Politics·Analysis

Kurds' push for referendum a potential headache for Canadian allies

Iraqi Kurds' drive for independence could cause problems for the Canadian Forces in the country, who have embedded themselves with Kurdish forces, rather than the national army.

Canada's comrades-in-arms in Iraq charting a collision course in drive for independence

Military vehicles of Peshmerga forces drive toward the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul, during a 2016 operation to attack ISIS militants. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

The battle for Mosul is entering its final stages, and there are growing calls for foreign troops to leave the country as soon as the Islamic State is defeated on Iraqi soil.

That could mean the end of any active role for Canada in the war against the world's most notorious terrorist group.

At the same time, tensions are rising between the government in Baghdad and its affiliated Shia militias, on the one hand, and Canada's Kurdish allies on the other.

The Kurds are determined to hold a referendum on independence from Iraq once the Mosul campaign is over. That's put them on a collision course with their Arab allies and non-Arab neighbouring countries.

Canada's NATO partner Turkey has warned it won't accept an independent Kurdistan on its southern border, and Iran echoed those remarks, recently saying it "will not accept the independence of the Kurds of Iraq."

"Kurdish independence is on a trajectory where it is probably not if but when," Lt.-Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency, recently testified at a Senate hearing. "So this a significant referendum."

Canada would prefer that it never happen.

A Canadian special forces soldier, left, speaks with Peshmerga Captain Omar Mohammed Dhyab, 2nd left, and other fighters at an observation post in northern Iraq. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The Kurdistan Regional Government has asked Canada to put a consulate-general in its capital, Erbil, with a clear hope that it can be upgraded to an embassy after the referendum. Canada has so far been reluctant to oblige.

"Canada is committed to the unity and diversity of the Republic of Iraq," Global Affairs spokesperson Jocelyn Sweet told CBC News. "We support Iraq's territorial integrity. This position is well-known to our Iraqi interlocutors, including in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region."

But the moment of truth is approaching nonetheless. The Kurdish Regional Government has secured the agreement of Kurdish opposition parties to hold a referendum in September.

Canadians seen as close to Kurds

When ISIS first captured Mosul and began its push south in June 2014, the Iraqi army withered before it. It was only the resistance of the Kurdish Peshmerga that finally slowed and halted the group's advance toward the Kirkuk oilfields.

Those events had two important effects on the campaign to drive ISIS out of Iraq.

The first was that Shia ayatollahs in central and southern Iraq called on their followers to head to the battlefields and confront ISIS. Those Shia militias, nominally under the control of the Baghdad government, have been a vital part of the fight ever since.

Now some believe they have the militants on the run and no longer need Western help.

An Iraqi soldier escorts civilians who fled their homes due to fighting to a safer place in Mosul's al-Zanjili's district. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

The second effect was that foreign allies, such as Canada, who rushed troops to Iraq to stem the ISIS advance, felt compelled to embed themselves with the Peshmerga, rather than the broken Iraqi army.

That only increases the suspicion and hostility of the Shia militias.

"Canada has really positioned itself as a backer of the Peshmerga," said Renad Mansour, a Canadian expert on Iraq and a fellow at Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).

The risk of that, he said, is that it could be seen as "scheming" to divide Iraq.

"There has been a lot of rhetoric from the Kurdish side about 'the land we have conquered [from ISIS], we're not going to give it away.' There's a perception that the Peshmerga are trying to change facts on the ground."

Mansour said there could be problems between the Peshmerga and Shia militias in northern Nineveh, on the outskirts of Mosul, and in oil-rich Kirkuk — lands the Shia regard as traditionally Arab or Turkmen.

Tensions mount over Sinjar

One place where those tensions are already bubbling up is the Mount Sinjar area, where the foreign intervention against ISIS began.

It was there that the militant group murdered and enslaved thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority, prompting the Harper government to dispatch warplanes and advisers.

After his election in October 2015, Justin Trudeau pulled the warplanes out but, to compensate, quadrupled the number of Canadian advisers serving alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Today Sinjar has been mostly cleared of ISIS.

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands guard in the anti-ISIS fight as the sun rises in Sinjar in this 2015 file photo. (Bram Janssen/Associated Press)

The Kurds regard the Yazidi as ethnically Kurdish, and see Sinjar as part of a future independent Kurdistan.

Not all Yazidis agree.

Over the last month, Shia militias have begun occupying territory in Sinjar. The Kurds say these advances violate an agreement with Baghdad that neither the Iraqi army nor its militia allies will enter Kurdish territory.

Other militias have broken off from the main attack on Mosul and raced west to capture strategic points near the Syrian border, such as Tal Afar airport. The Kurds are also racing for the border, trying to link up with Kurdish cantons in Syria.

After an intervention by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the Kurds and Shia militias agreed to put their dispute on ice and remain focused on the fight against ISIS. But the causes of the dispute remain.

Foreigners out?

Meanwhile in Baghdad, some Shia parties are pushing for a departure date for foreign troops.

Currently all Western forces based in Iraq are classed as "advisers," removing the need for Iraq's parliament to approve their presence.

There are currently about 200 Canadian special forces soldiers working directly with Kurdish forces. Thirty more Canadians work at a headquarters facility in Erbil (Camp Érable), and about another 50 man a military hospital dedicated to treating coalition casualties.

Canadian special forces troops launch into a mission from a base in Erbil, Iraq. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

The Canadian contingent in Iraq is supported by 300 more CAF members in Kuwait.

The Forces' mandate in Iraq is up for renewal on June 30, and Canada could decide that the anti-ISIS fight has advanced enough that it can skip the next stage of the war, thereby avoiding the whole messy issue of Kurdish independence.

But Brig.-Gen. Dan MacIsaac dismissed that idea in comments made to the Canadian Press earlier this week.

"I foresee government providing defence further direction, and the government of Canada is committed to contributing to defeating Daesh in Iraq and Syria," he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

"We're definitely here past the 30th of June."

Peshmerga forces inspect a tunnel used by ISIS militants in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul, after it was recaptured. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

Few experts believe that Iraq will be able to rest on its laurels after the liberation of Mosul, or that foreign governments like Canada will find it easy to disengage. Most expect ISIS to return to its roots as a clandestine insurgency, and remain a threat for the foreseeable future.

"All the root causes that led to the rise of ISIS still exist in Iraq," said Mansour. "I've spoken to a lot of Iraqi leaders about this and there isn't one who said the roots have been addressed."

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