It’s a practised stare, cold, hard and unblinking, that the sniper levels at the cluster of abandoned homes. His target is not far off: 200 m or so across rolling green fields in territory belonging to the self-styled Islamic State. For hours on end the sniper lies still on a foam mat, training his sight for any sign of movement: a reflection from binocular glass, a scurry or a shift, anything that will provide him with a reason to fire.
On the other side, his counterpart has been pestering the small contingent of Kurdish fighters for days. He has been less demanding of his targets, firing off rounds seemingly at random. The bullets whistle over the top of the sandbagged berm protecting the Kurds from Islamic State. They have become so commonplace that the Kurdish fighters—a group of three are sitting on a broken old couch drinking tea, others cleaning weapons—barely take notice.
“He’s out there somewhere,” Col. Abdularrahman Hassan, the commander of this outpost whispers. “We’ve been trying to take him out but he’s a slippery one. He fires a shot and then quickly finds a new position. But we’ll get him sooner or later.”
The Kurdish sniper fires off a round, then another. Hassan looks over. “Missed,” the sniper says, sitting up and leaning against a dirt wall. A brown balaclava covers his face but his eyes betray his frustration. Patience was one of the key things he learned from his Canadian trainers, he had explained earlier, the ability to focus on his breath and stay relaxed. But clearly he’s reaching his limit.
Sniper fire is only one of the dangers the Kurds face on this frontline. For a year and a half, al-Khazr, 35 km southeast of the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, Iraq, has been a key outpost protecting Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, from advances by Islamic State, commonly referred to as ISIS.
At such close proximity, Hassan’s men must also contend with a near-daily barrage of mortars. Suicide bombers sneaking through the tall grasses are a threat too, as is an all-out assault similar to the one ISIS attempted in December last year, which the Kurds beat back with the help of their Canadian trainers.
But Hassan says the fighters here are ready for anything. Since the fall of 2014, when the Conservative government joined the U.S.-led coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS,” Canada’s elite special operations soldiers have been focusing their attention on his men and others from their unit.
This week, three weeks after Maclean’s independently toured the frontline, Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada’s chief of defence staff, arrived at al-Khazr with reporters in tow to outline Canada’s secretive training mission in northern Iraq. Until then, Canadian officials had been tight-lipped about what exactly the mission in Iraq involved or what its 69 Special Operations forces had been doing.
Vance, for the first time, identified the group being trained as the Zeravani forces, and said Canada will form and arm a Zeravani “commando” force. “They’ll have the weapons necessary to do the job they need to do,” he told CTV News.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan brought a similar message to the commander of the Zeravani forces back in December. “He told me Canada would be increasing its support for the Zeravani,” Maj.-Gen. Aziz Wais says. “In addition to the training mission, there will be help with weapons. Now we’re waiting to see what will happen.”
But who exactly are the Zeravani? In press reports following Vance’s visit, they were referred to simply as peshmerga, a term that describes Kurdish forces in general. But the Zeravani, according to several Canadian diplomatic sources, as well as military and government officials in Kurdistan, are not part of any broad-based Kurdish military force. It is a specialized unit nominally attached to the ministry of interior and in practice overseen by one political party in Kurdistan. Canada has embarked on a dangerous strategy by backing the Zeravani, those same sources say. Its political affiliation is a sore spot in a region pulled apart by internal divides.
The decision to so strongly support the Zeravani was based in part on information provided by Canada’s foreign service and Canada’s amabssador in Jordan—information that ignored the tenuous political situtation in Kurdistan and the deep divides that plague all of Kurdistan’s armed groups, including the peshmerga, say several Canadian foreign service sources, both current and recently retired, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Three sources with ties to the embassy say the advice ignored the warnings of other Kurdish political groups and diplomats in the region. Global Affairs Canada rejects the claims and says it listens to all political groups in Kurdistan.
