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Canada Says It’s in a ‘Fight’ With the Islamic State — But Not a ‘War'

Canada's foreign affairs minister said that framing the fight against Islamic extremists as "war" is an outdated notion that doesn't account for the realities of the conflict.
Photo by Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The day after the bombings in Brussels that left more than 34 people dead and hundreds more wounded, Canada's foreign affairs minister denied that his country is at war against Islamic State fighters.

"We prefer to say that it's a fight," Stéphane Dion told reporters on Wednesday outside the House of Commons. He added that framing the fight against Islamic extremists as "war" is an outdated notion that doesn't account for the realities of the conflict.


"If you use the terminology 'war,' in international law it will mean two armies with respecting rules and it's not the case at all," Dion explained. "You have terrorist groups that respect nothing. So we prefer to say that it's a fight."

At which point Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chimed in with support, arguing that "a war is something that can be won by one side or the other and there is no path for ISIL to actually win against the West."

In February, the Liberal government pulled its six CF-18 fighter jets from the US-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. Instead, Canada's shifted to a new "non-combat" approach in the region, sending around 140 special forces operators to northern Iraq to help train the Kurdish Peshmerga. The decision was criticized for being too soft on the Islamic State and abandoning ally nations, such as France, who have recently ramped up their military campaigns in the region.

Related: This is How Canada is Overhauling Its Fight Against the Islamic State

New Democrat Party leader Thomas Mulcair called out Trudeau for refusing to label Canada's role a "combat mission," and refusing to "call a spade a spade."

But Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, told the Ottawa Citizen on Wednesday that Trudeau and Dion got it right.

"States go to war. ISIL is not a state. In fact, declaring 'war' on ISIL bestows the state-like trappings that ISIL seeks, and inadvertently legitimizes ISIL state-like claims and behavior," he said.


"[W]ar presumes that you can vanquish your opponent. ISIL will simply go underground and run an insurgency if it can't operate the way it currently does."

For Matthew Barber, executive director of Yazda, a Yazidi rights group in Kurdistan working with survivors of the atrocities carried out by IS, the discussion is more than semantics.

"I'm not very clear on the purpose that is served by not declaring war on IS," he said in an interview with VICE News. "IS is an actor, it is not 'terror,' and they have declared war on the rest of the world. So I'm not sure how helpful it is to soften our language against them."

Trudeau's latest comments come as thousands of armed soldiers have been deployed to borders of European countries and crisis meetings are held in places such as France, Poland, Germany and Holland, following the Brussels terror attacks for which IS has claimed responsibility.

"It was an attack on our open and democratic society," read a joint statement by 28 European Union leaders released Tuesday.

"We are at war," said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls that day. "Over the past few months in Europe, we have endured several acts of war."

On Tuesday, Trudeau continued to defend Canada's new role in northern Iraq.

"[O]ur new mission, which is much more focused on empowering locals on the ground on a military level, on a humanitarian level, on a refugee level, is going to be an extraordinarily strong piece of the coalition's fight against ISIL," he said.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne