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  • February 5th, 2016

The devastating toll from coalition bombing


On 29 December 2015, the Iraqi military “liberated” the city of Ramadi, in Iraq, from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, or ISIL) in an “epic” victory after a long offensive to retake the provincial capital from the terrorist group.

In a televised press conference, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi praised the capture of the city, saying that “2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when Daesh’s [IS’s] presence in Iraq will be terminated.”

The battle of Ramadi fits into the broader campaign aimed at defeating the Islamic State. Canada joined the international anti-ISIL coalition—led by the United States—in early 2014, and has been conducting targeted airstrikes alongside other allies and partners since October 2014. These strikes continue despite a Liberal campaign promise to end Canada’s participation in the air campaign.  Foreign Minister Dion recently explained that the government wished to have “no gap” between the end of Canada’s role in the bombing and the start of its new plan of military and possibly police training and other efforts, soon to be unveiled to the Canadian public.

In a speech delivered on January 13, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said military efforts in Iraq and Syria are bearing fruit. But what does “victory” really look like? BBC journalist Thomas Fessy describes the scene not long after the recapture of Ramadi:

Driving through Ramadi is a ride through the remains of a city ravaged by war. This [is] a place that has suffered over a decade of sporadic conflict, but the week-long battle against so-called Islamic State has destroyed the urban landscape… this is a city that has been sacrificed in battle.

In his speech, the U.S. Secretary of Defense affirms that the coalition against the Islamic State is clearing the battlefield with “precision strikes.” Since the battle for Ramadi began in July 2015, the U.S.-led coalition has conducted over 600 of those “precision airstrikes” in and around the city.  As a result, 80% of the city has been destroyed. Once home to 400,000 people, Ramadi is now a ghost city. Only a few inhabitants returned after the battle—because there is simply nothing to return to. Homes were burnt down, schools destroyed, and although most of the 1,000 ISIS fighters that were present in Ramadi were killed in the airstrikes, roughly 30 percent of the city remained under ISIS control, according to U.S. military officials. Many civilians have died in the airstrikes too, they said, but they could not confirm the exact numbers.

And the future is not very promising. According to estimates, rebuilding the city of Ramadi would cost $12 billion. This is a huge amount considering that the United States and its allies have only pledged $50 million to a United Nations fund for reconstruction in Iraq. “This is money no one has,” deplores Tom Engelhardt, author and Fellow at The Nation Institute. And “that’s only a single destroyed community.” The earlier victories at Kobane and Sinjar in Syria, also supported by U.S. airstrikes, destroyed those cities in a similar fashion.

Despite the horrific human and material costs, the United States’ strategy going forward is to conduct military operations similar to the one that led to the Ramadi “victory”. “When we see something that works, we look for ways to do more of it,” said U.S. Secretary of Defense Carter in his speech. The United States aims specifically at defeating ISIS in Raqqah and Mosul, two power bases of IS in Syria and Iraq. Fallujah is the other major IS-controlled city in Anbar province that is targeted.

Retaking Mosul, however, will pose a huge challenge to the coalition. It will likely require twice the forces that were involved in retaking Ramadi. The city, which had a population of around 2 million people before ISIS took control of it, still has a large number of civilians who could be killed in the airstrikes. U.S.’ “precision airstrikes” will thus be much more difficult to conduct in Mosul than in Ramadi, and a possible “victory” raises serious concerns about the toll of human casualties this will likely generate.

The result of such a strategy is entirely predictable, says Engelhardt. Iraq will have far fewer habitable cities and a far larger number of displaced persons without any meaningful means of existence.

Can any of us begin to imagine what will emerge from such ruins?

Image credit: UNRWA
(We do not have a picture of Ramadi to post. This is Damascus, where the bombing by Assad produces similar results and has been widely condemned.)

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  • Blog
  • February 2nd, 2016

Canada must “step up” on peacekeeping training

PK training report image

A new report, entitled Unprepared for Peace? The Decline of Canadian Peacekeeping Training (and What to Do About It), has just been released by the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Written by Walter Dorn, Professor at the Royal Military College, and Joshua Libben, doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa, the study identifies the need to reinstate and update the many training programmes and exercises that have been cut over the last decade, in order to restore the Canadian Armed Forces’ readiness to participate in peace operations.

Military personnel are provided with less than a quarter of the training activities for UN peace operations that they were a decade ago. For the first time ever, Canada has a generation of soldiers with no experience in peacekeeping. Says Dorn,

The complexities of modern peace operations require in-depth training and education…. With UN peace operations at an all-time high, and Canada’s contribution at an all-time low, Canada is currently lagging far behind other nations in its readiness to support the United Nations and train for modern peacekeeping.

