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For Trudeau, it doesn’t mean a rush to war, but deciding how far he might go

Limited. That's the word. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is, now that it's happened, fully behind the "limited, focused" U.S. missile strikes in Syria. The Assad regime's chemical-weapons attack was a war crime, Mr. Trudeau said, so smashing a Syrian airfield was the right response. He gave backing for what happened Thursday night, but no comment on what might follow.

What now? There's no sense in Ottawa that Canada might soon be called on to join a war aimed at regime change.

The real question for Mr. Trudeau is whether he needs a new Syria policy: if U.S. President Donald Trump chooses more strikes to punish or pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, will Canada support them, or even commit military forces?

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Read more: Canada supports U.S. strike against Syria, Trudeau tells Trump

Syria strike: Geopolitical victory or a slide into a war Americans didn't ask for?

The answer isn't clear. There are a few other words to describe Mr. Trump's air strikes. Unilateral. Unpredictable. Ottawa doesn't really know what will follow.

Mr. Trudeau reported that his government got a heads-up an hour before the strikes, in a phone call to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan from U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis. But in a broader sense, Mr. Trudeau was caught off guard: Only hours before the missiles flew, Mr. Trudeau, after meeting UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in New York, had talked about the need to get all the facts and have the deadlocked Security Council consider a response.

There has, after all, been a head-spinning change in Washington. A week ago, Mr. Trump was a President who wanted to avoid foreign entanglements, apart from his promise to defeat the Islamic State. He showed no interest in fighting the Assad regime, and left the impression he thought that would only help IS. That changed fast. According to the White House, Mr. Trump was briefed on the chemical-weapons attack Tuesday, on military options on Wednesday and ordered the strikes Thursday afternoon.

Mr. Trudeau had good reason to support strikes in response to chemical-weapons attacks. They sent a message to Bashar al-Assad that there are consequences. They were limited, as he said, in striking the kind of Syrian air capabilities reportedly used to gas civilians.

The PM still insists it will take a diplomatic, political solution to end Syria's civil war – despite the entrenched position of the Assad regime backed by its entrenched allies, Iran and Russia. But that's also the position of the Trump administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley now suggest they want Mr. Assad removed through those political means, but they're not going to war to oust him.

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However, the United States could still go farther than a one-off strike without going as far as all-out war in Syria. Ms. Haley said the United States is prepared to follow Thursday's strikes with more action if the Assad regime, and Russia, don't work toward a political settlement to the civil war. The threat of military intervention is now a tool to pressure Damascus and Moscow to negotiate.

At the moment, Mr. Trudeau's government doesn't know precisely what that means. Mr. Trump didn't mention further military strikes when he spoke to the Prime Minister Friday morning. But the Liberal government will have to start thinking about what else they will fully support. More limited strikes, to punish different transgressions? No-fly zones?

At one end of the spectrum, that's more of a political question than a practical one. If the Trump administration wants international talks, they'll want expressions of support for their tactics from allies such as Canada.

If the tactic is more strikes like Thursday's, the United States won't be calling on Canada to join militarily. The United States used so-called standoff weapons – missiles fired from ships – and Canada doesn't have them.

In theory, the United States might ask allies such as Canada to contribute fighters if they wanted to mount a larger campaign with manned aircraft to do extensive damage, control the skies, or establish a no-fly zone.

But University of Ottawa international security professor Roland Paris, a former adviser to Mr. Trudeau, noted that would mean far higher risk, now that Russian planes and sophisticated Russian air defences are deployed in Syria. "They'd have to kill Russians in order to gain air superiority in Syria," Mr. Paris said. "That is a big, big step."

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So Mr. Trudeau doesn't face a call to war in Syria now, but he does face a new problem. Suddenly, he has to start thinking about whether his willingness to support U.S. action is limited.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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