Skip to main content

Jeffrey Simpson

Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose his words carefully. The territorial spread of the Islamic State, he told the House of Commons on Tuesday, "has been more or less halted." It has been "pushed back somewhat at the margins."

"More or less halted." "Pushed back somewhat at the margins." After more than six months of air assaults and episodic ground attacks against IS, its progress has been "more or less halted" and "pushed back somewhat at the margins." At this rate, by extension from the Prime Minister's own words, the movement's adversaries, such as Canada, are in for a long war.

The logic six months ago of entering the coalition against IS made yesterday's parliamentary motion to extend and deepen Canada's military mission for a year all but inevitable. Once Canada got in for a penny in this long and arduous struggle, it would be in for a pound – which is what Mr. Harper announced Tuesday.

Canada's air strikes will now extend to Syria, because the brutal logic of the military situation demanded it. Syria is IS's heartland, the location of its capital, the centre of its sought-after caliphate. Syria is even more chaotic than Iraq, which is saying something, and IS thrives on the vacuums created by chaos. There was never any logic to the government's initial position of fighting in Iraq but drawing a line against combat in Syria. Predictably, Mr. Harper erased the line Tuesday.

Mr. Harper insisted that any Canadian air combat missions over Syria would not require the "express consent" of the Syrian government. After all, Canada opposes the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Except that were IS diminished in Syria, Canada and its partners would have done Mr. Assad's work – since IS is his sworn enemy, and that of Iran, whose government Mr. Harper and his ministers never cease to condemn.

Once again, the logic of intervention in this cauldron prevents choices without unintended consequences. Helping Mr. Assad is one of these. Another is emboldening and empowering Kurds in northern Iraq, whom Canadians are assisting, to create an autonomous regime, thereby breaking away from the united federal Iraq that western powers wish to help create.

Selling this mission to Canadians, according to polling data, requires drawing a link between IS and Canadians at home. Some moral high-ground appeal, or some complicated explanation about the dangers of the Middle East, will not stir Canadians to action.

Instead, an extremely tenuous link to an IS threat against Canadians – a threat based on the ravings of a few IS spokespeople on social media – is what the government, having studied the polling data, needs to pound home for all it is worth. And so, from Mr. Harper on Tuesday: "IS has made it clear that it targets, by name, Canada and Canadians." The Conservative chorus will chant this hymn incessantly.

Wisely, Mr. Harper rejected Canadian participation in ground combat operations, although every military expert knows that dislodging IS will require such operations. The forces involved will have to come from the region: from Shia militias, other militias opposed to IS (including very unsavoury ones), the Iraq army (such as it is), Iran and, if they could bestir themselves, the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Egyptians and even the Turks, in whose neighbourhood IS has implanted itself. If these disparate forces and countries do not see it in their interest to defeat IS, then all the air bombings in the world will not.

So Canada, if it is serious, will be involved in this campaign beyond the one-year limit Mr. Harper set Tuesday. That is, unless the New Democrats or the Liberals, together or singly, form the next government, since both opposed the original mission and yesterday opposed its extension.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau both outlined a few of the dangers ahead, and denounced what they called "mission creep." They were very anxious for Canada to offer all assistance short of genuine help against IS, believing that more humanitarian aid is the right role for Canada, dealing in effect with the results of the conflict rather than its cause.

Mr. Mulcair did himself no good calling this "Mr. Harper's war." Mr. Harper didn't start the war and didn't ask for it. He could have had Canada take a pass and be left alone among its traditional allies, which is the preferred position of the NDP and Liberals.

Politically, Mr. Harper has the opposition parties where he wants them, splitting the anti-war vote, which represents less than half the electorate.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct