OTTAWA — Political battle lines came into sharp relief Tuesday as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s proposal to extend and expand Canada’s mission in Iraq prompted dire opposition predictions of an open-ended quagmire in the Middle East.
A new government motion proposes an additional year-long commitment to the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — not only in Iraq, but now also in Syria, home to a bloody four-year long civil war.
The plan was immediately rejected by both the opposition New Democrats and the Liberals.
The threat posed by the Islamic State is self-evident, Harper argued in a rare morning statement in the House of Commons designed to pave the way for the introduction of the long-anticipated motion.
A steady stream of threats, terrorist attacks, reports of atrocities and ghastly online video executions underline the urgent need for action, Harper insisted.
“Canadians did not invent the threat of jihadi terrorism, and we certainly did not invite it,” he said. “Nor, as this global threat becomes ever more serious, can we protect our country or our communities by choosing to ignore it.”
ISIL’s hold on territory remains “substantial” and it remains “far from an idle threat,” as illustrated by attacks in Canada and elsewhere in the world, he added.
Harper made a point of noting that Canada still has a humanitarian role to play in the region, and that choosing to fight ISIL does not mean the government can’t also help its victims.
The motion reflects the government’s desire to “explicitly expand” the existing air combat mission to include Syria, Harper said.
Government officials say that can be accomplished without adding extra aircraft or personnel. Defence Minister Jason Kenney has already ruled out increasing the size of the special forces contingent that’s already in Iraq — a commitment that the government insists is non-combat.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, whose party’s decision to oppose the original mission was controversial, opted to stand pat and maintain its opposition, arguing that Harper is proposing little more than a vague, open-ended war in both countries.
“The government has been steadily drawing Canada deeper into a combat role in Iraq,” Trudeau said.
“It now wants to expand that war into Syria. Further, it has done all this without clearly articulating the mission’s objectives. As a result, neither members of this House nor Canadians have any way to know when or whether we have achieved those objectives.”
The Conservatives “have no exit strategy beyond an illusory end date set for next March,” and no constructive solution to the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in this region, Trudeau added.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, whose party has long said it would oppose the motion, said the government has from the outset been misleading the country about the scope of the training and involvement of Canadian special forces.
At the time of the original motion in October, Harper said the troops would not accompany Kurdish peshmerga forces to the front, and would not be involved in combat.
Since then, however, the elite soldiers have been indeed involved in guiding airstrikes and have exchanged fire with enemies on at least three separate occasions.
“It is simply unconscionable that the current Conservative government would ask for the authority to extend the mission in Iraq when so many things it has told Canadians about the mission up until now have been false,” Mulcair said.
Harper did not look up to acknowledge Mulcair during his speech, but at one point tried to wave off his caucus as they heckled the opposition leader. Eventually, however, it fell to Speaker Andrew Scheer to settle down the back benches.
Mulcair said that by extending the air campaign into Syria, Harper is “openly considering an alliance of sorts” with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
“This is a regime that continues to commit the most atrocious war crimes,” Mulcair said, noting reports that Assad forces have used chemical weapons on the government’s own people.
“It is hard to believe the prime minister when he says that the mission is about preventing atrocities when he is willing to work with one of the worst perpetrators of atrocities in the world today.”
A New Democrat government would immediately end the combat mission if elected, Mulcair repeated — a promise that echoes the party’s stand against the war in Afghanistan.
Debate on the motion, which will culminate in a vote by members of Parliament, gets underway Thursday.