ISIS mission in Syria: What happens if a Canadian gets captured?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Kurdish peshmerga forces carry their weapons as they stand guard on the outskirts of Kirkuk March 15, 2015. Iraqi Kurdish authorities said on Saturday they had evidence that Islamic State had used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon against their peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq in January. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)

It’s a foregone conclusion Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority will ensure he wins next week’s Commons vote to extend and expand Canada’s military mission against Islamic State.

Polling suggests the public still backs Canada’s six-month involvement in the international coalition fighting Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS), despite one recent “friendly-fire” death.

Harper is leveraging that support to keep Canadian forces in Iraq for another year and authorize the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) to attack ISIS targets inside neighbouring Syria, the extremist groups home base. The 70 or so Canadian special forces soldiers helping train Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq would not be involved in Syria.

Critics of the mission say besides being an illegal intrusion into a sovereign state, CF-18 air strikes increase the potential risk to pilots. Unlike Iraq, where allies are close at hand to help a downed pilot, Syria is entirely hostile territory.

Last December, a Jordanian pilot whose aircraft went down in ISIS-held territory was captured and executed, but not before ISIS extracted maximum propaganda value from the incident.

As of yet, there have been no Canadians captured by ISIS, despite the military missions in the region and Canadians choosing to join Kurdish forces independently. But after seeing what has happened to other foreign nationals, Canadians can’t help but wonderwhat would happen if it were one of their own citizens shown in an ISIS propaganda video.

Syria has been wracked by years of civil war, allowing ISIS to win control of a northeastern region of the country to establish its “caliphate.” With the ISIS advance largely arrested in Iraq, the American-led coalition, dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve, wants to increase the pressure on its Syrian stronghold.

Up until now, the U.S. Air Force was the only western arm conducting air attacks in Syria, along with jets from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Canada would now join that group.

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The government has played down the risks. Defence Minister Jason Kenney said in a recent TV interview there’ve been no reports of coalition aircraft being fired on over eastern Syria (it’s not clear whether the Jordanian fighter was shot down or malfunctioned).

Risks to pilots over Syria differ little from those over Iraq, say experts

Military analysts say the actual risks to Canadian aircraft are not much different from those faced over Iraq under the RCAF’s Operation Impact campaign.

“There is no identified air-defence threat on the ISIS side that has the ability to reach up to the altitudes that Canadians would be flying,” George Petrolekas of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, told Yahoo Canada News.

It’s possible Syria’s more sophisticated air-defence network could lock onto a coalition aircraft but Petrolekas doubts it would try. The U.S. has likely warned the Syrians – as it did two decades ago when it established a no-fly zone over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – that radars tracking coalition aircraft would be destroyed.

“At the same time the Americans have probably undertaken really to just stay to the east of Syria, which is where ISIS is, and not where (Syrian President Bashar al) Assad’s forces are,” said Petrolekas. “So I suspect something similar’s at play. So there isn’t an increased risk that way.”

Retired air force general Don Macnamara agreed ISIS’s known inventory of anti-aircraft weapons are more of a threat to low-altitude attackers such as helicopters, not high-flying jets dropping precision-guided bombs.

“As long as the Syrians don’t target the aircraft, ISIS have the same equipment in Syria that they have in Iraq,” he said in an interview.

If there is a risk, however small, it comes from the potential for a malfunction in the aircraft, Petrolekas said.

“If you ever had an airplane go down in Syria, it’s pretty much in no man’s land,” he said.

Any Canadian forced to eject will be relying on the largely U.S.-operated combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) units to pull him out of trouble. Canada has no CSAR capability of its own, Tanya LeBlanc, spokeswoman for the Canadian Armed Forces, said in an email.

“These capabilities may be requested to support Canadian aircraft and their aircrew when required,” LeBlanc said. “In order to protect the safety of our deployed aircrew and in the interests of operational security, we will not discuss the details regarding combat search and rescue procedures.”

No protection for civilians who opt to fight

As for the Canadians who choose to fight alongside the Kurdish forces, outside of the purview of Canadian military, the government has said previously it will not be able to provide much assistance.

The mission of Canadian ground troops does not appear to have changed and Petrolekas said they are at a low risk of being captured if they remain within the Kurds’ area of control.

An unknown number of Canadians, mostly former Canadian Armed Forces members, have volunteered to fight with Kurdish forces. Their likely treatment at the hands of ISIS forces if captured is not difficult to imagine.

In an emailed statement last December, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade told Yahoo Canada News it discourages Canadian civilians from traveling to the region to fight.

"Canada has limited ability to provide any assistance to its citizens and anyone undertaking this travel does so at their own risk,” François Lasalle said. “We advise that Canadians in these countries should leave.

"If Canadians want to fight ISIL, we would encourage them to join the Canadian Armed Forces."

Pilots rely on quick response from search and rescue

For those who do elect to fight with the Canadian forces, there are emergency response measures in place.

While the specifics can’t be revealed for safety reasons, there are rescue teams positioned to respond to emergency needs of military aircraft facing threats in the region.

CSAR helicopters or V-22 Osprey vertical-takeoff planes, covered by A-10 “Warthog” ground-attack aircraft and high-flying AC-130 gunships, can fly to the site of a downed aircraft, establish contact with surviving aircrew and extract them.

“We do not discuss specifics on the locations of personnel recovery forces or the procedures they follow,” Maj. Kim Vibe Michelsen of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve told Yahoo Canada News via email. “We continue to enhance our capabilities within the region, including those associated with personnel recovery.”

Michelsen said to date there have been no CSAR missions in Syria or Iraq, which presumably includes the crash of the Jordanian F-16 last December that led to Lt. Moath al-Kasasbeh’s gruesome death.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that in the wake of al-Kasasbeh’s death, Turkey balked at a U.S. request to position Osprey aircraft at a base in the NATO-member country, giving it closer access to Syria. CSAR units currently operate out of Kuwait.

No one seems prepared to entertain the thought of what might happen if a Canadian pilot falls into ISIS hands.

Macnamara dismissed the question as speculative and hypothetical, adding that the risks are the same in Syria as Iraq.

Combat flying is inherently risky and bailing out is in the back of everyone’s mind, he said.

“There’s no second thoughts about that,” Macnamara said. “You rely on your training and the support of everybody around you to get you in and get you out.”

But the “what if” question probably lingers in many minds. What would Canada do?

“You know what, I just don’t know,” said Petrolekas. “The position is we don’t negotiate but there’s ways to do it through third parties and things.”

Canada succeeded in getting two diplomats released by Islamists after they were kidnapped in Niger in 2008 through the use of intermediaries. Canada has denied it paid a ransom.

Attempts to trade a female terrorist condemned for a deadly hotel bombing in Amman for al-Kasasbeh fell through when the Jordanians demanded proof the pilot was still alive. Shortly thereafter, ISIS released its video of al-Kasasbeh’s execution.

“It appeared it was bad faith and that the pilot was already dead when negotiations began,” said Petrolekas.

The incident hardened Jordan’s resolve to punish ISIS. Would Canadians react the same way or reverse course and demand its troops come home?