Nearly three years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to send weapons to Kurds in Iraq the armaments are still sitting in a military warehouse in Montreal, with no current plans to distribute the equipment to either Kurdish or Canadian forces.
The government went as far as arranging to have a military aircraft transport the weapons to the Kurdish region of Iraq, where Canadian special forces were to distribute them to Kurdish soldiers whom they were training as part of the fight against ISIL. “The CAF (Canadian Armed Forces) delivery and distribution of equipment on the ground would ensure increased accountability and control while allowing for better synchronization of intended training efforts with equipment delivery and issue,” said a July 2016 briefing document Postmedia obtained under the Access to Information law.
But the armaments, with an estimated value of around $10 million, got no farther than the Canadian Forces Supply Depot in Montreal, where they remain. The equipment includes .50-calibre sniper rifles equipped with silencers, 60mm mortars, Carl Gustav anti-tank systems, grenade launchers, pistols, carbines, thermal binoculars, cameras, scopes and medical supplies.
A Department of National Defence official said no plans currently exist to distribute the weapons in Iraq. It is unclear why the equipment would not be then be redistributed to Canadian military units; however, a DND source said the weapons will stay in storage until the federal government decides what to do with them, and there are no indications when such a decision will be made. Much of the gear could be used by the Canadian Forces if it is decided the equipment can’t be sent overseas.
In February 2016 Trudeau announced Canada would provide weapons to the Kurds to support the fight against terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. But the plan quickly went off the rails.
The Iraqi government opposed arming the Kurds, who had openly acknowledged their intent was to secede one day from Iraq. They cited the example of Quebec’s attempts to leave Canada, and Kurdish leaders said the Canadian equipment was needed both to fight ISIL and to defend a future independent Kurdish state.
Some defence analysts warned the Canadian government and military from the beginning that providing the Kurds with weapons was a mistake. When asked in 2016 about concerns that Canadian training and equipment could aid the Kurds in their quest for independence, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance replied it was important to have political unity during the fight against ISIL. “Where, after, Iraq decides to go in terms of its political laydown is up to Iraq,” he said.
In the fall of 2017 Iraqi troops attacked Kurdish forces after the Kurdish Regional Government announced plans to declare an independent state in the northern part of the country, including the oil-rich area around Kirkuk. At that point the Canadian plan stalled.
“The list of equipment comprised of small arms, ammunition and optical sights that has been acquired was originally intended to equip a force of between 500 – 600 Kurdish security force soldiers,” Department of National Defence spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier told Postmedia in the summer of 2018.
The equipment also included C6 general purpose machine guns and C8 carbines, which are used by the Canadian Forces.
The July 2016 briefing, intended for defence minister Harjit Sajjan, noted that the military wanted to use the Canadian Commercial Corporation to arrange to buy some of the equipment and that the Canadian Forces would be the “exporter of record.”
Canada has provided other donations of non-lethal equipment to the Kurds, including shipments in 2014 and 2015 of helmets, clothing, bulletproof vests and bomb-hunting robots.
But the Canadian military has also experienced some of the difficulties of moving equipment into the volatile region. In October 2015 Iraqi officials temporarily seized an aircraft carrying weapons for Canadian special forces in Kurdistan. The seizure came amid a wave of anti-western conspiracy theories rife in Iraqi politics. Some Iraqis voiced their concern the weapons were to be used by the Kurds for their independence movement. But other Iraqi lawmakers and military commanders claimed that the U.S. and its allies were secretly arming ISIL in order to keep the country in chaos.
The Canadian aircraft, carrying rifles and silencers, was eventually allowed to leave Baghdad airport. The Iraqis also stopped a Swedish aircraft, with small arms on board, that was on its way to the Kurdish region.
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