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Six things we all need to think about when Canadians volunteer to fight for the Kurds

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Image: Facebook/Gill Rosenberg

While a couple of officials of the Harper Government have now half-heartedly warned Canadians they'd be smart not to volunteer to fight for the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, Canadian mainstream media continues to act as a recruiting agency for Kurdish militias, at least one of which has been identified as a terrorist group by our own government.

Think about the many connections between the National Post, which seems to be leading the recruiting drive, and the Harper Government. Is it a stretch to wonder if the involvement of a group of former Canadian soldiers in this fight is not being supported and encouraged by elements within the government?

The problem, regardless of the government's actual level of support, is that the involvement of Canadians on the side of the Kurds -- no matter how just their national aspirations -- is a potential snake pit for our country and all its citizens.

Official Ottawa was suspiciously quiet when this story first broke, with Department of National Defence officials pointedly refusing to say anything pro or con about the Canadian volunteers.

Both the National Post and the CBC published enthusiastic stories, casting the volunteers as part of a heroic fight on behalf of the Kurds against the depredations of the Islamist extremists of the so-called Islamic State.

The National Post's profile of one such volunteer, Dillon Hillier, a former Canadian soldier who was a veteran of both Afghanistan and the Alberta oilpatch, read like a recruiting manual for the Kurdish Foreign Legion.

The Post story came complete with a list of what to bring ($5,000 in cash), promises you won't have to stay if you don't like it, information on the trade-in value of your assault rifle if you decide to go home, and helpful directions to a recruiting page on Facebook run by the Peshmerga, a term used to describe several groups of Kurdish fighters.

The Post's story was replete with stirring sentiments -- "I look at what I'm doing as no different than when thousands of Canadians went to fight the Germans" -- and assurances that joining an unofficial entity calling itself the "1st North American Expeditionary Force" is legal.

The CBC's marginally more professional story the same day claimed "a number of Canadian military veterans say they'll be enlisting with the growing ranks of foreign fighters who have joined the Kurdish battle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq." It revealed the interesting factoid that Hillier is the son of Ontario Conservative MPP Randy Hillier.

The CBC also assured readers that volunteers are on the right side of Canadian laws, explaining that "it is not illegal in Canada to enlist in a foreign militant force, provided it is not a group the federal government designates as a terrorist entity and it is not engaged in hostilities against Canada or its allies." (Emphasis added.)

The Hillier Family issued a statement, lauding their son's patriotism and past military service. "As a proud Canadian, he has always cherished and defended the freedoms we are all afforded in this great country."

This was all before Gill Rosenberg, the young Canadian woman and veteran of the Israeli armed forces, disappeared while on her personal mission to help the Kurdish fight, prompting a marginally more cautious tone in Ottawa, if not in the media.

Regardless, let's consider some of the things all Canadians ought to keep in mind in this situation:

First, Canadians who went to fight the Germans in the First and Second world wars were for the most part members of the Canadian armed forces in the service of the Canadian state. Prematurely anti-fascist Canadians who fought in Spain as volunteers for the International Brigades were treated as criminals by the Canadian government.

Second, while the Kurds almost certainly should have been supported by the international community in their ambition to have a country of their own, they were not, and as a result have found themselves in conflict with the states where there are significant Kurdish populations -- Iran, Iraq, Syria and our ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey. This is why the Peshmerga, although it is a network of armed forces, cannot be called the Armed Forces of Kurdistan.

This has serious implications for Canada as a member of NATO.

Our NATO allies the Turks have been in a state of war with the Kurds for generations. That, in turn, is why our Turkish NATO allies sat by literally idling in their tanks as IS pounded the Kurds a few yards across the Turkish frontier in the Syrian town of Kobani at the very moment Canadian warplanes were on their way from Alberta to strike IS in the same neighbourhood.

So what is the position of our Turkish NATO allies, whom we are bound by treaty to defend in the event of an attack on them, on Canadian volunteers being encouraged to serve as volunteers in the military of their sworn enemy?

Could Canadian soldiers end up fighting Canadian Pershmerga volunteers as well as Canadian IS volunteers?

Indeed, the group Rosenberg was reported to be fighting with has been identified by the Toronto Star as having been labelled a terrorist organization not just by Turkey, but also by Canada. So it would be fair to ask if she faces arrest upon her return home under Canada's anti-terror laws. Because Peshmerga is a generic term for Kurdish fighters, and the Post story is not specific, it is not clear if the younger Hillier is in the same situation.

Third, how confident can we be that Canadian Peshmerga volunteers will restrict their activities to fighting IS in Iraq and Syria? Are we certain they will stay out of Turkey and Iran?

And what if the Peshmerga turn out not to be as noble as we've been assured by the news media? You know, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, who were the West’s allies and heroes as long as they were fighting the Soviet Union.

Fourth, what are the obligations of the Canadian Government to Canadian citizens serving as volunteer soldiers in the unofficial armed forces of an unrecognized state, albeit not Islamic State? Do the volunteers have any idea what Canada will or will not do for them if, say, they are captured by the Turks, let alone IS?

The answer to this seems to be not much -- leastways, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the Post the government had "virtually no capacity" to assist Canadians in the region.

Fifth, is there a danger of Canadian volunteers to international Islamist groups (discouraged) and Canadian volunteers to international nationalist groups (encouraged) bringing their fight home to Canada?

Sixth, what is the potential impact in other theatres of diplomacy of Canada tacitly supporting what are bound to be seen as quasi-official volunteers in a fight that has many characteristics of a civil war?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets extremely exercised at Russian volunteers serving in so-called pro-Russian separatist groups in what is widely seen as a civil war in eastern Ukraine. He denies the Russian volunteers are volunteers at all, insisting they are Russian soldiers.

How is the arrival of Canadian ex-military volunteers in Iraq and Syria going to look any different in the eyes of the world, especially the Russians?

Sometimes, it's true, you can’t satisfy everyone in a complicated world. Canada accepted volunteers in its armed forces from the then-neutral United States in two world wars, discouraged Canadians from volunteering in some fights (Spain) and encourages them in others (Israel).

It is essential that the Harper Government make its position on Canadians serving with the Kurds unequivocally clear so that we can all understand the impact on our national interests and debate the policy properly, and the implications for the volunteers if something goes awry -- as has been known to happen in wartime.

Lord Palmerston famously observed that "nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests."

The risk of ignoring this dictum is that the people who do so will adopt or support policies ranging from dangerously naïve to openly treasonous.

What are Canada's interests in this case? What are our government's intentions?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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