Liberals might’ve supported ISIS mission if government dropped Assad, consulted opposition: Cotler

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler speaks with the media following Liberal party caucus Wednesday October 8, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld.

OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s deference to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad cost his Islamic State mission Liberal support, says MP Irwin Cotler.

Cotler – and perhaps party leader Justin Trudeau – would have supported the Conservative motion to authorize airstrikes against ISIS if the government had taken a harder line against Syria and consulted with opposition parties before announcing his intentions publicly.

Watch: Liberal leader Justin Trudeau on Canada’s role against ISIS

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Cotler, who has long advocated for intervention in Syria under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, abstained from the motion Tuesday because he took issue with Harper saying Canada would strike ISIS only with permission of national governments – including Syria’s, which has been accused of bombing civilians as well as preventing aid workers from doing their jobs.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine requires the international community to intervene to protect targeted innocent civilians – although it isn’t limited to military action.

“The Responsibility to Protect still holds…For that reason I would have supported the resolution,” Cotler said in an interview.

“I didn’t because Harper made a statement which surprised me.

“I mean I was almost astonished by it, that if for operations in Syria we would have to get the assent of Assad.”

He believes Canada should intervene in Syria as well, without conditioning it on Assad’s permission.

Cotler also said if the Conservatives had consulted with the opposition on the motion and made some concessions, particularly about Syria, Trudeau may have changed his position.

“For a prime minister that would have liked to have had the unity of the House behind him, well, you consult if you want to do that,” said Cotler, a former justice minister.

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“I’m not sure [NDP leader Tom] Mulcair would have ever gone along, but maybe Justin Trudeau would have gone along and maybe they could have come along for a consensus.”

In a lengthy statement posted on his website Tuesday night, Cotler said the government’s motion to contribute military assets and authorize airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS for up to six months “lacks clarity.”

For three years, Cotler has advocated for a combat mission against ISIS as a central part of an international coalition response.

“I’ve been calling for an international coalition to intervene and protect the defenceless Syrian civilians and opposition for years now,” he said.

“Everything that people are saying will happen if we intervene is beginning to happen because we did not intervene.”

He said he believes Harper did not think his position through.

“If he thought this through, he would not have said what he said about Assad, which as I said, was astonishing. And he would have provided more clarity regarding the nature, the strategic character of the mission, the use of the military,” Cotler said.

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“Maybe if initially they had consulted with us and said, ‘Okay, we’ll do one, two, three, etc.,’ we won’t do the Assad thing, then Justin might have been able to say ‘You know what? Ok, maybe we’ll go along with it.’ But that wasn’t done.”

On Wednesday, Trudeau downplayed Cotler’s decision to abstain, calling him a friend and a “valued member of the Liberal team.”

“The Liberal Party voted clearly against the government’s motion,” Trudeau told reporters.

“For three years [Cotler] has been calling for air strikes in Syria.  At the same time, his statement was unequivocal:  He cannot support this government’s approach on this. And he made his decision.”

In question period Wednesday, Harper said Canada is contributing humanitarian aid to Iraq but a military role is necessary.

“We cannot stop [ISIS] without military intervention,” Harper told the Commons.


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