OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau has a line in the sand when it comes to Canada’s involvement in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The prime minister’s biggest fear is that the country — and the West as a whole — will get dragged even further into the seemingly intractable military and sectarian cauldrons of Iraq and Syria.
But whether Trudeau will be able to stand by his campaign commitment to refocus Canada’s role in the war-torn region is an open question in the aftermath of this week’s major ISIL offensive.
“What I’ve said I’m concerned about, from the very beginning, is anything that leads towards active engagement by the West and boots on the ground,” Trudeau said in a year-end interview this week with The Canadian Press.
“And I think that’s something — whether it’s Libya, whether it’s the previous Iraq conflicts — we know doesn’t necessarily lead to the kind of long-term, positive outcomes that people would hope for and would justify the human cost of engaging in that way.”
At first blush, from a broad policy perspective, his position is not much different than that of the Obama administration in the U.S. — or even Trudeau’s own predecessor, Stephen Harper.
Since ISIL roared out of obscurity and across the deserts of eastern Syria and northern Iraq almost two years ago, the message from the U.S., Canada and other allies has been consistent: Military action? Yes. Boots on the ground? No.
Even Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s beleaguered prime minister, has repeatedly made clear he doesn’t want western troops fighting his war and would prefer to eject ISIL himself — or at least in tandem with Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias.
But in Washington and elsewhere in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the message has been sliding as the U.S. deploys more special forces and increases the tempo of airstrikes.
In military jargon, it’s called mission creep, something the Harper government — fresh from the politically bruising experience of Afghanistan — sought to avoid in its parliamentary motion that sent the Canadian military into Iraq.
Although special forces trainers are clearly “boots on the ground,” the notion of excluding large deployments of conventional army troops was a fundamental component of the Conservative government’s strategy.
Trudeau has pledged a more robust training presence in Iraq, but where he differs substantially from his predecessor is in the plan to end the air force’s role in the U.S.-led coalition bombing campaign.
He insists Canada will still be a “substantial military contributor to the military efforts against ISIL,” but his government’s inability to define and articulate what that will look like carries a mounting political cost for the Liberals.
“The Liberal policy to withdraw our fighter jets is completely incoherent,” said Tony Clement, the Conservative foreign affairs critic.
“The defence minister has said that the air combat mission, including CF-18 bombing sorties, will continue well into next year, perhaps beyond the parliamentary authorization.”
On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the NDP continues to insist the withdrawal should happen immediately.
Yet, world events seem to be stacking up against Trudeau’s hope for a quiet, graceful exit towards of a more benign, politically palatable military role.
Following the Paris slaughter, both France and Britain ramped up their roles in the bombing campaign. Even pacifist Germany is seen as doing more, with the arrival of surveillance planes and warships in the region.
Defence analysts see the attacks on the French capital and Beirut, as well as the recent terror lock down in Brussels, as a sign that the Islamic State militant threat is evolving into organized campaigns of terror directed at specific countries.
Indeed, ISIL continued to surprise this week by launching a major conventional military offensive in northern Iraq that saw Canadian special forces and CF-18s engaged in ground combat and bombing to blunt the extremist attack.
What Trudeau seems to be pining for is something the international community has failed to deliver and no one is talking about: a long-term strategy for the region that looks beyond the bombing.
“I’m a world leader now so I need to solve the Middle East, basically,” said Trudeau — half joking, half caustic — after being asked to lay out his vision of a path to peace in Syria and Iraq.
“Obviously military action alone is not going to solve the Syria civil war and it isn’t going to defeat ISIL. We need to understand that military action is a necessary part of it because it’s a terrible organization that’s killing and putting lives at risk every single day and oppressing people in the region and causing terrorism elsewhere in the world.”
He acknowledges that “military and use of force needs to be part” of the solution, but so too should be humanitarian support and follow-up “diplomatic, political and governance structures.”
The international community is actively trying to devise a framework to shut down the Syrian civil war, but there is no strategy to deal with the sectarian divide in Iraq that is at the heart of the ISIL movement.