Changes expected to Canada’s anti-ISIS mission
Ottawa - The Canadian Army’s contribution to the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) has been extended until June 30. Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Canada’s armed forces would continue operations supporting coalition partners, which include training and advising local forces in northern Iraq.
“This extension provides the government of Canada the time required to assess the evolving nature of the fight,” Sajjan said in a news release. He noted that the mission would remain the same but “with a few adjustments.”
Canada joined the US-led international coalition in October 2014 with six CF-18 jets bombing ISIS targets in Iraq. In March 2015, the mission was extended for 12 months and expanded to include targets in Syria.
The new Liberal government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, ceased air strike operations over Iraq and Syria in February 2016 and changed Canada’s overall anti-ISIS contribution. The updated mission concentrated on training and Ottawa tripled the number of its military advisers and trainers in Iraq.
This non-combat mission, known as Operation IMPACT, consists of four main areas: Training, advising and assisting Kurdish peshmerga troops; air-to-air refuelling of coalition aircraft; surveillance and intelligence collection; and a capacity-building initiative aimed at enhancing the security capabilities of regional allies countering violent extremism.
The Department of National Defence said Canada allocated approximately $224.5 million towards this refocused mission since February 2016.
The Canadian government is expected to review and evaluate the mission by the end of June.
Given the non-combat nature of the Canadian mission, military adjustments to the operation may be minimal. However, many in Ottawa are predicting an increased Canadian involvement.
Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance said the mission may change as the situation evolves, given the progress made in the campaign against ISIS in Mosul. “Canadians should expect further adjustments as the situation warrants,” he said in a release.
Any further involvement remains largely dependent on the defence policy review. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that the long-awaited review would be made public after Trudeau meets with allies at the NATO summit May 25.
Programmes for countering violent extremism in the Middle East and for operating closely with regional allies to address the issue of returning ISIS jihadists to Europe and North America will likely see increased Canadian support.
One problematic aspect of the Canadian contribution is Ottawa’s focus on only training Kurdish forces. Some argue that solely supporting the Kurds and providing them with equipment and weapons could develop into assisting them in establishing an independent state, something that could lead to further conflict in the already fractured region. Changes to the approach of this training and equipping programme are, however, less likely.
The possibilities for Canada’s further engagement in the coalition are essentially linked to US plans for the anti-ISIS campaign.
Some in Ottawa have voiced concerns over the way the United States is leading the coalition, especially since Donald Trump became president. Concerns over his leadership highlight long-standing dynamics in US-led coalitions, namely that the United States forms coalitions to ensure legitimacy, not out of any logistical or capacity shortages.
The threat of Trump forging ahead alone is very real, with coalition partners essentially forced to tag along or otherwise excuse themselves from joint operations if they feel their concerns are not being given sufficient attention.
The Trump administration has noticeably escalated the fight against ISIS positions in Iraq and is leading a side campaign with local Kurdish forces in Syria. However, some groups considered the Trump administration’s escalation as sloppy, resulting in considerable civilian causalities. In March, US-led coalition air strikes resulted in killing 1,200 civilians, said Airwars, an organisation monitoring air operations in the region.
The Trump administration’s unpredictability and its seeming lack of leadership are raising worries among Canadian decision-makers. This may lead Canada to align itself closer with other European and NATO allies to address security matters.
Canadian efforts to counter ISIS will remain part of the international coalition and any changes to Ottawa’s mission would need to be made in concert with the overall campaign planning headed by the United States.