The fight against Islamic State has brought together unlikely allies and old enemies. Victory will be neither easy, nor easily defined
A USEFUL PLACE to begin trying to understand the nature of the jihadist group calling itself Islamic State is here, in a dust-covered tent in the corner of the Harsham refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. To the south lies the regional capital Irbil, with its blast-walled compounds, glitzy malls and construction cranes everywhere on the horizon.
North of the camp there are gravelly hills covered in grass that the sun has scorched to a dirty gold. Herds of sheep and goats followed by a lone figure with a stick move through this landscape, their shaggy coats the same yellows and browns as the ground they walk on.
But here in this tent there is almost nothing but mattresses, a crust of flatbread and a married couple sitting in the dirt at its entranceway: Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed, aged 78, and his wife, Fatima Ayed Barack, 65. Mohammed, thin and small with dark brown skin and short-cropped receding hair, is wearing a long and dirty tunic. Barack drapes a black and purple scarf loosely around her head. Her face, also a sun-darkened brown, is faintly marked by tattoos that were once common among Kurdish women. Both will soon be crying.
"Da'ish," Mohammed says, raising his hands and letting them fall limply to his lap, when asked why they are here instead of their home in the Nineveh province of northwestern Iraq. He refers to Islamic State by its Arabic acronym. When Islamic State approached their village, Mohammed and Barack fled. "They are not Muslims, they are killers," he says. "They kill everyone. They take their money, their girls, sometimes their boys. I was afraid for my family."
Mohammed and Barack ran quickly, leaving everything behind. Not all of their relatives escaped. "They killed three from our family," Barack says, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her dress. "My son, my daughter and her unborn child."
Methodically clicking prayer beads as his eyes fill with tears, Mohammed recounts how his son Ali and his daughter Amira were murdered–by being thrown onto the road and driven over with a car. There were three dead, Barack interjects again and again–the unborn grandchild she never saw hurting her as much, it seems, as the loss of her son and daughter.
Amira is survived by her husband and four children: two daughters and two sons, aged between two and nine. They are at another camp for internally displaced people near Baghdad. Sometimes Mohammed and Barack talk to their grandchildren by phone. "They ask us, 'Where is my mother?' " Mohammed says. "Their father has told them their mother is with us. He hasn't told them she is dead. So we tell them she is with us but can't come to the phone right now."
One can start trying to understand the nature of Islamic State here, but not finish. Because in the next tent is another family with two more members lost to Islamic State. "My cousin and his son are dead," Saddam Edo Qassam says. "They were shot. We ran away with only our clothes." Like Mohammed and Barack, Qassam's family is Kurdish.
A few tents farther down is the family of Ibrahim Fadit, a Shia Arab with a Sunni Arab wife, Halima, and three children. When stopped at an Islamic State checkpoint while fleeing their home near Mosul, Ibrahim instructed his son, Muharrem, to say his name was something else lest he reveal himself to be Shia, a sect of Islam that the Sunni Muslims of Islamic State consider heretical. The ruse worked, likely saving Fadit's family from death.
'They killed three from our family,' says a refugee, wiping her eyes. 'My son, daughter and her unborn child.'
Halima's Sunni family is still in Mosul, and Fadit speaks to his in-laws by phone. Women must cover their faces and can't walk alone in the streets, they tell him, and men are forced to work for Islamic State.
And on and on it goes. Every one of the more than 200 families in Harsham could tell a similar story. But, even collectively, those here represent only a sliver of the misery Islamic State has brought throughout Iraq and Syria. More than a million have fled its rampages to find shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan. Hundreds of thousands more are displaced elsewhere in Iraq. In Syria, the combined cruelty of Islamic State and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has sent more than three million fleeing the country and displaced some nine million in total.
This, then, is the enemy Canada has now committed itself to fight. But the war is not one that will be as simple or straightforward as Islamic State is unambiguously evil.
Fought against an organization rather than a state, victory will not be easily defined. Canada is pledging to combat the movement in Iraq while doing nothing to eliminate its base in Syria. It is allying itself with Kurdish peshmerga fighters whose commitment to a united Iraqi state is tenuous. And, while joining a coalition that includes many of its strongest friends and allies, Canada is also implicitly siding in this war with Iran–perhaps its greatest enemy. It is a country whose government Canada has repeatedly condemned, but that also opposes Islamic State and has proxy forces on the ground in Iraq.
