The Syrian mission: for humanitarian, security and political reasons

As Canada’s military campaign expands in the Middle East, questions arise as to the motives for engagement. By David McDonough.
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April 1, 2015
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Last week, the Conservative government brought forward a motion seeking support from the House of Commons for its decision to extend and expand the current military mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The motion passed this week, despite opposition parties voting against it on March 30.

Not surprisingly, the New Democratic Party had been quite clear in its refusal to support the mission, even declaring an intention to withdraw Canadian troops if elected. This is certainly consistent with their traditional disinclination to support overseas interventions — its recent support of the intervention in Libya, which has since led to civil war rather than peace and stability, being the exception that proves (or at least reaffirms) the rule.

More complicated is the Liberal Party position, having also voted against the initial six-month deployment in 2014 but claiming to support the coalition’s broader campaign against ISIS — and then finding itself with some mixed feelings about such an ambiguous position. Unlike the NDP, the Liberal Party has long demonstrated a historical willingness as the Official Opposition to support military action abroad, from the first Gulf War to more recent action in Libya, even authorizing military operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan when it was last in power.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau found his initial refusal to support the mission challenged by prominent Liberals, from past interim leader Bob Rae to former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy. Even retired general and Senator Romeo Dallaire added his voice in support of this mission, raising the spectre of Rwanda in the genocidal violence perpetrated by ISIS against Iraq’s Yazidi minority.

As a result, many expected a possible reversal in the Liberal position when the Conservative government put forward the recent motion to the House of Commons. It also makes the Liberal decision to refrain from offering its support, and rectifying what many saw as a past mistake, all the more curious.

Clearly, the Liberal decision to vote against the motion stemmed from its wariness of being co-opted into supporting the government’s position — doing so would make it difficult for the Party to criticize the government during the upcoming election. In some respects, it represents a repudiation of when the Liberal Party supported the government in extending the Afghan campaign in 2008.

The political wisdom of doing so today might seem questionable, especially in light of the domestic popularity of the anti-ISIS campaign. Yet, with the next election still several months away, one could easily imagine unexpected developments arising to whittle away such support. Recent revelations have already raised questions about the rules-of-engagement governing Canada’s special operations forces operating in Northern Iraq — and these are unlikely to be the last to emerge in coming months.

Canada’s involvement in Iraq also benefited from an important element of moral clarity, arising from ISIS’ genocidal threat against the country’s vulnerable minorities, like the Yazidi. The same simply cannot be said about Syria, which is a complicated, morally ambiguous, and exceedingly bloody morass. Indeed, air strikes against ISIS positions in Syria not only raise the possibility of collateral damage, given that targets may very well be amidst populated urban areas, but also tacitly makes us on side with Assad’s murderous regime and rival rebel groups equally extreme and brutal as ISIS, such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

Canada is also now the only other Western country — alongside the United States — that will be involved in air operations over Syria, with even close allies like Great Britain and France refraining from joining in strikes against Syrian targets. As a result, Canada is currently in a more isolated position than it had enjoyed when operations were limited to Iraq.

It remains to be seen whether Canadian political support for the mission survives such moral ambiguity and isolation. That fact makes it difficult to judge whether the Liberal decision to vote against the motion was politically opportune or foolish.

Of course, even the Conservatives cannot easily claim to be above politics in these matters. Yes, there are some sound military reasons for being involved in Syria, not least to deny safe havens and interdict the supplies and militants from entering Iraq. Indeed, if the foci of the coalition’s effort is simply to safeguard and rebuild Iraq, it would be impossible to do so without confronting ISIS’ presence in Syria, including with the application of air power. On that point, they are certainly correct.

But it becomes much more complicated if the goal is to degrade and destroy ISIS across Iraq and Syria. To do so in Iraq is relatively straightforward, largely a matter of buttressing the Iraqi state and securing its borders, and even this opens the question of what to do with Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army and Badr Corp. To do so in Syria is much more difficult — one that has to take into account possible consequences, from its impact on Assad’s regime and other rebel groups to what all this ultimately means to Syria’s civil war.

On these matters, the Conservative response that ISIS is a “genocidal death cult,” while certainly true, does little to clarify matters.

Such complexity raises important questions on the government’s contention that its decision to expand air strikes into Syria represents either an unalloyed good or even a military necessity. After all, the operational tempo of coalition air strikes have not been especially extensive since the campaign began several months ago, raising the question as to the number of targets that need eliminating and whether Canada’s limited air assets (e.g., six CF-18s, two Aurora surveillance planes, and a Polaris refueling aircraft) are really required for operations in Syria.

The government had sought to explain this expanded role by pointing to the coalition’s need for precision-guided munitions, claiming that the United States is the only other coalition partner using such munitions over Syria — even though revelations that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have both used smart bombs on Syrian targets belie such an explanation.

To be sure, the military rationale behind Canada’s expanded role in Syria cannot be casually dismissed. But it cannot be taken at face value either, and just as importantly, its strategic importance should not be exaggerated.

Nor should one ignore the very political benefit of expanding the mission into Syria at this time — namely, to drive a wedge with an NDP already ill-inclined to support the mission and a Liberal Party that might have eventually found an Iraqi mission palatable but an expansion into Syria much less so, thereby making them both look soft on national security just several months prior to the next election. Again, it remains to be seen whether government’s political calculus on this matter will prove correct.

Irrespective, the government and opposition parties arguably saw the motion to support the extension/expansion of Operation Impact in highly (if not solely) political terms, owing to the need to secure political advantage in the next federal elections.

Playing politics at a time when Canadian soldiers are placed in harm’s way can (and should) leave a bad taste in the mouth. But it is also far from unexpected. Not when the country has offered a relatively modest contribution and enjoys broad discretion in the ways it can contribute. Not when the broader contours of the coalition’s anti-ISIS campaign and its strategic endpoints are so unclear, especially when it comes to Syria. And not when an election is only seven months away.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CDA Institute.