After the recent Islamic State (also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh) attacks in Paris, France’s atheist President François Hollande was quick to vow to destroy the jihadist caliphate (full French transcript here) by forming “une grande et unique coalition”. France also launched heavy air strikes on Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, and dispatched its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the region to facilitate more of the same. This French effort coincides neatly with an intensification of Russia’s separate bombing campaign against the Islamic State, and follows strategically important successes on the ground against the caliphate’s fighters by both Kurdish and Syrian government forces. Even the Americans, in addition to helping out the Kurds, have joined the Russians in directing their bombs at the economically important vehicles and infrastructure used by the Islamic State to extract and transport oil. The Islamic State is coming under more military pressure than it has faced in a while, if not in its entire short and sordid history.
With momentum building against the Islamic State, and the 130 dead of Paris (not to mention 224 on a Russian aircraft, and more than 40 in Beirut) crying out to be avenged, this might seem like a good time to attack with redoubled vigour. In that spirit, the British government is now leaning towards an expansion of its own aerial campaign against the Islamic State from Iraq into Syria.
Canada, however, is moving in the opposite direction. Our shiny new Prime Minister Trudeau the Younger remains determined to withdraw our half-dozen CF-18s from their combat role against the Islamic State, in line with a promise he made during the recent election campaign. Trudeau wants to focus instead on “training of local troops”, whereas Rona Ambrose’s Conservatives would prefer to keep our aircraft engaged in the fight. It’s worth noting that there doesn’t seem to be any particular timetable attached to Trudeau’s plan to have the CF-18s stand down, so they could be continuing their small but hardly negligible role in Iraq and Syria for a while yet. However, Trudeau’s ultimate intentions are clear.
For what it’s worth, I agree with Rona Ambrose and with an estimated 51% of the Canadian public that this is no time to stop bombing the Islamic State. In my opinion, it would make a lot more sense to escalate our air strikes and loosen the rules of engagement, perhaps taking what Conrad Black rather delicately calls (with reference to French and Russian methods in past conflicts) “a more philosophical view of the misfortunes of collateral damage”. France is not just an ally, but also one of Canada’s two European motherlands, and in the face of a brutal terrorist attack in Paris we ought to be fully prepared to help inflict some well-deserved retaliation.
This is not just a matter of slaking whatever visceral thirst for vengeance may exist in France and elsewhere, though I wouldn’t dismiss that imperative – especially in a democracy, people need to feel that their leaders are fundamentally on their side, and prepared to take public sentiment into account in deciding when to resort to force. However, a fierce and well-targeted military response to the Paris attacks would also be a good strategic bet, since it should have a significant deterrent effect and make all the participating countries safer in the long term. I’m not suggesting carpet-bombing the Islamic State or sending in the Van Doos, but stepping up our air attacks would be both proportionate and potentially quite effective in helping France and other countries send a worthwhile message: that slaughtering scores of people in the middle of Paris is asking for the kind of trouble no organization, however devoted to apocalyptic fantasies, could possibly welcome. After all, bombing militant positions and infrastructure around the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa would hardly fulfill its absurd theological expectation of a victorious clash with “Rome” (meaning the West) at the small town of Dabiq in northwest Syria. As long as we and our allies didn’t get too philosophical about the misfortunes of collateral damage, it’s also hard to imagine that dropping bombs on the Islamic State would create much enmity or resentment among the wider global Muslim population, considering that even conservative Sunni Islamist leaders in the Arab world tend to vehemently oppose the caliphate.
How, and whether, Canada should be contributing to the long-term battle against the Islamic State is highly debatable. But for now, the mayhem unleashed in the heart of Paris demands retribution, and we should be ready and willing to do our part.