OTTAWA - Conservatives turned up the rhetoric and the heat Thursday, accusing Justin Trudeau's government of making the country — and members of the military in particular — look weak with their plan to pull CF-18s from combat against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
A sometimes acrimonious debate hit a sore spot for the Liberals, who've faced growing criticism that the promised refocus of the military mission amounts to cutting and running in the fight against extremists.
In lieu of bombing, the Liberals have promised a more robust training mission for local forces, but have yet to articulate what that would look like.
"This government would have those Canadian Armed Forces withdraw," said Conservative Kellie Leitch.
"They would put them in the position where they would be seen on the world stage as cowards. But these people are outstanding and they are not cowards and they want to face ISIS and eradicate it so Syrians can return to their homes."
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion was visibly indignant at the suggestion.
"Of course of our forces are courageous," he said. "Nobody has any doubt in this House. It's outrageous for the member to mention the possibility that we would think otherwise. It's an insult."
But the absence of a clear plan has left the door open for the Conservatives to frame the impending changes as a retreat in what is a clear attempt to create a political wedge — something the former Harper government did often during the Afghan war and on many other issues during their tenure.
They started the day with a motion calling on the government to keep the warplanes in place. It is a gesture, since a Liberal majority prevents the motion from going anywhere.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told the Commons the government's new approach — being crafted in consultation with allies — will be a "meaningful contribution" that takes in not only the military but other elements, including de-radicalization of those who would join ISIL.
Afterwards, he dismissed the Conservative attacks.
"I don't mind the criticism," Sajjan said. "When it comes to the plan, we need to make sure we get it right. And I will take the time to make sure we have all the right information; ask all the right questions and then create the plan that will take everything into consideration."
But James Bezan, the Conservative defence critic, said the country's allies have been asking for more military involvement, not less, and he went on to accuse the Liberals of demeaning the contribution the CF-18s have made so far.
Going into last week's NATO meeting, Dion said Canada was responsible for just 2.4 per cent of the air strikes and the country could make a more "meaningful contribution."
"There is no plan," said Bezan. "When the prime minister announced he'd pull Canada's fighter jets out of the combat mission against the jihadist death cult ISIS, there was only two groups celebrating that Canada was going to back down — the Liberals and ISIS."
Dion insisted the Liberals have no intention of formulating a plan on the back of a napkin.
Military analyst George Petrolekas, a retired colonel, says it's a bit premature to characterize a change in position as a retreat. He says it's quite possible the Liberals could pour more resources into the fight, only in a different area.