Canada having second thoughts about arming Kurdish fighters

Up to $10 million worth of weapons originally purchased by Canada to help Kurdish fighters beat back ISIS could end up in the hands of the Iraqi government, or helping to support NATO’s military training mission, said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

The weapons were promised when ISIS was a battlefield threat. Things have changed.

Kurdish security forces stand guard in their defensive position in Alton Kupri, on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq, Thursday Oct. 19, 2017. (Khalid Mohammed/The Associated Press)

Up to $10 million worth of weapons originally purchased by Canada to help Kurdish fighters beat back ISIS could end up in the hands of the Iraqi government, or helping to support NATO's military training mission, said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

The federal government originally promised the materiel — grenade launchers, sniper rifles, mortars, anti-tank rockets and other military equipment — over two years ago, when it first reconfigured the size and scope of Canada's contribution to the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS.

The fate of the weapons, currently stored in two warehouses in Montreal and Amman, Jordan, has been up in the air for months following the refusal of the central government in Baghdad to sign off on their transfer to separatist-minded Kurds.

Now, the defeat of ISIS on the battlefield is prompting the Liberals to overhaul the mission terms once again — and that includes reconsidering who will end up with the weapons.

"What we're looking at is, where are the needs?" Sajjan told CBC News.

"We are looking at where we can do the best capacity-building and at the same time looking at where we can best counter a resurgence of Daesh [ISIS]."

Fighting between the Kurdish peshmerga fighters and the Iraqi army, in the aftermath of last fall's Kurdish independence referendum, forced a halt to a program of training and assistance for Kurdish fighters conducted by Canadian special forces.

The threat of a new civil war

Critics of that support program have argued that arming the Kurds could help tip Iraq into civil war.

Thomas Juneau, a University of Ottawa professor and former analyst at National Defence, said the decision to arm the Kurds made sense back when ISIS was a primary threat and the peshmerga fielded the most effective local force on the battlefield.

Canada's policy is to support a united Iraq. Juneau said that with the defeat of ISIS as a military force, it's only natural that Ottawa's policy would tilt towards Baghdad.

"The need has changed," he said, and Canada needs to be taking steps now toward "fighting an insurgency and building a legitimate government."

In doing that, Juneau said Canada and the other allies will have to walk a fine line.

Articulate a reason why it makes sense to transfer these weapons. Because at this point, I don't see that argument.- Peggy Mason, Rideau Institute

"We shouldn't jettison the Kurds," he said. "We shouldn't forget about them, but there needs to be more support for Iraqi national institutions."

One compromise solution might be to use the weapons to bolster the planned NATO military training mission, which Canada has signalled in a preliminary way it will support.

"If the needs are there for training capacity, and if our resources in terms of equipment — including weapons — are needed, we will look at that option," Sajjan said.

The minister added, though, that whatever Canada decides to do, it will talk to the Iraqi government to ensure "they are OK with it."

Canada will need to take a great deal of care if it opts to transfer the weapons to the Iraqi government, Juneau said.

'Thuggish, corrupt and incompetent'

The sectarian political divide between Sunni and Shiite — which led to the birth of ISIS in the first place — is still very much alive, he said, and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi still has a long way to go in healing that rift and avoiding civil war.

"It was a government in that was extremely thuggish, corrupt and incompetent and significantly contributed to the emergence of [ISIS] in 2014," Juneau said. "It is in the interest of the international community to build [a] legitimate ... national government, not only in the Sunni areas but in the country as a whole."

Peggy Mason, president of the Ottawa-based think-tank Rideau Institute, said the Liberal government seemed surprised when fighting erupted between the Iraqi army and the Kurds, even though most seasoned observers saw it coming.

Canada and its allies have tended to treat Iraq as a military problem, with development money thrown in, she said.

"I think the government should explain to us exactly what they are trying to do in Iraq and, if there is a role for those weapons, what is it?" Mason said.

"Articulate a reason why it makes sense to transfer these weapons. Because at this point, I don't see that argument."

There are also more basic questions that still need answers, including whether that stock of weapons meets the current conditions, said Juneau.

"Everything that's been sitting in warehouses for two years — is that right equipment? We don't know that it is," he said. "Chances are it might be, but then again it might not. It should be re-evaluated, not cancelled."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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