A UBC international relations expert says Canada’s involvement is first and foremost a political signal
Canada is part of the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group in Iraq and Syria. Allen Sens, a professor in UBC’s Dept. of Political Science, discusses Canada’s current role and highlights some future scenarios.
When does Canada’s participation in the coalition get underway, and what does it involve?
Right now we have an advance team in Kuwait, where our aircraft will be based. Canada already has a small group of Special Forces personnel providing advisory roles to the Iraqi military, in co-operation with the United States.
The next step is to actually send the aircraft, and that will come in the form of six CF-18 fighters and one mid-air refueller. We are also sending two Aurora reconnaissance aircraft, which will provide basic surveillance capacities.
Somewhat ironically, I think that the number of targets available for bombing has evaporated, and that we’re sending a bombing commitment precisely when this is not needed in a strictly military sense.
The total commitment, personnel-wise, will be about 600. It’s fairly modest by the standards of the British, French or Americans – but nevertheless it is a significant commitment with respect to the rest of the coalition.
Canada’s contribution is a political signal, first and foremost – not a military one. It’s a signal of commitment to our allies, of our willingness to be involved in the fight against ISIS.
Canada’s current involvement in the campaign is limited to six months. What can we expect beyond that timeline?
Once you’ve made a six-month commitment, it becomes challenging for any government to withdraw from that if they are asked to continue.
If we want to sustain the commitment, we have to rotate in personnel. If we have that capability – and I believe we do – then it may well be that the government renews our commitment for another six months.
What’s the risk of mission creep?
The number one mission creep element right now is: would we bomb in Syria? I don’t think we should have any illusions. If our commitment to the bombing campaign against ISIS is going to be effective, it probably means extending it into Syrian air space.
The element of mission creep that everyone is worried about is: will we send a large ground force commitment into the region? I think it’s more likely that we may see more Special Forces personnel committed to training and advisory roles.
Will Canada’s participation in the coalition be a key federal election issue in 2015?
Historically, these sorts of things don’t matter much in Canadian domestic politics. Even Afghanistan cannot be said to have been a major electoral issue, and that was a much more significant commitment over a much longer period.
The only way that Canada’s involvement is going to have an electoral impact is if there is a major event of some kind, where the government is shown to be negligent, or made a serious error or miscalculation.
I think this issue will be most significant in Quebec. Traditionally, public opinion in Quebec has been much more reluctant than the rest of the country with respect to Canadian foreign military engagement.
What else stands out about this conflict?
Everyone’s talking about ISIS’s strengths and capacities. It’s perfectly understandable – its brutality has become a horrible drama. And we talk of how much territory it “controls.” But really, it wouldn’t have taken much for anybody to take over that territory.
It’s not that ISIS is a ridiculously weak organization with no capacity. But its success to this point has been more a function of the weakness of Syria and Iraq than anything else. This is a classic example of a group with some capabilities and resources expanding into a vacuum.
If we want to get rid of ISIS, we need to find a way to strengthen the Iraqi state and solve the Syrian civil war. Until we do those two things, ISIS isn’t going to go away.
Related Links: UBC experts on Canada’s role in coalition against ISIS