When I was in my second year at the University of Alberta, taking an International Relations course for the first time, I wrote a term paper on the state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the wake of 9/11. At the time, much of the literature I consulted spoke of the alliance as being bogged down by constant internal division, a glaring gap in capabilities between the United States and its allies, and lacking a meaningful raison d’être in the post-Cold War reality. Despite the operations of the alliance in Afghanistan through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), many scholars called for either the demise of the alliance, or it fading into the annals of international history as a largely symbolic and defunct organization.
2011 was a simpler time.
Since then, NATO has intervened in Libya, following Arab Spring uprisings there. The return of Russia as an aggressive power in Ukraine has brought the alliance back to its original purpose – the defence of Europe. The alliance also faces the emergence of a frightening new foe in the Middle East – the Islamic State (also known as ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria, or ISIL – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), a fundamentalist jihadist group that seeks the establishment of an extremist theocratic caliphate across the region. When you have an organization that puts NATO and al-Qaeda on the same side, you have some seriously bad people.
For much of the past year, ISIS has engaged in a brutal campaign across Syria and northern Iraq, which has been noted for its extreme brutality. Unlike other terrorist groups, ISIS has chosen to act as a sovereign entity, deploying extensive arsenals (such as artillery) into its battles in Syria and Iraq. In the words of U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, “[they are] as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group“. The organization has become well-known for its beheadings of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. It has captured numerous cities in Iraq, and has slaughtered thousands of Christian, Yazidi, and Muslim Iraqi civilians. It is an organization with a toxic ideology that forbids everything from music to the worship of any other religious faith. President Obama has characterized ISIS as having an “ideology of [no] value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt.” In a time where the use of force by states is heavily debated (and rightly so), it is very difficult to argue that ISIS is anything but evil, and a cancer on civilization that needs to be stopped and eradicated.
Last week, NATO wrapped up its summit in Wales, with ISIS and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine topping the agenda. Out of the summit came a commitment for a strong military campaign against ISIS by the NATO allies, with the U.S. currently taking the lead by launching a series of air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq. For its part, Canada has pledged to deploy a small contingent of special forces soldiers to northern Iraq to serve as military advisors.
Such deployments are always controversial – most people abhor war, and don’t want to see their fellow citizens killed in a foreign land. The fact that it also happens to be in Iraq carries some pretty significant political baggage as well. People are right to question the deployment of Canadian Forces to the Middle East, and NATO’s involvement more broadly. However, unlike previous Western adventures in Iraq, fighting ISIS is a geopolitical and moral imperative. ISIS has lead a campaign of murder, genocide, and fear across the Middle East, with the goal of creating one of the most dangerous states in recent history. We in Canada, and in the NATO nations, cannot sit idly by as they rampage across Iraq and Syria. No one wants to see the blood of Canadian soldiers shed (and in this current deployment, it is highly unlikely that any harm will come to them), but the price of ignoring the conflict is the blood of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, and an unstable and frightening future.
The conflict is very complicated, and any military involvement, be it ground troops or air strikes, requires careful consideration. After all, the emergence of ISIS is a direct result of the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq. Our involvement must be limited to only what is absolutely necessary, and the sole objective should be the defeat of ISIS. It is also important, in the words of Justin Trudeau, to understand the root causes of this extremism – especially why so many young men from decently well-off and diverse backgrounds in Western countries, such as University of Ottawa student John Maguire, are going to the Middle East to join the ISIS cause. It is a troubling phenomenon, and one worthy of significant attention.
War is rarely the way to go, but we must not be naïve in thinking that we live in a world where it is no longer necessary. This time, the West is fighting the right fight in Iraq.
Banner photograph by Wanderer Online Photography Editor Antony Ta