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This Is How Canada Is Overhauling Its Fight Against the Islamic State

Within two weeks, Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets will be back on home soil, after spending more than a year hitting the Islamic State throughout Iraq and Syria as part of an international coalition.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
Photo by Department of National Defense

Canada will be sending some 140 new special forces operators to Iraqi Kurdistan as part of its new strategy in the fight against the Islamic State, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Monday as he finally put a time frame on withdrawing from the US-led bombing campaign in the region.

Within two weeks, Canada's CF-18 fighter jets will be back on home soil, after spending more than a year hitting IS fighting positions, equipment, and buildings throughout Iraq and Syria. The withdrawal will occur "no later than February 22," according to briefing documents.

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Canada will, however, continue selecting, or 'painting,' airstrike targets, mostly from its air base in Kuwait, and refuelling other coalition aircraft.

"There is a role for bombing, at least in the short term," Trudeau told reporters, in confirming that Canada will end its bombing campaign. "We cannot do it all."

Training and Arming
In the announcement, Trudeau committed to tripling the number of special forces operators who are currently stationed in Erbil, tasked with training the Kurdish Peshmerga army.

Those trainers are believed to be mostly with the elite Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) regiment, Canada's equivalent to the Green Berets.

Roughly 70 JTF2 soldiers are stationed near Erbil at present, and that number will jump to more than 200 in the coming months.

Most of the other 600-plus Canadian Forces personnel will be stationed in Kuwait, maintaining Canada's surveillance and refuelling aircraft.

Trudeau promised that Canada's expanded training commitment will ensure that "kilometer by kilometer," the Iraqis and Kurds "can reclaim their homes." Canada's Chief of Defense Staff, Jonathan Vance, echoed Trudeau, adding that "local security forces are best-placed to stop this threat."

But Canada will only be aiding a fraction of those local forces.

"I suspect there will be engagement."

When asked, Trudeau was unsure of who exactly his plan would be training, deflecting the question to the Vance.

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"It is almost exclusively focused on the Peshmerga forces in the north," Vance confirmed. Although he remained deliberately vague as to what that means, adding: "I'm not going to get into a breakdown as to where we're going to put in all of our forces across Iraq."

The previous government, before its defeat, had studied launching training missions for Christian militias or other anti-IS fighting forces in the region, but was defeated before it was able to launch any of those plans. It had also looked into launching a training mission for the Iraqi army, before ultimately deciding not to.

The Peshmerga will be instrumental in offensives in northern Iraq and Syria, but it will be the Iraqi Security Forces who will be tasked with reclaiming territory in the central part of the country.

Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan said the new special forces units would be dipping its toes into surveillance and intelligence-collection roles.

"Enhanced intelligence capability will help protect our forces in theatre as well as those of our coalition and host nation partners," Sajjan said. "Therefore, we will significantly increase the resources we dedicate to intelligence, both in northern Iraq and theatre-wide.

The minister did not elaborate on exactly what that would entail.

Trudeau reiterated that the mission would be an "advise and assist" operation, repeating that it would remain to be a "non-combat mission."

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Yet the Canadian Forces have already engaged with IS in combat on several occasions since the training mission began. Vance added that Canadians should expect firefights to happen again.

"I suspect there will be engagement," Vance told reporters on Monday.

Related: Canadian Special Forces in Firefight With Islamic State Attackers Near Mosul

America, British, and French forces have also been running training programs in the Kurdistan region.

The government also unveiled that it would be commencing weapon shipments to the Peshmerga.

"We're going to try to professionalize, somewhat, those Kurdish forces who take on a more predominate role in the fight," Vance said.

That means Canada will begin kicking in automatic weapons, machine guns, and mortars to those Kurdish forces for the first time. Previously, Canadian transport planes ferried Soviet-era light weaponry from Eastern Europe to the Peshmerga, although it never contributed weapons of its own.

"We do not have operable surplus equipment in our inventory that we can send over there," then-Defense Minister Jason Kenney said in 2015.

As a result, Canada will likely need to buy the weapons new, although Canada currently ships virtually no arms to the country. Canada maintains a list of military allies to which it can sell weapons more easily, and Iraq is not currently on that list.

According to briefing documents provided to journalists, the overall military mission will be extended through to March 31, 2017 — although Trudeau repeatedly said that the mission would continued for "at least two years."

