The day after Monday’s Canadian federal election, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister designate, received a congratulatory call from U.S. President Barack Obama. During their conversation, Trudeau told Obama that he was going to keep his promise to the Canadian electorate to end the bombing mission against ISIS in Iraq and Syria initiated by his predecessor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, late last year.
In early October 2014, Parliament approved an initial 6-month bombing campaign that was restricted to Iraq. Both opposition parties, the Liberals and the New Democrats, voted against it, though public opinion was generally favorable.
On October 22, 2014, a lone gunman shot dead Corporal Nathan Cirillo while he was on ceremonial sentry duty, guarding the National War Memorial in Ottawa. The gunman then ran to Parliament Hill and entered Centre Block, where he died in a dramatic shootout with police. This attack occurred two days after another man ran down two military officers with his car in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, killing Warrant officer Patrice Vincent. Both attackers turned out to be self-radicalized Muslim converts with troubled pasts and a history of mental illness.
In the wake of these two “lone wolf” attacks, the Harper government trumpeted the threat of homegrown terrorism, arguing that Canada was directly threatened by the radical ideology of ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State.
This flew in the face of clear evidence that ISIS was more interested in building a functioning state than attacking the West, that foreign fighters were joining them to aid in this state-building enterprise, and that the vast majority of returnees were not motivated to continue the attack at home.
By the spring of 2015, the Harper government had expanded the bombing mission to include Syria, and had introduced draconian anti-terror legislation.
Again, public opinion was largely in favor.
In August, when Prime Minister Harper called an election, it had already become clear to many Canadians that the Syrian conflict was a quagmire, and that the homegrown threat, though admittedly real, was exaggerated.
Justin Trudeau’s campaign promise to end the bombing mission, while continuing to train Iraqis away from the front lines, represented a balanced approach to recognizing the complexity of the Syrian conflict and the limited options available to the West.
While counterterrorism is most often linked with the exercise of “hard power” (intelligence, law, policing, and military power), it must increasingly make use of “soft power” (political, social, and economic control, together with broader policy initiatives dealing with the environment, development, critical infrastructure, migration, and humanitarian intervention).
The Syrian conflict has its roots in a volatile mix of discriminatory practices by government, widespread corruption, chronic lack of opportunity for young people, lack of essential services, all combined to convince many that there is no alternative other than violent extremism and terrorism. A strictly military approach to such a complex situation is dangerously reductionist. As the great American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, wrote in 1966: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
The Sunni Arabs of Iraq and Syria support ISIS only because they have no other option in a divided and discriminatory environment where Shia governments favor their own, with support from Iran and Hezbollah, and Kurds enjoy the support of the U.S. and its allies (to Turkey’s great chagrin).
Because ISIS is the only Sunni force capable of confronting the Shia forces in both Iraq and Syria, it receives varying degrees of support from neighboring Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia. The Syrian conflict is in many ways a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and threatens to become a kind of proxy Cold War between Russia and the U.S.
Political, economic, social, humanitarian, and diplomatic initiatives are urgently needed if a long-lasting solution is to be found. With Russia entering the fray on the side of Bashar al-Assad, and supposedly moderate rebels less and less capable of sustained and effective combat, as well as increasing waves of desperate refugees fleeing rapidly escalating violence, with no end in sight, a comprehensive approach is all the more imperative.
Justin Trudeau’s decision to end Canada’s participation in the bombing campaign against ISIS is a step in the right direction.
Ronald Crelinsten is Associate Fellow with the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria and former Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa. His books include Counterterrorism, Western Responses to Terrorism, and The Politics of Pain: Torturers and Their Masters. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.