Militarily, the strategy has been effective at fighting ISIS. But its critics say it may also be sowing the seeds for longer-term instability that could someday come back to not only haunt the region, but undermine Canada’s reputation as a reliable partner in the Middle East. “We are risking future stability in the name of fighting terrorists,” says one diplomat who meets Kurdistan officials regularly. “It all sounds too familiar.”
The Zeravani, according to Col. Hassan, now occupy key frontline positions around Mosul and have reportedly been involved in some of the most important Kurdish victories against ISIS, including the retaking of Sinjar last November.
“The [Canadian] training has made a huge difference,” Gen. Dedewan Tofiq, a senior commander at al-Khazr, says. “My men have learned battlefield tactics, sniping, detecting and disarming improvised explosive devices, and emergency medical techniques. They were professional fighters to begin with. But because of the Canadians they are now the best fighters in Kurdistan.”
This fact has set off alarm bells in some diplomatic quarters. Kurdistan’s government has stumbled from crisis to crisis for decades. Government ministries, divided between the two dominant parties—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—often fight over scarce resources and field their own security forces. The KDP, for instance, operates a “counterterrorism force” headed by Masrour Barzani, the son of Masoud Barzani, the Kurdistan Region’s president. The PUK, meanwhile, has its own “counterterrorism group,” headed by Lahur Talabani, son of Jalal Talabani, the founder of the PUK.
In the 1990s, the KDP and the PUK fought a bloody civil war that ended with a U.S.-mediated peace agreement in 1998 in which the two parties agreed to share power and resources. The U.S. in turn promised to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein.
The agreement held until regional elections in 2009 and the emergence of a third political movement, Gorran, that became the official opposition. Gorran has targeted Kurdistan’s main power brokers, particularly the Barzanis, with allegations of corruption and nepotism, a message that resonates with a growing segment of Kurds.
“Canadians really need to understand that there is no such thing as a unified [Kurdistan Region],” says Saed Kakei, a former adviser to the minister of peshmerga affairs. “The ministry of interior is headed by a KDP loyalist. The Zeravani receive their paycheques from the Ministry but are in practice a private force of the KDP.”
Divisions inside Kurdistan have again begun to spark deadly outbreaks of violence. Last October, Gorran was blamed for stoking protests demanding the Kurdistan Region president, Masoud Barzani, step down. The protests led to five deaths. In their wake, Barzani’s nephew, Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, removed four Gorran ministers, including the minster of peshmerga affairs (technically the man in charge of Kurdistan’s military), from their posts and prevented the speaker of the house, also from Gorran, from entering the Kurdish capital, Erbil, a KDP stronghold. (Gorran now operates ostensibly as a party in exile out of its main headquarters in Sulaymaniyah, sidelined, its leaders say, in part because it does not field its own military force.)
Canadian Defence Department officials argue Canada’s focus on the Zeravani is part of a larger strategy formulated in consultation with its coalition allies. “It was recommended that the most desirable location where the [Canadian Forces] could maximize its utility, while also achieving Canada’s policy objectives, was to support the Kurdish Regional Government,” said a defence department spokesperson in an email response to a Maclean’s inquiry.
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But critics of Canada’s approach say Canadian officials have not, in practice, supported the regional government, but only one side of it. “There is no professional army in Kurdistan,” says Yousif Muhammad, the former Gorran house speaker. “There are multiple forces belonging to different parties. After ISIS took control of Mosul, Gorran parliamentarians proposed a law that would merge the peshmerga. But we faced resistance from the KDP and the PUK. They don’t want to lose their forces.”
The law passed and remains in force but it has been ineffectual, Muhammad adds. International support for the Kurds has only made the divisions more acute. (The Canadian government has so far refused to outline how military hardware it has promised to provide to the Kurdish forces will be distributed.)
Kakei, a Canadian citizen who joined Gorran in September 2014, adds that he cannot understand why Canada has been so one-sided in its support for the Kurds. During his time in the ministry of peshmerga affairs, he says he met regularly with other coalition members, but never Canadians. “When prime minister Harper visited Kurdistan last year, [Gorran] requested a meeting,” he says. “The request was not even answered.’