Most importantly, neither Canada nor its coalition allies appear willing to acknowledge the role Assad's dictatorship has played in Islamic State's growth, let alone do something about it.
ALTHOUGH ISLAMIC STATE'S roots reach back to al-Qaeda's franchise in Iraq that flourished after the 2003 American-led invasion, by 2011 it had been largely defeated. It rebuilt itself thanks to the Syrian civil war, the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, and sectarian tensions inflamed by former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim whose governance alienated Iraq's Sunni minority.
As recently as January, American President Barack Obama dismissed Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, as "JV," or junior varsity–in other words, amateurs. Five months later, following a lightning attack that triggered the collapse and mass retreat of Iraqi army units in the region, Islamic State took Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul.
These were designed "to create terror in the hearts of the people there. It was psychological warfare."
Suddenly the very survival of the Iraqi state seemed uncertain. But if this development shocked the White House, it was grimly predictable for at least one Iraqi army captain who was stationed in Mosul when the city fell.
Massoud is a young, neatly dressed Kurd with 10 years experience in the Iraqi army. He doesn't want to be identified by his real name. "Every day we were attacked," he says, speaking of the weeks leading up to Islamic State's final offensive. "We were attacked on patrols with improvised explosive devices. There was always the danger of being kidnapped."
The initial, probing assaults, Massoud says, focused on small combat outposts where Iraqi soldiers felt isolated and vulnerable. These were designed "to create terror in the hearts of the people there," he says. "It was psychological warfare."
Massoud says informal networks of Islamic State supporters existed among Sunni Muslims in Mosul and the surrounding areas. He describes these supporters as a mixture of jihadists and old Baathists who felt sidelined and powerless after the fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-favouring dictatorship.
His unit, which he says contained Kurds, as well as Sunni, Shia and Christian Arabs, tried to earn the trust and loyalty of Sunni civilians. They gave them money and provided medical care. But there was always palpable tension. "However we helped them, they still didn't give us information about the criminals. There are not many who love Islamic State, but they were scared. If someone talked, he would be kidnapped and assassinated. Every business in Mosul, including coffee shops, had to pay a secret tax to Islamic State. It has more control over people in the city than the Mosul government," he says.
In 2007 and 2008, during what came to be knows as the "surge," American soldiers dramatically weakened Islamic State's predecessor (known as the Islamic State of Iraq) by winning over Sunni tribal chiefs and turning them and their tribes against the jihadists. But Massoud says when he and his army colleagues met with tribal chiefs in the Mosul area, he got the impression they didn't have control of their members.
As part of these attempts at outreach, Massoud would often give out his personal cellphone number. Eventually someone in the city did call him. It was an Islamic State member vowing to cut off his head. When Islamic State stormed into Mosul, Massoud says he held out as long as he could. Then he put on civilian clothes and ran. He wasn't punished, he says. "Everyone did it."
Now, sitting in a trendy coffee shop in Irbil while he waits to rejoin the army, Massoud struggles to imagine how Islamic State might be driven from Mosul. He supports coalition air strikes against Islamic State but says the army must also negotiate with Sunni tribes in the area. "We can't beat Islamic State by force, because Sunni Arab tribes help them," he says. "If we can convince the Sunni tribes to work against Islamic State, we can defeat them. But I don't know how we can do that."
According to Falah Mustafa Bakir, the Kurdistan Regional Government's foreign minister, blame for Islamic State's conquest of Mosul and large parts of western Iraq does not lie solely with the Iraqi soldiers who fled.
"We were saying even before June that the western parts of Iraq were not under the control of the Iraqi federal government. And of course my leadership informed the Iraqi leadership that this was happening, and that we were ready to work jointly. But that call was ignored," he says.
