Douglas Roche


December 1, 2014

My seatmate on a recent flight from Toronto to Edmonton turned out to be a former solder, who, completely unprompted by me, said he had, while on duty in the Middle East, "killed for Jesus." I squirmed inside and tried to change the subject.

When he said, unexpectedly, that he had no use for the United Nations, I decided that further conversation would not only be unproductive but possibly confrontational. A cramped Air Canada seat is no place for emotion-driven exchanges.

Rather, I spent my time thinking about a seminar I had attended the previous evening on Canada's role in responding to ISIS (the abbreviation for the extremists now conducting savage warfare in parts of Syria and Iraq). Canada has joined the U.S.-led coalition now conducting air strikes against jihadist fighters. Canadian CF-18s are dropping bombs on military targets.

What is the collateral damage on civilians in the bombing areas? We are given practically no information on this subject. Rather, the government propaganda apparatus concentrates on Canada's presumed patriotic duty to "do something" to counter the savagery of the ISIS fighters.

Is bombing the correct Canadian response? That was the question addressed by a thoughtful panel.

An explosion following a Nov. 17 airstrike is seen in central Kobani, Syria


An explosion following a Nov. 17 airstrike is seen in central Kobani, Syria

Peggy Mason, former Canadian ambassador for disarmament who heads the Rideau Institute in Ottawa, and Peter Langille, an independent analyst of defence and security policy, both appealed for a comprehensive diplomatic solution rather than more militarism to bring peace to the embattled Middle East.

Michael Bell, a former Canadian diplomat who has specialized in the Middle East, while admitting that bombing will not destroy the culture of extremism, couldn't see any other practical alternative to bombing.

So the panel was split. So is Parliament as well as the Canadian public. The tribalism corroding politics in the Middle East is so complicated that informed discussion is a rarity.

Once again, the Canadian government joins in a militaristic response, and there is not much push-back because most people don't see effective alternatives. Beheadings perpetrated by the jihadists evoke a primal revenge.

What the ISIS phenomenon is all about is the desire for land, a revolt against authoritarian political leaders, and a rejection of Western dominance in Middle East affairs. The ISIS extremism is erroneously painted in the religious colours of Islam when it actually has its basis in the economic exploitation ordinary people have suffered at the hands of autocratic leaders frequently shored up by Western interests.


Moreover, it was the 2003 Western war against Iraq, ostensibly to destroy Iraq's non-existent nuclear weapons, which sowed the seeds of fury unleashed by the present-day extremists. We cannot effectively counter extremism without understanding and responding to the "root causes" of how it developed.

So fractured has debate in Canada become that to urge an examination of "root causes" in order to find the right response is to lay one open to the charge of condoning evil. So the government demonizes the jihadists and decides they are mindless maniacs who must be wiped out.

As Peggy Mason said, "There are many, many, many alternatives to bombing."

The most important is to restore negotiations for a political settlement in the Syria cauldron. Is it too late to work out a shared power arrangement with Syria's boss Bashar al-Assad? Is partition within Iraq and Syria necessary to keep separate the Sunnis and Shiites?

If Russia is convinced that the West is not trying to topple its client, al-Assad, will it cooperate in establishing a UN peacekeeping force in the area? None of this is likely to go far if Iran does not have a seat at such a negotiating table.


These are some of the diplomatic cards that need to be played out. Most of all, the various governments, and I include Canada here, must stop marginalizing the United Nations, which should be at the forefront of finding peace in the Middle East.

There is no combat role for Canada in this crisis. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars have demonstrated the futility of trying to change minds by military force.

Rather, Canada needs to greatly increase its diplomatic and humanitarian work. We can take in many more than the additional 1,300 refugees from the area Canada has so far said it would accept. We can sign the Arms Trade Treaty and help keep weapons out of the volatile Middle East area.

I felt sorry for my soldier companion on the flight home. I wished I could have helped him, for he is a wounded man. We are all wounded today by Canada's actions.