John Baird on training Kurds, avoiding Syria, and 'mission creep'

Highlights from this week's Maclean's on the Hill interview with the foreign minister

My interview with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird begins at the 10:07 mark of our Maclean’s on the Hill podcast this week. It’s worth hearing Baird’s own voice on this week’s news, but here are three key points he made—all on Canada’s decision to send special operations troops into northern Iraq to train Kurdish soldiers.

On what those Canadians can possibly teach the grizzled fighters of the Kurdish Regional Government, which rules Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, where Baird travelled earlier this month:

 “There’s no doubt particularly the KRG and folks in that region are very brave, very courageous. They’re battle-hardened, but they are used to fighting in the mountains, not a more conventional war with a front line. So they lack a lot of the training and expertise that would be invaluable. I think what Canada can provide is to impart the knowledge that our well-trained Canadian Forces have to assist them and win this battle.”

On why Canada is directly engaged now in northern Iraq, but not in Syria, even though Baird told the House foreign affairs committee earlier this week that so-called Islamic State terrorists have “effectively erased the border” between the two countries:

“The challenge is that we don’t have the capacity to train the forces on the other side of the border, given that the state there has used chemical weapons against its own people, and that it’s very difficult to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys in the [Syrian] opposition. Obviously, President Obama spoke to this and he’ll be moving forward with that aspect.”

On the sensitive question of whether or not the strictly limited training mission might evolve into something closer to combat, and on what factors will be taken into consideration on whether to extend the mission, Baird was cagey:

“First and foremost, we could never undertake any mission if we were worried about mission creep. I think what the Prime Minister has said is that after 30 days we’ll evaluate how we’ve been able to assist the KRG forces in northern Iraq and would there by value to continuing. I’m not going to anticipate what that decision will be…”

I also asked him about the situation in Ukraine, particularly about the imposition of new sanctions by the European Union and the U.S., meant to isolate Russia’s oil and banking sectors. “Listen, Canada has been a part of more than a dozen rounds of sanctions,” Baird said, “and we’ve argued for strong, tough sanctions, and we will undoubtedly follow suit.” Especially with Prime Minister Stephen Harper preparing to make a splash surrounding Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s visit to Ottawa to address Parliament this week.


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