Canada’s decision to send six CF-18 fighter jets to the Mediterranean may be too little, too late, a foreign policy expert said Friday as the prime minister prepared to leave for Paris to meet world leaders on the Libyan crisis.
Days before the country may be plunged into a federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced he has committed Canada to a combat mission in Libya in an effort to enforce a no-fly zone approved Thursday by the United Nations.
Before heading to Paris to discuss the looming mission with allies Saturday, Harper said Canada has pushed the idea of a no-fly zone from the start and would “now take the urgent action necessary to support it.
“The situation in Libya remains intolerable,” he said in a statement delivered in the foyer of the House of Commons.
“One either believes in freedom or one just says one believes in freedom. The Libyan people have shown by their sacrifice that they believe in it. Assisting them is a moral obligation upon those of us who profess this great ideal.”
Harper’s meeting with French and British counterparts will also involve other leaders from the European Union, the Arab League and the African Union. The group is expected to discuss how to implement the no-fly zone as well as issues related to arms, travel and economic sanctions already imposed against Libya.
As part of the mission, Canada dispatched the fighter jets along with some 140 support personnel.
They join roughly 240 Canadian sailors already in the region aboard HMCS Charlottetown which was deployed earlier this month to assist with evacuation and humanitarian efforts in Libya. Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the frigate is now patrolling the waters off Libya’s coast as part of the same operation.
But Fen Hampson, director of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, argues co-ordinating all these military assets from various countries will be difficult and speculates rebel-held Benghazi may fall to Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces before the international community is able to get its act together.
“I think there’s obviously a lot of questions about whether this is too little, too late,” he said, adding that getting rid of Libya’s megalomaniacal leader would not resolve the fact that his opponents consist of a “rag-tag” and divided group with no government or leader in waiting.
Despite assurances by Canada and the U.S. that their involvement will not include ground forces, Hampson suggested such statements may be premature. The tribal nature of Libya, he said, may call for “troops on the ground.
“I don’t think we should be under any illusion that it’s just a matter of no-fly zones and nothing comes after it,” he said. “A lot more may come after it. This is the beginning of what could be a longer commitment.”
While Canada moved quickly to enact sanctions against Libya, Hampson argues the government has been “mum” on the issue of a no-fly zone.
He said he believes Canada’s involvement is based on a game of “follow the leader.” It’s doing it primarily to support the U.S. which, he said, is being dragged in by European powers which have led the charge for military action.
Under the command of Col. Alain Pelletier, pilots from Canadian Forces Base Bagotville left Friday afternoon on a 12-hours-plus journey to the area, accompanied by support personnel from Trenton, Ont. While Canadian officials haven’t said exactly where in the region they’re going, Italy has offered countries involved in the no-fly zone the use of its airbases.
Canadian Forces chief of air staff Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps described Canada’s contribution to the mission as “significant.” He didn’t rule out the possibility that more jets could be deployed and noted the support team may be scaled back once a better sense of what’s needed is learned.
When the CF-18 crew arrive, Canadian troops will meet with their international partners to establish the “rules of engagement,” he said during a news conference in Bagotville, a Canadian Forces base in Quebec’s Saguenay region.
“The no-fly zone will involve certain risks because the situation is still somewhat unstable in Libya,” he added.
“Our people and our aircraft will be prepared to take any steps necessary to defend themselves and to enforce the sanctions imposed by the United Nations. ”
The UN resolution authorizes the use of force to protect civilians in civilian-populated areas and the enforcement of a no-fly zone over the country.
“It does not intend for members of the international community to act as an occupying force in Libya,” Deschamps said.
“It is to contribute to peace and stability in the world that they are playing this role and in the coming weeks and months they will have the opportunity to help to contribute to that goal with a number of other detachments.”
Elinor Sloan, an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University and a former Defence Department analyst, said she’s long supported the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya and said Canada’s involvement is a “good move.” That said, she adds Canada has the ability to do more.
According to Sloan, Canada has as many as 80 CF-18s, mostly in Canada. They are being used primarily by troops who are training for deployment to Afghanistan.
She said Canada contributed about two dozen fighter jets to the 1992 Gulf War and perhaps a dozen in 1999 to Kosovo, the last time CF-18s were used in a combat situation.
At that time, she added, Canada was able to use its new laser-guided munitions in combat for the first time. She believes this latest mission presents another first as Canada’s CF-18s have since been upgraded with satellite-guided munitions.
“They’re properly positioned and upgraded to participate in this sort of conflict,” she said.
She predicted that, as in the Kosovo crisis, the international community won’t deploy ground forces.
The current mission likely will involve air-to-air combat or targeted strikes against Libyan air assets such as planes and runways.
That said, she suggested the UN commitment to protect civilians could result in air attacks against Libyan command and control centres, tanks, artillery and army personnel, as was the case in Kosovo.
She also foresees a larger role for HMCS Charlottetown.
“Specifically interdicting ships that are carrying strategic supplies to Libya, I think that would be a big role for Canada,” she said, adding it’s “something that we’re very good at.”
Although Gadhafi vowed to comply with the UN resolution to halt military operations, Canada, the United States and other European countries, as well as Arab allies ultimately proceeded with plans to make sure he does.
“We are encouraged . . . that in response to the threat of military action, the Libyan regime has declared a cease-fire,” Harper said.
“However, for that threat to remain credible, adequate military forces must be in place.”
Before appearing in the House of Commons foyer to issue his statement, Harper discussed the issue with other foreign leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron. He also contacted opposition leaders here in Canada to inform them of the pending announcement, which likely will be debated in the Commons next week.
He promised to seek Parliament’s approval should the mission extend beyond three months.
In his talk with the prime minister, NDP leader Jack Layton raised concerns about whether Canada might get wrapped up in a ground engagement, but noted the NDP ultimately supports Canada’s participation in the international mission.
“It’s appropriate for Canada to be a part of this effort to try to stop Gadhafi from attacking his citizens as he has been threatening to do and as we have seen in past days,” he said.
Citing some of the difficulties Canada has faced trying to get its citizens out of Libya, Layton said it’s “important that we get (this mission) right.”
It’s also important, he said, that proper parliamentary oversight be established.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said he’ll be calling for a motion in the House of Commons to formally approve the mission and called on the government to be fully transparent in terms of what Canada’s military responsibilities in Libya are.
“This is an air interdiction operation, it is not a ground troop commitment and that principle must be maintained,” he said, adding he also supports the initiative to protect innocent civilians.