Thursday, May 5, 2016

Kurdish Flag on CAF Special Forces Stirs Worry

By: Lee Berthiaume, Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — New video footage showing Canadian soldiers wearing the Kurdish flag on their uniforms has raised fresh questions about Canada’s mission in northern Iraq and the message it is sending the rest of the country.

New video shows Canadian soldiers wearing Kurdish flag on uniforms: Why this risks fracturing Iraq
Two unidentified CAF Special Forces Members, in the CTV News footage from Iraq. 
The footage was shot by CTV as the network and the Toronto Star toured the mission with defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance last week. The video clearly shows Canadian special forces operatives sporting the Canadian flag on one shoulder, and the Kurds’ distinctive red, white and green flag on the other.

National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said the flag patches are used “to enhance cohesion with partner forces and to ensure easy visual identification, which contributes to force protection.” He added that Canada remains committed to a unified Iraq.

But Denise Natali, a Middle East expert at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington, said the flag, which includes a sunburst in the centre, is hugely symbolic for Kurds who want their own homeland.

And while most Canadians may see it as a tempest in a teapot, she said having Canadian soldiers wear the Kurdish flag sends a message to Kurds and non-Kurds alike that Canada supports those aspirations.

“The Canadian Forces putting the (flags) on their uniforms tells the rest of Iraq that we don’t support the territorial integrity of your country,” she said.

“Canada should be very careful about the optics and the messages it wants to send to the rest of Iraq. I’m quite surprised that someone higher up would even permit that. It does undermine the long-term strategic effort.”

The 30 million Kurds across Turkey and much of the Middle East have long sought their own country. Those in northern Iraq have a degree of autonomy, but their ultimate aspiration is official statehood.

Federal officials warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau late last year that Canada may be contributing to long-term instability in Iraq by training and equipping Kurdish forces to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but whose ultimate goal is to create an independent state.

Government and military officials have downplayed those concerns, saying the central government in Baghdad has approved the mission and Canada has told the Kurds it strongly supports a unified Iraq.

But the Kurds have refused to return land recaptured from ISIL, but which is claimed by the central government. There are also fears that once ISIL is defeated, the Kurds will use their new military training and equipment to declare independence.

Violence has already erupted at least once. While Vance was touring Canada’s mission, Kurdish fighters and forces allied with Baghdad were battling each other, killing 10 people. A tense ceasefire between the two sides is now in place.

“We need to continue to recognize the role that the Kurds have played in fighting (ISIL),” Natali said. “However, there’s a larger strategic end-state here and there’s a lot of subnational groups, including the Kurds, jockeying for recognition and authority in some of these ungoverned spaces.”

The Liberal government has repeatedly sidestepped questions about what would happen if Iraq’s Kurds declared independence. Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region, stoked the flames Feb. 2 when he called for a referendum to gauge interest in independence.

Speaking to CTV in Iraq, Vance said Iraq’s long-term political make-up was of secondary concern to defeating ISIL.

“While we’re here and while we’re performing this function to rid Iraq of ISIL, I think it’s in all of our best interests to have the political unity necessary to deal with this threat,” he said. “Where after Iraq decides to go in terms of its political laydown is up to Iraq.”

But Natali said what happens now will ultimately decide whether peace and stability return to Iraq sooner, rather than later.

“You’re always going to have second- and third-order consequences,” she said. “And in this case, optics matter.”

Ottawa Citizen

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