Islamic State was able to infiltrate western Iraq, Bakir says, in part because the freedom of movement it enjoyed across the border in Syria. By 2014, Islamic State had emerged as the most powerful opposition group in Syria, killing many of its opponents and declaring the creation of a new caliphate with a de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Throughout its rise, Islamic State was largely unopposed by Assad's regime, which pressed on with its industrial-scale slaughter of supposed dissidents in its jails, and of ordinary civilians it targeted with chemical weapons and "barrel bombs" rolled out of helicopters onto densely populated urban neighbourhoods. This has led many Syrians to conclude Assad has welcomed Islamic State's growth because it helps frame the uprising as radical jihadist insurgency rather than a democratic revolution.
What Islamic State's ascension in Syria has meant for Iraq is the effective elimination of much of its western border. Islamic State found fertile ground to grow in western Iraq, because many local Sunnis felt marginalized and excluded from power by Maliki's Shia-dominated government.
With much of the Iraqi army in retreat, Kurdish peshmerga rushed to replace it in vacated front-line positions and managed to slow–and in places stop–Islamic State's advance into northern Iraq. Kurdish forces also occupied Kirkuk, a large, ethnically mixed city long claimed by both Iraq's central government and by the Kurds.
The respite was temporary. In August, Islamic State launched a renewed offensive and stormed through Nineveh province–slamming the terrible force of their Islamist supremacism against some of Iraq's oldest religious minorities, trapping thousands of them on a mountain to face death from exposure and dehydration.
SAY THIS ABOUT some of the fascists that stalked the rotten middle of Europe's 20th century: at least they had the decency of shame. Mass graves were hidden. Prisoners were disappeared. Firing squads did their sordid work at night.
"Then I realized I had been murdered," the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca wrote before he was, in fact, murdered during the early days of the Spanish Civil War. "They looked for me in cafés, in cemeteries, in churches, but they didn't find me. They never found me? No. They never found me."
Lorca was almost certainly killed by fascists, but almost 80 years later doubts linger. His body remains undiscovered.
Islamic State, by contrast, glorifies in the massacres it carries out, brandishing photographs and videos of its most lurid murders on social media and trumpeting its slaughter and oppression of those belonging to other religions or to supposedly deviant denominations of Islam.
The Yazidis, a Kurdish minority whose faith blends elements of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Zoroastrianism, had every reason to fear what might befall them when Islamic State advanced on their homes in Sinjar, a city west of Mosul.
Zere Salim's family, now sheltering in the Bajid Kandala refugee camp near the Syrian border, fled when Islamic State fighters approached their village near Sinjar. Looking back through binoculars as they drove away, she says they could see Arabs from a neighbouring village looting their homes.
The dead were often men and boys. The Yazidi girls had vanished. Islamic State had abducted them.
Salim's family sought refuge first on nearby Mount Sinjar, while Yazidi fighters held back Islamic State militants prowling below. But the many civilians trapped on the mountain lacked food and water. Four teenaged boys crept down at night to try to get some and didn't come back. Their father later went after them and found their beheaded bodies.
Most of the Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar eventually reached safety after the siege was broken with the help of American air strikes. Fighters from the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, then escorted the survivors on a long march through Syria and back into Iraq.
Ibrahim Khalat, a relative of Salim, is among the Yazidi fighters who tried to protect his people on the mountain, but his job often consisted of recovering the bodies of those who had not managed to flee.
The dead were often men and boys. The Yazidi girls had vanished. When they could be reached by cellphone, their families learned Islamic State had abducted them. Some were recently held at the Badoush Prison near Mosul, says Jamal Dakhil, 16. Six of those girls escaped together, he adds. "They don't talk a lot about their time in jail. Islamic State took some girls and killed others," he says.
According to another account from Naiv Shomo, a villager who has spoken with at least one Yazidi prisoner who got away, Islamic State members would come into the jail at night and drag out one of the inmates. Those left would then hear gunshots indicating he had been murdered. Their jailers would then mock the survivors in the morning by asking, with fake seriousness, what had happened to their missing friend. "They would be afraid to say, 'You took him,' " says Shomo.
Yazidi escapees say Islamic State fighters wanted unmarried girls and women. Kalat knows of two sisters, one with two children of her own and one unmarried, who managed to avoid sexual enslavement because the married sister "gave" one of her children to her sibling so she could pretend to be a mother too. They later escaped with the help of a local Arab. "In Arabs and Kurds, you see good and bad," he says.
