Canadian troops are not going to fight, but they are going to Iraq. Appearing before a special session of a House of Commons committee, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird explained the government's decision to send several dozen Canadian special-forces members to act as advisers to the Kurdish forces in northern Iraq. "As we consider whether or how to act," he said, "we also consider what happens if we don't act, what happens if Canada doesn't do everything in its power to stop this barbarism." He was referring to the sudden, violent rise of ISIS or the Islamic State, whose forces have conquered a huge territory in Syria and Iraq. "The hard reality," said Mr. Baird, "is that inaction is not an option."
The Foreign Minister is more right than wrong. Inaction is an option, but in this case it's not the best one. But calling for "action" leaves open the key question: Which action? To help whom? And how?
The Harper government has chosen to help the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq. Good choice. Their territory is directly within ISIS's line of fire, and their military forces are unlikely to melt away or abandon their weapons in the face of the enemy. What's more, the territory they defend is peaceful and tolerant, as are few areas in the region. It is also a site of refuge for thousands who have fled before ISIS.
It's hard to disagree with the government for sending humanitarian assistance – and the opposition doesn't disagree. It's also difficult to disagree with sending weapons to the peshmerga, who find themselves outgunned by jihadists armed with captured Syrian and Iraqi armour.
But what about Canadian troops? NDP MP Paul Dewar, who travelled to Iraq with Mr. Baird last week, told The Globe that, from what he saw, "it was very clear they didn't need [our] boots on the ground."
However, the Harper government stressed on Tuesday that the Canadian troops going to Iraq, likely several dozen members of the special forces and some of whom are already in the country, are not being sent to engage in direct combat with ISIS. They are there to advise Kurdish and Iraqi forces, not to fight alongside them.
Whatever choices are made, Parliament and the Canadian public must be kept in the loop. The military mission lasts for 30 days; given how little can be accomplished in just a few weeks, it is a certainty that commitment will be extended. Is it reasonable to fear mission creep? Yes. Is that a good enough reason to not send military advisers? No.