Opinion

Air Strikes Won't Make Middle East Safe

Blowing stuff up gets us nowhere. Send aid instead.

By Crawford Kilian 8 Apr 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

"France has no friends, only interests," Charles de Gaulle once said, and what is true of France is true of all countries. All countries including Canada must be worriedly trying to identify their true interests in the war now extending from Nigeria to Libya to Iraq to Yemen and Kenya.

The 2010 public suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable seller, triggered the Arab Spring and then anarchy -- not a clash of civilizations but a clash within one civilization struggling to redefine itself.

The redefinition is needed because the West imposed its own rule on Muslim civilization for close to two centuries. We still have much invested in the idea of stable, friendly governments in the region, with borders we arbitrarily defined a hundred years ago.

But we have paid only lip service to the idea of independent, secular democracies like ours, whose citizens happen to be mostly Muslims. Our attempts at direct democracy building in Afghanistan and Iraq have been $4-trillion embarrassments.

While many Muslims want secular democracy, we have given them little support -- least of all in helping their nations build the institutions such democracies must have, like strong and independent judiciaries and free media.

Instead we supported religious extremists fighting our Soviet enemies in Afghanistan. That gave the extremists like Osama bin Laden not only expertise in violence but credibility among many Muslims. When those extremists turned on their American patrons on 9/11, that gave them still more credibility: the secular moderates were framed as just more Western stooges.

So we have no friends in the region, but it's hard to tell where our interests mesh with those of the Muslim nations. Do we try to suppress all the religious extremists, or only some? Should we back this or that party calling itself moderate and democratic, and to what extent? If the Saudis suppress human rights with floggings and beheadings (just like the Islamic State), should we back their enemies, the Houthis in Yemen?

Canadians: Good for a laugh

The Harper government's recent extension of our military involvement for another year only prolongs our role as a laughingstock. A few CF-18s do no serious harm to the Islamic State, and actually help it recruit more alienated young Muslims in the West. But we know our voters would never tolerate the scores of thousands of casualties we would suffer if we actually went in on the ground -- as we would have to, to win the war.

After all, we took such casualties in the Second World War. It got us Holland's undying gratitude, but also opened a breach with French Canada that has not yet healed. Conscription infuriated Québécois who had no interest in anglophone quarrels. Canadian politicians know very well not to try that again, especially if it means Canadians being killed in more than double digits.

The Second World War led to the formation of United Nations and clear international laws about when its members may go to war -- and those laws have been routinely ignored and violated in the current round of violence. Iraq didn't ask for UN help against the Islamic State; instead Iraq turned to the U.S., and invited us, as another American client state, to pitch in.

Nor did Saudi Arabia's new King Salman bother to ask the UN for permission to conduct air raids against neighbouring Yemen, much less to put together a coalition of Sunni states to suppress the Shia Houthi rebels. The Saudi raids against Yemen, like our own against the Islamic State in Iraq, are illegal against the very UN laws that Canada helped to frame in the 1940s.

In effect, we and the Americans and the Saudi coalition are now international outlaws, rogue states tearing up a world order that has prevented a third world war for 70 years.

Worse than a crime, a blunder

And as Napoleon's secret police chief Joseph Fouché once said about his boss's murder of a political enemy, "It was worse than a crime -- it was a blunder."

As Gwynne Dyer recently commented at Simon Fraser University, the Islamic State is delighted when we bomb them. By making the West look like the source of all Muslims' unhappiness, our bombing creates still more support for their cause.

It certainly doesn't weaken them. The Islamic State needs just enough territory to make a half credible claim to being a caliphate, and similar groups from Boko Haram in Nigeria to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in the Egyptian Sinai gain credibility by declaring their allegiance to the Islamic State while discrediting their own countries' governments.

Meanwhile Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph of the Islamic State, controls a wrecked patch of Iraq and Syria and draws attention by posting gore-porn videos of people being beheaded. If war is the ultimate argument of kings, his terrorism is the ultimate argument of weaklings.

The Islamic State is just one among several radical movements in the Muslim world, and they are pulling us into their violence in countries far from Iraq: from northern Nigeria to the foothills of Pakistan's Himalayas.

In the process, we are blundering into the killing of polio vaccination teams in Pakistan. Meanwhile Ebola fighters in West Africa must deal with communities where funeral rites demand touching Ebola corpses just when they are most contagious.

So what could we Canadians do to ease the collateral damage of the Great Muslim Civil War?

Blowing stuff up gets us nowhere. It just distracts us from a public-health catastrophe far greater than Ebola, going on in the Syrian refugee camps of Turkey and Jordan, and now extending to Yemen, the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula.

The UN's Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that Syria's civil war alone has displaced 12 million Syrians inside their own country and another five or six million who have fled to Jordan or Turkey.

Never mind the few teenage idiots who want to escape suburban Britain or Sweden to lop off heads in Syria -- what about the refugee kids and their parents who just want to live peaceful, healthy lives?

Meanwhile Yemen has 24 million people -- half of them under the age of 19. According to the World Health Organization, Yemen spends US$118 per capita on health (we spend $4,676). A quarter of male Yemenis are likely to die between the ages of 15 and 60 (and one in five of the women).

Call off fighter jets

If we truly wanted to make things better in the Middle East, we would call our CF-18s home and send an army of doctors and nurses into the refugee camps of the Middle East.

We would follow up with an army of clerks to expedite the immigration of thousands of those refugees to safety in Canada. Sweden, population 10 million, has welcomed 60,000 Syrian refugees and plans to welcome more. We, with three times Sweden's population, have said we'd take just 10,000 over the next three years.

That would be what we did when the Soviets crushed Hungary in 1956, and when Uganda's Ismailis and Vietnam's boat people sought help in the 1970s. We were bigger and better people then, made better still by our newcomers.

Now we won't even help our own people in trouble overseas like Mohamed Fahmy, much less welcome others.

Stephen Harper pretends to protect Canadians he's taught to be fearful -- Canadians who once fought world wars and won.

He must really despise what we used to be, and we deserve to be despised for what he's made us.  [Tyee]

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