That Conservative foreign policy election plank: shaky, incoherent and quite possibly dangerous

Posted on August 05, 2015, 1:05 am
10 mins

PHOTOS: A screen grab from the Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s notorious electioneering video showing the himself and Defence Minister Jason Kenney in Iraqi Kurdistan, with the face of a Canadian special forces soldier blocked out by the CBC – unlike the version that appeared on the PMO’s website. Note the Kurdish flag in the upper right corner of the image. Below: A BBC info-graphic that tries to explain the complicated relationship among the Turks, various Kurdish groups and ISIS.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper likes to portray himself as a leader who stands by his foreign friends through thick and thin. But can they really depend on him? And can we depend on them?

Like the economy, Mr. Harper has made foreign policy a key plank in his Conservative Party’s reelection strategy. And that stalwart support for certain groups and countries is a showpiece part of the prime minister’s vote-winning effort.

BBCchartHigh on the agenda – indeed, one of only two examples of foreign policy initiatives mentioned in the party news release explaining the prime minister’s decision Sunday to call an election early – is what the government calls “Canada’s mission against ISIS.” Canada’s friendship with the Kurds is a cornerstone of that mission.

In May, when the prime minister visited leaders of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region who have been fighting the so-called Islamic State with Canadian support, he lauded the Kurds’ officially unrecognized but effective army, the Peshmerga.

A few days before, a Peshmerga unit had killed a Canadian special forces soldier sent to assist it in what was described as a “friendly fire incident.”

“Look, this was a terrible tragedy,” Mr. Harper said while visiting the contested territory, “but let it not obscure, frankly, the respect I think we should have for the Kurdish fighters in this area.” A now notorious video of the visit in which the Prime Minister’s Office revealed the faces of Canadian special forces troops clearly shows the prime minister speaking in front of a Kurdish flag snapping in the desert wind.

Under the Conservatives, Canadian authorities have turned a blind eye to the recruitment of Canadian military veterans and other volunteers by the Peshmerga, and some Canadian news media, the National Post in particular, have acted as a virtual recruiting agency for the Kurds.

So what does Canada do now that our North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, the Turks, have turned viciously on the Kurds with the apparent support of the United States? Will Mr. Harper stand by his friends, or will he just stand by?

Conservatives and the Department of Foreign Affairs might try to make a distinction between the Kurds being bombed by the Turks and the Kurds being assisted by the Canadians. But while it is true that the principal group being bombed by the Turks – the Kurdistan Workers Party, known by the initials PKK – was declared a terrorist group by Canada in 2002, this won’t really wash. It is acknowledged by experts on the region that the PKK in Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, who Canada has been supporting, have long worked together.

For Canadians trying to follow the unfolding situation in the Middle East – particularly the cartoonish version created by Conservative press release writers and their echo chamber in the media – the latest developments in this region of shifting alliances and unchanging aspirations must seem extremely confusing.

However, this much is clear: The Kurds, who live in a region that spans parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey and who do not have a country of their own, have more than one enemy. One is the fundamentalist and unrelentingly violent ISIS. But another has long been our NATO ally Turkey, a major regional power.

Yet another is the government of Syria, which we are apparently not trying to help even as we are attacking one of its principal enemies, ISIS, inside Syria.

This is because part of the territory that for generations has been desired as an independent homeland by the Kurds, a distinct ethnic group closely related to the people of Iran, is in southeastern Turkey. It is hard not to feel sympathetic to the Kurds’ national aspirations. But our Turkish NATO allies are not about to give that territory up either.

Indeed, the Canadian government really should have seen this coming. The Turks and the Kurds have been at daggers drawn at least since the mid-1980s, some would say the since the 1920s or before. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952.

About two weeks ago, the United States cut a deal with Turkey for the use of airbases on Turkish territory for the U.S. bombing campaign against ISIS. In that campaign, the U.S. had been effectively allied with Kurdish groups in Syria. In doing so, the U.S. has been accused of abandoning its Kurdish allies.

Whatever the U.S. intentions, the deal made it possible for Turkey to increase its attacks on terrorists too – but the “terrorists” Turkey has been attacking are almost entirely Kurds.

Last week, according to news reports, Turkish airstrikes killed more than 250 Kurdish soldiers associated with the PKK, which is also allied with the Syrian Kurds supported by the United States. Kurdish units killed four Turkish policemen and four Turkish soldiers.

The Iraqi Kurdish fighters supported by Canada in the fight against ISIS are naturally sympathetic to the PKK even if not formally allied as they are part of the same aspirational national movement. Despite whatever NATO-member Canada is doing for them they are unlikely to feel much warmth for NATO-member Turkey.

This may explain the Wall Street Journal’s reports that ISIS is now successfully recruiting young Turkish Kurds to join its fight.

Moreover, notwithstanding the prime minister’s fine words about the Kurds, we don’t seem to treat them with all that much consideration. In June, despite the Peshmerga’s front-line role, the Kurdish Regional Government (representing Kurds in Iraq) was shut out of a meeting in Paris of the countries and groups engaged in the fight against ISIS.

As the latest battles between the Turks and the Kurds heated up, the Iraqi Kurds were also not invited to a meeting of the same parties, this time in Quebec City. “Once again it appears that the Kurdistan region, a key component in the fight against (ISIS), is being excluded,” the KRG’s Washington office said bitterly. But a spokesperson for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs blew off questions about it, saying it was up to the Iraqis “to determine participation in their delegation.”

