As I previously mentioned in my article about the Canadian federal election, the Liberal Party of Canada ran on a platform to increase military spending while cutting nonessential positions and withdrawing from Canada’s contribution to the combat mission in Iraq and Syria. In October of 2015, newly elected Canadian Prime Minister (PM) Justin Trudeau confirmed that he would keep his campaign promise of withdrawing Canadian CF-18s from the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS; in fact, his first move after the election was to call U.S. President Barack Obama and inform him of Canada’s pending withdrawal from combat operations in Syria and Iraq.[1]

In Trudeau’s defense, he did acknowledge a need for military support in the region, but believes that Canada’s contribution would be more impactful by increasing the number of SOF troops on the ground in a training role for local forces. His hopes are to double the size of the SOF task force in the region, which would obviously be a welcomed addition to the fight against IS. So where does that leave Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces? It’s a difficult issue that is hotly debated among the Canadian public. Defence diplomacy and military assistance (DDMA) missions like this are very complex and most of Canada is unaware of all that goes into them. The approach to dealing with IS must be multifaceted.

There is merit to the bombing campaign: It helps limit IS freedom of mobility, it limits their industrial and financial resources, it eliminates high-profile targets, and it supports current ground operations. On the other hand, the contribution to any aerial bombing campaign is very expensive. Canada is a middle power, with limited funding for our defense budget, which is around half of the NATO recommendation of two percent GDP (Canada is currently sitting around one percent)[2].

Continuous bombing sorties could very quickly deplete the allocated funds. Politically, the Liberal government is sticking to its guns and believes that this is the right move for Canadian forces in the region. Expanding the SOF training mission in Iraq looks like a solid contribution to the fight against IS as “over the past 10 years, Canada developed a tremendous level of expertise in training, in intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan. […] Recent history has shown conflicts similar to the one with ISIS need to have their resolution on the ground.”[3] A very valid point.

Will Canada's new prime minister weaken military alliances?

Although Trudeau’s argument is valid, this move has still gathered its fair share of critics, and I’m one. With the Paris attacks, and more recent IS attacks in Southern Asia, most of the free world is stepping up their fight against IS. French President Hollande has called for “a union of all who can fight this terrorist army in a single coalition,”[4] and while most of our allies are making deeper commitments to the fight against IS, Canada seems to be reluctant to support our allies when they ask for help.

Withdrawing for financial reasons is somewhat acceptable, but withdrawing to simply keep a hopeful campaign promise when the situation has changed is not. Kurdish Chief of Staff Jabar Yawar has called the plan to withdraw a bad idea: “It is bad news for us. Canada was a major partner in the coalition and it was a great help to Kurdistan.” This implies that Canada is no longer a help to the Kurdish forces fighting IS. The international community also seems to disagree with Canada’s move, which was made evident when the Canadian minister of national defence was not even invited to meet with international defence ministers as part of the anti-ISIS campaign that took place in Paris on January 20th.

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Not only are the Canadian warplanes helping the Kurds on the ground, but only one month ago, the Canadian CF-18s were diverted while on a sortie to assist Canadian SOF who became actively engaged in a 17-hour firefight against IS forces. Without the Canadian fighters already being in the air, who knows how long the ground forces would have had to wait for air support—or how the battle would have changed.

Will Canada's new prime minister weaken military alliances?If Canada does withdraw its jets before the end of the current coalition mandate, it must contribute heavily to the ground mission. Trudeau’s plan of doubling our effort on the ground is not enough. Going from 69 to 140 SOF troops in a training role will be welcomed, but is nothing compared to the 900+ trainers that Canada sent to Afghanistan, and the international threat by IS is far greater than that of the Taliban or al-Qaeda ever was. With the end of Canada’s aerial combat mission ending just two short months from now, one has to ask, “Why withdraw now when you’re needed most?” It just doesn’t make sense to lose face with our allies now.

(Images courtesy of  macleans.com, o.canada.com and forces.gc.ca)

References

[1] Alexander Panetta, Alexander. (Oct 2015). “Trudeau tells Obama he’s Sticking to Plan to Wind Down Canada’s Mideast combat,” Global News. Accessed January 17, 2016, http://globalnews.ca/news/2287899/world-leaders-congratulate-trudeau-win/

[2] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (2016). “Military Expenditure Database”. Accessed January 17, 2016, http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex

[3] Trudeau, Justin. (Jan 20, 2016).  “Trudeau Questioned On ‘Logic’ Of ISIS Plan At World Economic Forum,” Huffington Post Online. Accessed January 17, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/01/20/trudeau-isis-airstrikes-world-economic-forum_n_9030096.html

[4] Hollande, Francoise. (November 2015). Quoted in “Trudeau’s ISIS quagmire,” MacLean’s Online. Accessed January 17, 2016. http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/justin-trudeaus-isis-quagmire/