Stephen Harper said Friday that Canada will bomb ISIS in Syria if it receives permission from the government of Bashar al-Assad, the same government the prime minister supported military action against after it used chemical weapons on its own people.
In a speech outlining the case for Canada to contribute fighter jets to the mission against ISIS in Iraq, Harper said Canada might also extend operations to Syria.
"We will strike ISIL where, and only where, Canada has the clear support of the government of that country," Harper said. "At present, this is only true in Iraq. If it were to become the case in Syria, then we will participate in air strikes against ISIL in that country also."
The U.S. and its Arab allies are already bombing Syria without the consent of the Assad regime in the fight against ISIS (also known as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). European allies such as the U.K. and France have said they will only operate in Iraq.
As pointed out by international affairs expert Stephen Saideman, Harper's pledge makes Canada the only nation involved in the mission to predicate its involvement in Syria on permission from the Assad regime.
Sources told The Huffington Post Canada one of the concerns is that Canada's CF-18s might be shot down by the Assad government if it does not receive permission to use Syrian airspace.
Syria is mired in a complex civil war between Assad's minority Alawite regime and a loose coalition of Shia and Sunni opposition groups. ISIS is among the Sunni groups and has come to control large swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq.
Therefore bombing ISIS in Syria effectively means bombing Assad's enemies, placing western countries in a difficult ethical situation.
Last year, Harper voiced support for military action against the Assad regime after it used chemical weapons in areas of the country controlled by opposition forces. He also made it clear that he wants to see Assad depart power.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar told reporters Friday the decision to open the door to attacks in Syria is "shocking and troubling."
"We thought the prime minister was not wanting to aid and abet in any way al-Assad, " Dewar said. "It opens the door for that. And that’s something that we can’t support at all."
Both the NDP and Liberals have said they will not support the government motion endorsing Canada's contribution to the the airstrikes against ISIS.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told reporters that allowing for the possibility of strikes in Syria suggests the government lacks a clear plan for the mission.
The Prime Minister's Office and the department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Harper views the Assad regime to be the government of Syria.
But James Bezan, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of defence, confirmed to CBC's "As It Happens" Friday that Canada will only engage in operations in Syria with permission from Assad.
The government motion on the mission in Iraq will be debated and voted upon on Monday. The majority Conservative government will pass the motion without the support of the NDP or Liberals, but even if the motion were to fail it would not compel the government to abandon the mission. The resolution states that it is intended simply to "confirm its confidence of a government decision."
Canada's contribution to the mission will consist of up to six CF-18 fighter jets, two surveillance planes, a refueling aircraft and one airlift aircraft. It is scheduled to last up to six months and will include approximately 600 airmen and airwomen.
With previous files and files from Althia Raj