The precise fate of Yazidi girls who have fallen into Islamic State hands is sometimes murky, given the taboo surrounding rape in Yazidi communities, the reluctance of victims to talk about it, and the fact that the vast majority of abducted Yazidi women remain in captivity.
In Tuz Khurmatu, hundreds of kilometres from the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar, a Kurdish official takes out his smartphone to reveal photographs of Yazidi women's clothing that peshmerga found after overrunning a nearby Islamic State-controlled town. This suggests that at least some of the women had been trafficked among jihadists throughout Islamic State territory.
An article in the most recent edition of Islamic State's online propaganda magazine, Dabiq, confirms it. Unlike Christians and Jews, the author writes, Yazidis cannot buy protection with a jizya or a tax imposed on non-Muslims living under Islamic rule. They are mushrikin, roughly meaning polytheists, and deserve to be treated as chattel. "After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the sharia among the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operation, after one-fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State's authority to be dived as khums [war booty]."
In the Bajid Kandala camp, Zere Salim sits outside her tent, her angular face and grey-streaked black hair uncovered, children crawling on and off of her lap. She says she and all the other Yazidis would return to Sinjar if it was safe, but she doesn't think this will happen soon. "No one says they will protect us," she says.
Yazidis are not the only religious minority Islamic State has ethnically cleansed. Christians have lived in Iraq for centuries, and when Islamic State approached their homes in Niniveh province, they too fled–leaving their houses to be looted, and their churches destroyed.
For some, this marked the beginning of the end of Christianity in Iraq. "Every day my wife is asking why we are staying," says Jassam, a government employee in Irbil who requested that his real name not be used. He is researching immigrating to Australia or Canada. "We have been living with Kurdish Muslims like our brothers, and I don't even remember thinking that we are Christians and they are Muslims. But now everything has changed. Most of the people, they don't have hope."
Jassam says relations with Muslims in Kurdistan are still good, but he no longer trusts they will remain that way. "What we hear from people from Mosul is: 'We lived with Muslim neighbours for hundreds of years. We live together, we sleep together, and the first people to attack us were our neighbours.'"
Elsewhere in Irbil, displaced Christian families are sheltering on the grounds of St. Joseph's Church in the suburb of Ankawa. Some have tents or basic portable structures. Others have nothing. Jibo Nohmena and his wife, Majedapoles Shamon, both 73, fled their village near Mosul. Asked whether Christians have a future in Iraq, Nohmena wipes his hands together as if scraping off dirt and letting it fall to the ground. "No," he says. "The Kurds love us but the Iraqis don't."
EVENTUALLY, AND RELUCTANTLY, President Obama came to the conclusion that the Iraqi government couldn't protect itself, or its citizens, on its own.
On Aug. 7, he ordered air strikes to "avert a potential act of genocide"–a reference to the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar–and to protect American personnel in Iraq. But even while announcing a renewed American military mission in Iraq, he tried to limit its scope. There would be air strikes should Islamic State advance toward Irbil. America would act if its personnel or facilities were threatened.
"As commander-in-chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq," he said.
A little over a month later, Obama announced America was going to war. The United States, he said in a Sept. 10 speech, along with its friends and allies, would "degrade and ultimately destroy" Islamic State. He said he would order strikes against the group wherever it was found, including in Syria.
What had happened in the interim to convince Obama that war was necessary might have been Islamic State's filmed beheadings of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two of several Western hostages it held. The group would later kill British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning. Iraq had also formed a new government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shia, but one the White House hoped would bridge some of Iraq's sectarian divides.
Canada's escalation mirrored America's. In August, it began ferrying weapons to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, and then sent special forces to advise and train Kurdish forces there. Islamic State responded by urging its supporters to murder Canadians. In October, following a parliamentary vote that divided the governing Conservative party from the opposition NDP and Liberals, Canada began a combat mission that would consist of six CF-18 fighter jets, two refuelling planes, a surveillance aircraft, and support personnel.
