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The Canadian Government Is About to Start Bombing ISIS in Syria

Ottawa is set to approve airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
March 24, 2015, 4:45pm

Canadian soldiers. Photo via Canadian Armed Forces

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

On Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled his plan to extend his bombing campaign against the Islamic State, putting Canada on a short list of nations that have opted to launch airstrikes against the strongholds near the caliphate's capital.

Harper announced that Canada would be contributing personnel and planes to the mission until March 2016, and that Canadian fighter jets would be hitting targets in Syria for the first time.

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"Canadians did not invent the threat of jihadi terrorism, and we certainly did not invite it," Harper said in the House of Commons. "Nor, as this global threat becomes ever more serious, can we protect our country or our communities by choosing to ignore it."

Canada has spent the past six months of its mission in Iraq, dubbed Operation IMPACT, conducting air reconnaissance, training Iraqi and Peshmerga fighters, and launching air strikes against Islamic State targets on the ground.

Since September, when the mission began, Canada's fighter jets have flown roughly 400 bombing missions throughout Iraq, often in support of Iraqi Security Forces missions.

But the mission hasn't been without controversy. Canadian special operations forces have engaged in firefights with Islamic State fighters, despite assurances from the Canadian government that ground personnel were there purely on an advise-and-assist mission. Those special forces, of which there are around 70, have has been doing laser targeting of Islamic State positions from within Kurdish-controlled territory. Last month, one of the special forces was shot and killed in a friendly fire incident after Peshmerga fighters mistook him for the enemy.

Those stories have driven opposition to the mission back at home, especially from the NDP, which is Canada's official opposition party to Harper's Conservatives. The NDP have opposed the mission from the outset, arguing that the mandate for the mission has been vague, and has led to dangerous and secretive operations on the front lines.

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"They say that truth is the first casualty of war. It has become clear that the current government has taken that saying to heart," Mulcair told the House of Commons.

But there is appetite to do more. Several ex-Canadian Forces soldiers have joined Peshmerga fighters in Kurdistan, including the son of one Conservative politician.

Around 60 percent of the Canadian public supports the mission, and most of them supported extending the mission in some way.

Tuesday's announcement puts Canada in a club of only six nations—America and six Middle Eastern allies—who've chosen to extend the mission into Syria. Their campaign has targeted northern border towns like Kobani and Raqqa, the nerve centre for the Islamic State.

Yet, while the Iraqi government has given the international coalition permission to strike Islamic State targets, the government of Bashar al Assad hasn't given any such permission, nor has the United Nations Security Council or NATO signed off on the mission. The Americans' legal cover—that bombing Syria is necessary to protect Iraq—is pretty shaky.

Harper did not explain just how the mission in Syria is exactly legal, except to say that "in expanding our air strikes into Syria, the government has now decided that we will not seek the express consent of the Syrian government," adding that Ottawa will be working closely with Washington and its coalition allies.

Nevertheless, Canada's contribution is significant. While Ottawa is sending fewer planes than the Americans, Canada's presence in the mission is roughly the same size as coalition partners like Australia and Denmark.

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Ottawa has kicked in six CF-18 fighter jets, two surveillance aircraft, two strategic lift planes, a refueling craft, and about 600 ground crew, all located on a coalition base in Kuwait.

Canada's surveillance planes, the Aurora CP-140s, have become much sought-after hardware. The 30-year-old aircraft, which were originally intended for maritime patrol, underwent extensive upgrades in recent years and have become tactically useful in scoping targets and assessing the impact of airstrikes. "We are one of the best equipped assets here to do a surveillance mission," the Canadian commander for the Auroras told VICE from the coalition base in Kuwait.

The mission to kneecap the Islamic State, however, still needs a ground component. Conspicuously missing in Tuesday's announcement was more money and weapons for the Kurdish and Iraqi armies.

When VICE asked Jason Kenney, the minister for National Defense, in February about the shipments, he wouldn't commit to increasing arms sales to Canada's allies fighting the Islamic State. "That would be a question that we will consider," he said.

The Kurds have been asking Canada for more weapons for months.

"We need tanks, we need armored personnel carriers, we need Humvees, we need anti-tank missiles in order to win the battle. Our enemy has it. We don't have it," the foreign minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq told Motherboard last November.

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Kenney's office has yet to return a request for comment on upping arms sales to coalition partners on the ground.

Canada has, however, kicked in humanitarian and non-lethal aid to its allies in Iraq, as well as transporting Soviet-era light arms from Eastern European partners.

After the prime minister laid out his case for the mission expansion, Canada's two opposition leaders stood up to deliver their reaction.

Mulcair said Harper had misled the public on every part of the mission and hadn't made the case for an extension.

"It is simply not enough to say that we have to do something; we need to ask ourselves what is the right thing to do. The question shouldn't be the combat role or nothing. It's a false choice offered by the prime minister," Mulcair said to much jeering from the government side of the House. Mulcair went so far as to say that Harper had forged an "alliance of sorts" with Syrian president Bashar al Assad.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also stood to oppose the mission, contending that "involvement in direct combat in this war does not serve Canada's interests, nor will it provide a constructive solution to the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the region."

Trudeau added that bombing Islamic State assets in Syria "could very well result in Assad consolidating his group on power in Syria."

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