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Why Canada should accept 100,000 refugees and help “knock ISIS off its pedestal”

Fight against ISIS includes sheltering its victims, says U of T's Randall Hansen

Withdrawing from the bombing of ISIS is “playing to the quaint Canadian delusion that we make peace while other, morally inferior, nations make war,” Professor Hansen says (photo by Johnny Guatto)

The number has been in the news for weeks: 25,000.

But a country as large and rich as Canada could easily resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees over the next two or three years, Professor Randall Hansen says.

Hansen, director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, recently took part in a panel discussion about the fight against ISIS and the plight of refugees fleeing Syria because of the war and the horrifying experiences they face living under the Islamic State.

Read more about the panel discussion

U of T News followed up on his participation in the discussion.

You say our goal should be the destruction of ISIS. Some are calling for an invasion. Do you agree?

A certain degree of modesty is required here: I do not claim to know what it takes to defeat ISIS. There are many voices suggesting that we need ground troops, and military history provides very few cases of victories by air power alone. Indeed, Japan and Kosovo are the only ones, and Russia played a large diplomatic role in the latter. So I suspect there is a case for ground troops.

How would such an operation proceed?

Any analysis would have to look both at the narrow military aim – destroying ISIS – and the broader political and strategic consequences. Is it possible to encircle and destroy ISIS, along the lines of Ruhr encirclement during World War II, preventing ISIS fighters from fleeing to fight another day? How many recruits are stationed outside Iraq and Syria? On this question, though, we should defer to military high command. If there is an invasion, participation from one or more Arab states would be essential. And there’s the non-trivial matter of working with Syria on this.

Why do you believe it was a mistake for the federal government to announce its withdrawal from the bombing campaign on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria?

The decision was taken for purely political reasons, so that Justin Trudeau could distinguish himself from Stephen Harper while playing to the quaint Canadian delusion that we make peace while other, morally inferior, nations make war. There is no strategic argument for [withdrawal]. On the contrary, the rest of the world is thinking of expanding military involvement. A withdrawal hands ISIS a propaganda victory, and it sends a terrible message of our allies, above all France. At the point at which they need us most, we’re pulling out. I can understand making such promises during an election, but Trudeau had a golden opportunity to change his mind following the Paris attacks, stating simply that circumstances had changed the threat from ISIS is larger than we realized. He squandered that chance.

You advocate accepting far more than 25,000 Syrian refugees and suggest that they could be screened before they came to Canada. Will Canadians accept the notion of more refugees?

Public support depends on two factors. First, the government must build the moral case for granting refugee status. Given the horrors of ISIS (and for that matter, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad), the wretched pictures of drowning people, and far-greater efforts of Germany and Turkey (among others), that case is easy to make. Second, the program must be coordinated in a manner that allows resettlement to operate smoothly without competition over scarce goods such as housing, access to schools, and social support. I see no reason why a country of our size could not resettle 100,000 people over two or three years, and all indicators suggest that Canadians are supportive or at least open to being convinced. Harper lost support for being too restrictive, not too liberal.

You say that if we do nothing for those trapped in refugee camps, the security crisis we face now will seem like a small cloud compared with the storm that is coming. Can you expand on that?

All empirical evidence shows that long periods in refugee camps are associated with increased crime and violence, including terrorism. If we leave millions of people, above all young men, without education, work, and hope, we will create terrorists out of people who, given the right chance, would become productive citizens. Do not misunderstand me: The majority of refugees will always be peaceful, but if we do nothing we will make that minority of extremists larger than it need be.

In addition to military action, you believe in a more subtle approach to counter-radicalization in Canada. How would that play out?

I refer to (University of Waterloo professor) Lorne Dawson’s research, but it would involve working with Muslim communities to build trust, to help identify youth at risk early, and to work with them sympathetically to prevent a slide into radicalization. Such an approach would rest alongside, not supplant, other techniques: monitoring Internet traffic, tracking communications, using informants, and blocking or (when necessary) deporting hate mongers who poison young people’s minds (the last is more of an issue in Europe than in Canada).

Many say the fight against ISIS is a decades-long quest, given the organization’s belief that its cause is worth dying for. Is it realistic to suggest the war can be won relatively quickly through military action and squeezing the financial life out of ISIS?

We won’t defeat jihadism immediately or entirely, but we can free territory that ISIS has occupied, cut off three of its sources of financial support – oil, artefacts and coercive taxation – and liberate vast numbers of innocent people in the process. We would also, as my colleague Aisha Ahmad noted, knock ISIS off its pedestal, destroying the prestige and mystique surrounding its status as a “state.” ISIS thrives on an aura of invincibility. Let’s make them look “vincible.”

Will the recent downing of a Russian bomber by a Turkish fighter jet have an impact on the fight against ISIS or the peace talks related to Syria?

It will make it harder to work with Turkey in destroying ISIS, and that is a setback. But frankly, Turkey matters less to a solution than Russia. If we are going to bring peace to Syria, we will have to make peace with Russia and probably accept some highly unpalatable compromise over Assad, though I hope we can find an exit strategy for him rather than leaving him in power. Forget about war crimes tribunals – no dictator wants to die Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein’s death – and find him an expensive villa with a view of the sea. Our main priorities should be to stop ISIS and to stop this war. Too many people are dying.