Canada will join its allies in conducting airstrikes against Islamic State militants for up to six months but will not deploy ground troops in combat operations, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced during a rare address to Parliament on Friday.

While the airstrikes are limited, for now, to Iraq, they could be expanded to Syria if the government there gives the green light, Harper said. The prime minister addressed MPs to outline his government’s plan for Canada’s contribution to the fight against ISIS.

The motion says the government will contribute “military assets” against ISIS, including “airstrike capability for a period of up to six months.”

Canada will only launch airstrikes against ISIS in countries where it has government support, Harper said in his speech. At present, that is only Iraq.

Canada’s mission will include:

  • Up to six CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft, as well as 320 aircrew and other personnel.
  • One CC-150 Polaris, two CP140 Aurora surveillance aircraft and one air-to-air refuelling aircraft, with about 280 aircrew and other personnel.

The government will also extend the original 30-day non-combat advisory mission, in which up to 69 special operations soldiers are advising security forces in northern Iraq. 

“Let me be clear on the objectives of this intervention,” Harper said in his speech to the House.

“We intend to significantly degrade the capabilities of [ISIS]. Specifically, its ability either to engage in military movements of scale, or to operate bases in the open.”

Harper acknowledged, however, that it is likely impossible to eliminate ISIS. However, the risks it presents “will be significantly reduced.”

Harper’s director of communications, Jason MacDonald, said late Thursday that both a debate in the House and a vote on the motion will take place Monday.

Meanwhile, both opposition leaders stood in the House to oppose the expanded mission.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said Canada should be employing humanitarian, diplomatic and other assistance to strengthen political institutions in Iraq and Syria in order to combat the growing threat of terrorism.

“The tragedy in Iraq and Syria will not end with another Western-led invasion in that region,” Mulcair said.

“Canada for our part should not rush into this war.”

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Canada can make a more significant contribution to fighting ISIS “than a few aging warplanes.”

“I think Canadians have a lot more to offer than that,” Trudeau said. “We can be resourceful, and there are significant, substantial non-combat roles Canada can play.”

He concluded by saying that “the Liberal Party of Canada cannot and will not support” the motion.

Harper anticipated the opposition response in his speech, repeating previous comments that it “has never been the Canadian way to do only the most easy and praiseworthy actions, and leave the tough things for others.”

He went on: “If Canada wants to keep its voice in the world, and we should since so many of our challenges are global, being a free rider means you are not taken seriously."

Missions need to restrict movement

Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie (Ret.) said Friday that the air support strategy will only be successful if enough missions are flown each day to restrict the movement of ISIS militants.

MacKenzie told CTV’s Power Play that he has received information that air attacks are currently being flown over the region for only two hours each day.

Airstrikes are also most effective when there are “boots on the ground” directing pilots to targets, he said.

“We have aircraft flying with half-million-dollar missiles taking out a truck with two people in it,” Mackenzie said. “That’s not very effective.”

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird responded to that charge, saying that Iraqi forces will have to do their part on the ground.

“At the end of the day, there’s going to be a big role that they take on,” Baird told Power Play.

Not just a six-month mission?

But preparing for that role will take time, some are warning – more than the half-year Harper is promising.

“There is going to be an ongoing need for Western support while the Iraqis and the others in the area build up their capability,” said Ken Hansen of Dalhousie’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies. “This is not going to be over in six months.”

As for the potential for airstrikes to be conducted in Syria, Baird made it clear that any such missions would not be a sign of support for President Bashar Assad’s regime.

“In no way, shape or form would we step in to try to support Assad,” Baird said. “We would step in to stop terrorists.”

Defence analyst David Perry says the mission will likely be based out of Kuwait.

“We have the legal regime worked out,” he told CTV News. “So it would have the ability to relatively quickly accept aircraft and then start operating them from there.”

Humanitarian assistance

The motion tabled Friday asks the House to recognize that ISIS leadership “has called on members to target Canada and Canadians at home and abroad,” and the terror group will continue to pose a threat to international peace and security if not confronted with “strong and direct force.”

The motion also said Canada will support civilians in the region through “urgent humanitarian assistance,” but it did not include details.

In his speech, Harper said the military measures do not preclude humanitarian assistance.

“There is no either/or here,” he said. “This is in addition to large-scale financial assistance already being furnished to the significant number of countries in the region that have been impacted by the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.”

During daily question period Friday morning, NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said innocent civilians need urgent assistance, and asked what the federal government is doing to help.

International Development Minister Christian Paradis responded by saying Canada is the seventh-largest donor of humanitarian aid to the region. Canada’s current contributions have allowed for the delivery of food, tents, blankets, medical supplies, hygiene kits and other supplies.

In August, the federal government committed $5 million in emergency supplies and humanitarian aid to Iraq to help an estimated 850,000 people displaced by fighting.

“We will continue to work closely with our allies so that we can continue to support civilians, particularly religious minorities,” Paradis said.

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