Asked repeatedly at a press conference to explain why Canada was withdrawing from the bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could not provide an answer. At least not a clear one.
At one point, he even said, "There is no question there is a role for bombing, especially in the short term." Mostly, the Prime Minister offered the mantra that Canada was better equipped to do other things, as in training Iraqi and Kurdish forces and providing more humanitarian assistance.
Canada will keep an aerial refuelling aircraft in Iraq and two surveillance aircraft to help other countries' planes, but on Feb. 22 the government will withdraw Canada's combat planes. In other words, Canada will help others do what this country is no longer prepared to do: fight.
Canada will send more trainers to Iraq, but these will remain far from the front lines, since Mr. Trudeau stressed this was not a "combat mission." This decision, like the withdrawal of fighter jets, offers the path of least resistance and effectiveness, since the best trainers are embedded with ground forces on the front lines, not in the barracks or practice ranges.
Mr. Trudeau tried repeatedly to suggest Canada would stay in the battle against IS but use different means than before. He never explained, because it cannot logically be explained, why Canada could not increase humanitarian aid and offer more training and also keep the fighter jets engaged.
It was as if Canada could chew – but not chew and walk at the same time, which of course would have been possible except for the need to play out a Liberal Party position taken months ago while in opposition for domestic political reasons.
Despite Mr. Trudeau's talk of Canada playing an "important role" and (wait for these knee-slappers) working for "inclusive growth" and advancing "inclusive and accountable governance" (does anyone talk that way in Syria or Iraq?), Canada has no serious standing, sway or power in the Middle East as a whole and in the Syrian and Iraq conflicts in particular. Only hubris designed presumably for domestic consumption suggests otherwise.
A substantive argument exists against bombing, but Mr. Trudeau, for whatever reason, was loath to express it. Instead, as he does almost every day, he referred to the election campaign when he had promised to stop bombing, despite subsequent Islamic State attacks after the election in Paris and Istanbul, and attacks by IS-affiliated groups in Burkina Faso, which killed Canadian aid workers, and by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The serious argument, as opposed to increasingly tiresome reference to the election campaign, runs as follows. An air campaign cannot defeat IS. Bombing inevitably creates collateral damage, which in turn can turn civilian populations against the air attackers.
The Syrian cauldron is a seething mass of different conflicts intersecting with one another that have drawn in outsiders – Russians, Iranians, Saudis, Turks, Americans and their allies. The fighting there will likely go on for many years, kill tens of thousands of additional people and will likely result in the division of Syria and Iraq into smaller states based on tribes, ethnicities and religions or sects. Bombing under these circumstances is nearly futile in producing a particular outcome.
To make this kind of substantive argument would require a degree of sang-froid analysis and would risk irritating the Obama administration and other allies, such as Britain and France, that believe bombing is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to weaken and ultimately push IS from the region.
No good answer exists to the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. All the options are bad, as are most of the plausible outcomes. IS is the grandchild of Arab Sunni anger that began with the U.S. ousting of Saddam Hussein, and the many slights they suffered at the hands of the Shia-dominated Iraq government and the Assad family's Alawite clique that's been running Syria for decades.
To this anger was then blended a kind of eschatological theology of Islam's re-creation of a caliphate and an ultimate battle against crusaders, the West. IS is hostile to Iran, Russia, Assad's regime, Iraq's Shia government, the West and even other Sunnis who do not share its terrifying methods and absolutist ideology.
Bombing is the only method the West can use, militarily, to prevent the spread of IS, while waiting for ground forces to defeat it.
It's a poor option among ones that are worse, including doing nothing.