Armed with a fresh mandate from a divided House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will deploy a contingent of nine military aircraft and more than 600 personnel to take on the Islamic State in Iraq, saying the government’s overarching goal is keeping Canadians safe at home.
In a vote on Tuesday evening, the Conservative majority ensured that the motion to send CF-18s to conduct air strikes in Iraq passed with a comfortable majority of 157-134. Most opposition NDP and Liberal MPs voted against the combat mission.
Liberal MP Irwin Cotler issued a statement saying he would abstain from the vote, explaining that he believes in the doctrine of responsibility to protect but did not think the government has provided enough information about the mission. Green Party MP Bruce Hyer voted in favour of the mission, along with independent MP Brent Rathgeber. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May voted against the mission.
The government has not yet said where Canada’s contribution to the combat mission will be based, but options include Kuwait, where Ottawa already stores military supplies, and the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Harper refused to compromise on his plans to send six fighter jets, one refuelling plane and two surveillance aircraft to the war zone, despite facing a number of questions and attacks from the opposition over the objectives of the mission and the lack of an exit strategy.
During Question Period, the Prime Minister rejected any notion that attacking IS fighters will only serve to boost the recruitment efforts of the jihadis. The NDP and the Liberal Party are calling on the government to focus on humanitarian aid and non-combat missions, but Mr. Harper said it would be irresponsible to “sit back and watch.”
“We are undertaking a range of actions, and we are very fortunate to have men and women who are prepared to put their lives on the line to undertake those actions on our behalf,” the Prime Minister said.
Mr. Harper added the military mission will help to deal with the threat posed by IS supporters on Canadian soil.
“What the world understands very clearly is that in the absence of any response, [Islamic State] was growing like a cancer over the summer, over an entire region. This constitutes a threat and not just to the region, to the global community entirely and also to Canada,” Mr. Harper said.
The government will provide more information to Canadians on Wednesday when Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, and the heads of the RCMP and CSIS, testify at a committee on the issue of individuals returning to Canada after joining terrorist entities.
Pollster Nik Nanos said the mission carries a series of risks for the Harper government, in part because it could take months or longer to have any sense of how effective the combat mission has been. The next election is scheduled for October, 2015, and he said the governing Tories would prefer to focus the coming campaign on the economy rather than on foreign affairs.
He said there is also a risk the combat mission will be viewed negatively in Quebec, a key battleground where polls suggest residents are less likely to support air strikes against IS. “A policy such as this is not likely to resonate in the province of Quebec, [which] probably explains some of the political calculus for the Liberals,” Mr. Nanos said.
The Liberal Party has been struggling to come up with a cohesive response to the military mission in Iraq, trying to find a middle ground between the government’s plans and the NDP’s more stringent opposition. The Liberal caucus voted almost unanimously against the mission – with the exception of Mr. Cotler, who said he was abstaining, and three MPs who were not present – but some former party officials have urged Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to endorse the combat mission.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Trudeau said the Liberals would be voting against the motion “in a unanimous way.”
On Tuesday, Liberal MP Marc Garneau said the party would “support what is eventually decided by the government, because we know that we’re sending our men and women into combat.” However, he later clarified that the party will continue to oppose the combat mission and the government’s plan, but “will support our troops.”
The governing Conservatives used their majority to impose closure on the debate, with House Leader Peter Van Loan stating that the mission was “an urgent matter that requires Canadian action.”
Ottawa is also increasing the number of special forces troops currently deployed in Northern Iraq to 69. The troops were sent to the region last month to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces combat Islamic State fighters, but only about two dozen were initially deployed. The Canadian combat mission would initially target Iraq, according to the government, but could eventually include Syria if Ottawa has the “clear support” of that country’s government.
The Conservative government has said its plans to join the military mission do not prevent Canada from delivering humanitarian aid as well, and announced Monday that it would provide $10-million in aid to help victims of sexual violence and other human-rights abuses in the region.
With a report from Steven Chase in OttawaReport Typo/Error
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