Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Sunday the federal government is close to deciding how Canada will play a role in the mission in the Middle East against the Islamic State Iraq and the Levant.
Sajjan made the comments to reporters as MPs geared up for their return to Parliament on Monday. The governing Liberals promised during the election campaign to bring home the six CF-18 military jets dropping bombs on ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria.
That combat mission, ordered by the previous Conservative government, was scheduled to end in March, but the Liberals have not pulled back the planes yet or even definitely indicated if they will do so before March.
Conservative critics say Canada is losing influence with its western military allies because of its plan to pull out of the combat air sorties; the NDP is critical of the Liberals for delaying their promise.
Sajjan said the government doesn’t want to rush a decision on the complex matter and that he is close to bringing a thorough plan to cabinet to approve.
“I think Canadians deserve to know,” he said of the government’s plan. “But also, Canadians expect us to be very responsible in making sure that we do an absolutely thorough assessment.
“The last thing we want to be doing is making any type of knee-jerk reaction decisions just for the sake of getting an answer out.”
Sajjan said he has been working with Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and other ministers on the plan.
“Because this is not just strictly a military issue. It’s political, it’s development, it’s humanitarian. And that’s why we want to make sure we take the time to have proper consultation.”
“We’re being very responsible. We’re working very closely — from the minister level in discussions all the way through our staff in making sure that we have a good synergy. We’re working out the few details right now and we’ll be taking it to cabinet very shortly.”
Sajjan said an announcement will be made “soon” about the timing of the CF-18 pullout from the region.
He stressed: “The air strikes will be ending. But it will be done in a responsible manner.”
It’s expected the Liberals will increase the number of Canadian troops training local forces in Iraq, possibly keep some surveillance planes in the air, and enhance the country’s humanitarian assistance in the region.
“We want to do a proper assessment. When you send the treasure of Canada — which is our men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces — into harm’s way, we have to be (acting) in a responsible manner.”
He downplayed a meeting in Paris last week in which Canada was not at the table as his counterparts from seven countries discussed the fight against ISIS.
Defence ministers from the United States, France, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Britain planned the next steps in the war against ISIS.
Some have suggested the alliance is unhappy with Canada’s plan to pull out the CF-18 jets.
But Sajjan said he has had “deep discussions” with his counterparts, has already visited the Middle East twice since becoming minister and will be at a forthcoming meeting of NATO ministers.