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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Former Liberal MP Lloyd Axworthy says he was disappointed the Liberal Party chose not to back a government plan for Canada to join U.S.-led air strikes, as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau faced questions about party divisions over the planned combat mission.

Speaking with The Globe and Mail by phone on Wednesday, Mr. Axworthy said he thinks it's important that the international community intervene to prevent further atrocities against civilians by Islamic State militants. The former foreign affairs minister and long-time parliamentarian is currently working on foreign policy issues as a resident of the Bellagio Center, part of the Rockefeller Foundation, in Italy.

Mr. Axworthy's comments came one day after Liberal MP Irwin Cotler announced he would abstain from a Parliamentary vote on the combat mission in Iraq. A Conservative majority in the House of Commons ensured that the motion to send fighter jets and more than 600 personnel to the region would pass easily, even though all opposition NDP and Liberal MPs who were present voted against the motion.

Asked if he was disappointed by the Liberal decision to vote against the mission, Mr. Axworthy replied, "Yes, I was." He called the government decision a "useful step" that should also be accompanied by long-term support for rebuilding Iraq and Syria and said he didn't know the rationale behind the Liberal decision to vote against the combat mission.

"I was concerned, and I was surprised at the [Liberal] decision to be honest, because traditions and the history and the principles I think of the party were very much centred I think on this idea that part of our mandate, nationally, is to help protect innocent people," he said. "And I'm surprised that was not given the kind of weight that it should have been."

In the lead-up to the vote, the Liberals said the government had not done enough to make the case for a Canadian combat mission. And both the opposition NDP and the Liberals called for a greater focus on humanitarian aid instead.

Ahead of the vote on Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau told reporters that "the Liberal Party will be clearly voting against [the government motion] in a unanimous way."

However, Mr. Cotler's decision to deliberately abstain hurt the Liberal Party's efforts to present a united front against the government. After a caucus meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau altered his statement to reflect the divisions in party ranks, pointing to both the positions of Mr. Axworthy and Mr. Cotler.

"The Liberal Party voted clearly against the government's motion last night," Mr. Trudeau said.

He explained Mr. Colter's decision by pointing out that the human-rights lawyer has long advocated air strikes in Syria.

"At the same time, his statement was unequivocal, he cannot support this government's approach," Mr. Trudeau said.

While he said that his written statement on Tuesday night spoke for itself, Mr. Cotler told reporters his decision was based on the "responsibility to protect" doctrine.

"I did not vote against [the government motion] because I support the principle of international military operations, for four years now, in Syria. That's it," Mr. Cotler said.

Mr. Axworthy added that he also supports the "responsibility to protect" doctrine and believes the combat mission might have garnered more bipartisan support if more emphasis was placed on halting the killing of innocent people. He also said the government should have done more to keep opposition MPs informed.

Canada can also play a role in diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to address the conflict in Syria and Iraq, Mr. Axworthy said.

He said Parliamentarians could have looked to the intervention in Kosovo as an example where Canada played a role in air strikes helped to protect innocent people. He added that the purpose of launching air strikes in Syria is "exactly" as clear as it was in Kosovo.

"I'm sorry that that example hasn't been given more attention, because it really is one that really did set a precedent for Canadian action," he said.

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