Michael Bell is adjunct professor of political science at the University of Windsor, and also teaches at Carleton University. He served as Canada's ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Israel.
There is no "mission creep" in the battle against the attempt by Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) to create a caliphate in large chunks of Iraq and Syria. Instead there is unadulterated "mission gallop." We can already hear the tramp of Western boots in the sand, some of them quite possibly Canadian.
In rapid succession, over a matter of days, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain and Australia have committed themselves to participate in the air war against Islamic State positions in Iraq. They join the Arab states of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even hitherto abstruse Qatar in the aircraft onslaught. The Arabs have joined the Americans in bombing over Syria. Western forces are unlikely to do so, at least in the first instance, given Syria's incredibly contorted political landscape with president Bashar al-Assad the head of a pariah regime in Damascus. Turkey, long hesitant, is now weighing its alternatives.
Jordan's substantive contribution is deemed particularly valuable because that country offers the use of forward operating bases, combat search-and-rescue assets, secondary airfields and considerable intelligence resources. Jordan in even normal times is the closest of American Arab allies, in many ways Washington's surrogate. As the region's buffer state, the Hashemite kingdom is an asset neither the Americans nor its allies, particularly Israel, can afford to lose.
In military terms, Jordan aside, this Arab alliance offers little of hard substance that the United States cannot provide through its own resources. The present multipronged approach is nevertheless symbolically critical, and hence politically essential. It proves that the United States can, if the fear of a common menace is great enough, pull in a wide range of partners. In contrast to previous alliance building, this coalition has been assembled at lightning speed.
Any inhibitions respecting broad Canadian participation voiced by politicians and commentators in this country over the last few days are being swept aside in the tumult. With detailed American requests at the highest levels forthcoming to Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is responding with gusto. Given his repeated call for a "principled foreign policy" he will not be inhibited. Mr. Harper urged Canadian participation in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He ensured Canada led the air war against Libya. He took responsibility for the most dangerous region in Afghanistan, Kandahar, even if at great cost and little success.
There should have been lessons learned. Whatever these are, Mr. Harper will not sacrifice a place at the forefront of the battle against ISIS, whatever the prospect of success and whatever the ultimate cost to Canadians in men and material. Components of Canada's rapid-response unit, JTF3, are already said to be on the front lines, despite government denials. Mr. Harper himself briefs Cabinet on the Islamic State issue.
The Prime Minister's only holdback is the effect that digging in so deeply may have on his party's re-election prospects. One can be sure there is much Conservative polling underway on this particular subject.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, are even now asserting that sizeable troops on the ground are ultimately a sine qua non to defeat the Islamic State. This will be a heavy and long-term commitment. IS forces may only number some 30,000 but that number is impressive. It has determination on its side. At senior levels IS is incongruously staffed to a large degree by Baathists from the old secular army of Saddam Hussein. Degrading that organization through the "shock-and-awe" air campaign now underway is impressive. Destroying that movement is another matter. Islamic State will metastasize endlessly as will Western and Canadian policies in response, whatever the assumptions made now.
Western "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan and Iraq have been abject failures, leaving behind a still more profound conundrum. Could this happen all over again? The Islamic State organization is on home turf. It is well funded, inter alia, by wealthy individuals in the Gulf whom governments there tolerate despite their own military commitments to the contrary. Its fighters are well motivated. They are utterly ruthless and local populations dare not defy them. The American-trained and equipped Iraqi army lives in fear of them. They benefit from myriad and ever-mutating local alliances. Their destruction in Iraq, should that indeed ever be the case, still leaves Syria open. Western ground troops there seem inconceivable. Bashar al-Assad is still there.
It is ironic that the American-led invasion of Iraq and the abortive Arab Spring in Syria, albeit the latter a noble failure, combined to let loose the explosive radicalism we are faced with today. The subsequent power vacuum unleashed unchecked ethnic nationalism and extremist ideology. The law of unintended consequences prevails again. Whether "boots on the ground" will ultimately be the answer is more than doubtful. Not a happy prognosis in the face of radical ethno-nationalism and religious extremism.