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With the Conservatives and all other parties polar opposites in whether to be part of the air war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, one obvious question is: How is that war going?

The apparent answer is: The war is a stalemate, but in any case it has little to do with the crisis in Syria that has created millions of desperate refugees.

Almost a year ago, Canada joined a coalition of nations led by the United States that included NATO and Arab states and that conducted air strikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq. Canadians were among millions around the world who were horrified by the atrocities and attempted genocide Islamic State terrorists visited on captured populations. The mission was later expanded to include Islamic State positions in Syria, though Canadian sorties into Syria have been few in number.

Both the NDP and the Liberals opposed the mission, arguing in favour of increased humanitarian aid instead. With the fate of Syrian refugees now a central election issue, the mission against the Islamic State offers a stark contrast between the Conservatives and the other parties.

"The mission is reasonably successful on its own terms," said Jeremy Shapiro, a foreign-policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. The air strikes halted the rapid advance of the extremist Islamic group, also known as ISIL or ISIS, and there may be some rollback of Islamic State gains in the months ahead, he predicted.

Coalition forces have conducted thousands of missions in Iraq and Syria and claim to have killed thousands of Islamic State fighters.

According to United States Central Command, coalition forces conducted seven air strikes in Syria and 16 in Iraq on Sept. 2, and co-operated with the Iraqi army in preparations to retake the Iraqi city of Ramadi.

But as Mr. Shapiro pointed out, the mission against the Islamic State is having no impact on the civil war in Syria that has created four million refugees fleeing the conflict.

"The theory is that if you end the civil war, you end the refugee crisis," he said. "But ISIS is not the civil war. ISIS is just one part of the civil war."

Far more Syrian civilians have been killed by the government of Bashar al-Assad than by the Islamic State. The coalition mission, Mr. Shapiro believes, "won't dramatically improve the humanitarian situation, and may worsen it."

Roland Paris, director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at University of Ottawa, maintains that the coalition powers don't even know what their goal is in the mission against Islamic State.

"What are we trying to accomplish?" he asked. "Are we seeking to defeat ISIS in Syria as well as in Iraq? Are we trying to end the conflict in one or both of those countries? Are we seeking to resolve the root cause of the refugee emergency? Is our goal to get rid of Assad? Is our goal to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis? All of these objectives imply different strategies."

The Conservatives believe in a three-pronged approach to the crisis: bringing humanitarian aid to the millions in or outside refugee camps; bringing a limited number of refugees to Canada and combatting Islamic State.

Both the NDP and the Liberals consider the military mission a mistake and argue that Canada should ramp up humanitarian aide and refugee resettlement instead.

But as both Mr. Shapiro and Prof. Paris point out, the United States, Canada and their allies would be more effective in their handling of the refugee crisis if they had a clearer sense of what they were doing in the region, and why.