More than 10 years after declining to join the American-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, Canada, too, was at war in Iraq. Its contribution to the coalition against Islamic State is a modest one. Ground combat has been explicitly ruled out. Fewer than 100 special forces advisers will be in the country. By comparison, Canada had at least 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2011, and lost 158 soldiers there over the course of the war. Still, the mission is politically divisive. The NDP and Liberals say Canada's contribution should be purely humanitarian and oppose it.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, however, there appears to be widespread support for Western air strikes. Some also say they would accept ground troops. "I ask for them," says Ibrahim Fadit, the man now living in the Harsham refugee camp near Irbil. "America freed all Iraq from Saddam. And Islamic State is worse than Saddam. I'm ready to work with the Americans."
Bakir, the Kurdish foreign minister, says his government is grateful for non-military aid, but adds: "Unless we stop the security threat, we cannot talk about humanitarian assistance."
Kurds have welcomed the international coaliton against Islamic State, he says. "It was important for our people–morally, psychologically, politically–to realize that we are not alone. We are fighting together with the international community, and we are not the front lines on behalf of the free world."
But Bakir says the free world isn't doing enough to help. The air strikes have been necessary and useful, he says. But in order to take ground from Islamic State, he says the Kurds need much more heavy weaponry–such as helicopters, tanks and artillery–than they now have.
Peshmerga on the frontline echo Bakir's assessment. The air strikes are helping, they say, but they are underequipped. At one dugout on stretch of open ground east of Mosul about a dozen men confront Islamic State behind a semicircle of piled dirt and sandbags that protect a rough, thatched-roof shelter, a narrow tent covering a bedframe and mattress, and a small cooking fire for making tea. They wear a mixture of boots and shoes and have one heavy machine gun between them. A journalist's pair of binoculars is passed around so they can scan the landscape in front of them. It's another piece of equipment they lack.
Islamic State fighters try to attack them at night, the peshmerga say, but when they do so the fighters are exposed to air strikes. At this section of the front, peshmerga call in the strikes themselves, relaying information to a second-line position a few kilometres away, which is then passed on to the Americans or another allied air force.
Elsewhere, foreign advisers appear to be playing a more active role. At a command post near the front lines south of Kirkuk, Gen. Rostum Mohammed stands in front of a detailed laminated map of the land west of him. Positions occupied by his peshmerga fighters have been marked on the map in blue, those belonging to Islamic State in red. He points to blue circles just opposite red ones. "The Americans have been here," he says, stabbing at the map, and then dropping his marker to point at another position. "The French were here." The general then puts on a flak jacket, summons a driver and an armed escort, and takes a journalist to the blue sections of the front.
When we arrive at one position, an Islamic State checkpoint is visible about 500 metres away, and a black-painted Humvee, likely stolen from the Iraqi army, is seen driving toward a village the group occupies about a kilometre from the peshmerga. Foreign advisers that come to such a position may not technically be involved in combat, but they're close enough to it to get shot.
So far, Mohammed says, no Canadians have come to his section of the front lines. He says he had heard that the Canadian advisers are in Irbil, but is not in contact with them. Canada's Department of Defence will not say where in northern Iraq Canadian soldiers are working.
Even if the Canadians are keeping well away from the front, Bakir says the type of training and advice they can give is valuable. "The peshmerga were kind of light infantry," he says. "They were fighting Saddam Hussein's regime in a kind of partisan war in the mountains. But this is a new fight. It's on plains, fighting against terrorists who have the military capability of armies, with tanks, Humvees, armoured personnel carriers and long-range artillery. We need assistance from military experts and advisers in sharing their experience in how to deal with this."
The peshmerga borrow binoculars to scan the front line. It's another piece of equipment they lack.
BACK ON THE front lines east of Mosul, a question is put to the handful of peshmerga who are the first obstacle that Islamic State militants will face if they advance out of their own dugouts a kilometre or so away: what are you fighting for?
The answer is loud and unanimous: "Kurdistan."
Iraqi Kurds are proud of the relative stability and peace they have established in the part of Iraq they control. Kurdistan is like a fortified safe room in a house that is regularly ransacked by violent bandits. So much of the horror that has befallen the rest of the country–suicide bombings, sectarian slaughter, fear–washes around Kurdistan's borders but rarely penetrates it.
