Members of the Kurdish peshmerga forces gather in the town of Sinjar, Iraq November 13, 2015.

Members of the Kurdish peshmerga forces gather in the town of Sinjar, Iraq November 13, 2015.
Photo Credit: STRINGER Iraq / Reuters

Is Canada training a separatist army in Iraq?


In the millennia-old history of Kurds, there has never been a time when this ancient people of the Middle East were so tantalisingly close to statehood.

And if in the next few years, the Kurds do manage to bridge their political, tribal, religious and cultural differences, and declare statehood in their ancient homeland in northern Iraq, they’ll owe a small debt of gratitude to Canada.

That’s because whether Ottawa likes it or not, Canada’s elite special forces have been training the nucleus of what is likely to become the army of independent Kurdistan.

And with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s newly announced plan to triple the number of Canadian special forces advisers and to equip the Kurdish peshmerga fighters with light arms, the future Kurdish army will not only be one of the best fighting forces in the region but will also likely sport Canadian-made assault rifles, machine guns and light mortars.

The irony, of course, is that neither Canada nor its Western allies want the Kurds to secede from Iraq, says Michael Bell, a four-time Canadian ambassador in the Middle East and Paul Martin (Sr.) Senior Scholar in International Diplomacy at University of Windsor.

But the resolution of the broader problem of Iraqi unity has taken second place to the urgent need to confront the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), says Bell.

Effective ground force
 A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces holds his weapon while taking position in the town of Sinjar, Iraq November 12, 2015.
A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces holds his weapon while taking position in the town of Sinjar, Iraq November 12, 2015. © STRINGER Iraq / Reuters

The Kurds have proven to be the most effective ground force confronting ISIS in Iraq and in Syria, and it makes sense to support them in the campaign against ISIS, says Bell.

The Western strategy of dealing with ISIS is to use the Kurds as a ground fighting force while the U.S.-led alliance uses its overwhelming air power to debilitate ISIS to a point when it will be difficult for its supporters to equate it with the Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Middle East that ISIS leadership has been pushing for.

In Western calculations, ISIS with its drive to carve out a Sunni Islamist proto-state from Iraq and Syria poses a much greater threat than any eventual Kurdish independent state in northern Iraq.

The allies would prefer a united Iraq with a confederated system that allows the Kurds to exist in a quasi-independent state without actually declaring de jure independence. The problem is the Sunni population of Iraq is alienated from the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, says Bell.

The government in Baghdad represents the interests of the Shia majority and Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is in a very weak position, says Bell. Al-Abadi is under tremendous pressure from Iranians who control what the government does, he says.

“What Iran doesn’t want, won’t happen,” Bell says.

With the ongoing sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias throughout the Middle East their peaceful coexistence in unified Iraq will be very difficult if not impossible.

Even with ISIS severely degraded, Iraq faces the possibility of breaking up into three entities: a Sunni part, a Shia part and a Kurdish state.

Eye on Mosul
 An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga stands guard near the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq, February 3, 2016.
An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga stands guard near the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq, February 3, 2016. ©  Azad Lashkari / Reuters

Moreover, even the operation to retake Mosul from ISIS could accelerate a Kurdish drive for independence.

The Kurds have for years yearned for control of Iraq’s second-largest city, which they claim is part of the Kurdish homeland along with the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

They managed to get a foothold in Kirkuk and its vast oil fields following the spectacular collapse of Iraqi forces in the face of a rapid advance by ISIS militants in June of 2014. Now, they share an uneasy cohabitation with Shia militias sent to the city by the government in Baghdad to prevent it from falling under full Kurdish control.

Despite their successful operation to recapture Ramadi, Iraqi security forces will need the help of Kurdish peshmerga fighters if they ever hope to recapture Mosul, a city ten times larger than Ramadi.

Leaked U.S. plans to recapture Mosul last year suggested that a force of at least 25,000 fighters strong was needed to take the city of 1.5 million inhabitants. The plans called for five Iraqi army brigades and three Kurdish brigades to work together to liberate the city.

About 65 per cent of Mosul’s population are Sunni Arabs, and the city has significant Turkoman and Kurdish minorities, especially in its eastern quarters.

Mosul’s multicultural mosaic, just like that of Kirkuk, is rife for interethnic conflict. Neither Mosul’s Arabs nor Turkomans are likely to be very welcoming of Kurdish forces. Even if the attacking forces manage to capture Mosul in one swift blow, the city runs the risk of being turned into Beirut or Tripoli-like fiefdoms controlled by various factions, with simmering tensions rippling through the rest of the fragile relationship between Baghdad and Kurdish leadership in Irbil.

Heavy losses and an inconclusive operation to recapture Mosul from ISIS could also spur Kurdish President Masoud Barzani to seek formal independence to deflect public attention from the growing economic crisis to due to falling oil prices and internal political challenges.

