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Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird (left), Liberal MP Marc Garneau, (centre) and NDP MP Paul Dewar, right, arrive at the airport, Wednesday, September 3, 2014 in Baghdad, IraqRyan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has signalled Canada is willing to take part in military action against ISIS in Iraq if major allies mount a coalition to strike at the extremist group.

Though Western countries have been slow to muster concerted efforts to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the United States has challenged allies to form a global coalition – and the Canadian government is now asserting it will do more.

While Mr. Harper travelled to a NATO summit in Wales, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird made a surprise visit to Iraq, pledging $15-million in aid, then flying into Erbil in northern Iraq in a C-130 Hercules packed with boxes of supplies for Kurdish fighters. In Baghdad, he vowed that "Canada will not stand idly by as ISIS continues to murder innocent civilians."

But just what that pledge will mean in practice remains unclear.

Mr. Harper did not specify what Canada might contribute to a yet-to-be-formed coalition. And since Western countries are unwilling to deploy ground troops, any coalition will use only air strikes to weaken ISIS, leaving the ultimate task of defeating the jihadis to Iraqi allies on the ground.

But as Mr. Harper spoke to a crowd in London to talk up trade with Britain, he said Canada is talking to allies about taking offensive action – and suggested that if other major allies band together, Canada will play a role. "We're speaking to our allies about how we can do that and what the best strategy is going forward," Mr. Harper said. "The position the government of Canada has generally taken in those kinds of situations is where there is a common threat to ourselves and our allies, and where particularly our major allies – the United States and also the United Kingdom, France – are willing to act, the general position of the government of Canada is that we're also willing to act and prepared to play our full part."

It's not clear yet if that coalition will take shape. Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said European governments will still see it as politically risky, noting that British Prime Minister David Cameron had to back out of strikes on Syria last year when he lost a vote in the House of Commons. The U.S. will want Arab states to join, but Sunni-majority countries will be reluctant unless Iraqi prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi makes the Shiite-dominated government more inclusive.

What has changed in recent weeks is that Western countries are now describing ISIS as a common threat, just as Mr. Harper did on Wednesday. The group made territorial gains in Syria and Iraq over months and is reported to have committed widespread mass killings targeting minorities. But a horrific mix of connections to the West have spurred alarm.

The videotaped beheadings of U.S. journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley raised disgust and ire. The British accent of the masked terrorist who appears in the videos has heightened worries about homegrown extremists, with Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Michel Coulombe saying 130 Canadians have travelled to join jihadi fighters.

Canada has so far confined its efforts against ISIS to providing aid and ferrying military equipment provided by other donors to Kurdish fighters in Iraq.

Experts say that because Western countries will be unwilling to deploy ground troops, any coalition is likely to build on recent U.S. air strikes to try to weaken the jihadis' fighting capability.

Canada's contribution would most likely be a small group of perhaps six CF-18 fighters to take part in bombing sorties – similar to the contribution to NATO strikes on Libya in 2011, said University of Calgary defence expert Rob Huebert. Canada could also provide some special forces, organizational help and airlift craft such as C-130 Hercules planes or Chinook helicopters. "It's air power, plus or minus lift," he said.

The challenge is that air strikes can only do so much, and potential allies on the ground are weak, Mr. Joshi said. "Where are the ground forces that can exploit the aftermath of air strikes?"

Kurdish fighters only operate in their own territory, he said. Iraqi government forces are in disarray. The hope that Sunnis will join the fight against ISIS will only come to fruition if Iraq's incoming prime minister succeeds in building a more inclusive government.

Mr. Baird also brought that call for inclusion to Baghdad Wednesday – accompanied by a multipartisan delegation that included NDP MP Paul Dewar and Liberal Marc Garneau – along with an assertion that Canada wanted to "show solidarity" with Iraq. But the details of how Canada will back up those pledges are as yet undefined.