Since the fall of Saddam, Iraqi Kurds have flourished while enjoying high levels of autonomy within Iraqi Kurdistan. In some ways, the region functions like a semi-official state already, with its own parliament and security services. But many Kurds crave full independence. "Even if you ask a child this, he will say yes," says Rostum Mohammed, the peshmerga general.
It is an understandable dream. Kurds make up sizable minorities in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, but have no state of their own. Their treatment has often been discriminatory, and, in Iraq, genocidal: Saddam Hussein's "Anfal" campaign of the 1980s wiped out thousands of Kurdish villages and killed as many as 180,000. Its nadir was a 1988 poison-gas attack on the city of Halabja that killed up to 5,000 civilians.
But in Western capitals, the fear is that if Kurdistan were to separate, the rest of the country would disintegrate as Sunnis and Shias, among others, fight to carve out enclaves of their own. Washington has exerted substantial pressure on the Kurds to stick with Baghdad. For the time being, they are.
Canada, like the United States, wants Iraq to remain whole. The prospect of an independent Kurdistan, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird recently told reporters, "is not something we're looking at."
The official Kurdish position is to put any moves toward full independence on hold while confronting the threat posed by Islamic State. The Kurds have also agreed to send ministers to join the new Iraqi cabinet in Baghdad. But the project is far from dead. Bakir draws a comparison between Iraq and the United Kingdom, where Scotland last month voted in a referendum to remain part of the union. It's up to Baghdad, he says, to convince the Kurds they're better off with the rest of Iraq.
Gen. Rostum Mohammed says the peshmerga will fight Islamic State beyond the borders of Kurdistan "for the same reason the Americans came here. If there is a terrorist group anywhere in the world, democratic people should fight them." But among peshmerga foot soldiers, there is more enthusiasm for fighting Islamic State in Kurdish parts of the country than farther south in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province. Some predict their current co-operation with Baghdad is temporary.
ANOTHER FACTOR COMPLICATING Canada's intervention is Iraq's relationship with Iran. In the early days of Islamic State's offensive this spring, Iran was one of the first countries to provide Kurdish forces with weapons and ammunition, says Bakir. But it appears Iran's intervention in the war has also been much more direct.
Suleiman Beg is–or was–a predominantly Sunni town south of Kirkuk that until last month was in the hands of Islamic State. It is now deserted. Store mannequins lie strewn in the street like glossy cadavers. A dog rots outside what used to be Islamic State's courthouse, now a broken and vandalized building that smells of smoke. Buildings on the street behind the court have been damaged by American air strikes. When peshmerga entered the town, they discovered at least one mass grave with 18 bodies.
The peshmerga have occupied a large building near the highway. Across the road another military force has set up its headquarters. We are initially told they are Iraqi army soldiers. In fact, as is revealed by the logo on the side of the Toyota Hilux trucks they drive through town, they belong to the Badr Organization–an Iranian-backed Shia militia.
Exactly how deeply Iran is involved in Iraq's Shia militias is unclear, but its influence is believed to be extensive. "Many of them were trained in Iran during Saddam's time," says Gen. Mohammed, speaking of the Badr Brigades. "It's possible that there are advisers from Iran here with them, but I don't have any information about that."
The Sunni residents of Suleiman Beg fled for good reason. Shia militias have been accused, by Amnesty International among others, of abducting and murdering Sunni civilians.
But it is the militia's ties to Iran that make the circumstances surrounding the fall of Suleiman Beg, and the nearby town of Amarliya, unusual. Operations to take the towns involved co-operation between the Kurds, the American air force and an unofficial militia that is also an Iranian proxy. "There was some kind of understanding," says Bakir. "It's not about political deals. It was a kind of understanding about having peshmerga forces, Shia forces and American air strikes hitting the target. Because the ultimate goal is to defeat Islamic State."
When it's pointed out how remarkable it is that American pilots and Iranian-backed militiamen are co-operating on the battlefield, Bakir's diplomatic demeanour cracks slightly and he allows himself a wry smile. "Sometimes the necessity requires that," he says.
