VANCOUVER – Canada should welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offers to help fight the Islamic State in Syria, says Jean Chretien.
The former Liberal prime minister said Putin’s involvement in the Middle Eastern conflict may spark controversy but that the West would do well to accept the support.
“If Putin wants to help he should be welcomed,” said Chretien, who was in Vancouver on Thursday to lend his star power to the Liberal party’s British Columbia campaign.
“I met Putin. He’s a tough guy. He’s clear minded. But to run Russia you cannot be a pussycat. They play hockey very rough in the corners.”
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been strident in his criticism of Putin, who is an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Harper has said Putin’s moves to build up equipment and troops in Syria in an apparent bid to buttress the Assad regime will likely inflame an already volatile civil war.
Canada is part of a United States-led coalition that is bombing Islamic State military positions within Syria.
Tensions have escalated between the United States and Russia over Russian airstrikes that appear to strengthen Assad’s troops rather than hit Islamic State fighters.
The U.S. has raised concerns over how the two countries will avoid inadvertently firing on each other. Moscow has urged Washington to avoid “unintended incidents” by restarting direct military dialogue, which President Barack Obama suspended in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
There is concern over the prospect of the U.S. and its former Cold War enemy falling into a conflict if Russian warplanes hit moderate Syrian rebels trained and equipped by the U.S., with promises of American air support in the event of an attack.
But Obama’s recent comments to the United Nations that he would be willing to work with Russia and Iran to end the conflict in Syria may force Canada to reconsider its relationship to Russia.
Harper’s last interaction with Putin was a terse handshake at the G20 summit in 2014, when the Canadian prime minister bluntly told his Russian counterpart to “get out” of Ukraine.
Last month, Chretien penned a blistering open letter criticizing Harper’s foreign policy and accusing the Tory leader of shredding Canada’s reputation as a compassionate, progressive, peace-seeking country.
In a snub to the Conservative leader, Chretien met with Putin at one of his palaces in Moscow earlier this year. Harper has avoided contact with the Russian president in the wake of both the unrest in Ukraine, as well as the annexation of Crimea.
Speaking from the campaign trail, New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair said an NDP government would discontinue the bombing campaign in Syria and bring home the special forces operators responsible for training Kurdish fighters on the ground.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has said the party would also pull the country’s CF-18 fighter jets out of the air war, but would maintain and possibly expand the training mission.