Canadian diplomats say other coalition countries have at least tried to make their support for the Kurds broad-based, training both KDP and PUK peshmerga while pressuring the parties to unify their forces.
Foreign Affairs officials reject allegations that its approach has been one-sided. “Government of Canada officials meet with representatives of multiple parties in the Kurdish Region of Iraq on a frequent and ongoing basis,” wrote a Global Affairs Canada spokesperson in response to questions from Maclean’s. “This encompasses meetings between Canadian ofﬁcials—including [Canada’s ambassador to Jordan, Bruno] Saccomani—and a number of principal contacts from various parties, [including] the deputy prime minister of the KRG, the Gorran party leader, the Speaker of the KRG Parliament, the KRG minister of finance, and the minister of peshmerga. It also includes officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government, including the president and the prime minister, who are from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which maintains the majority position in the KRG.”
Kakei denies that any meetings with Gorran have taken place since the end of 2014. “Before Canada joined the fight against ISIS there were some meetings,” he says. “Gorran is the second-largest party in the Kurdistan Region. Canadian officials couldn’t avoid meeting us. But since the end of 2014, contacts with Gorran have stopped.” Samal Aburrahman, the head of Gorran’s Erbil office, says, “we don’t even know what Canada has provided to Kurdistan. Canadian officials don’t meet with us so we have no way of finding out.”
According to three senior diplomatic sources who spoke to Maclean’s, the narrowing of Canada’s sphere of influence in Iraq stems primarily from the emergence of Islamic State and a new focus within the foreign service on the destruction of ISIS.
“Iraq is the poster child for what’s gone wrong with our foreign service,” says one diplomat with experience working in Iraq and Syria. “It’s filled with yes-men appointed by the Tories who don’t really care about what happens to the Kurds. They just want to bomb the hell out of ISIS. I cannot think of one individual I would trust to give me accurate, evidence-based information about the Kurds.”
In April 2013, Stephen Harper appointed his close confidant and head of personal security, Bruno Saccomani, as ambassador to Jordan, which is also responsible for Iraq. Diplomats and experts were stunned, pointing out Saccomani had no experience handling such a complex file.
Around the same time, a 2012 internal RCMP report that was leaked to the media outlined claims from junior RCMP officers in Saccomani’s detail of intimidation, favouritism and harassment. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson defended Saccomani, describing him as “a great technician and great officer.”
“People weren’t happy,” says one former senior diplomat who was stationed in Ankara, the Turkish capital, at the time. “The question is, when you have a guy like that in charge, who’s going to have the backbone to stand up to him?”
Under Saccomani, Canada’s strategy evolved in a bubble, says a diplomat with working ties to Saccomani. Saccomani allegedly developed close relationships with KDP officials. He heard only one side of the story—the KDP side—diplomatic sources say.
His supporters, however, say that the strategy in Iraq was not Saccomani’s alone. “He was not driving the bus on this,” one close confidant of his told Maclean’s, on condition of anonymity. “There were people sitting in [Foreign Affairs] in Ottawa who thought they knew more than the people there on the ground. He was the puppet, not the puppeteer.”
Diplomatic sources agree that Saccomani did what the Harper Conservatives, and the PMO in particular, expected him to do. His background in security made him the ideal candidate in a foreign service environment focused on narrow policy objectives. But he lacked the subtlety of a more experienced diplomat, they add.
Consequently, the same sources say that Saccomani became suspicious of Gorran (and to a lesser extent the PUK), which KDP officials accuse of having close ties to Iran, a favourite bogeyman for the Harper Conservatives. The KDP, dominated by a culture of cronyism and authoritarian leadership, became the go-to team for Saccomani and the PMO. “When Canadians came to visit the [Kurdistan Region], they met with KDP officials,” one diplomat says. “When diplomatic and trade missions from the Kurdistan Region came to Canada, it was dominated by KDP officials.”
