The Kurdish people are currently seeing exactly how much Canadian allyship is worth.
On Sunday, American President Donald Trump announced — via a tweet — that he would be withdrawing U.S. forces from northern Syria. Such a move had been rumoured for months, but it was nevertheless jarring. As the drawdown began on Monday, there were already unconfirmed reports that Turkish fighter jets had hit targets in the Kurdish-controlled area.
On the campaign trail, Canadian leaders offered little more than handwringing in response to the looming military campaign against the vulnerable population — our close military and political ally.
This should have come as no surprise. This was a disaster long in the making.
American troops were in northern Syria to battle the Islamic State, and were doing so side-by-side with local Kurdish fighters. Canada set up a similar training operation in northern Iraq.
The presence of the Western troops served as a powerful deterrent for local powers to try to consolidate power in the region. It had the knock-on effect of emboldening the Kurds to assert more political independence — most Kurds have long seen the area where Iraq, Syria and Turkey meet as their homeland. A 2017 referendum in Iraq saw more than 90 per cent of Kurds vote for an independent state.
Trump had warned, since taking office, that it was his intention to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria. His first few attempts to pull out military assets were stopped by his security advisers. But it was only a matter of time.
Now that the Americans are actually leaving, Ankara considers this a green light to push ahead with a full military campaign into northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long wanted to crush the nascent Kurdish state, which directly threatens his domestic control. He’s not the only one. To his south, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has recently worked to reassert control over Syria’s borders, with substantial help from Russia, Hezbollah and Iran.
Turkey is, of course, a NATO ally, though it has hardly acted like one recently. Syria is a bloodthirsty dictatorship that Canada, at one time, claimed to oppose.
That powder keg should be concerning to Western leaders. Though you wouldn’t know it to hear Canada’s politicians.
On the campaign trail, Canadian leaders offered little more than handwringing
At Monday’s English-language leaders’ debate, foreign policy was hardly mentioned. But in the leaders’ scrums after, I managed to ask Justin Trudeau directly where Canada stands on the attacks facing our closest allies in the region. His answer was painfully insufficient.
“We are, of course, monitoring the situation very closely along with our allies,” Trudeau said. While he iterated that Ottawa wants stability in the region, he noted that “Canada doesn’t have any defence assets in Syria right now” and did not even offer a word of solidarity with Canada’s ostensible allies. He didn’t even mention the Kurds by name.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was slightly more pointed. He slammed Trudeau’s decision, from 2015, to withdraw Canadian fighter jets from the bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, but offered nothing in the way of direction as to what he would do to avoid full-on conflict between our two allies. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was quicker to criticize the White House, calling the decision “troubling,” but was equally mute on actual plans.
Canada has been exceptionally quiet for years on this front. When Ankara launched limited bombing missions into Kurdistan, Ottawa did not speak up. While Canada purports to care about the jailing of political dissidents, it has had little to say about the jailing of Kurdish politicians in Turkey. When the referendum in Iraq occurred, Canada did not recognize the results.
All the while, Trudeau has been happy to sit and chat with Erdogan at G20 meetings over the years. Official read-outs of those meetings do not mention the situation in Kurdistan.
The Trudeau government has congratulated itself for offering military aid to the Kurds, yet even that has been a mess. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan readied $10 million in weaponry for Kurdistan — but then it sat in a Montreal warehouse for years, as Baghdad protested. It seems the weaponry will never arrive.
The day has come when America’s erratic behaviour has opened the gates around Kurdistan, letting Erdogan and Assad in to do their worst. And Canada seems blithely indifferent.
This lack of principle is troubling. When Vladimir Putin seized Crimea and parts of the Donbass region of Ukraine, Canada led the charge in sanctioning Moscow. The world order can’t tolerate kleptocratic states, Ottawa said, and there must be consequences.
But will there be consequences for Turkey? Not likely.
It’s not realistic to expect Ottawa to put military assets in northern Syria to replace the exiting Americans. That ship has long since sailed. But there are diplomatic levers still available.
Turkey’s membership in NATO needs to be up for discussion, or else membership means nothing. There is a small envelope of development money going to Turkey that should be up for debate, and another $3 billion in bilateral aid that can be a bargaining chip. Canada’s Magnitsky Act allows it to sanction individuals responsible for human-rights violations — Erdogan should be a prime target.
It would be nice if even one leader would stand up to defend our best allies in the region. But as of now, there’s no sign anyone will.