Thomas Juneau is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He was a strategic analyst with the Department of National Defence from 2003 to 2014.
The optimal policy for Canada is to participate – albeit cautiously – in the coalition bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The terrorist attacks in Paris do not change this assessment. This is not a perfect approach. It is, however, the least bad alternative among a menu of distasteful options.
Canada's most vital interests – its security and prosperity – are not threatened by IS. Unlike Iraq and Syria's neighbours, Canada does not share a border with IS-controlled areas. Spillover in the form of massive refugee flows, border violence and large-scale infiltration by violent elements are not direct concerns. Canada should not, in other words, overestimate the threat.
That said, Canada has a number of important, though not vital, interests affected by IS. It is thus equally important not to underestimate the threat.
The first of these interests is homeland security: to protect against the possibility that Canadians, having learned terrorist skills in Iraq or Syria, could return home and launch attacks or train others, or that lone actors inspired by IS could self-radicalize and launch attacks on Canadian soil.
Canada's second interest is alliance management: It is essential for Canada to be – and be perceived as – a reliable ally. This is especially the case with respect to the United States, but also to a lesser extent with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Third, the rise of IS has an impact on Canada's regional interests – secondary priorities that are important but far from vital. The most prominent are the stability of Canada's regional partners, especially Turkey, Israel and Jordan. Canada also has an important interest in the stability of Lebanon, where tens of thousands of dual Canadian-Lebanese citizens reside.
It is on the basis of these interests that Canada's current approach, representing a modest commitment of air strikes, other niche capabilities (air-to-air refuelling and surveillance aircraft), training of Iraqi Kurdish forces, support for regional partners such as Jordan and humanitarian assistance, is optimal.
Doing more would not represent an improvement. The large-scale deployment of Western troops would hinder work toward political solutions by pouring oil on already burning fires. It would feed the Sunni narrative of external occupation, while it would rekindle violent Shia opposition in Iraq. It would create a costly quagmire, while it would be highly unlikely to allow the United States and its allies to achieve their goals.
What would be the cost of doing less, by ceasing Canada's contribution to the air strikes? Unlike what critics of the Liberal government claim, the negative fallout would be limited.
Materially, Canada's contribution is marginal, adding up to only 3 per cent of air strikes. The coalition would have no problem compensating should Canada withdraw. It is a myth, moreover, that an angry Washington would retaliate and penalize Ottawa; in the past, Canadian opposition to U.S. policies has typically not resulted in significant reprisals.
Supporters of the Liberal commitment add that there is no point in continuing a failed policy: Air strikes have not defeated IS so far, and are unlikely to do so.
Yet these arguments vacillate under scrutiny.
It is true that there is no military solution to defeat IS. It is a symptom of completely broken political processes in Iraq and Syria, and is not the fundamental cause of their troubles. As long as Sunnis in these two countries feel alienated, there will be ample oxygen for IS to thrive. This calls for political solutions.
The problem, however, is that Syria and Iraq will remain violent and dysfunctional for years to come. IS will therefore remain strong for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, Western air power is essential to stop its expansion and support local partners doing the actual fighting. Without these air strikes, IS would make further gains.
But for air power to maximize its success, it must have legitimacy, which is why the U.S. administration has rightly insisted on obtaining a buy-in from its Western and Arab partners. Canada`s opting out would represent a dent in this vital political condition for success. This is why Canadian participation matters, not because of its token material effort. It is a small but essential part of a broader strategy, and one consistent with traditional Canadian values of multilateralism, support for our allies and vulnerable partners, and commitment to international security.