Canada Votes 2015: The Middle East factor

Five questions about what to expect on Operation Impact during this year’s federal election.

By: /
2 June, 2015
Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornets depart after refueling with a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron over Iraq October 30, 2014. The jets are part of the Canadian Armed Forces' contribution to coalition assistance to security forces in the Republic of Iraq who are fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Picture taken October 30, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Perry Aston/Handout via Reuters
Wisam Salih
By: Wisam Salih

Founding director and senior fellow, Council on International Policy

Wisam Salih writes in advance of Tuesday’s panel, “Canadian Foreign Policy and the Next Federal Election,” hosted by the Canadian International Council, National Capital Branch, in Ottawa.

Canada’s foreign policy towards the Middle East has been overwhelmingly focused on Iraq and Syria as of late, especially since Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the non-combat deployment of Canadian troops to Iraq to counter Islamic State (ISIS) militants last September.

With a federal election around the corner, public opinion has seemingly thus far supporting the Conservatives. This military action should not, however, be taken for granted by the current government, as the tide may change with the situation on the ground rapidly changing from week-to-week. This will likely prove to be particularly true if more Canadian lives are lost.

Considering this, it is worth recapping the details of Canada’s Operation Impact and where main political parties, and Canadians, stand on the issue now, as we head into full election mode.

1. What has the Canadian mission included so far?

Canada’s military contribution in the fight against the ISIS includes six fighter planes, one aerial refueling and transport plane, two surveillance aircraft, 600 military personnel and 69 Special Forces troops, who serve in an advisory capacity.

According to Government of Canada statistics, during the period from November 2014 to May 2015, the Royal Canadian Air Force has struck 80 ISIS fighting positions, 19 ISIS equipment and vehicles, and 10 ISIS explosives factories and storage facilities.

2. Is this a shift in Canada’s approach to war?

In the wake of Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan, followed by its contribution to the NATO-led mission in Libya in 2011, the Conservative government has chosen a new approach to military engagement and regional security in developing, war-torn countries. Since those larger missions, the current government has preferred somewhat limited and targeted opportunities for engagement, which might mean, for example, a campaign that includes hundreds of military personnel and airstrikes as opposed to a full-scale military intervention with troops in a combat role. From a political perspective, this approach is much more practical, given Canada’s limited military capability.

It seems that Canadians would agree. A poll released in February 2015, revealed that Canadian support for an extended military operations in Iraq and Syria was higher than Canadian deployment to Afghanistan.

3. Where do the three lead political parties stand?

While it was the decision of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative government to send military personnel and equipment to Iraq, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party both voted against the mission’s extension in March. The Liberals’ disagreement could be situated within the context of the lead-up to a federal election, as high-level Liberal MPs have expressed the need for a military solution, as well as Canada’s role within that solution. The NDP on the other hand, have largely come out against Canadian military action, citing instead humanitarian opportunities to assist displaced Iraqis.

4. What questions might we expect this election campaign?

Surely, Canada’s participation in the fight against ISIS will be an issue in the 2015 federal election. Given Sergeant Andrew Doiron’s death in Iraq by friendly fire earlier this year, questions are already being asked, and will continue to be asked, such as: What is the exact scope of the Canadian mission? How long will the deployment continue? Is there a clear exit strategy to bring Canadian military personnel home? How close will Canadian Special Forces be to the front battle lines?

All of these questions will not only spark a debate in the lead-up to this fall’s election, but should also generate a wider discussion on how each of the political parties view international security and military intervention.

5. Which factors might sway Canadians?

Canadians’ support for the mission will depend on a number of factors; firstly, further Canadian casualties, especially if ISIS achieves further territorial and tactical gains in Iraq and Syria.

Secondly, if more countries join the fight against ISIS, Canadians will likely feel positively about the mission, as a larger effort for international security and stability.

Thirdly, threats by ISIS to attack Canadians may further garner support for the mission, as Canadians — and certainly the government, as they have already done — will perceive domestic national security as contingent on military success against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Although a tactical victory against ISIS does not mean a defeat of homegrown radicalization in Canada, it may decrease flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria. In other words, those considering going abroad to in places like Iraq, Syria and Somalia, may be deterred if they see coalition forces achieve military successes against ISIS.

But whether success can be achieved — and what success looks like — is, of course, the overarching foreign policy question hanging over Canada, and Canadian voters, this year.

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