Prime Minister Stephen Harper defends his plan to send Canadian pilots to fight ISIS from the air space over Syria, despite attacks by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair over the mission's legality.

Harper laid out his proposal to extend the current combat mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS or ISIL, until March 31, 2016, during a speech to the House Tuesday.

Perhaps more controversially, however, Harper also wants to give the Canadian Armed Forces authorization to mount airstrikes in Syria.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pointed to Article 51 of the UN Charter to justify strikes in Syria, though it remains unclear exactly how that provision would apply in this case, say experts. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Both the New Democrats and the Liberals have indicated they will vote against the motion, in part because they believe Canada should focus its efforts on humanitarian and diplomatic measures. They have also raised concerns about whether Canada has the right under international law to strike targets in Syria since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not given his consent to the strikes.

Assad is four years into a bloody civil war that has seen him crush any opposition to his rule.

Conservative ministers on Wednesday pointed to the United Nations' Article 51, which refers to the right of self-defence. Mulcair zeroed in on that point in question period.

"The United States wrote to the [UN]

secretary-general as required under Article 51 of the UN Charter and laid out their legal case for their planned intervention in Syria. Has the prime minister written to the United Nations laying out Canada's justification for their planned intervention in Syria?" Mulcair asked.

Harper downplayed the risk to ignoring international law.

"If [Mulcair] is suggesting that there is any significant legal risk to lawyers from ISIL taking on the Government of Canada and winning, the Government of Canada's view is the chances of that is negligible," the prime minister said.

'Idiocy' passing for argument

That led to a rebuke from Mulcair, which in turn triggered a warning from House Speaker Andrew Scheer.

"Extraordinary, Mr. Speaker. Living in a Canada where that sort of idiocy passes for argument," Mulcair said.

"The prime minister thinks he's above international law. He's not and Canada is not."

Nicholson says airstrikes in Syria are logical extension6:01

Earlier in the day, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson defended the government against criticism that it hasn't put enough emphasis on humanitarian and diplomatic measures in its mission to Iraq.

"We're the sixth largest single-country donor to Syria and the fifth-largest to Iraq," Nicholson told reporters at a briefing.

"We don't stand on the sidelines when it comes to assistance, and we will continue that," he said. "Canada is doing its share, and will continue to do its share."

'No Iraq-Syria border'

In an interview on CBC News Network on Wednesday morning, Defence Minister Jason Kenney told Heather Hiscox that, "as far as ISIS is concerned, there is no Iraq-Syria border."

But he stressed that Canada has "no interest in getting involved in the Syrian civil war, in any shape or form."

Kenney on ISIS mission8:31

Kenney was initially slated to appear alongside Nicholson at the briefing, but his lectern was removed from the stage shortly before the briefing was set to begin.

According to his office, "something came up."

Legal advice

Just before noon, Kenney, who was flanked by representatives from the Syrian, Chaldean, Sunni and Iraqi-Canadian communities, stopped by the House foyer to take questions from reporters.

He said the decision to authorize airstrikes in Syria was based in part by legal analysis he received from the Judge Advocate General — "the chief lawyer to the Canadian military," he noted, "and, in fact, the top adviser to me as minister of national defence."

Kenney said it is the view of the judge advocate-general that such actions are justified under Article 51 of the United Nations charter, and specifically the right of collective and individual self defence.

"The sovereign democratically elected government of Iraq has asked Canada and allied countries to help them defend their innocent civilians from terror attacks being launched out of eastern Syria in a part of that country which the Syrian government either is unwilling or unable to control," he said.

Kenney dismissed the argument that such a move could ultimately help Assad consolidate power.

"We should not allow our opposition to Assad regime to give this genocidal terrorist organization a safe haven in parts of the country that Assad refuses to or cannot control," he said.

"The Syrian civil war is a humanitarian disaster, but it's a multi-sided civil war. We are not picking sides. We are picking the side of vulnerable minority communities in eastern Syria and Iraq."

'Doesn't hold water'

That answer seems unlikely to mollify Mulcair.

Speaking with reporters shortly before Kenney's appearance, he said airstrikes taking place in Syria would "obviously" be done with the "complicity," if not necessarily the approval, of the Assad regime.

Mulcair says we should provide weapons to Iraqis2:21

"He has fighters, and if he didn't want the Americans and Canadians to drop bombs on his country, he would react," Mulcair noted.

"But he is not reacting, because we're helping that dictator who has used war crimes and criminal weapons against his own civilian population. That's where we are."

The motion is scheduled to be debated on Thursday and will go to a vote next week. 

Although the prime minister has made it a hallmark of his government to give MPs the opportunity to debate and vote on proposed military missions, parliamentary consent is not actually required to deploy Canadian troops.