THE NECESSITY OF combating Islamic State has required Obama to make other compromises as well. He campaigned on getting American troops out of Iraq, and is now sending them back. He had tried to avoid open-ended military interventions, but the path out of this war will almost certainly be long and twisted.
And yet the campaign against Islamic State has so far almost entirely avoided grappling with a primary reason why the terrorist group has grown so powerful, and what may be necessary to ensure it is defeated.
The answer begins in the Darashakran refugee camp north of Irbil. Its residents are not Iraqis, but Syrians. They are there not because of Islamic State, but because of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "All we think about is going back to Syria," says Jwan Ali, a 32-year-old man living with 11 family members in two one-room, cinder-block shelters in the camp. "When the Syrian revolution began, it was about democracy. Then the Assad regime used heavy weapons," he says.
Ali was living in Damascus when demonstrations against Assad began in 2011. He returned to his family home in the Kurdish areas of northeast Syria. When the Syrian air force began bombing nearby villages, he came to Iraq. Ali was not involved in any of the opposition groups fighting Assad and has watched the rise of Islamic State in his country with fear and anger. Like many here, he asks for international help. "I want Western countries to fight any group that doesn't want democracy for Syria: Islamic State and Assad. We want to destroy both the Assad regime and Islamic State. Islamic State is like Assad, and Assad is like Islamic State."
This sense of being squeezed by both Assad and Islamic State is felt by many Syrians. Goran, a Syrian refugee living in Irbil who asked that his real name not be used, is emblematic. His brother was shot by a Syrian government sniper during demonstrations against Assad. He was later abducted by Islamic State at a checkpoint near Raqqa. "They said we are not Muslims," says Goran, a Kurd. "They told me to pray. I told them, 'I will not pray for you. I pray for God.' "
Iran's influence in the Shia militias is believed to be extensive. 'Many were trained in Iran during Saddam's time.'
Goran was savagely beaten with rifle butts and held in a Raqqa prison. Christians jailed with him pretended to convert to Islam to save themselves. After three months of continuous confinement, his jailers began taking him out of prison during the days so he could cook and wash for them. Goran eventually escaped during fighting between Islamic State and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Scars and pink welts still traverse his nose, chin and throat.
Iso Rasho, another refugee in the camp, left his home in the northeastern Syrian city of al-Hasakah because of the activities of pro-Assad gangs. Like many here, he believes Islamic State was created, or at least allowed to flourish, by Assad. "He built it so Syrians will fight it and not worry about his own regime," says Rasho. "We ask the Canadian government to give us weapons to fight Assad and Islamic State. I would like to build a democratic state where Kurds, Arabs and Christians can live together as brothers. It's not impossible. But we need to destroy the Assad regime first."
Syrians' suspicions that Assad at least tacitly supported Islamic State's emergence are well founded. Ever since the revolution against him began, he has tried to portray it as a terrorist insurgency. His regime killed tens of thousands but did little to diminish the growth of an Islamist proto-state within Syria's borders. "He wanted to change the face of the revolution in order to destroy it," says Khaled Mohammed, a Syrian translator and editor.
It has all but worked. For years, America refused to use force against Assad, or to provide meaningful military assistance to the non-jihadist Syrian opposition. When America finally did intervene, it was to bomb Islamic State. Only weeks before, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said Syria was ready to co-operate with the United States and Britain in a fight against terrorism. "They are welcome," he said.
Obama says the United States is not co-operating with Assad. But the President's tone has changed. In August 2011, shortly after the Syrian uprising began, Obama had said, "The time has come for President Assad to step aside." Three years later, shortly after America began bombing in Syria, Obama said Islamic State is a "more immediate concern" than Assad, and implied Assad may have a short-term role to play in stabilizing the country. "For a long-term political settlement, for Syria to remain unified, it is not possible that Assad presides over that entire process," Obama told the CBS news program 60 Minutes.
Canada has authorized air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq, but not Syria. "We will strike ISIL where and only where Canada has the clear support of the government of that country," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons. "At present that is only true in Iraq. If it were to become the case in Syria, then we will participate in air strikes against ISIL in that country also."
