10/09/2014 02:47 EDT | Updated 12/09/2014 05:59 EST

Canada's jets, surveillance planes to be based in Kuwait for combat mission

OTTAWA - Canadian fighter jets and surveillance planes headed for battle with Middle East militants have a place to land in Kuwait, but it is still unclear to whom they will report on a day-to-day basis as the coalition air campaign unfolds.

In 2011, when Canadian planes took part in airstrikes in Libya, they were part of a NATO-led, UN-sanctioned command structure. That's not the case, however, in the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

As a result, the question of ironing out the chain of command has been changing daily ever since Parliament gave the green light for the combat mission earlier this week, several defence sources said Thursday.

Gen. Tom Lawson, Canada's chief of the defence staff, will attend a high-level meeting next week among coalition military commanders, The Canadian Press has learned.

The two-day Washington conference, hosted by U.S. Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, is expected to hash out details of a follow-on ground campaign to dig Islamic State fighters out of the territory they've captured in northern Iraq.

It is hoped the meeting will straighten out issues of tactical direction.

Ultimate accountability for Canada's CF-18s always rests with Lawson and the Canadian government, but which U.S. unit and commander will decide what missions they fly is still in flux.

Another important unanswered question is what sort of latitude the Canadian detachment commander will have over the target list and whether Canada will be able to opt out of missions it may not want to participate in.

National Defence was asked a series of questions Thursday about the issue, but did not respond.

The absence of those kinds of details drove the opposition line of attack Thursday as they attempted to paint the Harper government as feckless.

It took the government a few days to finalize a status of forces agreement with Kuwait, which already hosts a Canadian military supply hub. It will likely be about three weeks before Canada's assets — six CF-18s, two CP-140 Auroras and a C-150 refuelling aircraft — are in place to conduct operations.

New Democrat foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar says the delay makes a mockery of the government's reasons for shutting down debate earlier this week on the motion that saw Canada join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

"Why did the Conservatives use urgency as an excuse to cut short the debate on Iraq, when they're not ready to go?" said Dewar, who also pointed to earlier confusion about how many special forces troops were advising Kurdish and Iraqi forces in the north.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson replied by saying the House of Commons could have debated the matter for "30 years" and the NDP would still not have supported the combat mission.

Speaking in Whitby, Ont., Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed the hope that the public debate doesn't turn into a political quagmire of its own.

"Across the world, it isn't just Conservatives; it's Liberals and social democrats across the world that have understood that this is a threat that needs to be countered, and needs to be countered in many ways, including militarily," Harper said.

"I think it's important when we are talking about the country's security that these things rise above the level of partisan politics."

The differences of opinion the mission seems to have created within the Liberal party, meanwhile, remained on display Thursday.

Former Chretien cabinet minister Sergio Marchi went after ex-colleague Lloyd Axworthy for accusing Liberal MPs of turning their backs on the responsibility-to-protect doctrine championed by a previous Grit government.

Harper's lack of consultation shoved the opposition — and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau — into a corner, Marchi said.

"I think Mr. Trudeau is being fair, given the cards he's been dealt," he said. "I think Lloyd and others have to put that right-to-protect, which I think is an important principle, in some sort of context."

Marchi said the debate over Canada joining the U.S.-led mission in Iraq is one more example of how Harper has used foreign-affairs issues for domestic political gain.

It is that sort of political flame-throwing which made the military wary of getting out in front of the government in terms of planning for an overseas base.

"Things within Canada were absolutely being prepared; planes, maintenance; those kinds of things," said retired colonel George Petrolekas.

"There is a tendency these days that the Forces don't like getting ahead of specific political direction. They didn't want to be making arrangements at this air base or at that air base for an operation that had not been approved by Parliament."

—With files from Mike Blanchfield

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