Canada’s mission in the Middle East at a crossroads as Daesh declines and new threats emerge

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More than six years after the first deployment of Canadian troops to the Middle East to help combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, hundreds of members of the Canadian Armed Forces are still in the region.
Canada is now at a crossroads with the mission, and the question for the federal government, Canadian military commanders, diplomats and others is how many of these soldiers will remain in the region after March? And if they stay, why?

The current mission, which involves more than 500 soldiers in several countries, is expected to end on March 31. The majority of these troops are located in Kuwait and Iraq, the latter being the primary focus of Canada’s efforts against ISIS.

The end of the federal fiscal year will also mark the expiration of $ 1.39 billion in funding for what the Liberal government described as its Middle East strategy, which included money for the military mission and d other foreign aid in the region.

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, in a recent interview with The Canadian Press, declined to say whether the mission would be extended. Rather, he stressed that Canada would continue to be “a reliable partner” to its allies and to countries in the region.

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan has not said whether Canada’s mission in the Middle East will continue after March, but does say decisions will be made so Iraq can “stand up.” (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

Yet he also said the government will base its decision on ensuring that “the hard-fought gains” made in previous years will not be lost – especially in Iraq.

“So there will be decisions made to ensure that Iraq is able to stand on its own feet and prevent something like this from happening again.”

Canada first sent troops in 2014

Canada first deployed troops to the Middle East in October 2014 as part of a US-led coalition to prevent ISIS from transforming the vast swathes of Iraq and Syria that ‘he had managed to capture in a caliphate, from which he could launch terrorist attacks against the West. .

This first incursion involved dozens of special forces soldiers – one of whom was killed by alleged friendly fire from allied Kurdish fighters in March 2015 – as well as fighter jets and other planes, which helped stop the advance of ISIS in Iraq.

The following years saw the mission evolve several times as ISIS lost all of its previous gains in Iraq and the war turned into a more traditional insurgency, with the militant group forced into hiding and launching isolated attacks in Iraq. the country.

The current mission includes an undisclosed number of Special Forces soldiers, who senior commanders say are helping the Iraqis find and eliminate ISIS cells. Little has been revealed in recent years about what these troops are doing.

The mission also involves Canadian military trainers who work with their Iraqi counterparts on basic soldier and high level strategic planning. As part of this, a Canadian officer led a larger NATO training mission for two years before Denmark took over in November.

New challenges threaten stability in Iraq

Despite its losses, experts say ISIS remains a threat if pressure is not maintained.

“As much as the Islamic State is weakened now, there is no doubt that the conditions for its eventual rebirth are still there,” said Thomas Juneau, a Middle East expert at the University of Ottawa.

Analysts blamed the United States’ rapid withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 for leaving a void that Daesh could fill. The international community then intervened again in the country’s affairs.

Meanwhile, new challenges threaten the little peace and stability that exists in Iraq, including secular divisions within the country, as well as its emergence as a front line in a slow conflict between states- United and Iran.

Bessma Momani, an expert on the Middle East at the University of Waterloo, believes this is why Ottawa will keep troops in Iraq, to ​​counter Iran’s growing influence and prevent “disintegration.” ” from the country.

Bessma Momani, a Middle East specialist at the University of Waterloo, believes the Canadian government will keep some troops in Iraq to counter Iran’s growing influence. (The Canadian Press)

The Canadian military mission in Iraq has already changed over the past two years to include these other objectives – including preventing Iran from gaining control – although Ottawa did not say so right away.

“From an American point of view, it is very clear that one of the objectives of this mission is to strengthen the Iraqi state to prevent it from finding itself even more under the influence of Iran than it is. is already, ”Juneau said.

This influence already includes ties with many members of the Iraqi ruling class. The Iranian general was killed by a US drone near Baghdad airport last January while on his way to meet members of the Iraqi political leadership.

It is unclear how the Biden administration will approach the region

Iran has also supported numerous groups of Shiite militias in Iraq, some of which have launched attacks against Western targets. This includes a rocket attack last fall on a military base in northern Iraq used by US and Canadian soldiers.

“One of the biggest challenges the Iraqi military faces is [militia] units that are very beholden to the Iranians, ”Momani said.

“It’s not something you want to advertise. So you say that we are here to help the Iraqi army fight ISIS, but in a sense they are really there to help professionalize the Iraqi army so that we do not succumb to these militia factions inside. . ”

An open question is what approach the administration of new US President Joe Biden will take on the Middle East and Iraq, which will undoubtedly affect Canada’s decision.

It remains to be seen how US President-elect Joe Biden will approach the region following his inauguration on January 20, after President Donald Trump ordered the troop withdrawal. (Mike Segar / Reuters)

Under orders from outgoing President Donald Trump, the United States began to withdraw its troops this year.

Canada has also started to reduce its footprint, with military commanders slowly dropping from over 800 troops in the region to around 500 over the summer. Canadian commanders at the time said this reflected a reduced need for basic soldier training.

It’s unclear how the Biden administration will approach Iraq and the region, but Juneau and Momani have said they believe he will stay engaged. And he will seek allies to continue playing a role, which will be another factor that Canadian officials will need to consider.

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