We probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Canadian soldiers would end up exchanging fire with Islamic State fighters in Iraq.
The question is, was the government being naive or disingenuous when it said last fall that Canada’s mission there would not put them in danger on the front line (excepting, of course, the pilots flying CF-18s on bombing missions)?
It’s not a minor question since the Conservatives are likely to make Canada’s security against terrorism a central component of its re-election campaign this year and it’s identified Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL) as a major threat to that security. It committed a half-dozen CF-18 fighter jets and dozens of soldiers to an international effort to defend Iraq against ISIS forces surging through the country from Syrian strongholds.
About 70 special forces troops have been working with with the Kurdish peshmerga fighters for the last few months. The Conservative government initially told Parliament their duties would be largely behind the lines, advising and training the ethnic militia as it first defended Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, then prepared to retake ground captured by the brutal Islamic force.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons last September the special forces operators were there in an advisory capacity and would not be on the front lines.
But opposition parties appeared taken by surprise when military briefers providing update on the campaign this month revealed the soldiers had traded shots with ISIS fighters at least three times in recent weeks.
Canadian snipers in the first instance apparently “neutralized” ISIS mortar and machine-gun fire on Canadian troops working with Iraqi soldiers, it was revealed last week. A fresh briefing Monday disclosed two more incidents where Canadians fired back after being fired upon.
The military and the government explained the soldiers’ presence on the front line as an evolution but opposition critics quickly denounced it as “mission creep,” accusing the Tories of misleading Parliament and Canadians.
But military experts say the development should come as no surprise, given the uncertain nature of the Iraqi situation.
Canadian mission reacting to situation, says expert
“I would call it a voyage of discovery, to a degree,” said retired colonel George Petrolekas, an analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
"I suspect once they actually got on the ground and saw the state of the Iraqi forces, they were first of all probably in far greater disrepair than many saw it at the outset. I don’t think we’ve actually gone purposely to engage in combat.”
The snipers were apparently providing protection for Canadian special forces acting as forward air controllers operating laser designator systems to pinpoint targets for aerial bombardment by coalition jets, equipment the Iraqi forces aren’t trained to use.
“They might be moving forward but they’re certainly not moving forward to become physically engaged in the battle,” said Petrolekas.
The government’s policy direction to the military remains clear; to assist Iraqi forces but not participate in the ground war, said Petrolekas, a former adviser to Gen. Rick Hillier when he was chief of defence staff.
"But in doing that assist function where they have ended up in areas where they’ve been shot and they have responded in kind, it has all been with a view to withdraw or to disengage, not to assist Iraqis or anyone else in that combat function," he said in an interview with Yahoo Canada News.
Harper has insisted the rules of engagement – kept secret to avoid revealing operational details to an enemy – allow Canadians to return fire if fired upon. Petrolekas said that doesn’t tip Canada’s involvement into ground combat.
“When I was in Sarajevo or in Bosnia in United Nations peacekeeping [in the 1990s] and we were fired at and at times fired back, no one ever considered us combatants in that conflict,” he said.
So why did Defence Minister Rob Nicholson provide assurances last fall that Canadian soldiers would not be exposed to fire?
“Sometimes politicians also just say things that some folks in uniform wish they hadn’t said, because they’ll be scratching their heads,” said Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at Royal Military College and also Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
The military may have outlined possible mission scenarios to the minister at the outset, said Leuprecht, but the nuances were removed once it came time to explain the mission to Canadians.
“It’s quite possible he was briefed and that, for instance, the spin doctors afterwards decided that’s too complicated; we can’t explain that to Canadians, so just go with this wording here,” he said.
The armed forces have been fairly quick to disclose the incidents, perhaps stung by the fallout when the government and the military tried to cover up the Battle of Medak Pocket, a 15-hour firefight between Croatian Forces and Canadian peacekeepers trying to enforce a ceasefire agreement in 1993.
“I would say in the briefings they’ve been pretty transparent about it. It hasn’t come out months afterward,” said Petrolekas. “It’s come out in the days that it happened.”
Leuprecht argued there’s nothing either naive or disingenuous about how how the government’s been characterizing the Iraq mission. The government gives the armed forces a mandate but does not tell the military precisely how to execute it.
“We don’t want governments getting involved in how exactly the Canadian Armed Forces are supposed to do their job,” he said.
"What government is supposed to do is provide a clear direction and mandate. Government should stipulate the ends and the framework for the means. So, this is what you can and can’t do.”
Conservatives guilty of bad communication
If the government’s guilty of anything, he said, it’s bad communication.
The special forces ground component appears to be operating within the mandate to perform a variety of things; training, command and control, operational support and intelligence, anything short of direct involvement in offensive operations.
“It appears that we’re providing the full array of special forces tasks, with the exception of direct action,” said Leuprecht.
Spelling it out that way might have made it clearer to Canadians, he said.
“It may have been a briefing issue but I think a lot gets lost in translation, too,” said Leuprecht.
It also missed an opportunity to tie the Canadians’ target-spotting role to the relative absence of reported civilian casualties from coalition air strikes, he added.
Canada learned in Afghanistan that collateral civilian deaths and accidental killing of friendly troops is unacceptable. Canadian pilots have been ordered not to drop bombs if they judge there’s a risk to civilians. Having Canadians handle target designation helps.
"Because when in doubt we make sure we have trusted eyes on the ground that can on the one hand call in a precision air strike to make sure that civilians and allied security partners aren’t in harm’s way, and on the other hand we can make sure we do this with a value judgment, that is we call in the air strike with a Canadian value judgment on what circumstances are and are not acceptable for an air strike," said Leuprecht.
Canada’s Iraq mission is scheduled to end in April but signs point to an extension as the Conservatives gear up for a scheduled October election that will make national security an issue.
Leuprecht said neither the Liberals nor New Democrats will want to be seen as not supporting Canadian troops in a combat zone. He doubts, though, that a Liberal government (perhaps even an NDP one) would fundamentally change Canada’s approach because it essentially jibes with what the country’s done historically.
“We see the sort of commitments from the Conservatives that we would have seen from any Canadian government, whether that’s Liberal or Conservative or, for all we know, NDP,” said Leuprecht.
Canada always looks for a consensus among its allies and/or the United Nations before making a military commitment, which it did in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, in the Libya no-fly-zone campaign three years ago, and in the recent deployment to the Baltic states to discourage Russian adventures in the region.
Canada will remain, he said, as long as that consensus holds, regardless of who’s in government.