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The Regional Conflict
The Trudeau government underlined that, while the military contribution to the mission would be walked-back, Canada would be kicking in new money to address the problem.

The government expects the total contribution to security, development, diplomatic, and humanitarian aid will total some $1.6 billion over three years.

Of that, $145 million will go towards preventing the movement of chemical and biological weapons through the regions. Most of the rest will go towards humanitarian and refugee aid, programming to tackle gender-based violence and to advancing women's rights, education, healthcare, job creation, infrastructure, and environmental sustainability.

That money will be split between Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.

Monday's announcement also committed Canada to "increasing its diplomatic role" in Syria, still nominally helmed by dictator Bashir al-Assad, and "helping to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria," although offered little details.

"We continue to be engaged and look forward to being even more engaged in the coming months on the question of how to stabilize and end the civil war in Syria," Trudeau said, without explanation.

"Today's announcements on training and humanitarian assistance are only designed to distract Canadians from the withdrawal of our CF-18s."

Additional resources and staff will also be going towards "capacity-building" throughout the region, which includes cooperation with the security forces of Jordan and Lebanon, aimed at combating violent extremism.

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The briefing also indicated that Ottawa is "offering" strategic advisors to the Iraqi government around domestic security and the ongoing war, although didn't clarify whether Baghdad had accepted the offer.

"When I spoke with [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider] al-Abadi, I highlighted that we were very much looking forward to working with him and with Iraqis in general to established security," Trudeau said.

Monday's announcement made no mention of Turkey, a fellow member of NATO and a notional ally in the fight against IS.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has publicly slammed Western military support for Kurdish fighters. Asked directly how he anticipates reconciling his new contributions to the Kurds with his relationship with Turkey, Trudeau didn't answer.

"There are many different regions at play here, and we are going to continue to work with our allies, including our NATO allies, to ensure that we are helping in positive ways while we work to defeat and degrade, through troops on the ground, the terrorist forces of ISIL," he said.

The End of Bombing
Monday's announcement fulfilled an election commitment from Trudeau's Liberal Party, which vowed to end the bombing campaign that was started under his predecessor.

The decision was panned by Leader of the Official Opposition Rona Ambrose, head of the Conservative Party.

Related: Justin Trudeau Won't Say When Canada Is Going to Stop Bombing the Islamic State

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"Today's announcements on training and humanitarian assistance are only designed to distract Canadians from the withdrawal of our CF-18s," Ambrose said. "The only reason for this decision that anyone can point to is that it was done for political purposes in the heat of an election campaign. Canadians certainly deserve better."

Polls have also shown that the Canadian public is supportive of the bombing mission.

A poll from the Angus Reid Institute indicated that just over a quarter of Canadians agreed with Trudeau's position. Two-thirds of Canadians wanted the bombing to continue — with the majority of those wanting the bombing campaign to merely continue, and a minority wanting the mission to expand even further.

Canada's allies remained, at least publicly, accepting of its decision to pull its fighter jets from the mission.

A statement from the Pentagon lauded Canada's new contribution, but also noted that the American government would be looking for coalition partners to step up their contribution to the fight.

Others, including the French and Kurdish governments, actively encouraged states to contribute to the bombing mission, but gave Canada a pass on its decision to end its contribution.

While Canada's CF-18s might be withdrawing from the mission, the air force's CP-140 Aurora surveillance plane and its CC-150 Polaris refueller will remain on the Kuwaiti base, and participate in coalition missions.

The Auroras have been touted as a particularly useful asset in the area, given that it's one of the only manned surveillance aircraft being used in the region. The Americans and British militaries are primarily relying on drones to pick and analyze targets.

"The value of the Aurora, in being a manned platform, is that it allows you to then go out to an area that's difficult and react really quickly. As a bigger platform, it has bigger engines, it's much more robust," one of the Aurora commanders said in a 2015 interview with VICE. "I would argue, from my perspective, we are one of the best equipped assets here to do a surveillance mission."

Since the Liberals' October 19 victory, the Canadian air force has conducted dozens of bombing missions, including one that helped repel IS fighters during a surprise attack on a Kurdish position near Mosul where Canadian special forces were stationed.

The merits of the mission would go to a vote in the House of Commons in the coming weeks.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling