National Newswatch

OTTAWA — Canada again finds itself on the outside looking in when it comes to a gathering of countries fighting militants in the Middle East, something the new defence minister is trying to shrug off in the face of opposition criticism.

There are meetings all the time to discuss threats around the world, Harjit Sajjan insisted Tuesday, but he stopped short of explaining exactly why Canada isn't invited to this week's meeting in Paris.

Counterparts from France, the U.K., Germany, Italy, Australia and the Netherlands will gather Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter to discuss the ongoing fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Defence sources and at least one defence analyst say there may be more to the fact the Trudeau government was excluded than the domestic political outrage suggests.

Officials at NATO and the European Union are seized with ISIL's expanding presence in Libya. U.S. commandos were recently looking for allies among local militias to counter the extremist influence, but met with little success, according to published reports.

If you look at the list of countries invited to Wednesday's meeting, they are the ones with a direct stake in what's going in north Africa, said retired diplomat Eric Morse.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if Libya came out of that pot in Paris," Morse said.

"We're in such a state of doubt in terms of our foreign policy that (the allies) don't think it's wise or useful to invite us to consider asking us to be part of a new initiative."

When asked about the meeting, Sajjan played down the non-invitation.

"These meetings are about getting updated on what's happening on the ground, and I've been very fortunate very recently being back in the region to get a first-hand look at what's going on, and talk to the actual commanders on the ground," he said in Saint Andrews by-the-Sea, N.B.

Sajjan, who last week publicly acknowledged he wasn't going to attend the meeting, also suggested that the agenda is much broader than the current situation in Syria and Iraq.

"The planning has been going on for some time now, so this is not just one meeting for the planning of the steps."

Sajjan said he is already scheduled to gather with his counterparts for meetings in Brussels in two weeks.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said America and Canada are great friends and allies who are working together to degrade and destroy ISIL.

"The meeting in Paris this week is not a formal coalition meeting; rather, it is a one-time meeting of defence ministers," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for diplomatic reasons.

The Conservative opposition wasn't buying it, portraying the exclusion as a deliberate snub.

"When you are not a full partner, you don't get invited to the table," interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said in Winnipeg. 

"We were asked to join by the United States and other partners, and now we've said we're pulling out of that bombing mission — and we don't have a clear plan as to what to do to replace it."

Morse said there's justifiable confusion among allies about Canada's future policy, but he is skeptical that it is a simple quid pro quo. Why, he wondered, would Washington snub Ottawa when it has been working hard to keep Canada in the coalition? 

"Canada has had an indefinite stance on a lot of things for a long time," he said. 

"It's gotten more indefinite since the government changed. We are not big players in a lot of security fields. It may be a slap to the Canadian national ego, but we're not that big."

Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

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