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Canada’s Defense Minister Talks Fighting the Islamic State, Arming the Kurds, and Cyber Warfare

Jason Kenney sat down with VICE News to discuss many of the issues that are sure to dominate tonight's federal debate on foreign policy in Toronto.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
September 28, 2015, 9:05pm
Photo via Flickr Creative Commons

Canada's three main political leaders are taking the stage tonight to try and flay each other's plans on global security, military engagement, and international diplomacy.

Jason Kenney, Canada's Minister of National Defense, sat down with VICE News to hash out some of the big foreign policy topics of the campaign, and to give us an update on the increasingly complex fight going on in Iraq and Syria.

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Canadian election campaigns, unlike their American counterparts, rarely focus on foreign policy issues. But this campaign, a 78-day marathon, by Canadian standards, has thrust international affairs to the forefront.

Both opposition parties have contended that Canada's position in the world has fallen in recent years, arguing that the governing party has alienated traditional allies and rebuked multinational fora.

One particular point of contention has Ottawa's decision to help a private military firm sell $15 billion worth of light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia, despite obvious fears of the country's human rights record.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at a campaign event that the deal with Saudi Arabia, "notwithstanding its human rights violations — which are significant," is one that any Western nation would have signed.

"It is the largest contract in Canadian history, some 3,000 direct jobs in the London area, and look, we express our outrage and disagreement from time to time with the government of Saudi Arabia for their treatment of human rights, but I don't think it makes any sense to pull a contract in a way that would only punish Canadian workers, instead of actually expressing our outrage against some of these things in Saudi Arabia," the prime minister told reporters.

One issue that has seen less attention on the campaign trail is the increasingly serious threat from state-sponsored cyber attacks, especially from China and Iran.

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News has emerged in recent years that Canadian systems are under heavy fire from hackers, external and internal, and that they may have compromised government systems more than once.

But the main issue on the docket for Monday night's debate, held at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, will be the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIL).

Both the centre-left Liberals and the upstart left-wing New Democratic Party have come out hard against Canada's contribution to the fight. The governing, centre-right Conservative Party brought Canada into the mission and is damned if it's going to withdraw before the job is done.

Canada's current commitment is not insignificant by its own standards. Six CF-18 fighter jets, a CC-150 Polaris refueller, two CP-140 Aurora surveillance aircraft, 600 support personnel, and roughly 69 special forces operators.

By international standards, it's a fraction of the overall commitment. Canada has flown less than 5 percent of the overall sorties in the air campaign against IS. It's led the contenders to Harper's throne to lambast the mission as ineffective.

Both NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau have said they will end the bombing campaign, instead focusing on training and humanitarian aid.

Kenney recognized that things are, in his words, at a "stalemate."

The defense minister says that, unless the Iraqi army can begin a successful counter-offensive targeting IS, little progress will be made.

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While that isn't exactly a revelation, Kenney's comments on the state of the Iraqi army offers some insight into the coalition's frustration over the state of affairs.

Kenney told VICE News that the Canadian government had debated expanding its training program in the area, which is currently limited to helping the Kurds train for combat in Northern Iraq, to the Iraqis, only to kibosh the idea.

"We concluded that, quite frankly, the Americans were already doing that on a huge scale," Kenney said. "They have been for 10 years, and the effectiveness of that has been disappointing."

Instead, Kenney said that Ottawa is, should his government be re-elected, looking at preparing and equipping smaller militias throughout Iraq to help them defend themselves against IS — and even after the militants are defeated, if that ever occurs.

VICE spoke to the chairperson of a major Yazidi organization in March, when they made a direct appeal to Kenney and others for military aid.

"We want Canada to supply direct arms," Yazidi Human Rights Organization International chairperson Mirza Ismail said at an event in Ottawa. "If you don't have ammunition, what can you do?"

Canada's training mission in Kurdistan is being run by a contingent from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment and the Joint Task Force 2 — the country's two most elite special forces regiments that usually operate under absolute secrecy.

