In many ways, Canada’s decision to take part in international air strikes against ISIL in Iraq was a foregone conclusion. Stephen Harper, the country’s prime minister, announced his intention to go to war the week before lawmakers actually debated it. He deployed military reconnaissance teams to the region days ahead of any vote. Not that there was ever any shred of doubt as to whether his motion to deploy Canadian fighter jets into combat over Iraq would carry.
Harper’s Conservative Party holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons. It would have been politically significant and hugely symbolic if the opposition parties had backed this mission. They didn’t and it didn’t matter. In the end, Harper got the mandate he and nearly two thirds of Canadians wanted for air strikes against ISIL. On October 7, members of Parliament voted 157 to 134 in favour of the motion. It was the right decision – but it was made for a lot of the wrong reasons.
For starters, Harper relied on the spurious argument that Canada should go to war in the interest of self-defence. ISIL, he argued, presents a direct danger to Canadian “families”. He raised the spectre of “terrorist attacks outside the region, including against Canada”. But he did so without offering any concrete proof. ISIL’s reach certainly stretches through the Middle East and Europe. However, Canadian authorities have yet to make the case that it poses any kind of an equivalent threat to Canada. The most recent report from Ottawa shows more than 130 Canadians have joined the ranks of foreign jihadist groups, and another 80 have returned. What’s questionable is whether any of these would-be jihadists have the desire or the capacity to carry out an attack on Canada itself on ISIL’s behalf.
Canadian authorities have yet to make the case that it poses any kind of an equivalent threat to Canada. The most recent report from Ottawa shows more than 130 Canadians have joined the ranks of foreign jihadist groups, and another 80 have returned.
A secondary, but equally misguided fantasy is that Canada’s decision to join the international coalition against ISIL will make any real difference at all. The country’s military contribution to the international coalition pales in comparison to that of its more powerful allies. Held up against Canada’s previous military efforts in Afghanistan, the deployment against ISIL is trifling: half-a-dozen CF-18 fighter jets, two Aurora Surveillance aircraft, an air-to-air refuelling CC-150 Polaris.
In the end, it amounts to a roughly 700-strong deployment. There are no ground troops. No boots on the ground. And, the entire mission comes with a six-month expiry date. On balance, this amounts to a footnote in the fight. Militarily, it is quite literally the least Canada could do. There is no use pretending this rather modest effort will turn the tide against the menace of ISIL but it was the most the government could muster in the face of political opposition that would have rather had Canada limit its mission to a humanitarian one.
In truth, the only thing worse than watching the government overstate the threat ISIL poses to Canadians and their families and exaggerate the impact a handful of Canadian fighter jets would have in dismantling the so-called Islamic Caliphate was hearing the opposition’s arguments against the government’s modest proposal.
Thomas Mulcair, leader of the NDP and the country’s official opposition, suggested Canada’s military engagement would result in the mathematically impossible: “Thousands or tens of thousands of [Canadian] veterans”. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau resorted to tasteless, nonsensical jokes. He denounced Harper’s offer of Canadian air support against ISIL as the Conservatives “trying to whip out [their] CF-18s and show how big they are”.
Canada’s participation in the international coalition against ISIL deserved more high-minded debate. There are compelling reasons for Canada to join the international coalition against ISIL, not the least of which is the country’s historic and moral duty to stand by its allies, in whatever small way it can. Military action has the potential to slow the momentum of ISIL’s territorial gains, but is hardly a panacea to the threat it poses.
Canada’s opposition should have focused on larger strategic questions: How will Canada limit civilian casualties in airstrikes? How can Canada assist the Iraqi government in building institutional capabilities to combat ISIL? How can Canada exert meaningful diplomatic pressure in the region to stem the flow of weapons and money to ISIL. Another valid question is whether Canada should make a more robust, long-term military commitment to the international military effort against ISIL.
In the end, Canada’s decision to participate in international air strikes was the right one. Sending humanitarian assistance to the region is important, but it’s not enough. In Canada, the debate will surely continue – because there is no point in pretending six months of air sorties will solve anything.
Sonia Verma is a Canadian journalist based in the Gulf. She has written for The Globe And Mail, The Times of London and New York Newsday.