Kurdish forces, initially-backed by Canada and other western nations, played a key role in routing ISIS from northern Iraq.
Today, however, more than three months after announcing a temporary suspension of Canadian military aid to Kurdish troops and the Iraqi military, Canada still has no specific plans to resume providing lethal aid to Iraq’s Kurds, a Defence Department spokesman told VICE News.
The statement, from Department of National Defence spokesman Daniel Lebouthilier, comes as Canada’s defence minister Harjit Sajjan met in Brussels this week with other NATO defence ministers to discuss future aid to Iraq.
Canada suspended its advise and assist mission to Kurdish troops and Iraqi security forces, and put a weapons shipment bound for the Kurds on hold after fighting broke out between the two groups last October. The shipment is valued at $9.5 million and includes grenade launchers, sniper rifles, mortars, anti-tank systems, pistols, carbines, and other equipment.
Until then, the Kurds had enjoyed strong military support from Canada and other Western allies. When ISIS first seized large swaths of territory in Iraq in 2014 and 2015, the Iraqi Army crumbled, with huge numbers of Iraqi troops deserting. The Kurdish Peshmerga, the military of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, was the only fighting force left to fill the vacuum in northern Iraq.
Following ISIS’s early victories, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government initiated Canada’s advise and assist mission, sending 69 Canadian special forces members to Iraq in 2014. But it swelled to over 200 in 2016 after the Liberal government pulled Canadian fighter jets out of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against ISIS and refocused Canada’s contribution to the coalition.
Flush with support from Canada, the U.S. and others, Kurdish forces played a major role in retaking territory from ISIS, including the liberation of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.
But as ISIS was pushed out, the Kurds’ fortunes soured. Soon after they voted to separate from Iraq in a September referendum, the Iraqi army retaliated by seizing territory controlled by the Kurds.
Canada and its allies called for calm during the violence that followed, but stood by as Iraqi forces seized back territory the Kurds had won control of with support and training from Canadian Special Forces. Before Canada acted, Germany put a stop to its own training and support mission to the Kurds. The U.S, conversely, has continued to support both sides unhindered.
ABANDONED BY ALLIES
Despite training and arranging to arm Kurdish troops, Canada’s official policy is for Iraq to remain a United Country. At the time, some Kurdish leaders expressed feeling abandoned by the international coalition against ISIS.
A spokesperson for the Kurdish Regional Government Representative in the United States said he did no know when or if Canada would be sending weapons.
“The [Kurdish Regional Government] is not aware of any imminent assistance from Canada,” Niyaz Barzani, assistant to the Kurdish representative to Washington, said in an email responding to questions about Canadian military aid.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan met in Brussels this week with other NATO defence ministers. As the meeting concluded, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced Thursday that member countries had agreed to expand the alliance’s training mission in Iraq.
There was no specific mention of aid to the Kurds.
Nevertheless, the Washington-based Kurdistan Regional Government Representative to the United States expressed optimism at the announcement, but also stressed that while ISIS is defeated militarily, Kurdish forces still need significant help to secure the Iraqi Kurdish population.
“Our security forces need to remain vigilant, trained and equipped to deal with the threat of ISIS and other terrorist organizations, preserve anti-ISIS coalition gains in Iraq and promote security and stability," Bayan Sami Abdul Rahmanon said in a statement to VICE News.
But Lebouthilier, the Department of Defence Spokesman, appeared to imply that with ISIS defeated, there is less need for military aid. Since Canada suspended the advise and assist mission, he stressed, Iraqi forces have retaken all territory that was held by ISIS.
‘POTENTIAL CIVIL WAR’
Since the suspension of aid to the Kurds, Canada’s other military operations in Iraq have continued, including intelligence support, medical aid and transportation. Despite the pause in their mission, Canadian special forces are still in Iraq helping to figure out Canada’s next moves there, Lebouthillier said.
A plan for those next moves still could be far off, with Minister Sajjan saying on a conference call with reporters on Thursday that Canada’s current task in Iraq is “assessing what the needs are,” signaling that a final decision may still be a ways away. Long-held Kurdish aspirations for an independent homeland terrify Canada’s NATO ally Turkey, which is battling an insurgency from its own restive Kurdish minority in territory bordering Iraq.
For some observers, Canada’s deliberation on deciding on a new mission in Iraq has already been a surprisingly long process.
“I would have expected a faster decision to end the issue,” said Jim Fergusson, Deputy Director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba. “We’re now embroiled in a potential civil war situation there, so I’m not sure what they’re waiting for.”
One possible clue to Canada’s mission however, was revealed after the Brussels meeting. NATO’s secretary general suggested that member countries could continue to train Iraqi forces in the safe disposal of explosives. Canadian military combat engineers are already in Iraq training local forces in similar work - something they could do more of as part of an expanded NATO mission
Beyond that, Fergusson says not to expect much from Canada.
“In terms of their initial goals of strengthening the Kurdish elements of Iraq and help them push ISIS out of Mosul, that’s complete. So with that done Canada can declare victory and go home.”
That would fit with the Canadian mission’s expiration date of 2019, he noted.
'IRAQ NEEDS HELP'
Even before Canada vastly increased support to the Kurds in 2016, Canadian bureaucrats warned the Prime Minister in a briefing note shortly after the 2015 election that military aid could embolden them in their push for independence, and spark conflict with the Iraqi government.
Should Canada eventually move ahead with renewed support for the Kurds, it is unlikely to sit well with Baghdad. In 2016 the Iraqi government delayed a previous attempt at Canada shipping weapons to the Kurds, and a year before that, detained a Canadian military plane delivering weapons to Canadian special forces in Northern Iraq.
While Iraq’s Kurds may appear out of options in their push for greater autonomy, one seasoned observer noted, counting them out could be a mistake.
"What the Kurdish leadership in Iraq decides to do could have major consequences," said lieutenant-general Ken Pennie, former head of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“They’ve backed down now, but they could get aggressive again.”
“But one thing is clear,” he added, “the Iraqi government still needs help.”