Where’s the government’s longer-range vision on ISIL?

Prime Minister Trudeau wants to put a new Liberal stamp on the Canadian mission to Iraq and the region. His press conference on Monday marked an expected shift away from a direct Canadian contribution to air attacks against Islamic State targets in Iraq and towards greater humanitarian assistance and capacity building in the region. Half of this policy may represent a winning hand politically; half may not. The questions that emerge are about the new Liberal government’s capacity for long-range strategic thinking and about the staying power of its announced plan.

First, the potential winning hand. An expanded Canadian contribution for humanitarian assistance to frontline states such as Lebanon and Jordan, which are bearing an enormous burden in dealing with the outflow of refugees from the civil war in Syria and Islamic State brutality in Iraq, is timely and necessary. The announced Canadian contribution, $840 million in humanitarian assistance and another $270 million for capacity-building projects, is sizeable and generous. It comes hard on the heels of a donors’ conference in London at which the international community heard urgent pleas for an expanded Western contribution to assist these frontline states and pledged some $11 billion in aid by 2020. Humanitarian assistance will not solve the problem of the Islamic State, nor will it end the Syrian civil war, but it will strike a chord with Canadians and complements the Liberals’ much more generous approach to refugee resettlement.

The less winning hand is on the military side. The Liberals held fast to their promise to withdraw the CF-18s despite struggling to come up with any rationale for doing so, and despite the fact that they are clearly willing to make other sorts of contributions to the bombing campaign, including through the continued deployment of Aurora surveillance and targeting aircraft and an air-to-air Polaris refueller. Our allies cannot be entirely happy with this, nor, if the opinion polls are to be trusted, is the Canadian public. The latest Angus Reid Institute survey showed that 63 per cent of Canadians favoured either a continuance or an increase in the Canadian contribution to the air campaign.

On the ground, the Liberals have promised to increase our training and assistance mission to the Kurdish forces in northern Iraq. Going forward, that force will be trebled to some 220 personnel. The mandate for the Canadian Forces mission in northern Iraq remains unchanged from that established by the Stephen Harper government. It is an “advise and assist mission” which brings Canadian forces up close to the front lines, involves them in targeting of Islamic State forces, and can bring them into defensive combat. So the Liberals will now have to wear the worry of that and the questions that dogged the previous government about whether this was really a combat mission under another name.

Whether the Liberals will have political success with their reconfigured mission will ultimately depend on many big unknowns: the future development of the threat posed by the Islamic State; the capacity of Iraq to restore political order and keep the Kurds within the orbit of an Iraqi state; and the dynamics of the Syrian civil war. The wiser course for the Liberal government would have been to signal their understanding of just how much is in flux by explaining an unpopular move to halt a Canadian air-bombing contribution as an operational pause to assess the situation with a willingness to return to a bombing role if needed in the future. They should have set a longer time frame than three years for humanitarian assistance, in line with the London donor conference (even with the attendant fiscal sticker shock). They also needed to come up with a Canadian policy on how best to solve the Syrian conflict.

The longer-range strategic view seems to be missing so far in this government, and with it comes uncertainty about the staying power of our commitments.

This article originally appeared in The Ottawa Citizen: http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/wark-wheres-the-governments-longer-range-vision-on-isil

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