Harper’s way or the highway in Syria
The Harper government may believe the extension and expansion of its anti-ISIS mission to be introduced this week is driven by “moral clarity.”
There can be no clarity, moral or otherwise, if Canada is about to drift into a lengthy Middle East battle that will be measured in years, not the fleeting timelines of domestic Canadian politics.
Despite the tragic loss of Sgt. Andrew Doiron to friendly fire earlier this month, the anti-ISIS mission has been a winner for Stephen Harper.
There is sufficient anxiety in this country, much of it legitimate, some of it ginned up by the government itself, to provide the political cover the prime minister needs to extend his mission.
Defence officials tell us that Canada has been a significant contributor to a coalition effort that has been degrading the so-called Islamic State’s ability to fight and its will to fight.
Canadian fighters hit Islamic State positions east of Mosul on Friday, and shortly before that fired a successful strike at an ISIS munitions depot.
Momentum is with the coalition, we are told.
But if the public pronouncements of Harper and Defence Minister Jason Kenney are not mere trial balloons, the Canadian mission is about to enter a complex phase.
We will be aligning ourselves with Bashar al Assad, the brutal Syrian despot we have publicly repudiated. Ottawa has accused Vladimir Putin of propping up Assad’s “thugs.” Now we will make it easier for him by engaging his enemy.
The Syrian civil war has killed more than 210,000 people, according to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory. In 2014, 17,790 civilians, among them 3,501 children, were killed.
Canada will be operating in a country where the Assad regime is complicit in atrocities, responsible for the killing of many more innocents than even the Islamic State, which is accused of gassing its own citizens, but is not being opposed by Canada.
Harper has previously stated that Canada would not move its efforts to Syria without being welcomed by that country. There will be no official welcome, but there has to be a nod and a wink to ensure Canadian CF-18s are not shot down by Syrian troops.
“Whatever objections the government of Canada has against the government of Syria, we are not interested in any war with any government in the region,” Harper said last November. “Our only military fight is with (Islamic State).”
Ottawa doesn’t like to talk about it, but we are fighting on the same side in Iraq as Iran, which has showered military equipment on and provided training to Iraqi forces.
Canada is an outlier on Iran, a country with which we severed diplomatic ties, with the then-foreign affairs minister John Baird calling Tehran “the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world.”
Now Canada counts Tehran as an anti-ISIS ally.
“To dress this up as good versus evil is to ignore the inherent complexity and ambiguity of this mission,” said Roland Paris, a foreign-policy analyst at the University of Ottawa who has provided informal policy advice to the Liberals.
With his majority, whatever Harper chooses to do this week, it will happen.
There will be no wobbling on the government side about this need to extend and expand.
There will be no wobbling on the opposition NDP side in opposing this extension, just as it opposed the original deployment last autumn.
As always, the only drama will come from the man in the middle, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who opposed the original deployment last October. If Trudeau chooses to remain opposed, he will have two cards to play, although he must play his hand deftly.
Trudeau will be able to point to the complexities of expanding into Syria, the real danger of a commitment to a conflict with dubious allies and no clear end game.
He can also point with legitimacy to a lack of transparency from Harper, who last autumn pledged no boots on the ground, no fighting on the front lines, no calling in airstrikes from the front lines, only to watch as all three came to pass.
Opposing Harper’s war again will not likely give Trudeau a boost in the polls, but it would allow him to remain consistent and point to principle and this might be as good as it gets for the leader of the third party.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer.