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On Intervention: Iraq, not Syria?

Stephen Saideman looks at why Canada is getting involved with a country it avoided for so long.

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19 August, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

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

August is usually a slow news month, but certainly not this year.  The latest?  That Canada has sent transport planes to Iraq to help the Kurds as well as Iraq deal with the Islamic State movement.  It is only natural to ask the question: why here and not Syria?  Or, why Iraq and not place x, y, or z?

The obvious answer and also the correct one here is: because we can.  That is, Canada can help here and cannot really help that much elsewhere.  The second answer is always true: because there is discrimination in international relations.  That is, countries are selective about where they get involved, with some crises getting more attention and effort and others less.

The big difference between the situation in Iraq and the one in Syria is that there is a side that Canada, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and others can assist.  Focusing either on the Kurds or on Iraq itself, there are local allies that control territory and governments.  That outside support can take place with relatively little risk to the outsiders is a key ingredient.  That there is a local ally that one likes or can stomach is a second.  The Kurds have done a nice job since 2003 of positioning themselves as the most reasonable faction in Iraq (not that difficult a task) but also the most competent.  While there are always fears that supporting the Kurds in Iraq might have implications for Kurdish separatists elsewhere, that is dwarfed here by the threat posed by the Islamic State.  Together, these conditions mean that the outsiders can make a difference and would like to do so. 

To be clear, the threats of genocide to the Yazidis and to the Iraqi Christians are significant, but they do not really help account for why Iraq and not elsewhere.  There are groups elsewhere facing such extreme threats, such as multiple groups in Syria, but they receive much less assistance.  Why?  Who should Canada and its allies help?  Who has the territory to receive aircraft?  Who has the ability to convert military equipment into some kind of fighting capability?  Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign has exposed divisions within the U.S. government about equipping the Syrian opposition a couple of years ago, so perhaps Canada could have been more supportive.  But many will argue that assistance two years ago would just mean more American arms in the hands of the Islamic State.  Hard to figure this out.  But at this time, the choice of where Canada can make the most difference is pretty clear — a country that Canada studiously avoided until now.

The reality is that countries always, always, always discriminate.  People can call it hypocrisy that efforts are made and even force is used to help some and not others, but even the strongest, most capable countries cannot dedicate equal efforts everywhere.  Russia is only focused these days on Ukraine and not other parts of the former Soviet Union, for instance.  The U.S. has spent far more effort on Iraq and Iran since 1979 than on most other places, but neither was that central before that year.

The question is not whether countries are selective, but on what basis do they discriminate.  In many cases, it is based on affinity.  Some or many countries will assist those like themselves, whether that is based on history, ideology or ethnicity.  Others will assist those who face the most severe plight.  The traditional answer is that countries will act where they have the greatest interest and/or the greatest influence.

For Canada, this time, it seems to be the case that this is where Canada can make a contribution without much risk.  This is why the Canadian effort here is similar to the prior effort in Mali — providing air transport and not much else.  Air lift is a capability Canada has, and it is one that Canada can provide at relatively low cost and risk compared to other forms of intervention.

So, sure, it is surprising that Canada has gotten involved in a country it has steadfastly avoided until now.  But the particular form of intervention is not surprising.  Once one considers how this form is suited for this situation, Canada’s role here becomes less of a puzzle.  Of course, helping to ship military aid to the Kurds and to Iraq may be a first step, but it is doubtful, given this government’s priorities (the budget and message management), that Canada will send significant numbers of troops into the field.  There is the usual caveat that special operations forces might be put into play.

What are we to expect down the road?  More discrimination.  All countries but especially those with shrinking defence budgets have to be very selective and avoid long term commitments.  Given that 2015 is an election year, I doubt that there is much of an appetite for a more serious commitment of force in the Mideast.

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