Is Canada's fight against ISIS a moral war?

Gwynne Dyer and Kyle Matthews debate whether Canadian military action in Syria is morally justified.

Canada's mission against ISIS in Syria and Iraq will now extend until March, 2016

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises to vote in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday March 30, 2015. Members of Parliament voted to extend Canada's mission in Iraq. (The Canadian Press)
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On Monday, MPs in the House of Commons voted to extend Canada's fight against ISIS, giving the military a green light to bomb targets in Syria and Iraq until March 2016.

Conservative MPs such as Defence Minister Jason Kenney have said Canada has a moral obligation to fight ISIS. But what exactly is that obligation? And does Canada have a moral imperative to intervene? Independent journalist Gwynne Dyer and Kyle Matthews of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies debate those questions.

Brent Bambury: I'm going to ask you specifically about ISIS in a moment but first I want to ask each of you the most basic question that I can hear. When does Canada have a moral obligation to act militarily? Gwynne Dyer, when should Canadians enter a fight?

Gwynne Dyer: Canadians should enter a fight like any other country, as infrequently as possible. People get killed, people get hurt and so on. Sometimes, I agree, it is necessary and there are a number of reasons it can be necessary and [morality] is only one of them. But if you want to talk about the morality of intervention I would go with St.Thomas Aquinas. I'm not in the least religious but his definition of the just war works fine for me and one of the major things he says is there must be a reasonable chance of success and the harm done must be outweighed by the good.

Ok, Kyle Matthews, what do you think is the moral obligation to act militarily?

Kyle Matthews: I think the moral obligation to act military is if there are mass atrocity crimes taking place against civilian populations and that the government, where the atrocity is taking place, is unable or unwilling to protect their civilians and then the international community has a responsibility to react or a responsibly to protect. Of course Canada and other countries are signatories to the genocide convention and do have a legal responsibility to act in a case where it's seen as a just war, where there is an overriding moral principle, humanitarian principle, to take action.

So philosophically we have two quite different scenarios there, Gywnne Dyer, do you think the fight against ISIS is a moral war?

GD: It may be morally motivated though I'm not sure it entirely is. Certainly for some of the participants it's geopolitically motivated. But from a moral perspective to the extent that it applies, it ain't gonna work and that's where I have my problem with the whole idea. You don't save people from genocide by bombing their oppressors. A little bit of bombing might be a good idea but mostly bombing doesn't work in terms of protecting people. You know, in terms of ultimately disarming, defeating, dismantling ISIS I frankly don't think it has anything to do with a case of going and bombing people. [That] rarely makes them quit.

Defence Minister Jason Kenney speaks to reporters as he enters the House of Commons for question period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 1, 2015. (The Canadian Press)

So the reasonable chance of success that you spoke of, or that St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of, is not there. What about for you Kyle Matthews, do you see a moral case here?

KM: Well I do see a moral case. First and foremost there are multiple examples of where the Islamic State, ISIS, is carrying out a genocide - trying to wipe out the Yazidis in Iraq, they've been targeting Christians in Iraq and parts of Syria and also against moderate Muslims and also the Shia. So there are cases where this is a group that has ambitions to liquidate and end all diversity in areas it controls. And it's because of that that the Vatican has stepped up and said this is a just war, we must take action before everyone is wiped out. So yes, I agree with Gwynne that you know there are limits to what can be achieved by bombing alone. But there have been cases where over twenty thousand Yazidis in Iraq are alive today because of American bombing against ISIS when they were stuck on Mount Sinjar. There are cases where bombing against ISIS in parts of northern Syria allowed the Kurds at least to regroup and better defend themselves. So it's not perfect but I think of any case out there, there definitely is a strong moral argument for taking action. 

So given that, Gwynne Dyer is it morally justifiable for Canada to do nothing militarily to combat ISIS?

GM: Well first of all we don't always act on moral principles, we choose which ones we act on. We supported Khmer Rouge after they were driven from power in the 1970s and we supported Saddam Hussein against Iraq, Iran in the '80s and so on. Sometimes it's moral, sometimes it's geopolitical. From the moral point of view you could probably make a case that if it doesn't do more harm than good some degree of intervention is justifiable, although you do have the legal problem that you do not have Security Council authorization for this and if you care about international law that matters a little bit. But beyond that do remember it's what they want you to do. ISIS wants us to bomb them just like all the other Islamist groups have done all along. It gathers them recruits, it's their major way of validating their cause in the eyes of the uncommitted Muslim public.

But the fact that they want us to bomb them, that is not necessarily a reason to not bomb them.

GD: No but it is a reason to think rather long and hard about it, is it not? 

Kyle, what do you think of that?

KM: Well it's true I mean ISIS much like al-Qaeda carries out atrocities or terrorist attacks in order to provoke a reaction and I think we have to realize that and not always fall into their trap. But how ISIS is different than any other group, I mean just [Wednesday] the U.N. released a report that said basically there is an unprecedented number of foreign fighters entering to join ISIS. They said upwards of 25,000. That surpasses any jihadist movement we've seen in the last 20, 30 years perhaps the largest in history and this report also said that Iraq and Syria was becoming a finishing school for these extremists. And I'm fearful that what we're seeing here is a precursor of future trends and that this group is at an incubation stage and if we don't try to defeat it, try to degrade it, we're going to really regret it in the long run.

