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HomeBlogTime for Canada to Leave Iraq: Bijan Ahmadi & Pouyan Kimiayjan in The Hill Times

Time for Canada to Leave Iraq: Bijan Ahmadi & Pouyan Kimiayjan in The Hill Times

Image: Mahmoud Hosseini

By Bijan Ahmadi and Pouyan Kimiayjan

The following article was originally published in The Hill Times.

Rocket attacks by Shia militias in Iraq and Syria against American and coalition facilities, including those housing Canadian forces, have become regular occurrences that have continued into the U.S. presidency of Joe Biden. Since assuming office, the Biden administration has responded by ordering two rounds of U.S. retaliatory airstrikes against militia bases—presumably to deter these groups from further targeting of American forces.

However, the growing number of militia attacks and their increased sophistication in recent weeks demonstrate that U.S. airstrikes have failed to achieve their intended objectives. The ongoing skirmishes also pose a significant threat to all coalition forces in Iraq, including the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) stationed in the country. It is high time for Ottawa to review its Middle East policy and withdraw the remaining CAF troops from Iraq. Otherwise, Canada risks getting dragged into geopolitical conflicts that not only endanger the lives of Canadian forces, but also do not serve our national interests.

The rise of militia attacks in Iraq can be traced back to the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, and the subsequent assassination of Iranian top general Qassem Soleimani in early 2020. While both actions were presented to the American people as means to curtail Iran’s regional influence and deter militia attacks against U.S. assets by Tehran-aligned armed groups, their actual result has been to foment regional turmoil and trigger a significant rise in the number of rocket attacks against coalition forces.

Compared to former president Donald Trump, President Biden has reportedly set an even tougher red line for regional attacks on U.S. forces, claiming that the mere targeting of American bases, regardless of their consequence in terms of injuries and casualties to U.S. military personnel, will be grounds for military retaliation. In practice, that red line appears to have had little effect on deterring the militias, and it could well encourage cycles of escalation. Ultimately, the Biden administration would have to decide if it should ignore its own ultimatum and sustain a wave of criticism from its political rivals in Washington, D.C., or to engage in a tit-for-tat with military strikes against militia groups, which can lead to a further spiral of tensions and jeopardize the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Since 2014, Canadian forces have been deployed to Iraq as part of Operation IMPACT and the international coalition to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). In March of this year, Ottawa decided to extend its deployment for another year. In the same month, Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe said that Canadian forces supported a major military offensive, which Iraqi and U.S. officials say killed ISIS-affiliated fighters. Yet, according to Dawe, the operation and the CAF’s direct involvement was an aberration in terms of the Canadian mission, as Iraqi forces have increasingly taken a more prominent role in the fight against ISIS. Moving forward, it is expected that the coalition troops will transfer most of their operational responsibility to the Iraqi army, which should lessen the need for CAF’s presence in Iraq.

While there is no evidence of militia groups specifically targeting Canadian forces in Iraq, any attack on coalition bases puts Canadians at risk. This is particularly important in light of the fact that the roughly 200 Canadian special forces are based near the city of Erbil—a base that has been the target of several rocket attacks. Hence, the rising militia rocket attacks and the potential for loss of life or injuries to CAF members significantly alter the cost-benefit analysis for Operation IMPACT, imperilling the mission and negating any strategic benefits from CAF presence in Iraq.

Following the emergence of ISIS and the threat it posed to Canadian security interests, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to join the global coalition to fight the terrorist group. The coalition proved successful, and ISIS was defeated in 2019. After the destruction of ISIS’ so-called “caliphate” by a broad coalition that included Iraqis, regional actors such as Iran, and NATO forces, including Canadians, there was real hope for a new dawn of cooperation and engagement toward stability in the Middle East.

However, the heightening of tensions in the region, owed in part to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, did not allow for the common cause of combating ISIS to become a platform for more cooperation in the region. Moreover, Washington’s subsequent actions, including the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi milita leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, created an even greater rift with powerful factions of the Shia militia groups that are unlikely to be resolved, at least so long as U.S. forces remain present in Iraq.

Some would argue that Canada’s presence in Iraq is a key commitment to the North Atlantic alliance and that it demonstrates Ottawa’s resolve to support its allies. However, the Canadian government’s priority must be to advance Canadian national interests, first and foremost, with a duty to protect the safety and security of its citizens. Moreover, Canada has already demonstrated its commitment to the transatlantic alliance through its role in protecting NATO’s eastern flank. In the current shifting geostrategic environment defined by the spectre of great power politics, it is vital for Canadian forces to pivot and invest in key regions that are critically important to Canada’s national interests, particularly the Arctic and the Pacific—both long neglected by Ottawa.

Moving forward, Canada must encourage de-escalation in Iraq within the NATO framework. Simultaneously, in light of recent rocket attacks and the fulfillment of the coalition’s main objective to defeat ISIS, Canada must withdraw the remaining CAF troops from Iraq, disentangling Ottawa from the ongoing Tehran-Washington rivalry. Instead, Canada could focus on providing advisory, training, and capacity-building support through its regional forces based outside of Iraq in accordance with its directive under Operation IMPACT until the expiry of the current mission in March 2022.

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