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Prime Minister Stephen Harper. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

What are we trying to accomplish in the fight against the group known as ISIS, or the Islamic State? It's a simple question to ask, but not so easy to answer. On balance, the Harper government has taken the right step in moving to more actively join the growing, U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. On balance, there are positive things Canada and our allies may be able to accomplish.

But anyone with their eyes open has to acknowledge that Canada is stepping into a part of the Middle East whose fraught politics make Afghanistan's look straightforward and transparent. Let's not kid ourselves about our ability to remake the region. The Western coalition, as it now stands, has neither the resources nor the wisdom. Canada needs to be realistic, limited and clear about its objectives. If we are, there are important things we may be able to achieve.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the fight against ISIS as "noble." There is something true in the PM's choice of words: ISIS's stock in trade is abduction, mass murder and ritualistic killings, videotaped for global consumption. Its stated aim is the genocide of those who will not convert to its perverted idea of Islam. As Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott put it, it's a "death cult."

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But recognizing that there is something moral about standing up to ISIS is not a policy. It suggests that Canada might want to do something; it says nothing about what can or should be done.

Wars are not about picking enemies. They are about identifying goals, and in particular postwar goals. Wars are not about "degrading" the enemy, and leaving it at that. They are about political aims that can be achieved once the enemy yields. The enemy in a war is the obstacle, not the objective. Bombing ISIS is a tactic, not a goal.

So what are Canada and our Western and Middle Eastern allies trying to accomplish? We are fighting against ISIS and possibly other related groups – but what and whom are we fighting for? If we really do succeed in crushing ISIS, whom do we want to fill the vacuum? What is the political outcome that this war – our war – hopes to achieve? What is victory?

It's possible to answer these questions in some areas of the fight against ISIS, but far more difficult in others. For example, the initial Canadian contribution was to send military advisers to assist the Iraqi authorities, and in particular the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Northern Iraq's Kurdish region. That approach made sense, and it still does.

Iraqi Kurdistan is a beacon of peace, order and relatively good government, in contrast to an Iraq that is largely chaotic and dysfunctional. The Kurds have their own militia, the Peshmerga, who appear to have better leaders and more reliable soldiers than the Iraqi military. The Kurds are also under direct attack from ISIS; the fight has come to them.

In Kurdish regions, in other words, it is possible to imagine a coherent strategy to defeat ISIS and replace it with something better – an actual, existing alternative that does not have to be dreamed up. In Kurdistan, Canada has allies on the ground. We have something we are fighting for, not just something we are fighting against. With the help of weapons shipments (ISIS is better armed than the Peshmerga – because it has so many American-made heavy weapons abandoned by the fleeing Iraqi army), military advisers and coalition air power, the Kurds stand a real chance of pushing back ISIS, at least in areas bordering Kurdistan.

One caveat, however: If Western and Canadian help were to be focused on our most logical and reliable allies, Iraq's Kurds, and if the Kurds were able to gain territory, that could court trouble with their fellow Iraqis, not to mention Turkey and possibly Iran. Just an example of how fraught this neighbourhood is.

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As for the Iraqi central government and military, these have long-standing challenges. The Americans have a plan to improve the quality of both the Iraqi military and local, anti-ISIS Sunni militias. But the Americans have had more than a decade to "fix" Iraq's military and generally put the country back together. It was remarkably easy to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and remarkably difficult to replace his effective but unjust regime with an effective and humane one.

And if choosing a viable strategy in Iraq is challenging, consider the lay of the land in Syria, home base of ISIS. Syria, unlike Iraq, has not invited the international coalition in, which may explain why most of those other Western countries that volunteered combat aircraft, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium, have said they will limit strikes to Iraq only.

What's more, who would the coalition be fighting for in Syria? The regime of Bashar al-Assad? It remains one of the world's leading violators of human rights, and its record of civilian murder has only been pushed off the top of the charts by ISIS's decision to videotape and revel in its beheadings and mass shootings. As for a third force in Syria, an opposition that is neither dictatorial nor fanatical, it remains very much of a bit player, despite outside efforts to foster it. As a result, the main beneficiary of air strikes and other coalition military moves against ISIS in Syria may be ISIS's main antagonist: the Assad regime.

In other words, at the moment it looks as if Canada can contribute to helping one group of allies in the region, namely the Kurds, in fending off ISIS and reducing the scale of a humanitarian catastrophe. That's a limited objective, but it's something substantive and substantial, and success would make a difference in millions of lives. But the further Canada and the coalition push their objectives, the harder it is to draw up a path to success.

The government was right to want to find a way to take a stand against ISIS. What's still not clear is whether the government appreciates what it is getting itself, and Canada, into.

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