowledge that, although it’s not their goal, they are indeed training an independent Kurdish army.
“We are providing training to essentially an independent military force that may or may not be used in other ways down the road besides fighting ISIL,” said retired Lt.Col. Chris Kilford, who until 2014 was Canada’s military attaché in Turkey.
Canada’s policymakers are aware of the problem of supporting the Kurds too much. But their alternatives are limited. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars and years training the Iraqi military yet it seems incapable of making many inroads against ISIL.
The Liberal government has suggested that one of its options could be providing aid to Lebanon and Jordan, to shore up those countries in a troubled region. That might be a safer bet – if one is trying to minimize ripples. The Kurds have never hidden their plans to eventually form an independent country.
In December, Sajjan meet with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and his son Masrour, who heads the intelligence services of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Both are strong advocates for an independent Kurdistan. Massoud Barzani has suggested that Iraq is finished as a nation. It has already been broken up into various regions controlled by different forces or ethnic groups, such as the Kurds. Full independence is next on the agenda. “We are not pushing for forced separation,” Masrour Barzani said in July 2015 during an interview with AlMonitor, a news site that covers developments in the Middle East.“We are talking about an amicable divorce.”
Indeed, the Kurds have emerged as the real winners from the chaos that has engulfed Iraq and Syria with the arrival of ISIL.
Western nations have seen them as reliable allies in the war and have provided them with air support, training, equipment and cash. As a result, the YPG, the Kurdish force that is battling ISIL, has been able to carve out its own ministate in northeastern Syria.
In July 2014, as the Iraqi army was in retreat from ISIL forces, the Kurds from northern Iraq moved to seize the Kirkuk oil fields. That gave them control of 40 per cent of Iraq’s oil and a steady flow of cash from oil sales to bolster their quest for independence. By seizing additional territory from ISIL, the Kurds have been able to consolidate the borders of what they see as their homeland.
Since then, Kurdistan has been exporting between 400,000 and 600,000 barrels of oil a day through a new pipeline it has built.
In November 2015, Falah Mustafa Bakir, the Kurdish region’s foreign minister, visited Calgary in search of Canadian support and investment, not only in its oil business but other areas such as agriculture. Iraq’s government is understandably not happy with the situation. Last June, Iraq’s government excluded the Kurds from a highlevel meeting in Paris that was planning strategy for dealing with ISIL.
In October, Iraqi officials seized a military aircraft carrying weapons for Canadian special forces in Kurdistan. They claimed the Canadians were carrying supplies and weapons into the region without authorization from Iraq. The Canadian transport plane sat on the ground for four days and was eventually allowed to return to Kuwait with its cargo.
The Iraqis were clearly trying to send a signal that they still had some form of control over what was happening in the Kurdish autonomous region. The Kurds push for new territory has also increased tensions with Turkey. Turkey enjoys good relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government but other Kurdish factions are another matter. It has launched some attacks on YPG units in Syria near its border. Turkey considers YPG a terrorist group because of its affiliation to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
The party’s armed wing, the PKK, has been waging a war against Turkey since 1984 as it fights for greater rights for Kurds in Turkey. In December, Turkish fighter jets attacked PKK supply camps in northern Iraq. Over the last several weeks, new fighting has erupted between Turkish troops and the PKK in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir. Human rights observers also point to a darker side to the Kurds’ consolidation of power in the region.
In January 2015, Human Rights Watch complained to the Kurdish Regional Government that its forces had barred Arabs displaced by fighting from returning to their homes. In addition, some of those Arab homes were turned over to Kurdish families. In July, the U.S.based Foreign Policy magazine interviewed diplomats who warned that the Kurds were conducting ethnic cleansing of some of the areas they captured.
In October, Kurdish forces in Syria were accused of forcing out thousands of civilians, mainly Arabs, from their villages and demolishing their homes. A Kurdish official acknowledged at the time that some of its forces might have targeted civilians suspected of supporting the Islamic State but most of the expulsions were done for “security reasons.”
