Changes expected to Canada’s anti-ISIS mission

Sunday 21/05/2017
Concern about neighbour. A Canadian Forces Griffon helicopter lands near the Mosul dam in northern Iraq, last February. (AP)

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.