In The Media

MPs owe Canadians a better debate before Iraq mission is extended

by George Petrolekas 

The Globe and Mail
March 13, 2015

Sometime this month, the government must introduce a motion to extend the Iraq mission.

Beyond extension, the motion may include options on the expansion and enlargement of the contribution. Opposition parties will focus on effectiveness to date to discourage expansion, and might use the recent death of Sgt. Andrew Doiron to raise the spectre of mission creep and challenge the government’s veracity over what our soldiers are doing.

The next Parliamentary debate will be different from the first, in part because of the shocking events in Ottawa and St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.

Canadians are also attuned to the small yet still alarming number of young citizens attracted to the Islamic State cause, and jihadi propaganda threatening locales like the West Edmonton Mall – as unlikely this might be. All of this is occurring in the context of the recently released video by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, and the national discussion on terrorism and Bill C-51.

Leaders will be more sensitive to the public mood given that we are six months from an election. No party will be as flippant as before, and Canadians will be gauging not only the merits of the extension but the sobriety and gravitas of the three party leaders as well. Will they debate merits or politicize everything?

It’s a given that the government will propose an extension of the mission, and it is very likely that the extension will be for longer than the traditional six-month increments in order to avoid a renewal debate in the midst of this year’s election.

While ISIS has been mostly contained in Iraq, we are far from achieving its destruction and degradation, particularly in Syria.

The air campaign is not sufficiently resourced, particularly in Syria, and expansion of the mission may be proposed. Coalition airpower can apply saturated coverage but cannot sustain that in Syria. Vast swaths of IS-controlled territory is not patrolled daily. To liberate Mosul, the coalition must be able to seal the city off from all reinforcement while suppressing IS elsewhere. More planes will be needed.

Extending the air mission to Syria was previously rejected because Canada did not have permission from the government of Bashar Al-Assad. Although the Assad regime is the internationally recognized government, Canada does not recognize its legitimacy and may dispense with the legal niceties and permit CF-18’s to engage IS targets in Syria.

There may be requests to enlarge the advisor component. To prepare the Iraqis and the Kurds for the liberation of Mosul, thousands of soldiers must be properly trained. Bring in more advisors and the quicker Mosul could be freed. Rapidity is important, as the longer it takes to dislodge IS the more difficult the battles to come will be.

The mission’s effectiveness will also be considered through the lens of expense. We now know the mission’s six-month cost is estimated to be $120-million. Much will also be said again on whether Canada is involved ground combat or not.

The elephant in Parliament is the growing influence of Iran. The coalition was seemingly not informed of the Tikrit assault, and the Iraq’s reliance on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and fighter aircraft raises many questions.

Coalition assistance was predicated on improved governance in Iraq and repairing sectarian divides. Those conditions appear betrayed as Iranian involvement calls into question the aim of pluralistic government. The wider use of Shia militias makes it difficult to repair the damage caused by Sunni marginalization.

We should not accept a potential civil war between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims, or an ethno-religious redrawing of Iraqi borders.

The military focus should be on how to best dismantle the Islamic State quickly. Coalition strategy is seemingly entwined in a complicated environment where destroying IS is being subverted to serve the needs of multiple agendas of the Kurds, the Shia Militia’s, the Baghdad government, Iran and the Sunni tribes.

The Conservatives will argue that the mission has stopped the spread of IS in Iraq and, more importantly, that the only way to stop radicalization and recruitment of Canadians and the instigations to domestic terror is to destroy IS as the source of inspiration.

The NDP will oppose the extension and certainly resist efforts on expansion or enlargement. Unable to defeat the Conservative majority, confinement of what Canadian Forces do – for example a promise not to direct airstrikes and not to accompany Iraqi forces near the front line – will likely form the NDP argument.

The Liberals will try and thread the needle, agreeing to an extension but not an expansion; demanding restrictions while suggesting humanitarian alternatives.

The debate will hopefully be more serious than October’s debate, and will provide a glimpse before the election of how our party leaders will act as Canada’s future prime minister and shape Canadians’ judgements.

George Petrolekas is a Fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and on the Board of the CDA Institute. He has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and with NATO and has been an advisor to senior NATO commanders.

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