The first month of 2016 is almost in the books, and the war against ISIS is as hot as ever. But in a new year with a new government – what is Canada’s role?
Harjit Sajjan – intially dubbed “Canada’s badass defense minister” was in the hot seat last week when it emerged the country had not been invited to a key strategic meeting on the conflict.
Was it a snub?
Christian Leuprecht, political science professor at Canada’s Royal Military College says it’s not so cut and dried.
He says it’s true that when it comes to large organizations and operations – not everyone needs to be at every meeting.
But he says at the same time, Canada has invested a significant amount in the fight – both in terms of money and special forces.
“So you would have a certain expectation that those countries that are putting their soldiers near the front lines and in harm’s way would have a front row seat at any converastion about the present configuration of the mission or any future configurations.”
He says while it’s unlikely to be a straight up tit-for-tat response to Canada planning to pull its CF-18 fighters out of the air war, in the long run, Canada may have a less high profile position in the fight.
“You may find yourself having not much influence, or not even having a seat at the table at all.”
He says that may be one of the reasons that despite announcing he’d bring Canadian jets home, Prime Minister Trudeau has yet to give the official order.
He says the government is likely working behind the scenes to balance competing domestic, international, and intra-party interests as it crafts a new mission profile and seeks to avoid a perception as the “weakest link.”
On the ground
With the jets gone, Canada’s role will be predominantly on the ground, and Leuprecht says Sajjan has been travelling, doing the “political dog and pony show,” and getting a feel of our allies in the region.
He says the challenge is that the situation on the ground is evolving quickly – and that Canada needs to carefully balance its interests in the region. That includes things likelike supplying and training Kurds, while ensuring the same weapons and training aren’t used against allies like Turkey.
But he says he’s skeptical our hands-on training in the region is any less violent than our participation in the air war.
“I’ve always had great difficulty with the government’s argument that our Special Operations mission is somehow a more humanitarian mission. I’m not sure how it’s more humanitarian to have special operators near the front line that are effectively training our Kurdish partners how to kill.”
Lessons of war
Leuprecht says the thorny questions about Canada’s place in the fight against ISIS take on new importance in light of the recent attack in Burkina Faso.
He says the country is deeply involved in Francophone Northwest Africa, which could be the next area to face major upheavals.
He says the trouble Canada is having in Syria and Iraq are a lesson in what happens when help comes to late – and that it’s much cheaper, in dollars and in lives, to be proactive in preventing conflicts.
“Ultimately we’d all prefer to avoid a combat deployment, and rather have our military engaged in institutions and capacity building, to avoid the sort of collapse and societal challenges we face in the Middle East.”
LISTEN: Shane Foxman and Christian Leuprecht talk about Canada’s role in the fight against ISIS