Canada withdraws jets from Middle East

Ploughshares Americas, Conventional Weapons, Mideast, News

What this says about the future direction of Canadian foreign policy

By Philip MacFie

On October 20, 2015, Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau told U.S. President Barack Obama that Canada would withdraw its jet aircraft from their current mission in Iraq and Syria. The move, at first glance, is about the removal of airplanes from a combat zone. But there is more to the story than meets the eye.

According to the Department of National Defence (DND), Canadian CF-188 jets started launching air strikes in October 2014 against targets in Iraq and Syria as part of a U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in March 2015 that Canada would extend the mission for 12 months. Trudeau’s decision now cuts this extension short.

DND calculated that Canada’s contingent of six jets had conducted 1,060 sorties as of October 26. In contrast, in August the Air Force Times reported that U.S. planes had flown more than 30,320 of the operation’s 45,259+ missions. Canada has made only a small contribution to the bombing campaign and the withdrawal of six jets will not be a major loss for coalition operations.

More significant is what Trudeau’s decision means for Canada’s foreign policy. The answer may lie in his commitment to continued training of Kurdish forces and increased humanitarian aid for Iraq and Syria. Such support may suggest a foreign policy that places a greater emphasis on international development.

Some Canadian foreign policy analysts have made predictions on the future direction of Trudeau’s foreign policy. University of Toronto professor Robert Bothwell anticipates increased Canadian support for international organizations and the UN. Certainly, Trudeau has publically declared a desire to give Canada a “compassionate and constructive voice in the world.”

Trudeau’s first foreign policy decision is indeed a break with the most recent past. The previous government under Stephen Harper increased the involvement of Canadian armed forces in Afghanistan and committed military forces to conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Trudeau’s decision to bring Canada’s jets home may signal a more cautious approach to Canadian military involvement in overseas conflict.

Canada has long had a reputation for participating in multilateral humanitarian efforts such as peacekeeping. In the late 1990s Canada took a lead role in drafting the Land Mine Treaty (known as the Ottawa Treaty). But then, according to some foreign policy experts, Canada lost its way, as successive federal governments chose to focus on military intervention rather than meeting humanitarian needs.

Trudeau’s first foreign policy decision is only one act, but it might indicate Canada’s return to the pillars of earlier foreign policy.

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