The expulsion of the Canadian-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military training mission from Iraq may be one of the first and most consequential aftershocks from U.S. President Donald Trump’s sudden decision to kill Qassem Soleimani.
NATO announced on Saturday that the mission, led by Canadian military and tasked with training Iraqi forces, was “temporarily suspended.”
Some observers have taken cheer from the fact that absent a new law to that effect, the decision by parliament to “liberate” the country of foreign forces is technically non-binding. This is because all laws must be formally presented by parliament to the cabinet for consideration, and Iraq has a caretaker government that has had trouble passing any legislation into law.
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But the ban on foreign forces was originally demanded by Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, who railed against Trump’s attack on Iraqi sovereignty. Abdul Mahdi has subsequently said that such a law is being quickly drafted and appears to have the votes to secure a narrow win. If the legislation becomes law, it is likely to further the deep divide that has long existed between Iraqi Shia and Sunni Muslims and embolden terrorists from both religious factions to increase their attacks.
The only caveat is that for the reasons mentioned above, Iraq’s passing an expulsion order into law may take a bit of time. This may give NATO a bit of breathing space to consider its options and for Trump to try to negotiate billions of dollars in compensation for infrastructure the U.S. has built in Iraq or face trade sanctions.
The looming Iraqi legislation is primarily aimed at the United States, of course, not at NATO, Canada or the multinational trainers that Canada oversees.
But frankly, though governments in the Middle East understand the difference, Iraqis make little distinction between western and American forces. All such troops are considered to be American or pro-American. They are, therefore, considered the enemy by many Iraqis. Canada has no choice but to embrace this forbidding assumption, and not only because of the potential security risk to Canadians, though the danger to the troops is relatively low as long as they stay hunkered down in their heavily fortified bases, which they will.
Another key part of the equation is that Canada simply does not have the resources or the political mettle to support any mission deep inside potentially hostile territory without backup from U.S. attack drones, helicopters, fighter jets and intelligence, and the critical heavy logistical support the U.S. provides to the NATO mission over there. If the U.S. is kicked out, the departure of the Canadians must surely follow.
The Americans are part of Canada’s NATO training mission in Iraq anyway. The U.S. has a training mission of its own in Iraq, too, as well as a robust Special Forces combat presence and considerable air assault capability there and in neighbouring Gulf sheikhdoms, including Kuwait. That is where Canada has a headquarters for another military training mission and a logistics hub that is a lifeline for the Canadians based in Iraq.
The U.S. navy has warships in the Persian Gulf, too, with Marines embarked. And they await the arrival of more Marines from an expeditionary force aboard the USS Bataan assault ship that is about to transit the Suez Canal for the Persian Gulf. A brigade of paratroopers is also on its way from North Carolina to augment a battalion of paratroopers that arrived in Kuwait on New Year’s Day.
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NATO, like so many other organizations and countries, has been shocked by Trump’s precipitous decision. As is Trump’s style, it was made without prior warning to any of the U.S.’s closest friends.
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To get military advice and political direction, the alliance has convened an urgent meeting of its ambassadors. It is to discuss the growing drumbeat for war coming from Tehran and Washington and how the alliance should respond to the pending Iraqi expulsion decision. It must also think through its decision on Saturday to suspend the training mission led by Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, who only two months ago took over the tricky job from another Canadian two-star general, Dany Fortin.
Fortin and Carignan are both able, well-regarded combat commanders who served eventful tours in Afghanistan. When I spoke with Fortin in early December, he described NATO’s relationship with the Iraqis as prickly, though he thought that with patience and artful negotiation, its diplomatic wing and his successor, Carignan, could find a way to continue to make the training mission work. Its goal is to help Iraqi forces to better defend themselves against terrorist attacks by groups such as the Sunni-run Islamic State group, al-Qaeda and several Iraqi Shia militias with close ties to Tehran.
Fortin’s measured observations were obviously made before Trump knocked every prognostication and expectation regarding the Middle East — and, in particular, Iraq and Iran — into a cocked hat by killing Soleimani. He is regarded by Iranians as a national hero for having spent decades directing bloody proxy fights everywhere from Israel, Lebanon and Syria to Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan and sending terrorists out to cause mayhem as far away as South America and Europe.
Something else NATO and Canada must consider is what their stance will be on Article 5 of the treaty, which calls for member states to defend a member state that comes under attack in Europe or North America, as they did after al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, with the result of Canadian troops spending 12 years in Afghanistan. If Iran launches a cyberattack on the U.S., is this covered by Article 5? Will the alliance and Canada be obliged by treaty to join a U.S. war against Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq if this happens?
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That is a decision that nobody in the Canadian government or at NATO headquarters in Belgium will want to contemplate, but the possibility must be considered.
The Department of National Defence has not stated this publicly, though it is a certainty that planners and logisticians in Ottawa were reviewing existing emergency escape plans this weekend for the 250 military trainers and Special Forces operators in Iraq, as well as several hundred more with similar missions in nearby countries that are led by Van Doo Brig.-Gen. Michel-Henri St. Louis. Part of that process will be to canvas the Royal Canadian Air Force in Winnipeg and Trenton regarding the availability of C-17 heavy transports and nearly 40-year-old Airbus troop transports, which, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knows from his own foreign travels, often have serious maintenance issues.
The way things often work on military procurement in Canada — perhaps the only way to quickly and efficiently acquire replacement aircraft is to push through such purchases during a crisis such as this one — reveals one of Canadian security’s worst Achilles’ heels.
Much recent attention has been focused on how and where Iranian and Shia fury will manifest itself. A much larger, perhaps more pertinent question at the moment is whether Trump is just getting started. A dark hint about where the president’s unpredictable mind might be headed came on the weekend when he declared the U.S. might target 52 Iranian cultural sites to avenge the seizing of that number of American diplomats from the U.S. embassy in Tehran more than 40 years ago.
Nobody was more deserving of his fate than Soleimani. He was a mass murderer, particularly of Sunnis, for a very long time, and caused many American troops, Israelis and Arabs to die.
But the murderous Iranian envoy and commander avoided death for so long precisely because his elimination was always bound to trigger a cascading series of unpredictable events that could include a serious regional war, global terrorist attacks and the choking off of one-third of the world’s oil and gas, which passes through the Strait of Hormuz.
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Trump has crowed about how what he has just done is a great victory for the U.S. But the targeted killing of Soleimani has eroded much of the already rapidly diminishing goodwill and influence that the U.S. had in the Middle East. This inevitably opens the door further for Iran to have more influence over Iraq’s fragile government.
But Iran is not the only winner. Russia, which has already partially filled the void left by Trump’s decision to abandon Kurdish allies in northern Syria, may now soon have a chance to send military trainers to Iraq to replace the Americans and Canadians there. China, which has not until now had much to do with the Middle East, will, like the Russians, be pleased to see the U.S. once again exhausting its military and political capital across a broad swathe of territory where it has already spent so much blood and treasure without any obvious gain.
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Meanwhile, lost in the incendiary war of words between Trump and the Iranians and not even commented upon by the U.S. president or other western leaders, a sinister trinity of warships from Russia, China and Iran completed a major joint naval exercise on New Year’s Day in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.