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Why are our U.S. allies so ambivalent about ISIS, and what does it mean for Canada?

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For all we know, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a fine ophthalmologist with a sympathetic bedside manner.

By all accounts, though, he is not a very nice person. Indeed, he would seem to meet the commonplace definition of "ruthless Middle Eastern despot."

Nevertheless, outside the borders of Syria, since Assad has been in charge his government has mostly behaved itself among the community of nations, especially with regard to the countries of Western Europe and North America.

No credible case can be made that Assad is an enemy of Canada, although no doubt sooner or later someone will try.

The same cannot be said of Assad's principal enemies in the Syrian Civil War, which started in 2011 and continues as this is written, although a recent partial cease-fire among some parties is in effect.

The Syrian government's enemies include several murderous Islamist groups including, most notoriously, the self-described Islamic State, also commonly known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.

Unlike ISIS, Assad's armed forces have never machine-gunned civilians in Paris or blown up airports or subway stations in Brussels. No one in the Syrian government has ever threatened to do the same thing in Canada. And the only Canadian Assad's security forces are known to have harmed was handed over to them for "enhanced interrogation" by the United States, apparently with the enthusiastic co-operation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City.

Given those facts, why, oh why, are our American allies -- the ones the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper and Rona Ambrose were recently so anxious we keep our CF-18s on hand to support -- so ambivalent about this fanatical, murderous and anti-Western group?

If you pay attention, you'd almost think the U.S. Government preferred ISIS to Assad!

The latest evidence of this came in a remarkable comment by State Department spokesperson Mark Toner during a daily press briefing in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, only one day after the deadly ISIS bombing attacks in Brussels.

From the State Department's transcript of the event, Toner appeared to be trying to dodge a question by a reporter about whether the United States would prefer to see Assad's Syrian Arab Army retake the ancient city of Palmyra or for the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site to remain in the hands of ISIS.

Toner had been implying Syrian forces are breaking the ceasefire, which was reluctantly agreed to by the United States and its coalition in response to the successful Russian and Iranian intervention on the side of Assad, which appears to have turned the tide in his favour.

While ISIS is not included in the truce because just about everyone else involved has identified it as a terror organization, Toner nevertheless seemed to have trouble making up his mind about who should be in control of Palmyra.

He told the reporter: "I mean, look, I mean, broadly speaking, it's not a great choice, an either/or, but --- which is worse, Daesh or the regime? -- but we think Daesh is probably the greater evil in this case.” (Emphasis, and the obviously required question mark, added.) This comment seems not to have been reported at all in Western media.*

Seriously? ISIS is probably the greatest evil? This is what the U.S. Government thought one day after an attack that killed at least 31 innocent civilians and injured many more in Brussels?

I don't know about you, but if I were a Belgian, or French, I would be furious! As Canadians, we should at least take notice.

Of course, sometimes a muddled comment is just a muddled comment, but there is plenty of additional evidence such ambivalence is in fact a true reflection of U.S. foreign policy.

Not least is U.S. tolerance of the now well-understood role of our NATO ally Turkey financing ISIS through its purchase and transshipment of stolen oil, Turkey’s persistent attacks against ISIS’s Kurdish enemies, and its routine tolerance of ISIS terrorists passing unhindered back and forth across its border with Syria, and perhaps with other countries too.

In addition, the United States looks the other way when Saudi Arabia permits wealthy citizens to finance foreign jihadists, it arms and trains "moderate" Syrian groups with a history of selling their weapons to ISIS, and was strangely passive in its year-long anti-ISIS bombing campaign until the Russian Aerospace Forces demonstrated forcefully that it's possible to find and hit ISIS targets.

But instead of discussing these unanswered questions in Canada, we are engaged in silly rhetorical debate about whether we should describe our measures to protect Canadians from ISIS as being "at war."

The Conservative Opposition's media auxiliary excoriated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his apparent reluctance to use the W-word. Michael Den Tandt, a normally clear-headed Postmedia columnist, did not even indicate in his commentary that he understands Syria and Iraq, where ISIS somehow manages to hold and administer territory, are different countries.

As a wedge issue, this may serve the Conservatives nominally led by Ambrose by reinforcing their brand as tougher on terror than the Liberals, but it is unhelpful to the policy debate and otherwise largely meaningless.

The reality is that from the point of view of security any Canadian government led by Conservatives or Liberals -- or for that matter the NDP -- is going to do much the same thing because the range of tactics available to deal with threats to our country like those posed by ISIS is limited. Moreover, Western powers normally don't declare war when they engage in "regime change" operations elsewhere in the world.

The argument behind the catcalls about whether Canada is "at war" is really a strategic one about whether Canada should take part in a larger war to capture territory held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, an effort presumably to be led by the United States.

Den Tandt states this explicitly: "ISIL holds territory. It has a capital city, Raqqa. … Land gives the self-anointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, legitimacy, by radical Islamist lights. Therefore the land he controls must be taken back." (Emphasis added.)

The difficulty is that Raqqa is not in Iraq, as Den Tandt seems to imply, but in Syria. In other words, without quite saying so, he's advocating a Western invasion of Syrian territory.

The first problem with that notion is that while Western armed forces might be welcome to help roll up ISIS in Iraq, they most certainly would not be in Syria, where Assad's allies suspect with justice the real target of any Western coalition in which Canada would take part is not ISIS, but the Assad Government itself.

This might not be much of an argument for allowing ISIS hold territory in Syria if it were actually still able to operate freely there. But thanks to help from their friends in Russia and Iran, the Syrians now seem to be enjoying considerable success mopping up ISIS on their own.

The second problem is that while the Russians have now partly withdrawn their aerospace forces from Syria, they have left their sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems in place and made it clear they will return if efforts are made to topple the Assad Government, which, unsavoury as it may be, remains legitimate in legal terms.

Canadians should at least think about the dangerous places a confrontation with Russia over this could lead us.

And, lo and behold, this is context in which ISIS expands its theatre of operations to another Western European country.

I am not saying Canada should not be part of an effort to deal ruthlessly with ISIS. Au contraire.

We need to ask ourselves, however, if we join a U.S.-led coalition that includes such Islamist bad actors as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who we are really going to war against, and who our allies will really be.

As Toner's commentary illustrates, the answer is far from clear.

* I first encountered this quote on RT, the Russian-government-funded TV and Internet video network directed at audiences outside Russia. I frankly didn't believe it, given the fact it appears nowhere else except a few websites that have obviously quoted RT. Just the same, with the help of Google it is easy to find in both video and transcript formats courtesy the U.S. State Department itself. It's real. RT got it right. Apparently Western media do not view it as significant.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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