Canada’s six-month commitment to the coalition fighting the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Iraq ends this April. Allen Sens, professor of political science at UBC, discusses next steps and the challenges that lie ahead.
Canada’s Iraq mission is near its deadline. What do you think will happen moving forward?
I think an extension is a foregone conclusion. Certainly the federal government has not indicated any kind of doubt. Its rhetoric has been very forceful against the Islamic State.
The open question is what shape would the commitment take. Is it going to change? I think those are the kinds of discussions we’re going to have, rather than will we or won’t we.
Do you think Canada’s role will expand?
I think it is going to expand. I think it’s expanded a bit already. The government’s facing criticism about the deployment of Canadian Special Forces in Iraq. There have been some recent revelations that they’ve been engaged in returning fire, and operationally conducting air strikes.
Early on, the government made very strong statements that there would be no accompanying of Iraqi forces in the field, there would be no fighting by Canadian military, that this was an “advise and assist” mission.
I think they’re probably regretting that language now, although it would have been politically expedient.
There may be concern about the impact of civilian casualties caused by Canadian air strikes. The government’s sensitive to that, and rightly so.
This leaves the government in a position of being critiqued for being very specific – that this was just going to be an advise and assist mission. Politically, it indicates how sensitive the government is to domestic support for the mission.
What about a geographic expansion of the mission?
Most logically, this would involve extending the Canadian mission to Syria. There are a couple of reasons to do so. ISIS is in Syria too, and so the border’s almost kind of irrelevant in terms of the larger campaign.
Secondly, there is a relationship between ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria. In the overall fight against ISIS, it doesn’t make much sense that you would divide that effort into two separate campaigns.
However, if the government did extend Canada’s role into Syria, it would obviously look like an expansion of the mission. And certainly the government could potentially be criticized for that.
We’re in a federal election year. Will the fate of the Canadian mission be a major election issue?
No – and I say that simply because foreign policy issues are rarely big issues in Canadian elections. There are exceptions, but for the most part foreign affairs is a bit of a sideshow in electoral politics.
Having said that, this could change if something were to go wrong – let’s say the mission is extended and a Canadian air strike inflicts large numbers of civilian casualties.
Or say a Canadian aircraft is brought down and the pilot is killed or taken hostage. Or perhaps there’s some kind of future revelation that the government has not been forthcoming about the nature of the Iraq mission. Any of these developments would heighten the profile of the Iraq mission in the election.
The big thing with all of this is unanticipated events. We just don’t know what might happen – as we’ve recently seen with the regrettable friendly fire incident that claimed the life of a Canadian soldier. Any variety of things could occur over the next few weeks and months that might be important determinants of Canadian policy and roles.
By merely deploying yourself into a volatile region, you are inviting the prospect of unforeseen circumstances. That’s just the nature of the game.
Related: Canada joins the fight against ISIS