Canada extends maritime security mission in Middle East to 2021

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan talks to reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday, May 29, 2017. Photo from CP Images

Canada is extending its commitment to an international maritime security mission in the waters off the Middle East for another four years, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced today.

"It is a clear display of our solidarity with partners and allies in the global fight against terrorism," Sajjan said of Operation Artemis, Canada's contribution to a multinational maritime security force in the region.

The federal government has approved up to $131.4 million to support the extension, which will see the deployment of up to 375 military personnel.

The Canadian Forces will also send a CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft as part of the mission, and plan to deploy a Halifax-class frigate every other year starting in 2018.

Combined Task Force 150

Combined Task Force 150 is a U.S.-led multinational mission bringing together 31 countries in the waters around the Middle East and East Africa.

The multinational force deploys ships and surveillance operations to deter and intercept illegal shipments of weapons and narcotics used to fund terrorist groups.

"By denying terrorists a method of conducting operations and moving personnel, weapons and narcotics, Canada makes a direct contribution to increased maritime security and international counterterrorism efforts," Sajjan said.

Covering more than five million square kilometres, the task force's purview spans the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Western Indian Ocean. The maritime region is strategically important not only in terms of its place in the global fight against terrorism, but also as a vital trade route between the Far East, Europe and North America.

The planned deployment of a Halifax-class frigate to the Middle East next year is in contrast to when Canada last led the multinational force.

While Canadian warships were deployed as part of Operation Artemis between 2012 and 2014, Canada was unable to send a frigate for its command in December 2016, the third time Canada had led CTF 150 since its launch in 2001.

Canada has since handed command of the operation to France. Sajjan said Canada could seek to lead the multinational force every other year.

Liberals playing a shell game: Conservative

Conservative defence critic James Bezan welcomed the extension of Operation Artemis, but said it comes at the expense of other Canadian commitments in the fight against Daesh.

"It's a bit of a shell game coming from the government as to what's really happening in the fight," said Bezan. "They're doing less, not more."

Bezan condemned the government's December 2015 decision to withdraw Canada's CF-18 fighter jets from the Middle East, as well as its more recent decision to bring home one of two CP-140 Aurora surveillance planes.

"If you want to be back on the world stage, you have to do everything," Bezan said, accusing the government of offloading Canada's responsibilities onto its NATO allies. "You have to stand shoulder to shoulder and sometimes that means doing the heavy lifting — and Liberals under Justin Trudeau continue to step back."

'Eyes and ears on the ground'

The decision to extend Operation Artemis is hardly surprising, said Thomas Juneau, a former strategic analyst for the Department of National Defence who now teaches Middle East security at the University of Ottawa.

"What matters mostly from our perspective is that we're there," Juneau said.

Considering Canada's already "limited" participation in the international task force, Juneau said a decision to withdraw would have been poorly received by Canada's allies — perhaps none more than the United States, given Donald Trump's continued calls on NATO allies to up their defence spending.

"From a Canadian perspective, our interest is in being there, in being part of the coalition, in being able to tell the U.S. that we are contributing," Juneau said. "It's one of those many small things that — in the bigger picture — allows Canada to go to the table to the U.S. and say, 'We are carrying our responsibilities.'"

Canada will also benefit from having "eyes and ears on the ground," Juneau said, especially with the deployment of an aircraft or frigate.

"For our presence in the Middle East as a whole, for our role in counterterrorism missions, that's useful," Juneau said. "They develop links with allies: the U.S and others. They develop links with partners on the ground: Bahrain and other regional countries. They can send useful information back to the country."

4 years allow flexibility: Sajjan

Sajjan said the four-year extension will allow the military greater flexibility in planning its operations, with this mission connected to Canada's broader efforts to counter terrorism worldwide.

The deployment of a CP-140 Aurora as part of Operation Artemis is "not related at all whatsoever" to the government's decision earlier this month to pull a similar aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, Sajjan told reporters.

The defence minister also did not provide further details on the government's expected commitment to international peacekeeping operations.

"When it comes to peace support operations, we want to make sure we take the time to get this right, because it's not done in isolation" Sajjan said.