George Petrolekas is on the board of directors of the CDA Institute. He is the co-author of the 2014 Strategic Outlook, and has served in NATO, Bosnia, Cyprus and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his own.
On Monday, Parliament will debate a motion submitted by the government authorizing Canada's participation in the international coalition battling the terrorist militia Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) .
It will be an important debate and a chance for MPs and Parliament as a whole to redeem themselves in the eyes of many Canadians following the partisan buffoonery seen recently in Question Period. In matters of such import, it must act as a responsible body worthy of our democracy.
However, to judge by statements made Friday in the House by all party leaders, it seems that we will get not so much a debate as some acts of positioning for the next election.
Only the words and actions of the Islamic State itself have provided the motivation to act against them. Their expansionist operations, in which they have redrawn borders in their wake, and their well-documented atrocities as well as the implied threats to Canada and its allies make them singularly unique. Although their existence is somewhat connected to wider issues in both Syria and Iraq, IS is not uniquely related to them. They have a life of their own.
The response to IS has been engineered by a U.S. President whose greatest wish was to extricate America from its wars. There is no questionable intelligence driving events. Nor is it a campaign seeking to alter regional balances; nor is the likelihood of "mission creep" present, if Mr. Obama is to be believed. The objective, enunciated by Mr. Obama and repeated by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is the Islamic State. This is not George W. Bush's ill-conceived war against Saddam Hussein.
Yet, partisan quips equating the current response to the 2003 invasion of Iraq creep into the debate. Statements are phrased in a manner as to imply or introduce themes irrelevant to the present debate, such as what an MP or minister might have argued years ago.
The debate such as it will be is important on several levels and so are the questions. They are about what we are willing to fight against or – or fight for, especially if we consider IS to be a pariah on the world stage.
Finally, our commitment will be an important topic, not only because many of our key allies have now joined, but over what will, by all accounts, be a long engagement and at a financial cost. The Canadian Forces have been operating under well-known financial pressures recently and the costs of this mission, if not paid for by incremental funds, will inevitably affect other parts of the Forces.
While the specific mission being debated is limited to Canadian participation, the wider context is the coalition's plan to contain IS need to be considered.
MPs should debate the merits of the plan as articulated by Mr. Obama, which is to degrade IS in Syria and destroy it in Iraq. For many months to come, persistent and precise air strikes will be conducted against IS installations, IS economic centres such as oil fields and refineries, IS training centres and logistic and command concentrations.
Within weeks, the mission will likely resemble a no-fly-zone mission, where aims will be to restrict the mobility of IS. In time, when a suitable ground force is trained or assembled, a ground campaign is intended to finally sweep Iraq and Syria clear of IS concentrations.
If MPs believe that the plan is flawed, or that IS is not a danger, they should say so, but also why they believe this to be the case. Canadians should also know what they would alternatively propose if either of the aforementioned apply. But Canadians also need to hear from opposition parties how their alternatives would protect those whom the IS has targeted and why Canada should not play a role in their direct protection.
With respect to the commitment itself, MPs should debate the following.
First, who will be commanding the mission – in other words, who will Canada's CF-18s be receiving orders from?
The government has indicated that operations will be contained to airspace over Iraq but opened the possibility of expanding operations over Syria if authority was obtained under international law.
What specific conditions would be considered acceptable for this expansion? A Security Council resolution? An invitation by the Assad government? And would the government seek additional support from Parliament if this were to occur.
However, the heart of Islamic State is to be found in Syria and parties should make clear why they would object to targeting of IS in Syria.
Second, will there be any other geographic limit to the extent of RCAF missions?
Third, with a time limit to the deployment, will the government seek additional parliamentary support if the mission is to be extended?
Fourth, how will this mission be funded? Will government provide incremental funding to the Canadian Forces or will it be funded from current funding allocations?
Sixth, has a Status of Forces Agreement been negotiated with Iraq and its neighbours, and what protections are offered to Canadian soldiers wherever they are based?
These are critical questions regarding a commitment of Canada's forces. The questions should be serious, devoid of partisan quips and theatrics, and the answers forthright and clear within limits of operational security. Canadians should expect no less.