The future of Canadian military members in Iraq is unclear as the fallout from the U.S. assassination of a top Iranian military official continues.
Last week, the growing tension between Iran and the United States reached a fever pitch when the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top generals, with an airstrike in Iraq. This came less than a week after an attack by an Iranian-backed militia on a U.S. military location left one American contractor dead. Iran has vowed to retaliate against the United States for the killing of Soleimani.
Over the weekend, Iraqi lawmakers voted on a recommendation that all foreign troops should be removed by the country. The recommendation originally came from the country’s interim prime minister, hasn't been formally requested and is, at this stage, non-binding. U.S. President Donald Trump has already refused to pull out the American troops in Iraq and has threatened “very big sanctions” on the country.
Canada did not participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but has participated in several training missions. These missions include a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) mission led by Major-General Jennie Carignan of the Canadian Armed Forces and Operation Impact, which is led by the United States. The exact number of Canadian military members active in Iraq isn’t public, but it is believed to be in the hundreds. In March 2015 Canadian serviceman Sergeant Andrew Joseph Doiron was killed by friendly fire.
Todd Lane, a spokesman for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, told VICE in a statement that “Canada continues to monitor and evaluate the situation.”
“Our goal, as a Coalition, remains a united and stable Iraq, and preventing the re-emergence of Daesh [ISIS],” said Lane. “The NATO mission and Operation Impact's mandate remain the same, but all training activities in Iraq are suspended temporarily as we continue to monitor the security environment.”
Right now, the keyword regarding everything involved in the conflict—including Canada—is uncertainty. The international partners involved in the NATO mission elected to hold an emergency meeting on Monday to debate the future of the suspended mission. Thomas Juneau, a University of Ottawa professor specializing in the Middle East and former analyst for the Defence Department, said that on every side—Iraqi, Iranian, and American—the next move is unknown.
“We are in uncharted territory,” said Juneau. “There is a huge amount of uncertainty right now as to the way ahead. On every level.”
Representatives from 29 allied countries involved in the NATO mission met in Brussels Monday and agreed to temporarily suspend the NATO mission in Iraq. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the organization is resolute in their support of the United States and urged for de-escalation.
The role that Canada plays within the Iran/U.S. is inconsequential at best, according to Juneau.
“We are just not important enough to play a role. In terms of shaping the overall evolution of the dispute. We don't have a role,” he said. “I mean, yes, in backchannels, Canada will talk to the players and so on, the diplomats will do what they do. We don't fundamentally have a role in this dispute.”
Beyond calling for de-escalation last week, Canada’s response to the conflict has remained low-key. The government has updated its travel advisory for several countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, advising its citizens to avoid the nations due to heightened tensions.
But with Canadian forces still stationed in Iraq, the possibility of Canada becoming involved isn’t zero. The odds of that happening, and what it would or could look like, remains to be seen.
“If the situation escalates and violence flares up in Iraq between Iran and the U.S., or between the U.S. and Iraq and their allies on the ground—we're there,” said Juneau. “We have hundreds of troops there, including some that are co-located or located not far from potential targets.”
“So there is a risk. That being said, as much as I don't want to minimize that risk, I don't want to overplay it in the sense that right now, for me, the most plausible scenario in the short term is not escalation.”
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