Ottawa Citizen

If we can help best in Syria, we should be there

In the war against ISIL, borders don’t matter, writes Eric Morse.

- Eric Morse is a former Canadian diplomat who is co-chair of the Security Studies Committee of the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.

Sometime this week, the prime minister will announce what will probably be an extension and possibly an expansion of the current Iraq commitment. There is speculatio­n as to whether he will announce an expansion into Syria. He should do so.

Canada is not now conducting airstrikes in Syria because the Syria of Bashar Assad is still a sovereign member of the UN and Canada will not go there without an invitation (nor, be it said, will several other coalition members). But on the ground, that stance is rapidly ceasing to make any sense, in a region rapidly becoming more chaotic, and is becoming an obstacle to operations in the same way that the Pakistani border became an obstacle in Afghanista­n. A now-fictional Iraq-Syria border respected only by one side becomes a screen for ISIL to play cat-and-mouse behind. Yes, moving into Syria will raise the conundrum of whether we are cooperatin­g with Assad or fighting him. But that elephant is already in the room, and is going to have to be lived with, quite possibly for a long time, if only because ISIL is the priority enemy in the region for the foreseeabl­e future.

There is a more pragmatic reason. The war in Iraq shows signs of bogging down into a war of cities. In a sense, ISIL’s irruption into Iraq last June was a target of opportunit­y even if the groundwork was there. They occupied a lot of territory in the north, but in the face of pressure from Kurdish, Iranian, and Iraqi forces with effective interdicti­on from coalition airstrikes, their expansion was contained and they look like being driven back to urban centres. And that is a very different kind of war from what Canada signed on to do.

About three weeks ago the Iraqi army (but mainly Shia militias stiffened by Iranian “advisers”) attacked Tikrit. They showed progress in the early going but are now bogged down in desperate urban warfare in a city more laced with IEDs and booby traps than any siege in history

In Iraq, Canada is likely to find fewer and fewer worthwhile targets.

has ever seen. This was an initiative planned without Western input (the U.S. should consider itself relieved), and therefore informatio­n is scarce, but there now seems to be dissension among the attacking forces.

The classic rule of thumb for urban warfare is that attackers must outnumber defenders at least 10 to one — and that is only if the attackers are trained, discipline­d and unified. And there are no “shortcuts;” you must commit your best troops in the attack: special forces, anti-IED specialist­s, engineers. Best available informatio­n is that the Iraqi/Iranian force consisted of perhaps 20,000. ISIL strength is unknown but estimated at a few hundred, who look like resisting to the last man. Attacker casualties last week were being estimated at 60 to 100 per day.

Tikrit will eventually fall, but at great cost to Iraq/Iran, not least in prestige. Iranian commander Qasem Suleimani has survived worse setbacks in his career, but it is clear that everyone had forgotten the true difficulty of urban warfare, the most concentrat­edly vicious form that warfare can take. Mosul, five times larger, suddenly looks very different as a potential target. And it has a huge civilian population.

In Iraq, Canada is likely to find fewer and fewer worthwhile targets. There may be public support for the war now, but Canadian opinion would not respond well to airstrikes into cities under assault where you cannot know what you are hitting. Our contributi­on may now be more effectivel­y employed interdicti­ng ISIL operations in Syria. We should allow ourselves the option to go where we are best suited to fight.

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