Global Affairs Canada contends that the focus on the KDP was reasonable. “A number of top officials of the Kurdistan Regional government, including the president and the prime minister, are from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the party with the majority position in the KRG,” writes a spokesperson. “As such, it is entirely appropriate and responsible for Canadian government officials to meet with them to establish and maintain positive relations.”
Diplomatic sources, however, question that logic. The 2013 parliamentary elections left the KDP 18 seats short of a parliamentary majority. The focus on the KDP, the sources say, had less to do with its non-existent “majority position” than it did with the party’s stranglehold on the region’s security apparatus at a time when Canada’s strategy became heavily focused on security concerns.
Information coming from Jordan, one of Canada’s most important diplomatic missions, should have noted these political realities, adds one Canadian diplomat. Repeated attempts to reach Saccomani both through the embassy in Jordan and Global Affairs Canada were unsuccesful, though spokespeople at Global Affairs Canada answered questions on his behalf.
“This situation has really hurt Canada’s image in Kurdistan,” says Kakei. “Canada could play a significant role in the democratization process in the [region]. We used to be known as a world leader in peacekeeping and peacemaking.”
Ottawa has announced what it calls a new three-year strategy to respond to the Iraq and Syria crises. “This new strategy is focused on helping build the conditions on the ground for longer-term stability and prosperity,” notes Global Affairs Canada. If changes are in the works then the emphasis needs to return to Canada’s historical role as an honest broker between adversaries, according to one diplomat. “Canada should be using its military and development aid to the Kurds to give it influence over the government and force it to unify its security forces and develop its democratic institutions,” he says.
Some of the early signs are encouraging. The decision to pull Canada’s fighter jets from Iraq, for instance, may prove prudent. The focus of the war on ISIS this spring and summer will be the siege of Mosul, a sprawling city populated by an estimated one million civilians. Urban warfare is not conducive to aerial bombardment. What’s needed is a well-trained ground force.
But will Canada’s training mission become more broad-based so as not to upset Kurdistan’s delicate balance of power? Canadian defence officials are characteristically tight-lipped.
On the diplomatic front, there are a few bright spots. Minister Sajjan has already begun to turn some heads. “We like this guy,” says Sheikh Jafar Mustafa Ali, the commander of the PUK’s peshmerga forces, who met Sajjan in Erbil in December. “We think he will be more balanced with the support Canada gives.”
Kakei is less hopeful. He flew to Canada at the beginning of April to meet with Canadian officials. But after weeks of effort, he has yet to receive a response from the Liberal government. “I’m just confused at this point,” he says. “Gorran has been vocal in its appreciation for what Canada has done for the Kurds. All we want is for the help to be more sensitive to the internal dynamics of the Kurdistan Region.”
As for the formidable Zeravani, it’s doubtful Canada’s relationship with them will come to an end anytime soon. The tough part will be convincing them to put aside their political loyalties once ISIS is defeated.
The group’s commander, Maj.-Gen. Wais, insists the only loyalty the Zeravani feel is to the homeland. But it’s difficult to believe when his own office is covered with portraits of Masoud Barzani and his father, Mustafa, a hero of the KDP movement. At the PUK peshmerga headquarters in Sulaymaniyah, it’s Jalal Talabani’s smiling face that adorns the walls of commander Ali’s office.
At the frontlines in al-Khazr, these political intrigues matter little to the men keeping Islamic State at bay. They cheer when a coalition bomber drops its payload on a target, admiring the plume of smoke it creates. But even they admit the ﬁght, and the international support for the Kurds it has generated, will have a lasting effect on Kurdistan.
“Everything will be different when the fight against Daesh is over,” says Col. Hassan, using Islamic State’s Arabic acronym. “Kurdistan will never be the same again.”
CORRECTION, May 5, 2016: This story originally placed two photos in al-Khidhir, Iraq. In fact, the photos were taken in al-Khazr. Maclean’s regrets the error.
CORRECTION, May 5, 2016: This story originally claimed that the main Zeravani base was located a few kilometres east of Erbil, Iraq. In fact, the base is located a few kilometres to the west. Maclean’s regrets the error.