The Canadian conundrum: End of Canada’s airstrikes and the rise of grand strategy

by Nicolas Seidman, a first-year War Studies student at King’s College London.

The saying goes – give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. The Canadian government has ceased all airstrikes against ISIS in order to focus on, what it sees, as more effective means to increase long term regional stability. Prime Minister Trudeau stated that by February 22nd all six of its fighter jets would be withdrawn.[i] He does this despite Canada’s membership to the US-led airstrike coalition against ISIS. The question can therefore be asked: Does this undermine the efforts against ISIS? Does this show unwillingness of Canada to fight ISIS? In short, No.


To begin with, allied forces[ii] have engaged in only 31.9% of all airstrikes in Iraq since August 2014.[iii] The rest are conducted by the United States Air Force (USAF). Of those 2271 allied airstrikes, Canada is the third lowest country to contribute, with just 246 in total.[iv] This means that it has engaged in more or less 2% of all total airstrikes. If anything, Canada helps most by maintaining a perception of cohesion amongst the coalition. Denmark and Belgium are the only countries engaging in less airstrikes. Canada’s contribution is dwarfed by the rest of the coalition – not to mention the US. This should therefore come to no surprise that Canada has figured out other ways to help the coalition’s goal of defeating ISIS. It will continue to supply air-refuelling and surveillance assistance to its allies, however will branch off into other areas. It strives to address issues that jeopardize long-term stability. Trudeau perceives the use of bombing as a ‘short-term military and territorial gains’ but not for ‘long-term stability for local communities.’[v]


CF-18 fighter jets, accompanied by a U.S. Air Force jet, are refuelled by a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker on Oct. 30 over Iraq.

Canada looks beyond the now and into the when.

When ISIS is either defeated, destroyed or overthrown, it is necessary to ensure there is a concrete political and physical infrastructure to keep the region propped-up. Trudeau pledges more than $1.6 billion over the next three years to increase humanitarian aid and security in the region for the goal of improving stability.[vi] This includes $840 million over three years in humanitarian assistance and $270 million over three years to “build local capacity” in Jordan and Lebanon, where there are a large number of refugees. This assistance will help combat local radicalization by improving the standard of living for many. Similarly, local capacity-building is to ensure stronger governance via education, economic growth and infrastructure. This reflects Trudeau’s understanding of grand strategy and the overall political objective as to why the West is even fighting in the Middle-East. The grand strategic goal can be said to be a stable transition from ISIS controlled territory to a well-governed entity that can supply both a good standard of living as well as security. Airstrikes are one of many tools of hard power (i.e. military means) to obtain a political objective. However it is not a strategy in itself. The shift toward soft power (i.e. non-military means) by Canada shows that this conflict brings about many more dimensions than military engagement alone. That being said, we must not forget that local forces must be able to reinforce the authority of the reinstated power.

By increasing the efficiency of local forces Canada hopes to fill the security gap necessary for future regional stability. Currently the most vital ground force combating ISIS is the Peshmerga forces.[vii] Canada hopes to improve their ability to combat the jihadists through more training and armament. Trudeau declared an additional 230 Canadian armed force personnel and a triple of current Special Forces to train the local Kurdish force. He extends his confidence in their capabilities that Canada will supply SALW (small arms and light weapons) such as rifles and machine guns to more effectively engage in combat.[viii] Eventually, Western troops are going to pull out of the Middle-East. When that happens, (if even in our life time) the capability of local and regional security forces to retain order must be strong.


Canadian Armed Forces members stand in front of the new Camp Patrice Vincent commemorative wall at the Remembrance Day ceremony in Kuwait during Operation IMPACT on November 11, 2014. Photo: Canadian Forces Combat Camera


Not a rift but a shift

Trudeau’s decision to shift its focus away from hard power and into soft power does not undermine the coalition or the overall ability for the West to combat ISIS. If anything the US’ approval of the Canadian change of plans shows there is an understanding that the operational level needs change; epecially in September 2015 when there was something of a ‘tactical stalemate’ according Martin Sempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.[ix] Canada’s recent decisions could influence other policy-makers to rethink their own strategy. The threat of ISIS has been looming over the World for some time. With some would say no end in sight. Maybe Trudeau has a point, eh?

[i] “Canada Set to Cease Air Strikes Against Isis As Justin Trudeau Says Syrians ‘need Our Help – Not Our Vengeance’ | Americas | News.” The Independent. Accessed March 3, 2016.

[ii] France, UK, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Australia and Canada

[iii] “Airwars.” Airwars – Monitoring the Coalition Air War Against ISIS. Accessed March 3, 2016.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “ISIS Airstrikes by Canada to End by Feb. 22, Training Forces to Triple – Politics – CBC News.” – Canadian News Sports Entertainment Kids Docs Radio TV. Accessed March 3, 2016.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “Inside the Kurdish Fighting Forces: the U.S.’s Proxy Ground Troops in the War Against ISIS – The Washington Post.” Washington Post. Accessed March 3, 2016.

[viii] “War on Isis: Canada to End Air Strikes Against Daesh in Iraq and Syria on 22 February.” International Business Times UK. Accessed March 3, 2016.


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