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HomeMiddle EastUS-Iran Tensions in Iraq Endangers Canadian Forces

US-Iran Tensions in Iraq Endangers Canadian Forces

Image credit: Shafaq.com

Key Points

  • On Sunday, June 27th, under the direction of President Joe Biden, the U.S. military carried out strikes against Shiite militant groups in Iraq and Syria. According to the U.S., the strikes were against “facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups” near the border between Syria and Iraq. 
  • On June 28th, militant groups retaliated by striking U.S. forces in Syria stationed near Al-Omar oil fields, with no reported injuries. On July 5th, rockets hit the Al-Asad base in Iraq. Hours later on July 6th, sirens were triggered and C-RAM defense systems were activated at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to stop a drone threat. 
  • These tense exchanges put the lives of Canadian forces at risk on the ground and undermine the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) contribution to the global fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 
  • Canada must form a more independent and coherent counter-terrorism strategy that prioritizes balanced engagement with all regional stakeholders, while trying to disentangle itself from the geopolitical rivalries in the Middle East. 
  • The federal government must encourage de-escalation within the NATO framework and consider the full withdrawal of CAF including special forces based in Iraq. Instead of having troops on the ground, Canada should engage in dialogue with the Iraqi government to provide limited support in form of advisory, training, and capacity-building through bases outside of Iraq, as well as contributing to United Nations efforts to bring sustainable peace and security to the country. 

Background

On June 27th, President Biden ordered a strike against Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria. The targets, according to the Pentagon, were facilities used to launch drone strikes against American forces in Iraq. The Pentagon also claimed that the facilities were used by Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada. Reports suggest that four militia members were killed during the attack. The strikes were quickly condemned by Iraq’s military and Shiite militias. In a rare criticism of US military operations, Yehia Rasool, Iraq’s military spokesman condemned the attacks as a “breach of sovereignty.” The targeted militant groups are part of Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), an Iraqi military umbrella organization that played a key role in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Some PMU militia groups, including the ones targeted on June 27, have close ties to Tehran. Two days before the U.S. airstrikes, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi attended the PMU’s military parade and praised the organization’s role in helping to defeat ISIS. 

Following the recent U.S. airstrikes, Shia militia groups pledged that they would “avenge the blood of our righteous martyrs”, strike American bases in Iraq, and target U.S. aircrafts in the area. Subsequently, on June 28th, U.S. troops in eastern Syria were attacked by multiple rockets, with no injuries reported, in apparent retaliation for the June 27th attacks. On July 5th, multiple rockets struck the Al-Asad base in Iraq and hours later on July 6th the sirens were triggered at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and the Union III facilities nearby, and C-RAM defense systems were activated to stop a drone threat.  

In January 2020, Iraqi militia groups vowed revenge for the Trump administration’s assassination of prominent Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and PMU deputy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Since then, there has been a substantial increase in militia attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. The assassinations also triggered an unprecedented Iranian ballistic missile attack on the U.S’ Al-Asad base in Iraq. While the attacks didn’t kill any U.S. forces, more than 100 American troops based in Al-Asad were diagnosed with brain injuries from the missile attacks. The base also housed NATO coalition forces, including Canadian troops, who suffered no harm during the attack. From a broader perspective, these exchanges were a result of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, which in-part aimed to curtail Iran’s regional influence. 

Threats to Canadian Security 

Canada has maintained a limited military presence in Iraq since 2014, when the international community formed a coalition to fight ISIS. In 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that, as part of Operation IMPACT, Canadian forces would head the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) training mission in Iraq. Operation IMPACT is part of the country’s “whole-of-government approach to the Middle East,” intending to build the military capabilities of Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. The NATO training mission was intended to help coalition forces contain and defeat ISIS; this included training for Iraq’s military schools and the country’s military instructors. 

In March 2021, Canada renewed its military contribution to support stability in West Asia, extending Operation IMPACT until March 31, 2022. In the same month, Major-General Peter Dawe said that Canadian forces supported a major military offensive in March, which Iraqi and U.S. officials say killed ISIS-affiliated fighters. Canadian troops helped plan the two week operation and further provided surveillance and assistance to local forces as the assault was underway. Dawe also stated that Canadian special forces are based near the city of Erbil- a base that has been the target of several rocket attacks. 

However, since the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (an agreement endorsed by the Canadian government as well), there has been a steady increase in regional tensions. The designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization by the Trump administration (instigating Iran’s designation of CENTCOM as a terror organization), the assassination of General Soleimani and his Iraqi counterpart, and consistent rocket attacks against coalition bases housing Canadian troops, have put the lives of Canadian forces based in Iraq at risk, jeopardizing the NATO mission against ISIS and entangling NATO members in the U.S.-Iran rivalry. 

On January 7th, 2020, following the assassination of Iran’s top commander and the country’s retaliatory ballistic missile attack against US troops in Iraq, Canada was compelled to announce the temporary suspension of Operation IMPACT, which resumed on January 16th. The assassination of General Soleimani also initiated a deadly series of escalations, that culminated in Iran’s calamitous downing of Ukranian Airliner Flight 752, killing all 176 passengers on-board— 63 of whom were Canadian nationals. Speaking on the issue, Prime Minister Trudeau argued that “if there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would right now be home with their families.”

Recommendations for Canada  

  • Within the NATO framework, Canada must encourage de-escalation. However, considering the increasing tensions with militia groups, Canada should halt its involvement in all combat operations and withdraw its remaining troops including special operations forces from military bases in Iraq. American efforts to curtail Iranian influence is not part of the mandate of Operation IMPACT and diverts NATO’s focus away from its priority mission to fight and defeat ISIS. The tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and the militia groups can put the lives of NATO troops in Iraq, including Canadian forces, at risk. 
  • Canada must refrain from actions that may entangle Canadian forces in the ongoing U.S.-Iran rivalry. In this light, the federal government must carefully examine the Official Opposition’s calls to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization, especially as any such designation can drag Canada into an unnecessary conflict with Iran that does not serve Canadian interests in the region. In case of such designation of IRGC by the Canadian government, the Iranians are likely to retaliate by designating CAF as a terrorist organization. Such designation can threaten Canadian forces in the region, jeopardizing Operation IMPACT and NATO’s larger mission against ISIS.
  • While recognizing Washington’s leading role within NATO, Ottawa could prudently consider forging closer bilateral security ties with Baghdad as part of Operation IMPACT, and provide further economic, political, and capacity-building assistance as an independent actor. As of present, Canada has no bilateral security arrangement with Iraq.
  • On an international level, Canada could push for a more prominent United Nations role in Iraq and revitalize its role in Iraq as a more balanced actor. Meanwhile, Canada can also help strengthen Iraqi stability by supporting the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) initiatives. This special political mission was established by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1500 (at the request of the Government of Iraq), and continues to operate under the mandate of prioritizing “the provision of advice, support, and assistance to the Government and people of Iraq on advancing inclusive political dialogue and national and community-level reconciliation; assisting in the electoral process; facilitating regional dialogue between Iraq and its neighbours; and, promoting the protection of human rights and judicial and legal reforms.” The UNAMI mandate also tasks the mission with engaging “government partners and civil society to coordinate the humanitarian and development efforts of the UN Agencies.” 

Combined together, these bilateral and multilateral policy prescriptions can help Canada forge a more independent and balanced counter-terrorism strategy that addresses Canadian security concerns and prioritizes the fight against ISIS, while disentangling Canada from the ongoing U.S.-Iran tensions and protecting Canadian forces from the potential dangers of this rivalry.

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Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor