CDA Institute guest contributor Alexander Moens, a professor at Simon Fraser University, looks at Canada’s role in the anti-IS coalition and the possible role of NATO.

It is important for Canada to stay engaged with NATO allies and partners in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) not only due to this violent totalitarian movement being a threat to Canadian citizens and to Canada’s interests in the world, but also because the Atlantic Alliance offers useful tools that have been undervalued thus far.

The Islamic State is more than a large version of al-Qaeda and more than a temporary side effect of political instability in the Middle East. IS is a threat to international security because it has the power and will to project violent Salafist sentiment across the world and to use its resources to help Islamic extremists in other countries launch terrorist attacks. In the last 15 years Islamist violence has been growing in a large arch of territory spanning from West Africa through the Middle East and Asia down into Southeast Asia. Many of these local hotbeds are emboldened by the existence of IS.

IS shows the specific features of a totalitarian ideology. The hallmark of a totalitarian movement is that it explains what is wrong with the status quo, offers a perfect solution to a new utopia, and allows the suspension of moral rule to get there. These three components come through in all explanations given by Islamist extremism and show in their actions: infidels, Christians, Western society, and inadequately pious Muslims sum up what is wrong. A violently enforced form of Sharia is the utopia, and, finally, all types of harm and killing are justified in the Jihad to go from the status quo to this utopia. Just as the proletariat suffered most under Stalin and Mao, so the individual Muslim is treated in this Islamist ideology as fully dispensable.

When a totalitarian ideology obtains a state, it acquires the resources – people, territory, and economy – to threaten international stability and peace. A tipping point is reached. The ideology then morphs into a hard threat to international security. It appears we reached that point in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and it may well be that, even if we can reverse matters in these countries, IS as a concept will jump to other states. Today it appears Libya is quite vulnerable, but tomorrow it may be Saudi Arabia.

The United States decided to put together a global “coalition-of-the-willing” in 2014 to assist Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian fighters against IS. Canada’s participation alongside NATO allies and regional partners was based on a mixture of security and humanitarian motives. The brutality of Islamic State and the uncompromising nature of its policies and actions requires a military response. There simply is no other means to reduce the immediate symptoms of this totalitarian regime. The huge flow of refugees and the suffering of many people require strong measures to stop this new state. The coalition was put together with ample multilateral engagement and has been a good mix of regional states, NATO members, and important partners across the globe such as Australia. Canada’s participation with air strikes, air support tasks, Special Forces, and trainers was a good mix. It was relevant and proportionate given our interests and capabilities.

The gradual pressure put on the Islamic State by the US-led coalition, the Kurdish forces, and the re-constituted Iraqi forces has shown success in the recent recapture of Ramadi. Now is the time for allies to stick together to finish the job and turn the recent defeats of Islamic State into a rout. It is also crucial for members in the global coalition to be ahead in the game and apply the right means to stop Islamic State from making Libya a second home for the Caliphate. Libya, of course, is a Mediterranean state and terrorist elements coming from its society may put even more pressure on the safety and security of the public in European cities.

Canadians need to think of the threat in two complementary frameworks. First, the task of dealing with specific terrorist threats is a matter of homeland security, policing, intelligence, border controls, financial controls, and other soft power tools. In the second framework, defeating IS and reducing the threat of failing states falling into the hands of violent Salafist groups is in part a military task for which NATO in conjunction with partner countries remains a relevant vehicle.

NATO’s founding principle, namely the unity of purpose and collective effort to defend our free society is a sacred mutual obligation that we should not easily replace with a coalition-of-the-willing. We are defending the idea of free societies so that people in our cities can live without fear and not be afraid to be out on the street. So far, the United States has led an ad hoc coalition of states. France invoked article 42.7 of the Treaty of European Union in November 2015 to rally other European countries to join it in additional efforts to fight the Islamic State. That means no formal NATO role so far; although the military structures at NATO are likely doing some “prudent thinking” on this subject.

But why do I suggest that NATO has been undervalued thus far? What tasks may lay ahead for NATO and why is this important to Canada’s interests? One contingency for NATO to consider is what would happen in the wake of a mass casualty event in Europe caused by or assisted by IS? Rather than one state or an ad hoc group reacting on its own, would it not be better to use the decision-making structures and military machinery of NATO to prepare for such a contingency and to form a coherent response? Possibly, such a scenario might involve collective capacity to generate and deploy Special Forces. Secondly, NATO must consider the contingency of coming to the assistance of any one of its members. Even if a coalition group or an EU-led mission on the ground were to run into trouble, it would be incumbent on NATO to lend assistance given the NATO-EU political relationship since the Berlin Agreements of 1996.

Whether NATO becomes involved directly or whether NATO stays in the background, Canada has interests in both contexts as a founding treaty member of NATO and also as a state that has an agreement with the European Union to participate in crisis management operations. Rather than pulling back from the inter-allied discussions and actions, Canada would serve its interests well by grounding the overall efforts into established means such as NATO working with willing partners.

Dr. Alexander Moens is Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University. He was the first Eisenhower Fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome in 2015 and author of the forthcoming monograph “How NATO’s Values and Functions Influence its Policy and Action.” (Image courtesy of the Government of Canada.)

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