OTTAWA — The Trudeau cabinet is expected to "very soon" debate the size and scope of the country's reorganized mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, but precisely how much latitude those military trainers will get is going to be one of the most divisive elements of the discussion.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will, at the same time, present cabinet with a timetable for ending the bombing campaign and bringing the country's contingent of CF-18 jetfighters home from Iraq, according to several defence sources.
In its place, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed last fall to a "more robust" training mission that would include additional special forces, over and above the 69 soldiers already on the ground.
Cabinet is set to consider a series of options and scenarios with troop numbers that could range between 150 and 300, which defence experts say is an indication that conventional army trainers would be needed.
"I'm just not at all convinced that the other folks around the cabinet table will have even a remote understanding of what needs to happen."
But more important than numbers, experts say, is what the trainers will be allowed to do. Will their mandate continue to include the dirty, dangerous work of going to the front and guiding airstrikes?
Steve Day, a former special forces commander, says he trusts Sajjan understands there is going to be the risk of firefights, but he's less confident others around the cabinet table get that.
"He's been there. He knows what needs to get done," said Day. "I'm just not at all convinced that the other folks around the cabinet table will have even a remote understanding of what needs to happen."
Similarly, Dave Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute said the Liberals reacted nervously when it was revealed last year troops had exchanged fire with ISIL fighters.
"I would hope whenever the government announces the new mission it will take the time to do what the last one didn't and say what the primary focus will be and also what might happen," Perry said, referring the to political uproar about whether Canadian trainers were engaged in combat in Iraq.
Sajjan said Monday that he believe "the current mission is working," but the decision will require policy-makers to anticipate how the conflict will evolve over the next year. He didn't explain what that meant, other than say the troops will always retain the right for self-defence.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has hinted there will be a humanitarian component to the strategy. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/CP)
It is expected the Liberals will keep the CP-140 Aurora reconnaissance plane and the CC-150 aerial refuelling jet in place, as part of the strategy.
But sources also say there will be a substantial humanitarian component to the strategy — something Sajjan himself has hinted repeatedly.
There also appears to be interest in participating in a NATO-led training mission that is expected to set up shop with camps in Turkey and Jordan, but insiders say it won't form part of the immediate strategy, because the military alliance has yet to get it organized.
But Trudeau and Sajjan have had a couple of conversations about the necessity of making sure fragile nations, other than Iraq and Syria, don't slide into anarchy.
One country that's already there is Libya.
And there are indications the U.S. and its allies are gearing up for a possible intervention to prevent the further spread of the Islamic State, which has gained a foothold in the country. There have been increased reconnaissance flights and intelligence collecting — classic signs of preparations for airstrikes and commando raids.
Day and Perry are skeptical that Canada would participate in such an operation.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan accused the Liberals on Monday of abandoning the country's allies — something Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion denied, saying Canada's actions will strengthen the anti-ISIL coalition.