Canada’s ‘non-combat’ ISIS mission not risk free


[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question as he is joined by Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, left to right, Minister of International Development and La Francophonie Marie-Claude Bibeau and Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick]

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fulfilled a key election promise this week by announcing the RCAF’s six CF-18 jets would be withdrawn from the aerial campaign against Islamic State before the end of February.

While critics continue to challenge the reasoning behind that decision, the announcement Canada would be bolstering its military commitment on the ground generally has been well received.

But details of what those added forces will do, when they’ll get there and what risks they’ll face remain somewhat sketchy.

“They haven’t really nailed down a lot of the details,” David Perry, senior analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, told Yahoo Canada.

Trudeau announced Monday that Canada’s military commitment to the war against Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) in Iraq and Syria – dubbed Operation Impact – will see armed forces personnel increase to about 830 from 650 even after the fighter-bombers are withdrawn.

As some analysts predicted last fall, an RCAF aerial refueling tanker and the two sophisticated Aurora surveillance planes will stay behind to support coalition bombing operations from their base in neighbouring Kuwait.

Intelligence-gathering and operational-planning staff will be added at various coalition headquarters and the number of soldiers providing training, advice and assistance to local ground forces, notably the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, will be tripled.

Canada will also send armed forces medical personnel to train Iraqi forces in battlefield casualty management and to bolster coalition medical resources. It’s also considering expanding programs to train security forces in Jordan and Lebanon to help stop the spread of ISIS-inspired violence.

Perry speculated that the expanded medical and advise-and-assist elements may also include deploying four Griffon helicopters and related support personnel.

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The CF-18s are supposed to cease operations by Feb. 22 and it’s estimated pulling them out means the withdrawal of between 250 and 300 personnel, dropping the Kuwait base’s complement down to about 200, said Perry. The Griffons and their support team would add up to about 100, though where they would be based is not clear.

After that, things get a bit fuzzy, said Perry, who attended a technical briefing following Trudeau’s announcement.

While Operation Impact is being extended to the end of March 2017, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan gave no timeline for when the additional forces would be deployed in the region, said Perry. It was clear the military was waiting for the official announcement before it could begin reconnaissance in the area and detailed planning. The only firm date so far is the CF-18s’ stand-down.

No details yet on what additional trainers will do

Nor is it clear where the additional trainers would be drawn from. While it could be assumed that since the 69 trainers working with the peshmerga now are special forces soldiers, that doesn’t mean the newcomers will be.

“They didn’t actually specify that and it wasn’t really clear to me that they’re initially going to be doing the same kind of training,” he said.

Some Canadians will be training Iraqi national troops and supplying weapons and sighting optics. That mission may not require the highly-skilled special operators now working with the Kurds.

“I’m just making an inference here but if someone doesn’t even have a rifle that they haven’t learned to shoot yet, you wouldn’t need to be providing them with advanced special-forces small-unit tactics,” said Perry.

ALSO READ: Lessons learned by U.S. troops in Afghanistan should influence Canada’s Iraq training mission, experts say

Any training done in Jordan and Lebanon also remains to be fleshed out and is subject to negotiation with the respective governments.

During Monday’s briefing Sajjan and Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of defence staff, admitted members of the expanded Canadian ground mission could find themselves in danger. Advisers near the front line could come under fire and be forced to shoot back to defend themselves and allied soldiers.

Analysts suggest it’s no riskier than the current situation.

“Yeah, it’s combat activity but what I would say is that doesn’t mean it’s a combat mission,” said Perry. “My parsing of [it] is, what’s the principal focus of the mission overall?”


[Kurdish Peshmerga fighters enter Sinjar, northern Iraq, after regaining control of the city from the Islamic State group in a joint operation with coalition forces, on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP,Bram Janssen]

The advanced training Canadians are now giving the Kurds just behind the front lines should not be compared with the Observer Mentor Liaison Teams (OMLTS) Canada deployed in Kandahar to train that Afghanistan’s soldiers, said Stephen Saideman, Carleton University’s Paterson Chair in International Affairs.

“We put a team of like 50 to 80 guys in an Afghan battalion,” he said in an interview. “Wherever it went, the Canadians went with them to mentor them and provide logistical support.”

The effort in northern Iraq appears to be a continuation of the current program, said Saideman.

“We’re not going to be sending guys into combat,” he said.

Analyst questions mission explanation

But there’s still some ambiguity about the precise role Canadian forces will have.

“When they talk about it there’s a strange language used because they’re trying to argue that they’re going to be doing stuff that’s not combat but close to combat,” said Saideman, who wrote a blog post questioning the logic behind the Liberals’ anti-ISIS policy. “It’s hard to draw lines.

“I think the key thing is that as far as I can see they’re not imagining these Canadian troops will go into harm’s way deliberately. I think that’s a fairly clear line.”

Yet many Canadians were surprised when Sgt. Andrew Doiron was killed in a so-called friendly-fire incident last March, unaware Canadian trainers were in places where they could be mistaken for enemy fighters. Canadian troops have been in three reported firefights since the mission began.


[Pallbearers carry the remains of Sergeant Andrew Doiron following his funeral in Ottawa March 14, 2015. Doiron was killed on March 6 in a friendly fire incident in Iraq, Canadian officials said. REUTERS/Chris Wattie]

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Canadians will retain the ability to defend themselves and to call in air strikes if they or their Kurdish allies are under threat, said Perry. The current risk parameters remain the same, except there will be three times the current number at risk.

“So you would increase the likelihood of another engagement or us taking casualties just by virtue of the math,” he said.

The risk increases, though, if you add in the deployment of potentially helicopters near the front line, and the closer Kurdish forces get to the ISIS stronghold of Mosul.

“That’s going to be quite a qualitatively different type of engagement,” said Perry.

The area Canadians operate now is largely open, with a few small villages. Mosul, a built-up urban centre that once was home to 2.5 million people in peacetime, is one area where street fighting and house-to-house combat likely will predominate.

“If we go forward with the people we are advising and assisting right into Mosul, that would be another factor increasing the risk to Canadians as well,” said Perry.

The equation also changes for Canadians who might be working closely with Iraqi national forces. The U.S. spent billions of dollars equipping and training them, only to see the large force defending Mosul abandon their weapons and run in the face of a much smaller force of ISIS fighters in the summer of 2014.

There’s a risk, said Saideman, that Canadians working with Iraqi units could find themselves exposed if something similar happens. There’s also a danger in Iraq’s bitterly sectarian environment of so-called “green-on-blue” attacks such as happened in Afghanistan when soldiers turned weapons on their foreign mentors, he said.

Complicating things further is the prospect of helping further train and equip peshmerga fighters who one day might carve a newly independent Kurdistan out of Iraq.

“The problems with Kurds is they’re separatists and that poses challenges for us because we have allies who are threatened by Kurdish separatism,” said Saideman.

“This next stage of the war is very complex politically and I can understand why we want to be real careful.”