Justin Trudeau's still-unclear war against ISIS

It has been well over a year since Justin Trudeau and his Liberals first voted against deploying airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but the country is still no closer to knowing what he intends to do instead, Chris Hall writes.

New plan to emerge sometime in 2016, in the meantime airstrikes continue

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau receives a standing ovation from his caucus in March after voting against the Harper government's plan to expand airstrikes against ISIS. He still hasn't spelled out what exactly he will do instead. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Justin Trudeau has shown a deft touch over his first two months as prime minister, focussing public attention on the issues he cares most about: beginning a new partnership with indigenous people, making a new commitment to the global effort to reduce carbon emissions and opening the door to 25,000 Syrian refugees.

He's been far less adept at explaining why he intends to withdraw the six Canadian fighter jets from the airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq, in favour of increasing the number of military trainers in the region.

That's at least partly because Trudeau hasn't explained when those new trainers will arrive, how many more will be sent and what, exactly, they will be doing once they get there.

The question came up again Wednesday in a town hall meeting with the prime minister sponsored by Maclean's magazine. Trudeau was asked, simply, to explain why the jets were being withdrawn. His answer was anything but simple.

"What we're doing right now is working with our allies and coalition partners looking at how best Canada can continue to help militarily in substantive ways that offer real help in a way that is specifically lined up with our capacities as Canadians," Trudeau said.

"We do some things better than just about anyone else in the world and looking at our capacity to do that in smarter ways is exactly what Canadians asked me to do in the last election campaign."

When events intercede

That last part is the closest Trudeau has come to an explanation, and repeats what he said just over a month ago at the G20 summit in Turkey.

It is the kind of reasoning that has everything to do with domestic politics and the election campaign his Liberals had just won.

"We made a clear commitment in the campaign to stop the bombing mission by Canadian jets and replace it with a role for Canada that is still a serious military role, but leaned more towards training of local troops to be able to bring the fight directly" to ISIS, Trudeau told reporters covering the trip.

"That's the commitment we made very clearly throughout the campaign and we have a mandate to do that."

Trudeau: 'Yes we will be doing more'

6 years ago
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters about Canada's engagement to fight ISIS 2:49

Those statements are true enough. Canadians threw their support to the Liberals, and who would argue that a political leader should renege on a clear campaign promise.

But, as with the decision to extend the timeframe for the 25,000 Syrian refugees, events interceded.

Start with the deadly massacre in Paris by ISIS-inspired extremists last month, just as Trudeau and other world leaders departed for that G20 summit. This wasn't a desperate act of a losing force, this was a carefully-planned and executed assault that has become a strong propaganda tool for the jihadists.

Then there's the suggestion Trudeau has made that the airstrikes are a less effective contribution by Canada to the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, even as National Defence continues to post what it calls successful missions, eight in December and another 13 in November. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion did indicate in the Commons last week that Canada is involved in just two per cent of the overall airstrikes and the new government prefers to focus its future efforts on those things "where Canada will make a real difference."

But neither Trudeau nor Dion addresses the main issue: Why is training more effective than airstrikes? Or, even more pertinent, why is it that Canada can't and shouldn't do both?

A new plan?

U.S. President Barack Obama insisted this week that the strikes are having considerable success in reclaiming territory overrun by ISIS, and in killing the group's leaders.

At the same time, there doesn't seem to be any pressure from the Americans for Canada to continue with the air mission.

Just this week, for example, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan called a letter from his U.S. counterpart, which urged more military contribution from allies such as Canada, a "routine" communication.

"We have to look at the entire situation," Sajjan told reporters after cabinet met. "We want to make sure that what we contribute is not about political pressure or political expedience."

Germany is the latest European state to join the fight against ISIS this month. It is sending 1,200 non-combat personnel, six reconnaissance jets, refuelling aircraft and the frigate Augsburg to work alongside the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the Mediterranean. (Fabian Bimmer/Reuters)

It's Sajjan responsibility to put together a new plan for Canada's contribution to the mission against ISIS, and what training Canadian Forces officers will provide.

One of the options is to build on what this country is contributing in Ukraine. It includes tactical training by roughly 200 Canadian Forces soldiers and significant financial assistance to promote democratic institutions, which clearly won't be needed for some time in the case of Syria.

And that may be the best option as Sajjan prepares his recommendation to cabinet, expected early in 2016.

Until then, Canada's airstrikes continue. And the Liberals remain focused on their own set of "more effective" activities, including resettling all those refugees who have fled the fighting that rages on in Syria and Iraq.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is 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.


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