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That training mission could be expanded in the near future under a re-elected Conservative government. Kenney promised on the weekend that, should they win the Oct. 19 vote, he will contribute an additional $75 million to the secretive military units, boosting the number of operators in the units by more than a third.

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VICE News sat down with Kenney to ask about IS, what role Canadian special forces play in the region, and what Ottawa is doing to defend itself against cyber attacks.

VICE News: If there is a stalemate with IS, have we lost?

Kenney: No. Look, our first objective is to stop the growth of this organization. Let's take a step back and ask why is that important. Why is ISIL particularly pernicious, why do we have an interest in fighting it? In my view it's because when organizations like that exploit a failed, or failing state, to create their own quasi-state or terror state — in their own words, a caliphate — in which they can plan and project violence, where they can control their own taxation revenues, their own oil revenues, that's when it can pose a very credible threat to international security. When this organization appears to be on the winning side of history, it appears to be a confirmation in the minds of young people that are susceptible to radicalization that it is the real deal. It is actually the caliphate. Some of these young people believe that they have a religious, moral obligation to go and join that particular so-called jihad. By putting it on the wrong side of history, by demonstrating that it is not actually winning — that it is not the fulfillment of history, that it is just a gang of thugs, criminals and rapists — if we can convey that message to young people who might be susceptible to radicalization, fewer Canadians, fewer Westerners will be radicalized, and that means less of a security risk to us here at home.

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Your government has made the case about why Canada should be part of the bombing campaign against IS. In reality, between us and our allies, we're not dropping that many bombs. Maybe 10 to 20 a day. Is that enough to break this stalemate?

No, it's not. As I've always said, the air campaign, which is the primary Canadian contribution, is necessary but not sufficient. The stalemate will not be broken and ISIL will not be rolled back out of Iraq — and it certainly will not be degraded to ineffectiveness or destroyed — unless, and until, there is an effective ground campaign, and that requires an effective Iraqi ground counteroffensive … We did consider participating in a larger-scale training program with the Iraqi army, not just the kurdish militias. We concluded that, quite frankly, the Americans were already doing that on a huge scale. They have been for 10 years, and the effectiveness of that has been disappointing. We're going to continue to focus our efforts on the Kurds. I would like, if we have the opportunity, for us to assist with the training of some of the militias in the North that are affiliated with the minority communities in the Nineveh plains, like the Yazidis and the Assyrians. Because, post-ISIL, I hope that we can help them maintain the security of their minority communities in their ancient homeland of the Nineveh plains.

So Russia has moved serious assets into Syria to back the Assad government, which is only going to help them go after moderate groups that are actually fighting IS, and the Turkish government against the Kurds. Between both of those things, doesn't that spell something even worse for the region?

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There's no doubt that it's an extremely complicated, multidimensional fight on the Syrian side. There are no white hats in that fight. Our immediate interest in Syria, we can't resolve or intervene in the Syrian civil war, it would be radically imprudent for us to do so — and when I say 'we' I mean Canada and the West in general — but we can, at least, ensure that ISIS does not have a safe haven in the Eastern regions in Syria that it claims to be the centre of its caliphate, like Ar Raqqa. So we will continue to strike those targets as they become available. As you know, the United States, with the support of some of its allies, has tried with limited success to train and develop a moderate militia in Eastern Syrian that can bring the fight to ISIL on the ground. So far, that has not proven to be successful.

Changing gears: when it comes to Canada's cyber security capabilities, is this entirely defensive, or is there an offensive component here? Would the Canadian military get in a position where it would launch a pre-emptive or offensive cyber attack?

I think you can reasonably assume that when the military develops a command, it has to have the capability to be both offensive and defensive. Potentially hostile countries need to know that, if they are going to launch cyber attacks against our critical systems, Canada and its allies have the capacity to retaliate.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling

Photo via Flickr user Michael Swan