If you’re confused by this, don’t feel too guilty. It’s none too clear to people who understand the region, and made less so by the incoherence of Canada’s policy.

Whatever is going on, though, a few things seem obvious, chief among them that Canadian policy in the region is rapidly turning into a clusterfrolic with little apparent understanding of the players, no clear objective other than “fight ISIS” and no exit strategy for the Canadians who are being asked to fight and die there.

Sound familiar?

As for the economy, another pillar of the prime minister’s re-election strategy, it turns out it’s a mess too!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

11 Comments to: That Conservative foreign policy election plank: shaky, incoherent and quite possibly dangerous

  1. August 5th, 2015

    The Liberals are/have floundered badly. They are broke and underfunded to boot. Young Trudeau does not have the support of the old guard deep pockets. He tried to run a complete computer email pre campaign that was so intense that MS designated it as Junk and I left it there.

    I asked them about income splitting and their plan to do away with it. Outlining my situation where I am retired and my wife works. Income splitting is a big advantage for us.

    They replied after two weeks saying they would not touch splitting for seniors. Now, that’s a bent answer if I ever seen one. The Senior side of our equation is not the problem which leaves them open to tax the shit out of my wife.

    Harper I think will plummet in the poles as different blogs like yours weigh in on election issues. He is still dealing behind the scenes of international trade with promises to consumers of cheap yogurt and milk but has hit a wall with the BC dairy association. HIs deal would kill them!. Nevertheless he will, later on in the campaign bring forward these attempts at deals and it will sway some to his camp.

    NDP are tripping along nicely. No one has taken the time to add up Tom McLairs costs on items like Day Care especially. Sometime in the next two months its going to bite him on the arse.

    Reply
  2. anonymous

    August 5th, 2015

    ‘Canada’s Chubbiest Army Cadets’ ™ look like bewildered children who have wandered carelessly into a minefield. This is going to turn out well.

    Reply
  3. CuJo Calgary

    August 5th, 2015

    L’il Stevie just loves to play GI Joe with human lives. Classic Chickenhawk.

    Reply
    • MAGGIE

      August 5th, 2015

      The sooner we get rid of Harper and his Republican evangelical agenda, the better.

      Reply
  4. TC

    August 5th, 2015

    Canada’s problem is this situation is that it’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. If it’s going to get involved, it has to choose the lesser of two evils.

    Ideally, I don’t mind Canada not getting involved in anything foreign conflict (especially involving the Middle East), and let the belligerents bleed each other out.

    Reply
  5. ronmac

    August 5th, 2015

    All this can be explained by one word: Israel. The Peshmerga Kurds in northern Iraq who fighting to create an independent, autonomus (oil rich) state, are close allies with Israel. So it’s no surprise Harper is doing all he can to further Israel’s strategic goals in the region.

    Speaking of incoherent foreign policies who can forget that time when Harper sang “Hey Jude” to Israeli PM Ben Netanyahu at a state dinner in Jerusalem. “Jude” is the German word for “Jew”. Awkward.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltAfEXce7Jk

    Reply
    • Cairo

      August 6th, 2015

      D’ya think he knew? Which is worse? … that he did, or that he didn’t?

      Reply
  6. Alvin Finkel

    August 5th, 2015

    Ronmac, the Turks have also, for the most part, been friends of Israel. There have been a few spats but the Turks do a lot of trading with Israel. And many Iraqi Kurds are sympathetic to the Palestinians. Why would Harper want to help anyone develop another oil-rich country when all that does is create more competition for Canadian oil? I suppose that part of the answer may be the offset that increased sale of weapons to Middle Eastern countries offers to our manufacturers of weapons of mass destruction. The Saudis, who have a terrible human rights record, are coddled by Harper for that reason.The Kurds do constitute a national grouping and I see nothing wrong with their efforts to create a nation for themselves. But sending Canadian soldiers into the region once again is plainly irresponsible though aiding the Kurds financially in their military effort to hold back both IS and Turkey might be defensible. On the whole, though, the West’s intrusions into this region seem to do nothing but create various types of blowback. Much, though not all, of the current mess is the result of the legacy of colonialism, though the Shia-Sunni split which precedes colonial occupation also contributes to deep divisions. Both Mulcair and Trudeau have helpfully taken pacifist positions on the region. I’m more inclined to believe Mulcair because past Liberal governments have generally capitulated to the US or NATO on Middle Eastern issues though Jean Chretien deserves credit for giving in to public pressures against Canada becoming part of the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq in 2003.

    Reply
    • August 6th, 2015

      1) Send NO MORE military men or materials abroad.
      2) Quit ALL military alliances.
      3) Quit NAFTA.

      Reply
  7. Filostrato

    August 6th, 2015

    Everything is so simple to Simple Steve. If he likes them, they’re good. If he doesn’t like them, they’re bad. Forget about the complicated interactions among the peoples of the region for several thousand years. Forget about “western” interventions that have made things indescribably worse.

    Just to make your brain spin, here’s an interactive map of the alliances and enmities that we’re supposed to have fully grasped before engineering “regime change”, mass aerial bombing without knowing who or how many end up dead, or what happens after everyone has had enough and decides to go home, except for the people the West has left without homes. Complete ignorance and arrogance, but good for the “defense” industry. (Sorry for all the scare quotes.)

    http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/the-middle-east-key-players-notable-relationships/

    As General Smedley Butler said, way back in 1935, war is a racket.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Is_a_Racket

    Reply

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