Canadians have received some much-needed clarity on the future of the country’s fight against Islamic State militants, and the overall direction is good.
As spelled out on Monday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the mission is being recalibrated to build on Canada’s historic strengths in military training, humanitarian aid and diplomacy. It’s a sensible way to proceed. As expected, there’s no place for bombing in this approach. The country’s six CF-18s are to halt airstrikes within two weeks and come home.
Trudeau described the new role as “a complete and robust mission that engages all different aspects of where Canada is good.” The net result is a better way forward.
Especially positive is Ottawa’s plan to spend more than $1 billion over the next three years to ease some of the horrific suffering let loose by the wars in Syria and Iraq. Dedicating $840 million to humanitarian aid and another $270 million to build refugee capacity in neighbouring countries should be money well spent.
Diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the crisis have so far proved disappointing. But the government is right to argue that Canada can, and should, play a greater role in international efforts on this front.
The military portion of Ottawa’s revised response involves tripling the number of Canadian Forces troops training local ground forces engaged in fighting Islamic State jihadists. Sixty-nine such trainers are currently deployed in northern Iraq.
A commitment to the air war will continue but not in the form of combat, with Canada pledged to maintain crew and support staff for an aerial refuelling aircraft and up to two Aurora surveillance planes. The government will also beef up medical assistance to local allies and deliver equipment such as small arms and optical gear.
Trudeau said the trainers’ role will be to “advise and assist and equip” — stressing that, with the departure of Canada’s warplanes, “this is a non-combat mission.”
While that’s technically true, Canada’s forces on the ground will very likely engage in firefights with Islamic State militants and will be calling in allied airstrikes. This is considered “non-combat” in the sense that their principal role is not to fight. But it remains dangerous. Canadian troops helped repel a massive attack by hundreds of enemy fighters last December. And one, Sgt. Andrew Doiron, was killed in a friendly fire incident in March.
Indeed, the government’s new mission will actually put more Canadians in harm’s way, given the increased number of trainers to be deployed in Iraq.
“You put more people on the ground in a dangerous place and it’s riskier overall,” Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance told reporters after Trudeau’s announcement. “We’re not, in any way, shying away from the fact there is risk.”
By any reasonable standard, Canada is continuing to pull its weight in this conflict — even with the departure of six warplanes.
That said, Trudeau is still struggling to explain why Canada’s CF-18s had to be withdrawn from combat, beyond this move being one of his signature campaign promises. In principle, all the changes announced on Monday could have come in addition to continued airstrikes. The best argument is that the coalition has all the air power it needs, and Canada can make its most valuable contribution by focusing on its special strengths.
At the same time, there are still unanswered questions about what Canadians will be doing on the ground in Iraq.
Hopefully, more details will emerge when the mission is debated in the House of Commons next week. Military matters such as this are a prerogative of the executive and Trudeau deserves credit for putting the mission to Parliament for “robust and informed debate.”
The government should have little difficulty defending this constructive retooling of a worthwhile mission that expresses Canada’s values and builds on its core strengths.