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Stephen Harper’s Syrian foray carries risks, but is a winner on home front: Tim Harper

OTTAWA—In jumping on American shoulders and sending Canadian bombers into Syria, Stephen Harper had to wind his way down two disparate paths.

Internationally, he is moving this country into murky waters, working with dubious allies in a mission that will be extended for another year . . . and counting.

Domestically, however, the prime minister has won the day.

In fact, it was strangely dispirited opposition benches that gathered Tuesday morning. Neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats could muster a full bench to counter a government side that was at its cheerleading best for a leader who stated his case then burrowed into his work at his desk, ignoring the two men who stood to oppose him.

The extension of the anti-ISIS campaign should raise at least three red flags — the unspoken support for a ruthless dictator, Bashar Assad, the fact Ottawa has broken with other allies, and the fuzzy legal justification, which appears to be self defence but is not defined by the government with any precision.

It is unlikely, however, any of these factors will sway a Canadian public that sees the barbarism of the so-called Islamic State attacks, its brutal murders, its threats to Canada and the loss of two Canadian soldiers to attacks here at home.

Opposition leader Tom Mulcair delivered an uncharacteristically flat speech in outlining a position that had been as clearly telegraphed as the position of the expansionist Harper.

Justin Trudeau was trapped.

Having opposed what was sold as a more limited mission in northern Iraq last autumn, the Liberal leader could hardly leap to Harper’s side as Canada’s CF-18s were moved into Syria.

Trudeau grabbed the cover provided — Harper’s lack of clarity in seeking parliamentary support for his initial six-month foray, the mission creep over those months and the distasteful optic of Canada lessening the load for a brutal dictator.

But there was no enthusiasm among the MPs sitting behind Trudeau as he made his case.

There is discomfort among some in his caucus, some of it substantive, some of it because of the sense their leader had been outmanoeuvred by Harper.

Harper is now taking the country where many of our allies will not go. David Cameron, for example, facing an election in the United Kingdom, has agreed to train Syrian troops in other countries to help fight ISIS, but will not commit British air power to Syria.

Harper pledged last autumn that Canadians would have nothing to do with a Syrian campaign without the clear support of Assad but now says he will not seek that express consent. Instead, he will work with the U.S.

The prime minister argues that ISIS has moved its power base to Syria, largely to flee allied air strikes, and he says ISIS cannot be allowed to establish a safe haven in Syria.

Harper couched the mission as one that provides both humanitarian aid and a military counter to the so-called Islamic State, but he left himself a way out on his commitment to keep Canadians from ground combat.

“We share the view of President Obama and others that we must avoid — if we can — taking on ground combat responsibilities in this region,’’ Harper said.

The opposition can legitimately argue we are already in ground combat.

Mulcair says the mission has no strategy — other than a blatantly political one — no well-defined objective or well-defined exit strategy.

But he overreached when he told the Commons that Harper was “now openly considering an alliance of sorts’’ with the war criminal Assad. Trudeau properly condemned Assad as a man who has tortured and killed on a scale beyond ISIS, but was more measured in stating, “We cannot support a mission that could very well result in Assad consolidating his grip on power in Syria.’’

Harper will be quite comfortable heading into the autumn election as the man who is taking on the ISIS savages.

But he had four hurdles to clear this spring in the race to a June adjournment and an election campaign, and the mission extension might have been the easiest.

Still ahead are possible revelations from Mike Duffy at the suspended senator’s trial, a budget made much trickier by plummeting oil prices, and an anti-terror bill that is bleeding public support the longer it is scrutinized.

Trudeau, Harper’s main electoral rival, must now work to keep the ISIS fight from becoming an election ballot question. You can’t claim the prime minister made war a wedge issue when you essentially wedged yourself.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1