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A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands guard on the front line facing Islamic State militant positions near the Rashad Bridge, 290 kilometers north of Baghdad on Monday, Sept. 29, 2014.Hadi Mizban/The Associated Press

Unless Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent the weekend at a cathartic management retreat that left him suddenly resolved to spend more time listening to other people's opinions and building consensus, it is a solid bet that Canada will soon be sending jet fighters to the Middle East. Mr. Harper says Canada will "not stand on the sidelines and watch" as its allies carry out air strikes on the Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), the ultra-violent, extremist Muslim militants who control large parts of eastern Syria and northern Iraq. He has also said that the cabinet will decide this week whether to honour a request from the U.S. to increase its participation in the international fight against the IS, a scenario that would most likely involve Canadian jet fighters joining the air strikes that have already begun in earnest.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, said on Monday the government would bring any decision to put the Armed Forces in a combat role to the House of Commons "as a matter of confidence." So, not a free vote, then. But on the off-chance that Mr. Baird meant it when he also said that no decision has been made, and that debate is welcome, there are some critical factors Canadians should need to consider while watching all this play out in Ottawa.

The first thing to remember is that sending our forces into combat is not the only alternative to standing on the sidelines and watching. The Harper government is among the world's most vocal supporters of Ukraine and Israel – but no Canadian troops or planes have ever been involved in the fighting in those countries. Opposition to the IS does not necessarily mean a direct combat role. Humanitarian aid, technical support, financial support, weapons, training – there are ways Canada can participate usefully in Iraq and Syria without intervening directly.

Sometimes, however, sending fighters jets is the right answer. Canada did it in Libya and Kosovo. Both times the public supported the decision, and with good reason. But the fight against the IS is far more loosely defined than those other conflicts. Who exactly are we fighting against? The IS, or all Islamic terror groups? Who are we allied with? The Syrian government or the Syrian opposition? How do we define victory? And what is the postwar political outcome that we seek to achieve? At this point, the answers to each of these questions is foggier than the last.

What is clear is that Mr. Harper wants to respond forcefully, as is his nature. He may yet make his case. But no one should believe that this is a battle that will begin and end with a few fighter-jet sorties.

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