The study recommends the reinstatement and update of the many training programmes and exercises cut over the last decade. The closure of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in particular was a devastating setback to Canadian preparedness, according to the authors.

The report also calls for the introduction of new training activities to reflect the fact that modern peacekeepers face significantly more dangerous environments and challenging mandates than was true for traditional peacekeeping. Particularly important is the requirement to work effectively with a variety of non-military partners in modern peace operations.

If the Liberal government is serious about renewing its leadership role in international peacekeeping, then it must re-establish a facility dedicated to the training of civilians, military, and the police for UN peace operations.

Read the full report here.

Read a copy of the Executive Summary in French here.

For recent press commentary on the report, click here: Canada’s military ill-prepared to resume role as peacekeeper, report by think-tanks say.

See also “Peacekeeping Works Better Than You May Think”, (Roland Paris, Centre for International Policy Studies, 2 August 2014).

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  • Blog
  • February 1st, 2016

World ignored U.S. war crime in Somalia

Somalia, Mogadishu, 2011. Hundreds of Somali women and their chidlren wait outside a mobile medical unit supplying medicine in Badbaado camp. Hundreds of thousands of IDP's have flooded to the capital in search of food and shelter.

The 2011 famine in Somalia was a U.S.-created war crime, according to journalist Alex Perry, and nobody paid much attention.

In an interview on CBC Radio’s The Current, journalist Alex Perry discusses how the United States deliberately withheld food aid from al Shabab-controlled areas of Somalia during the 2011 famine that killed nearly 260,000 people.  He covered this extensively at the time to no avail. Now he has a book out hoping the world will pay attention this time.

Al Shabab, which is affiliated to al Qaeda, was known for stealing a proportion of the food aid delivered to its areas during the war against the Transitional Federal Government. In 2009, the U.S. Department of State listed al Shabab as an international terrorist group, which greatly contributed to the deteriorating situation in Somalia.  According to Perry,

…the U.S. […] enforc[ed] a food aid ban on southern Somalia to put pressure on al Shabab. [They] went to all the major Western and U.S. aid agencies and made the argument that sending food aid to an area where al Shabab operated was a form of support to a prescribed terrorist group.

As a result, when famine reached its height in 2011, food aid delivery in the region was seriously hampered, and thousands of people died. In his book Alex Perry comments:

The US strategy of blocking aid to a few thousand al-Shabab fighters had denied emergency food to a few million starving Somalis.

The journalist does not pull any punches and affirms, point-blank, that the 2011 Somali famine was a U.S. -created war crime.

The Americans are not the only ones to blame, however. The journalist reports that Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government also deliberately prevented food aid from reaching areas under al Shabab’s control as part of a military strategy to put pressure on the rebel group.

Officials from the Transitional Federal Government aren’t shy about saying that they consider the famine, which has substantially weakened al Shabab, a real strategic boost. Their plan: defeat al Shabab first, and only then allow aid.

Denying food to civilians as a military strategy is a war crime,  prohibited under international humanitarian law. It also violates core human rights obligations with regard to the right to adequate food, health, and the right to life.

The USA-led coalition against Islamic State has been very vocal about condemning President Assad’s use of this very tactic in Syria.

Yet silence prevails regarding American actions in Somalia. And there has been an equal reluctance to condemn coalition ally Saudi Arabia, which stands accused by the UN of war crimes in Yemen.

How can we ever hope to prevail against violent extremism if we use, condone, or are silent about such flagrantly illegal and immoral behaviour by the United States and other coalition allies?

For the full interview and other extensive background materials, including a failed Congressional attempt to amend the policy in 2013, click here (The Current, cbc.ca, 18 January 2016).

Photo credit: Dominic Nahr/Magnum for Time

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  • Blog
  • January 26th, 2016

Peggy Mason on Canada being shut out of the anti-ISIS coalition meeting

From L-R, Australia's Defence Minister Marise Payne, Italy's Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Britain's Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and Netherlands Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert pose for a family photo at the Defence Ministry in Paris, France, January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

Rideau Institute President Peggy Mason discusses the reasons behind Canada not being invited to the anti-ISIS coalition meeting in Paris on 20 January.

An anti-ISIS coalition meeting took place in Paris on 20 January. Defence ministers from France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Australia, and the Netherlands joined U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter to discuss the future of the fight against ISIS. Canada has not been invited to the meeting.

Some claim that Canada has been snubbed because of incoherent messaging from the Liberal government. As reported on CBC, conservative defence critic James Bezan said this is an indication that Canada has not been a reliable partner: “[If] we were serious about taking the fight to ISIS […] we should be at these meetings.”

