Canada’s policy on airstrikes: What does it mean?

Conventional Weapons, Featured, News

By Philip MacFie

The Canadian government has decided to remove its F-18 fighter jets from Iraq and make a different contribution to the coalition against ISIS. Policymakers have offered the public and international partners a rationale for the transition, but is this line of reasoning adequate?

The government’s position

The Liberal Party platform for the 2015 federal election promised: “We will end Canada’s combat mission in Iraq.” Effectively, this policy meant bringing home the six CF-18 aircraft involved in an ongoing bombing campaign against ISIS. Justin Trudeau, upon winning the election, instructed the Minister of National Defence to “work with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to end Canada’s combat mission in Iraq and Syria, refocusing Canada’s efforts in the region on the training of local forces and humanitarian support.” The federal government promised to withdraw Canadian fighter jets by the end of March 2016, the formal end date for Canada’s mission in Iraq.

At first glance, it seemed that the push to return Canada to an arguably more traditional foreign policy was behind this decision. Justin Trudeau  made this clear upon being elected Prime Minister: “I want to say this to Canada’s friends all around the world. Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world…. Well, I have a simple message for you. On behalf of 35 million Canadians: ‘We’re back!’” Trudeau appeared to argue that Canada is returning to its Middle Power roots, with a foreign policy based on international collaboration and humanitarian concerns.

Apparently in line with this thinking, the government is preparing to exit the coalition bombing campaign and focus on troop training. As Stéphane Dion (1420) explained on January 26, “With the plan we are preparing, Canada will be stronger to support our coalition to fight this terrorist group, the so-called Islamic State.” This explanation suggests that Canada is foregoing participation in the bombing mission to take on a role for which it is better suited.

Liberal MP Karina Gould (1830) stated that Canada would “ensure that our engagement is strategically targeted and well designed, not only to fight ISIL but also to address immediate threats to life, bolster regional stability, and strengthen local communities and governments.” She also said:

It is true that military and security efforts are vital to secure victory over those who are destabilizing the region and terrorizing the local populations, but they are not sufficient to secure a lasting peace for the people of Syria or Iraq…. We must not lose sight of the fact that the solutions to the crises in the region are first and foremost political, and that humanitarian and development needs are growing.

On February 8, the Prime Minister followed through on his government’s calls for a more balanced approach to the conflict in Syria and Iraq. He announced that Canada would pull its jets out of Iraq by February 22 and triple the size of Canada’s training mission. In addition, a government backgrounder revealed that Canada would provide $840-million over three years for humanitarian assistance and a further $270-million for government capacity-building. On top of financial and military assistance, Canada pledged to increase its diplomatic efforts to find a political situation to the conflict.

Calls for a more detailed rationale

This emphasis on basic human welfare is certainly welcome, but has been slow in coming. James Bezan, the Conservative defence critic, pointed out that Canada hasn’t “been clear on what the next steps will be and we have only been clear that we are going to withdraw the CF-18s.” He observed that Canada has been sidelined by the international community because of this lack of policy direction. Most notably, Canadian leaders were not invited to a high-level January 20 meeting in Paris on how the international community should respond to the crisis in Syria and Iraq. Granted, the government has now announced future security and humanitarian commitments, but not in time to avoid international consequences.

Furthermore, the existing government response does not fully explain the disengagement from the bombing campaign. In a recent interview with Embassy News, retired Canadian Lt.-Gen. Michael Day argued that “we need to explain why it’s either illegal, it’s immoral, it’s ineffective or we believe there is a better way to contribute.” Day added that if Canada is to transition from a combat role to one of training, then the federal government must clearly outline to Canadians “who we’re going to train and to what effect.”

At a press conference, a reporter followed up, asking “What is wrong with the bombing? Why are we ending it?” The Prime Minister responded, “Canada has many advantages including hard earned abilities on training local troops that we gained through ten years in Afghanistan and in other theatres where we can actually offer the best help in a different way.”

It is hard to see that the Prime Minister has offered anything new. A major question is still unanswered: Why did Canada not choose to continue the bombing mission and supplement it with the announced initiatives?

What’s missing in the government’s argument

According to Project Ploughshares co-founder Ernie Regehr, “Political stability ultimately does not issue from the barrel of a gun. The resort to force, even to military force that is clearly superior in every way to that of an adversary, is predictably ineffective when the objective is stable governance in a deeply divided society” (Disarming Conflict, p. 3).

Air raids are demonstrably ineffective. Project Ploughshares estimated in its 2015 Armed Conflicts Report that ISIS had 30,000 to 35,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq at the end of 2014. As of February 5, the Canadian Armed Forces calculated that ISIS force levels remained unchanged at 30,000. Despite the intense bombing, the Islamic State remains a very real threat in the Middle East.

In fact, this strategy is counterproductive, partly due to civilian casualties., a website that specifically tracks the effectiveness of the coalition air campaign, reports that 9,932 air strikes had been conducted as of January 23. A minimum of 862 civilians have reportedly been killed. Each time a civilian is killed, the coalition runs the risk of radicalizing surviving family members and friends.

As International Crisis Group notes, any peace in the region will require an effective civilian administration that can meet basic societal needs. Bombing raids destroy civilian infrastructure. The International Rescue Committee (p. 9) estimates that one-third of Syria’s water infrastructure has been damaged, with 50 per cent less water available than before war began. The coalition bombing campaign has almost certainly contributed to this destruction.

Armed conflict in Syria and Iraq has spawned humanitarian crises. Coalition bombing makes delivering humanitarian relief more difficult and increases the danger. Carlos Francisco, coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières projects in northern Syria, stated in a December 7, 2015 press release: “In recent days, with fighting in the east and west of Azaz district, and with the bombing getting closer and closer to our hospital, the risk to our patients and health staff is reaching unsustainable levels.”

Project Ploughshares advocates a balanced response to conflict, focusing on five elements: defence, development, democracy, disarmament, and diplomacy. The coalition has given defence a place of prominence in its response to ISIS while undervaluing the other four ‘d’s. But development, democracy, disarmament, and diplomacy are precisely what should inform Canada’s contribution to the fight against ISIS. It seems that the recently announced government policy change makes an effort at a more balanced approach. But now more than ever it is crucial that the merits of the new government’s proposed change of strategy be properly communicated to the public.

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