This frustrates Syrians like journalist Jwan Mirani, who questions why Canada should seek agreement from Assad for anything. "Canada is a democratic country," he says. "Its government's legitimacy comes from the people. Assad's regime is the opposite."
In his speech announcing air strikes in Syria, Obama said the United States would increase its military assistance to the Syrian opposition. He's said as much before, and on the ground little changed. But on Sunday, the United States began flying arms from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Syrian city of Kobani, where Syrian Kurds, including many female fighters, have been holding out against an Islamic State siege for more than a month.
This support comes as the city has taken on enormous symbolic importance for both Islamic State and those fighting it.
At the Iraqi border with Turkey, Maclean's interviewed Kurdish Syrians who had just been evacuated from the city. They told stories of Islamic State barbarism similar to that suffered by those the group encountered in Iraq. One man's cousin had refused to leave their village on the outskirts of the city. They later found a photograph on the Internet of an Islamic State fighter holding up the man's severed head. The victim's father is still on the Syrian border close to Kobani. He says he won't leave until he retrieves the body of his son.
America's intervention in Kobani puts it on the same side as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a Kurdish group active in Turkey that Canada and other Western countries consider a terrorist organization. Turkey's opposition to the PYD also explains Ankara's refusal, until this week, to allow Kurdish fighters from Iraq to cross its territory to join the fight in Kobani. Islamic State is forcing its opponents into unusual, if temporary, alliances.
If America is now willing to work with the PYD against Islamic State, its commitment to fighting Assad is still tepid. Options remain. They are the same ones that have been contemplated since 2011: air strikes against regime targets; a no-fly zone; more serious military support.
Khaled Mohammed says it's still not too late. "We'll win," he says. "It will come in one of two ways. If we have the help of the outside world, the revolution will succeed quickly. By ourselves it will take a long time."
ISLAMIC STATE will not rise or fall based on what Canada does in Iraq and Syria. As is the case with so many international interventions, the success or failure of this one depends largely on the United States, and on Iraqis and Syrians themselves.
It might also be argued that whatever threat Islamic State poses to Canada might be better dealt with through law enforcement and intelligence rather than blunt military force. Eliminating Islamic State safe havens in Iraq won't prevent those with the means to attack Canada from becoming radicalized elsewhere, including online.
Canada's military mission, despite the official six-month limit contained in the motion approved by Parliament, is by its nature open-ended. What exactly will constitute success? Is it enough to degrade and roll back Islamic State, or is Canada committed to pressing its attack until the group is destroyed? How does this end?
Canada's decision to limit its intervention to Iraq also avoids confronting Islamic State where the group is strongest and where it can rebuild. "No matter what you do in Iraq, you push them out, but they have got a place where they can grow, reorganize and train, get support and come back again," says Bakir, the Kurdish foreign minister. "Therefore, if you want to defeat ISIS in Iraq, you have to defeat them [in Syria]. It has to be addressed together."
Finally, Canada, like the American-led coalition it is joining, does not have an effective plan for dealing with Bashar al-Assad, whose oppression and mass murder created the conditions for Islamic State to thrive in the first place. John Baird has rightly described Assad's regime as illegitimate. But Harper's statement that Canada would bomb Islamic State targets in Syria only with Assad's permission suggests Canada does not treat it that way.
But this doesn't change the fact that throughout Iraq and Syria there are hundreds of thousands of terrified and heartbroken refugees. There are mass graves, sexually enslaved women and headless corpses. This is the tragedy that Islamic State has wrought. Some elements of it can be mitigated with humanitarian assistance alone. Much cannot.
Those suffering Islamic State's depravity want help–not just money and food and shelter, but weapons, training and air strikes. Jwan Ali, one of the thousands of Syrian refugees in the Darashakran refugee camp, says he would prefer that this help come from Canada precisely because it is a democracy and is therefore the sort of country he wants Syria to become.
Canada's military contribution to the fight against Islamic State is small, too narrowly focused on Iraq, and fails to address the fount of desolation that is Bashar al-Assad's regime. But it will also bring a measure of justice to a band of rapists and murderers. And it will provide comfort and protection to innocents who are asking for both.