ISIS mission debate in Parliament leaves more questions than answers

Three different visions and, at the moment, more questions than answers as Parliament debates the proposed extension of the ISIS mission today.

Three different visions set against an election backdrop, Commons debate begins today

Prime Minister Harper is applauded after introducing a motion in the House of Commons on Tuesday to expand and extend Canada's war against ISIS into Syria. The full parliamentary debate takes place today. (The Canadian Press)
Fourteen years ago, then U.S. president George W. Bush promised to "rid the world of evil-doers." He failed spectacularly.

Today, MPs begin debating Stephen Harper's plan to extend the military mission against this decade's version of Bush's evil-doers — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS.

The Conservatives argue that extending Canada's direct military engagement in the region for another year is critical to stopping jihadi extremists who have specifically named this country, and Canadians, as targets.

They are also citing another U.S. president — who is far more popular with Canadians — to back up their case for expanding air strikes into Syria.

"We will proceed on the same basis as the Obama administration,'' tweeted Conservative MP Bernard Trottier late Wednesday, "including notifying the UN" as required under article 51 of the UN Charter, which sets out the right to assist another member state, meaning Iraq in this case, in "collective self defence.''

NDP leader Tom Mulcair said Tuesday that more humanitarian aid, not bombs, is what's needed. (The Canadian Press)
New Democrats believe Canada can make a more effective contribution to the battle against ISIS by focusing on humanitarian aid in the region.

The Liberals come down in the middle. They oppose the Canadian air strikes, but support having Canadian military trainers continue working with Iraqi soldiers so they are capable of defeating ISIS, at least in their country.

So, three different approaches. One objective. And many still unanswered questions about whether any of these approaches can fully stop ISIS from expanding its grip in an already volatile region; or from recruiting disillusioned young people from Western nations to engage in terrorist acts where they live.

Election backdrop

Today's debate, of course, plays out against the backdrop of a looming election set for this fall in which national security is vying with the economy as the top of mind issue.

Conservatives increasingly are playing the national security card as a wedge that separates them from the opposition parties, beginning with the decision last October to send six CF-18 fighter jets and support personnel, as well as 69 special forces personnel to train Iraqi soldiers.

"We've had an outstanding record these past six months," Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson told reporters on Wednesday. "Our commitment is to degrade [ISIS] and that will be the focus of our operations in the region."

The prime minister is more cautious in his assessment. He acknowledged this week that the air strikes so far had "more or less halted" the advance of ISIS, but the group continues to control vast tracts of territory in both Iraq and Syria.

There's also some confusion over what, precisely, the government means by "degrading'' ISIS.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau argued that expanding the war into the chaos that is Syria will only make a bad situation worse. (The Canadian Press)

"For me that means when ISIS has been degraded to the point where it can no longer pose a threat to Canada or global security,'' says Defence Minister Jason Kenney, who only a day earlier told CBC's Power and Politics that the goal was to defeat ISIS.

For the opposition parties, all this cautious language is proof that Ottawa's military mission lacks clear objectives, and a clear exit strategy.

New Democrats insist the government is committing Canada to an open-ended mission, one more likely to last 10 years, as was the case in Afghanistan, rather than another 12 months.

These are the kinds of questions Conservative MPs will need to address in today's debate as they try to sell the message that only their party has a plan to protect Canadians from Islamist extremism.

New Democrats will have a similar challenge as they try to explain how scrapping a military mission and replacing it with increased aid will better protect Canadians, and better serve Canada's national interests.

"We choose people over weapons," said New Democrat MP Helene Laverdière.

But the party hasn't said how much more it would commit beyond the $67 million earmarked by the Conservatives, an amount that makes Canada the fifth largest aid donor in the region.

A complicated legality

Also to be addressed are the questions over Canada's legal basis for joining the U.S. in bombing ISIS targets inside Syria.

Harper says Canada will follow the lead of Barack Obama and not consult with or inform Syria's Bashar al-Assad, the beseiged leader whose murderous bent rivals ISIS.

Assad's regime is accused of using chemical weapons against civilians in a civil war that has killed as many as 200,000 people and made refugees of even more.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau believes that expanding air strikes into Syria is counter-productive, and will only make an already unstable situation worse.

"I believe that the unintended but predictable consequence of helping Bashar al-Assad consolidate his grip on power in Syria is definitely something that would qualify as making the situation worse,'' he says.

Conservatives have their own questions for Trudeau on Thursday, specifically why he didn't acknowledge the jihadist threat to Canada in his speech this week responding to the prime minister's motion to extend the mission.

The outcome of the debate is not in doubt. The motion will be approved by the Conservative majority in the Commons. 

The outcome of this longer military mission, 14 years after another U.S.-led mission was supposed to rid the world of evil-doers, is far less clear.


Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was the CBC's national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.