OTTAWA — As Canada’s allies agreed to “accelerate and intensify” their fight against Islamic extremists, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pressed on the global stage Wednesday to explain the “logic” behind his pledge to end the combat mission by Canadian fighter jets.
Appearing at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Trudeau found himself on the hot seat as talk turned from the economy to the anti-terror fight.
The prime minister spoke with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who asked him to explain “clearly” whether Canada would end the airstrikes by CF-18 fighters.
“Canada recognizes that we need a global, concerted response to the war on terror and Canada has an important role to play on a humanitarian side, on a refugee side and yes, on the military side as well,” Trudeau replied.
But the prime minister said that Canada has committed to end airstrikes “in exchange for another way of military involvement, probably around training and such things that can help local troops bring the battle directly towards terrorists.”
That prompted Zakaria to ask, “Why? What’s the logic behind this?”
Trudeau said he didn’t want to take away from “excellent” fighter pilots but said that a decade on the frontlines in Afghanistan had given the armed forces a talent in training local fighters and intelligence gathering.
“We definitely have much to contribute . . . helping local militias and local troops be more effective in the direct fight,” the prime minister said.
Trudeau made the comments on a day when U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter huddled in Paris with the defence ministers from France, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom to talk strategy in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Canada was pointedly excluded from the meeting, a decision defence experts say underscores the Liberal decision to back away from combat.
Carter said the gathering was with other countries who have been “central core contributors” in the ISIS fight. “We agreed that we all must do more,” Carter said following the meeting, according to a report by the Associated Press.
In a joint statement, the defence ministers said they agreed that the coalition must “accelerate and intensify” the campaign against ISIS “in order to deliver a lasting defeat to this barbaric organization.”
Defence analyst George Petrolekas said Canada’s absence from the meeting is blunt acknowledgement that the Liberals are unbending in their promise to withdraw the fighters and have yet to commit to doing something else.
“The meeting is about accelerating and expanding. If you’ve got nothing to contribute, why would we invite you,” said Petrolekas, a retired colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces who is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
But as Carter leans on allies to do more, Ottawa should be concerned that Canada is seen to be doing its fair share in the ISIS fight or risk consequences, he said in an interview Wednesday.
“If the perception of being a freeloader somehow gains traction in Washington, it inevitably has policy spillovers, not just into defence and security,” Petrolekas said. “That’s deeply inimical to our interests.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion pledged in early December that the airstrikes by Canadian jets would end in a “matter of weeks” and still, three months after the Liberals took power, the strikes continue and no decisions have been announced.
Petrolekas questions why the Liberals didn’t quickly roll out an expansion of the training mission already underway in northern Iraq that involves 69 Canadian soldiers.
As well, they could have quickly pledged to keep an air-to-air tanker and two surveillance aircraft in the region even after the CF-18s pullout, he said.
Petrolekas raised the possibility of other Canadian initiatives, in addition to the expected larger training mission for Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
These could include joining Britain, which has committed troops to Libya to train and support that country’s military, or dispatching troops to Mali to assist French forces there on an anti-terror mission.
The latter mission has taken on added significance after the weekend attacks in neighbouring Burkina Faso killed at least 30 people, including six Canadians.