Training ‘separatist army’
 A member of Air Task Force - Iraq Auxiliary Security Force (ASF) takes aim at a shooting range in Camp Patrice Vincent, Kuwait, during Operation IMPACT. (Photo: OP IMPACT, DND)
A member of Air Task Force – Iraq Auxiliary Security Force (ASF) takes aim at a shooting range in Camp Patrice Vincent, Kuwait, during Operation IMPACT. © OP IMPACT, DND

In any case, it seems Canadian special forces soldiers are going to play a key role in training Kurdish fighters for the operation in Mosul, according to U.S. military officials.

Speaking to reporters from Brussels on Thursday, Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland commended Canada for being “very forward looking” in its approach to tripling the number of Canadian special forces trainers in northern Iraq and expanding its intelligence capabilities.

MacFarland told him those expanded intelligence capabilities were what he needed to refine his plan to retake Mosul from ISIS, as well as having the Canadian trainers conduct training tailored for the operation, Sajjan said.

“Ther is an irony in that we and other are investing in the peshmerga and are actually aiding a separatist army,” says Bell. “But at this point, there is no alternative to that.”

Bell says the United States and its allies including Canada are putting tremendous diplomatic pressure on Barzani to persuade him not pursue full independence, that the Kurds will be better off with very wide autonomy inside a unified Iraq without the trappings of an independent state.

“Canada is committed to the unity and territorial integrity of the Republic of Iraq,” Tania Assaly, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said in a statement. “This position is well known to our Iraqi interlocutors, including in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.”

Canadian officials are in close contact with the Iraqi authorities on the implementation of Ottawa’s new strategy, which will be carried out with the full consent of the Iraqi government, Assaly said. 

For now, it appears Iraqi officials in Baghdad are happy with Canada’s role, but it remains to be seen whether their calculations change, once the threat posed by ISIS subsides.


Categories: International, Politics, Society
Tags: , , , ,

Do you want to report an error or a typo? Click here!

@*@ Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

Note: By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that Radio Canada International has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Radio Canada International does not endorse any of the views posted. Your comments will be pre-moderated and published if they meet netiquette guidelines.

Netiquette »

When you express your personal opinion in an online forum, you must be as courteous as if you were speaking with someone face-to-face. Insults and personal attacks will not be tolerated. To disagree with an opinion, an idea or an event is one thing, but to show disrespect for other people is quite another. Great minds don’t always think alike—and that’s precisely what makes online dialogue so interesting and valuable.

Netiquette is the set of rules of conduct governing how you should behave when communicating via the Internet. Before you post a message to a blog or forum, it’s important to read and understand these rules. Otherwise, you may be banned from posting.

  1.’s online forums are not anonymous. Users must register, and give their full name and place of residence, which are displayed alongside each of their comments. reserves the right not to publish comments if there is any doubt as to the identity of their author.
  2. Assuming the identity of another person with intent to mislead or cause harm is a serious infraction that may result in the offender being banned.
  3.’s online forums are open to everyone, without regard to age, ethnic origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
  4. Comments that are defamatory, hateful, racist, xenophobic, sexist, or that disparage an ethnic origin, religious affiliation or age group will not be published.
  5. In online speak, writing in ALL CAPS is considered yelling, and may be interpreted as aggressive behaviour, which is unpleasant for the people reading. Any message containing one or more words in all caps (except for initialisms and acronyms) will be rejected, as will any message containing one or more words in bold, italic or underlined characters.
  6. Use of vulgar, obscene or objectionable language is prohibited. Forums are public places and your comments could offend some users. People who use inappropriate language will be banned.
  7. Mutual respect is essential among users. Insulting, threatening or harassing another user is prohibited. You can express your disagreement with an idea without attacking anyone.
  8. Exchanging arguments and opposing views is a key component of healthy debate, but it should not turn into a dialogue or private discussion between two users who address each other without regard for the other participants. Messages of this type will not be posted.
  9. Radio Canada International publishes contents in five languages. The language used in the forums has to be the same as the contents we publish. The usage of other languages, with the exception of some words, is forbidden. Messages that are off-topic will not be published.
  10. Making repetitive posts disrupts the flow of discussions and will not be tolerated.
  11. Adding images or any other type of file to comments is forbidden. Including hyperlinks to other websites is allowed, as long as they comply with netiquette. Radio Canada International  is in no way responsible for the content of such sites, however.
  12. Copying and pasting text written by someone else, even if you credit the author, is unacceptable if that text makes up the majority of your comment.
  13. Posting any type of advertising or call to action, in any form, to Radio Canada International  forums is prohibited.
  14. All comments and other types of content are moderated before publication. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to refuse any comment for publication.
  15. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to close a forum at any time, without notice.
  16. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to amend this code of conduct (netiquette) at any time, without notice.
  17. By participating in its online forums, you allow Radio Canada International to publish your comments on the web for an indefinite time. This also implies that these messages will be indexed by Internet search engines.
  18. Radio Canada International has no obligation to remove your messages from the web if one day you request it. We invite you to carefully consider your comments and the consequences of their posting.


One comment on “Is Canada training a separatist army in Iraq?
  1. Avatar Willard McCoy says:

    The Kurds deserve a nation state. The WW I victorious powers messed up when they carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire in the Mid East. They ignored the self determination of the Kurds.
    Unfortunately, now they can probably only achieve some sort of “autonomous” regions within the borders of the nations where Kurds reside.