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- 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.
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.