Canadian Line Shift: Trudeau’s Evolving Middle East Policy

Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau and Benjamin Netanyahu

Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau and Benjamin Netanyahu

By Ben Tannenbaum

Photograph of Justin Trudeau and Benjamin Netanyahu courtesy of the Canadian Jewish News

The warm desert temperatures of the Middle East must sound very appealing to Canadians currently suffering through an Arctic January. Despite the climactic differences, Canadian foreign policy remains heavily engaged with the Middle East. Canada stands as the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, on a similar tier with Kuwait, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates. On the security front, Canada has joined the multinational coalition to combat ISIS. Under Stephen Harper’s Conservative administration, which took office in 2006, Canada accepted few refugees, participated in the campaign against ISIS, and strongly supported Israel. However, Harper and the Conservative Party lost out to Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party during the October 2015 Parliamentary elections. Some analysts have projected an adjustment of Canadian Middle East policy after the recent ballot. Although new Liberal Premier Justin Trudeau has promised a reevaluation of Canada’s foreign engagement, in some respects his policy differences may not prove all that noticeable. Trudeau has changed Canada’s refugee policy but will remain engaged in the anti-ISIS coalition and supportive of Israel.

Acceptance of refugees represents Trudeau’s biggest shift of Canadian Middle East policy. Some reports claim that Harper used bureaucratic foot-dragging to limit the number of Syrian refugees entering Canada: over the first ten months of 2015, Canada accepted a mere 1,074 Syrians. In contrast, Trudeau has warmly embraced Syrian refugees. Since the October election Canada has admitted 1,869 Syrians. Yet this uptick merely represents the beginning, as Trudeau has promised to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of February 2016. The new Prime Minister even waited at Toronto’s airport to greet arriving refugees. The Liberal administration has begun a more welcoming policy towards Middle Eastern refugees.

However, other aspects of Canadian Middle East policy may remain unchanged. For the near future, Canada does seem likely to continue participating in the military campaign against ISIS. The Canadian military has contributed six warplanes to the campaign, launching over 1,000 missions. 600 Canadian soldiers also assist the mission from Kuwait. During the election campaign, Trudeau promised to end Canadian involvement and bring the servicemen home. Nevertheless, Trudeau may struggle to fulfill this pledge, as November’s terrorist attack in Paris has changed the Liberal Administration’s political calculus. Under pressure from Conservatives and pro-French Quebecois, Trudeau acknowledged that Canada should continue to “do its part” against extremism. More substantively, Canada’s troops in the region have actually expanded their role since the Paris attack. In December, Canadian special operations forces joined the Pesh Merga in a ground campaign versus ISIS in Iraq. Meanwhile Canada’s airstrikes have displayed no sign of slowing down. The deaths of Canadian citizens in al-Qaeda’s recent Burkina Faso bombing also make it difficult to tone down the counter terror offensive. Overall, despite Trudeau’s campaign platform, Canada figures to remain actively involved against ISIS.

Likewise, Canadian support of Israel may remain solid during Trudeau’s tenure. Canada-Israel relations grew quite close under the Conservative administration. Stephen Harper referred to himself as Israel’s “best friend” and even supported settlement construction in the West Bank. During Harper’s premiership, Canada’s Jewish population shifted its long-running Liberal tendencies and began voting Conservative. After Trudeau’s triumph, some Israelis have grown worried that Canadian support for Israel might cool. Trudeau approved of last summer’s nuclear agreement with Iran despite Israeli objections. However concerns of a broad decline in bilateral relations appear unfounded. In November, Trudeau’s administration voted against Palestinian-proposed UN resolutions condemning Israel. Trudeau also opposes the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, referring to BDS as “the new anti-Semitism.” Canada likely will remain a staunch supporter of Israel during Trudeau’s premiership.

These policy decisions will have political ramifications for Trudeau. His support of Israel could reap domestic rewards, as some October exit polls suggested that Liberals did relatively well among Canadian Jews. However, other aspects of Trudeau’s Middle East policy may prove more troublesome. Backtracking on his pledge to get out of the ISIS War could alienate the Liberal base. The wide scale acceptance of refugees may also become thorny. Globally, politicians in countries like Denmark, Poland, and Hungary have benefitted from anti-refugee rhetoric, while open door policies in places such as Germany have created backlash. A few high profile crimes committed by Syrian refugees may put Trudeau’s welcome mat under scrutiny. Regardless, the Trudeau administration will provide both change and continuity in Canadian Middle East policy.

Facebooktwittermailby feather