ISIS much like Al Qaida as you know carries out atrocities or terrorist attacks in order to provoke a reaction and I think we have to realize that and not always fall into their trap.- Kyle Matthews

Gwynne Dyer, explain to us why it is dangerous for Western groups to intervene in the struggle for the caliphate and how that could possibly change the nature of the caliphate.

GD: Put it this way: if we left them alone we deprive them of their strongest argument, which is that the West is at war with Islam, seeking to destroy Islam and they are protecting it. They need our bombs to make that story work. In Syria, which is where we are now proposing to extend the Canadian bombing and Americans of course are already doing it there, we have this peculiar situation where the people who are fighting on the ground against the ISIS are a) The Syrian Government and b) in terms of lending aid and some direct military support, Iran. Now we're actually refusing to cooperate with either of the people who are doing the job on the ground. You know, get your story straight.

Kyle, what about the idea that Western intervention in Syria and Western intervention in ISIS's struggle may give ISIS greater strength and greater power.

KM: Well I think we should take everything into consideration. But you know, the logic that if we take action against it we're going to strengthen them, sometimes I wonder if that's really true. I mean if you're defeating a group, if you're putting it on the run, if you're able to kick it out of Raqqa or displace it, you are limiting its impact to carry out these atrocities. And what concerns me is that if we just sit back and let ISIS continue and expand, the Middle East is going to lose all of its multicultural multi-faith character which has tended to actually play an important role in presenting a moderate face to the outside world for the Middle East. I'm also very fearful that ISIS is gaining traction and forming alliances with Boko Haram in Nigeria. We've seen recent terrorist attacks in Tunisia against Western tourists in particular of groups or individuals associated with ISIS. They're expanding in Libya so the argument that if we just allow it it's going to fizzle out by itself … 

GD: That's not the argument I was making. I didn't say it will fizzle out I said you're helping it. It may or may not fizzle out but the only people who are doing anything on the ground … 

But is it expansionist? 

GD: Of course it's expansionist. 

And do you believe it could expand into other regions? 

GD: Of course it could but I mean, do you believe that Canadian troops are going to stop that? The only people who are going to stop that are Arabs and Iranians, I mean they have to be Muslim, they have to be local because they've got to be willing to put boots on the ground and we're not.

Three images showing the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau as they rise in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill to speak about Canada's military mission in Iraq, Tuesday March 24, 2015 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld (The Canadian Press)

Kyle, some fear that airstrikes against ISIS could help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and could also kill civilians. Can we be morally in the right if our actions help prop up a dictator and kill his people? 

KM: Well I think we have to look at this way. Yes, we have to deal with Assad. Assad is a problem but I actually gave testimony in the British House of Commons last year alongside the U.N. Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide and he said we've seen mass atrocity crimes in Syria but we haven't seen a genocide yet. But if the Assad regime falls, if it's toppled, we're going to see much more mayhem, much more death, much more displacement. And so I think we have to keep that in mind that just because we target ISIS, doesn't necessarily mean we're propping up Assad. 

Gwynne Dyer, how do you see our relationship with Assad as a result of this intervention?

GD: I think in two or three years time we'll have come around to accepting that Assad is the least bad option. There are no other offers on the table except ISIS, this American fantasy that you can rebuild some sort of Free Syrian Army that's anti-Assad but is not Islamist, that's what we had and it vanished. The idea that we can now rebuild it on Syrian soil is pure fantasy, so you don't get the choice you'd like, you get the choices that are on the table and there's only two.

This American fantasy that you can rebuild some sort of Free Syrian Army that's anti-Assad but is not Islamist, that's what we had and it vanished.- Gwynne Dyer

Let me ask you this Kyle, this is our final question, where do we go from here? What is the ultimate goal in the region? Given what Gwynne Dyer just described, what is your ultimate goal in the region, how do we get there? 

KM: If we don't stop these groups that have this fanatical vision that basically anyone under them is going to be wiped out if they are any different from them, of this puritan, Wahhabist Islam which is driving ISIS ideology, I don't see that helping the Middle East, Iraq, Syria and outside of it. And I certainly don't see it helping social cohesion in Europe and other parts of the world.

So Gwynne, if we proceed with the aims that Kyle just described, what do you see as the results?

GD: About the same as the results the last two or three times we did that invading Iraq. All the same justifications were made and that gave them a huge boost, the guys who are now al-Qaeda and subsequently ISIS. The unintended consequences are almost always larger than the intended ones when you intervene in the Middle East militarily and we've got fifteen years of evidence of that. I would actually stop intervening. Leave them alone, let them sort it out. It may be ugly but it'll be ugly whether you let them sort it out or not and at least when they've sorted it out, it will stick because we don't do it for them and then go home.