Prime Minister Stephen Harper has failed to make a persuasive case for embroiling Canada in the endless bloodletting in Iraq and Syria, and he’s now paying the political price.
If the Conservative government does press ahead with its plans to send CF-18 warplanes into combat in Iraq – and just maybe Syria – for the next six months it seems fated to do so without the support of Parliament as a whole. And the Tories will carry the can for going it alone into next year’s federal election.
Given the anxiety many Canadians feel about being dragged into a protracted, amorphous, seemingly unwinnable war against Islamic State extremists with no clear strategy to defeat them on the ground, both opposition parties have ample reason not to support plunging our military into a fighting role.
New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair cautioned that Canada “should not rush into this war” in a place where the powerful United States has been battling Islamic State-type extremists for more than a decade with only mixed success. As Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau rightly observed, America’s fiasco in Iraq “haunts” our options today. He also made the reasonable point that “Canadians have a lot more to offer” than a few warplanes to help turn the tide.
We’ll hear more on this on Monday when Parliament debates the government motion seeking Commons support. But Harper is set to launch Canada down a dubious, deeply divisive path.
Granted, Canadians are appalled by the Islamic State and its Sunni jihadists. As Harper properly noted, they have turned much of Iraq and Syria into a “caliphate” of terror, committing “unspeakable atrocities” against fellow Muslims, minorities and foreigners. Their crimes, while smaller in scale that those of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria (which brought no similar foreign intervention), include mass murder, ethnic cleansing, enslavement of women, and grisly executions. Left unchecked they could become a launch-pad for terror further afield.
But sending a few CF-18s into the fray won’t turn the tide. American warplanes have flown thousands of combat sorties as U.S. President Barack Obama moves to “degrade and destroy” the group. If they don’t stop the jihadists nothing will.
The sad reality is the Islamic State isn’t likely to be truly defeated until Syria’s vicious civil war plays itself out and the Iraqi government and military are rebuilt from the ground up. It will take stronger regional actors and more friendly boots on the ground than Obama can yet count on, to erase the threat. This could drag on for years.
Given the scale of the conflict Canada’s contribution of a few warplanes – like the handful the British, Australians and others have sent – is little more than a show of support for an ally. The opposition argues, convincingly, that there are better ways to show that support.
Canada already has special forces on the ground in Iraq to advise and train Kurdish fighters. We have contributed millions in aid. And we have shipped both military and humanitarian supplies. We can also deploy surveillance aircraft and heavy airlift. And that hardly exhausts the non-combat possibilities.
Moreover Harper’s two other key arguments for sending our military into the fight don’t stand up to serious scrutiny.
His claim that the jihadists expressly threaten Canada’s security has yet to be demonstrated. At this point it looks overblown.
And his argument that Canada needs to join the battle to “keep its voice in the world” or be seen as a “free rider” is equally dubious. There are more than 60 countries in Obama’s coalition and few are conducting airstrikes. Most provide political support, humanitarian aid, air transport, military training, and weapons and ammunition. There are plenty of ways not to be a free rider.
By any reasonable standard Canada was pulling its weight before this move to send in the warplanes. Harper has taken us to a place where we didn’t need to go.