OTTAWA — Canada’s decision to end combat operations against Islamic State extremists may have cost it a seat at the table as allies gather to discuss strategy in their fight against ISIS.
When defence ministers from the United States, France, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom meet in Paris Wednesday, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan won’t be among them.
U.S. Secretary of Defence Ash Carter said the six nations are playing a “significant role” on the ground and in the air in the battle against Islamic State fighters.
“Each of these nations has a significant stake in completing the destruction of this evil organization, and we must include all of the capabilities they can bring to the field. And I will not hesitate to engage and challenge current and prospective members of the coalition to do more as we go forward,” Carter said last week in a visit to 101st Airborne Division’s headquarters in Fort Campbell, Ky.
A spokesperson for Sajjan confirmed to the Toronto Star that Canada had not been invited to this week’s gathering. But Renée Filiatrault, Sajjan’s director of communications said that the minister is focused on a meeting that Carter had requested at a NATO meeting on Feb. 11.
“He’s also been regularly in contact with coalition partners,” Filiatrault said, noting recent discussions with Brett McGurk, the U.S. Special Presidential envoy for the coalition to counter ISIS as well as the British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon.
“He also travelled to Iraq where he met with allies and partners on the ground. He has been in constant engagement on this,” she said Monday.
In an interview last week with CBC, Sajjan downplayed the Paris meeting and said there will be other opportunities to meet with his counterparts, including a meeting of NATO defence ministers early next month.
Still, Canada’s absence to this week’s meeting is already prompting criticism that the decision to withdraw from combat is costing the new Liberal government influence among its partners.
“Unfortunately, the incoherent and contradictory messages coming from the Liberal government have only added to the confusion on the future of Canada’s contributions to the coalition,” Conservative MP James Bezan said in a statement.
The Liberals have opposed the bombing missions by CF-18 since they began in November, 2014 and pledged that, if elected, they would end combat operations. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised that Canada will instead put in place a beefed up training mission, adding to the 69 trainers now already in Iraq. As well, Canada is expected to keep an air-to-air tanker and two reconnaissance aircraft in the region to support missions by other nations.
But they’ve been sensitive to any perception that the decision to bring home the CF-18s means they are backing away from the fight at a time when other nations are stepping up their military engagement, as a response to recent terror attacks.