David Bercuson – Canadians deserve better answers about the IS mission

This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail, Dec. 18, 2015.

Justin Trudeau’s position on the use of Canadian air assets in the bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria raises more questions than it answers and begs answers from the Prime Minister himself.

Throughout the election campaign, Mr. Trudeau repeated the mantra that, if elected, he would withdraw the six-pack of CF-18s currently flying bombing missions against IS, the group of pitiless murderers that has declared war on all of us. He never explained why. Whenever he was asked the straightforward question “If you aren’t prepared to use force against these people, just who would you use force against?” the answer was always evasive.

A majority of Canadians supported the air campaign when it was started about a year ago – and still do. It’s a good guess that even more are perfectly happy to continue killing or containing IS after the horrors of the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, the Nov. 13 massacre in Paris, the IS-inspired killing rampage in San Bernardino, Calif., and deadly bombings in Ankara and Beirut.

There is no indication that Mr. Trudeau is a religious or moral pacifist and thus against the use of force in principle. Indeed, government “insiders” have told various reporters that Canada will keep its air tankers and reconnaissance aircraft in the region to help the bombing campaign. That makes little sense. If we are against the use of force to contain IS, why are we directly willing to aid those who are prepared to do so? As any fighter pilot knows, when a tanker is needed to carry out a mission, any old mission tanker will do – U.S., Canadian, British, etc. No tankers, no missions.

As for our CP-140s, they have long been configured to guide bombers to hit ground targets, as they did in Libya. They may not pull the trigger on the sniper rifle, but they do call out the windage and elevation for the sniper who is actually doing the shooting.

Mr. Trudeau says he is going to carry through with his promise because Canadians gave him a mandate to do it. That’s not a viable explanation. Canadians voted for him and his party for a lot of reasons last October, but the mission in the Middle East was hardly high on anyone’s political agenda. And besides, that vote took place before the last round of murder and mayhem by IS.

The people around Mr. Trudeau claim that all the major leaders he has talked to are okay with his projected withdrawal. That is no doubt a fig leaf. The French are increasing their bombing, as is the United States; the British just joined the air campaign; and even the Germans have sent military planes, though only to do reconnaissance for now. So they are all going in one direction while Mr. Trudeau is moving in the opposite way? That makes no sense either.

More likely those leaders are loath to interfere in the internal politics of another country by openly declaring their disappointment in Canada.

There is the possibility that Mr. Trudeau has decided – and is telling our allies – that Canada’s training mission (currently consisting of fewer than 60 soldiers) will be considerably ramped up as the jets are withdrawn. But training is fraught with problems of its own, as the U.S. and other countries have found out in Africa, Iraq and other places. You can train until you are blue in the face, but if the trainees are not motivated to fight, they won’t, no matter how well trained or equipped. IS’s triumphs over the Iraqi army proved that. And, as our new Minister of National Defence has declared, a country that wishes to “train” had better know who it is training and what the blowback can be in a place where so many armed groups are competing and killing each other.

Most Canadians no doubt wish the new government well, especially in its most important task: to defend Canada, its people, its interests and its allies. The new government might start by explaining why it’s so determined to get Canadian jets out of the region.

David Bercuson is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and director of international policy at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.


4 thoughts on “David Bercuson – Canadians deserve better answers about the IS mission”

  1. “It’s unbelievable and unacceptable that more than 60 nations comprising this coalition that have the most modern aircraft and weapons at their disposal have been conducting their campaign in Iraq for 14 months and IS still remains in the country.”

    Iraq’s former PM Nouri al-Maliki

    The US and it’s partners are NOT repeat NOT targeting ISIS!!! That isn’t particularly surprising since our allies who we are supposed to rush to help with out asking any questions are the ones responsible for the rise, arming and protection of ISIS. Did any of these partners ask us before setting out to over throw the legal government in Syria, violating international law? I get sick and tired of people who think Canada isn’t a sovereign country and our sole purpose is to be Americas bitch. If you hate Canada and love the US move.

    Lets be clear. There are a quarter of a million dead people and at least 4 million displaced at least 25,000 of which are coming to Canada and that was purposely done by or allies and friends. The cost of good trade ties has grown to large. It is time for some one to stand up and say enough already. Not only would we be doing ourselves a favour but we would also be doing our friends a favour. An intervention is more than due.

    I have come to live with the fact that governments are going to waste our money. Like dropping $150,000 bomb on a motorcycle. But what I can not get behind in any way shape or form is sending the members of the Canadian Forces out to possibly get hurt or killed on what is nothing more than a PR stunt with no benefit at all for Canada or to serve a high purpose like a (real) R2P mission. Our men and women deserve far better than that.

  2. I agree 100% with Mr. Bercusion’s point that “Canadians deserve better answers about the ISIS mission”. It goes without saying that the more information we have the better decisions we make. However it should not just be the government we look to for answers.

    For some time, academics and think tanks in this country have done very little, at least publicly, to further public understanding of this global issue or to suggest solutions to the root causes of this conflict. Many of these date back to World War I and the West’s desire to maintain control over Mideast oil reserves. Instead the focus is always on ISIS or terrorism which drives up public fear, makes us more willing to send planes and troops, allows global leaders to obscure the real intent of their actions and thus avoid public pressure to address the actual problems they created.

    As in 2003, when the U.S. and Britain invaded Iraq, nothing in the Syrian crisis is as it seems or is as generally portrayed in the mainstream press. One does not have to dig very deep to learn that what is really happening in the Mideast is a proxy war for regional power between Shia and Sunni dominated countries supported on one side by Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria and now Russia; and on the other side by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and the West. Over the past few years, ISIS has been both financially and militarily supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US, as a way to indirectly attack Syria and overthrow the brutal Assad regime. Unfortunately, these international backers lost control of their clandestine asset and ISIS began attacking European and North American targets. The duplicitous tactics of the US in this region, basically supporting all sides of the conflict and playing them off against one another, are not working and they are now out of control.

    Is it any wonder then that the Trudeau government has been cautious to commit to how Canada should restructure our involvement in this conflict? As Mr. Bercusion indicated, it’s almost impossible to know who to train and support when everyone is fighting everyone. It was a wise and prudent decision for Canada not to join the Iraq war. It certainly would seem that a similar approach, or at least a much scaled back military involvement, is also needed this time around.

    In all this, there is only one certainty, and that is that hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians are being killed or driven from their homes. Our limited resources should be used to help them either through immigration or other humanitarian efforts, not engage militarily in the quagmire that is the Syrian conflict.

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