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Thursday, March 26, 2015

PM Harper stands alone but is on the right side of the ISIS-Syria debate

This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his Government plans to table a motion in the House of Commons favouring an extension and expansion of Canada’s contribution to Operation IMPACT, the U.S.-led Coalition against the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and, significantly, Syrian territory.

Canada’s original six-month military mission did not include dropping bombs in Syrian territory so this is an escalation, which has been justified by the PM who said, “The so-called caliphate’s capital is in Syria,” and “[ISIS] must cease to have any safe haven in Syria.”

As expected, opposition Leader Tom Mulcair continues to withhold NDP support for the military mission, warning about what he called a “quagmire” in Iraq.

Justin Trudeau has also declared his continued opposition to the government’s plan. I thought the Grits might come on board considering the high level of support the mission apparently has not just among ordinary Canadians, but also from some prominent members of the Liberal Party. Trudeau, though, continues to insist that Canada should be engaged solely in a humanitarian, non-military, effort.

“The Liberal Party that I [Trudeau] represent knows that Canadians want to respond to the horrors of [ISIS] in that region,” he said. “We cannot allow our indignation to impair our judgement.”

I, along with most of you I’m sure, support the military mission, along with this extension and the common sense escalation to include air strikes against ISIS in Syria where the Islamists have entrenched positions. I do worry, though, that this U.S.-led effort is too heavily dependent on the resources and efforts of Western democracies and not enough skin-in-the-game from Arab nations in the region.

Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are said to be sworn enemies of ISIS. Furthermore, it is quite widely believed that, at least for Jordan and Saudi Arabia, fighting ISIS may very well be a battle of survival, with the continued reigns of Jordan’s King Abdullah and Saudi Arabia’s newly crowned King Salman dependant on ISIS’s defeat.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have real military clout collectively. The Saudi defence budget dwarfs Canada’s as do the number of its army and air force personnel and weapons systems. Egypt also has significant military capability and a large population to draw from. Jordan with its military and, especially, intelligence assets could also make a significant contribution if it went all in. Finally, the Saudis have the treasury that could finance an all out air and ground war with ISIS.

So why are the Arab nations of the region not the primary actors in this latest Middle Eastern war? Beats me.

The nations in the area all seem to be keeping a safe distance while the Iraqis, especially the Kurds, conduct the ground war with the only boots on the ground. And most analysts agree the final outcome of the conflict will be decided not by the air war, but by boots on the ground.

On the one hand, I can see some merit—though not enough to sway me against Canada’s military involvement—in Justin Trudeau’s position. After all, there are several countries which are prepared to help with the air war, so why distant Canada’s participation is essential is not totally clear. On the other hand, Thomas Mulcair’s position lacks clarity and logic.

Mulcair has reportedly told reporters after an NDP caucus meeting on Parliament Hill earlier this week that, by attacking ISIS in Syria, Canada will be helping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

“Helping Assad is shameful and we should not be doing it,” he said.

That’s true, of course, but isn’t the contrary view even more odorous. That is to say, by not attacking ISIS to help curtail their atrocities and reduce their threat to Canadians, we become bystanders and, some might suggest, their de facto silent partners.

It’s a Hobson’s choice, to be sure, but prevailing opinion is that ISIS is by far the greater evil and represents a real danger to Canada so the risk of inadvertently and indirectly helping Assad is worth taking.

Let’s not forget that a spokesman for ISIS last fall specifically called for attacks on Canadians. In an audio speech, he urged ISIS supporters to kill Canadians, regardless of whether they were civilians or members of the military. The Syrian dictator has made no such direct threat.

So, in my view, our national interest is best served by degrading ISIS’s military capability, even if it involves RCAF strikes on ISIS’s operations and infrastructure in Syria.

Of the leaders of those political parties represented in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands alone in his determination to join the anti-ISIS coalition—it has about 60 member nations—and to take a direct, though still rather modest, role in its military campaign in Iraq and Syria. And our prime minister is on the right side of this one (pun not intended).

1 comment — This is a moderated blog and comments will appear when approved. Please don’t resubmit if your comment doesn’t appear immediately, and please do not post material that is obscene, harassing, defamatory, or otherwise objectionable.

  1. 6 jets and 30 army trainers is the absolute minimum Harper could contribute. The contribution does not match the rhetoric that jihadis are coming to kill us all.

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