OTTAWA - As Canada weighs deeper involvement in the military campaign against Islamic extremists, political leaders in Britain and Australia are warning their citizens to prepare for a long fight.
Both nations are getting set to join the air campaign targeting Islamic State extremists that have seized control of swaths of Iraq and Syria.
But when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott confirmed the deployment of Royal Australian Air Force fighters, he warned Australians that the engagement would not short.
“This could go on for quite some time — months rather than weeks, perhaps many, many months indeed,” Abbott said, according to a report in The Australian.
Michael Fallon, the British defence secretary, warned of a “long, drawn-out campaign” in an interview with the House Magazine.
Air strikes, additional military advisers and humanitarian aid are likely among the options on the table as Ottawa weighs Washington’s request for additional help in the growing battle against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, former Canadian military officials say.
“I suspect number one will be fighter planes, I think advisers or more advisers . . . I think those two things would be at the top of the list,” said George Petrolekas, a retired colonel who sits on the board of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
Canada has already dispatched a small group of special forces soldiers to northern Iraq on a 30-day mission to act as advisors to Kurdish forces.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper revealed this week that Canada is considering stepping up its involvement in the conflict. Harper refused to say what measures are being considered, saying only that the government would make a decision “very shortly.”
But he told a New York audience that an air war can disrupt terrorist activities on the ground.
“We need to push them to the fringes and make their basic organization and logistical existence very difficult on an ongoing basis. A lot of that can be done from the air,” Harper said Wednesday.
The United States has been conducting air strikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria and in recent days, fighters from several Arab states have joined in the missions.
Petrolekas said Canada’s additional assistance could mirror its contribution to the NATO-led bombing campaign over Libya in 2011, when Ottawa sent CF-18 fighters, CC-150 Polaris refuelling aircraft and CP-140 Auroras, used for reconnaissance.
The CBC reported Thursday evening that the Conservative cabinet will meet next week to discuss deploying CF-18 jets to the area.
Though an air campaign can help keep the extremists in check, Petrolekas said troops will eventually be needed on the ground to regain territory though he said there’s little chance Canadian soldiers will take on that role.
“The lynchpin is getting a ground force sweeping from Iraq into Syria and that means literally either something that is built up from Arab states or reconstituting the Iraqi army. That requires advisers,” he said in an interview Thursday.
That was echoed by Tony Battista, executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations, said there’s a role for Canadian military expertise without actually getting involved in front-line combat.
“The boots on the ground should be first and foremost from the local countries. They may need some help. They may need some support, some logistics, some protection,” he said.
He also said that Canada will likely be stepping up enforcement and intelligence on the homefront, tracking Canadians who might be headed to join the Islamic State.
“If we’re serious about the threat — and I think the threat is serious — those are the kinds of measures that have to be part of the package,” he said.
The fact that Harper chose to reveal the possibility of Canada’s greater involvement in Iraq to a New York business audience rather than here in Canada didn’t sit well with opposition MPs Thursday.
They want further debate and even a vote in Parliament before any move by the Conservatives to expand Canada’s military mission in Iraq.
“The official Opposition will not content itself with a presentation, nor will it consider it sufficient to have a debate. The question for the government is, will there be a vote in the House of Commons,” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said during question period.
In a vote Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking his parliament’s approval to launch air strikes against extremists. Speaking to the United Nations this week, Cameron pointedly warned that the “mistakes” of the previous war in Iraq cannot be “an excuse for indifference or inaction.”
Australia has already dispatched up to eight F-18 fighter jets, as well as an airborne early warning and control aircraft and a KC-30 tanker and transport aircraft to the United Arab Emirates to join the air campaign.
Like Canada, Australia was readying a team of special forces soldiers to send to Iraq to act as advisers. The operation will involve up to 600 Australian military personnel.