The foreign policy issue everyone ignored

None of the leaders really pressed each other on the Syrian war. Doing so might have exposed difficult questions for all of them.
ALEPPO, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 20 : Syrian people carry wounded ones to hospital after Assad Regime Forces stage an airstrike to opposition controlled Muvasalat district of Aleppo, Syria on September 20, 2015. (Mamun Ebu Omer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - SEPTEMBER 20 :  Syrian people carry wounded ones to hospital after Assad Regime Forces stage an airstrike to opposition controlled Muvasalat district of Aleppo, Syria on September 20, 2015. (Mamun Ebu Omer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA – SEPTEMBER 20 : Syrian people carry wounded ones to hospital after Assad Regime Forces stage an airstrike to opposition controlled Muvasalat district of Aleppo, Syria on September 20, 2015. (Mamun Ebu Omer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

All three party leaders entered Monday night’s Munk Debate on foreign policy with significant vulnerabilities and all three emerged from the fracas if not unscathed, at least undamaged.

Syria should be considered a blight on the world and on the credibility of any political leader of note who’s been in power since the war there began some 4½ years ago. More than 250,000 have died. Almost 12 million are displaced. There is no light on the horizon in that country. And for all the tears and outrage this summer, it must be said that few in the West really cared until those fleeing Syria started washing up, dead and alive, on European shores.

But now we are paying attention, and the foreign policy debate was an ideal opportunity to probe, scrutinize and challenge the positions of the three main parties regarding that war.

Prime Minister and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is campaigning on the fact that only the Conservatives support a combat role for Canada in the coalition that is fighting the so-called Islamic State, a jihadist group that has carved out significant territory in northwestern Syria, where it murders Western hostages, enslaves women and massacres religious minorities. Harper’s position is that no matter how many refugees Canada and other Western nations accept, it will never be enough, because Islamic State will create more. The source of despair in Syria, he says, must be dealt with.

That’s valid, to a point. But the vast majority of refugees fleeing Syria are running not from Islamic State, but from Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. And even if we accept the necessity of combating Islamic State, the fact remains that the U.S.-led campaign against the group has been going on for a year now, with middling results.

Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair might have argued that Canada is losing a war under Harper’s leadership. They didn’t press this point, though perhaps because doing so invites equally difficult questions about their own policies on Syria. And these, too, are a mess.

Let’s start with the Liberals under Trudeau. He supports the military mission against Islamic State, but not Canada’s air war. Instead of dropping bombs, he says Canada should refocus on training local forces on the ground. Presumably he means Iraqi regulars and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers, rather than the anti-Islamic State fighters in Syria.

But that raises an interesting question: Would Trudeau support Canadian troops training, say, the YPG, a mostly Kurdish militia, in northern Syria? Pity nobody asked him.

Trudeau’s aversion to Canadian air strikes may appeal to voters opposed to  Canada’s involvement in most any war and it allowed him to differentiate himself from Harper, but it’s a logically flimsy position to take. Kobani, a Syrian city that was besieged for months by Islamic State, is free today because of American air strikes. Islamic State’s advance into northern Iraq was stopped because of air strikes coordinated with Kurdish troops on the ground. Dismissing air strikes as intrinsically ineffective is not a serious position.

Harper could have hammered him on that but didn’t.

As for the NDP, Mulcair would end Canada’s military role in the fight against Islamic State completely. This invites the question moderator  Rudyard Griffiths did in fact ask last night: If you won’t fight Islamic State, under what circumstances would an NDP government deploy Canadian troops? Mulcair’s been asked this before and has a practised response designed to demonstrate that the NDP are not a bunch of weedy pacifists.

The party supported the initial NATO intervention in Libya, he said, and it supported military airlift assistance to France in its conflict with Islamists in Mali. But here, too, Mulcair’s logic falls down.

Why did threatened civilians in eastern Libya deserve Canada’s armed protection if civilians in Syria and Iraq do not? If it was acceptable to deploy our air force in Mali, would the NDP approve of a similar role in Iraq and Syria? Mulcair, like Trudeau and Harper, got off easy.

A more fulsome debate would have directly confronted the true source of misery in Syria: Assad. What might a Canadian government do to mitigate his barbarism? Would any of the parties support the creation of a no-fly zone imposed by force, if necessary? What about protected safe zones on the ground? This was a conversation it seems none of the leaders wanted to have.

Instead of debating about Syria’s civil war, the three parties focused on its ramifications—namely the refugee crisis. Harper looked extremely exposed on this a few weeks ago when it emerged that the family of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who was photographed dead on a Turkish beach, had hoped to come to Canada. Kurdi’s family gave up because of the onerous and likely insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles in their way.

The Conservatives defended themselves somewhat by taking steps to streamline and speed up the process by which refugees might enter Canada. But Trudeau and Mulcair’s attacks on Harper’s record on refugees were still among the more heated of the debate. Both men spoke with what appeared to be genuine emotion about Canada’s values of hospitality toward those in need, and how Harper’s Conservative government has supposedly betrayed them.

Harper responded as he always does: by not rising to the bait, and showing no emotion stronger than mild disdain. He wants to appear in control, a steady hand guiding Canada in a turbulent world. He barely raised his voice.

Mulcair was more aggressive, but he too wants to reassure voters that he can be trusted leading their country on the world stage, and he too was mostly subdued in tone, with the exception of several witty barbs thrown at Trudeau. Asking him how he can be expected to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin when he can’t do the same to Harper was perhaps the best.

This left Trudeau to show the most belligerence and energy about everything from his father, whom he praised while simultaneously excoriating his opponents for criticizing, to Canada’s history as a peacekeeping nation.

All three leaders seemed to have executed their pre-debate game plan well. Harper appeared calm, Mulcair reasonable and Trudeau passionate. Their debate coaches and communications strategists are likely pleased. But anyone who was hoping for a deeper examination of how Canada might better tackle the most serious foreign policy challenge in the world today—the Syrian civil war—should not be.