Syrian crisis forces leaders to confront military and humanitarian options

The Syrian crisis is extracting sharper views from the campaign trail on when and how Canada ought to go to war, and what the country should do to ease the suffering of innocent civilians pouring out of the Middle East.

OTTAWA — The Syrian crisis is extracting sharper views from the campaign trail on when and how Canada ought to go to war, and what the country should do to ease the suffering of innocent civilians pouring out of the Middle East.

The foreign policy implications of the violence in Syria and Iraq followed the three federal leaders as their campaigning took them to both coasts and central Canada.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was unequivocal that Canadian military personnel would be immediately withdrawn from Iraq and Syria this fall — months earlier than planned — if the NDP wins the Oct. 19 federal election.

Stephen Harper, meanwhile, suggested that Canada can and will do more to help Syrian refugees, in the face of mounting public pressure on the Conservative government over the past week.

Harper has been steadfast that accepting more refugees and sending humanitarian assistance to the displaced people in the Middle East is not enough, and that dealing with the root cause of the problem — taking the military fight to Islamic militants responsible for the carnage — is essential.

Justin Trudeau pushed the Liberals squarely into the middle ground, arguing that Canada needed to do more to ease the suffering of refugees, but still had to play a role training the Iraqi fighters to do battle with Islamic militants.

Canada has a half-dozen fighter jets flying bombing missions in Iraq and Syria, and several dozen special forces military trainers working with Kurdish fighters in Iraq to fight Islamic militants — a commitment that now extends to March.

Mulcair said the mission falls neither under the umbrella of the United Nations nor NATO, and a New Democrat government wants no part of a U.S.-led coalition.

It’s a stance that raises questions about the potential future of Canadian foreign policy under what would be the country’s first New Democrat government.

“Multilateralism has always been part of the Canadian approach, but this is neither a UN nor a NATO mission. This is an American-led mission,” Mulcair said in Winnipeg.

“Canada is free, we have our own foreign policy, we’ll have an independent foreign policy under an NDP government and we will put an end to Canada’s participation in the combat mission in Iraq and Syria.”

Harper hinted that steps are being taken to speed up refugee resettlement — an issue that has been front and centre in the campaign since the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach emerged last week.

“The position of this government has been we have been the world leader in refugee resettlement and we intend to do that in a responsible way, a responsible and affordable way for Canadians,” Harper said in Prince Edward Island.

Harper recalled his trip to a refugee camp in Jordan in early 2014 where he said he saw the “grave humanitarian challenges” that refugees face, and was briefed on the security implications.

Harper has maintained that Canada has to avoid allowing terrorists from a war zone into Canada.

Trudeau said the Conservatives and New Democrats hold extreme positions on what is needed, while the Liberals have “a balanced and reasonable position” that is more in line with what Canadians want to see their country doing.

“We have a federal government right now that thinks military action is the only solution to the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East,” Trudeau said in Vancouver. “And we have an opposition party that takes the opposition party that take the opposite extreme position that there is never a military role to play in solving challenges like the crisis in the Middle East.”

Trudeau said he was “encouraged” that Harper signalled a willingness to do more to assist refugees, but he suggested the prime minister was pushed into doing that.

“Canadians want more done,” he said.

“The mayors, the premiers are calling for more action. And I think the prime minister is probably realizing that he has to do more and in short order and I hope that I will be able to speak to him about this.”

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