Why now is not the time to slacken the fight against Islamic State

Editorial: It’s entirely possible Canada’s participation will need to be extended again.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Islamic State poses a unique threat to global security, and to Canada. To date, the 21st-century struggle between the West and radical Islamic fundamentalism has largely focused on independent terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the ramshackle, out-of-the-way countries that offer them protection. Islamic State is a very different beast. As the central authority controlling a huge swath of strategically sensitive territory in Syria and Iraq, it is destabilizing the entire Middle East. Islamic State also actively promotes its messianic, end-of-days version of Islam, acting as a magnet for radicalized jihadists seeking to join the fight against Western, liberal culture. And it exports its Medieval world view internationally, inspiring independent acts of terrorism elsewhere, including those perpetrated recently in Canada.

This week the House of Commons debated Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s proposal to extend Canada’s participation in the campaign against Islamic State until March 2016, and to expand possible targets for Canadian air strikes to include areas inside Syria. “Unless confronted with strong and direct force,” the government motion argues, “the threat that [Islamic State] poses to Canada and to international peace and security will grow.” The Prime Minister is right. Now is not the time to slacken the fight against Islamic State.

No other radical jihadist movement puts as much effort into reaching a global audience as Islamic State. In addition to an active social media presence and slickly produced videos, the group distributes a glossy magazine called Dabiq. The latest issue provides a chilling glimpse of its objectives and motivations, and hints at the effort required to eliminate it. There’s a lengthy religious justification for the horrific execution of a Jordanian air force pilot in February (“In burning the crusader pilot alive . . . the Islamic State carried out a just form of retaliation”) as well as the murder of a hundred Coptic Christians (“a blessed operation”). Another article declares any Muslim who calls Islam a religion of peace to be a “deviant.” And Canada figures prominently as a subject of ire: “You saw what a single Muslim did with Canada and its Parliament,” it boasts. We are repeatedly mentioned alongside the United States, Britain, France, Australia and other coalition members as adversaries of Islamic State to be attacked.

Related reading: On the PM’s patience for open-ended missions 

Keep in mind these are not the fevered ramblings of isolated lunatics. Islamic State functions as the government of an area larger than Britain in the most volatile corner of the world. The mere existence of such a violent entity in such a strategic location leaves the entire Middle East in a state of unsettled anxiety.

Conventional terrorist threats have been properly tackled by dedicated police work and international surveillance and co-operation. Yet Islamic State draws legitimacy from its presence as a coherent geographic entity. In the area it currently controls, which includes several major cities, Islamic State provides the trappings of government, including such things as communications infrastructure and social services. To successfully defeat Islamic State, it is thus necessary to take away its territorial authority. As the international coalition has committed not to place their own troops in harm’s way, this means a combination of air strikes and the provision of training and supplies for Iraqi and Kurdish troops fighting Islamic State on the ground. Progress here has been slow but encouraging. Extending Canada’s efforts for another year and expanding the theatre of operations into Syria aligns our efforts with other coalition members and keeps the pressure on Islamic State.

It is, of course, healthy for our democracy that the political opposition scrutinize any matter that puts Canadian lives at risk in a foreign land. During this week’s debate, Official Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair claimed “Canada has no place in this war.” Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who similarly opposes the government’s plans to expand and extend the mission, further argued that widening the scope of Canada’s air combat mission to include Syrian targets will put us in an unseemly “alliance” with Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Both leaders point to the lack of a specific exit date as reason for abandoning the mission and bringing our troops and planes home forthwith.

Related reading: What the party leaders said about expanding the war against ISIS 

However narrowly one may describe Canada’s scope of interests, it remains a fact Islamic State is an enthusiastic exporter of terror, and we are one of their favourite foreign markets. This is most definitely Canada’s war. As for our supposed alignment with the Assad regime, was Canada’s fight with Nazi Germany rendered less honourable because it put us on the same side as Stalin? Of course not. While certainty is always preferred to ambiguity, we need to remember it is Islamic State that represents the unambiguous threat to world peace. As a key member of the community of wealthy, Western nations, we have an obligation to do what we can to remove this threat.

Ultimate success in Iraq will require not only victory on the ground by Iraqi forces but also the establishment of a permanent peace process for the entire region. Admittedly, a viable exit strategy seems a long way off right now. It is entirely possible Canada’s participation in the international coalition will need to be extended once again. There will almost certainly be setbacks and disappointments along the way. There may even be further casualties among Canadian personnel. War is never certain. The only sure thing is that checking the influence of Islamic State is in Canada’s best interests, both at home and abroad. The fight against world terror continues.