Impossible versus difficult: Canada’s way forward in Syria and Iraq

It won’t be Kandahar II, but there are practical and legal reasons why Iraq makes for an easier military choice than Syria. By Steve Saideman

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20 March, 2015
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

wrote last week that the “Russian front” was far easier than the Mideast for the U.S. and its allies because it did not involve state/nation-building/counter-insurgency.  All the U.S. and NATO has to do is credibly commit to those inside the alliance and hold the line against Russia.  Not easy but easier than building stable political systems in the Mideast.

Well, next week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is going to announce Canada’s next steps in the region and the “Syria” word has been mentioned.  So, I thought I would take a moment to ponder the differences between Iraq and Syria.  And the first thought is …. Iraq is easier. 

How so?

When people talk of endgames, strategies, and exits, there actually is a real set of answers for Iraq and damn near none for Syria.  There is a recognized, semi-viable government in Iraq.  Unfortunately, it has been led by Shiites who have been using their positions to make up for the years of repression and oppression by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government.  Oh, and their religious identity makes Iran their most appealing ally.  Good times.  Still, this basic reality that there is something there in Baghdad means that there are ways out for the U.S. and its allies.  Not easy at all but the potential way out of the quagmire: strengthening the military and police of Iraq so that they can provide security AND the hard part — somehow the government becomes more interested in not harming the Sunnis who are not part of ISIS or any other insurgency.

Sure, that is not easy but compare it to Syria.  What is the way out of Syria?  Um… Yeah.  There is no viable opposition that is not ISIS, AND the government is just impossibly illegitimate.  What does victory look like in Syria?  Damned if I know.  I have no clue about how to get from here to there.  The key point here is that Syria is just very, very complex.  Hitting ISIS helps Assad, which is something most folks do not want to do.  Hitting Assad helps ISIS.  Oy.  Helping the other opponents of Assad has helped ISIS since these folks tend to lose and then give up their stuff to ISIS.

The other difference for Canada’s big decision next week is that Iraq is legal —government welcomed all of us in, and intervening in Syria is not so much.  No UN resolution, no NATO consensus, no government asking for help.  Not sure this matters that much to Harper, but it matters to the Canadian public to a degree.  Would Syria be a bridge too far?  Probably not as long as the casualties stayed where they are now (one killed, three wounded).

I cannot guess what Harper will announce in a few days, although I have little doubt that Canadian Forces, in a non-conventional form, will be sticking around for a while longer in the Mideast — bombing in Iraq, SOF training in Iraq at the very least.

Doing more?  Maybe, but I would still bet against conventional forces doing counterinsurgency stuff.  No Kandahar II for this government.

 This post first appeared on Steve Saideman’s personal website

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