Government, military send mixed messages on Canadians joining Kurds in ISIS fight

There are mixed messages coming from the federal government and military regarding Canadian military vets enlisting with Kurdish forces to fight against ISIS in Iraq.

At least six Canadians planning to enlist in Kurdish forces

Kurdish peshmerga troops have been engaged in a fierce months-long battle against ISIS fighters for control of the city of Kobani, Syria. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

There are mixed messages coming from the federal government and military regarding Canadian military vets enlisting with Kurdish forces to fight against ISIS in Iraq.

On Saturday, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney told CBC News that the government “would not oppose a citizen who is willing to engage in a battle for liberty and helping the victims of barbaric crimes,” alluding to several well-documented massacres of civilians by ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. Some of the killings have been videotaped and posted online to pro-ISIS YouTube accounts.

Blaney was in Halifax on Saturday attending the sixth annual International Security Forum, where the threat from ISIS and Canada’s response to it took a prominent place in discussions.

Also at that meeting was Chief of Defence Staff Tom Lawson, who wasn’t as welcoming to the idea of Canadian vets travelling overseas to join the fight against ISIS on the ground.

“I don’t encourage Canadians to leave our nation and head to other nations to get involved with the militaries of that nation,” Lawson said.

Rather, he added, vets who want to help combat ISIS should re-enlist in the Canadian Forces.

Earlier this week, CBC News reported that at least a half-dozen Canadian military veterans are currently planning on enlisting with Kurdish forces in the upcoming weeks and months. There are currently at least three Canadians purportedly fighting alongside Kurdish troops.

On Saturday, one veteran, who wished to remain anonymous, said that it was the U.S.-led coalition’s decision not to send ground troops that spurred his decision to eventually travel to northern Iraq, despite the enormous risk.

“It’s a different army and at the same time we’re going in blind. But that’s one of the risks we’re going to have to take,” he told CBC News.

It is not illegal in Canada to enlist in a foreign military force, provided it is not a group the federal government designates as a terrorist entity and it is not engaged in hostilities against Canada or its allies.

But there are several potentially complicating legal factors that could affect those who travel overseas to fight against ISIS. Some Kurdish forces themselves have been accused of war crimes, including killing prisoners and destroying villages in search of ISIS sympathizers. Kurdish officials have denied the allegations.

It emerged several weeks ago that Gill Rosenberg, a Canadian-Israeli, had become the first female foreign fighter to join the Kurds fighting ISIS. (Facebook)
Similarly, Canadians travelling to Iraq and Syria could find themselves rubbing shoulders with the Kurdish PKK, a nationalist militant group in the region that fought a nearly three decade war against Turkey for independence. The Kurdish PKK is banned in Canada and the United States, where they are classified as a terrorist entity.

But the veteran who spoke with CBC News said that there are ways to ensure that his enlistment will adhere to Canadian and international law.

“You know you can’t be going around like a cowboy shooting everything. You have to be responsible, professional and follow the guidelines of the laws of war.”

Lawson acknowledged that some veterans may enlist with the Kurds even without the consent of the Canadian military, but offered up some advice to anyone considering the move.

“Be very careful. You’re swimming with the sharks and there’s no safety net, to mix analogies.”

With files from CBC's Laura Lynch


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