For Peggy Mason, this is not surprising at all. Speaking on the Ed Hand Show on 1310 News on 19 January, she argues that Canada’s absence at the meeting suggests that the United States believes Trudeau’s government will follow through on its commitment to end airstrikes in the region shortly.

If you look at the composition of [the meeting], it looks like it involves those countries that are engaged directly in airstrikes, or, in the case of Germany, providing support through refueling the airstrikes. […] I think this is a reflection of the fact that the Canadian government is going to carry through, sooner rather than later, with pulling us out of the airstrike part of the coalition.

Whilst some suggest that, in the wake of the Paris attacks, the Liberal government should reconsider its election promise to end the airstrikes, Mason argues that this is symptomatic of the “do-something” approach that often emerges after a dramatic incident, when focus shifts to an immediate, very visible reaction rather than the long, hard slog of diplomacy. Rather than focusing on an imaginary snub to Canada, we should be asking how Canada can effectively contribute to the UN-led peace process aimed at ending the civil war in Syria.

Peggy Mason on the Eric Drozd Show on 570 News, on 20 January:

The problem with bombing is that if you kill civilians you are breeding more terrorists. […] I would very much like Canada to not be distracted by a very problematic bombing campaign […] and focus its attention on how it can play an effective role. […] That leaves things like governance – I would like to have our government looking at what we can do on the ground in order to create a situation where the people that have the most to lose, the Iraqi people, […] believe enough in their government that they want to fight against the Islamic State.

Support for bombing is by no means shared by all Canadians. Since January 14, 2016, the Rideau Institute has received almost 2500 letters from Canadians all over the country calling on the Prime Minister to end the bombing, as he repeatedly promised to do during his election campaign.

Canada will have an opportunity to put forward its views at a much more important meeting when all of the coalition members from NATO countries meet on February 11th on the margins of a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers.


You can listen to the full interview on the Ed Hand Show here (January 19 Hour 1, at 15m 00s) and on the Eric Drozd Show here (January 20th 11am, at 21m 08s).



Image credit: Reuters/Jacky Naegelen

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  • Blog
  • January 19th, 2016

Why peacebuilding fails and what we can do about it

Peaceland1 UN PhotoJC McIlwaine


According to a recent UN report, violent conflicts have almost tripled in the past eight years and are drawing unprecedented levels of international engagement. In light of the unfolding events in Syria, Burundi, and many other conflict-afflicted countries, it is of utmost importance that we think about what makes peacebuilding interventions work and how we can avoid counterproductive or ineffective practices. And it is particularly relevant for Canada today in light of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to re-engage in UN peace operations.

In a previous blog post, we highlighted research demonstrating that UN peacekeeping missions, on balance, have a good track record.  But we know all too well that if peacebuilding fails, the costs can be tremendous. Numerous post-conflict countries have relapsed into war despite peacebuilding efforts, sometimes even after a prolonged pause, and sometimes with even greater levels of violence. Many in the humanitarian assistance, peacebuilding, and international development community are thus looking for success stories—and for good reason.

While it is mostly agreed that in order to be more effective, peacebuilding interventions require more financial, logistical, and human resources, there is a growing consensus that local ownership is a key element of success. External interveners, especially UN personnel, are well aware of this. Nonetheless, far too often they have a tendency to live in a bubble, where they interact mostly with other expatriates and lack contact with host populations, which directly works against local ownership.

This, at least, is the argument put forward by Séverine Autesserre, researcher and associate professor at Columbia University, after conducting several years of ethnographic research in conflict zones around the world. According to her, many of the practices, habits, and narratives that shape peacebuilders’ efforts on the ground are, in fact, counterproductive. To put it bluntly, they live lives that are largely separated from the populations they are trying to help.

Everyday routines of most international peacebuilders on the ground involve socializing primarily with other expatriates, gathering information on violence mainly from elites and foreign sources, and living in fortified compounds. [This] disconnect between peacebuilders and the communities they’re trying to help can simply make them unable to see the violence they’re trying to stop. (Autesserre, Foreign Policy, 6 October 2015)

So, when looking at why some peacebuilding interventions fail, we might want to start with an examination of our own behaviours as outside interveners. This, in conjunction with the implementation of other best practices (see for example the UN recommendations), can only make peacebuilding more effective.

Interested in learning more about Autesserre’s findings and ideas? Attend the public lecture in the amphitheater of Saint Paul University, Ottawa, on February 4th at 7:30 pm. The author will present her book Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention.

To read more on the effectiveness of peacekeeping, see Roland Paris, “Peacekeeping works better than you may think,” Centre for International Policy Studies, 2 August 2014.


Image credit: UN Photos/JC McIlwaine

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