Then, in January 2016, Amnesty International reported that the same actions were underway in northern Iraq – where the Canadian trained Kurdish troops operated. Thousands of homes owned by Arab civilians had been blown up or burned down and tens of thousands of people forced out of their villages, Amnesty International’s report concluded.
The attacks against the civilians were in revenge for their perceived support of the Islamic State as well as a settling of scores from abuses that took place more than a decade ago under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, according to the study.
The report, Banished and dispossessed: Forced Displacement and Deliberate Destruction in Northern Iraq, was based on investigations in 13 villages and towns as well as testimony from more than 100 eyewitnesses and victims of such forced displacement, Amnesty noted. Hilary Homes, a spokesperson for Amnesty International in Ottawa on security issues, said the report is corroborated by satellite imagery that revealed evidence of widespread destruction of the villages. “It would be very hard to see how this was militarily justified,” she said. “When you are doing this kind of deliberate destruction, punishing an entire community, that can very easily escalate to being considered war crimes.”
That destruction was carried out by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, or in some cases Yezidi militias and Kurdish armed groups from Syria and Turkey, operating in coordination with the Peshmerga. Tens of thousands of Arab civilians were forced to flee their homes, according to the report. They have been barred by Kurdish Regional Government forces from returning to the recaptured areas.
Donatella Rovera, a senior adviser with Amnesty International, who carried out the field research in northern Iraq, pointed out in a statement that the Kurds are also consolidating territorial gains in socalled “disputed areas” which the Kurdistan Regional Government has long claimed as rightfully its land. Homes said the Canadian government, as well as soldiers on the ground, must use the influence they have with the Kurds to force them to stop the mistreatment of the civilians. “If you’re interacting with those forces, I think you’re obliged to know what they’re doing,” she said. “You have an obligation to ensure that violations of human rights and humanitarian law aren’t occurring.”
Defence Minister Sajjan, however, has remained vague. “Every single course in the Canadian Armed Forces, regardless what rank level you go up to, always starts with ethics and values and that is the same level and standard we apply when we do our training,” he said in response to the Amnesty report.
It’s unclear at this point what effect the ripples from Canada’s involvement in Kurdistan will ultimately have. In November, Kurdish forces, with support from coalition fighter jets including Canadian CF18s, helped push ISIL out of the city of Sinjar.
The Kurdish flag – not Iraq’s – was erected over the city. “Long live Kurdistan,” Kurdish gunmen shouted as they fired their weapons into the air. Kurdish President Barzani has said the Kurds will never surrender any of the territory they now hold in Iraq.
Just a few days ago – Feb. 2 – he announced his government would hold a referendum on independence, although he indicated at this point it is only to be used to gauge the will of the people. Barzani wants the referendum to be held by the fall and he cited Quebec’s quest for independence as one reasons why he and his fellow Kurds are entitled to their own country.
“If the people of Kurdistan are waiting for someone else to present the right of selfdetermination as a gift, independence will never be obtained,” Barzani explained to Kurdish journalists. “That right exists and the people of Kurdistan must demand it and put it into motion. “The same way that Scotland, Catalonia, and Quebec and other places have the right to express their opinions about their destiny, Kurdistan, too, has the right, and it’s nonnegotiable,” he added.
Kilford, the retired Canadian Forces officer, said Barzani’s call for a referendum will only further antagonize Iraq’s government. “There’s already a lot of tension there with the situation in Kirkuk,” said Kilford, who now teaches at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.
“It’s a delicate situation.” Some Iraqis, have already, indicated they won’t be standing on the sidelines if the Kurds try to separate. Iraqi Shia militia groups, who have been battling ISIL, say they will not rest until the Kurds are pushed out of Kirkuk. In November, there was a series of firefights between the Kurds and the Shia militias near the city of Tuz Kharmatu, south of Kirkuk.
In December, the Shia militias increased the number of troops near Kirkuk to around 400. Once ISIL is dealt with, a new round of fighting could take place, this time between various Iraqi factions and the Kurds. The training Canada is providing Kurdish forces could ripple into a tsunami of trouble.